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Attempting Myth

The following passage opens a short story I’m working on called “It Has Always Burned.” The working title suggests the central theme, which is the idea that every technology, even our very earliest one, results in unintended and often disastrous consequences, the illusion of control, and wrong-headed hubris.

That we don’t fully know the story about how people first began using fire inspired me to create a myth of my own, but it has been a satisfying challenge to create the characters and the setting. Enjoy!

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It Has Always Burned

Everything we needed to know was right there from the beginning. The legends tell us that those who discovered fire hoarded their secret and refused to share it with others. The tribes with fire thrived. While the others suffered from the illusion of a ruthless world, those with fire learned that control meant salvation. With fire they could light their way and warm the night; with fire they could change.

They say it began on the night of the lightning storm, when Crow went to the split tree that was still burning. The flames looked like shiny orange birds dancing a woman’s dance, the colorful swaying and the sudden jerk, as if caught in the rhythm of drums. The flames kept everyone else back, but Crow drove a branch into the white-hot middle until the tip was charred black, and he commanded the others to gather as much wood as they could carry. They returned to camp laden with sticks and branches, which they piled up in a circle while Crow waited, the fire in his hands, eyeing their hurried movements with arrogance. Majestically he walked around the circle of wood after they finished, his face twisted by the light of the flames.

“This is the blood of the great spirit,” he said. “In anger she casts her light down from the stars and it becomes like the sun, but she does it out of love, to make this world new.” He held the branch high in the air. “This is a gift,” he said, and he laid it down in the center of the pile. “Light to make our way through the darkness.” A gust of wind swept through the trees and coaxed the flames, and they rose up, consuming the branch, a threat to the pile of old wood if not for the rain. The clouds overhead darkened and fat raindrops pelted the hissing flames.

“You challenged her,” Coyote said. He glared at Crow from where he stood near the pile, his arms crossed. “And she won.” He did not like to see the Great Spirit mocked, for he knew how she humored them. All of them dreamed about flowing like the river or looking down on the world from the treetops, but it could not be. The Great Spirit tempted them constantly, but to play her game was hopeless. Her mystery was too vast.

“We will see.” Crow huffed off into the night, and the rest of the tribe huddled under the rock eave, out of the rain.

Stone sat in the dirt and leaned against the wall of rock behind him. He looked at Coyote thoughtfully. “He may be right. It could be a gift.”

“He does it for us, you know,” Flower said. Her long hair, tousled by the wind, framed her soft face. Her sharp eyes searched Coyote, who sat down near the cave mouth. Bear and Moon shifted, sharing the wall with him.

Coyote flinched. “When did he tell you this?”

“We will not stop him,” Stone said. He held a large hand up, his palm nearly as broad as Coyote’s face, and the sound of his voice stopped the discussion like a clap of thunder. There would be no more talk until Crow returned.

The rain let up while Crow walked back to camp with another branch, this one much thicker than the last. He held it to one side to shield it from the gusts of wind coming in from the east. “Help me move these under the rocks,” he said when he was close enough to see them. “I was too hasty before. She is like us, weak when young.”

The tribe quickly moved the branches beneath the eave, and Crow kicked together a small pile. He laid the fire down and it soon consumed the smaller sticks. The center of the circle blazed up, the flames rising as high as the overhanging eave. The rock wall absorbed the heat, and the small group gathered under the misting night sky, forming a crescent around the leaping flames.

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