The Story of Icarus

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“And we shall take wax,” his father said, “and feathers.  I have been thinking these long days:  my little brain has not been idle.  Here on the wall you see how I have sketched the wings of geese and eagles… see?  And here the mallard’s wing?  And here the dove’s…?  We shall collect the feathers from all kinds of birds, the strongest, finest feathers, and we shall arrange them into the form of great wings and bind them into shape with wax.  And then, by attaching the wings to our own strong arms, we shall fly across the sea to Athens, and to freedom.  See?  Your father is a man of many talents, Icarus, more than just an architect.  We shall employ the feather of the eagle for its swiftness, and of the seagull for its ease of flight.  Perhaps the magpie for its impertinence, for we shall be impertinent in our adventure, and the tiny sparrow for its hardness:  I have not yet decided.  But taking from each bird its special quality, we shall take unto ourselves the powers of the greatest birds imaginable, and we shall fly to freedom.  Yes.  I have been thinking:  together we shall fly more freely than the newborn Phoenix as it rises from its ashes.  You understand, my boy?”

The newborn Phoenix, yes, thought Icarus, who understood.  The Phoenix rises from its ashes only to return to them.  And you will find another set of walls for me in Athens.

“When?” he asked, although he knew this was a pointless question.

“When we are released from the labyrinth,” his father answered, and his eyes were simple in the half-light, young.

Ah, when we are released, we shall escape, thought Icarus.  I see.  My father, you are more the child than I, with all your games.

“And when will King Minos release us?” he asked.

“When he can find us,” Daedalus replied, and laughed.  “I did not build this labyrinth to no purpose.”

But so that you yourself might be incarcerated in it.

And when will that be?” asked Icarus again.

“When I am ready,” said the architect, and laughed, too hard this time.  “Yes… When I have finished my designs, you see.  I am not ready yet.  Go, boy, find the Minotaur.”

An old joke, past ageing now with constant repetition.  Daedalus took up a sharp pebble and started scratching at the wall again, immediately lost inside his own abstractions.

Icarus sat and watched the straightness of the corridor, looking for some sign of hope:  the bending of a line, perhaps, or the suggestion of a shadow here or there.  Perhaps with time he might be able to perceive, or even to invent, some kind of imperfection in this prison, some promise of alternatives, however minimal.  The slightest aberration would give comfort.

Indeed there were times when he wished the Minotaur were still alive and prowling through the labyrinth as desperate as he.

There might be some hope of escape then:  not through the doorway he could never find alone, but through the crushing hotness of the monster’s jaws, into the welcoming and welcome darkness of some other place, where he might lose his father.  Some other place, and with them, all my thoughts … But no, my father, all your plans are perfect.  And I am at their very centre, here.

For Daedalus appeared quite happy in the labyrinth he had created, despite his talk of wonderful escapes.  This man, who latterly had sculpted figures as other men could only dream them, seemed now to desire nothing more than the whispered scratch of stone on stone, the listless tap-tap-tap of meditation.

And days stretched to weeks, and still he kept his childish smile, and still he ran his fingers through his son’s hair, or pinched his tightening, cheek, his eyes entirely blind to everything except the fragile, complex lines of his invention.

Sometimes Icarus thought that Daedalus had built the labyrinth not for Minos, but for one sole purpose:  to lock his son inside the sterile alleys of his brain:  there he might truly sculpt his living image, slowly, with control.  I did not ask to come to Crete, breathed Icarus, perhaps aloud.  I did not ask to be your son.   I did not ask – but no: but no.  No hint of a bend in the line, no deepening of twilight into shadow.  Only an absolute straightness, an immaculate correspondence of angles.

Days passed, or simply time.  Half blind with half-light, and with tears that would not fall, Icarus studied his own, less complex designs, and taught himself to hate his father.

“We shall fly, my boy,” his father called out between mutterings.

And then to pity him:  the owl for its intelligence, the buzzard for its open eye …

“I think I hear the Minotaur,” his father chuckled through his ragged beard.

And soon to hate him once again, but harder, more skilfully.

“Icarus!” His father called one day.  “Come, boy!”

That Come, boy like a little crow of triumph every time:  you are my son, it said, I am your father, come, boy …  Icarus appeared from round a nearby corner.  Although they had long been inside the labyrinth, he was still afraid to venture too far.  And where was there to go, in any case?

“Which is the swifter,” asked Daedalus without looking up from his work, “the goldfinch or the eagle?”

“Oh, the eagle.”

“Wrong.  The goshawk.  Ha!” And he went on scratching at the wall:  the designs extended for yards now.  “You must not choose the obvious, you see,” he said.  “No great man ever dwells for long upon the obvious.”

