Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Power of Flight

"Remember, my son, to take the middle path. Do not go too high for the sun will scorch you. Venture too low and the surf will drench you. Remember that we are mortal men, and man was not made to fly. Do not tempt the gods. They kill us for their sport."

Father and son stood in the square stone cell and the old man's hands hovered once again over the complex apparatus strapped to the boy's back. He was frowning. The boy wondered why, but he knew better than to ask. Abruptly, the old man turned away, climbed on to the narrow casement and, hesitating a moment before that patch of infinite blue, threw himself forward and disappeared. The boy waited. Almost immediately, the familiar silhouette reappeared, the wings unfurled to catch a current. The man dipped in a low arc and began to fly west, away from the island. The boy had been prepared for this. He crouched on the ledge, looking down at rocks sharp enough to tear a man's flesh. He was falling, dreaming that he was falling, falling, and then-

He was dreaming. He was weightless, a bubble of air and light halfway between the sky and the sea. His eyes were gilded with light. He was not real. Where were his human hands, his human feet, his ungainly human bones? All he was conscious of were the muscles between his shoulder blades flexing instinctively, their dormant power bearing him along on the crest of the wind. The wings, larger than his body from tip to tip, were real, compellingly alive.

His wings. He remembered- the evenings spent at the work table, the bloodless feathers and wax. But, they were his wings. They had been growing there on his body down all the ages of man. I'm flying, the boy told himself. I'm flying, he announced to the sun and the impassive sea. I'm flying! he cried aloud, and there was no one to see or hear.

The gong of bells down below. A ship. Men scurried on the deck, straining in the galleys, hoisting sails, seagulls circling the main mast. Their shrieks and the splash of oars drifted up to the boy across the chasm of air and distance. It was a hot day. The men did not look up. They did not see the dark shape soaring against the white cloudbank, calling to them in vain. The boy was confused. These were men, men like him, and yet not like him. They struggled with their wooden tubs and sweated and cursed, while he flew and danced and dreamed in a world of silken blue sky and living air. He called, but no one heard him, except the youngest lad on board who was on duty in the crow's nest and looked up with a feeling he tried to explain to the other sailors but could not.

The boy flew on. The everchanging waves, tipped with foam, rolled below him. The sky was calm, with only mild gusts that kept him on a steady course. Patches of island appeared where they should; sea birds darted at fish and went about their business. The boy watched them squabbling for morsels, preening their feathers, hardly sparing him a glance. And he knew then that his father had been wrong. He was a mortal man, not a bird, and mortal men were meant to fly. He was not a beast of the air like the gull or the carrion fowl who flew to scramble after fish and worms. He was a man. He could feel. Joy and fear and wonder. The thrill of creating history. Man, more than any other creature, was born to fly because only He could understand the beauty of it. And he was living evidence of this hidden truth. But it could not, it must not stay hidden. The secret had to be shared. He knew that he had been chosen by history to make the start.

The boy did not know it, but his thoughts had not gone unnoticed. High on cold Olympus, the pantheon was in an uproar.

"We can't have this!" shouted Zeus, silencing the hubbub with a thump from his mighty hand. "Who is he? Where did he come from? And... how dare he? Why did no one stop him?"

"His name is Icarus," volunteered Hermes. "Son of Daedalus the artificer. Cretan, male, sixteen years of age. The Fates had predicted that father and son would make their escape from Minos' prison by flight. Artificial wings, wood, wax and feathers. Very elementary. But," he hesitated, "I confess, no one quite foresaw this."

"The humans are becoming impossible," broke in Apollo through the panicked outcry. "We allow them miracles once in a while and see what happens. His cheek! And all these fancies about the beauty and romance of flight. It doesn't mean a thing. The boy's mad."

"He's in love," said Aphrodite firmly, looking at her reflection in a crystal mirror. "He's in love with flying and he wants other men to love it too. How interesting. It's very romantic, really. Icarus," she mused, smiling, "Such a romantic name."

"It's unacceptable," Zeus glared at his daughter. "He's a mortal. We can't have the riffraff thinking above their station. Where does that leave us? The last thing we need is another uprising!" He shuddered inwardly, remembering the last skirmish with the Titans.

"Teach him a lesson, Father," said Apollo virtuously. "I've always maintained you need to be firm with this lot."

"Just a moment," demurred Hermes. "If I may be so bold, striking him down with lightning would be too... messy. Too obvious." Certain that all eyes were upon him, he continued. "Phoebus is right, the humans are forgetting themselves. We need to make them afraid again. Not of us. They won't fear us forever. They must fear themselves."

"What do you mean?" Zeus frowned.

"Father, killing Icarus would make him a martyr. He must not become a hero. He must be a fool. A warning. A moral for children's stories. The humans will fear him and never dare this again for several thousand years."

"So you would have him live?" sneered Apollo.

"Oh no," said Hermes softly. "I will need your assistance, Phoebus. It will require a subtle touch, but don't worry. In the end, he will die."

As he passed the islands of Samos and Delos, Icarus was unaware that an invisible companion had joined him. Hermes, silent and swift on winged feet, conjured a powerful wind. The boy felt a sudden pressure on his wings, bearing him higher and higher off his course. He tried to rein himself in, but his slight arms and shoulders were tiring. A puff from a giant's mouth pushed him upwards, harder, relentlessly. The wind became a gale, breaking the frail wooden rigging of his wings, ripping out feathers. He was being beaten and buffeted like a drift of eiderdown, all the while being carried inexorably higher. His skin glowed with drops of sweat. A burning pain down his back told him that the wax holding his wings together was melting. The boy looked up, only to be blinded. Phoebus Apollo had rent apart the clouds and was shining down from his solar chariot in all his terrible glory. The air was hot, choking. Icarus felt faint. His wings continued to beat feebly but they were coming apart, now smaller than his torso. His head was light. He was dreaming again, and all he could see was the sun, as malevolent as the eye of some vengeful god, boring into his own.

No one saw him fall, arms upraised in a last futile gesture. Fishes found his smooth white body and picked the bones clean. The mass of rotting wood and feathers drifted for days in the slow green shallows that today bear his name. An old man waited on an alien shore, searching with anguished eyes. The gods ruled on Olympus. Ships sailed, cattle grazed, birds flew. Man laboured on the earth, unknowing, unseeing. And another story was born. This was not it.


Tara said...

Wonderfully written, this.

Riddhi G.D said...

This was quite devastating

reflections said...

"Till, swollen with a cunning of self-conceit
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, Heavens conspired his overthrow."

This one,beautifully written.

Anonymous said...

why would you turn a tale of human folly into divine retribution? was it merely a reenactment you were attempting or are there layers of iconography i simply do not see?

blinknmiss said...

@ Surreptitious Stranger:

I don't know too much about iconography. But stories are common property, so I did with this what I wanted. And, the way I saw it, this wasn't about divine retribution at all, really.

@ Rest:

Thank you.