George Nikolopoulos is a master of the short-short, these days known as flash fiction. This is his sixth appearance in Galaxy’s Edge. His Galaxy’s Edge story, “You Can Always Change the Past”, has been selected to appear in Baen’s The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF.
I was working the bellows as Father walked in.
“Hail, Hephaestus,” he said. I ignored him and went on with my work.
Zeus tensed. He wasn’t used to people ignoring him. Still he didn’t comment about it, so I guessed he’d come by to ask for a favor—once again. I was right; but what he asked for surpassed even his usual audacity.
“Hephaestus, I’d like you to create a woman for me,” he said.
He’d been unfaithful to Mother so many times, with goddesses, nymphs, dryads, you name it. Now he wanted me to make a woman for him?
He stood on my left side and my hammer was on my right. I could turn and smite him before he had a chance to strike me with his lightning bolt. I thought of the day he’d tossed me out of Olympus, when I was a small child; I’ve been a cripple ever since.
As always, I did nothing. If I killed him now, the war for succession might even destroy Olympus.
“What do you want the woman for, Zeus?” I asked. “Have you not had enough yet?”
He laughed, well aware that his laughter was bound to irritate me. “You thought I wanted her for myself, Hephaestus? Don’t be a fool; you should know I don’t need you for that. I want her to give to Men as a present. She’ll be the wife of Epimetheus.”
This was unexpected. “You’re making a present to Epimetheus?” I asked. “I thought you hated him. His brother stole the Fire from Heaven.”
“And he was properly punished for his crime,” Zeus said. “I don’t hold all men responsible. I want this feud to end and such a gift is a great way to end it.” He turned to leave. At the entrance of the cave, he turned back. “Anyway,” he said, “the Fire was stolen from your forge, so you owe me one; if you create this woman for me we’re even.”
I tore great chunks of lava off the cave walls and I brought them to my anvil. Working with hammer and fire, I shaped a woman out of lava. I made her in the image of Aphrodite, my estranged wife.
When I finished, I kissed the statue and breathed life into it. For a moment, nothing happened; had I overestimated my powers again? Then she opened her eyes and looked at me. She was like Aphrodite in every respect, but her eyes shone like molten fire. One look, and I knew I was lost forever.
All gods and goddesses were present at her Naming ceremony; all but one. Zeus, the King of Olympus, had not deigned to grace us with his presence. So much the better, as far as I was concerned.
I took her by the hand and escorted her to the altar. I smiled at her. She smiled back. “Your name is Pandora,” I said, “the gifted one.”
One by one, the gods and goddesses brought her gifts. Aphrodite, acting awkward around her spitting image, brought her a diamond necklace and pearl earrings. Athena gave her a wedding gown, blue like the Aegean Sea. Hera presented her with a headdress that looked like an overgrown peacock; I often wonder about mother’s taste in adornments. Apollo gave her a flute, carved out of bone. Ares brought her a sword, of all things; Pandora hesitated for a heartbeat, before accepting it with a graceful smile.
Then I heard a grumpy voice coming from the entrance to the temple: “I haven’t been invited to the ceremony.” Father had finally arrived, carrying a large chest.
“I didn’t suppose the King of Olympus would require an invitation,” I said.
He smiled, which always seemed ominous. “Never mind,” he said, “I’ve also brought gifts to the one being named.” He produced the chest. “A present for her to give to her husband-to-be, to be precise. It will bring him the grace of Heaven.” He looked straight at Pandora. “Don’t open the chest, girl. You must present it to your husband at the wedding ceremony.”
Pandora smiled. I had a foreboding of doom, but I said nothing.
We spent our last night together in my smithy, the place where she was born. On the morrow, she would marry Epimetheus. I hated him, but most of all I hated Zeus for arranging it. Pandora seemed cool about this assignment. It was the reason she’d been born, after all.
After a long silence, she rose. “I nearly forgot the present of Zeus. I’ll take it to the carriage myself.”
I caught her arm. “Leave the chest behind, Pandora,” I said. “Don’t give it to your husband. I have a bad feeling about this.”
“You’re jealous,” she said with a laugh.
