Falling After Icarus

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The first I knew about it was when Metis skidded round the corner of the door of my workshop, grabbing at the post with his fingers.

“Hypatia! Come quickly! Icarus says he’s going to fly!” He was off again before he’d even finished speaking, swapping from one hand on the doorpost to the other and catapulting himself back outside. That boy never did stand still.

I stood at the table, fingers still tangled in the feathers and string I was trying to piece together, struggling for a moment to understand what Metis had said. Icarus…?

That thieving little shit.

Fear lurched in hard on the heels of anger, and I dropped my half-made models on the table, hitched up my skirts, and ran.

By the time I got to the edge of the village Icarus was already in the air, flapping ponderously upwards as our friends and neighbours gawped from the ground. I squinted upwards.

“Icarus!” I called. “Icarus! It’s not safe! You have to come down!”

But the only response I got was the first feather spiralling gently downwards.

*

Afterward, I walked numbly back through the village, my ears ringing with the self-consciously shrill wailing of some girl who’d been setting her cap at him.

Icarus always was one to take the credit for someone else’s work, even when we were children. Not that Mama would ever hear a word said against her golden boy, though. At least she wasn’t alive to see this.

By the time I reached my workshop I was furious again. If for just once in his life he’d asked to share, instead of trying to grab the glory for himself, then it wouldn’t have happened. He was my brother. I’d have been happy to let him work with me. I thumped the table viciously. So stupid, to build without understanding, without so much as testing what he was doing. Mind you, I was a little impressed that he’d managed to construct anything at all. I was always the practical mathematician in the family.

I’d have preferred to do my mourning alone, but Metis came to fetch me for the funeral the next day, looking sombre and moving more slowly than usual. I got there in time to hear Timeus the priest turning my brother into a religious message. Hubris, he pronounced solemnly from behind his beard. Flying too close to the sun, he said. Overreaching the boundaries set by the gods.

I snorted, and Timeus glared at me. Utter nonsense. The sun had nothing to do with it. Wax joints simply won’t flex sufficiently, so things work themselves loose. It doesn’t even have to reach that close to melting point. As I established when I tested that first model; as I would have told Icarus if he had only asked. He was my brother, after all, even if he always was a cheating little weasel. I wouldn’t have let him kill himself.

Stupidity, and greed, that was Icarus’ problem. Nothing to do with the gods.

*

I kept on working on the problem, anyway. I was examining a half-working model when Timeus came calling a few days later. You see, it turns out that you can’t just imitate the birds, the flapping itself puts a huge amount of strain on the structure, so… Well. Anyway. I won’t go into it now, but suffice it to say that I was much closer to a solution than I had been the week before. Metis was watching me — he’d taken to hanging around the workshop in the days since Icarus died, and I would get him to hand me tools from time to time. He was a bright lad.

“Hypatia,” Timeus said to me as he stood just inside the doorway, inclining his head a tiny fraction of an inch.

“Timeus,” I said, inclining my own head not at all.

Metis looked between us, squeaked, and ran. Timeus ignored him.

“I gather you are making the error of continuing your late brother’s work. I understand your grief may be affecting your judgement, but the sin of pride, Hypatia…”

I cut him off. “Icarus stole my work. And he got it wrong. I am continuing my work, and my pride in it is no sin.” I folded my arms and glared at him.

“I must disagree,” Timeus said.

“You must get out of my house,” I said.

We both stared each other down for a while.

“You will cease this,” Timeus said finally, and broke our locked gazes by turning away and sweeping back through the door.

*

He left, so I concluded that I had won. It left me a little uneasy, but really, what could he do? And anyway, I wasn’t about to abandon my work for some jumped-up priest with delusions of grandeur. I kept a closer eye on the door, though; and I did notice that Metis was coming around less often. When he did come, it was on transparent pretexts — a message from his mother, a query if I needed any errands run — and he’d stay for a while before scuttering nervously away again. I found it a little odd, but I was too busy working to pursue the matter.

Eventually I had something that I thought — that I believed — really would work. The trouble was, in eliminating the flapping motions, and imitating instead the way that I’d seen eagles soaring for hours at a time without moving a muscle, I had also constructed something that required height for takeoff.

I would have to strap myself in, launch myself off the mountainside, and trust that my full-size version didn’t reveal a fatal flaw that the smaller models hadn’t done.

