I’ve rarely found myself on the receiving end of violence, but there have been a few times. One summer day, when I was thirteen, I ventured into the green nursery on the outskirts of my hometown in Romania. The nursery was just outside my apartment window in Galaţi, and it felt safe and familiar, with its rectangular patches planted with shrubs and flowers, and farther away, with its young poplar trees that would one day line up the streets of my city. On warm summer evenings, I used to turn off the lights in my room, open the windows, and take in the perfume of roses and the songs of nightingales coming from the nursery.
I was wearing a t-shirt and a knee-length skirt that day. The sun was overhead. The sky was clear. It took maybe ten minutes to walk the few hundred meters from my apartment building to the chicken wire fence that surrounded the rose patch. The flowers were in full bloom, all colors, all sizes, all shapes. The sweet, complex fragrance hung low in the air and I kept taking in lungfuls when something stirred in the corner of my left eye.
It was a big stray dog, the color of dirt. He had rounded the fence and was trotting toward me. I felt a jolt of fear. Vicious stray dogs are still a fixture of Romania and I had been bitten by dogs before. I knew that running would only make the dog chase me, so I inched away from the fence, away from the roses, toward the buildings, toward my apartment. Then I saw another dog, coming from my right, and on its trail, another, and another. Closing in.
A cold shiver ran up my back and stiffened the nape of my neck. My heart started running before my legs even flinched. I knew a story about dogs smelling fear from afar, but I couldn’t help but feel fear. I was taking small backward steps, when I realized I was now in the middle of a circle of dogs. They growled and showed their fangs. They slowed down, cautious now, but looked at each other, over bristled shoulders. They were a pack, and the dirt-colored dog was in charge. He kept coming, head lowered, neck straight, lips drawn out of his teeth’s way. I called on them, good doggies, but that only made them advance faster.
I looked over my shoulder at the weathered building where my family lived, behind one of many rows of windows. I called, Help! but my voice didn’t carry far. When I turned my head, the dogs were even closer. My hands were sweating, and the pack leader was now just feet away from my leg. The growling of dogs was loud, but the ringing in my ears was even louder. I knew I was not supposed to run, but I turned on my heels and ran. As fast as I could. It felt like flying, as if nothing could hold me back. Effortless, I was high on adrenaline. I could see the dogs at my sides, dashing, and then the dirt-colored one sprang and flung himself at me. His muzzle met my right thigh, his teeth pierced my flesh through my skirt. It didn’t hurt. I pushed right through, and kept running, and running, and running, and then I was back at the entrance of the nursery. The dogs halted and turned away.
I lifted my skirt. I had two rows of teeth marks on my right thigh and a huge bruise around them. The throbbing set in. I needed an anti-tetanus shot and a series of anti-rabies shots if I were not to die a biblical death.
I sometimes dream of being chased by dogs, of running past them, of stopping and facing them, of fighting them with my bare fists, of biting through their hide, of ripping their heads off. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine how people in ancient times saw violence, when violence was part of their lives in ways not likely today.
I stay out of trouble and I live a pretty safe life, but as a fiction writer, I can’t keep my characters safe all the time, nor should I. I send them to war, I make them die in childbirth, I poison them, burn them, impale them. That’s the part of being a writer that I hate: the research of violence. I watch gory movies, and I keep my eyes open, even when my gut is churning. I read history books and historical novels and I imagine what it’s like when fear wipes out pain, and pain piles up on fear. I stare at the worst that humankind has to offer. And then I write down the pains of the flesh as vividly as I can.
Many times I have to reconsider what I know, and mostly for the worse. Recently I read about “the most wretched of deaths,” in the words of 1st-century CE historian Josephus, author of The Jewish War. The details of this type of torture shocked me because, like everybody else, I was very familiar with its imagery to the point of being desensitized. In his book, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, James Tabor explains:
“Anyone growing up in 1st-century Roman Palestine knew the horror of this form of terror by direct experience and observation. The hapless victims of crucifixion, left on the crosses for days, were a common sight to the Jewish population. Josephus reported that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the summer of A.D. 70 the number of captives crucified reached five hundred a day— so many that there was no wood left in the area as all the trees had been cut down.
We know quite a bit about the methods the Romans used in crucifying their victims. Not only do we have literary sources but in 1968 the skeletal remains of a Jewish male victim were discovered in a tomb just north of Jerusalem off the Nablus Road. He was in his twenties and his name, Jehohanan, was inscribed on his ossuary. His remains have given us an amazing glimpse into the details involved in Roman crucifixion as it was practiced in 1st-century Roman Jerusalem.” (p. 218).
“We know that the nails were put through the forearms and not the hands, between the radius and ulna bones. In that manner the arms were securely attached to the patibulum (crossbeam). Jehohanan’s radial bones were scored from friction between the nail and the bone. Physiologists have shown that nails through the hands will not hold the weight of a body, and nails through the wrists would have ruptured blood vessels. The “science” of crucifixion required that nails be affixed in a way to minimize bleeding, otherwise the victim would quickly pass out and die in a matter of minutes. The references in the gospels to Jesus’ “hands” being pierced use a Greek word that can be understood as including the forearms. The feet were nailed through the heel bone. It is the largest bone in the foot and as with the forearm, puncturing this bone will not cause profuse bleeding. In the case of Jehohanan the nail is still intact through his heel bone. When he was removed from the cross the nail had bent on a knot in the wood and whoever removed him simply cut the wood away, leaving it attached to his foot.” (pp. 218-219).
“Death by crucifixion was a slow process; it could take as long as two or three days. The victims were stripped naked, exposed to the scorching Mediterranean sun. Death resulted from a combination of shock, exhaustion, muscle cramps, dehydration, loss of blood, and finally suffocation or heart failure. Depending on the angle in which the arms and legs were nailed, death could be brought on more quickly, or extended. The buttocks were supported by a piece of wood called a sedecula that offered some support of the body. Over time, as fatigue set in, breathing became acutely difficult. If there was a reason to hasten death, the legs of the victim could be broken, causing the body to slump and making breathing impossible after just a short time.
Josephus relates a story of seeing among the many crucified captives during the Jewish Revolt three of his former acquaintances in a small village near Jerusalem. He begged the Roman general Titus to allow them to be taken down from their crosses and put in his care. A physician was called, and despite his efforts two of them died, but one was nursed back to health and recovered. The Romans often left the corpses to rot on crosses but the Jews had a law requiring those “hung on a tree” to be buried the same day as they were crucified. When allowed, Jews removed the bodies before sundown and buried them. Since Jehohanan’s legs were broken, his death was likely hastened to allow for burial the same day as his crucifixion.” (pp. 219-220).
Two thousand years later, while war still rages in many parts of the planet and death comes to many people in horrible ways, I don’t know much about violence. Back in 1791, my adoptive country ratified the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” People no longer witness public crucifixions (except in Saudi Arabia) or the spectacle of feeding the condemned to ravenous animals (except, allegedly, in North Korea). But I force myself to read the gory news because I’m a writer.
Whether true or not, the detail I read in December 2013 that it took a whole hour for one hundred and twenty dogs to strip the flesh off the bones of Kim Jong-un’s uncle’s wretched bones left me speechless, hands cold, jaws clenched.