Can you keep a secret?
Five simple words. This innocent question, posed as it was by a king, caused Daedalus untold grief. He had answered in the affirmative and remained true to his word, yet still King Minos had imprisoned him so that he may never speak of the monarch’s monstrous secret.
The injustice of it burned Daedalus, but his true lament was reserved for his fellow captive – his son. The boy was just as innocent of wrongdoing as his father, but the imprisonment was infinitely harder on the youth for he knew not the reason for his confinement.
As the weeks stretched into months, turned to years, as time lost all meaning and the burden of seemingly endless incarceration weighed ever heavier on their souls, Daedalus had watched helplessly as the light slowly faded from his son’s eyes. He knew hope was as crucial to survival as bread and water. A man could endure almost anything so long as the flickering flame of aspiration burned within his breast, there to ignite the dreams and passions that are the refuge of the sane mind amid calamity. He could not allow his son to lose heart, for it was on the wings of hope that the boy would be afforded the possibility of escape.
Just like the king, Daedalus harbored a secret of his own. A life-long master craftsman, he had turned his capable hand to fashioning a device that would, if all went to plan, serve as his son’s salvation. He knew that in freeing the boy he would ensure his own death by remaining behind, but if that was the price, it was one he would pay gladly.
“What are you working on?” the lad asked again and again.
“Freedom,” Daedalus would reply each time through lips cracked and bleeding.
Thus reassured, the youth would turn once more to the solitary window in their tower-top cell, gazing longingly out at the gulls as they wheeled and soared in the sun-dappled sky. Their prison on the Northern shore of the island offered little by way of comfort but it did command a breathtaking view of the infinite blue beyond. To Daedalus, the panoramic vista, near enough to touch yet achingly just out of reach, seemed a cruel reminder of freedom denied, but he was encouraged by the boy’s desirous contemplation of the world beyond. To a bird that spends long enough in a cage, flying comes to seem a disease. So long as his son held fast to dreams of one day soaring free, anything was possible.
Fully aware that he held those timid hopes in his careworn hands, cradled like some fragile feathered thing, Daedalus devoted himself anew each day to his task. Time was of the essence and he dare not fail.
There seemed to be a measure of justice to Daedalus in using his skills to break the shackles of internment, given how those same skills were responsible for their predicament in the first place.
He had once been known as the greatest architect in Athens, so it was only natural that Minos, King of Crete, had summoned him in his hour of greatest need. The king’s wife had strayed from her marriage bed in the most unforgivable manner, and the monstrosity born of her blasphemous infidelity with the Cretan Bull had so shamed Minos that he wished to conceal it from the world for all eternity. He had commanded Daedalus to build a prison from which the beast could never escape and the craftsman had complied, unknowingly constructing his own cage in the process.
Daedalus built not a prison but a labyrinth, and, once finished, so convoluted where its endless passageways that none who ventured in could ever find their way out again. Only the craftsman knew the secret to successfully navigating the maze, just as he alone was privy to the secret of the unspeakable abomination that dwelt captive at its center. The secret Minos wished dearly to remain buried. Task complete, the king had imprisoned Daedalus to ensure his silence.
The punishment was temporary, Daedalus knew. Sooner or later Minos would realize his desire for eternal secrecy could only be attained with the permanent removal of the craftsman. The looming specter of impending execution spurred him onward. Daedalus labored day and night, all the while praying he would finish his task in time.
While he worked through the lightless hours, Daedalus watched his son sleep and dream his dreams of flight and freedom. He loved the lad beyond the expression of mere words. The boy was his world, the sole light in an existence otherwise stained with shadow.
He had known his son was different from the first. A ‘dreamer’ the scholars of Daedalus’ acquaintance said of the boy with smirks that betrayed just how they thought such an individual would fare later in life. Daedalus paid them no mind; he had little doubt his son would one day attain great heights.
The boy was possessed of constant wonder at the splendor of the natural world around him, which all others took for granted. He delighted in the feel of the gentle breeze, marveled at the soft kiss of sun on skin, and exulted in the rain as it lashed down from the firmament. He voiced an unending stream of questions.
“How deep is the sea?”
“Where does the sun go when it sets?”
“What lies above the clouds?”
And, most commonly, “How do birds fly?” Daedalus suspected that along with the last went the boy’s unspoken secret desire to do the same.
Rather than dismissing these queries as the inane ramblings of youth, as would any other father, Daedalus took them as a promising sign of his son’s agile mind and knew it would one day evolve into formidable intellect. As such, he took it upon himself to instruct the boy in the ways of the world.
“Never fall prey to Hubris,” he cautioned. “Naught but misery awaits he who attempts to rise beyond his given station in life; who places too much stock in his own ability.”