“I don’t trust Zeus,” I meant to say, but somehow my tongue slipped and what came out of my mouth was “I love you.”
She frowned, and it was like the sun going down on me. “I’m sorry,” I said with a bitter smile. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world, and I’m just a lame blacksmith.”
Then she smiled, and the sun rose again, sending waves of warmth washing over me. “I love you,” she said. I took her in my arms. I tried to kiss her, but she put her hand over my lips. “I love you as my creator,” she continued. “Your first kiss gave me life; I shouldn’t have another. Epimetheus is my destined husband-to-be. Let’s not talk about this anymore.”
She didn’t leave my arms. When I tried to break free, she held me to her. She put her head on my chest and we stood there, like statues, for the rest of the night.
I couldn’t bring myself to attend the wedding; I knew I’d feel better sitting alone in my cave and drinking myself to oblivion. However, a sense of obligation—or a sense of self-loathing—made me want to watch. Centuries ago I’d crafted the othone, a device that allowed me to observe faraway events without having to leave the warmth of my cave. I’d made it to spy on Aphrodite; now I used it to view the ceremony unseen.
I managed to watch the vows of love. I even made it through their first kiss—barely. I was about to turn off the device in revulsion when I heard her say, “Epimetheus, this is my wedding present to you and all mankind.”
Her two bridesmaids brought the chest forward, and she opened it herself.
Out sprung the demons of Tartarus. Famine, with the dead eyes and swollen belly; Death, with the grinning skull and the scythe; Fury, red eyes and sharp talons; Disease, with pox marks and yellowy skin; War, bronze helmet and bloody sword.
Epimetheus’ men put Pandora in a cell. Come next morning they would burn her on a stake; they’d already found new uses for the stolen fire.
I used my wristbands to project my spirit to her cell. I saw her lying on a straw mattress, at a corner of her dirty cell, her lovely blue dress in tatters. Rage overwhelmed me. She looked up at me, fierce and proud despite her red, swollen eyes.
“I’m coming to free you,” I said. “I’ll break down the walls of your cell with my hammer, and I’ll smite the Men, one by one.”
“Please don’t. They’re not to blame. My foolishness brought a terrible calamity to mankind. I can’t make it up to them, so it’s only fair I pay the price. I did enough harm already, I don’t want to be the cause of a war between Gods and Men.”
Anger made me speak sharply to her. “I’m not going to stand by and watch them burn you,” I said. “It wasn’t your fault, only Zeus was to blame. Tell them he was the one who asked you to bring them the chest, and they’ll have to let you go.”
She shook her head. “That would be even worse. It would make war inevitable.”
“So you’re going to sacrifice yourself for Zeus’ sake?”
“No, I’m doing it for everyone’s sake,” she said. “I’ve thought it over and there’s no avoiding it. If you love me, please promise me you won’t try to save me.”
I squirmed and I writhed, but she wouldn’t budge. In the end I reluctantly promised, trying to think of ways to free her without breaking my pledge.
Unexpectedly, she smiled. “Don’t worry about me,” she said. “I was born in a volcano, made of lava. Do you really believe fire can destroy me?”
I stayed all night in her cell, or my spirit did. I couldn’t hold her this time, but we lay close to each other and I swear I could feel her breath on my skin, even though seas and mountains lay between us.
In the morning we heard footsteps and she bade me leave. Just before I withdrew, she said, “Hephaestus, I love you with all of my heart. Wait for me in our cave. I promise I’ll come back to you and stay with you forever.”
I watched as they burned her, and I could do nothing to save her; I was bound by my promise. Columns of smoke rose from the fire and filled the othone. Then the smoke blew off.
I gazed at the scene of the burning, and my fury erupted like a volcano. She hadn’t survived the fire, after all; only ashes remained. I grabbed my hammer and got ready to fly down to the Men and destroy them all.
Before I could move, out of the ashes rose a beautiful bird, colored like the rainbow.
The Men called it Hope; hope for the world. The Gods called it the Phoenix. But I knew better. “Pandora!” I called, and she took to the skies and flew to me.
Copyright © 2018 by George Nikolopoulos