Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gazing towards Olympus

I don't normally write fiction because... well... I suck. No way of sugar-coating it, my writing stinks.

That said, I would rather it didn't always stink. So in recent months, in between episodes of screaming exam panic, I've been casting around for stories to experiment with. This one popped more or less fully-formed into my head. I think it was sparked by this Penny Arcade comic about the game God Of War III.

I actually have no idea what GoW3 is about. My version is probably cooler though.

Now, I know what you're thinking: a bird that talks? But the plain truth is, you can't live thousands of years without picking up a few things.

I'm not actually sure how long it was. Certainly in the early days I was just an eagle like any other. Every morning I'd glide over to that mountain, just as the dawn struck it, ready for another breakfast of liver-and-onions. Without the onions, obviously. And with a lot more screaming. But it was a simple life, with a noticeable absence of clocks and calendars. Could have been millennia for all I know.

I think it was some time during the Roman occupation that he started speaking to me. Not surprising really - you chain a guy to a sodding great big rock in the boiling sun for a few hundred years, he'll wind up talking to everything from stones to flying pigs. That's dehydration for you. Eagles is small fry by comparison.

But it was nice, you know? Even when I was just another dumb beast, it was soothing. I'll let you in on a little secret: even birds of prey can get a bit squeamish at times. Cute little lambs gambolling in the green meadows, claws out, whoosh... you'd have to have a pretty stony heart not to feel slightly sorry for them. Not to feel a touch of existential angst on occasion. It was reassuring to know that at least one of my victims didn't hold it against me.

So he spoke to me, and for a century or ten that was all there was to it. There's precedent, you know: prisoners in towers befriending the sparrows, and all that. Befriending the eagle that rips out your viscera every morning is a bit of a stretch, but he always was soft-hearted. That's how he got into this mess in the first place.

And, then as now, soft-heartedness can have some... startling effects. Some time just after they started building churches, it clicked. I began to understand what these funny sounds he made were in aid of. I'm still quite proud of that accomplishment. I mean, even Champollion had the Rosetta stone to help him, you know what I mean? And already spoke a language, for that matter. I was operating from a bit more of a standing start.

Of course this didn't really mean much for fifty years or so, the eagle throat not being noticeably designed for speaking back. But I think he realised I could follow him. He started trying to turn his ramblings into a dialogue, inviting me to nod my head or shake my tail or whatever. He was more than half-mad with hunger and thirst by this point, but we eventually worked out a sort of talon-tapping routine that could get the message across.

(Incidentally this proved to be a useful investment in fine motor skill. After all, how do you think I'm writing this? My typing speed isn't great, but as long as I can get access to a keyboard... Let's just say that some web-cafes shouldn't leave their skylight unlocked, haha.)

Actually he mostly talked about you lot. Humans I mean. He really couldn't get over whether he'd done the right thing or not, giving you fire. He would often ask me to go out and report back to him on how you were doing, what works of art you were producing, what buildings you were constructing. I remember spending a week one time trying to explain the Sistine Chapel to him. I mean, come on, the Sistine Chapel? In glorified Morse code? But he got the general impression at least.

Come to think of it, that was maybe not so tactful, showing him how the world had moved on. Zeus had traded his thunderbolts in for a new throne, the rest of the Pantheon had reinvented themselves as angels and saints and the like, and yet here he was still chained to a mountain. They'd forgotten him. And all the art of mankind, that he had helped bring into being, depicted him as a serpent or monster. You lot aren't exactly much for gratitude.

And I suppose that was the next big development. I started to see his point. He really did want the best for you, you know. Most of the gods spent their time hanging round mountaintops; he was down in the valleys with you. Depressingly keen on helping people, three thousand years before Robert Baden-Powell.

He didn't deserve his punishment. I don't know if Zeus had got up on the wrong side of the cloud that day or what, but damn. Chained to a rock with yours truly performing impromptu surgery on a daily basis. That's gotta sting.

I started eating less of his liver. Some days I'd just make a scratch, give him a bit of an appendectomy scar in case anyone dropped by to check. I brought him berries, fruit, water. Took a while to work out what he was able to stomach (I swear I didn't know about the peanut allergy!) but eventually he started to get healthier. You don't exactly shake off millennia of torment overnight, but he began to seem a little more like his old self.

Sadder, of course. Maybe wiser. Certainly more angry. But hey, at least he'd stopped screaming. My eardrums were endlessly grateful.

And that brings us up to the present day. Or at least up to the day - a week ago now - when he asked me to help him. When I agreed to take the final step.

It wasn't easy. People look at you funny if you, an eagle, walk into the local library and check out a book on lock-picking. And some of the other stuff he was asking for... well, normally if someone's packing that kind of hardware, any wise bird avoids them on pain of taxidermy. But there are ways. As I said before, you don't live for thousands of years without picking up a thing or three.

So here we are. Or here I am, anyway. His chains are empty, his rock is bare. I can see the indentation he wore in it from lying there so long. And I can remember the look in his eye as his hands caressed the rifle's stock. I remember how he gazed towards Olympus.

I guess I'm still waiting for the other shoe to fall. What happens if Zeus comes looking for me, afterwards? Or... what happens if he doesn't? Either way, it's going to be one hell of a light-show.

I never told Prometheus about the Crusades, or the Holocaust, or napalm, or the bomb. I couldn't stand to see the look on his face if he'd found out what that fire he carried had been used for. If he'd known the cost of giving fire to man. Eating his liver would have been nothing by comparison.

But I think I know what he would have said. The true fire, the true spark of warmth, is the one in the mind and the heart and the eyes. The physical hearth and forge, the technology, is just a conduit for the greatness in man. I understand this because I felt it too. I felt it when my beak fumbled with the lockpicks, when I dropped the heavy gun by his side.

He gave fire to man. I gave it back.

I hope we were right.

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