In days gone by, when palm trees hung heavy by the Nile and Hatshepsut the Great still ruled inexorable, there lived in the city of Abydos a pair of stonemasons. What shall we say of Abydos in those days? Was it mighty in wealth and power, and did the shine of its rooftops reach yea unto the sky?
And did its priests and king’s men ride forth in chariots brighter than the sun-on-the-sea, drawn by steeds dark as jackals and fey as kefts? And did the great queens and noble kings build there the great temples and palaces of old?
Yea, it was even so.
Now, here in the city too large for itself, in a quadrant of bilge and dust, there lived a pair of stonemasons. For temples and palaces do not build themselves, no matter how thoroughly you may guild them. And so it was that these two, a woman and her husband, helped in some part to raise up many of the great monuments of the golden city. They were good people, but hard, with hard pleasures, prone to drink and gamble and make graceless love, like any sailors.
They had two children, a boy and a girl, close as twins or faces on a silver-backed coin, and as different from their parents as cats are from dogs.
Ana, the girl, was a bitter-paper sister with fingernail-thin bones and a grey smile. From birth, a whisper corner kind of woman, with smiles rare as diamonds. She tended the garden and wove on her little loom, and was glad of it. Her hands were not stone mason hands.
The boy, Raan, pleased his parents, an eager strong son with black hair and big eyes. His tread fell light and glancing in the morning, his hands were broad and firm on the chisel, and he dreamt of building an obelisk for the queen like a master builder. He could dance and drink and gamble, and forge his own way in the world besides, but he loved his sister above all else. He carved her little statues of sandstone, dogs and birds and sneaking lanky cats.
He will make a father proud, said the old grandmothers to each other at dusk in the palm-dark light.
And so Raan would have, if his father had not been stonemason, and a chaser of dice, and a hauler of rock up heavy mountains, and had not rolled black-and-white dice until the wee hours of the morning one night. When the time came to take up pick and chisel again in the morning, his hands shook with weariness, and could not grip the rope as he climbed to reach the pink stone. At the top, his hand slipped, and he tumbled down again to his death along with his wife who gripped the rope behind him.
Temples and palaces do not build themselves, and Horus sees all, and demands much for his glory.
Like a good son, Raan saw to the embalmers and the gravediggers, and buried his parents with honor in the best manner he could afford. The coffins were of wicker and the grave goods few, but he carved their headstone himself, and laid on it the image of a hammer and a chisel. Ana wove the shrouds on her little loom, of plain cotton and tears, and cast a lotus on the grave as the priest muttered his way through the funeral rites. Her scared eyes looked as if the very sun had been laid to rest.
Raan saw this, with the eye of a man whose duty it is to notice these things. This is my family now, he thought proudly, standing in the doorway of their little white-brick house that night. The walls were peeling, and smelt of fish. And I will care for it. Better than my father.
He looked at Ana, carefully arranging the begged scraps that would be their dinner, feet still and eyes dark and sad. I will build you a pyramid, little one, he thought. See if I don’t. And he went in to dinner with the bearing of a man who has begun a great work in his mind, but has not yet brought it to pass.
The next day, Raan went out into the city at morning to find work, as a good son should, but he did not go to the stone mason who had been his father’s master. Instead, he went to the leather-workers, the great burly men who trod the animal hides in sticking vats, and asked for work. The leather master looked at Raan and saw his strong calves, and he let him in.
For seven days, the leather workers showed Raan how to tread the hide, how to beat the cow and cut the fat. Each morning, every man was fed a single slice of laborer’s bread, and each morning, Raan went home hungry. At the end of the seven days, Raan got a single silver coin.
Icha, he said. It is not enough.
On the way home that night, Raan wandered through the market, wondering at all the fine things there that a child of stonemasons might never touch. Lilies fine and fair, peacocks screaming in their finery, the brass bangles from downriver studded with stones, and all the meat pies a young man might ever wish to eat.
These things turned his eye now as they never had before. I am no longer a child, he thought, and no longer a stonemason.
