GIDEON THE IDOL MAKER – A SHORT STORY BY CRAIG BURNETT
Gideon the Idol Maker ran his hands over the limestone block, pressing his fingertips into its hollows and crevices. The coolness of the rock was a welcome contrast to the heat inside the tent. He shifted on his stool, pulling at the collar of his tunic. A drop of sweat slipped from his nose, flooding one of the tiny craters on the top of the stone.
Gideon wiped his forehead with a filthy rag, then turned and shouted to the other side of the tent. “So I ask him to describe it. And he says, ‘it’s a transient spirit’. What am I supposed to do with that? I ask him – are you talking horns, wings, what? But all he can say is, ‘it’s ephemeral.’ I say, ‘ephemeral’s all well and good, mate, but that don’t help me make a five cubit high statue.’ Anyway, I thought I’d do him a hippo. A hippo with a beak.”
Gideon spat on the rag and rubbed it over the block. Transient, indeed.
“But that’s customers, son,” Gideon continued, his eyes fixed on the stone. “Never know what they want. How are you getting on with that viper? I can’t hear any carving.”
Gideon turned again and peered through the gloom. A few metres away a teenage boy was dozing on the floor, his gangly limbs folded under his body like a dead spider’s. Gideon sighed and threw the rag at the boy’s head.
“Niv – bloody hell boy, we’ve got three of those to finish today. And I want the rugs in here beaten.”
As Niv grumbled and got to his feet, Gideon turned back to the stone in front of him. This moment was the best part of the job. When the only thing ahead was possibilities. He could already picture the hippo’s plump bottom and chubby knees emerging from the stone.
He rested a chisel-point on the side of the block and swung the mallet. It was an action he’d repeated day and night for forty years, so familiar he could close his eyes and think about the fine details he’d add in a few days’ time. Toenails and nostrils and such. Trickier than people think, nostrils.
But his angle was off. As soon as the mallet struck the top of the chisel the sharp end jumped free of the stone, and sliced a deep gouge in Gideon’s thigh. He shouted and threw the chisel to the floor, its bloodied end evidence of his carelessness.
Niv raced over and started to bandage his father’s wounded leg. Gideon cursed himself, then felt a twinge of pity for the boy. He was a good lad, even if he did have his head in the clouds. It had been hard for them both, since Adina passed on.
“Concentration, lad. That’s the lesson here. Concentration. And better candles. The ones they sell you these days – you need fifteen to do the work of ten old ones.”
Niv looked up. “Can’t we carve outside?”
Gideon snorted. “With dust blowing over everything? Blunting the tools? Not a chance, son. We’ll keep our standards, thank you very much.”
They fell into awkward silence. There were more silences every week. I could cope with shouting, Gideon thought. You know where you are with shouting. But this… you don’t even know if he’s unhappy, never mind what to do about it. Adina would have known. She always did.
Eventually Gideon said, “I know it’s not ideal, son. But trust me, a bit of graft now and you won’t look back. Learning a trade, you can’t beat that. A trade’s for life. Even during the plagues…”
Niv rolled his eyes. There was no subject his father couldn’t bring round to the plagues.
“…even during the plagues, when you couldn’t move for frogs and locusts, even then I always had work. Fashions come and go, Niv, but people will always want graven images.”
“I know, dad. I know. But it’s just… well, people say we might be settling down soon. All of us. That the wandering’s over. I was talking to Itzhak about getting some land and maybe… well… planting some stuff. Farming. Tomatoes, maybe.” Turning to pick up a fresh bandage, he mumbled, “all the Phoenicians are doing it.”
“Really. And if the Phoenicians jumped off a cliff, would you do that too?”
Niv set his jaw and wrapped more cloth around his father’s leg. The teenager’s fingers brushed over the nicks and scars of past accidents, a working life recorded in broken flesh.
Gideon shook his head. “Tomatoes, indeed. A bloody fad, tomatoes. What happens when the next craze comes along? The thing about tomatoes is they’re… what’s the word…”
Niv looked up again. “Transient?”
