A Gift of Fire tells two intertwining stories: that of Charlie, who's just gone through a breakup and moved into what she discovers is a probably haunted house, and the story of Prometheus, of Greek mythology fame, creating humanity and stealing fire for them.
When you first drive into Riverside, it has as much distinction as any other town in this smear of Southern California cities—that is to say, virtually none. But if you look closer, through the haze of pollution that browns the summertime air, beyond the stark graffiti that coats the concrete surfaces, past the drooping palms and withered storefronts lining the freeways, you’ll start to see some character. And if you look deeper still and have an eye for it, you can sense the history of this place: touches, here and there, of Old California charm. Like the Mission Inn, once a tavern for nineteenth-century developers, now a pricey hotel and spa. Or the Fox Theater, built at a time when Riverside was still considered small-town America, newly repainted and revived since then. Or the orange trees scattered through town, remaining scraps of the citrus industry that put Riverside on the map more than a century ago. When you see these things, if you pay attention, you realize this place is old.
And like all old places, Riverside has its ghosts.
Charlie loves her brother (of course she does) but it had been painful to call and ask for his help, another small humiliation in a life map dotted with them. Staring at the palms of her hands, she sometimes wonders if that’s what the sideways slashes cutting across her lifeline represent: all of her family’s sharp little disappointments in her, the foibles and failures that have always seemed to stop her in her tracks. Her first counselor as a kid had commented often on her “rich inner life,” but always with a note of judgment, as if it existed only in contrast to her pathetic outer life: few friends, high anxiety, a tendency to get stuck in her head—drawn, she now supposes, by that rich inner life of hers.
She is stuck in her head now, she realizes, and pulls herself back into the present. She glances at Cliff’s profile, the way the soft curves of his once boyish face have hardened into the angles and hollows of a man’s face. Right now he looks stressed out, almost annoyed, and again, she wishes she hadn’t accepted the offer from her sister-in-law, Toni, to drive Charlie’s car so that she could ride with her brother. Unlike Cliff, Toni isn’t taking any of this personally. She hadn’t balked at needing to drop the twins off with her parents for a few hours on her day off so she could help out her younger sister-in-law. In fact, it was only with reluctance that she finally agreed to Charlie’s offer to watch them next week to return the favor.
Forcing cheer into her voice, Charlie tells Cliff, “I’m excited for you to see my new place. You’ll totally love it—classic Craftsman.”
“Oh yeah?” His jaw relaxes in just the slightest. “I love Craftsman homes.”
“I know, I remember.” She almost but doesn’t add, That’s part of why I chose it.
He glances at her, the beginnings of a smile playing on his features. “You remember that little obsession?”
“Little, ha!” she replies, feeling her own tension ease as they fall into the familiar banter. “We had to hear about it almost every day. It was like you were trying to convince us all how great this girl was that you had fallen for.”
He laughs with her now. “Remember how Dad forbade me to talk about it anymore?” Deepening his voice, he says, “If you mention Gustav Stickley one more time, I swear, I’m taking all those books and using them to start our next bonfire! You know, I used to keep a copy of Stickley’s biography under my mattress just in case he followed through on his threat?”
“You didn’t!” Charlie shakes her head, forcing a grin in spite of the sharp stab that reference to Dad has caused. Still too soon after all this time? she wonders.
“Oh yes, I did. And you’re right: I was totally smitten.”
Their laughter dies out, and she watches anxiously for that set look to come back over his face. It doesn’t, and she finds herself relaxing back into the moment.
Cliff’s voice is thoughtful now. “He’s the reason I got into architecture, you know.” He glances at her again, then back to the freeway ahead, spangled with glowing brake lights. “Not Stickley, but Dad,” he adds, as if anticipating her next question, cutting her off before she can turn this back into a laughing matter.
Her own voice almost breaks on her reply, but Cliff doesn’t seem to notice. “Really?” She clears her throat, stares out the window, hand over her mouth. Another driver, agitated by the traffic, scowls at her, and she looks guiltily away.
“He told me one time that in another life he might’ve been an architect. I guess he took a couple classes and really liked them. I was probably about sixteen or seventeen at the time, and I really latched onto it. I thought I could make him proud if I lived a piece of the life he might have lived.”