“When shall we leave?” asked Icarus, and the question slid and whined inside his skull.

“Eh?” But Daedalus was lost again.

“When shall we leave this place?”

When King Minos finds us, said an echo.  The scratchings on the wall were growing louder daily.

No, when your father chooses, said a second echo, and the scratchings hurt the inside of his ears.

You cannot leave the labyrinth, a final echo answered him, or scored across his brain.  You cannot leave.

Daedalus went on scratching at the wall, scoring and stippling it, covering it with the detailed shapes of feathers and with the stranger, far more potent shapes of numbers.  These figures frightened Icarus, who could not understand them.  And so he spread his arms, and raised them up and down.

“Like this?” he lisped, or challenged, as he swung from side to side.


“Like this?”

“No, I shall teach you, there will be a special way.”

“But can’t I practise now?”

“A special way, which must be used.”  Daedalus frowned.  “I have not yet invented it,” he said.  “Now leave me boy, I’m busy at the moment, I have my plans to do.  Unless you want to fly through water back to Athens, ha …”

Fly through water, fly through water … Yes, thought Icarus.  If I could fly through ice I would, to free myself.  If I could fly through clay, or through these very walls, or through the densest tombstone marble, I would fly, without the aid of wings.  If I could only see the sun I’d haul it down.  I’d climb into it, lose myself within the very centre …

If I could breathe one breath outside this prison you have made for me.

He practised exits, trivial escapes, or escapades, always fleeing back into the apparent freedom of his own childhood:  a childhood that had stopped, it seemed, outside these very walls.  Through cypress-groves and vineyards he wandered, holding a huge green olive intact on his tongue and wondering what magical accident of stone or shadow would appear and grant him permission to crush the swelling flesh; down the hot white streets of Athens with their stench and bustle, past laden donkeys, soldiers, in and out of market-stalls, then, slipping through a side door, he would find himself inside the sudden, shocking coolness of a temple, where he would strain his ears, and crane his neck, then spit upon the floor and chase outside, haring down the street with the saliva still running down his chin, dodging a water-carrier, a stray dog and a beggar before finally crashing into a massive stack of polished pomegranates and falling to the floor with his knee bleeding and an old woman shouting and an old man laughing.

Or he would walk along the river, with its jewels of stone, and arrow-fishes, through the woods, the river’s steady sheen still dancing in his eyes as he threaded through the tree-trunks, idly peeling off the dry grey bark, or squashing pine-cones under his feet, then climb into the hills, where he would pick up stones and cast them at the sun and listen, listen, listen for their mocking clatter as they rattled down the rocks below.  And lying on the hillside, heavy with the sun and doubly wise, he would catch slow, stupid lizards with his hands, and smash their jiggling heads to pulp upon a sharp-edged stone.

There was freedom in the tiny trickle of their brains.

But always back to Athens, down the hill and through the woods and back into his father’s house, where Daedalus would pat him on the head, demand a kiss, and tell him not to touch the statues on which he was working; my boy, my boy, now leave me, boy, one day I’ll teach you to invent like me.  (And when will that day come?)  Now leave me.  (When?)  Here, kiss your father once before you go.  (It will not come, it will not come …)  Always he returned to this, his thin, inventor-father, his kiss-me-leave-me-father, through whose invention he now walked, slowly, one hand on the wall.

To escape the labyrinth was not enough, it seemed, this actual labyrinth in which King Minos had imprisoned them as punishment for Daedalus’ treachery in helping Ariadne.  For even on the hilltop he had walked these corridors, though all unknowingly:  one needs no stone to build a prison.  If I am to escape, thought Icarus, I must escape all labyrinths:  all that I know of my father, all that my father has made of me.  Yes.  One cannot walk into that kind of freedom, for walking merely leads to circles. 

One must fly, perhaps.  Or just cease moving altogether.  Or just cease moving:  then the labyrinth will cease to lead me.

Another time his father said: “We must be careful how we fly, neither too high, nor too low.  For if we fly too high, the sun will melt down the wax that binds our wings together.  And if we fly too low, the waves will wet our wings and bring us down, the middle course in all things is the wisest.”  He tugged at his beard.  “The middle course in all things, as the sages say.  You would not like to swim to Athens, would you?”

“But how high may we fly?”  asked Icarus.

“A reasonable height.”

“How high is that?”

“It will be evident when we embark.”

Like cripples hobbling through the air, thought Icarus, if we must fly between such limits.

“What happens in the centre of the sun?”  he asked, not knowing why he asked this question.

“The centre of the sun?”  Daedalus paused for a moment.  “Such question, boy, is foolish.”  Like most fathers, he tended to underestimate his son’s age.  “The centre of the sun, indeed …”

“Yes, in the very centre?  What happens there?”

