Somehow, I knew that it was a hopeless battle. The trial was rigged—of that I was certain. After my sentencing, I was dragged down into the dungeons. The guards were impatient and kept yelling at me to hurry up. My badly sprained ankle protested so much that I did fall at some point.
My hand landed on something hard. I'm not sure what it was that my fingers so desperately grasped, but I held onto it. It wasn't until the guards carelessly tossed me into the dirty straw on the floor of the dungeon that I finally got a good look. They snapped the shackles onto my wrists and were off to be spectators of the next rigged trial.
The door slammed closed. Only a small sliver of sunlight came in; the light was very dim. It was false hope, I lamented.
The item I had spontaneously snatched was a crucifix…I wondered what it was doing down here. It was roughly the size of my hand and the cross was real wood. The carved body of Jesus had been done so lovingly and so carefully that I wondered if there was a God who had really created such a person. My fingers moved over the wood.
I noticed that one of Jesus's arms was barely staying together, held by a tiny splinter of wood. The arm of the cross was broken all the way through. The right side of his body was cracked and there were chunks missing out of his side.
Jesus' mouth was open, his face forever contorted into an expression of pain and sadness. The craftsman had even carved a tear-track into his cheek. Part of me wished I could mend it and make his expression change. He was the only one in the world who understood my pain now…
It was stupid, I know, to talk to an inanimate object, but I was feeling very alone.
"See this? They hurt me, too…Just as you were, I was condemned by the one who claimed to love me not twenty-four hours ago," I sighed, holding him over my badly swollen ankle.
Claude Frollo's face appeared in my mind. At the trial, he was quiet and reserved. He was very solemn-faced. When one of the other men had said something lewd about me, I saw Claude's hand snake around the back of his head and cuff him. I suspected that no one else had noticed. I knew that he wanted me dead, so why had he defended me so? What was going on in his mind?
I had also noticed the golden apple sitting on the windowsill…so perfect and ripe, but discarded after one bite. Smears of blood shaped like fingerprints also marred the side. I gave a shudder to that thought…the sight of the apple had made me feel that much more condemned.
I examined the face of Jesus again and began to think things over. A perfect God was not something I could accept…but this man…yes, I felt like I knew him. Out of all of the gods I had heard about, this was the only one yet that actually knew what it was like to die a painful death and yet to come back and tell us that He knew. If there was a God, He was not the horrible, wrathful, frightening God of the church. Surely there was some understanding there, some compassion and kindness.
"I wish to join you, then," I said softly, "I wish to know you better."
The door clanked open. I wondered who it was and what they wanted now. My eyes were red and burning from the tears and the pain in my ankle had not lessened. I felt very weary and very cold down here…I had curled my limbs up in a vain attempt to save heat.
The cloaked figure that stood over me said nothing for a moment. I could not see the face, but I was certain it was a man because of the boots.
"Who are you? What do you want?" I asked dully.
"Are you prepared?"
Normally, I would have screamed, begged, pleaded, and cried, but I was not afraid anymore. I had already mourned myself, already cried enough tears for this lifetime.
"I'm very cold…I wish to be away from this bleak and lonely place," I told him, "and I'm going to see this man tomorrow."
I held up the shattered cross so that he could see. I wondered if he knew about this poor man.
There was a tense silence. I heard what sounded like a gasp followed by a strangled sob. What was there to cry about? He wasn't the one who was going to die!
The black cloaked figure dropped to his knees and one gloved hand shoved the hood back. My expression of puzzlement immediately twisted into one of resentment.
Of all the last visitors I had to receive, why on earth was it him?
"Where did you find that?" he asked, voice still thick and strained with emotion.
He was crying. His face had reddened and he was trembling. I saw no point in lying…soon, I would be gone from this earth and never see him again.
"Outside when I fell," I replied.
He looked from the crucifix to me and back again.
"I heard you talking just now…who were you talking to?"
There was a strange tone in his voice. It almost sounded like…hope.
"Him," I answered, "think me mad if you like…you already think that I am a witch and a prostitute. What care have I if you accuse me of something more?"
That seemed to hurt him. Claude shuddered so violently that I was afraid that his skin was all that held him together.
"You said you wanted to follow him…did you mean it?"
I stared at him.
"Of course I meant it! What purpose have I to lie to an object?"
The priest drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He looked as though some raging internal battle was taking place in his head.