They never, ever talk about Dad like this, and for a panicked moment, she wonders if he’s about to launch into a lecture of the You need to get your crap together, it’s what Dad would want variety—as if he had ever known what Dad wanted.
But instead, he only looks wistful. He rubs a hand across his stubble—as a rule, Cliff never shaves on weekends—and goes on. “But you know how that turned out.” He laughs again but there is a dark edge to it this time.
They’ve hit a pocket of smooth, fast-flowing traffic, and Cliff accelerates.
“This is the exit,” Charlie tells him, gesturing. What she means is, I’m sorry, Cliff and Please don’t blame me. Charlie herself had had to do practically nothing to make their dad proud, but Cliff, it seemed, could never catch a break with him. Of course, it was the other way around with their mom, but he never seemed to recognize that advantage, even now that Dad was gone.
The only talk in the car now is Charlie’s directions as her brother steers them silently down the off-ramp, through a couple of main streets, and then into a residential neighborhood. Her neighborhood. That jolts him out of his sulk—or whatever it is.
“What great little houses!” he says.
“It’s a cool neighborhood,” she agrees. The unspoken tension between them is melting back below the surface for now. She isn’t one for architecture, but even she can tell the difference between this and the bland little neighborhood where she and Meg had lived in Orange County. Even in their similarities, these houses have character.
“And this one—”they’re going slow enough that Cliff, gape-mouthed, doesn’t need much warning—“is mine.”
They pull up in front of her new place, and Cliff erupts from the car. Charlie herself hangs back. “This one is mine,” she repeats softly to herself, and shakes her head. She opens the car door and swings her legs out but still doesn’t exit the car.
Toni has pulled up behind them and now follows Cliff around back, both of them gesturing and talking excitedly. For the moment, Charlie is alone with her house. It’s cute—that’s the word that comes to mind—painted a cheery yellow and white, each with its own square of grass in front, a short straight sidewalk cutting through. Short, chunky pillars encased in brick at the base support the porch roof, above which the house’s roof peaks. In the morning sunlight, shadows from the two small myrtle trees gray the front windows of the house and darken the tiny recess of the porch. It’s a still day, no breeze, no impending storm, but the house seems restless somehow, a building waiting for something to happen.
Something like fear runs its finger along her spine, and she shudders minutely.
“Keep it together, Charlie.” There is nothing here to be afraid of, she knows. A new life, a new opportunity, a chance to—she reluctantly admits—get her shit together. Still, it no longer seems perfect the way it had last week when she put down a $500 deposit plus first and last month’s rent—an astronomical amount for her single income, but hey, Southern California is nothing if not shamelessly expensive.
Toni and Cliff come back around the house then, holding hands, still animatedly talking. A quick stab of pain, equal parts jealousy and loneliness, gets Charlie in the gut. At least it breaks her out of her fearful reverie, and she gets out of the car finally, makes her way across the grass.
“What do you think?” she asks unnecessarily. Their impression is clear.
Toni lets go of Cliff’s hand and grips Charlie’s shoulders, beaming. “This house is wonderful,” she says, drawing Charlie into a hug.
Cliff is nodding, smiling, relaxed for the first time all afternoon. “It really is, Char. Nice job!”
She feels a brief hit of relief at his approval, and then annoyance with herself for caring so much. “Wait till you see the inside!” She is gushing a bit in response to their gushing, but it feels good to let go and be positive about something after the daily difficulty of her life these last few weeks.
She slides her key into the lock and enters, the chill of her earlier premonition nearly forgotten in the warm rush of excitement. Nearly.
They enter a small living room, fireplace flanked by built-in bookcases to the left, kitchen to the right, bedroom and bathroom down a narrow hall straight ahead. The tour is over quickly – it really is a small house – but Cliff and Toni fawn over the details: the built-in shelving, the quaint kitchen with its small fridge, diminutive by today’s standards, the hardwood flooring, immaculately kept, and the crown and base molding that skirt the edges of each room they enter.
The three of them spend the next two hours lugging in and arranging what little furniture Charlie owns: her bed and desk, a love seat she picked up last week and an armchair that Cliff and Toni have donated. They pile boxes in the corners of rooms for Charlie to unpack later, including all her ceramics supplies, which Charlie wants to tear into now. Unpack. Exhume.
