I awake to find that things have changed, but only in a way that keeps them the same.
The hole in the ceiling and floor is gone, everything back as it was. I check my phone and find it is eight in the morning again. All has been reset, but I remember everything from before I slept.
The device is fully charged, so it seems I do not have to worry about pain.
I consider whether to get out of bed. What can I achieve here? Perhaps I should pace around the room, punch holes in the walls, rip up more floorboards. I do not see what that would accomplish, but I imagine Ares would see that as the sensible course of action.
I decide to stay awake for as long as possible. Will everything still reset? I am unsure. I search the room for reading material and find a book in one of the drawers. I lie down on the bed and begin to read.
Twenty-four hours later I am halfway through the book. A light on my device is blinking, and I realize my leg is aching. It seems it has reached the limit of its battery, and my investigations will be limited unless I wish to endure pain. I decide to sleep again and think about things when I awake.
When I awake, everything is the same. Over the next few days, I test, investigate, and think.
I can find no way to leave this place. Whoever has imprisoned me here must have done so for a reason. Presumably, they will come and speak to me at some point. So, I wait for something to happen. Eventually, after a long time, something does, indeed, happen.
I am reading in bed when there is a noise, a humming and buzzing. The room, whatever it really is, seems to be spinning and tilting. Soon I can no longer tell which way is up. In front of me, a shimmering pool appears, stuck in one place while the room rotates around it. I stand up and find that I am able to stand in front of it, the movement of the room irrelevant.
It is standing vertically like a mirror, yet I can see no reflection, only a silver light. It expands until it is the same height as me. I sense iron beyond it, and I know I only have one option. What should I fear? What should Hephaestus fear? What is there in all of creation that I have not yet faced, endured, and defeated? I step through it.
As I enter, the world stops. For one brief moment, bright light is everywhere, but I am unsure whether I truly see it or whether it is some other type of experience. It seems the light is behind my eyes, as if all of my body, and all that there is, is composed of it. Then it disappears, and the world begins again.
I am where I lived long ago, in what I call my first life. It is so real. Have I travelled in time?
It pleases me. I remember times of great happiness with Aphrodite. The truth is that our time together was not always a source of sorrow. I loved her. It is true that she was, and is, beautiful. It is also true that I am not and that I never could be, but that mattered not. I had something else. I had someone to be with at last. It is true that I was thrust upon her, that it was not her choice to make, but she understood I had no part in that.
I would never have wished to hurt her, to compel her. I had hoped she would grow to love me, despite what I am. It is said that people do grow to love each other in such circumstances. For my part, I tried to give her every reason to love me, but it seems there are some gifts it is not within people to grant. She could never love me, at least not as I wished her to. Still, there was sometimes laughter and companionship. In truth, that would have been enough for me.
I wonder if she is here. When is this? I can hear her laughter. It is a sound I have not heard in millennia, save for mockery and derision. I wonder if she understands how it still hurts me.
Without thinking, I follow the sound. It is obvious, of course, that I find her in our bed, and I wish I was elsewhere. I wish I could be dragged back to nothing, to the void whence I came. My wife, my Aphrodite, is with him.
She sees me first. “Hephaestus…I…”
What can she say? There are no words for the betrayal! No words for what she has chosen to do to me! Am I such a monster? Should I be scorned and ridiculed in our bed with him? With my own elder brother? The selfish, spoiled, favoured son? And they wonder why I exist in rage and fire, why I despise their false standards and their family unity! Would a mortal have treated me so?
Ares looks at me with contempt! In my own bed, with my wife! I should kill him. Is it possible? I could make it so! I could use my powers and my intellect to construct something that could surely end his worthless existence and save others from his poisonous behaviour! She draws back as he stands up, naked before me. How dare he! How dare they! I do remember the occasion when I found them together, but it was not this day. How many more times were there? How many more times was I sneered at by them in my own bed!
I run at Ares, planning to wrench his head from his body. I will give it to my wife, his lover, as a gift. I care not of the consequences, for the effect on the future, on my family. I will tear him into pieces and feed him to the wild dogs in the street!
