Ἴκαρος (Icarus), or The Inherent Danger in Wanting Too Much

“Father, may I see yet?” Icarus danced at his father’s side, trying to see around his back. Daedalus pushed him away impatiently.

“No, child. Leave me alone.”

“But you said – ”

“I said leave me alone!”

Icarus shrank back. Slowly, he turned and retreated to his corner of the room, where all of his things were. He didn’t have much – just a few meager belongings he’d been permitted to bring down in the Labyrinth when he and Father had been exiled here. They’d been here for so long; he’d lost track of the days. Icarus was getting bored. He longed to see the outside world again. He wanted to smell the air and feel the earth under his feet, to roll in the grass and see the sky once more. Oh, the sky! How wonderful it was. Icarus loved the sky. He loved the blue and the clouds and the blazing sun. Sometimes he wished some god or another would turn him into a bird, so that he would know the feeling of flying. He always dreamt of what it must be like to be a bird. He imagined it would be quite wonderful.

Icarus often thought of what had happened to his cousin, Perdix. He got to fly through the skies as he pleased, across oceans and vast stretches of land. He imagined how it must feel to glide on the magnificent breath of Aeolus, to be lifted on the wings of the wind. To be free.

Icarus had heard the stories, of course, about his ill-fated cousin. As he was growing up in the halls of King Minos’s palace, he had heard the servants whisper to each other about the sins his father had committed. At first he refused to believe it. His father could never be so cruel. To prove it, he asked Daedalus for the truth one day, expecting him to say that it was all slanderous lies, that he would never do something so horrible, so unforgivable. But his father became angrier than Icarus had ever seen him. Daedalus slapped him and left a burning red mark on his cheek. Icarus cried and ran to his mother for comfort, and when Naucrate asked him why he was so upset, he told her what Daedalus had done. His mother told him the story out of pity for her son.

“Your father is a kind man,” Naucrate said, cradling Icarus in her lap. She stroked his light hair and put her arms around him. “But even kind men have their secrets.”

“It can’t be true,” Icarus sobbed, grasping at his mother’s dress. “Father would never do something like that.”

“My poor, poor boy,” Naucrate rocked slowly back and forth, holding her son tightly. She kissed his shoulder. “I am sorry. What you have heard is true.”

Icarus shut his eyes tight and shook his head fiercely. “No!”

“Your father is very cunning,” Naucrate said sadly, “and very intelligent. It is why I fell in love with him. But his great intelligence comes at a price. He cannot stand to be outperformed. He believes himself to be the greatest inventor on earth, and his pride, his hubris, made him foolish.”

“He killed Perdix,” Icarus cried hopelessly. His mother looked grave. She nodded, tightening her arms around her son.

“Your cousin was his apprentice,” she began to explain. “Your father never told me the whole story, but one day, Perdix invented something that caused Daedalus to grow jealous. Perdix was very proud of his accomplishments, but your father could not stand to see himself belittled. He was envious. He let his envy overcome him like a shadow, and he threw Perdix from the hill of the great Acropolis in Athens.”

“How could he? How could he do something like that?” Icarus demanded. He had held his father in such high esteem. There was no inventor on earth so great, no one who could create such things as beautiful and ingenious as Daedalus could.

“There is no answer I can give you that will bring you comfort.” Naucrate kissed the top of her son’s head and sighed. “But I will tell you one thing. Listen, my son.” She lifted his chin and smiled softly, wiping her thumb across his cheek. Icarus sniffled. “As Perdix was falling to his death, the gods took pity on him. Crafty Athena, the goddess of wisdom who loves all skilled minds such as your cousin’s, turned him into a bird as he was falling. A partridge. He flew away over the sea and escaped.”

Icarus liked to close his eyes and remember the story sometimes, just so he could recall the sound of his mother’s voice and envision her smile. He hadn’t seen her since he and his father had been shut inside the Labyrinth.

He knew why they’d been locked up here – his father had helped Princess Ariadne by giving her the secret of the maze to help Theseus kill the Minotaur. Icarus had always liked Princess Ariadne; she was kind to him, and used to play with him in the palace if her father was not around. And truthfully, Icarus was glad the Minotaur was dead. It had been a horrible, unseemly monster, and he had no idea why King Minos wasn’t grateful to Daedalus for aiding in its destruction. Instead, he had been punished for it.