“You cannot fly too near the sun, I’ve said already.”

“But anyway?”

“Why do you ask?” snapped Daedalus.  “More things than tongue can tell, what else should happen in the centre of the sun?  You must not fly too near the sun, I warn you now, or you will fall to ruin.  My calculations give us only certain leeway.  Now leave me, I have almost finished my designs.  Here,” he said, and stroked Icarus’ head with an extended hand, ruffling the hair a little.  “Now leave me.”

And Icarus left him, with his nails dug in his palms, his face like wood, but burning.  But there were things his father did not know, it seemed, and here he sensed an imperfection, and, perhaps, a doorway.  And in the days that followed, the doorway, gently, simply shaped itself to Icarus’ incessant thought.  The light beyond, when it at last appeared, was blinding in its beauty.

I will not fly too near the sun, thought Icarus.  I will not fly too near.  Just near enough.  Just near enough …

Soon after, Daedalus called Icarus to him.  “It’s time we left,” he said.  “My plans are finished.  I have memorised them all.”

“But we are lost in here,” said Icarus, who knew the truth as well as did his father.  “You said so.”

“Ah,” and his father threw his head back, and his smile was broad, “only to prevent you straying.”

“So, all the time …”

“I knew the way out, yes.  But I needed to finish my work before we left.  Now I am ready.  Here, hold my hand.  Here, hold it.  I know how to escape.  I built this labyrinth.”

His hand was hot and wiry and it gripped too hard as he led Icarus through the maze of constantly repeating corridors and corners, each one indistinguishable from the last.  Never deviating, never pausing, he walked his labyrinth as one might walk a summer street – head up, spring-heeled, enjoying every step as if it were particular.

It was not long before they reached the outside.

The world of blue and brown and scattered green was like a carnival after the twilight of the labyrinth, and Icarus could scarcely bear it.  The sunlight hurt his eyes, the distant groan of sea on shore was deafening.  So that he was glad when his father kept hold of his hand, although he gripped too tightly, and led him through the palace gardens and across the cifftops.

“If Minos finds out we have escaped,” said Daedalus, “his guards will hunt us down and kill us.  That is why I stayed so long inside the labyrinth to complete my plans.  But now we must act, and build the wings themselves.  Oh, I can put my hand to more than architecture, you will see.”  And he whistled as he walked, quite tunelessly.

After some time they found a cave under a cliff-edge, not far from the palace grounds, but well secluded.  It was warm, and dry, and large enough to hide them both.

“I will leave you here,” said Daedalus, “and go forth to fetch what we need to make the wings.”

“Can I not help you?”  Icarus asked, although he knew the answer.

“No, you must stay here and guard the cave.  It would not be safe for you to wander.”  And as an afterthought, he added:  “Watch the birds.  We shall be flying like them very soon.  Like birds.”

Daedalus made many sorties from the cave whilst Icarus waited, watching the wheeling gulls, and how they never fell.  Their shrieks mapped circles on the wind.

Daedalus was diligent and daring in his quest.  From the workshops for the palace itself he stole the wax with which to bind the feathers, and the strips of thong with which he would attach the bound wings to their arms.  He scaled sheer cliffs to find the feathers of the seagull, tall trees to find the feathers of the magpie and the raven.  He climbed into the mountains for the feathers of the eagle and the buzzard.  He stalked his way into the palace gardens to collect the feathers of the mallard from the lakeside.

By night, he raided farmyards for the softest feathers of the goose.  In temples and in barns he sought the feathers of the owl.  And here and there, caught on a thornbush or trembling in a little hollow in the rock, his sharp eyes would pick out the feather of a lark, or of a blackbird, or a goldfinch.  Each night he would return, a little bunch of feathers held carefully between his fingertips.

“May I not touch them?”  Icarus would ask.

“You may not touch them, you will spoil the shape.  You are to guard them.  Guard the feathers, it will not be long.”

Such words helped Icarus perfect his hatred of his father.  Watching the gulls, that never fell.  How helpless is a bird, he thought, that cannot fall, but always has to fly.  Threading their own strict corridors of air, returning every time to that same spot upon the cliff-face.  Their constant mewing might be desperation, not stupidity.

Days passed, the pile of feathers grew.  After a while Daedalus began to sort them into groups, and count them.

“I cannot find the feathers of the Phoenix,” he told Icarus.

“But the Phoenix never sheds its feathers.  Father, you knew that?”

“Yes … Yes of course.  But if we had been able to use them, the Phoenix’ feathers would have guaranteed our safety:  even if we fell, they would have borne us up.  Now we shall have to fly … more carefully, that’s all.”

