“Abish! Don’t go in there yet!” called Sarhen testily as she ground some corn in a metate.
“Why?” asked the little girl.
“I can’t believe that father is still fasting,” groused Mittoni. He tested out his new bow, and aimed experimentally at Zeb. “It’s a superstitious practice anyway. The priests say that cutting yourself with spines is much more effective at getting the gods’ attention. They say that the gods notice pain and blood more than silent hunger.”
“Don’t let father hear you say that,” said Zeb, grabbing the bow out of Mittoni’s hands, causing Mittoni to squawk in protest. “He hates the priests.”
“Why?” asked Abish, her eyes big. She loved listening to everything her brothers said.
“They are sons of a liar!” a deep voice came from the hut.
Mittoni and Zeb looked at each other. Abish ran into the hut to where her father was lying on his face in the pressed dirt, stretched out before the fire. She was used to seeing him pray like this, though she wasn’t sure why he always faced the fire instead of the little carved man that stood on a post near the door, which her friends said was one of the gods. Every time her father prayed, Abish always noticed that the stone god ended up lying on the ground. It lay there now, and she was bending down to put it back up on the post when her father spoke again, though his face never left the dust.
“Leave it where it is, Abish. If it has any power, let it put itself back.”
She went over to her father and lay down next to him, trying to lie on her face just like him. She would try to be holy and wise like him.
“Father, why are the priests sons of a liar?”
“Because they tell us the blood of the Nephites will make the gods happy. Because they stir us up to anger. Because they tell us whatever we do is right. Because they steal from us more than the Nephites have. Because they always prophesy victory to us for our battles with the Nephites and then we are driven and slaughtered. They know not the true god, the Great Spirit.” Azlon’s voice became more and more bitter as he spoke.
“Father, are you done fasting yet?” Mittoni’s voice called into the hut with grudging respect.
“My son, I have something very important to tell you, Zeb, Abish, and your mother.”
Abish could hear Mittoni sigh before he trudged into the hut. He was followed by Zeb and Sarhen. Sarhen’s hands still held a head of maize, peeling the leaves from it as she entered. They all gathered around and sat cross-legged about Azlon, who finally rolled over onto his back and looked up at them. There was a whiteness to his skin that Abish had never noticed before.
“I have told you often that the priests are sons of a liar and that we wander in the dark, ignorant of who we should worship and how we should worship. I’ve prayed for many days for the Great Spirit to reveal the truth to me,” Azlon said. “I have struggled and I have cried and I have pleaded. I have wrestled. My tears have made the ground into mud. Today I have received a vision and a sign.”
Abish looked at her brothers and saw that both Mittoni and Zeb had wrinkled brows. Her mother leaned forward to pat her father on the arm. “You don’t have to tell us this now. You are weak. Let me bring you food first. You may have imagined you saw something in your hunger.”
“Woman, I know what I saw!” Azlon’s voice was strong. “I know what I heard! You must hear me now. I saw a man dressed in white. He showed me the land of our forefathers, even Jerusalem. (No, Zeb, it was not the city of our priests.) He showed me a man riding an ass and a colt of an ass, and all the people crying ‘Hosanna!’ and waving palm branches and laying their clothes in the streets in front of him for him to ride over. I watched this man go to a temple that looked like ours, where there were priests who acted like ours, and he made a whip and beat them. He threw them out. Then the man in white told me that true prophets would come to our people. He gave me a sign. First he said that kings would shut their mouths, for that which they had not heard they shall consider. He said that the king’s household would lie prostrate as I had and worship as I had, and that by this I and my family would know that true prophets had come into the land and we would know to receive them.”
Abish was entranced. She wanted to hear more, but when she looked at her mother, she knew what disapproval looked like.
“Azlon, your fasting has carried you away to vain imaginations. The king and his household have never lain prostrate for anyone or anything! The king scarcely bows to his own father!”
“I know!” Azlon’s eyes gleamed and he smiled in amusement. “And he never bows to the priests! When the king and his household lie prostrate before the power of the Great Spirit, it will be a miracle!” Then his smile faded. “I don’t know how long we will have to wait. Maybe days. Maybe years.”
“Are you going to tell the priests about your vision?” asked Mittoni after a minute of silence during which Abish watched him fidget and dig one of his arrow points into the dirt.
“No,” growled Azlon. “those dogs deserve nothing. And this is not to go out of this house, you understand?”
“I should hope not!” said Abish’s mother indignantly. “If anyone knew, they would stone us and cast us out and call us Nephite-lovers.”
“That doesn’t mean we need to bow down to those dumb idols the rest of our people bow to,” said Azlon. “Abish, Mittoni, Zeb, the Great Spirit is not wood or stone. Remember that. And always remember the sign. When the king and his household lie prostrate before the power of the Great Spirit, that is when true prophets have come into the land.”