Icarus didn’t know why he couldn’t have stayed with his mother. He had been forced to join his father in exile, but he had done nothing wrong.

Sometimes Icarus resented his father for what he had done. After his mother had told him the truth about what happened to Perdix, Icarus had been too frightened of his father to even go near him. But Daedalus never raised a hand to him again. He let his son have his space, and he wandered the halls of Minos’s palace alone, mumbling to himself late at night. After a while, Icarus’s fear left him. His father no longer seemed like a man who could harm someone. Instead, he just seemed terribly sad and alone.

Although he often longed to see his mother again, in a way, Icarus was glad he had been exiled with his father. Without him, Daedalus had no one. And Icarus’s young heart lamented the thought of having no one. He imagined it would be a fate worse than death.

He watched his father now as he worked silently. Daedalus was always working; he had not stopped since they’d been exiled here. He would never let Icarus see what it was, no matter how many times his son asked.

“Father,” Icarus said quietly, afraid to anger him, and Daedalus grunted. “When can we leave this place? I want to go home.”

“Soon,” Daedalus said gruffly, without turning to look at him, and Icarus’s hopes alighted.

“Really? Has King Minos lifted the exile?”

Daedalus did not answer.

“I would like to see Mother again,” Icarus said thoughtfully. “And Princess Ariadne.”

But Icarus did not know that the princess had left Crete, shortly after he and his father had entered the Labyrinth. Ariadne had gone with Theseus to be his wife. In the time that Icarus and Daedalus had been exiled, Theseus had abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos, where the god Dionysus rescued her and took her as his own wife.

Icarus was thinking of the princess when something suddenly occurred to him.

“Father,” he said again, and Daedalus sighed, his back still turned to his son.

“What is it?”

“Could we not escape the Labyrinth using the thread you gave Princess Ariadne?” he suggested.

“No. She still has the thread,” Daedalus sounded angry, and Icarus slumped in defeat. He had been quite proud of himself for coming up with something so smart. “But soon we will have another way to escape.”

Icarus sat up again. “Really? Is it the thing you’ve been working on?”

“Yes. Be quiet, son, and have patience.”

“When can we leave, Father?” Icarus began to smile at the thought of being outside again. He couldn’t wait to see the sky and the sea and the sun.

“Tomorrow,” Daedalus said gruffly, and Icarus felt as though he could hardly wait. Time was hard to decipher in the Labyrinth; there were no windows, so they could not tell whether it was day or night. They simply slept when they were tired and woke when they were not. But Icarus knew he would not sleep at all tonight for the excitement of finally leaving this place. If he slept, he would dream of the sky.

He did not remember falling asleep. But some time later, Icarus found himself being shaken awake by his father. Daedalus stood over him in the dark. Icarus could not see his face.

“Get up, Icarus. It is time.”

He needed no more prodding than that. He shot up from his bed pallet and did not stop to gather any of his things; they did not matter. Nothing mattered except that he was going to see the sun again.

Icarus followed his father out of the room they had lived in for so long. He was not sad to leave.

“Walk in front of me,” Daedalus said, pushing his son gently forward. “I will tell you which way to go.”

“Have you found a way out?” Icarus asked in a whisper. He was afraid to speak too loud for fear that King Minos would hear them, even though the king had not given them a single thought since he’d exiled them. But Icarus and his father were not the only ones in the Labyrinth – he knew there were monsters down here, monsters much worse than the Minotaur. In the room they lived in, they had been sheltered. But outside, there was no telling what they would run into. Icarus tried not to show his fear.

“I believe so,” Daedalus answered behind him. He took a lighted torch from the wall and held it out so they could see. “For months I have been going over my designs for this place. I have turned every corner in my mind, walked through every winding pathway in my head. I built it too well. But I believe I have finally found a way out.”

Icarus’s heart was pounding in his chest, and he could not help but smile in the dim light of the torch. His father was the greatest inventor in the world. Daedalus had saved them.

They walked for a long time. Icarus thought he would grow tired, but his legs carried him steadily, without falter. Every now and then, his father would issue a command from behind him. “Go left,” or “Go right,” or “Turn around and walk back the other way.” The Labyrinth was almost infinite, and infinitely complicated. Icarus had no idea how his father could’ve possibly figured it out, even if he had invented it himself. He could not keep track of how many steps they took or how much time passed while they were walking. Occasionally, Icarus would hear a growl or a rumble from somewhere far ahead, and he would reach back for his father’s hand. Daedalus would take it and squeeze it.