Later, at the Mexican restaurant where they meet back up for dinner, Charlie feels a slow return of her uneasiness. This will be her first night in her new place, and she wants, with a shockingly fierce desperation, for Cliff and Toni to come back with her, to spend the evening as they’ve spent the afternoon: chatting, unpacking, joking, working together. She wants to put off her first night alone.
She buys a second round of margaritas, though Cliff turns his down—“Gotta drive.” So she and Toni sip at their drinks and the conversation flows easily from past to future, slipping conveniently around Charlie’s present, uncertain in all things except this ache of the loneliness growing in her chest, filling her lungs like air.
At 7:30, Cliff touches Toni’s arm, trying sweetly but ineffectually to be subtle. Charlie wants to grab onto both of them, keep them in place. But “We should go,” Toni says, and Charlie knows she is right, they have to drive back to L.A., pick up the boys, and get them into bed. She knows it was generous of them to help her at all, and to stay this late, staving off the inevitable first night on her own. So she nods, thanks them again, hugs them tightly, and drives home alone.
Alone was what she wanted. It was why she had left, she reminds herself—as if such a complicated thing as leaving a four-year relationship could ever be distilled down to a single motive—but she still feels that heart-twinge, growing familiar now, through the thought.
The days are getting shorter, but Charlie still has a good thirty minutes before full dark. For a long time, this has been one of her favorite parts of the day because it had been Meg’s favorite time of day. She had caught Meg’s enthusiasm for it, and they used to—once upon a time, it seems like now—go for walks at dusk, find a spot to watch the sunset, marvel at the quality of light against different parts of the cityscape. They often walked home in full darkness, secure in each other’s handhold, chattering happily about whatever came into their heads, or cloaked in contented quiet. Then, gradually, gradually, as these things happen, the quiet got thicker, the contentment thinner. Before she could trace what had happened, their words had become angry weapons, their silences like sandpaper on each other’s nerves. Then it was bewilderingly over.
And now that ending has passed into a new beginning. But driving this unfamiliar route home, Charlie feels...what is it? Not fear exactly, but not not fear, either. Anxiety. Fidgetiness. Vast plains of uncertainty stretching before her like the road home she’s now navigating: unknown, but somehow familiar. So she does the only thing she can: she follows it.
Prometheus had imagined sculpting them long before he tried it. He thought of what it would feel like to scrape together the soft clay, to shape it and feel it grow warm in his hands. To feel it taking on life. At night he dreamt of creation and awoke with mud clenched in his hands. During the day he went out walking on his own, mostly along the streambed—empty of running water but still wet and mucky from the recent rains. He would squat, push his stick into the surface mud and dig up the clay from underneath. He pressed it between his fingers, sniffed it. Sometimes he would discard what he had gathered and keep walking; other times he would ball it up and put it in his shoulder sack. In the evenings he came home with residues of various colors, browns and grays and rusty-reds, caking his hands and wrists. He dumped out the day’s collections onto the table, sat down and stared at the lumpy balls of clay. Creating life required forethought, he knew.
His first attempts were fruitless. Lifeless. The clay sat moist and motionless in his hands until he squeezed his fists, watched it squish out between his fingers. Then he would try again: shape the arms and the legs, connect head to torso. Nothing. After more futile tries than he cared to count, he brought the figures to Athena.
“Look!” He thrust his hand toward her, boyish as he always was when in the grip of some emotion. “I formed them, but I don’t know how to make them live.” His brow furrowed, and she smiled as he pushed a curl away from his forehead; it fell back into place. “Can you help me? You’re good at this kind of thing.”
She took the figure from him, grasping it gently between thumb and forefinger. She held it up to the sun and squinted at it. “Where is the clay from?” she asked.
“From the stream.”
“Hm. And what have you tried?”
“Waiting. Hoping. Taking them apart and putting them back together scores of times.” Despair entered his voice now along with the frustration. “What else can I do?”
Athena shook her head at him, then laughed. “You’re serious? Oh, you’re so clever, Pro. Think about it. What makes you alive?”
He couldn’t answer right away. Then, cautiously he offered, “My thoughts, my movements. Blood flowing.”
