Excerpt for The Clan of the Stone Book One - Fort Kanosh by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



The Clan of the Stone

Book One: Fort Kanosh

by

Kurt F. Kammeyer



Copyright 2017 Kurt F. Kammeyer


Smashwords Edition


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Introduction

This is me, Ben, speaking. Just so’s you’ll understand how me and Bess worked on this book, she talked me into writing this little introduction all on my own hook, so to speak, with no corrections from her, so’s you can hear how I really talk out loud. When you get to the parts where Bess is talking, you’ll notice a big change, so I figgered I better warn you now.

For the rest of this book, we sorta collaborated—she laid out her big, wordy sentences, and I unraveled them so’s you could understand them. When I wrote my own little cramped-up sentences, she fancied them up so’s they’d read better. We rounded up quite a few of our old friends, too, those who are still alive, at any rate, to write their own parts of the book.

There’s lotsa other cultures and languages besides ours on this world, and we tried to make them sound like they really do, pretty much, at least when they’re talking out loud. We’ll let you be the judge of that. Whenever we use a word you don’t know, we’ll try to give you the translation. Without I’d explained this all to you here, you might think we were all just talking funny and not understanding each other.

This first book is all ’bout me growing up at Fort Kanosh, and meeting Bess, an’ how all the Believers were looking forward to the Visitation of God at the dawn of the Seventh Eon. Meanwhile, the Akamerian Empire was threatening to invade us, so Pa went off to war.

Looking back, I can see that everything that was s’posed to happen, did happen, right according to God’s schedule.We’ve been told that these same kinds of end-time miracles happen on other planets, but since we don’t know much about those other worlds, we’ll just stick to our own story here.

Benjamin ben Jacob


Kanosh City, in the fourth turn of the Seventh Eon

Chapter 1

Benjamin


Every morning started pretty much the same for me.

“Ben! You up there?”

I could feel someone rocking my bed. Aaron, my older brother and lower bunkmate, was pushing on my mattress ropes from below with his feet. He did it pretty much every morning just to bother me, and most times, I tried to ignore him—but usually, that didn’t work.

Next, I faintly heard Brother Thomas playing the “Call to Rise” on his bugle. Still fighting the inevitable, I rolled over and crammed my pillow over my head, and as I dozed off I thought, It can’t possibly be five thirty …Brother Thomas must be early with his rusty ol’ bugle…Just a few more minutes…

I felt Aaron pushing on my mattress again.

“Stop pushing! I’m getting up!” I mumbled through my pillow even as I burrowed deeper into my straw tick.

Next, Aaron gave me a mighty heave that nearly somersauled me off the top bunk. “On your feet!”

“All right, all right!” I grumbled as I climbed down the ladder. I threw my smock over my head, slipped into my wooden clogs, and ambled off to the washroom. As I washed my face and hands, I thought, I wonder what gosh-awful task they’ll set me to this week—planting spuds? Cleaning out the barn?

With my morning rituals completed, I shuffled into the central courtyard of Fort Kanosh and looked around. Every morning of my life—long as I could remember, leastways—I had watched this familiar scene replay itself over and over.

Men, women, boys and girls emerged from the living quarters along the sides of the compound and converged on the central building, which served as the dining hall, school, and house of worship for our whole community. At the west end of the hall stood the kitchen and the bakery, with its two big ovens spreading the scent of new bread everywhere.

Every morning, I cast my gaze in a circle ’round the four walls of Fort Kanosh. Along the north wall were the boys’ and girls’ barracks. On the west wall were the cooperative store, carpentry shop, laundry, and tailor shop. The most obvious feature in the east wall was the great main gate of the fort. As I lifted my gaze above the walls, I could see sunlight beginning to stream over the western mountain peaks, bathing Amber Valley in a golden glow.

From one of the family dwellings along the south wall, I heard a familiar hymn rising. If I plug my ears, I can still recite it from memory:

See how the morning sun,

Pursues his shining way,

And wide proclaims his Maker’s praise,

With every brightening ray.


Sounds like Brother Thomas’s clan. They’re always the early risers in the fort. Guess I’d better head for home too.

My parents, Jacob and Sarah, and Jacob’s second wife Miriam had a small shanty of their own on the south wall of the compound. Me and Aaron always met them there for family worship time in the morning just before breakfast. My older sister, Huldah, would arrive soon from the girls’ barracks, along with my younger half-sister, Naomi.

I made my way to the shanty and entered, casting my eyes ’round the interior of our humble home. It was just eight by sixteen feet, with two rooms divided by a curtain—a front “parlor” and a back bedroom. By Fort Kanosh standards, it was pretty fancy. Most clans with no children or just one wife were only allowed eight-by-eight feet of space. The sloping, shingled roof always leaked in heavy rainstorms, even though my pa spent endless hours patching it.

Along the back wall of the parlor, which was also the south wall of the fort, I saw a couple of shelves holding our family keepsakes—two porcelain wedding plates, a tiny silver pitcher and spoon, and a framed plaque displaying Pa’s military medals. A small, rough-hewn wooden table, four chairs, a bench, an oil lamp, some coat pegs, and a small iron heating stove completed the furnishings.

The back room was pretty much filled by a wooden bed frame with a rope mattress and three straw ticks. To one side of the bed sat a tiny corner table with a brass oil lamp that my ma had rescued from an earlier home. On the other side was a big wooden trunk for storing clothes and stuff. That’s the tally—every single thing in the world my clan owned.

I sighed, and thought for the thousandth time, And it’s probably all we’ll ever own in this commune.


Chapter 2

Elizabeth


“Elizabeth, vakna!”

It was my mother, calling me to rise. I sat up and peeked out the window. Dawn was just appearing over the Ochre Mountains in the west. I groaned, flopped back down on my bed, closed my eyes and covered my face with my pillow.

In the other room I heard my mother cough. I thought, Coughing deliberately she is, just to make noise so I cannot go back to sleep.

I heard the door to my room open. “Elizabeth, tími fyrir skóla!”

I groaned beneath my pillow. “But Mömmu, there is hating school, I do. Why must I go?”