A few times, they had to stop and rest so Daedalus could catch his breath. Icarus always failed to realize how old his father was; or at least he seemed it. When they needed to, they would rest against a wall, and Icarus would sit by his father’s side until he was rested enough to continue. He was impatient to keep moving, but he never showed it. All he wanted was to be outside again. They were so close. After all this time, he was going to see the sun again. The thought of it filled him with longing. He wondered how much the earth had changed since they’d been absent from it. Icarus did not even know what season it was, or what year. He would’ve liked it to be spring; spring was his favorite. He loved the softness of the air and the flowers that bloomed. He decided that the first thing he would do when they found daylight would be to pick a bouquet of flowers for his mother. Red poppies – Naucrate liked poppies. Icarus remembered that, even if he was starting to forget the sound of her voice. It had been too long.

“Are you ready, Father?” he asked quietly, taking Daedalus’s hand. The inventor nodded and caught his breath. He stood up from the wall they had been resting against, and Icarus eagerly began to move forward. “Which direction do I take?”

“Right,” Daedalus said breathlessly. “We are almost there.”

Almost there. Those were the words that set Icarus’s heart adrift. They were almost out of the Labyrinth.

With each step he took down the passageway, Icarus felt as though he could hardly breathe. His heart was pounding excitedly in his chest. Finally, after so long, he would get to see the outside world again. He would get to roll in the grass and smell the flowers and the sea and breathe the fresh air.  It would be the best day of his life.

After what seemed like ages, Icarus saw a light.

He ran towards it without thinking. He could hear his father calling after him, but he did not turn back. At the end of the tunnel was a large pile of rocks blocking the exit. Icarus could see sunlight streaming through the cracks. Sunlight! After all this time! He laughed wildly and began pulling at the rocks, throwing them out of his way impatiently. Could he smell the air already? Hear the ocean? If he could only hear the ocean, see its waves crashing on the shore, see the sun spreading light on the earth. Icarus thought he might go mad with the excitement.

“Icarus, wait.” Daedalus was behind him, pulling his son’s arm back. “Be careful. You’ll hurt yourself.”

“Sunlight, Father!” was all Icarus could say. He pointed eagerly, a wild grin on his face. “Help me move the rocks!”

Though he was old, Daedalus still retained some strength. He helped his son move the rocks out of the way. His own heart was beating wildly in his chest. He had finally found a way out. He had saved them at last. Daedalus had mastered his greatest, most beautiful, most terrifying creation.

The rocks fell away. Icarus jumped through the exit, not caring where he landed. He was out! Finally, finally, after all this time, he was out of the Labyrinth. He turned to help his father out of the exit, and then he threw his arms around him in joy.

“You did it, Father! You found a way out!” Icarus’s eyes flooded with elated tears. When he looked up, he saw that Daedalus’s eyes were watering, too. His father was looking at the sky.

Icarus turned to see the sun.

After so long in darkness, it took quite a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the light. But when his vision cleared, he felt pure, unadulterated joy.

“I am dreaming,” Icarus breathed, a smile stretching his lips. “I must be.”

Daedalus did not say anything. For a moment, he and Icarus simply stared in wonder and awe. Icarus could feel the wind on his cheeks. He could see the ocean below them, glittering in the sunlight. He could see the beach, and the white sand, and a field of grass blowing in the wind, and he wanted nothing more than to roll in it, to feel it tickle his feet, to smell the salt water of Poseidon’s great domain on his skin.

They were standing on a small cliff side, Icarus knew not where. He could not recognize the land. He knew they must still be in Crete, and that Minos’s palace could not be far. His mother was close. He turned back to his father impatiently.

“Are we going back to the palace? To see Mother?”

Daedalus shook his head. Icarus’s wide smile melted away.

“What?”

“We must leave Crete immediately,” Daedalus said, and for the first time, Icarus noticed that his father was holding something behind his back. He had not seen it in the darkness of the Labyrinth, or maybe he had just been too caught up in escaping to pay attention. Daedalus handed one of the somethings to his son, and Icarus stared at it uncomprehendingly. “Put these on. Hurry.”

“What…?” Icarus did not understand. He seemed to be holding a pair of wings. They were made of feathers and wax and held together with clasps and leather. “Is this what you’ve been working on all this time? Why do we need wings?”

“We’re going to fly,” Daedalus said simply.

