by Theric Jepson
Jarom was old. His skin was tight rather than wrinkled and the sunbeams from the window caught his long white beard as he entered the room. His robe was a simple brown, but embroidered with enough detail to make it expensive. He cleared his throat and leaned against a stool as he looked over them. His voice was strong but scratched, as if he had let a cat play with it before joining the boys as they sat on short stools intended for much younger students.
“My dear boys about to become men,” he said, fixating them all with his eyes that seemed to jump around the room like frying bacon, “because manhood follows boyhood as surely as boyhood precedes manhood and manhood having always followed boyhood, it is necessary that you, being hoys, thus men-to-be, must prepare to be the men you will become while you still are the boys you must be before becoming the men you will become after you cease to be the boys you are now—it is good to see your smiling faces. Before becoming men—while you are still boys—it is incumbent upon you, and incumbent upon me as your teacher in this year between boyhood and manhood, and incumbent upon society that frankly needs more men than boys, to decide and embark upon the path of manhoodian labors in which you will spend the rest of your days and to do so in a sensible manner with the proper instruction and opportunities for observation and so forth. And so in these coming months you will be given opportunity to meet with and visit with and talk with and sit with and listen to and so forth under all the men in this great city, even Zarahemla, whom this year are seeking boys to become men under their tutelage as apprentices of their craft that their excellence of skills and knowledge may pass fully unto a new generation and things will be as great or greater than they are now.”
Jarom paused and took a sip of water from a finely carved wooden mug that was somehow hidden within the stool then brushed down his beard before continuing. “But that is not all of course. It is well enough to learn to be a man from another man or other men as in the case of an apprenticeship in leading warriors into battle or dungmongering, an occupation often underappreciated by those who just get their food at market and never think about where it actually comes from. But also you must learn to be a man from yourself. For a man should not be any man, a man should be his own man, the only man that a man can be, at least fully, you understand.” Jarom frowned and looked sternly at them as if he were worried they might willfully misunderstand him. “And so you will plot your future with care and ambition and so forth. Your opportunities are grand this year. Enom the silversmith is looking take on up to two apprentices. Importers and tailors are looking for apprentices. Of course, as always, half a dozen lawyers or so. And the highlight this year, great Mulek, son of Amaron of the great house of armourers making the greatest armor this nation or any nation has ever known or ever will and all the great things they’ve done for us keeping people alive and so forth. Of course,” and here he chuckled, “you’ll have to beat our young Hagoth for that position, so . . . heh. Anyway.”
All the other rich men’s boys looked over at Hagoth who looked at his hands and tried to think of something other than his father, armor, or the gas he was struggling to keep inside his body. Why hadn’t anyone reminded him that drinking goat’s milk for breakfast always gave him the poots?
“Today we will start by visiting Mikal who leads the temple guardians, Boron whose imports allow our best men to look their finest, and, speaking of clothes, we’ll see someone who makes them, someone who sells them and,” he chuckled, “the local boatmaker.”
Hagoth had no idea Zarahemla still had a boatmaker. His father Mulek hadn’t made fun of him in months and besides, what did Zarahemla really need a boatmaker for, anyway? Hagoth had only been to the sea—and on a boat—once, in Morianton, when he was three, before his mother died. It was his first memory—and the only one of her. She was telling his father to shut up. He treasured that memory. Boats were great. But in Zarahemla?
Boron, for instance, didn’t use boats. Basically he just snuck into Lamanite lands, killed birds, then sold their feathers. “It’s exciting, it’s dangerous, it’s profitable, and you can always keep a feather for yourself. No better way to impress the ladies. You’re all old enough to know what really matters.”
All the potential masters met them dressed in their best finery until the boatmaker, Lehonti, who came to his shop door dressed in a holey sackcloth tunic and worn woolen pants—reminding them that no matter what the clothing hawker had said, wool was not traditional finery.
