1 B.C., City of Zarahemla
“I thought you would have finished with that archway an hour ago,” Gazrom said with a playful grin as he walked up to Ishmael. “If you don’t pick up the pace you will miss your own party.”
“Just trying to please my taskmaster,” Ishmael replied. He had been shaping stone on his knees for hours and began to notice the fatigue in his wrists from clutching his weathered mallet. Ishmael sat down on the compact earth. He wiped the sweat off his soiled forehead with the back of his calloused hand.
“Make sure you find me before you leave today. I want to be the first one to give you a gift on the day you officially become a real man,” Gazrom teased through his smoky blue eyes with a hint of coolness in their gaze.
Ishmael reflected that Gazrom was right. He had been working more slowly than usual. He was meticulous with the stone work he performed, especially with the archway he was constructing. Yet, he realized that he was not looking forward to going home that evening. Gazrom had reminded him that today was his eighteenth birthday and everyone would be gathered to celebrate his entrance into adulthood. Ishmael had been waiting for this day for as long as he could remember. By turning eighteen, he was given full admittance in the Lamanite tribe and was now allowed to acquire land and build his own home. He had been dreaming about his own dwelling ever since he finished his childhood training and began working for Gazrom two years ago. Ishmael had been selecting and storing stones from work sites in preparation for this very event. In his spare time, Ishmael would reposition the stones he had gathered, handle them, and imagine their perfect placement in his vision.
“I shouldn’t be too much longer,” Ishmael said reaching for Gazrom’s outstretched arm to pull himself up. “I’m almost finished.”
“I’ve heard that line before. Yet, you labor longer than any of my other workers, and you produce the most beautiful stone work of all my men, even those who have been working twice as long as you have been alive.”
Gazrom crossed his arms which were adorned with wide golden bracelets which emphasized his broad hands. Gazrom’s hair was prematurely white, combed back away from his face, and held in place by an emerald green band above his unruly brows. He looked at Ishmael through his smooth slanting lids seemingly inspecting him from head-to-foot as if he was trying to figure out what drove Ishmael to labor as he did. Ishmael smiled easily which gave away his muscular strength. Ishmael’s eyes were kind but perceptive.
“Tonight of all nights, you should be celebrating with your family.” Your arch will surely be waiting for you in the morning. Your work has never failed before. Besides, maybe you will not work so hard tomorrow when you enter adulthood and begin to live the life of loafing and luxury as I do,” Gazrom laughed.
“You are too modest,” Ishmael said. He moved toward his partially completed archway and examined the intricately cut, yet rough stone, with his fingertips. “Everyone knows you work harder than anyone else in all of Zarahemla.” Ishmael smiled broadly at Gazrom.
“Ishmael, you are too kind.” As a young man, I learned that working hard was not enough, and soon I began working smarter. I became even more successful and rarely broke a sweat, well, except when I saw a beautiful young woman along the merchant streets and I had to run to catch her.”
Ishmael grinned thinking of Gazrom running in his with his red tunic struggling to council his round stomach which protruded over his stone-encrusted belt along the dusty, crowded streets of Zarahemla jumping up and down to see past the taller travelers in his way. Gazrom was, a Nephite by birth and seemed to know everyone throughout the city both Nephite and Lamanite alike. Most men Gazrom’s age had families of their own, with many children. But, Gazrom had never married. He seemed to always have female admirers with him whenever Ishmael spotted him in the city. Although he was aware of Gazrom’s unique stature in Zarahemla and unique lifestyle, he did not let those thoughts alter the way he interacted with Gazrom. Many of the other workers either longed for Gazrom’s affection or were too afraid to look him in the eyes.
“Ishmael, I am late for an important gathering, but remember to find me before you leave this evening. I will be in the main hall of the sanctuary where your beautiful stone work is already complete and ready for all to admire.” Gazrom said.
Ishmael nodded and waved to Gazrom as he departed through a dark passageway that led to an alley behind the sanctuary. He picked up his mallet and thought about the opportunities he had to work on intricate architectural features that he knew would be admired by scores of people. This particular arch he had been spending the last week working on would be used by countless individuals passing through the sanctuary on a daily basis to attain wisdom from the ancient writings and scholars of the day. He found it gratifying to select the right stone, read its grain, smooth its edges, and position it perfectly in order to produce a functional, yet picturesque configuration. Ishmael would always remember this arch. Those who contemplated within these walls would surely gaze at their surroundings and consider the beauty and painstaking labor that he invested.
Being a stone mason had its advantages. Ishmael enjoyed working with his hands and making his visions come to life. His precision also helped advance his placement in the crew. Ishmael no longer had to work on menial tasks but could devote his time to finish stone work. His methodical pace also provided ample time to ponder. Ishmael would often think about the adventures told to him by travelers passing through Zarahemla on their way northward or out to sea by ship. At times, Ishmael longed to see the places they described and embark on his own journey. However, he knew that those opportunities would never avail themselves to him.