"I knew it…I knew it all along…but I chose not to listen…you really aren't evil…"
I stared at him. He was talking more to himself than me, his voice high-pitched and pained.
"I have to get you out of here," he said quickly, "it is a sign from God! I will not ignore His will ever again!"
He seized my shoulders and I shrank back away from him. Realizing that he'd scared me, he loosened his grip until his touch was surprisingly gentle.
"Look at me," he pleaded. I didn't have much of a choice…I would have had to turn my head to the far right or left to get him out of my vision or to close my eyes completely.
"For both of our sakes, Esmeralda, please hear me out! It doesn't have to end tomorrow! You can learn all about God and Jesus while you still have a breath! We can have you baptized! Think of how much this will help your people! Your people will no longer be seen as heathens destined for Hell! We can save them together!"
I thought that over for a second.
If Jesus could understand my suffering, maybe he could understand theirs, too. I knew very little about the Bible, but I had heard priests talking about some of the hardships that he had endured. Maybe he understood my people better than anyone else on the earth…
But at what cost?
I had two options before me. I could either refuse Claude and tell him to get out. I would die tomorrow and I would leave the pain and suffering of this world behind. Or, I could promise that I would do as Claude said and risk Claude doing something to me to help my people. It was a hard decision to make…neither choice appealed to me.
I looked down at the cross clasped in my hand. I noticed something.
The bent and broken arm was pointing straight at Claude.
"Please, Esmeralda…I am a coward," he begged, "I cannot bear to stand there and watch your body go limp after your neck breaks…enduring your screams in the torture chamber was bad enough! If you would have cried out once more, I would have sheathed my dagger inside my own heart!"
So…that's why he hadn't come to my aid before now.
"If you love me as much as you say you do, why have you made me suffer?"
The silence was damning. My voice was hard as stone when I asked that. He smothered a sob with his hands folded in front of his face.
"Our fates are bound together," he said shakily, "each and every time something has happened to you, I joined you in your suffering though you did not know it…I thought I was immune to the troubles and the sins of this earth, but you proved me wrong. I am no better than other men just because I wear these robes and this cross. I do not wish you to be in pain any longer…I want to help you. I love you. Give me a chance to prove it…you may do whatever you like to me and I will not protest."
He looked scared when he said that last part, but I pretended not to notice.
"And if I refuse?" I asked darkly.
The fear in his eyes increased tenfold. He was hoping against hope that I wouldn't refuse.
"I will bear that cross for the rest of my days and know that I fully deserved its burden in my soul…and when death comes to take me away, I will descend to the fires of Hell and be silent while the others are screaming around me."
That picture disturbed me. He was giving up already.
"I shall give you time to consider it," he said, breath ragged, "I will return in two hours. If you wish to save your life and the lives of your people, drink the contents of this bottle."
He pressed a small glass vial into my hand filled with a strange liquid.
"If you decide not to, then I will do my best to help your people after you are gone."
He rose, brushed the straw away, crossed himself, then left.
I studied the bottle. He had not told me the effects of the contents.
I sat there for what seemed like an eternity. The broken figure of Jesus was in one hand, the glass bottle in the other. Claude, I realized, had sworn off persecution on my people…he was trying to show me that either choice I made would not be in vain. He was trying to tell me that he would not force my hand.
The sounds of the world going by echoed faintly down here. I wondered what I would see if I left this dungeon. I longed to feel the warm sun on my skin again. I longed to lay in the grass and watch the butterflies and bees drinking nectar from the flowers. I longed to see Quasimodo and Pierre again.
Try as I might, I could not continue to hate him. He would not show others the pain he had just revealed to me. If he truly did not care, would he have bothered? He would have appeared entirely unaffected.
And it was clear that he wasn't.
The selfish priest did not deserve another chance in my eyes, but would all that change?
Two unknowns. Two paths into dark, overgrown woods or perhaps the gaping maws of caves. Either way, I would be facing an unknown. The unknown made me nervous.
I twisted the top of the bottle and downed the contents in one swallow. They were horribly bitter and my head began to swim as the viscous liquid hit the bottom of my stomach. The dungeon around me dimmed and the blackness lurked around the edges of my vision. The last thing I saw before I passed out was the face of Jesus.
It does not matter what I see when I wake up, I thought, because I chose you either way. Even if you aren't real, I would rather live as though you are. Or die…whichever comes first.