| Icarus never understood his father. His earliest memories were of watching Daedalus work, for hours upon hours, always in silence, with wood or with sandstone or with yellow paper, sketching impossibly complex structures, towers, winding mazes. He watched his father fashion tightly fitted lids for the water jugs so that the beetles wouldn’t infest them, and latches for the doors of their small, stone house that could only be worked from the outside by a secret trick, one that he only shared with his son.
Daedalus spoke little, but sometimes at night, as Icarus lay in bed trying to drift to sleep and his father remained crouched over his work table, the boy coaxed from his father an image of his mother (beautiful, gentle, and strong) or a story of how the two of them had come to live on this island. When the latter subject came up, Icarus saw a fire jump behind his father’s eyes, but his expression never changed as he explained, yet again, about the king who had imprisoned them there.
“I don’t understand, Father,” said Icarus one night, not for the first time, “I don’t feel like a prisoner.”
He liked their house with its little cracks in the thatched roof, through which he could glimpse branches and stars and the occasional bird stealing a straw for its nest, and during the day Icarus was free to walk through the village and down to the beach, with its endless selection of nautilus shells to examine, and pieces of old driftwood, worn impossibly smooth by unimaginable journeys across the sea. In the late afternoons, he could lie on the sand and watch the stars emerge one by one and coalesce into stories of lions and giant scorpions and warriors. Sometimes, the stars made him sad: they seemed so desperately lonely. All night, they moved through the sky, chasing each other endlessly, and never managing to get anywhere. Other times, he felt envious of their vantage point on the world, and of the fact that the whole world could see them too. Sometimes he imagined other boys on other beaches looking up at the same view and thinking the same thoughts that he was thinking. How many other entities in this world could claim that kind of power?
When Icarus said this, Daedalus just sighed, a little wistfully, like his son had missed some greater truth of existence, and without a word, he got into bed and lay still. Icarus felt hurt. He thought it was father who was missing the point. His father never looked away from his tinkering and his sketches long enough to glimpse the stars.
Daedalus was working on a new project for the king. He wouldn’t discuss it with his son, but in a rare moment of solitude in the house, while his father was out getting water or a bundle of paper, Icarus stole to his father’s work table and examined the sketches. On the pages sprawled a vast maze. The complexity of the structure was dizzying. Icarus placed a finger in the center of the sketch, and tried to work out the solution to the puzzle, but no matter how hard he tried, he always ended up alone in some dark corner of the maze, no closer to the fresh air than when he had started. As footsteps approached the front door, Icarus hurriedly left the table, and ran past his father as he reentered the house, and down to the beach. His father watched him run reproachfully, and then returned to his work.
Icarus sat on a boulder on the beach with his legs in the water, and let fish shimmer around his ankles, sometimes nipping at his skin, tickling him.
“You shouldn’t envy my feet,” he whispered to them, “I envy your scales. I would love to gleam like that in the sun. I would love to swim like you and never get tired or have to catch my breath.”
Even in the tower, Icarus didn’t feel like a prisoner. This view, he thought to himself, as he looked out through the great arched openings in the toward, and out across the landscape and out to the sea, This is exactly what it must be like to be a star. I wonder if someone—or a hundred someones—are looking up at us right now, and wondering what it is to be us, to be able to see the entire world at once. On the horizon, the sun was setting over the waves, which seemed serene from this distance. It was ridged glass, catching the deep oranges and reds of the last rays of light, and throwing them against the sides of the village and the trees and the beaches like bright splashes of paint. But he could not admit his awe to his father, as he raged at the sky and the thick stone walls, and the ground far below, though no one could hear him.
“What gives him the right?” Daedalus muttered, pacing, “I worked for years, faithfully. I sacrificed my life, and the opportunity for my son to have any sort of a real life. And for what?”
“Father,” whispered Icarus, “Why has he put us up here?”
Daedalus only sighed, and shook his head, and after placing a rough hand on his son’s shoulder, and giving it a rare squeeze, he turned and walked to the pile of rags in one corner of the tower, and wearily laid down on them, and was still. Icarus stayed up to watch the stars’ lonely drama of unrequitedness play out once again. If only one star would stop chasing the one in front of it, and realize the existence of the one behind. At least those two could be happy.
Icarus awoke the next morning to the smell of blood. He opened his eyes, and at first could not make sense of what he was seeing. There was a pile of small, winged, naked bodies in a dark, sticky pool in the middle of the tower room, and his father was covered in red, and he was bent over a cloud. Icarus wondered if he was still dreaming. He sat up.
Daedalus didn’t look up. Icarus rubbed sleep from his eyes and peered closer at the scene. He realized that it was a pile of feathers that his father was so intent upon, and the bodies in the center of the room belonged to birds. Icarus wondered how his father had managed to catch them.
“What are you doing, Father?” Icarus tried again.
“Help me,” Daedalus rumbled hoarsely. Silently, he gestured toward another dark lump near the pile of feathers. Icarus walked to it and bent to pick it up, but jumped back when he realized he was looking at a bees nest. Daedalus shook his head and made a sweeping gesture with his hand to indicate that its occupants were former.
He said, “You need to get the wax out.”
They worked through countless days, and his father collapsed into the rags when the light was too dim to continue. Icarus wanted to sleep too, but he couldn’t stop his mind from racing from explanation to explanation as to what his father was planning, and to what end. Wax and feathers. He knew Daedalus was brilliant, but who ever constructed a masterpiece from wax and feathers? He looked to the stars for guidance, but they only continued their eternally futile, forlorn courtship. He wanted to help them. He wanted to talk about their plight with his father. But even now, with nothing surrounding him but stone and air, his father still had no time for pondering the heavens.