Ishmael wondered if he would be able to even finish this arch before his life changed forever. Along with being able to live on his own after he became of age in the tribe, he would also be able to choose a mate. Ishmael loved flirting with the Lamanite young women, but had never seriously courted any of them. He was sure that a number of these Lamanite women would be there tonight gathered to witness his entrance into adulthood with the fantasy of leaving their own homes. The thought of marrying made Ishmael’s cheeks glow red and his face flush. He was pleased that no one was around to see him look so childish. Not that anyone could actually see his face redden. Long afternoons working under the sun had bronzed his skin.
Ishmael had excelled in his education and held what he thought was an ideal job working for Gazrom. And yet, he still felt somewhat awkward and not prepared for the “adult” things in life. He definitely did not look forward to receiving all of the attention from his friends and family this evening. Ishmael would be expected to say all the right things, greet his guests with a smile on his face, and share interesting stories with everyone. It was much easier to examine the stones in front of him and feel their weight in his hands, than contemplate all those people vying for his attention.
Ishmael selected the final stone to complete his archway. He must have examined at least fifty stones before finding the perfect one to serve as the keystone. Ishmael stood on a pile of stone to reach the top of the arch. With the final stone securely in place, he stepped back and admired his work.
“I wish people fit together and made as much sense as these stones in this archway,” Ishmael said quietly to himself. As attuned as Ishmael was to masonry work, he felt equally inept in recognizing others’ intentions. This tendency may have come from Ishmael’s father, Mordecai, who rarely sought out social situations. Mordecai was content to document, transcribe, and file the Lamanite records day in and day out. Ishmael actually knew very little about his father’s role in the tribe as the record keeper. But that would all change after today. As the eldest son, he was now expected to learn his father’s trade. This ultimately led to taking over his position within the tribe. The thought of leaving his position with Gazrom made Ishmael sorrowful.
He was not opposed to working with his father. Ishmael enjoyed hearing his father’s seemingly endless accounts of their ancestors and the stories from his youth. But, Ishmael knew that most of his time would be devoted to sifting through decaying writings of his Lamanite ancestors, which would preclude any opportunity to work as a stone mason. Gazrom had often informed Ishmael that he could continue working for him as he did not want to lose such a “loyal and hardworking employee.” Gazrom often gave Ishmael compliments that made him feel uncomfortable. It was as if Gazrom was always trying to recruit him, even though Ishmael already worked for Gazrom and never considered working for any other contractors in the land. Nevertheless, Gazrom seemed set on keeping Ishmael close to him and even sought his counsel on important matters that Ishmael thought were beyond his understanding.
Ishmael finished clearing his workspace and gave one last look to the arch that he had been working on for the last week.
“So long,” Ishmael said as if to a close childhood friend that he would not see. Ishmael moved directly under the arch with his arms outstretched to either side. He slowly lifted his fingertips in unison upward along the arch until they reached the apex above his head.
Perfect, Ishmael thought. While other stone masons struggled with assembling sound archways, Ishmael discovered that he could construct the perfect arch by simply positioning himself in the center of a doorway, stretch his arms to either side, and raise them above his head in a circular motion. He only had to follow the guide of his fingertips as he set the stones one by one on top of each other. When alone, Ishmael would often stop in the center of existing archways and stretch out his arms and reach for the smooth stones. Ishmael kept a mental note of most archways in Zarahemla and ranked them in order of their quality.
Ishmael walked through the other rooms of the sanctuary and past the workers who were busy setting stone and slapping on mortar in a careless manner. Ishmael had to close his eyes because of the way they were haphazardly selecting “rocks” as they called them and “piling” them one upon another.
As Ishmael turned the corner which led to a smaller room in the sanctuary, he heard Gazrom’s voice.
“There he is,” exclaimed Gazrom. “Come on over here. Everyone wanted to get you something special to celebrate this big day in your life.”
“And also, so you will never forget us,” Lukaz added as the sun glistened off his shorn scalp. He was one of the few Lamanites in the land who still maintained the customary Lamanite appearance which also sent a message to others that he should not be bothered.
“I am sure that Ishmael will never be able to venture out this far again as he’ll be trapped inside with his old man for the rest of his days sifting through rotting papyrus,” cackled Benjamin.
“Oh you are just upset that you will not get to see my pretty face around here as much,” Ishmael said.
Lukaz and Benjamin were Ishmael’s longtime friends. Benjamin had joined Gazrom one year before Ishmael. Benjamin was lured away by the lucrative promises that Gazrom offered. Benjamin dressed differently now as he tried to mimic the apparel of Gazrom. However, he did not pull it off as seamlessly as Gazrom did. Benjamin was tall like Ishmael, although had much lighter skin, but appeared like an overly awkward boy dressing in his wealthy uncle’s clothing. Benjamin was always tugging at his new robes and repositioning them to fit just right as his physique was not as complete as Ishmael’s.