I felt the pillow lift from my head, and my mother’s hand on my shoulder. “Tha’ knowest the answer, Dóttir. Fáfræthi er thrælahald.”

“Ignorance is slavery.” ’Twas my mother’s favorite saying. She always lectured me about our escape from slavery in Akameria. She reminded me often that although my slave-bracelet, it was gone, I was still a slave to ignorance because girls were not permitted to attend school in Akameria. In Deshret, I had no excuse.

Mother looked down at me. “To read and write, ’twas my greatest wish as a child. But forbidden to me it was. Here in Deshret, tha’ canst a proper education receive with the Believers.” She coughed again and pointed at the door. “Now, klætha thyself and come to eat, Dóttir.”

“Yes, Mömmu…” I mumbled.


Mother retreated to the other room, and I climbed out of bed and threw my Believer-dress over my head. It was an ugly blue sack of a dress, just like the dresses that all the Believer girls at the fort wore. It mattered not that my mother had stitched it herself—I had always desired to dress like Mother, who wore a beautiful red and black tavern dress when she worked.

***

One time, when my mother was gone, I tried on her tavern clothing. I slipped her corset around my waist and cinched it up as tight as I could, but it just sat on my hips like an old wooden barrel. I tried on her beautiful red dress with black lace trim, but it hung limp from my shoulders. I used her charcoal pencil on my eyebrows, and missed badly. When I looked at myself in mother’s little hand-mirror, I felt humiliated. I will never as beautiful as my Mömmu be … I carefully put her clothes away and retreated to my little room to brood.

When Mother returned home later that day, I heard her pause outside my room. Then she peeked inside, smiled and said softly, “Some day, Dóttir. Some day.”

***

I heard a distant bugle playing the “Call to Rise” at Fort Kanosh.

“Elizabeth, drífa!” my mother called.

“I am hurrying, Mömmu,” I called back. I tied my long hair up in a bun and pinned it. There is looking just like a little Believer-girl I do now, I thought.

I emerged into the front room and sat down to my meager breakfast—hafragrautur, or oatmeal, and a cup of water. Then I spied a basket of apples on the kitchen counter. I lunged for one, but Mother snatched them away.

“But, Mömmu!” I cried. “So hungry I be.”

“Finding them in the alley behind the tavern, I did,” she announced. “I shall make for thee an eplakaka this evening, aye?”

“Yes, Mömmu.” I loved Mother’s apple-cakes. I gazed enraptured at the basket of apples. They were wormy and withered, but they still looked delicious to me.

“Finish thy oatmeal, then ’tis off to skóla with thee.” She was suddenly seized with a fit of coughing.

Mömmu, art thou ill?” I said.

She straightened up and caught her breath. “No, ’tis but a spell. Hurry, now.”

I noticed her watching me eat. “Hungry art thou, Mömmu?” I pushed my bowl of oatmeal towards her, and she pushed it back.

“No, Dóttir, eating later, I shall.” I knew that was a lie.

I downed my oatmeal and drank my cup of water. Mother gave me a peck on the cheek and sent me on my way. As I walked down the path and opened our little white picket gate, I looked back and saw Mother wave at me. I looked at the tiny cottage. It was old, and weather-beaten, and the thatched roof leaked—but it was the only place I had ever felt safe in my thirteen years on this Jörth.

Cottonwoods, the town that I lived in, was anything but safe. It was a rough, primitive settlement mostly populated by displaced Akamerians, like my mother and me. At this early hour, Cottonwoods was just beginning to stir. The taverns were still closed, but the dry-goods store and mercantile were open for business.

Every day I walked this path, fearing for my life. As I passed the blacksmith shop, I knew what was coming. Edmund Ragnarsson stepped out of his smithy and leered at me. He was a dirty, evil toad of a man, and he wore a filthy, blackened leather apron over his Nordish tunic. In his right hand he held a pair of long blacksmith’s tongs, which he waved at me. He blew a kiss at me. “Eliza, komdu hingath!”

I ignored him and continued down the street. Edmund laughed. “A thræll ye’ll always be, girl. Riveting tha’ slave-bracelet back on, should I? Would ye like that, eh?”

I increased my pace. “Fara í burtu! Leave me alone!”

As I fled down the street, Edmund laughed again. “An’ ye and yair móthir, base-born you both are, too!” My cheeks flushed at this insult. To be base-born, without a father, was the most shameful thing in Nordish society.

It also humiliated me that everyone in Cottonwoods seemed to know that I was once a slave. And being a slave-born woman besides, in a culture ruled by men, just added more shame. Here in Deshret, thankfully, slavery was outlawed, but the men of Cottonwoods didn’t much care. To them, I was just an object to be used. I glanced down at my ugly blue sack-dress and was suddenly thankful for it. The less attractive I was to men, the less I would be forced to endure their advances.

As I left Cottonwoods, the road curved to the east, and I spied Fort Kanosh in the distance. “Welcome to school, Elizabeth Erne,” I said to myself. “More education than many at that school already, have I.”

Chapter 3

Benjamin


When my ma saw me arrive at the shanty, she gave me a peck on the forehead and hugged me. “Good morning, my little Benji!” she said.

Ma…” I hated being called Benji.

“I know—you’re thirteen turns old now, which is far too old for hugs and kisses, but I’ll give them to you just the same. Come, children! Today’s hymn is Endless Love.”

Ma hummed the pitch, and we all gathered ’round the table and joined in:


My God, how endless is Thy love,

Descending like the morning dew,

Thy glorious gifts come from above,

And all thy mercies too.


Pa attacked the hymn with vigor in his strong baritone voice while Huldah sang the alto line. Midway through the second verse, Aaron crossed his eyes at me, so I stuck out my tongue in reply. Huldah kicked me under the table. Aunt Miriam scowled at the three of us, and I smiled like an angel and continued singing a bit off-key.

When the hymn was done, Pa intoned, “Let us pray.”

As we all knelt, I thought, Please, Pa, don’t drag us all the way through the Norm from front to back. On this morning, Pa only prayed about a chapter’s worth, to my great relief.

When Pa finished, Aaron spoke. “Pa, what’s the news from the Outlands?”