Abish never forgot her father’s words. Just before he died, when she was twelve, he repeated them in a gritty voice, and squeezed her hand as tightly as he could with his feeble, feverish fingers. Mittoni and Zeb were eighteen and twenty then, and they rolled their eyes at the repetition of the prophecy. But they fancied themselves fierce warriors and had joined a group of men that terrorized the more peaceful shepherds. Abish once followed them at a distance to see where they went and watched from a thicket of young trees as they scattered a flock at a stream. She heard them divide up some fat sheep, slaughter them, and carve up the carcasses. Then she snuck back home. When they appeared at her mother’s hut with haunches of raw meat wrapped in large leaves for her mother to cook up, she knew her brothers for robbers.
Once she tried to confront them for their robbery, and they reviled her. “If you don’t like what we bring home, you can find something else to eat!”
“But it’s the king’s meat!”
“What if it is? He has so many sheep as it is. He won’t miss what we take. He owes us for our loyalty.” Their arguments buzzed around Abish like stinging flies.
“What if the king sends his warriors to guard the sheep? You might put out your hand to steal a sheep and find it cut off.”
“Warriors? Used as shepherds?” Zeb bellowed a laugh. “If the king ever did that, his warriors would be offended. Shepherding is slave’s work.”
She tried one more time to remind them of the thing that now seemed always to run through the back of her mind. “What about when the true prophets come into the land, according to the sign given by our father? How will you receive the true prophets if you live by stealing?”
“Abish, father is dead. He was a childish man of foolish imaginations. When you are older you will see that what he predicted can never come to pass.”
Abish knew it was no good talking to them then. She would just have to watch and wait for the sign herself. Her mother had similarly forgotten to watch for the sign and by the time Abish was fifteen, her mother was bowing to the stone idol on the post like all her friends did.
“Perhaps the Great Spirit will make our beans and squash grow bigger,” said Sarhen, when Abish asked her why. “It can’t hurt.”
Shortly after Abish turned sixteen, the queen learned that Abish was responsible for forming the elaborate twists and braids in Sarhen’s hair. The queen demanded that Abish come to her every morning to comb and braid her hair and promised to find Abish a fine husband among the king’s best warriors. Abish was pleased to have a chance to be so near the king’s household. Hopefully she would be nearby when her father’s sign came to pass.
One day, Abish came back to her mother’s hut fuming.
“Why are you so angry, my daughter?” her mother asked her, looking up from watching the fire to make sure that the flat bread didn’t burn on the stones.
“The king has just ordered all his shepherds to be killed again!” exclaimed Abish. “They are to be sacrificed to the sun god this evening because they allowed his flocks to be scattered at the waters of Sebus!”
“They were careless. They deserve punishment,” said Sarhen calmly.
Abish sat down on the ground next to her. “But carelessness is not a crime that someone should be killed for. The king will bring a curse on his household if he persists in this injustice. If you hadn’t let Mittoni and Zeb make friends with those robbers and thieves…”
“The king would still be killing his servants,” interrupted her mother. “The king’s servants have been careless so often that he must frighten them so that they aren’t careless any more.”
“And it doesn’t work! Don’t you see?” protested Abish, “And Mittoni and Zeb and their friends are murderers too. They steal and scatter the king’s flocks. Their actions result in the king’s servants’ execution. They delight in this destruction! And we eat the meat that they plunder! We are living in a circle of evil!”
“And what would you do about this, Abish?” asked Sarhen, turning the bread so that it slapped against the rock. “We must have food. Would you tell the king what your brothers are doing and have his wrath fall on all of us? Would you tell your brothers to stop and have them laugh in your face? Our garden grows barely enough for us to eat because of the unseen fingers that pluck the fruit before we can. I can only hope that it is the gods taking their portion.”
“Our brothers should be guarding the garden, rather than robbing the king’s flocks,” said Abish petulantly.
“They are warriors,” said her mother simply, as if that were the answer to everything.
Abish could think of only one more thing that she could do. She would have to fast. She couldn’t lie on her face for three days like her father had, but she could go out into the silent trees and cry at night. That’s what she did.
Sometimes the queen called for Abish to come and dress her hair twice a day. These were on days when there would be a grand feast after the sun went down. Often the queen would allow Abish to come and watch and eat as the people brought gifts or made sport for the king.
This night, a dozen warriors approached the king with their spears and clubs, pushing a man before them. A Nephite. He bowed low before the king, and they pushed him down onto the ground.