I lay my hands upon him and the scene disappears.
I am back in the room, in bed. It is eight in the morning. The room seems as real as ever, which is surely impossible. It is possible that some enchantment is blocking my senses, but I do not believe that is so. I am sure I would be able to sense it.
I wait a few seconds, hoping some hidden purpose will be revealed and that my visit to the past will somehow be explained. Perhaps I do not care what the explanation is for all of this. Perhaps I do not care if I ever find a way out of this place. I have grown so tired. Being an immortal has its disadvantages.
How old am I? I do not know anymore, but at least thousands of years of life. Still more is asked of me, there is work to do, and I must toil and labour.
I envy the mortals. They know they are finite. It must give them a sense of purpose, a reason to plan. I have neither. I simply endure, mindlessly watching the years go past. Parts of my life become history, then legend, then myth. Battles are fought and wounds heal, but not all of them.
I was promised eternity with Aphrodite, but I managed far less. She is still my wife, whatever that means, but I am little more than a burden to her. I would say, that to her, I am nothing more than a mistake, but the truth is that I am not even that. She had no choice in marrying me, and so the mistake was not hers. I should have known better. I allowed desire to cloud my judgement and became foolish. Years of rejection, of loneliness, of ridicule meant I was easily blinded by false hope. Desperation can convince us of things we know in our hearts are not true.
Who could blame her for offering herself to my brother? Who would wish to lie with me? Who would choose to if they were given another option? It is true that my brother should have refused. He should have. But who could blame her?
With time, some wounds will heal, and some pains will fade away.
I still ache for Aphrodite. I am still wounded. I travelled back in time, trying to live a different life, and make different choices. We lived apart for thousands of years. When I returned to this time and resumed my old life, she hadn’t even noticed I had been gone. I looked the same and, after thousands of years apart, my love for her was still the same. It was still not enough. It was still unrequited.
I never fully gave myself to Aphrodite. I accept that, but in my defence, what gift would I have been? What right did I have to burden her with someone like me? I worked and laboured, wrestling with iron, purifying and strengthening it. I did not go home and do the same for my relationship with her. She saw me as distant, as uncaring. The truth is the opposite. I could not bear to be around such perfection. I could not bear to be unloved by her. I could not bear the thought of her growing to love me, for what could I do but make her imperfect? What could I offer her except lumbering imperfection?
I was a being so deformed that my own father threw me from Olympus. I know he is sorry. I know that. I know he wishes he could undo what was done, but the truth is that he was right. My ugliness tainted Olympus. It showed how imperfection was possible. How can the gods be imperfect? I know this, yet I cannot forgive my father. This is another form of my imperfection.
My leg always troubles me, but I never shared that pain with Aphrodite. I did not share myself with her. The pain of being Hephaestus, the humiliation, the loneliness, and the sorrow at seeing others live lives that were full and joyous. I did not tell her. That is my greatest sin and my greatest achievement.
I could have been a stranger to her. Instead, I chose a pointless dream, to believe I could matter to someone like her. Now, forever, I shall remain so much less than a stranger to her. And forever is a long time for an immortal. I have failed her by trying and dreaming.
I am Hephaestus, God of Fire and Forge. Hephaestus, the misfit. Hephaestus, the failure. Hephaestus, the one who cannot belong. Hephaestus, the one who suffers.
How much longer is forever? How can I bear another day of looking at Aphrodite and seeing in her the contempt I feel for myself? Not one day and yet, I have thousands of years more to endure. Perhaps I shall never die. I shall exist in this form forever, a shambling figure, fascinating and repulsive in equal measures.
What shall tomorrow look like? It will look much like today, much like yesterday, Yet I endure and endure, not for my family, not for my Aphrodite, and not for myself.
No, I endure because it is my place to do so. I am Hephaestus, the immortal. My final punishment is my sorrow and to attest to my imperfections forever.
How much longer? How much more can I stand of this?
I have grown tired, but I endure.