Pa replied, “Well, ‘cording to th’ heliograph reports, Emperor Theobald is tryin’ to enforce the chain law in Frieland, just o’er the mountains from us. Any woman not chained to ‘er husband in public can be sold into slavery. Th’ Frielanders are fighting back.”

Huldah shuddered. “How awful…”

Pa spoke. “I been there, you know. I grew up in the middle o’ all that evil. Just be thankful ‘at here in Deshret, we’re still free from the chain law an’all ‘tother wicked Nordish customs. God willing, we’ll stay free until the Visitation.”

Ma and Aunt Miriam both locked eyes with Pa and nodded. They did this a lot, I’d noticed, almost as if all three of ’em somehow knowed what each other was thinking.

At six thirty, all the citizens of the fort lined up on the east side near the main gate and turned to salute the flag. Brother Thomas, who was pretty much the sum total of our musical talent at the fort, played the Title of Liberty Anthem on his trumpet as the color guard raised the flag of Deshret—a blue-and white-striped banner with a white field carrying twelve blue stars surrounding a single larger star.

I cringed as Brother Thomas muffed the last line of the anthem. Every day, he makes the same dumb mistake. I can always feel it coming.

Next, we all recited the Title of Liberty in unison:

In memory of our God

Our religion

And freedom

And our peace

Our wives

And our children


The Grand Hegemon of Fort Kanosh, Brother Elazar, said a brief blessing on the meal. Then everyone filed into the dining hall for breakfast. Inside, there were three long rows of tables stretching the full length of the room. The young boys found their places at one outside row, the young girls took the far side, and the adults took their seats along the central row. Each place setting had an overturned plate with a knife, fork, and spoon, with a single rose petal in the center of the plate.

Nice touch. Yesterday, it was pakaat blossoms. Tomorrow, daisies. You can always tell the day of the week by the flowers. It’s all so predictable here.

On cue, everyone turned their plates over, and the cooks began ladling out the morning meal—biscuits and gravy. First breakfast of the week: biscuits and gravy. Second-day is grits; third-day, flapjacks. If the flower petals aren’t a clue, I figger the food sure is. Nothing ever changes here.

Promptly at seven, the overseers filed down the three rows of tables, giving out the weekly work assignments. When my overseer, Brother Saul, reached the thirteeners’ table, he squinted at his list for a moment, looked up, and announced, “Thirteen-year-olds! Mornin’, fields! Affernoon, school!” Then he moved on to the next table. Brother Saul was a man of few words.

I groaned. Not field work again. Why can’t I ever work in the carpentry shop, or the smithy, or even the harness shop? I hate grubbing in the dirt. Leastways, I’ll be back here for school by noon. That’s good.

As I trudged out of the dining hall, my cousin Levi gave me a shove. “Hey, digger boy!” he taunted me.

“Hey, scum-face!” I replied, and meant it. I was in a really foul mood this morning.

I picked up my straw hat and headed for the front gate, where the field bosses were handing out tools. My heart sank as Pa handed me a long-handled hoe. No, not my own pa, I thought desperately. He’s gonna ride me all day, I just know’t.

“Pa, do I really hafta go with you?”

Pa clapped me on the back. “Let’s go hoe us some spuds!” I tried to smile through my clenched teeth, but it warn’t too convincing an act, I reckon.

“Cheer up, son—it could be a whole lot worse,” Pa said.

I don’t see how. I just warn’t in a mood to be cheerfulled by anyone this morning, ’specially my pa.

“Mount up, boys!” Pa said, and me an’ a half dozen other thirteeners reluctantly piled onto a buckboard. The eastern gates of the compound creaked open, and I squinted and covered my eyes as the morning sun burst through the open gate.

It must be hot enough outside to boil water already. I’ll be fried by noon. They’ll serve me on the table for dinner tonight. Just stick a fork in me.

Pa took the reins and gave a quick whistle to the two horses. Then the buckboard lumbered out the gate toward the fields on the south of the compound.

Since I was facing backwards, I could now see all of Fort Kanosh—a massive blockhouse ten rods square made of adobe footings, topped with wooden palisades fifteen feet high. On the south side was a large clapboard barn. Abutting the fort on the west was a jagged line of red sandstone cliffs. About three rods from the corners of the fort were four thirty-foot high watchtowers built of huge logs sunk deep into the ground.

I turned my gaze back toward the southwestern sandstone cliffs, which rose in towering pink spires and outcroppings called “hoodoos.” Every time I saw them, I remembered the time ’bout eight turns afore when I got lost, and then got rescued by that very strange man.

Chapter 4

Benjamin


I still remember getting lost in the hoodoos.

I was five turns old. Pa had repeatedly warned me and Aaron never to go there, but Aaron easily persuaded me, his younger brother, to go play hide-and-seek with him. I’d never seen the hoodoos up close, and this sounded like a great adventure to me.

Aaron warned me to look out for the hoodoo men as we penetrated deeper into the twisty rock canyons. “The hoodoo men’ll get you if you don’t watch out!” Aaron whispered, making a thrill of fear run through me. I bravely armed myself with a whacker stick just in case any hoodoo men tried sneaking up on us.

The rocks were cool to my touch, ’cept where the sunlight hit them, and they were layered in fantastic swirling shades of white, pink, red, and yellow, like great big mounds of taffy. The rocks cast weird, disorienting shadows—one moment, we boys would be in bright sunlight, and the next moment, in inky blackness. Our voices echoed off the spires and down the winding, narrow passages, scaring me even worse.

“Shh! The hoodoo men’ll hear you!” Aaron warned.

At last, we paused, and Aaron whispered to me, “All right, now you go run and hide, and I’ll try to find you!”

I hitched up my young courage and ran off down a side passage. Soon I found a small cave under a big rock outcropping. I crouched down there and waited patiently for Aaron to find me. And waited, and waited …

After what seemed like ’most forever, I thought I could faintly hear my brother’s voice, but it sounded real strange to me:

“Benbenbenbenben . . . wherewherewherewhere areareareareare youyouyouyou …”

I was still playing hide-and-seek, so I retreated even deeper into my cave and waited quietly. And waited . . . and waited …

Soon, the shouting stopped. I kept waiting, but Aaron didn’t come. I waited some more. And he still didn’t come. By now, I was getting real scared. What if Aaron don’t come for me? I thought. What if no one finds me? What if the hoodoo men get me?