“Fly?” Like Perdix. Like his cousin. He would get to fly as a bird, like he’d always dreamed of. “But … will I not see Mother again?”

“No. I’m sorry, my son. We cannot go back to the palace. Minos will either exile us again or execute us. It’s too dangerous.” Daedalus had his own pair of wings, which he was slipping on his shoulders. He had some trouble strapping himself in, and Icarus immediately helped him. Slowly, the boy put on his own wings. His father helped him strap his arms in.

“To fly, you simply move your arms up and down, like this.” Daedalus demonstrated carefully, so as not to disturb the wax that held the wings together. “Flap your arms like a bird.” He put his hands on his son’s shoulders and made sure Icarus was looking at him. Daedalus’s eyes were intense and focused. Icarus had never seen him so serious before, except perhaps for when his father had slapped him after he asked about Perdix. “Icarus, listen to me. Do not fly too close to the sun, or too low to the sea. The heat and the water will melt the wax, and the wings will fall apart. You will fall. Do you understand me?”

Icarus nodded. His heart had not stopped pounding since he and his father left the room in the Labyrinth. Everything was moving very fast.

“Icarus,” Daedalus said again. He gripped his son’s shoulders tightly. “Pay attention.”

“I am, Father. I promise. Do not fly too close to the sun.”

“Stay in the middle,” he said. “Directly behind me. Follow my exact path, or you will drown.”

Icarus nodded. His father looked at him for a moment, his eyes deeply set in his face. Then he took a deep breath and stepped back.

“I will go first,” he said. “Do as I do.”

Icarus watched as his father jumped off the cliff. He wanted to shout, but Daedalus began flapping his arms. The wind picked up. Icarus gasped as his father’s wings carried him on the air. He marveled at his father’s genius. Only someone as brilliant as Daedalus could have done this; not even the gods rivaled his father’s intelligence.

Without a second thought, Icarus jumped off the cliff.

He closed his eyes. His heart flew out of his chest, and his stomach dropped. He almost forgot to flap his arms. But then he felt the wind under him and he heard his father’s voice telling him to fly, and he opened his eyes. He flapped his wings and flew.

“I’m flying!” He laughed wildly in disbelief. “I’m flying!”

It felt magical. For a moment, Icarus thought that this is what the gods must feel like. He had never felt more alive.

“Icarus! Be careful!” He heard Daedalus’s voice carried to him on the wind, and he looked up. His father was above him. Icarus was flying too low. Panicking, he flapped his arms furiously and propelled himself upwards. He flew until he was at the same height as his father. They were over the ocean, and Icarus could smell the sea, and the air was blowing his hair back. He felt powerful. He flew a bit higher, forgetting his father’s instructions. His smile was endless. For the first time, he could imagine how his cousin felt. To be a bird was the most wonderful thing in the world. To fly was the greatest thing he would ever do.

While his father flew ahead of him, Icarus glided and tilted and did circles in the air. He could not stop laughing with glee.

Higher and higher he went, up towards the sun. The heat felt glorious on his skin. He had not felt it for so long; the Labyrinth had always been cold, and made his skin pale. Icarus wanted to drink the warmth and let it slide down his throat and warm every part of him. He wanted the sun to turn his whole body golden.

He flew higher, flapping his arms to stay aloft. He thought he would grow tired, but his arms never faltered. He would never grow tired of flying.

Suddenly, Icarus dropped low unexpectedly. He looked back. Feathers were dropping to the sea below, the wax seals melted and broken. Icarus’s eyes widened. He looked up. In a terrifying flash, he remembered his father’s warning. Do not fly too close to the sun.

He looked down again. Daedalus was much farther below him.

“Father!” he screamed. “My wings!”

He could feel himself falling, and he could do nothing to stop it. He tried to flap wildly but the feathers only broke away faster. Tears streamed from his eyes and dried just as quickly with the wind. Icarus screamed.

Father! Help me! Please, please!”

Daedalus only glanced back once. He shook his head. He was crying.

Daedalus’s son screamed in terror as he fell towards the sea. The feathers from his wings flew away around him. His arms grabbed desperately at the air and his legs flailed, searching for purchase they would not find. There was nothing to hold onto.

When his back hit the sea, Icarus’s last sight was of the brilliant sun. His last thought was of his mother.

Daedalus flew on. And below him, feathers floated gently on the surface of the sea.

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