Walter Mosley is delivering two speculative tales, in one volume, of everyday people exposed to life-altering truths. They are The Gift of Fire and On The Head of a Pin, and the book is due out on May 8! While you’re waiting, we thought we’d give you an excerpt of both stories…:
The Gift of Fire
In ancient mythology, the Titan Prometheus was punished by the gods for bringing man the gift of fire—an event that set humankind on its course of knowledge. As punishment for making man as powerful as gods, Prometheus was bound to a rock; every day his immortal body was devoured by a giant eagle. But in The Gift of Fire, those chains cease to be, and the great champion of man walks from that immortal prison into present-day South Central Los Angeles.
On the Head of a Pin
Joshua Winterland and Ana Fried are working at Jennings-Tremont Enterprises when they make the most important discovery in the history of this world—or possibly the next. JTE is developing advanced animatronics editing techniques to create high-end movies indistinguishable from live-action. Long dead stars can now share the screen with today’s A-list. But one night Joshua and Ana discover something lingering in the rendered footage…an entity that will lead them into a new age beyond the reality they have come to know.
The Gift of Fire
The eagle had already gouged out his belly when lightning struck metal at early dawn and Prometheus—goldenskinned, curly-haired, brown-eyed son of the Mediterranean Spirit—slipped his chains, gathered his intestines up in his left hand, and made his way clambering down the mountain path; that long forgotten trail that once connected Gods and Men . . . and Titans. Behind him he could hear the ravenous eagle crying out for blood. Every day for three thousand years the hungry bird ate his liver, leaving him at night so that the organs and flesh and broken bones grew and knit back together befitting his immortal nature. In spring the hideous fowl brought his chicks to peck and pull at the cords of skin and meat. Every bite and tug sent agony through the beautiful Titan’s frame, racking him in agony, leaving him spent and yet unable to die.
Crying, he ran down in the shadow of overhanging rocks and trees. He ran, muttering to himself, “I have not yet finished. The gift of the gods is incomplete.”
His father, Iapetus, or his mother, Clymene, of the ocean, if they had seen their son, would have told him to forget his quest, to go to some peaceful place, maybe the Elysian Fields, and hide from the vengeance of the gods. Hiding was the only escape. Even his brother Atlas did not have the strength to defy Zeus and his heavenly host.
Prometheus sorely missed his mother and brother, his father and other siblings, but he had gone mad chained to that rock, tortured by the evil bird and the God King’s curse.
He wanted to hide, to be soothed from the suffering that had been brought down upon him. But he could not forget the job left undone: his misery and Man’s.
“Run away,” he said to himself. “Hide down under the earth where Pluto might protect you. Dive down under the ocean of the gods and beg Neptune to hide you.
“No,” he said then. “I will not cower and beg as I have done for all these centuries. I will not bend my knee, lower my head, or forget my mission. May the gods choke on the caprice of their actions, may they die upon their hallowed mount forgotten in the minds of their minions.”
And while the eagle wheeled in the sky the diminished Titan made his way under shadow of leaf and cover of night until he was away from the land of the gods, arriving where everything is mortal and anyone, even a god, can die.
He found himself upon a hilltop. To his right rolled the waves of a great ocean and to his left sprawled a mortal city with its temporary structures and its people who lived and died without suspicion of the knowledge that they partially comprehended but never knew. The smell of their smoke and feces filled his nostrils and burned his eyes. It was ever this way when gods and Titans mingled among humans. Mortals were like animals to those of the higher planes, snuffling and snorting and spraying urine to mark their domain.
Los Angeles was to Prometheus like a dung hill is to a swan—dirty and diseased, stinking of mortality—and yet these were the fallow grounds for the possibility of life.
On The Head of A Pin
I was working at Jennings-Tremont Enterprises (JTE) when Ana Fried and, I suppose, the rest of us, quite by accident, happened upon the most important discovery in the history of this world, or the next.