I watched the cave opening for what musta been hours as the light and dark patches in the canyon slowly shifted. It was real quiet in the cave, 'cept for the sound of my breathing. I was just screwing up my courage to head outta the cave so’s I could find my own way home when I heard gravel crunching and saw a figure slowly moving through the shadows toward the mouth of the cave. All I could see through the opening were his feet and legs.

It’s a hoodoo man for sure, I thought, terrified. Aaron, please don’t let him get me…

I covered my eyes and crouched down, hoping this would make me invisible. I grasped my whacker stick more tightly, just waiting to strike.

Then I heard a voice at the mouth of the cave. “Well, hello there! Come here, my little friend. Don't be afraid.”

Somehow, the voice seemed to settle me down, so I opened my eyes and looked out. I saw a man crouched down at the mouth of the cave, gesturing for me to come out. In a scaredy little voice, I said, “Are you a hoodoo man?”

The man laughed, and his voice echoed up and down the canyon. “No, Benjamin, I’m not. I’m here to take you home. You can come out now.”

I dropped my stick and hesitantly climbed out of my tiny cave. Then I stood up and gazed at the man, who was still hunkered down facing me. He was wearing a white linen suit—unusual for Fort Kanosh. He had light auburn hair, a rather large nose, and the most piercing light-blue eyes I’d ever seen. He took me by the hand and said, “Come, your parents will be worried! I shall lead you home.”

Something told me I could trust this stranger, so I followed him back along the twisting maze of passages.

Suddenly, we came out of the hoodoos into the bright sunlight of Amber Valley. I squinted and looked. In the distance, I could see my pa running toward me from the fort, with Aaron close behind. I let go of the stranger’s hand and ran to them, and Pa scooped me up and hugged me.

“Pa, are you mad at me?” I said, anxious, but relieved to be safe at last.

“No, son, just glad t’ see you. How’d you find your way outta the hoodoos?”

“That nice man there found me an’ led me out,” I replied, pointing over my shoulder.

“What man?” Pa asked.

I turned ’round and looked, but the man was gone. Vanished…

Ever since that day eight turns ago, I’ve wondered who the man in the white suit was, and where he went.

I never even got to thank him for saving me, I thought. And it took a real long time for me to forgive Aaron for getting me lost in the hoodoos, too—even after Pa gave him a thrashing.

Chapter 5

Benjamin


Now eight turns later, facing backwards on the buckboard, I turned my eyes away from the hoodoos and cast my gaze out over Amber Valley. The sun was just peeking from the west over the red sandstone cliffs. The dark green of the partially shadowed fields contrasted with the bright, shimmering haze on the eastern side of the valley. At the far southeastern end, I could see smoke curling from the chimneys in the village of Cottonwoods.

This is my world, I thought. Ten miles long, five miles wide. I’ve never been outside it. Is there even anything outside, or is this all the world there is?

“Whoa, hoss!” Jacob called. The buckboard creaked to a stop, and we all jumped off. Pa hobbled the horses and turned them loose to graze, then he gathered his work detail ’round him for instructions.

“Boys, we got two acres o’ pakaat ta water, weed, an’ culteevate afore noon. Na, you-all knows the rules: Anythin’ at don’t look like a pakaat plant—”

“Is a weed!” the other boys all cried.

“An’ the fust rule o’ weeds is—”

“Git ’em when they’re small!” the boys replied.

I groaned. Every day, the same lecture about weeds…

Pakaat was a mainstay of the diet at Fort Kanosh. The white, bulbous tubers grew in vast green fields all ’round the fort and were well-nigh guaranteed to show up at every meal, either boiled, baked, fried, mashed, or as bread flour. The tubers could also be pressed, yielding a fine, clear oil for cooking or lamp-lighting.

Each boy took a row and began “culteevating” it. As luck would have it, or maybe cruel fate, Pa kept me close beside him, row by row. He began his usual daily prattle about how raising spuds was just like raising young ’uns, and that all they needed was a little care, nurture, and admonition. I warn’t real sure what admonition was, but the word had a bad feel to it.

Pa’s one-sided conversation went on for ’most an hour while we worked our rows side byside. I tried to sorta slow down and let Pa outpace me so’s to put some distance ’tween him and me, but Pa chided me for “havin’ the slows.” Then I tried speeding up to pass him, but Pa kept pointing out all the rocks and weeds I was missing, and he made me back up and do my pakaat row proper-like.

I just can’t win, I thought in despair. Nothing’s ever good enough for my pa. I hate these stupid plants and everything about them.

Pa tried another tactic to encourage his flagging troops. “Boys, let’s all sing th’ Diggin’ Song!” he cried. “Now, all together…”

I groaned and rolled my eyes. I just can’t stand it anymore…

Pa started the song, and the other boys reluctantly joined in as their hoes rhythmically rose and fell.

I am a happy digger,

I’m planting my pakaat,

If I don’t labor quicker,

My day will be for naught.


Pa clapped me on the back. “C’mon, son!” he encouraged me, smiling.

I am a happy believer,

I’m digging for my God.

If I work and I am eager,

He’ll give me my reward.


I mouthed the words, but my heart just warn’t in it. I hate that song.

By now, the sun was nearly straight above me, and beating down on my head like a hammer. Pa finally called, “Break time, lads! Ten minutes!”

We dropped our hoes and made a beeline for the water barrel. We took turns drinking from the single tin cup tied to the barrel. Then we took shelter under the low-slung buckboard and rested on the cool grass.

I decided to sorta steer the conversation my own way for a change. “Pa, what’s the Visitation?” I said. “I heard somethin’ ’bout it in Sabbath School.”

Pa sat up and gazed at the green fields for a time, scratching his chin whiskers. “Well, Benjamin, it’s sumat like this. God cain’t be in all places at all times—well, his influence can, but He pussonaly cain’t. So He visits all His worlds in turn—the fust one, an’ the second, an’ so on to the twelfth—each one in its time an’ season.”