The boatmaker sneezed, spraying tobacco juice all over Jarom’s young charges. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Bit of a cold.” He wiped his nose on his forearm, leaving a trail of snot in the hair that glistened in the afternoon sun like a small army of slugs. “So,” he slurred. “Boats.” He nodded and slapped the doorway to his shop. “Let’s go in.”
The shop was dark and smelled of dust and tar and rotted fruit and that unpleasant mix of regret and desperation usually only present at public executions.
Lehonti stopped in front of a tiny, half-formed boat. “This is the best we can do around here. River’s too shallow for anything worthwhile.”
He belched in a way not reminiscent of the music of the sea. “Sorry,” he said to Jarom. “Been a rough week. Bad year. Lousy career.” He laughed then turned to Jarom’s students. “Which is why I’m gonna try extra hard to convince one of you to apprentice with me this year: I need new ideas and I don’t have an heir.”
The truth, as Hagoth well knew for his father often spoke of it, was that every girl Lehonti had ever liked, Mulek had wooed away with trinkets and bobbles and all for a laugh at Lehonti’s expense. He had also punched him once after Lehonti got betrothed then married the girl. That was Hagoth’s mother.
Lehonti collaped onto a sawdusty bench and sneezed on them again—their feet and sandals. “Look at you,” he said and they did look at each other, wondering who might smell badly enough to end up here. “In a few months you’ll put on those fancy presentations and talk about your big plans. Then you’ll all get apprenticed and start doing a job and never think about your big plans again. And neither will nobody else. Jarom don’t remember mine, do you?”
Jarom was silent and dignified as he brushed a bit of sawdust from his robe then tried to snatch it back from the air when it caught an updraft.
“Yeah. I was gonna turn this city into a major river port. As if the water here’d ever be deep enough for anything bigger than that bit of dung sitting half-made over there.” He belched again. “Excuse me. I need to medicate. Any questions about boats?”
Hagoth had several. A port? Where would ships go? To the sea? Was it true that on the sea people still moved more stuff than just fishing tackle—like in the old days of Father Lehi? Was it possible to go far from the shore? Was it true anyone who did, who left the Promised Land, was cursed? Are you still mad about all those girls my father stole from you? What was my mother like? But before he knew which to start with, Lehonti saw him and spat on the ground.
“Mulek’s kid.” It wasn’t a question. “I’m sure your big plans’ll stick. Just like your dad’s did and his dad’s. You’ll be prancing around in your finery soon enough. Already are from the looks of it. So. Kid. How you gonna save us. I bet you’re making armor won’t nobody die.”
“I—” Hagoth knew the right answer. His father had already written out his goal for him, even though Hagoth wasn’t even supposed to start deciding on a field for another two months. He would say, “I, Hagoth, son of Mulek the son of Amaron and heir of a great tradition of saving the lives of our nation’s noblest warriors, do hereby declare my intention that should another war ever arise—which thing I dearly hope not—I shall reinvent the great contributions of my forebears and craft an armor stronger and safer and lighter than any before. I will begin by investigating means to better flexibility in breastplates by improving upon the layering technique invented by my father.” And as his father had already perfected that improvement for him so in about eighteen months Hagoth would be paraded in Zarahemla as a prodigy, an already accomplished genius, and the money would start rolling in all over again.
Which was all well and good except Hagoth was pretty sure he would never repeat that first success. After one fake success it would be pure failure from then on out. Hagoth had embarrassed himself more than once by failing to fasten his robes or tunic properly before leaving home in the morning. The idea of actually designing clothes—let alone ones meant to keep people alive—he couldn’t quite imagine it, destiny or no.
“. . . but given most fishermen and ferriers just build and maintain their own boats, it’s not like you’ll ever see a Zarahemla boatmaker parading about in finery. Course, if’n my original plan to persuade us all ‘to become an aquatic nation, trading with our neighbors upon holy waters’ suddenly happens, then suuuure. But I failed. Obviously. And so will alla you. Cept for Mulek’s kid cause nothing never goes wrong for them.”
Almost as if these were the words Jarom had been waiting for, he said, “Thank you, Lehonti. Always a pleasure. This way, boys.”