On other occasions, he advised his attentive pupil, “Beware, too, false modesty. A bird that flies too close to the sea shall perish just as surely as one who ventures too near the sun. Know your place always – be no more or less than you were intended to be. That, my son, is the essence of humility.”
So excessive was his pride in the boy that Daedalus was in danger of contravening his own advice, but that mattered not at all. The one thing in this life that should never be subject to limiting restraint is the bounds of a parent’s love.
Fueled by the flames of his burning devotion, Daedalus worked on.
When the day finally came, the sun rose high, just as it had on every other before. Its setting, however, was a sight Daedalus knew he would not witness. The ominous, triple-strike tolling of the bell in the courtyard below was a sound only heard on rare occasions – days of execution. He wished for more time, but he knew the guards would come for them at any moment. The time for action had arrived. If it was to be done at all, it was best done at once.
“Now listen to me well, son. Do exactly as I say and freedom shall be yours before this day is through.”
“But what of you, Father? Will you not be coming with me?”
“Aye,” Daedalus savagely bit back tears. “In good time, lad. We shall meet again one day, have no doubt of that. For now, you need to go alone. Do you understand?”
The boy nodded, fighting tears of his own. He saw through his father’s reassurances to the resounding finality of the sound of goodbye beneath.
“Come then, we haven’t much time.”
Daedalus retrieved the object of his ceaseless hours of labor from its place of concealment amid the gull’s nests beneath the eaves. It looked to the boy like a bundle of feathers, hundreds upon hundreds of them, intricately woven and bound with candle wax to form…
“Wings?” he breathed in rapture.
“Yes, wings, “Daedalus confirmed. “The keys to freedom. We must hurry now.” The drumbeat of heavy footfalls from the stairwell echoed through the small chamber.
He affixed the plumage to his son’s arms with several strips of worn leather. They seemed woefully inadequate, but there was naught Daedalus could do now but hope they held true.
“What do I do, Father?”
There was no time for instruction. The door crashed in amid a cacophony of angry shouts.
“Just remember all I’ve taught you,” Daedalus replied. “Follow your heart. Do what you were born to.” He then roughly embraced his son, kissed him on the forehead, and pushed him out the window. “Fly, Icarus!” he shouted after the boy’s fast retreating form. “Fly!”
He plunged headlong to his doom on the jagged rocks below but, in the fleeting eternity of the fall, he felt no fear. In fully accepting his imminent destruction he came to see that death is not the opposite of life, it is part of life – the two as inseparable as the dividing line between sea and sky on the horizon’s edge. To truly come alive is to embrace death, to laugh in its face and, in so doing, transcend it.
Does not the joy of living derive from the ever-present threat of the grave?
Icarus spread wide his arms to welcome his fate as the rocks rushed up to meet him. His feathers spread majestically, catching the rising currents and, at the last possible moment, lifted him up and away.
On the thermals he rose, ever higher, even as his heart soared higher still within his breast, propelled by the sheer exhilaration of a dream realized; of the wonderment of flight. Drunk on the sweet nectar of fulfillment, Icarus burst through the clouds to the secret domain above. His unrivaled ecstasy came not in spite of the perilous drop beneath him, but rather, because of it.
Does not the joy of flight derive from the ever-present threat of the fall?
The cost of such undeniable pleasure as this would be high indeed, but that mattered not to the boy. He had discovered a secret few ever learn – all men die, the real tragedy is how few ever truly feel alive. Icarus felt alive now, gloriously, unequivocally alive. If the price of that was death, it was one he would pay gladly.
Higher still, Icarus flew.
He rose ever nearer the sun, that silent sovereign of the sky whose light brings life but, also, fiery doom. The golden rays which once so delighted the boy with their gentle kisses became burning daggers of menacing intent. Yet, still, he was not afraid.
Icarus embraced the sun.
At the very apex of his ascent, he turned lazily over. Suspended in that moment, watching the wax melt and run down his pale arms and the feathers spring free one by one and continue on a thousand separate journies of independent flight – a marvel, each one – Icarus smiled.
One final revelation came to him then, in his state of rapturous delight, and it was this: there’s a certain relief in surrendering unto destruction; a savage satisfaction in setting one’s world ablaze and watching the flames from the center of the inferno.
The brief flight had been the pinnacle of Icarus’ very existence – what more had he to live for? Humility is knowing one’s place and when such dizzying heights have been reached, whence can one go but down?
He threw his head back and laughed in pure, unadulterated exaltation as he plunged from the heavens to the swirling sea below which would ever after bear his name.
As he rushed to his death, Icarus had never felt more alive.