I leaned up on my elbows. “Really? How’s that possible?”

“Son, y’see all these pakaat fields here? Imagine that I’m God, an’ each o’ these fields gets its water turn, one after ’tuther. That’s kinda how ’tis with God, an’ the worlds wi’out number ’at He’s made.”

“Oh … so that’s it,” I said. I thought, sorta dejected-like, That’s me, Benjamin the spud god.

“Our turn is comin’, an’ one day real soon, God will visit us for a season. An’ then the whole world’ll rest for a thousan’ turns.”

“But how do we know He’s comin’ soon?” I asked.

Pa smiled. “We know, son, we just know. I’ll ’splain it someday.” He jumped to his feet. “But fer now, we got spuds ta tend!”

At noon, we heard in the distance as Brother Thomas tootled the “Call to Dine,” and we exhausted, dirt-tired boys clambered onto our buckboard and clattered back to the compound for luncheon.

First-day luncheon, pakaat bread and beans… I thought as we lurched along. I like pakaat bread and beans, usually. And I like school, mostly. This day won’t be a total waste.

As we rolled through the front gate, I felt the cool relief of the thick adobe walls surrounding me. I inhaled deeply, absorbing the odor of freshly baked pakaat bread. I washed up with the other boys and sat down in the dining hall for my second communal meal of the day.

After Brother Elazar said the blessing, I tucked into my bread and beans and washed it down with cool spring water. Then the dishes were cleared, and the dining hall became a schoolhouse. Everyone over sixteen returned to their labors in the fields, at the laundry, in the barn, the carpentry shop, or the kitchen.

I collected my schoolbooks from the shelf, received my daily ration of two sheets of paper and a lead pencil, and took my place with the other sixth graders.

When the students were all assembled, Schoolmaster Timothy addressed his pupils. “Ahem! Children, we have a distinguished visitor coming to see us today. Professor Orson, Chancellor of the Deshret Academy and distinguished member of the Ruling Council in Salem, will be taking applications for next year’s courses of study at the academy. I don’t have to tell you, we have some very promising eighth graders whom I’m sure will be tendering their applications tomorrow.”

Like that stuffed shirt Alma, I thought. Only reason his marks are so high is ’cause he was held back twice. He’s two turns older’n the other eighth graders.

Brother Timothy continued. “Also, Professor Orson will hold a seminar tonight on the rudiments of astronomy. He has promised to bring his telescope and demonstrate it to us.”

Now suddenly interested, I raised my hand. “Will he let me look through the telescope?”

Brother Timothy smiled. “I’m sure he will, Benjamin. But right now, you sixth graders need to begin today’s orthography lesson.”

He passed out steel pens and inkwells, and we began practicing our penmanship, copying from our Deshret Alphabet Readers. I pulled my reading glasses out of my pocket, put them on, and went to work.

Being left-handed, I always struggled with penmanship. The thirty-eight letters of the Deshret alphabet were a complex mix of whorls, lines, and circles that defied all but the most nimble hands. Even on ruled paper, my words snaked their way up and down across the page as my hand blocked what I’d just written. I tried the overhand method, with the pen nib pointing toward me, but the nib dug into the paper as I pushed it, releasing its whole load of ink. I tried the underhand method, with the nib pointing away from me, but my fingers dragged across the ink, spoiling the words. In desperation, I switched to my right hand, but the letters came out backwards and funny-looking. This is hopeless, I thought. I’m just no good at it.

I glanced to my right, where my cousin Gideon had just completed a perfect row of letters. “Pee, bee, tee, dee, chee, kay, ga, ef…” he said proudly.

“Very fine, Gideon!” said Brother Timothy, admiring his handiwork. Then he looked at my hen -scratches and observed out loud so’s everyone could hear, “Now, if only Benjamin could learn from Gideon’s example!”

The other kids laughed, and Gideon beamed, but I just gritted my teeth and rolled my eyes in frustration.

After orthography came arithmetic—my best subject. The first question on the quiz was:

A wagon box is two feet deep, ten feet long, and three feet wide. How many bushels of pakaat will it hold?


I went to work with my chalk and slate.


Wagon box = 2x10x3 = 60 ft3

1 bushel = 1 ¼ ft3

60 ÷ 1 ¼ = 60 x 4/5 = 48 bushels


I put down my chalk and slate and raised my hand.

“Yes, Benjamin?” said my teacher.

“Forty-eight!” I replied proudly.

“Excellent,” said my teacher. “Ben, your orthography may be less than perfect, but your arithmetic is impeccable.”

I warn’t sure what impeccable meant, but still that made me feel proud.

That evening, after the guards had sounded the sundown “All is Well,” I joined a group of children and adults outside the fort for Professor Orson’s lecture on astronomy. The professor was a dignified-looking gentleman of about sixty turns with a flowing white beard, white hair, and bushy white eyebrows that made him look very much like my idea of God. The professor had brought an elegant brass telescope about four feet in length and mounted on a tall wooden tripod. I’d looked through spyglasses before, but never through an instrument like this.

“Brothers and sisters, attend!” Professor Orson said, pointing upward. “If you will, please turn your eyes to the heavens and view the wonders of eternity. That great river of stars you see spanning the heavens from north to south, we call Eternity. Although it appears to us as a gossamer ring surrounding us, Eternity is in fact an immense, saucer-shaped disk of countless millions of stars. The planet we inhabit, which we call Edom, is on the outskirts of Eternity, while God dwells ‘in the Bosom of Eternity’—that is, at the center of that knot of stars right about there. The star nearest the place where God resides is called Kolab, or Ba-Kol in the ancient Edomic language, meaning ‘All Things.’ Thus, God is in ‘all things,’ and through ‘all things,’ and worlds without number hath He created, including our own.”

Orson drew a line across the sky with his finger from the eastern horizon to the west.

