From Issue 15: "Icarus," by Darby Levin


Darby Levin

Reading time: ~5 minutes

A note from the editor: My dad loves myths and fables. I read a lot of them when I was a kid, and the story of Icarus was one that always charmed me, even before I knew what hubris was. Even before I knew what it meant to fly too close to the sun. It may have been this that drew me to Darby Levin's story, but I think it's more the unexpectedness of finding a story of filial love, rather than a story of ambition. Reading it encourages me to always look more deeply into a person's motivations. 

Yi Shun Lai, Fiction Editor


Father is building a flying dream.

He has been building it ever since I was too small to see over the high railing of our tower. He has been building it bit by bit, stitch by stitch, until it grows so big it envelops the whole room.

Every morning and evening, when we hear the guards’ knocking, he mutters, “Quickly, quickly, son. Help me hide it,” and we hide the dream out of sight. When I was very small, we would sweep the feathers under the bed mats, seal the wax into the wall-chinks. Now my father’s dream has grown so it shades the room in daytime, and when the guards come knocking, we must pull it onto the roof above us, using a web of ropes and knots that Father has also dreamed.

Father is clever. He has clever old eyes and clever old fingers that have twisted themselves into knots of their own. When he has his bad days, which happen more and more often of late, his fingers curl like veiny, hooked bird-claws, and I must do the fine work, the fine dreaming.

On his good days, he works from the first pink of dawn without break. He will not take food or water. One moment he is convinced he has succeeded, has created his masterwork. The next he drowns in despair, tearing his dream to shreds, leaving the room’s corners littered with feathers that I must sweep up before the guards come the next morning.

But when he is happy, it’s as though he is already flying. “Look at them!” he says. The dream sits sleek and curved and nearly finished in the middle of the floor. “Are they not beautiful? Are they not perfect?”

“They are. When will we leave, Father?” I ask.

“Tomorrow, son. I only have to put on the finishing touches in the morning, when the light is better and my old eyes can see. We will leave tomorrow.”

Tomorrow comes and I wake to find Father in the middle of the room, his dream torn around him in feathery clumps. He has not slept; his eyes are rimmed with tortured red.

“Father, why have you destroyed it?” I ask.

“It is useless, son. Useless.”

“But only yesterday you said it was perfect. The pinnacle of your creation—the best thing you ever invented.”

“I was mistaken. It was all a horrible mistake.”

“But Father, you’re a genius—the guards all say so.”

He weeps and tears at his clothes. “I am no genius! Don’t say that; never say that!”

“I’m sorry, Father. You are not a genius.”

“Thank you, son. Now help me clean up this mess.”

We sweep the feathers into a waxy pile as high as my chest. The bare branches we lean against the wall. I look at Father over top the years’ worth of feathers. “When will you rebuild it?” I ask.

“Never. I will never start it again. We will grow old and wither and die here, just like the King always planned.”

“All right, Father,” I say.

But each time, the next morning when I awake, he begins the dream anew, bending the branches into a framework, sealing the feathers on with wax he melts in the sun on the windowsill.

When we hide the dream on the rooftop, it is not so much wings but a lumpy mass of feathers. It looks nothing like the white wings of gulls, born to cut air. I wonder if the guards notice: a curl of wax on the windowsill, a stray feather in Father’s beard, the shadow of wings from the rooftop. If they do, perhaps they think it is nothing but a giant nest, the nest of the King of Gulls himself, who has made his home on top of this tower to pay his respects to Father. 

Father sends me onto the steep slopes of the tower roof to collect more feathers. When I was small, he had to lift me onto the high windowsill so I could grab the roof-ledge and pull myself over. The first time he did, I was so afraid I cried for hours, sitting on the edge of the roof, frightening the gulls so they all stirred up in flight. When I finally grew tired, I fell silent and looked out to the air. Everything was blue and I thought I might go blind because I’d never seen blue before—just the gray tower and the brown guards and the dirty, ragged color of Father’s tunic.

Below me unfurled the drop between me and the blue sea, and the gulls whose flying-arms Father called wings were tucked gracefully along their backs, lined with feathers the way my arms were with fine hairs. The sun burned a hole in my vision of blue.

Father now builds more than he tears apart. I know Father, and the gulls, and the guards. I do not know the island Father talks of, or the people whose names he mentions that he says will help us. I do not know the grass or sleeping on anything other than stone or the faces of anyone but Father.

I stay on the roof-ledge now, even when the blue sky fades to dark, so I do not have to see the dream unfolding in the idle of the room, like a gull-chick hatching from its egg. It is growing every day, growing and growing, and Father barely cares to hide it anymore.

“It is finished, son,” he calls to me one day.

I am not sure whether to believe him this time.

But when I swing myself down from the roof-ledge, blinking in the sudden gloom of the tower, there it is. The dream and a second one for me, sitting fully finished in the center of the floor. The wings seem to glow, their lines curving back gracefully like a gull’s. Father is a shadow in the corner.

“Put them on, put them on.” He lifts the wings onto my shoulders, fastening the laces. “Remember what I have told you about flying.”

I nod. The wings are heavy; Father’s dream settles around me like a bulky skin.

“Don’t fear now, son. Soon we will be far from here, on an island where the King will protect us.”

“I thought you said the King wanted us to wither and grow old.”

“No, son. A new King. A different King.”

I pause. “Will there be a new sky? New gulls? A new tower?”

“No tower, son. And the sky and gulls will be far away. We will live on the ground again, with other humans, and everyone will know us by our names.”

I have been no one for so long, no one in the tower of nowhere. I have always been so, but not Father. I do not like being reminded that Father has another name. I am not sure I like the feel of the branches on my back. The feathers are smooth and slippery.

Father weeps as he finishes, but after so many years of them, I know these tears. They are tears of joy.

“Soon, my son. We will leave this gods-cursed place behind and we will be free forever.”

I jump and the dream catches the air above me, just like Father said it would. It fills with air with each strong stroke of my arms. The tower is below me and the gulls I stole from all those years are the size of the people-ants below, and the people-ants themselves are invisible.

I am stuck between the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky like one of Father’s feathers trapped in wax. In the distance is the green of the island Father spoke of, weeping. It is a color I have only ever seen from afar.

Above me, the sun is the yellow yolk of a gull’s egg, cracked open in the morning light. The air whistles past me, the way I’d always imagined it would if I let go of the tower’s roof-ledge, except I am falling up, away from the island, away from the tower and the blue sea—and oh the sky and oh the yellow, yellow sun.

young white woman with brunette hair in a flowered top against a grey background. she is looking at the camera and smiling.

Darby Levin had this to say about "Icarus":

I have always been drawn to stories based on mythology, and captivated both by flying and the human fascination with flight. In “Icarus,” I wanted to write about how a lifetime of imprisonment might have affected someone whose prison was also the only home he’d ever known. And I wanted to explore how such an Icarus would conceive of freedom: the freedom Daedalus imagined, of a new island, or the much more temporary freedom of flying, and of the air.

Darby Levin is a Masters student of environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania. When she’s not reading or writing about worlds that don’t exist, she’s rock climbing, camping, and trying to keep up with her Border Collie/Lab mix, Telltail, while hiking.

Reprinted with permission from the author