Gazrom interrupted. “This is a joyous occasion as our Ishmael is becoming a man. I have mentored him and taught him everything I know and Ishmael has distorted all of those teachings and become the best stone mason in all the land. I wanted to get you something special as a token of my appreciation for the diligent service you have provided for the past two years.”
Gazrom handed Ishmael a small crimson bag that sagged under the weight of its contents. Ishmael carefully untied the leather string that bound the narrow opening and slowly reached his hand inside.
“Well, what is it!” said Benjamin.
Ishmael felt something cool, smooth, and heavy to the touch. He wrapped his hand around the object and pulled it out. Ishmael examined the metal disk which was almost entirely black except for two small, oblong, dark green emeralds that were embedded in the medallion. The emeralds were embedded in the medallion and could be seen from either side as Ishmael turned the object in his hand. He gently felt an engraved image that contained an ancient hieroglyph that Ishmael had never seen. Light streaming through the outer wall of the sanctuary pierced the dark emeralds which Ishmael now recognized as eyes of a fiery serpent. The serpent had sharp talons that clutched a scroll in one and a sword in the other. The serpent was covered with thick jagged scales that descended down its back and along its long tail which wound around the base of the medallion onto the other side.
“It is a medallion that has been passed down in my family for generations,” Gazrom explained. “Now, it is time for you to have it and become part of our family.”
“Thank you,” Ishmael said somewhat taken back and unsure of what exactly Gazrom had meant. Just then, Ishmael remembered that he had in fact never met any of Gazrom’s actual family members. Zarahemla was a large city but still close enough that most people knew who was related to each other. Ishmael thought that it was unusual that Gazrom would speak of his family while Gazrom never spoke of his relatives.
Ishmael turned his attention back to the medallion. “What does the serpent represent and what language are these hieroglyphs written in?”
“It is an emblem and symbol of power, brotherhood, and courage. The words are written in an ancient language that is no longer known to our people. I think I have a translation written down somewhere. I could look it up for you if you would like. You should stop by and visit me after you are settled from your big celebration and we can talk about it further.”
Ishmael marveled at the medallion. If it was such an important family medallion why would Gazrom not know what the words meant? Ishmael was pleased that Gazrom thought of him so highly to give him such an admirable gift.
“There is more. Reach into the bag.”
Ishmael sat the bag on a stone ledge which portioned the room in the sanctuary. He reached into the bag and pulled out ten pieces of gold stamped with the image of Lachoneus, the chief judge over all of the land.
“That’s generous,” Benjamin said as he turned his head to another one of Gazrom’s employees and murmured something to him.
“I cannot accept this. It’s too much.”
Ten pieces of gold was equivalent to half a year of pay for Ishmael who was already being compensated appreciably for his work.
“You are family now,” Gazrom interjected. “I provide for my family. Take the offering and use it to begin establishing your own residence. This is the least I could offer to such a humble, trustworthy, and diligent worker such as you.”
Ishmael noticed that Benjamin turned hastily seemingly troubled by the words Gazrom spoke. Gazrom turned Ishmael away from Benjamin’s direction and embraced him. Ishmael cleared his throat as he was not accustomed to the strong smelling perfumes that Gazrom adorned himself with. Ishmael’s eyes began to water slightly as he was overcome by Gazrom’s must which seemed to envelope him in an unnatural hold.
Gazrom placed his arm behind Ishmael’s back and led him out of the sanctuary. Benjamin refused to look at them as they left.
“I meant what I said about you being part of my family,” Gazrom began. “You have been like a son to me. Remember, when you have time, come and see me and I will tell you more about the meaning of the transcription.”
Ishmael had almost forgotten about the serpent medallion and ancient writing as he was still fathoming his new found wealth. He felt the coldness of the medallion through the smooth goatskin bag, as it seemed to drain the warmth from around it.
“I will come by as soon as I can, as long as my father will unchain me,” Ishmael said with a laugh. “I’m sure that he will have me busy sorting records and orienting me to my position as tribal record keeper.”
“Yes of course, take your time settling in. I wish you the best and all the success in Zarahemla. Remember if you need anything, come to me first.”
“Thank you for your kindness. I expect to be back to work as soon as possible. Besides, I don’t want Benjamin to mess up all of the work I have done.”
“I heard that,” Benjamin shouted from inside the sanctuary walls. “I will see you tonight Ishmael. You better hide all of that gold from me or I might be tempted to take it off your hands. You don’t know what to do with it anyway.”
Ishmael reached down to the ground and picked up some gravel and tossed it in Benjamin’s direction. Benjamin shielded himself from the small pebbles.
“I’d offer to give you some of the gold, but I fear that you would run off to the street merchants and by even more ill-fitting clothing to hide your meager body.” Ishmael’s comments were met by silence. Even though they laughed together, Ishmael could feel Benjamin glaring at him even though inside the darkness of the sanctuary walls.