For what is there in the world for a builder of other men’s temples? But a single silver coin is not enough to change the fortunes of even the boldest.
“Give me all the lilies you have,” said Raan to the flower-seller, a boy as young as himself.
“Hand over your coin in equal measure, and you may have all the lilies you can carry.”
Raan went home with his arms full of flowing white flowers, the kind that rich men laid in the hands of fine women, and Ana laughed to see their little home so adorned.
“You are a rich man!” she giggled, weaving a few together in a wreath to crown his head. “Now, let us eat!”
The light faded from her gaze as he shook his head slowly. Together, they looked again at the room full of flowers, and it did not seem quite so bright as before. Still, thought Raan, it was a start.
And if they went to bed hungry that night, neither said anything to the other about it.
In the morning, at first light, Raan went to the carpenters, women of strong arms and clever hands. On the floor in their shop, the stone ran with shavings like water, and the breath in his lungs came labored with dust by the days end. The master carpenter looked at Raan as he worked and saw the sweat beading on his brow as he struggled with the adze, and she laughed.
“Little boy,” she said, khol smeared with sweat running down her cheeks, “You will only grind our fine cedars to pulp like that! You must be gentle.”
She showed him again how to wield the cunning tool—as much an axe as it was a chisel—but by the end of a fortnight, Raan cursed her in his heart.
I have come here to be made a man, he grumbled to his own ears alone, and this woman laughs. Icha.
He did not return to the carpenters, though the master pressed three silver coins into his hand and promised another try with a smile.
As he passed the market-stalls that night, the smell of fried fruits and honey-sweet nuts called out to him, but he held firm. No son of his father would be tempted to waste coin on fancies when bread was cheap and he could have coin to spare—
Close enough to the baker’s to smell the loaves rising, a merchant missing both her teeth hawked wares of silver, iron, and bone. She spotted him with a vulture’s eye, and dangled a bracelet woven of abalone shells and inlaid with flashing quartzes.
“For your lover, young man! Make her the fairest this side of the sea!”
Raan had no lover— what use are they, anyway? —but he did have a sister, whose dark hair fell around her like a princess’s veil. He stopped, coins sweating in his palm, and peered at the haggle-toothed woman. She smiled, with just the right measure of sweetness.
“Bring out the sparkle in her eyes, boy! You won’t find another like this.”
What does a child of stone masons know of the price of a rich man’s baubles?
With only a slice of bread crying out for company in his belly, Raan went home. Darkness filled the peeling hut when he pushed the door open, and only darkness met his tired eyes as he cast about for the dancing feet of his sister.
A hoarse whisper called him from her pallet, and he turned to find her there, wasted-thin and dry-mouthed. He went to light the oil lamp, but it was empty of oil—so he reached out for her face in the empty black and patted around until he found it.
“Have you brought food?”
“Better,” said Raan, settling down beside her. “I’ve brought you a present.”
Ana was silent for a long moment as he placed the abalone shell bracelet in her cupped palms.
“We cannot eat this,” she said, finally.
“Don’t you like it?”
“I am too hungry to like it,” said Ana, fiercer than he’d ever heard her even as the words cracked in her mouth. “If you will not bring home your coin, I too will go and work.”
Raan reached out blindly in the dark and groped for her hands.
“Father would not want that. Mother would not. Let me, and let you be the mistress of this house. I will bring you coin and flowers, sweet nuts and cracked meat fresh from the bone, and pretty stones for your hair like the rich ladies do.”
Ana shook her head.
“Only coin. I do not want any of these other things.”
Raan stood up sharply and went to bed without saying anything else.
In the morning, as soft light broke through the cracks in their little hut, Raan folded his clothes around himself and stood up tall. Today, he vowed, today he would bring home bread for his family. Today, he would be all that Ana needed him to be. What would she ever do without as good a brother as he could be to her?
With three sharp raps, he knocked on the door of the potter’s workshop.
A little old man answered there, with wizened nose and hands that reeked of the riverbed. He looked down his slanted nose at the dirty boy on his stoop. He was a craftsman, after all.