“No, those happen because you’re alive. What makes you alive? What do you share with all living creatures?” She waited a moment, then said, “Watch.”
She breathed gently onto the figure in her hand. It stirred.
With Athena’s breath, the figures took on life. Moved. Sat up. Prometheus watched, delighted, as they began to walk together, to interact. With a broken bit of olive branch, he dug out eyes and mouths, shaped ears and noses onto the softness of their faces. They saw each other at once and spoke together. He formed genitals and so some were male—like Zeus, like himself—and others female—like Athena. He marveled at them, the way they stood and sat, walked and ran. The way they laughed and shouted and hunted and made love. He wanted to teach them everything. Joy surged through him like a second flow of blood.
But not everyone was so joyful.
Word of the new creations got back to Zeus quickly. Maybe Athena went to him—afire with Prometheus’ contagious excitement—straightway when Prometheus left her side. Maybe she only mentioned it in passing and the tale made its way to Zeus in the conventional manner, expanding and contracting with each retelling. Who knows? In a place like Mount Olympus, every story has variations and even the variations have their own versions depending on who’s speaking, and to whom.
This particular rumor came not long after Zeus had called together all the immortals. He spoke of the risks of treachery and the rewards of loyalty. Anyone who did not express utter devotion would be under suspicion of rebellion or worse, he said. Now, with his knowledge of Prometheus’s creation, he wondered, Was it an act of rebellion or of veneration? At any rate, Zeus wanted to know more.
He found Prometheus sitting in the dirt of his courtyard. Not squatting with dignity, but sitting. In the dirt. Prometheus glanced up at his approach, and then spoke softly, almost shyly. “Look at them. They will serve you. Like I do.”
Zeus crouched down and studied the Titan next to him. Unaware, Prometheus continued gazing rapturously at the creatures he had formed. After a moment, he spoke again, barely moving his lips. “You say nothing. What do you think?”
Staring hard at the creatures on the ground before them, Zeus squinted. “They’re...interesting.”
“They’re miracles!” Prometheus’ voice was raw with reverence. “You should see the things they can do. They hunt, they sing, they compete at sport. They are so like us.”
“Interesting, but so small,” Zeus went on as if Prometheus hadn’t spoken. “They’re like little bugs. Watch this.” He tapped one of the creatures on the back of its clay head and it went sprawling. The creature cast a look up at Zeus, scrambled to its feet, and ran toward its mud hut. “I mean, I could squash them just taking a step. What kind of service could these creatures offer?” The god planted his hands on his knees and heaved himself into a standing position. “Make me an army,” he said with a sarcastic smile. “Then I’ll be impressed.”
Prometheus felt the world drop from beneath his feet as Zeus walked away. More than mere breath, it was like some sense of mission, of purpose, was knocked out of him. Of course, Zeus was right. Of course he was. The creatures were worthless, really. They were toys for a child, and Prometheus was no child. He had proven that in battle against the other Titans—had proven that his youth was no match for his valor, that Zeus had his allegiance. And hadn’t Zeus rewarded him afterwards, honored and respected him?
But now that respect had turned to scorn.
Zeus, Prometheus reflected, was different these days. It seemed he lived without any satisfaction. The Titans were overthrown, his brothers freed. One would expect celebration and happiness from that. One would expect continued rejoicing. Instead, Zeus paced. Secretly, Prometheus watched him. Hands folded behind his back, head low, he breathed into his beard and fretted. Power could be removed, that much was clear from recent history. And the same thing might happen to Zeus that had happened to Kronos, his father. So the ruler-god stockpiled allies and power the way other gods stockpiled friends and lovers. He consorted and plotted and built up strength, all the while growing gruffer and stiffer, tucking deeper inside himself. Pulling away from potential foes and allies alike.
Now Prometheus sunk his head to his hands and scowled, staring at the creatures that moved about in front of him. The figure that had been knocked down earlier limped away from its doorway and joined a knot of others. The group looked up at Prometheus, shook their individual heads, expressed their collective discontent. Prometheus felt his joy darken the way smoke blackens and stains a clay dish. In a sudden motion, he brought his fist down onto the small crowd of creatures. He ground down. When there was no life or movement beneath his hand, he gathered the ruined clay, rolled it into a ball, and went inside.