by Cynthia Li
Art by Christine Cheng
Issue: Phosphene (Summer 2019)
Ever since you were little the sun sang to you. A soft hum carrying you from sleep to wake and back again.
You looked heavenward with reverence, like touching the sky was something holy. You memorized the shapes of birds, stretched your arms out to mimic their flight. You didn’t like this earthbound form. You wanted to get closer to something beautiful.
When your father is arrested the guard takes you on a one-way trip up a stairwell and locks both of you in a tower on the edge of the ocean.
Your hands shake with rage. You grip the windowsill to still them and look down. Jagged rocks on the shore below. You wonder what would happen if you fell.
Your father stares at the horizon. “Sorry,” he says quietly, dazed.
You never quite forgive him. If he was so smart you never should’ve been imprisoned. You get over it, you have to, he’s the only person you have up here— but there’s always that resentment, smoldering.
Candles flicker in the windowsill. Your father works well past midnight most nights, sketches scrawled feverishly across parchment. Drawings of bird wings. Diagrams of foreign machinery.
You raise a prayer. Let us be free. Surely the gods wouldn’t let such injustices continue. Surely they thought no people were ever meant to be imprisoned for so long. The night is cool and speckled with stars. Far away, amidst the sloshing of the waves, you hear a seagull calling.
You watch your father scribble away. The candles burn down to stubs, wax dripping down their sides. A kind of loneliness in your chest— there’s nothing for you here. You’re tired of being so high up.
It takes years. You climb onto the rafters to carefully remove beams that aren’t as necessary to the tower’s structural integrity as they seem. Stockpile feathers. Your father works with what he has. His hands move, constructing a skeleton out of wood and bits of twine. He melts wax and constructs a careful framework of wings.
You stare at the sky as he works. Your prayers still go unanswered. Every day instead of kneeling to ask for miracles you help your father build fates of your own.
“Maybe we’ll get out of here,” your father says. Maybe you’d escape and never see this gods-forsaken tower again.
Launch day. You stand at the window with this strange apparatus strapped to your back, wondering how it could possibly make you lighter than the air.
“Remember,” your father murmurs in your ear. “Keep leaning forward. Don’t go too close to the waves or you’ll drown, don’t go to close to the sun or the wax will melt and you’ll fall. This will work. Have faith.”
You swallow. You nod.
You clench your teeth and stretch out your arms and plummet.
The air catches you. You glide on the wind, gently rising. “Good!” your father calls from behind you. The guards on the ground are staring and it doesn’t matter. You’re heading home.
You try a loop. You spin in midair. You dive down, come back up again, ocean foam clipping at your heels.
“Be careful!” your father shouts, but you aren’t listening. You’re free, at last, there’s nothing to stop you, not even the gods—
And the gods don’t care. They hadn’t answered your prayers. Nine years of your life gone, and they hadn’t raised a hand to help. Your father made these wings with his own hands — and weren’t his hands good enough? Who said the gods were even here?
You angle yourself upwards. If you went high enough you’d either get to Olympus or know it didn’t ever exist. You would find out.
“Icarus,” your father cries again, “be careful!”
The sun is warm on your face, then warmer, then hot and blazing, and suddenly you’re slipping—
You’re staring at the shape of your father silhouetted by the light above—
The ocean comes up to meet you and swallows you whole.