They filed out behind him, but Hagoth lingered. He wanted to touch the half-formed shell, run his hand along its curved wood.
Lehonti staggered over to him, taking a bag of wine from the shell on his way. “Hey.”
“Tell your father than I hear in some nations wars are fought on water. And I’m looking for a partner in making war boats, okay?”
Hagoth nodded. His father hated boats. And the sea, for that matter. And Lehonti.
“Okay. But I’m not sure—”
“Just tell your brotherslaying father, okay? It wouldn’t kill ya!”
“Okay. I will.” And Hagoth ran away without any of the grace with which the boat in Morianton had borne him along.
“So,” Mulek said as he ripped the turkey meat from the bone. “Who’d you go see on your first day?”
“Um, some kind of fabric maker, a clothing merchant, a feather importer, a temple guardian, and, um, and, a boatmaker.”
“What? Not Lehonti!”
“I can’t believe Jarom took you to see that brotherslayer. Like he needs an apprentice. So how’s the old drunk doing?”
“He’s, uh, drunk.”
Mulek laughed loudly and appreciatively, spitting wine down the front of his tunic. Not that it mattered. He could afford more and finer.
“He, uh, he said in some places wars are fought on boats. He wondered if you’d be interested.”
“Mulek curled his lip. “ Stupid as ever. Shame I’m too respectable to dump him in the wastepits anymore.”
“But—it’s not—boats aren’t too bad, right? It’s just—Lehonti you don’t like.”
Mulek shrugged. “What’s the difference. Maybe there are people somewhere who live on water, but not Nephites. Nephi only built a boat to get here. And now we’re here! Any fool who would chase the water would be laughed at for three generations. Like they say, God made fish and God made Nephites, but he did not make Nephites fish.”
“Three generations! Lehonti’s proof of this. Now even his soul floats!” Mulek laughed at his own joke, but Hagoth had never understood why it wouldn’t be better for a soul to float. Who wants to sink?
“We’re sinking,” cries the boat-running assistant. “We will die!”
Hagoth however stands stern, watching his boat fill with water. “We didn’t come into the ocean this far just to sink. Think of your soul!”
“My soul doesn’t float! What, are you crazy?”
“You’re on the sea now!” declares Hagoth. “It had better float.”
“When are you coming to see me?”
Hagoth shook his head. “I don’t know. Jarom hasn’t told you?”
“No.” His father pushed aside the rest of the turkey carcass. “Take that to the dogs and send a runner to Jarom. Tell him to come tomorrow. I’ll get the taste of that brotherslayer out of your mouths.”
Hagoth stood with his father and Jarom as the other boys watched and waited and tried to listen. Jarom was wearing a new and vibrantly blue wool tunic he had been given yesterday by the merchant, and a crown of brightly colored feathers from the importer.
“Yes, they're very nice,” said Mulek, “but you don’t need armor and we both know I can get whatever apprentice I want. Sit down and listen with the boys.”
Jarom furrowed his brow, kicked at the floor, and walked to a corner to pout behind the beard, reaching up occasionally to finger his feathers.
“Now you all know what you’re doing,” said Mulek in his booming voice, walking over to the boys as Haboth tried to skip around him so he could sit down and be normal. “You’re all supposed to figure out how to improve our city and the world. And you probably also know that most people never actually do that. But seriously, what good can a single potter or weaver actually do in their life? But armourers? We are different. When my father Amaron invented the modern breastplate we immediately saw a drop in casualties. And my goal was to improve upon his improvements and many of you were sired because I kept your fathers alive. And thanks to that prick Moroni—”
“Oh. Little Moronihah. Didn’t see you there. Tell your father I said hi. But as I was saying, thanks to that prick Moroni, my designs were forced to be shared among all the cities’ armourers which was of course, in the end, an enlightened decision—tell him I said that, kid—that saved many lives.”
And, as Hagoth well knew, made his father a lot of money. His father being his father had found a way to earn a portion from every breastplate every one of those armourers ever made.