“Great king, we found this Nephite journeying into the borders of our land. He was leading an army, clearly intending to invade. We killed them all and saved him alive. Do with him what you will.”
“Not true, O king,” said the Nephite. “They found me alone. I came into the land to become better acquainted with all of you, my brethren.”
“He lies!” cried one of the warriors, kicking the Nephite in the side. “Shut your mouth, dog!”
“Examine their swords then, O king,” said the Nephite, unfazed. “Does blood stain their swords as it would if they had fought and killed an army of Nephites?”
Abish could hardly hold in her laughter as the warriors turned visibly sheepish. The king leaned forward and asked to see their swords and they held them out.
“Hmm. I don’t see any fresh blood.” The king said. Then he fixed the warriors with a glare and shouted, “GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!!”
The warriors turned and ran as all the onlookers laughed.
“You are clever, Nephite. Do you want to dwell with my people?” the king said.
“Yes. Maybe until I die…”
Abish watched the Nephite negotiate terms for dwelling in the land. It was strange that he hadn’t seemed very frightened when he was thrown in front of the king. Usually prisoners trembled and stammered, and if they were allowed to stay, they were so nervous that they gladly agreed to do anything the king asked. In contrast, the Nephite seemed quite cheerful.
Abish emptied the rest of the food in front of her into her bag to take home to her mother. Her seat was behind many of the other servants, so she could leave unnoticed.
Three days later, Abish was awakened in the dead of night by Mittoni’s heavy hand shaking her shoulder.
“Zeb is dead.”
“What?” whispered Abish, shocked into full awareness. “What happened?”
“It was that son of a liar, that… Nephite! The one watching the king’s flocks.”
By this time their mother was awake as well and demanding that Mittoni not frighten her with foolish stories like a son of shame.
“Zeb is dead,” repeated Mittoni more loudly now. His forceful tone brought whimpers from Sarhen as she prepared to bewail her son, though she kept them quiet so that she could hear how it came to pass.
“Ohhh, my son, my son..”
“We had scattered the king’s flocks once already so that some of our men could pick off a few choice animals separated from the rest of the group,” said Mittoni. “But somehow the servants were able to round them up and bring them back to the waters of Sebus. So we tried to do it again, but that Nephite–no, he had to be some kind of god—came and told us to depart in peace and we wouldn’t get hurt. We thought he was mocking us.”
“Perhaps he was,” put in Abish.
Mittoni slapped her. “You know nothing, girl!”
“He slung stones at us with his sling and he killed Hammath, Elam, Amnor, Jeneum, Aiath, and Helom. We tried to hit him with our slings and we couldn’t. And yes, mother, I have been practicing with the sling! I can hit any leaf I choose at fifty cubits! We had to defend ourselves. Slings weren’t working, so we tried clubs. But he cut off the arms of twelve of our strongest men! He was like a bull, unstoppable. He chased us about halfway to Nephi-Lehi before we got away from him. When we were out of danger, I looked around for Zeb and couldn’t find him. The others told me to go back another way, but I retraced my steps after waiting a while and found Zeb lying in his gore. The monster had overtaken him and hewn him down.”
“Where is his body?” Sarhen started up from her mat. “I must see my son!”
“I dragged Zeb’s body halfway here, before I thought it best to fetch you, mother.” Mittoni said. He took her hand in a tight grip. “I will avenge Zeb’s blood. The monster will die.” His tone was icy.
Abish followed her mother and Mittoni out of the hut to the fire, where Mittoni plucked one of the firebrands out and held it in front of him as a torch. Sarhen was beginning to wail out her grief in long keening cries. Abish joined in, for the sake of the boy her brother had once been before he became a sheep-stealer.
“Zeeeeeeb, Zeb, my soooonn!”
“Zeeeeb, my brother, my brother!!”
Dark figures from other huts joined them as they went, lifting up their voices in lamentation.
Abish approached the royal huts after three days of mourning for Zeb. They had buried him on a hill overlooking the waters of Sebus. Each day of those three days, Mittoni had watched the king’s flocks approach the water with the king’s servants surrounding them, instead of all in a chattering group as they usually were. He gnashed his teeth, but remained silent, and Abish could see that he was now fearful. She wondered how he would carry out his vow of vengeance if the Nephite-monster was as powerful as he had said.
She still wondered even now, as she walked to the queen’s hut. How odd. There was no one there. She turned and went to the royal pavilion where the king held audience with his warriors and servants. It was strangely quiet and empty. No one met her carrying baskets of bananas or slices of squash, as often happened before. Maybe the king was sick. She turned and headed for the king’s hut.
