We had been stuck in this hell hole for what seemed an eternity.
My family, my friends and I huddled together in the damp darkness. We breathed in the putrid odor of the place and shifted our positions, hoping to find more comfortable ones.
We tried to encourage each other. A hand stroked a beloved cheek and whispered, “I love you. I will always love you.”
The recipient of the kind words managed a semi-smile and then wiped more tears from her face. We were doomed, and we all knew it.
A heavy door on the other side of the room scraped open and the ugly keeper stepped inside. He snarled at us and said, “Time for the next one.” Then he pointed a contemptuous finger and singled out one upon whose shoulder I had been leaning. “Come on!” he ordered.
I screamed. We all screamed in protest. We couldn’t bear to see this one go, as we had not been able to bear seeing the many others who had preceded her go. We knew their fate but could do nothing to prevent it. Each of us would eventually be pointed out and dragged off to receive the penalty due us for our wrongdoing.
We weren’t bad people. We had tried to obey the rules. Not one of us had set out to deserve condemnation. Our hopes of success had been high, but one by one each of us had missed the mark, stepped over the line, and committed the offense that caused us to be flung into this awful place of misery. Our sentences had been pronounced. Now we waited for them to be carried out.
I willed myself to sleep for a few seconds, to clear my mind of the horror of my situation, to find some hope, but I failed to accomplish any of those things. Again I determined to resign myself to the fate that awaited me.
Then the door scraped open once again and the keeper’s eyes rested on me.
I was pulled from the arms that tried to hold me back. Not an ounce of courage or dignity remained in me. I could do nothing but answer the call of the evil one. He took hold of my arm and dragged me from the pit, away from the powerless people who cried and called after me.
Down a long, dark corridor we went until another door was opened and I laid eyes upon the punishment that had been assigned to me. It was death, as I had known it would be, but a more horrible, more painful, more humiliating death than I could ever have imagined.
A rusty metal sign was hung upon me, suspended by a heavy chain that pulled against my neck and made walking upright impossible. On the sign was printed the word GUILTY. On every side of me, horrid fiends reached out, scowling and hissing and delighting in the carnage that was to come.
I started to close my eyes. Then, from the edge of my vision, I noted an unexpected, different kind of movement. A horribly mutilated man was rising with difficulty from the ground upon which he lay. His body was bloodied and lacerated, cut open to an extent that defied description.
“Stop,” he whispered in a voice weakened by unspeakable suffering.
The man reached his hand toward me and lifted the GUILTY sign off my chest, pulling the chain over my head and placing it around his own neck.
“I’m taking her place,” he said, looking out through tortured eyes. “Let her go.”
Immediately the focus of the angry mob moved from me to the man. As he was dragged along the stony ground to receive the punishment prepared for me, I was pushed away from the scene.
When I raised my head, I couldn’t believe what I saw. In front of me were the faces of the people who had preceded me out of the dungeon. They were living faces, smiling faces, and their voices rang out with welcome and love.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “You should be dead. I should be dead. At the last minute, a man took my place and set me free.”
“We know,” my loving friends and family members said. “He did the same thing for each of us.”