JTE’s primary work was developing advanced animatronic editing techniques for film. It was our job, or at least the job of the scientists and programmers, to develop animation tools that would create high-end movies indistinguishable from live action.
Joseph Jennings’s childhood dream was to make new movies with old-time stars. He wanted Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre side by side with Rudolph Valentino, Myrna Loy, Marlon Brando, and Natalie Portman. These new classics, he envisioned, could be made in small laboratories by purely technical means. Had we been successful, the stock in JTE would have been worth billions. Instead, we were secretly vilified, physically quarantined, and warned, under threat of death, not to create documents such as this one. Writing this memoir, my second act of true rebellion, is necessary in spite of the danger because there must be some record of what really transpired in case the government gets to me before the Alto arrive.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
My name is Joshua Winterland. I suppose you could call me a failed writer. Failed is a harsh word but valid in this case, because all my life I wanted to be a playwright. I’ve written thirty-seven plays that have each been rejected by every theater, playwriting competition, and creative writing school in the country.
I am thirty-nine years old and have been writing since the age of nine.
When I realized that I’d never be successful, or even produced, as a playwright I began work as a technical writer for a succession of various companies and institutions in California’s Silicon Valley. I was the guy who wrote the manuals for new hard and software. My day’s work was to help consumers figure out what tab to hit and where to look up the serial number, how to register online or over the telephone, and what safety precautions to take before turning on a new system.
My fate was recast when the country went into a serious economic recession and, coincidentally, my girlfriend, Lena Berston, woke up one day to realize that she was in love with my childhood friend Ralph Tracer.
Lena told me one morning, before I was off to work at Interdyne, that Ralph had called because he was coming in from San Francisco that evening and she had offered to cook dinner for the three of us. I thought this was odd because Lena rarely cooked on weeknights, and she had always said that Ralph wasn’t her kind of person.
“It’s not that I don’t like him,” she’d said more than once, “but he just doesn’t interest me.”
I didn’t give it any serious thought. Ralph was a good guy. I’d known him since junior high school in Oakland. He was from a different neighborhood but we made an early bond. We’d talked to each other at least once a week since I was thirteen years old, sharing our boyhood dreams. I planned to be a playwright and he wanted, in the worst way, to lose his virginity.
Our goals alone spoke volumes about the value of reduced expectations.
When I got home Ralph was already there sitting at the kitchen table. Lena was cooking. I felt proud that she was my girlfriend and that she was wearing her sexy, rainbowcolored, short skirt. Between the two of us Ralph had always been the ladies man. I had spent most of my life between girlfriends, and so being with Lena made me feel very, very good.
Don’t get me wrong . . . I really liked her as a person. If you had asked me at any time before that last dinner I would have told you that I loved her. But after what happened that love got lost and I can no longer speak for it.
“Lena and I have something that we need to talk to you about, buddy,” Ralph said in the lull between the soup and the rack of lamb.
“What’s that?” the fool asked.
When I glanced at Lena she turned away, but still I didn’t get the message. It’s amazing how human nature creates the feeling of security for itself, believing in a world that might cease to exist at any moment—might already be gone.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Lena said, forcing herself to look me in the eye.
She had come back to the table without the meat. This I took as a bad sign.
“Lena was up in San Francisco,” Ralph was saying. “I’d told her that I knew the curator of modern art at the Freierson Museum.”
“Yeah. I remember.”
“She came by the house and I offered her a drink. That’s all.”
“That was nine months ago,” I said, thinking of all the nights in the last nine months when Lena had been too tired to make love.
“We tried to stop, Josh,” Lena said. “Every time I went to see Ralphie I swore I’d never do it again. But . . .”
“We didn’t mean to hurt you, buddy,” my onetime friend said.
They both talked more. I can remember words but not the ideas or concepts they formed. I listened politely for maybe a dozen minutes before standing up. Ralph, I remember, got to his feet, too. Maybe he thought I was going to hit him. I don’t know.