“I cannot take any more apprentices, and you hardly have the talent,” he said, without waiting for an explanation.
“Wait!” said Raan, holding up his stonemason’s hands. “I know the ways of earth and rock, and how the ground opens to swallow stone. I do not need to touch the fine red pots, let me only wash the tools and sweep the floors. I can be good. I swear.”
“Hmm,” said the old man, squinting at him. “Very well. Keep your hands out of the clay.”
For a month and a day, Raan labored at the potter’s kiln, keeping the floor clean and the tables wet for the men and women with fine-fingered skill. Every day he ate only a piece of laborer’s bread, and bits of dried fruit from the potter’s lunches. They were craftsmen, after all.
At the end of the month and a day, the old man placed in his hand a single golden coin.
“Well done,” he said. The boy had kept his hands to himself.
“May I try the clay tomorrow?” asked Raan, eagerly.
“No,” snapped the potter. “Not for years will you earn that right.”
Raan turned to go home to his whisper-soft sister, and resolved in his heart to never darken a craftsman’s door again.
On the way home, he placed his golden coin in a pouch over his heart, and kept his eyes shut all through the market. Though women with blue feathers around their waists sang to him, little monkeys called out from careful carved cages, and the smell of fresh roasted nuts plied him from every corner, he did not stop or open his eyes more than a crack until he reached the corner of his own street.
On the intersection of two crooked streets, clapped together from brown clay and strung apart with clotheslines and decay, the beggars of the city hunched home. A few women, an old man, and a boy with a twisted arm held out their hands to passers-by, idle here in the poor streets where no one has much to spare off their own back.
Raan straightened up, eager to set his own patchwork cloak apart from their own.
I am not like them, he thought. I am a man, and a man who works for his living.
“Coin? Spare a coin for the unfortunate?”
Raan passed between the criers and the prying hands with all the grace he imagined a pharaoh might take with his court. Their hands caught at his cloak, at his heels, as they might cry to a lord, or to his concubine, or even to a craftsman.
“Generous young man! Give from your plenty?”
Yes, it was true, he did have plenty. Plenty that would soon become more, more for Ana and all that meant to them.
“Sir! A coin!”
Never in all his years had anyone addressed Raan, the stonemason’s boy, with any title like sir. Boy, beggar, urchin, stonecutter’s seed, all manner of meanness—but this. Could they smell the skill on him? That skill which promised he would be more, more than any of them?
He turned, and looked back a moment even as a dozen beggar hands swarmed around him.
Yes. Yes, he was sir, and one day he would walk past even the potter’s house without slowing his stride.
He took the gold coin from his purse and pressed it into one of the reaching hands. One day, he would have much—and it is the duty of the blessed to give to those who do not have the eye and promise of Horus upon them.
With a quick stride, he walked the rest of the block and burst into the house, eager to tell Ana how even the beggars had glimpsed his future and called him sir—
The house was empty.
He turned around, confused. She should be here, with the scraps she begged at corners. Perhaps she would share—but no. He must put a stop to that. No sister of his ought to sit at street corners.
The door opened again behind him, and there she was, in a ragged cloak, her skinny pinched face drawn down in a scowl.
“I have great news,” began Raan, but the words died in his throat as she held out her hand in a fist.
She opened her palm, and held out for his eyes a single golden coin.
Raan lay awake that night long after Ana’s breathing softened and slowed, and there was rage in his heart.
The next day, he did not go to the leather-workers, or the carpenters, or the potters. Nor, indeed, did he return to the work of his father, with his stonemason’s hands.
In the bright light of morning, Raan took his clenched fists, and walked all the long way down to the docks where the sailors and slavers played at dice. As the sun shone off the emerald water of the river, and the boats waited for the men, who in turn waited for other men, Raan wandered from table to table, searching for a worthy opponent.
Finally, he found him. A big man, with a bigger coin purse strapped to his waist, with his leg drawn up on a cushion at a level with his belt. He reclined under a tent, drank a red wine that slipped carelessly from his golden cup. Before him, several sailors stripped to the waist grinned and shook cups that rattled of knucklebones.