“There is another circle surrounding our planet, stretching from east to west, namely the circle of the ecliptic, which delineates the path of the fifteen moving planets, including our own, as they travel around our sun, which the Ancients called Shenayhah. Those planets inferior to ours, that is, nearer to the sun, move more quickly in their orbits, while those superior to ours move more slowly in point of reckoning. To illustrate: Viritrilbia, the planet nearest the sun, completes one circuit in a mere ninety-five days, while Glundandra, the sixth from the sun, takes eleven of our turns to complete a single circuit. The most distant of our planets, Neruval, takes a full two hundred and fifty turns to circumambulate the sun!

“At any given season and hour of the night, some of the planets will be visible to us, whilst others will not. Tonight, if you will trace with your finger the line of the ecliptic from west to east, you can clearly see in order the planets Oanisis, Floisis, Abessels, and Izinsbah. They appear indistinguishable from the fixed stars, save for their movement, but with the aid of this telescope, you shall see that they are all planets, much like our own Edom here.”

I watched Orson stoop down and squint through the spotter telescope on the side of the larger tube. He made some fine adjustments and announced, “Behold, the great planet Abessels.”

I got in line and waited impatiently for my turn at the telescope. When at last I put my eye to the lens, I was just plumb bowled over by what I saw. There in front of me, as if I could reach out and touch it, was a glorious white orb crossed by sandstone-colored stripes, and surrounded by a brilliant white ring. I noticed three tiny specks close by it.

“What’re those three little dots?” I asked in wonder.

Professor Orson smiled. “You have sharp eyes, my lad! Why, those are planetoids—lesser planets circling the greater one, just as our Edom circles the sun. Abessels has at least seven of these lesser planets, by my observations.”

“How come we don’t have plana- uh, plana-toyds of our own?” I asked, taking one last glance through the eyepiece.

“A very good question, son! We are fortunate that God so constructed our world, for if it had planetoids, I believe the gravitational tug o’ war would make our lives quite unpleasant, if not impossible. We are better off without them. Next!”

Chapter 6

Benjamin


By the dawn of sixth-day, I’d been over the same two acres of pakaat plants five times, and I felt like I knew every last plant by its family line and clan name. I’m sick of these no-good spuds, I thought. Why can’t we grow something more useful, like melons?

At about ten, I felt a faint, rhythmic trembling in the ground—as if someone was dropping heavy boulders every second or two. I recognized the source of the sound, and I eagerly cast my gaze northward along the road to Fort Goshen. In a few moments, just as I’d anticipated, I caught sight of a great lizard’s head bobbing back and forth above the foothills, followed by its scaly, reptilian body, and then the hulking freight wagon that the lizard was pulling. Behind the lead freight wagon were four more, also drawn by huge reptiles. The wagons were all guided by drivers wielding long whips, and their whistling and whip-cracking announced their approach.

“It’s the dragon train!” I shouted, as I dropped my hoe and ran with the other boys to meet it.

Once a month, our fort was visited by these “down-and-back” dragon trains as they visited each fort in turn, collecting and delivering mail, freight, and supplies along the way. Each train took a month to cover the distance between Salem in the north and Fort Kanab at the southern reaches of Deshret. Then they retraced their path back to Salem. Their visits to Fort Kanosh were the high point of my month.

The beasts were not really dragons, but slow, dim-witted reptiles called “rakashim,” with enormous pulling power in their four huge legs. Each rakash measured over twenty feet in length from his tiny head to his long, spiky tail, and his body was covered with large bony plates. They had huge, bird-like beaks, and two horns sprouting from their foreheads, and they were mostly brownish-green in color. All in all, I thought the rakashim were about the splendidest creatures I’d ever seen, and I often dreamed of being a dragon-train driver and visiting far-off places with these huge beasts.

By the time I arrived breathless at the fort, the lading and unlading of goods had already begun. Brother Elazar supervised the sale and weighing of all the goods generated by the fort in the previous month—cotton cloth, furniture, barrels, leather goods, and huge burlap sacks of pakaat. Then he haggled for the items the fort needed in return—raw cotton, paper, indigo, books, tools, farm implements, seeds, molasses, kloh beans, and so on. Each of the United Order settlements specialized in the production of certain goods that the others lacked, and everything was paid for with the same paper Order scrip, so everyone in the Order could benefit equally from one another’s labors.

I wandered up and down the train, watching the dragon skinners as they fed and watered their beasts. Then I spied the man I was really looking for—the toy peddler. Every month, he brought the most amazing wooden toys to show and sell. This month, he was selling something I’d never seen before—a wooden spool with a shaft that held two feather-like wings projecting outwards.

The toy peddler knew how to work a crowd. He crouched down and waited for us boys to assemble for his demonstration, then he scanned us for potential marks. As he started his prattle, he glanced at me and smiled. He knew me by sight as one of his most reliable customers.

“Now, gather ’round, boys, an’ watch the most amazin’ thing you’ve never seen be-fore! This here’s a flyin’ machine! Y’see, all I do is pull on this string here…”

The toy peddler pulled on a string wrapped around the shaft, and the device magically spun its way up into the air about twenty feet, then drifted back down.

I was immediately sold. “Pa, can I have one of those?” I said, jumping up and down.

Apparently, Pa warn’t yet sold on the transaction. He scowled. “Well, son, I dunno… I cain’t be spendin’ all my hard-earned money on gewgaws fer you ever’ month. This thing looks just plain frivolish t’me! What happened t’that gimcrack I bought y’ last month?”

My face fell. “Pleeeze?” I begged. I could always tell when my pa was weakening.

Pa grinned. “But on t’other hand, sometimes a boy needs a bit o’ frivolity!” He reached in his pocket, pulled out two credits’ worth of Order scrip, and paid the toy peddler.

“Here y’go, son,” said the man, handing me my very own flyin’ machine.

“Now, Ben,” Pa explained, “soon’s the train’s gone, it’s back to work, right? The toy stays in th’ wagon ’til we’re done fer th’ day.”

“Yes, Pa,” I replied. “I promise…an’ thanks.”

For the next quarter hour, I was the center of attention as I demonstrated my flyin’ machine to the other boys, launching it while they chased it. Then it was back to the pakaat fields.

Shortly before noon, Jacob called another break and we boys congregated at the water barrel. I dropped my hoe and staggered over, panting and sweaty, my head splitting from the heat.