I took my jacket from the hook on the wall and walked out of the house. Lena, to her credit, followed and pleaded with me. I think she said that they would leave the house for me to live in. I’m not sure. I drove off and stayed at a motel that night. In the morning, nineteen minutes after I’d gotten to work, I was informed that Interdyne had gone out of business due to a dip in the stock market the night before.
The motel was called the Horseshoe Inn. It cost sixty-four dollars a night to stay there (plus tax and county fees). I went to thirty-six tech labs in the area over the next five business days; no one was hiring and many were laying people off.
That Wednesday I drove down to L.A., bought a newspaper in Beverly Hills, and applied for a job at JTE Labs in Redondo Beach. Being a California company, and therefore at least partially New Age, they wanted to hire a writer to record the progress of their research, a kind of Have Memoir Will Travel. I was to use video cameras, a computer journal, and even pen and paper in a pinch. Once every two weeks I interviewed all the nineteen employees, myself, and the boss—Joe Jennings.
That’s really why I’m risking my life creating this document; just in case my plans fall short. It was my job, my only purpose, to record this story. And seeing that the content is of monumental importance I cannot allow special interests, government institutions, and/or religious bodies to stop the advancement of science.
I stopped writing for a while after the last word of the previous sentence because I can’t vouch for its veracity. The idea that we’re dealing with science was at best an assumption on our part. And not all of us at that. Cosmo Campobasso believed that the Sail (which is as much his creation as anyone else’s) was a window to God. He wouldn’t have used those words—he called the Sail the Blank Page and believed that he saw Mother Mary standing next to me on a Santa Monica rooftop.
Cosmo was an unschooled immigrant from the Sunnino Mountains of the Molise region of southern Italy. A craftsman, he wove the nine-by-twelve-foot fiber-optic tapestry that is the Blank Page, the Sail. The millions of spiderwebthin strands were meticulously interlaced by the barely educated artisan over a six-year period.
Every morning when I got in, big, lumpy Cosmo had already been there for hours pulling the nearly invisible strands across the broad loom. The Page, as it grew, was a gossamer, semiopaque, and diaphanous fabric that rippled and flowed on its cherry wood, lead-fretted frame. The care that Cosmo exhibited was more than any man of the modern age would have been able to sustain. His assistant, Hampton Briggs of Watts, took the ends of each strand and connected them to one of the sixteen motherboards that were suspended around the growing tapestry. These millions of connective strands glistened in the space around the floating, nacreous Page.
The Page Room, as it was called by some, was an old airplane hangar from the 1930s set on property that JT Enterprises bought at auction when the previous owners, inept real estate speculators, went into bankruptcy. The Blank Page looked to me like the sail on a small schooner, picking up breezes that seemed to come from another dimension, hovering above the corroded concrete floor like a mortal’s unconscious dream of divinity. I’m no scientist but I’ve been told that the places where the minute fiber-optic strands intersected cause an entry in the computer system that it was connected to. This entry is a bit of data that could be manipulated as far as hue, intensity, and texture. And even though very little energy passed through the Page, a strong light from behind was designed to bring out the images wrought by JTE’s copyrighted software.
These tiny intersections were created not only by their proximity but also by Cosmo’s impressing them with two tiny silver rollers that he created after being told by Ana Fried what was necessary for the computer system.
There was some speculation toward the end there that the frets of lead and silver rollers had an impact on the final outcome of the Sail. This conjecture reveals the underlying spiritual questions about the project and its miraculous output.
“What we are doing here,” diminutive, sixty-one-year-old Ana Fried told my camera at an early stage of my position as Company Scribe, “is re-creating reality. Within ten years I will be able to generate a film of you at the battle of Appomattox, or among the onlookers at Caesar’s assassination. No one will be able to tell the difference between reality and our images.”
“What will be the applications of this new software?” I asked, sitting, as always, off camera.
“We will be one step down from the Creator,” she said, her olive-hued face tightening into an expression that she considered dramatic. “Imagining a world and then making it.”
The Gift of the Fire/On The Head of A Pin © Walter Mosley 2012