Hubris, Timeus would undoubtedly have said, muffled in his grubby beard. Self-belief, I preferred.

*

It worked. Of course it worked. My experiments gave me some idea of how to control my path through the air, but there were a few terrifying moments as I learnt to translate that into action. After that, I gave myself up to the soul-soaring ecstasy, as the wind whipped at my hair and clothes, and the ground dipped and swooped below me and I whooped with joy.

I don’t know how long that first flight was. When eventually I landed, I couldn’t stop my legs from shaking. I sat on the ground and wept with elation. I couldn’t wait to try it again, but first I wanted to share this news with my friends and neighbours. We could fly, now. Hubris be damned. We could fly. We could unlock the secrets of the skies. We could free ourselves from the shackles of the ground.

The wings were large enough that it made no sense to take them with me; I would leave them here, and come back to carry them up the mountain for my next flight. I stood up, legs still trembling, and started towards the village.

*

Metis was hanging around the edge of the village, and ran towards me as I came into sight.

“Did it work?” he asked breathlessly, and I nodded, still beyond words.

Flying,” he breathed, then took off back into the centre of the village. “Come quickly!” I heard him call. “Hypatia has flown!”

People came out of their houses and began to congregate around me, asking questions.

“I flew,” I told them, still trembling slightly from the feel of it, and their eyes rounded in shock, in disbelief, in awe. “I flew,” I said again, and I began to explain.

“Hubris,” I heard booming from behind me, as I was talking to a collection of puzzled faces about feathers and lift and about how eagles soar.

I turned around. Timeus stood there, and he did not incline his head to me at all.

“It’s not hubris,” I said, chin high in confidence. “We can do this, Timeus. The gods will not stop us from reaching further, from bettering ourselves.”

He stepped towards me and struck me across the face, and I staggered backwards, my stomach lurching.

“This is an abomination,” he said, glaring at me as I held my hand to my face. “I will destroy it.” He turned to the rest of the village.  “The gods will not permit this. They warned us through the death of her brother. She will bring down destruction upon us. We must destroy this device.”

“She said it was back in the forest,” someone said. They were all looking at me, eyes narrowed.

“We will destroy it,” Timeus said, and as he strode past me, he hit me again, hard enough that I went down in the dirt, blood suddenly pouring from my nose.

My neighbours followed him. Some of them kicked me as they passed. When I was done gasping, I was alone in the dust, save for Metis, bent over me in concern.

“My wings,” I said, inanely.

“I’d worry about your skin first,” Metis said bluntly, and offered his hand to help me up.

Why they just left me there, I have no idea. Perhaps Timeus could not conceive that I might choose my own destiny; would not just wait for him to return and choose it for me. I ran back to my own house, and threw the tools and belongings that I could carry into a bag. Metis followed me.

“Are you leaving?” he asked, frowning.

I nodded, deciding reluctantly that I would have to leave my sledgehammer.

“May I — may I come with you? I want to learn, Hypatia. Please.”

I ignored him. He was a child, still, and I no longer wanted company. He didn’t repeat his question, or ask anything else, just followed me to Timeus’ house, where I vindictively stole as much food as I could carry. Then I ran. Metis stopped at the edge of the village, and quietly wished me luck. I don’t know if he watched me go. I didn’t look back.

I knew I should just leave. I knew they were bound to find my wings; but I had to make sure. Foolishness, perhaps, but they were mine, and I’d flown with them, and I wanted them back. I waited, cursing Timeus and the villagers and myself, further up the mountain and to the west, until night fell, and I could make my way through the forest in the dark. When I reached the clearing, I saw the feathers scattered across the grass, shining in the moonlight, and the splintered and twisted poles lying like shadows among them. I stood for a moment, with the corners of my eyes prickling, and my gut turning over. Then I set my teeth, and bent to gather up what I could salvage of the remains. By dawn I was on my way eastwards.

*

I made my wings again, of course. No power-hungry priest and hidebound fools would keep me from flight. It still gives me joy, each and every time, but I fly now at night, and I have not tried to offer the knowledge to anyone else. Sometimes I wish I could share it, and I wonder whether Metis is still seeking to learn more of the world, or whether, since I left, he has grown up into what is expected of him. I could go back and find out, I suppose, but it is better not to allow yourself to be let down.

It was never hubris, and it was never Icarus. I was just reaching for the future.

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