As I took my turn at the tin cup, without thinking, I said, “Pa, what possessed you to come t’ this godforsaken desert? Warn’t the place you lived in good enough?”

My pa suddenly went grim and rigid-like, and I knew instantly that I’d overstepped my bounds. He closed his eyes for a moment; then he spoke real slow and distinct. “Son, we came here because we had no other place to go! Them Akamerians left us no alternative, an’ we scarcely escaped outta there with th’ clothes on our backs after they killed the Seer! We hadda find an out-o’-the-way spot o’ ground what no one else wanted, an’ we found it right here, where God wants us ta’ be! Now, if that ain’t ta’ your likin’, you kin lump it!”

Still, I persisted, against my better judgment. “Well, maybe if you’d stood up to those Akamerians, I might’a been born somewhere else ’sides this good-for-nothin’ wasteland!” I immediately regretted saying this.

The look Pa gave to me was a mixture of pain, sorrow, and disappointment that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. Pa lowered his head and shrugged his shoulders. Then he said, “Son, we’re not out here in Deshret t’ grow pakaat, if that’s what y’ think. We’re out here t’ grow Believers. I just hope someday you unnerstand th’ difference.”

Jacob turned to the other boys and said softly, “C’mon, boys, let’s mount up an’ go take our luncheon.”

On the way back to the fort, I showed off my new flyin’ machine to the other boys in the wagon.

“See, all I gotta do is pull this string, an’ it flies up in the air!” I exclaimed. “Someday, I’m gonna build me one big enough to carry me outta this no-good valley!”

Cousin Gideon laughed and said, “Sure, Ben, you just flap your arms hard enough, an’ I bet you’ll just sail all the way to Cottonwoods!” The other boys laughed with him.

Levi suddenly grabbed at the flying machine.

“Hey, gimme that back!” I cried.

Levi just smiled at me and pulled hard on the string, and the wings whirled madly and flew straight up into the air above the moving buckboard. I watched in desperation as the wind caught my flyin’ machine and carried it outta sight.

Levi handed the empty spool back to me. “Sorry, Ben. Guess you won’t be leavin’ th’ valley anytime soon,” he snickered.

Later that afternoon, I talked to Brother Timothy about my argument with Pa. “All Pa cares about is dirt farming,” I said. “I hate it. I wanna go to school an’ make somethin’ of my life, not waste it away in this boring ol’ valley.”

“Benjamin, there’s something you ought to know about your father,” Timothy said. “He’s a lot smarter than he lets on. Truth be told, he probably doesn’t care much for dirt farming either, but at least he doesn’t complain about it. Fact is, he was a young engineer in the Akamerian Army before we were all driven out here. Why, you give him a pile of sticks, he could build you a truss arch bridge over any river faster’n you could bat an eye. In fact, he helped lay out the plan for this fort we live in. You could learn a thing or two from him, young Benjamin. And I think the older you get, the wiser he’ll get in your eyes, too. You’ll see.”

My teacher paused. “Benjamin, I promise you, if you come good on your grades, in a couple turns you’ll be a shoo-in for the academy. If you want, I’ll put in a good word for you with Professor Orson. But the rest is up to you. Don’t think badly of your pa. You have no idea the sacrifices he’s been through for you and your family.”

Chapter 7

Benjamin


My pa musta mentioned our argument in the fields to Ma and Aunt Miriam just before they went to bed that evening. I know this ’cause my ma came down hard on me ’bout it the next day. I figger their conversation prob’ly went something like this, ’cause this is one of those standard-issue conversations that parents are always having about their kids:

Pa prob’ly said to Ma, “Honest to goodness, I get so tired of his whinin’ an’ complainin’, it wears me out. When I was his age, my pa never put up wi’ that for a minute from me. Why cain’t he just do as he’s told wi’out all the grumblin’? Aaron isn’t that way.”

Ma most likely spoke up for me right about here. “Pa, Ben’s a good boy, but he’s only thirteen. And maybe farming just doesn’t agree with him. Now, be honest—you’re an engineer. Wouldn’t you rather build buildings than dig around in the dirt?”

Aunt Miriam no doubt broke in here too. “That’s true, dear. Actually, Ben’s quite a lot like you—why, you should see the line drawings he makes in school, and he’s good at math, too. I’m sure he’ll grow out of this childishness.” Aunt Miriam was the schoolmistress of Fort Kanosh.

“I dunno,” Pa musta grumbled. “Kids these days, they got no idea what we suffered through justa make it here an’ survive. I think we spoil ’em way too much. Leastways, I know I spoil ’im. I spent two whole credits on ’at silly wingding toy o’ his today, an’ it scarcely lasted two hours! Mebbe it’s my fault for not bearin’ down on ’im harder.”

I’m sure my ma just smiled. “One thing I’ve learned about Ben, Jacob, is that if you try to ‘bear down’ on him, he just pushes back. He’s a stubborn little fellow, not unlike someone else I know.”

“Thank you, my dear,” said Pa, kinda wrapping things up. “I take that as a compliment—I think.”

Chapter 8

Benjamin


Seventh-day was the Sabbath, the one day of the week when everyone could rest from their labors. Ma and Aunt Miriam made sure that every one of us children was scrubbed, combed, and decked out in our best Sabbath clothing.

“Stop tugging at your cravat!” Ma whispered to me as we made the short walk from the family shanty to the central building, now outfitted as a house of worship. As we arrived, she stooped down and pinched my cheeks. “I’m so proud of you, my little Benji!” she exclaimed. “This is your special day!”

“Ma!” I complained. “Please don’t call me that!”

Aaron poked me in the ribs with his elbow, and I poked him back.

“Oh, Ben-ji,” Aaron taunted me.

Our older sister, Huldah, put her nose in the air and tried to ignore us juveniles, and our younger sister, Naomi, followed Huldah’s lead.

Ma continued. “Now, boys, I want you all on your best behavior today. This is a very important day—now that he’s thirteen, Ben is to become a Kohan, which means that he is now a man, responsible for his own acts—although, judging from his behavior, I sometimes have my doubts…” She said this just as I made a face at Aaron.