“So it is possible, at the end of this process, to make a goal that will change the nation. And I guarantee you that whoever is selected to be my apprentice, I will do all I can to assure their success at meeting their goal.”
“Yes, Hagoth, sir. A new land! You found it! You found it! You met your goal!”
Hagoth nodded. Of course he had. What doubt had their ever been?
His father gave all the boys a single shinguard and as they left the armoury, they broke sticks off the tree Hagoth’s mother had planted and started hitting each other.
Throwing up had put Hagoth behind the rest of the boys and now he scanned the knoll. The twins were hiding in the shadows of a heavily vined tree at the edge of the garden and he walked over to join them.
“Shut up, Mahijah.”
Mahijah and Mahujah laughed. “What’s for lunch?”
Hagoth sat down across from them. “Just some jerky and a corn patty.”
Mahijah slapped his forehead in shock. “Curelom jerky? Wow!”
“It’s not curelom. Curelom’s too expensive to just turn it into jerky.”
“All the more reason for your dad to do it.”
Hagoth couldn’t argue with that, so instead he said, “You can’t even get curelom anymore.” He bit into his patty.
Mahujah burped. “What does curelom taste like, anyway?”
“Just like, you know, like turkey. They’re almost the same.”
Both twins choked. “Turkey? Why would anyone spend that much on turkey?”
Hagoth rolled his eyes. “My father.”
“What, does he even vomit money now? Is that what you were doing?”
“No.” Hagoth chewed and swallowed. “But even though I threw up, that was awesome when he flipped the goat’s heart out through its throat.”
“Yes!” Mahijah jumped up to mime the action. “Let’s be butchers!”
The twins, no surprise, wanted to go into business together but the butcher was only looking for one apprentice. The only masters looking for two apprentices this year were the silversmith, the loom guy, and the manager of the city’s walls.
“No way we’re doing the walls.”
“No way,” agreed Mahujah. “And wool was never considered fine apparel before last year, so that’s not going to last.”
“But that might make it the perfect choice,” argued Mahijah. “We could make it permanently fashionable! Then wool’s value will go up and we could make real money!”
“Nah,” said Hagoth. “It won’t last. Who wants to wear wool in the summer? That guy’s a dope if he really thinks he needs two apprentices. Want some jerky?”
He held it out to them but they waved it away.
“Oh no. I’m much too poor to eat curelom.”
“It’s not curelom.”
“Hey!” One twin punched the other. “We could farm cureloms!”
Hagoth rolled his eyes. “First you have to find one.”
Mahujah giggled. “You need two.”
Mahijah smirked. “Looks like Hagoth won’t be getting that baby-making apprenticeship.”
“What do you mean no one on board knows how to make babies?” Hagoth yells at his assistant. “How will we people the new land!”
But that was too silly even for him.
Mulek smeared the boar grease from his chin across his cheek and laughed loudly, the men around the table laughing with him. “Good one, Levi! Ha! That’d show him! But seriously, Moroni’s definitely going to be checking every city looking for the cheapest price on breastplates. We can’t let him break us.”
“Like he did his nose!” yelled Levi, and they all laughed again.
Hagoth meanwhile sat in his corner with his plate of boar and lentils and drifted away.
Moroni is with his army on the seashore, trapped by the Lamanite hoardes with his back to the sea. “Whadllwedo?” whimpers his lieutenant. But Moroni atands stoically, staring out to sea, his crooked nose casting a shadow on the sparkling waves in the fading light or possibly the growing light depending on where—the sea’s to the west, right? so where’s that put his nose?—anyway, in the fading light. He closes his eyes briefly and decides to use his faith thing and says “God will save us” and at that moment a sail appears on the horizon and Moroni’s war face cracks momentarily as he whispers, “God—or Hagoth?”
Hagoth jumped, sending his plate and himself to the floor. (“Like the leather market,” joked Levi and all the men, once again, laughed.) Hagoth stood and brushed himself off. “Yes, father?”