What she saw when she looked in struck her with wonder and amazement. In the middle of the large hut was the king’s jaguar fur-covered bed, with the king lying on it. To the side of his bed lay the queen, her hand clasping the hand of her husband. And around the walls of the hut, were the king’s servants, lying on their faces, arms out in front of them, hands clasped, as if pleading for mercy. And the Nephite was lying on the ground too, his face turned to the side. The air was thick with something that made her spine tingle and it flashed into her mind that the day she had been watching for for so many years had finally come.
Her father’s sign!
It was fulfilled!
True prophets were in the land!
The tingle running up her spine turned into a burning fire. She had to tell someone. No, she had to tell everyone! She turned and ran.
“Mother! Mother!” Abish screamed as she neared her mother’s hut.
“What is it, Abish? What happened? Is the king murdered?” Her mother’s tear-sunken eyes were full of alarm.
“The sign! Father’s sign! It’s all fulfilled! Go look at the king in his hut!” Abish grabbed her mother’s shoulders and shook them.
“What are you talking about!?” growled Mittoni, striding out of the hut.
“The king and his household lie prostrate before the power of the Great Spirit! The time of true prophets has come!” Abish dashed away heading through the village to her friends’ huts, yelling as she went. “The power of the Great Spirit is upon the king! The power of the Great Spirit is upon the king’s household! You must go and see!”
Mittoni and Sarhen watched her go, looked at each other, and began to run toward the king’s hut. Their nearest neighbors followed them at the same pace.
When Abish was sure she had let the whole village know, she ran puffing back to the kings’ hut. Her mother would surely be explaining to them all about the vision her father had so many years ago and the sign he had spoken of. The people would believe. The king would surely send messengers to search out the true prophets. The people would all see what true prophets were like. They would put away their idols and learn to worship the Great Spirit correctly.
As she neared the king’s hut she saw the crowd milling around near the royal pavilion. As she got closer, she began to hear arguing.
“It’s all the Nephite’s fault. The king shouldn’t have given him a place among us. Nephites are liars and murderers. Everyone knows that.”
“No, the king is getting just what he deserved! Remember how many times he killed his servants for losing the sheep?”
“My son Kith was executed, just because robbers took a few lambs!” shouted one woman. “Do you call that justice?”
“You fools! That Nephite is the cause of all of this! This is no sign! He killed my brother!”
Abish recognized the voice of her brother Mittoni. The warm feeling inside her faded and was replaced by a gripping tension. He didn’t believe in the sign! Then another thought struck her with the force of a falling tree. What if the Nephite was one of the true prophets? She began to push through the crowd, trying to get to the front, but they all seemed to want to see, some pushed back.
“The Nephite-monster will die! I have sworn it!” Her brother’s shout came to Abish, as she pushed harder.
“No! No! No!” Abish screamed as she threw herself between arms and even through legs. Tears streamed from her eyes without her noticing. Oh, Great Spirit, save him!
There was a gasp from the crowd. Abish kept pushing through as she heard new mutterings from the front.
“What happened? What do you see?” someone asked another.
“He’s dead!” the report came back.
“Who’s dead?” everyone seemed to be asking.
“He raised his sword to kill the Nephite and he fell dead!”
“I don’t understand this? What is this great power?”
“What does this mean?”
“It must be the Great Spirit. That Nephite isn’t a Nephite; he must be the Great Spirit. That must be why he can’t be killed. Didn’t you hear what he did at the water’s of Sebus?”
“But he has a body! So he can’t be the Great Spirit! He must have been sent by the Great Spirit to torment us because of our many iniquities. He cut off the arms of two of my sons when they were trying to steal the king’s flocks.”
“The Great Spirit would not torment us though! The Great Spirit is supposed to watch over us! He can’t be from the Great Spirit. He must be a monster, some sort of demon.”
“You fool, you think the Great Spirit has watched over us? Ha! The Great Spirit has always been on the Nephite side, else why do we lose so many battles?! The Great Spirit has always saved the Nephites, even when we outnumbered them five to one and were trying to sneak up on them! How could they know we were coming if the Great Spirit didn’t warn them?”
Abish had finally made her way to the front of the crowd. She saw the king, the queen, the servants, and the Nephite, lying as she had seen them before, but next to the Nephite she saw her brother Mittoni, lying still, and her mother kneeling with her face buried in the bare chest of her brother.
“Ohhhhh, my son, my sonnn..” Sarhen moaned softly.
A strange relief settled on Abish, though her tears still ran freely. If Mittoni had been unable to slay the Nephite, the Nephite must surely be one of the true prophets. The Great Spirit had heard her prayers and the prayers of her father. Praise the day; it has finally come. With a heart aching with mingled joy and grief, she turned to the queen and took her by the hand.
One thought on “15: The Sign”
Fantastic dialogue. Very nice writing.
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