I turned to my father. “Pa, what’s this ‘tih-ro-noot’ ceremony you an’ I are goin’ to tonight? Aaron told me it’s real spooky.”

Pa laughed. “No, son, it’s not spooky. The sacred tironut ceremony’s a rite o’ passage for ever’ young boy who wishes t’ become a Kohan. I survived it, an’ so did Aaron. You’ll find out tonight what it’s all about.”

The tables in the central hall had all been cleared away, and the benches were arranged in rows to face the Holy Stand at the east end of the hall. Our clan all took our seats on the front row of benches, and we waited for the meeting to start.

I glanced around uneasily. The thought of being singled out like this in Sabbath worship made me feel kinda itchy. The women’s dresses rustled round me like birds’ wings, and I sniffed the smell of camphor and lilac in the hall. When will it start?

A few minutes later, the Grand Hegemon of Fort Kanosh, Brother Elazar, took his seat at the head of the congregation. To the right of Elazar sat his first wife, Ariella, who was the Grand Matron of Fort Kanosh, and to the left sat Shifra, his second wife.

After the prayer, Elazar approached the Holy Stand and announced, “This is a blessed day for us! Benjamin, son of Jacob, is now of age to become a Kohan, a Believer in full standing. This evening, we shall repair to the place of initiation, where we will perform the sacred tironut ceremony for Benjamin, as well as for the boys from the other forts who are of age. Let us now begin our service.”

Elazar began singing the sacred initiation prayer in the ancient Edomic tongue. This was the first time I’d ever heard him chant from the Sayings of the Seers in Edomic like this, so it sounded kinda strange to me:

Semah bahur beyaleduteyka witibeka libeka bime behurwoteka…”


It all sounded kinda pretty, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. Fortunately, when Elazar was done chanting, he translated it all for me:

“Be glad, young ma

n, and delight in thy cheerfulness of heart in the days of thy youth…”

Somehow it made me feel real special to have Elazar sing this prayer just for me, and I decided that being singled out warn’t such a bad thing after all.

After the worship service ended, the benches were cleared, the tables were set up, and a feast was laid out to celebrate my joining the Kohanite brotherhood. I was quickly engulfed by grownups who welcomed me to the brotherhood, congratulated me on my rite of passage, and pinched my cheeks till they hurt. Congratulations for what? I han’t done nothing yet…

Shortly before sunset, me and my pa joined a procession making its way out the front gate of the fort. Grand Hegemon Elazar led the procession up Kanosh Canyon for several miles. Following Elazar were me, my pa, and several other fathers with their sons, who’d traveled all the way from Fort Goshen or Fort Manti to participate in the tironut.

Each father held a torch to light the way. Higher and higher, we threaded our way up the canyon, making several crossings of the Soreq River until at last we approached the summit of the pass.

Breathless from the climb, I looked up the canyon, and to my surprise, I saw the ruins of an ancient fortress looming before me. At one time, it musta spanned the whole width of the pass, but now only the granite left and right ends of the fortress hugged the walls of the canyon. The middle part of the fortress had long since disappeared, and the Soreq River now flowed through the gap. In the twilight, I could see crumbled battlements, and the remnants of the granite outer walls that had once protected this huge structure. The torchlight threw weird shadows and patches of light on the ruins, making them seem to stir from their long slumber.

What is this place?

As if in reply, Elazar said, “This is Mesuta, the last refuge of the Kaduminim, the Ancient Ones of the Second Eon. Here they made their last stand against the forces of evil. Here the Light of Truth was snuffed out and the first Dark Period began. Here is where the Sayings were revealed anew to the Seer in our day, and here the Seer stood and declared, ‘This light shall never again be dimmed until time shall end.’ That is why we gather here for the tironut.”

I listened to the evening breeze sighing down the canyon, and I imagined I could hear the voices of ancient warriors standing guard on the battlements. I looked as hard as I could, but they warn’t to be seen naturally. The chilly breeze gave me the shivers.

Elazar motioned to the right. “Let us now proceed to the top.”

He led our company up a narrow, snakelike path to the top of the right half of the fortress, and then out onto the ruined battlements. When the whole company was assembled, he said, “Shemyah, the Seer of the Third Eon, in his day led the Children of Light to this same place and positioned them on these two battlements. Then he had them chant the Law with its blessings and cursings—the cursings from the left side, the blessings from the right—as a reminder of their obligations to God. They observed God’s Law for a time, but eventually, they fell into wickedness and were destroyed, just as in all other Eons before and after them, up to our own day. Let us all learn from their example to be more wise than they were! We shall now begin the tironut.”

Elazar pointed at me and said, “Benjamin ben Jacob, stand forth and be numbered with your clan!”

I stood and nervously approached the Grand Hegemon. He laid his right hand on my head.

“Benjamin ben Jacob, do you now enter as a Believer into the United Order of Hanoch, with all its rights and responsibilities, of your own free will and choice?”

In a tremulous voice, I replied, “I do.”

Elazar pulled a tiny ornate silver horn out of his pocket, uncapped it, and placed a small drop of pakaat oil on my head. Then he continued. “Then, Benjamin ben Jacob, I hereby bestow upon you your clan name, which none but your family can know.”

Elazar withdrew from his pocket a white stone, flat and oval in shape, with a single word incised on it in the Deshret alphabet:

“This stone symbolizes your kinship to God, and this amanah cord symbolizes the covenant which you are about to make with Him. Benjamin ben Jacob, do you promise to wear this stone until death, and to keep it sacred?”

“I do.”

Elazar hung the stone around my neck and slipped it under my shirt. Then Pa whispered his clan name in my ear.

“Wear it near to your heart, Benjamin ben Jacob, as a reminder of your allegiance to God and your clan,” Elazar said.

Pa looked at me and smiled, and a curious thought flashed through my mind, almost as if Pa had spoken it aloud to me. It was a strange new sensation for me, and I pondered the meaning of the words—My son, now you are a member of my clan.

Chapter 9

Benjamin


The next day as always, I awoke to the sound of Brother Thomas playing the “Call to Rise” on his bugle. First-day… I thought with a groan. Another week’s come an’ gone.


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