There were important things to be doing at home, of course. I should have been there. However, the opportunity to travel was too attractive to me.
And so I am now beyond the Silk Road, very far from the others. My choice irritated my father, of course. My second choice, to travel as the mortals do rather than simply appear there and shift back again, drove him into anger. As always, his temperament was, and is, of little consequence to me.
They now call this place The Middle Kingdom. I know others call it China. Perhaps they always did.
The mortals are such curious creatures. They are not content simply to travel and work. They must be entertained, gathering in groups to talk and be taken on excursions like children. So I find myself in a place of distraction. In one hour, there will be a presentation. One of the mortals will talk about steel, projects, and ambition. There will also be talk of money, of course. They do love it so, mistaking it for meaning and power. Admittedly, when it comes to the latter, they are not always mistaken.
For the moment, I am tasked only to wander, a drink in hand, and admire all that is to be found in this palace of living ornaments.
What would possess the mortals to go to such lengths to draw creatures from the sea? To construct glass containers to confine them, then employ machinery to keep them alive? Why would they use all their ingenuity to imitate the sea sufficiently that these animals plucked from it can survive and exist here for all to gaze at?
I choose a brightly illuminated cube to stare into, the denizen of this blob of water regarding me warily from its corner. Can it see me? I am unsure.
A voice from behind me says, “Nice, isn’t it?”
I am suddenly uncomfortable. I smile. I am not sure what else I am meant to do. There is likely to be no purpose to this interaction. I have always found mortals appreciate the exchange of information, even if it is of little use to them. It appears to put them at their ease. I point at the creature. “An eight-foot.”
The man looks at me, puzzled. “An octopus.”
Oktopus. Yes. Isn’t that what I said? It is sometimes one thing to understand every language, another to express oneself appropriately. “Yes, an octopus.”
A strange creature. I concentrate but find no iron circulating within it. How odd. Its blood is not as theirs. I sense copper, a most inferior substitute in most cases. Presumably, the creature finds it confers some advantage.
“It doesn’t have a brain like ours. Did you know that? It’s distributed through its body. Totally different way of doing things. Imagine that. There is no hierarchy. Makes you think.”
Does it? Is there not always a hierarchy? Not that I am an expert in such matters. I find my viewpoint is limited, standing as I always do at the bottom, looking up at the structure from below. The octopus watches us, pulsating. Is it thinking? I have the uneasy feeling for a moment that it might be the one studying us.
I think of Poseidon, enjoying dominion over such things. I wonder how he feels about such frivolous borrowing by those on land.
“My name’s Adam.”
Of course, an introduction. Perhaps I should have helped it occur sooner, how remiss of me. I offer my hand. “My name is Jeffrey Lester.”
The man smiles and shakes my hand. He is young. All mortals are young to us, of course, even when they die as old men. He seems friendly and enthusiastic, as is the privilege of youth. “Oh, I know who you are. Everyone does.”
The first sentence is untrue, but this Adam does not know it. The second is certainly untrue for either of my names, but perhaps he is just attempting to flatter me. Sometimes mortals want to work for a different person, and so they will praise them, hoping for special favour. It is not that they enjoy labour, although they do greatly desire the money they receive in return. The truth is that they have little option but to work, and so they seek to obtain the most advantageous position possible within that limit. Just like the octopus choosing its favourite corner. It could seek to escape, to leave its tank entirely, but where would it go? How would it survive?
They are confined, as are all of us, even those of us who are gods. In fact, in some ways, perhaps we are the most limited of all.
It occurs to me that I have not responded to this Adam’s statement, as is expected. No matter, because while I am thinking, he speaks again. “I’m looking forward to this talk. We’re just switching to this Chinese steel. Really excited about it.”
Chinese steel. American steel. Greek iron. Roman iron. The mortals are clever. Never satisfied with what they have, they are always finding ways to improve it. But no matter what they do, what they combine it with, the iron they use is still there, at the core of it.
Suddenly I remember who I truly am. It seems I need reminding. The mortal world fades for a moment. There may still be a conversation occurring, but I ignore it. I make excuses and walk away, seeking a corner where I can hide. A place where I can remember myself, where I can observe, and where I can remind myself of who I am.
For who am I? Who am I that I should stand in front of one of Poseidon’s curiosities, discussing nothing with an insignificant mortal? Am I trying to change? To deny what I am? How could I? I, of all gods?
Iron is iron, no matter where or when you are. Mortals may change, and gods may deceive, but iron is always iron.
The others never understood that. They still do not. They chase glory, or prestige, or pleasure, or each other. The imperfect forever chasing the ephemeral, desperate to complete themselves, desperate to become something.
Iron becomes something, a bright searing liquid, then a hard, unyielding block. It becomes a weapon, a support, or a barrier. The others never truly change, never become anything other than what they always were.
Now the mortals turn iron into steel. They cannot bear that iron decays, as they do. Instead, they turn it into something timeless so it can mock them.
They ask me how to use their own substance and how to build their visions. Will this work? How much will be needed? How long will it take? Their machines and structures are so important to them because they are expressions of their hubris. That leads to Nemesis, of course, and the last thing you want is for her to become involved with your project.
I have been known as many things. The outcast. The bastard. The cripple. I am defined by where I cannot go, by a false rumour of what others did not do, and by how I was born. They should have defined me as a god amongst men, as a son who bound his own mother, as one who produced all they needed and much that they desired.
Now I am called a leader. An engineer. Such clean and civilised words. I no longer forge, or labour, or sweat, and in truth, I miss it. The flush that washes over me as the iron is brought forth. The pulse as my body adjusts. When I can, I seek to visit their forges, their foundries, their mills with their blast furnaces. I do not have to. I say I need to see it being made to check. In truth, I see and feel all, everything within the iron, wherever it is. Even if I could not, I could travel to it in an instant, appear in these lands beyond the Silk Road, then travel back the same way. Instead, I fly in their machines. I tell myself it is to conceal my powers, to stop questions. In truth, I choose it. They have made it possible to travel at such speed, packed into tubes of aluminum. I marvel. Sometimes a god is allowed to.
In their mills, I have watched the steel being brought out. I nod and listen. Sometimes I escape and linger to secretly, ecstatically, plunge my hands into the molten steel. I feel it again, allowing it to burn my flesh and make me sweat once more. My hands remain undamaged, as they always have.
Would that my leg was the same. It has improved, and I am sure my loving father has had a hand in that. My father believes it is now too difficult to explain such an injury. This, of course, assumes he is indeed my father. There were always stories and, after all, my parents never told the truth when a lie would suffice. Now, finally, my leg is healing because it will satisfy others. Thank you, Father. He left the pain, of course. I do not know if it was his intention. I would not lower myself to beg him to relieve it, and perhaps he knows that.
Now, in the mortal world, I have found that their preparations have some effect. How ironic that morphine, named for my distant relative, provides a novel and welcome respite when I so choose.
I who was born ugly and have endured what others did not have to, have achieved what others never could. I have contributed while others took freely.
I am a god who is not a god. I, alone, am imperfect, tainted, damaged, and punished. In truth, it is not only my body that can be so described. I have made mistakes with Athena, who has never been quick to forgive, and with my wife—for that is what she shall always be—Aphrodite. I accept I have not always been understanding of Aphrodite’s choices. Though some would say that is understandable after all that I gave her and all that she accepted from others, including he whose name I will not speak here.
So who am I? Do I fear to say? Do I seek to deny it?
Should I feel shame?
I am Hephaestus.
He who is flawed, he who is aggrieved, he who was supplanted and usurped.
I am Hephaestus, God of Forge and Fire.