Gideon smiled, in spite of himself. “Right. They’re transient.”
The tent flap opened, spilling light through the gloom. Gideon squinted at the figure silhouetted in the entrance. “We’re closed, mate,” he said. Without replying, the figure stooped and shuffled into the tent. Gideon peered again, then gave a nod of recognition.
“Oh. Alright, Moses. How was it?”
Moses ran his hand over the beak of a grimacing marble eagle. “We need to talk, Gideon. We need to talk.”
Two minutes later, Gideon turned a hefty stone tablet over in his hands. A nice job, he had to admit. Lovely chisel work, and a nice clean finish. When he spoke, his voice wobbled.
“So… no graven images at all? Not even…”
Moses shook his head slowly. “No graven images. None. He was very clear.”
He traced a squiggle in the earth with the foot of his staff. Then he sighed and swept his sandal over the shape, destroying it forever.
“I’m so sorry, Gideon. But you’re not the only one. Killing’s out, too. I’m not looking forward to telling Miron the Crossbow Maker. I might just leave a note.”
Gideon held the commandments closer to his face. No coveting. No adultery. He thought about Elior, in whose tent you could pick up a jar of brew for a couple of shekels. But people only really went there for a gossip, or a quick fumble with one of Hadar’s girls. So that was Elior in trouble. And this last commandment. Honour thy mother and thy father. Good luck getting people to do that.
Moses kept talking, but Gideon wasn’t listening. He barely looked up when Moses gently prised the tablet from his hands and left with a final, whispered apology.
Niv had retreated to the back of the tent. As the tent flap swung closed, he said, “maybe you could still make idols, dad, even if they don’t worship them? People might still want them around.”
“Don’t be daft, son. What good’s an idol you don’t worship?”
“I just thought…”
Gideon threw his mallet across the room, chipping the tooth from a lion’s mouth. “It’s finished, son. Finished. It’s bloody finished.”
He rose from his stool and stomped towards the tent flap. The air was even hotter, even heavier now. It weighed everything down. A crashing sound pulled Gideon’s eyes to the floor. Beneath his sandal lay the remains of a jug. The one with two handles, the one they’d got on their wedding day. Adina’s favourite. Gideon’s brawny shoulders trembled, and before he knew it fat, angry tears were racing down his face.
Gideon felt an arm around him, and only then realised how tall the boy had grown. He let his head fall against the boy’s face, where it rubbed against the scrubby beginnings of a beard. A beard, indeed. It barely seemed a week since Gideon was carrying the boy on his shoulders from oasis to oasis, wiping the dust from his eyes and popping dates in his mouth when he started to grizzle.
Niv walked Gideon back to his stool. As his father lowered himself down, he asked, “what were the other commandments?”
Gideon’s gnarled hands were trembling. “No stealing. No cheating on your Mrs. No telling fibs about Elkan and Nava next door. Not them specifically, but, you know, your neighbours.”
“Seems sensible,” Niv said, passing Gideon the rag he’d thrown across the tent earlier. “I mean, remember how angry you got when Lavi took your tool belt. And you always say Menuha never got over her husband taking off with that Egyptian woman half his age. And Moses has never let us down before, has he?”
Gideon nodded and blew his nose. The mournful, trumpeting sound bounced off the walls of the tent.
“Was there anything else?”
Gideon wiped his red-raw eyes. “Yeah. Your parents. Honour your… I mean, honour thy…”
He looked around the tent, at winged crocodiles and eagles with a hundred teeth. Fantastic beasts with more heads than legs. Some had been months in the making, years even. He’d worked until his spine ached and the dust coated every inch of his mouth. How he’d tortured himself over them, fretted over every scale and feather. All that time looking in the wrong direction.
Niv repeated himself, softly. “Was there anything else?”
Gideon rose a second time. “Just make us proud, son. Just make us proud.”