The word came into Icarus’ mind in a rush. Wind and light were all around him, he was soaring up to the stars to guide them on their way to something better, he was swooping down to skim the waves and let the fish jump along beside him and share in his glee.
Wings. His father was building them wings. Daedalus shook his head tiredly when he saw his son’s excitement.
“I’m not building these so that we can take joy rides, boy. We have to escape this place. We have to get away to somewhere better, somewhere you can have a real life.”
Icarus agreed absently, but he was still with the eagles.
In a few days’ time, Daedalus felt confident enough in his meticulous work for a test run. Icarus begged his father to let him go too, but the old man was firm: he had to make sure they were safe. When the sun finally went down, and Daedalus was satisfied that he would not be spotted by their captors, he strapped the wings to his back, and secured his arms into the braces. He caught his breath as he stood at the edge of the stone floor and looked down at the world, such a very long way below. He looked back at his son, who was watching him eagerly. He walked back to Icarus and, a little awkwardly with the large wings limiting his movements, he placed a hand on his son’s shoulder, and squeezed it. He walked back to the edge of the stone floor, and jumped.
For a few breathless moments, Icarus saw and heard nothing. And then a dark form appeared against the night sky, gliding in the breezes like a giant hawk, a creature out of a myth. Too soon, his father returned to the tower, his face, as always, unchanged.
“We fly tomorrow, at dawn,” he said in a low tone, with just the barest hint of triumph.
Icarus was up before the sun. He sat waiting for his father to rise from the rags. He watched the stars in their last moments of the night, fading slowly into ghosts, and then into nothing as the sky became light. Daedalus stirred, rose, and looked at his son.
“Are you ready?”
Icarus beamed and nodded. Daedalus studied his boy’s face gravely, and fear pulled at the inner corners of his eyebrows. He walked over to Icarus, and placed both hands on the boy’s shoulders, and squeezed them too tightly, and looked directly and steadily into his eyes. Icarus’ smile faded.
“I want you to listen to me carefully,” Daedalus said slowly. Icarus nodded. “If you disappear into your head, you will die. If you let your love for the sea and the stars blind you, you will die. Do not drop close to the waves to talk to your fish friends, and brag that you have become a bird, because the feathers will grow soggy and you will drown, and you will die. Do not cavort with the sun, and tell it that you have finally become as great as he, because he will retaliate, he will melt the wax, and you will fall, and you will drown, and you will die. Do you understand me? You will stay right behind me. You will focus only on me. And together, we will go off to some better place than this prison. I will teach you my trade. You will become someone great, like me. Greater.”
Icarus listened, and felt his heart falling with every word. What is the point? he thought sadly, What is the point of flying if not to feel like a bird? But he nodded solemnly to his father. And they strapped on their wings, and stood ready as the first rays of the sun appeared over the sea.
At first, he was falling. There was a moment of panic. And then he pumped his arms frantically, and he felt his weight being billowed up, and his descent slowed. He made horizontal movements with his arms, and found himself flying forward, following his father toward the sea. He was flying. A bubble of joy welled up from the pit of his stomach, and burst out from his throat in a wild laugh that was immediately carried away by the rushing wind.
Larks were flitting around beneath him and to his left and his right, bobbing and weaving around his wings, like they understood the joy of this fledging, on his first introduction to air. Gold was tingeing the tops of trees and cresting waves on the beach. The view from the tower had nothing on this. Neither did the stars. This was what it meant to be truly alive.
A desolate image pierced his bliss: the life that his father had promised him on the other side of this journey. A life learning to be his father. Icarus looked up at Daedalus, about a hundred feet ahead of him, moving his wings calmly, slowly, with no sign of even slight enjoyment, no hint of temptation to fly higher, or make friends with the larks, who had tried momentarily to engage him, but had soon flown away to more suitable companions. Icarus looked at Daedalus, his frail spine and bowed shoulders, and saw a picture of his future.
Icarus flapped his wings as hard as he could, and caught a gust of wind from the sea, and found himself soaring, fast and furiously, toward the heavens. He felt delirious, exuberant. He took a deep breath, and smelled the salt from below him, and the saw the delicate wisps of clouds above. He thought he heard a voice, shouting for him, but he couldn’t quite make it out above the gleeful warble of the larks around him and the ecstasy shrieking in his soul. He soared out over the waves of the ocean, faster, and faster, and higher. The air grew crisp and cold, and he spiraled toward the sun and felt its warmth on his face. He dove and swirled in the air like a leaf in a windstorm, soared up, and dipped down, closer to the waves, and then up again into the light.
His father was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the island. It was just him and the great expanse of the sea, and the glorious sun, getting higher in the sky by the moment, coming to meet him in the air, to share the majesty of this moment with him. He had to get higher. He had to see what it was like to sit with the sun, perhaps on a cloud, or perhaps just hovering with it. Perhaps he could ask it questions about what it was like to stare down on humanity all day, ask it if it had ever tried to reason with the stars about their plight. He pushed himself into the sky, higher still. And soon, he was so high that the sea appeared completely smooth and serene, just clear, slick, blue glass, shining in absolute light.
He felt wetness on his cheeks, and thought he was crying for the beauty of it all. But he soon realized it was wax. His wings were melting. He sighed and smiled. He had known that the ride had to end eventually. One by one, feathers started falling from him. Soon they were falling faster, in sticky, sodden clumps, and so was he. The wind rushed around him, and the sea was rushing in, its resolution becoming quickly clearer, waves becoming larger, crests becoming higher, and there were the fish, jumping around as if coming to greet him. He was plunged into darkness.
As the world became blue and then black, Icarus couldn’t stop laughing, although the water rushed into his lungs with every burst of ecstatic sound. It was worth it, he thought, almost lazily, as the world was swept away from him, I’m sorry, Father. But it was worth it.