“I shall fly carefully, father,” said Icarus, whose safety was now guaranteed.

“Yes, yes of course.  I shall use the sparrowhawk instead.  For its diving and its soaring.”  And he left the cave, abstractedly, with one had on his brow, his head bowed.

Oh father, you are best at architecture, I am glad to say.

When Daedalus returned with the long tail-feathers of the sparrowhawk, his quest was finished.  With patience and dexterity he began to bind the feathers into shape.

“Can I help you?”  Icarus asked.

“No, boy, you may spoil the whole design.”

“Can I not soften the wax for you, at least?”


“Or hand the feathers to use?  At least?”  In testing out his father, Icarus was testing out himself.  He wanted proof of his resolve.

“No, you sit and wait.  It’s better that I work alone.  It won’t be long.”

Icarus’ heart swelled with joy at this answer.  No:  there would be no redemption for his father.

At last both pairs of wings were finished, each feather in its proper place.  They scintillated in the shaft of sunlight which pierced the cave, a miracle of pattern and design, more gaudy and more crisp than any living wing.  Which made their human bodies look more claylike and absurd, though Icarus.  You have your vanity, my father, you would outwing the eagle.

Daedalus helped Icarus into his wings, and tied the thongs for him.

“You see?”  He said.  “They fit the arms exactly.”

“Thank you, father.”

“You are pleased?”

“Thank you father, they are beautiful.”

“Oh they are perfect, they will take me where I want to go.  No pattern could be finer, no structure more nicely balanced.  And they will take me where I want to go.”

Daedalus put on his own wings.

“May I help you, father?”  (Oh, hard to keep his face from breaking out in fangs of joy now, hard).

“No, boy, I’ll put them on myself.  And they will work, you see?  They’ll take us back to Athens.  Yes, I am more than just an architect.”

“You are a creator, father.”

“Yes,” said Daedalus.  “I am.”

Then study now your favourite creation.

They stood upon the narrow ledge before the cave.  Far below the sea was tempting with its dazzling rockpools, and the violence of the spray which left them quite untouched.  But Icarus wanted to be sure.  He wanted to escape by water, not by stone.

“Father, may I fly first?”  The wind was ruffling his feathers, promising freedom with every precious little pull.

“You may fly first, and I will follow you.  Then I can watch you.  Use even, steady wingbeats.  Do not flap, and do not glide:  the middle course in all things.  These wings will take us, have no fear.  By night we shall be back in Athens.”

“I am not afraid.”

“You must be careful.  Neither too high nor too low.”

“Only high enough, my father.”

“Only high enough.”

Daedalus attempted to reach out his hand to give his son his blessing.  But his arm, stiffened by the glittering wing, would only arc a strange farewell.

“Go now,” he said quietly.

Icarus raised his arms, and stared into the sun.  Then let it blind me.  Let it burn my vision to forgetfulness.

And now it was so easy.  Springing upwards from the ledge, Icarus flapped his arms and soared into the air.  As he beat his arms, at first irregularly, then more steadily, Icarus thrilled to the luxurious power of the wings, and he was very nearly tempted into circling like the gulls that he had watched so often, merely to indulge in the dizzying ecstasy of flight.  But no:  to start the smallest circle would be to complete it, then repeat it.  He must cut his own clear lines to freedom.  And so he beat on, ever faster, ever higher, the wind like sirens in his ears, urging him on, higher and yet higher, beyond reach of his father’s cries, beyond reach of his father, out at last, out of the labyrinth which had been his life.  He strove to touch the very sun, his helper.

And as he looked below, he saw the calm sea like mirror, waiting to be broken; suddenly, the taste of olives welled inside his mouth.

The wax began to soften.  One by one, the feathers pulled away.  The feathers of the eagle and the goldfinch, of the magpie and the owl, of the blackbird and the sparrowhawk, all showered away from Icarus in a brightly-coloured snowfall that would not light upon the surface of the sea till Icarus was far beneath it.  Were the wind not roaring in his throat he would himself have roared with laughter, to watch them fall so very slowly.  As the power left his arms, he could have sung.  And as he fell, he clenched his naked hands in fists of triumph, weeping now to welcome the approaching sea, and its sweet and shapeless, silent current that would wash him of all feathers and all labyrinths and slowly, gently pick him into formless freedom.

The taste of olives was the last he knew; and then he smashed the mirror.

But Daedalus, transfixed, was watching from the cliff.  His wings twitched with involuntary, helpless jerks, a little comically.

And it was Daedalus, the architect and the inventor, who told the tale when he returned to Athens.


First published in Takahe Issue 21, Summer 1994

©Jonathan Steffen, all rights reserved

Image by Shahmeer Shahid