“Omner’s leaving for Morianton tonight. Carry his bags to the gate.”
Mulek stood and clasped arms with Omner, commending him for being the most profitable of them all this past year as Hagoth figured out which bags were his. Omner joined him shortly and directed his attention to the proper bags. They were heavy, but as they walked from the house, Hagoth still found the breath to ask him about the sea. “Do you ever go out on the boats?”
“What? No. Do I look like a fisherman?”
“But you’ve seen the sea beasts?”
“A time or two. But until we have fishermen brave enough to slay them, what do I care? Besides, watching the sea is for simpletons and prayers. I’m a man of business. Like your father.”
Hagoth tried to think of a question to follow that and Omner laughed at his scrunched-up face.
“I’ll tell you one story of the sea, though.”
“When I was a boy, a man and his boat crashed upon our shore. His hair was darker than even a Lamanite’s though his skin was much like our own. He was not well—nearly dead from the lack of fresh water. On his boat we found devices of curious workmanship. He spoke no language known to our scholars and died before he could learn ours and so we know not what land he came from, what goals he had, or the purposes of the devices he carried. Nor could we recreate their manner of craft. But we still have them. His boat we burned in honor of his journey.”
“Wow. So—do you think he was from Jerusalem?”
“No, no. Wrong sea.”
“In Lamanite lands there is another sea. Or so the Lamanites say. I would call it jealousy save those are the ancestral lands and our fathers must have landed somewhere if you believe the old stories.”
“You have boatmakers in Morianton?”
“Of course, a few. Fishermen must fish. And marlin is the curelom of the sea, but there is danger in going out that far.”
“Then why do they do it.”
“Because men like me will pay for it. We can afford to lose a few fishermen for the occasional marlin. When you’re an apprentice, come see me. I will feed you marlin.”
“Ah, Hagoth. Not marlin again!”
Hagoth looked across the table at his assistant. “Land-livers would kill for this meal, yet you complain. Have you no shame?”
“I’m sorry. I’m a fool.”
“That’s right you are.”
Only a week left of visits, Jarom reminded them as they went into the brewer’s. The brewer had laid out mugs of different beers for their inspection and most of the boys were crowded around learning about a brewer’s life. The more religious kids hung back and Hagoth stayed with them. He hated the smell of beer. Much better the smell of the sea. He couldn’t really remember that smell, but no doubt it was lovely.
In fact, the sea smelled like . . . fish tacos . . . only . . . less spicy. Like the cook had added too much salt and not enough chili peppers. The salty fish-taco air sprayed foam like beer upon the top of the boat where brave Hagoth stood, his hands on his hips. He had been upon the sea for a month or two or however long it takes to get far enough from land to make it all disappear and look like there’s only water in the world. That far. Hagoth was searching for a new land. And he would find one. Perhaps he would have to contend with giants or with . . . giant spiders or . . . giant mushrooms—with claws!—but he would find a new land. And when he found that new land he would
“Uh? What? Yes?” Hagoth checked the corner of his mouth for drool as a beer-soaked towel smacked him across the face. He pulled it off and looked around. He was alone in the brewery. The brewer laughed at him and pointed to the door, where echoes of the twins’ laughter trickled through. Hagoth wiped his face on his sleeve and hurried after them.
Hagoth stood looking at his father. “About the goal presentations.”
“You have yours memorized?”
“Good, good. Go practice some more. Work on inflection.”
“If you want to add something about metal clasps instead of leather ties, go ahead. I’ve decided we can charge another senum-per without rebellion and they won’t cost us even close to that.”
Hagoth watches his feet as he walks to the back part of the boat.
“What is wrong?” His assistant looks at him with worried eyes. “Is it the waves?”
“No, no.” He straightens his shoulders. “I am a man of the sea. And we men of the sea make our own destiny.”
The clothmaker had a loud generous laugh that quaked his belly and filled the room. “C’mon! You all know it! That smell! It’s piss!” He laughed again. “Maybe I’ll have you all donate to the vat before you go.”
The boys all laughed and elbowed each other even as their faces paled.