Raan pushed them all aside. There are only so many ways for the child of a stonemason to rise in the world—and coin paved the way for them all.
The big man looked down at him, red high on his cheekbones and a crumb of sweet-cake at the corner of his mouth, and he laughed.
“A child? Do you know who I am?”
Raan neither knew nor cared, but when one of the sailors grabbed his arm to take him away, he stomped on his foot and tore himself away.
He stuck out his chin.
“Don’t care who you are, but you look like you play dice.”
The lord smiled back, as a crocodile might smile at an antelope, green and dripping.
“Let him,” he waved the sailors away, “Watch and see how business is done.”
He gestured to the table, for Raan to sit.
“Now, what have you to wager besides the clothes on your back and the strength of your arm?”
It turned out that Raan did not have very much to wager at all, so when the big man asked him to lay down five years of service on his ship, it seemed a great favor for a light purse.
Of course, he would have to win the game.
Down rolled the dice, over and over on themselves, white-carved and painted with ink, just as his father had rolled them. And when the painted numbers all rolled against him, game after game, this too, was as it had happened for his father.
What does a child of stone masons know of the ways of the world?
The lord smiled, and jangled his ring of keys before the final dice had even rolled over on itself. Two sailors came up and seized the boy by both wrists—and he did not even know what to say, so confident he had been that he could win.
And so it was that Raan, son of a stonemason, went down to the river with shackles on his feet. Too proud to cry, he simply tipped up his head, and stepped onto the plank with all the grace of a lord who has lost his home and family in a well-timed match.
Icha, he thought. At the end of their dreaming, what difference is there truly between a king’s son and a stonemason?
Many years later, when seasons beyond count had flowed down the Nile to the sea, Raan came back to the city of his father. With hands empty of gold, but free of his shackles, and skin brown with the river’s sun, but empty of stonemason’s scars, he walked the winding roads back to the house of his sister. It was all that had hung in his mind for the long years between.
What will she ever do without me?
But when he reached the shabby broken door of his youth, the house was empty.
“Where is Ana, the stonemason’s daughter?” he asked a small boy laying in the street with a fleabitten dog.
The boy pointed into the city. Raan wondered if she had become a slave in a lord’s house. Some women often did, when bereft of their husbands, fathers, and brothers.
Shaking his head in shame, he went into the city, and followed the name of his family, asking at bread-stalls and flower-shops, feeling too large for the thin streets after so long on the river.
All shook their heads, and pointed him deeper into the finer streets of the city, where palm trees wafted over white walls, and dirt did not streak the paving stones. Deeper and deeper he wound, into sweet neighborhoods where children laughed fat with honey and bread.
Finally, he reached a white house with white walls, crowned with golden gates and filled with the smell of fresh lotus.
“Whose house is this?” he asked the guard at the gate.
“This is the House of Ana of Abydos: Master Mason.”
Whatever words Raan had to that died in his throat, as the two guards crossed their spears.
“Go back where you came from, little water-rat. There is nothing for you here.”
And so it was that Raan, the stonemason’s son, returned to the river and did not come back to Abydos again in all his long days. His large hands, stonemason hands, pulled rope and heaved oars, and pulled up nets rolling with fish, year after year down the Nile. Never again did he dwell in a house patched with mud and smelling of fish—but never again did he dwell on land.
In the years that lay between them, Ana of Abydos, the daughter of stonemasons, had set hand to chisel with a patient care. Though her hands were small and not make for the pick and the hauling of rock, she carved with an eye for the lines born to stone that few had ever seen. In time, her skill as a stonemason grew so great that Hatshepsut herself came down from her throne to commission an obelisk, for the glory of all the pharaohs past and those yet to come.
And after some years, Horus himself saw the stone rising sheer even unto the skies of Abydos, white-marbled quartz carved from a single sheet of stone. It stood by the river, a sign in the harbor for all who had eyes to see it. Glory be unto Hatshepsut, proclaims the white stone, glittering!
And glory be unto the daughter of stonemasons, whose hands are skilled indeed!