“Oh, come now. Take that green tunic.” He pointed at Hagoth. “I’m the only man in the land what can make that shade. And no, I won’t tell you how to do it at home. Well, maybe one of you—in a couple months—am I right? am I right? But I will tell you how to make the color stick to the cloth. And that’s with piss. Soak it in piss.
All the boys pointed at Hagoth’s tunic and giggled.
“Yes,” he said to his crew. “Yes, the sea can smell like piss sometimes, but that’s why it’s so good at making virtue stick to your soul. The sea makes good men better and better men great. Take my tunic for example....”
The parents and masters and a few priests sat on the low stools—they looked like they were playing peekaboo behind their knees—as if in commemoration of these near-men’s ending boyhoods. Based on the number of those gathered today wearing wool even in the heat and humidity, Hagoth thought the twins may have made the right decision. He was with the rest of the boys, leaning against the walls at the back of the room.
When Jarom entered the room, the silversmith stood and walked to him. His forearms were wrapped in silver snakes; his fingers coated with rings and thimbles, his ears and nose decorated enough to make them hang; the headdress he wore shot silver sunrays into the air above him, with small silver birds and angels hanging from them making a tinkling sound as he held Jarom's arms and spoke to him. They laughed as they pointed at some of the boys. Before returning to his seat, he removed the sun from his head and handed it to Jarom who shook slightly as he took it and placed it on his head, smashing the three feathercrowns already there.
Jarom stood and nodded solemnly at those assembled as they looked at him from above their knees.
“Yes, hello, hello,” he said. “Today is that day which all boys wait for while they are boys until the day they become men because that day is the day they no longer need to wait for it is the day they cease to be boys and become men. Today is the day they announce their plans for improving out society and—”
The crowd started clapping which startled Jarom, but when they didn't stop he smiled and waved at the crowd and then gestured to the first boy to come up.
One by one Hagoth’s peers stood and gave their spiels, lofty goals doomed to failure. No matter how much you want to cut them up, a butcher can’t return curelom to the table. No matter how much you want to make finery finer, if silver can’t be made into thread, it can’t be made into thread.
“What are you thinking?”
Hagoth sighs and looks deep into the sea. Hundreds of feet below him, the beasts engaged in their ageless dances.”I was thinking how few of the boys I grew up with were able to predict how plain their lives would actually be.”
“Oh.” Silence. “What was your goal?”
“Oh, just ‘to conquer the seas and discover new lands and bring wealth and honor and glory of an entirely new sort to my father and my city and my nation.’ I had memorized it perfectly. I had practiced it. I was to ‘ride the waves of fortune’ and ‘feel the soul of mother water in my feet’ and all sorts of things. And look. Here I am. The exception. The rare success.”
“And now Hagoth, son of Mulek, son of Amaron, will present his decision and request and then I will present him to his new master. Wonder who that might be?” Jarom led those gathered in laughter.
Hagoth walked to the front and stood looking over. His father’s stern face, the twin’s happiness at being in wool, the priests trying to hold their robes together with their knees poking into the air. Back in the corner by the door, an ill-dressed boatmaker leaning against a wall.
“I, Hagoth, son of Mulek the son of Amaron and heir of a great tradition of saving the lives of our nation’s noblest warriors, do hereby declare my intention that—”
Everyone held their breath.
“Only you can save us, Hagoth!”
The sea beast crawled onto the ship, the rain and wind whipping his many lips, revealing jaws filled with thousands of needle teeth. The beast snapped. Hagoth strapped on his father’s armor and walked forward. It would not do to fail.”
“—my intention that—should another war ever arise—which thing I dearly hope not—I shall reinvent the great contributions of my forebears and craft an armor stronger and safer and lighter than any before. I will begin by investigating means to better flexibility in breastplates by improving upon the layering technique invented by my father.”
Everyone clapped and Mulek leapt to the stage and, wearing an atypical smile, slapped an arm around his son.
Hagoth smiled back. After all—maybe he would fail.