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art by Junior McLean

Wings for Icarus

I remember the day my father died. I imagined I could see him smiling down at me, as he soared high above. For a brief moment he had flown, just as he'd said he would--like Daedalus on wings of silver. Then suddenly it had all ended and he'd gone falling to earth, plummeting and spinning like a broken bird. I'd watched it all because as my mother screamed, she'd forgotten to shield my eyes.
Daddy was a tinkerer, that's what mother used to call him. He was a welder by trade, and I remembered him coming home in the afternoons, dungaree overalls and jacket smelling of sweat and soot. But in his spare time he did love to tinker, to talk about machines and the way things worked. I was amazed at how he could take things apart and then rebuild them--knowing where every cog, washer, and screw went back with ease. He could talk about Jules Vernes and da Vinci for hours. And he made sure I knew about Elijah McCoy, the black inventor whose picture he kept in his garage. That was where Daddy made his inventions, odd contraptions he'd fashioned out of old appliances and parts he'd scoured from junk heaps. Most of them didn't work. A few sputtered and died or even blew up right in front of us. But that never stopped him. He kept going through his few successes and many failures.
Mom was always distant about Daddy and his tinkering. She never tried to stop him, but she didn't encourage him either. She would come out to watch his inventions, clapping politely when they worked or shaking her head when they didn't. But after he'd fallen from the sky, she'd emptied the garage of his creations, banishing them back to the scrap heap. She seemed to hate the sight of them, and worked hard to make sure people remembered Daddy as a hardworking husband and father, not the daydreaming tinkerer who'd fallen from the sky.
So imagine my surprise at finding the wings. They were in a shed in the backyard, where Daddy kept most of his odds and ends. I came across them only by accident, buried under a thick burlap blanket. They looked like I'd last seen them, silver feathers gleaming and held together by black straps--as if cut off from some angelic machine. Some were dented and folded in where they'd crumpled at hitting the earth. All that was missing from them was Daddy, and his blood.
I dragged the wings out of the shed, and managed to find some of my father's tools that hadn't been thrown away. Out in a field far from home, I set out to fixing them, using a hammer to bang them into shape.
I remembered when Daddy first started them. He'd snuck away some special metal from his job--he never used the word stolen. It was experimental, as hard as the thickest steel, but paper thin and almost as light. His company had a contract with the government, to use it on some secret military plane. But Daddy had other ideas. And he'd secreted away bits at a time, along with the special cutting tools he attached to his welding machine. Most times when he welded he wouldn't let me come close. So I'd sneak peeks at him, dressed in thick jacket and pants, visor over his face while fiery sparks danced about in the darkness. He reminded me of an ebon Vulcan, sitting in his Underworld, fashioning the armor of the gods.
I couldn't figure out why Mom had kept the silver wings. Maybe she had hidden them so he wouldn't get in trouble with his company. Or maybe when you hated something so much, it was hard to let go. Or perhaps it was because deep down she knew she couldn't erase Daddy's memory as a tinkerer completely. To forget that would be to forget the real him.
It took me months of secret work, done usually when I came from school. But I managed to make the wings look like they had before, sleek and shiny, polished and glistening in the sun. The odd metal they were made of went right back into place, without a wrinkle or blemish. When they were done I stared at them, reading the words Daddy had etched into one of the long silver feathers--Daedalus. And in that moment, I knew what I had to do.
The trek with the wings was a long one. Hauling it on my bike was impossible, so I had to walk the whole way. The strange metal wasn't really heavy, but the giant wings were hard to get a good grip on. I hadn't gone far before some other kids saw me. They stopped and watched, glaring wide-eyed at the wings they'd only heard their parents whisper about--now knowing they were real. Then each of them picked up an end and helped me. None of them said a word. They knew what I was going to do. They knew I had to do it.
I walked through the field behind my house, me and my honor guards, bearing the silver wings in silence. Other kids turned as they saw us, running up to join, forming a small procession. We headed for the tall grass, and up the steep hill, climbing until we'd reached the top. Standing there finally, I looked down at my feet, where my sneakers sat on the rocky ground. This was where Daddy had stood. This was where he'd leapt into the sky.
My honor guard stepped back, and the small crowd of my peers waited upon me. I looked back to see one of them, a slightly older boy who taunted me relentlessly, calling my father a nut who'd jumped to his death. But today he only gave a solemn nod of understanding and approval.
Fitting a pair of oversized goggles across my eyes, I slipped into the straps of the wings which I'd reworked to fit my smaller limbs. Even on my back I hardly felt their weight. When I lifted my arms my silver wings spread out far on either side of me, swaying gently in the breeze as if anticipating flight.
Then I heard a scream. Looking back I could make out a figure in a white uniform, just clearing the hill, running frantically towards me. Mom. I could hear her words, screaming for me to stop. Asking the other kids to stop me. But they wouldn't, I knew. And I'd come too far.
Squeezing my eyes shut I turned and took a deep breath. Then I began my run. A strong autumn wind buffeted me, pushing against my wings. My heart pounded, as in those last seconds endless doubts filled my mind. What if…? What if…? What if…? I wondered if these were Daddy's thoughts just before he'd leapt.
It took a moment to realize my feet had left the ground. I hovered there for a moment in mid-air, as time seemed to slow to nothing. Then gravity reached up and snatched me, pulling me down, sending the wind howling with laughter in my ear for my arrogance. I cried out for Daddy as I plummeted. And in those brief moments of terror, I ran through the short lifetime of memories I had of him. I remembered his face, his brown skin and deep set brown eyes, the feel of his bushy beard in my small fingers. Most of all I remembered him talking about his last grand invention, arms spread wide on either side like a bird soaring on the wind. And it struck me. That's what I needed to do.
I extended my arms wide, spreading my wings. There was a sharp jerk as wind filled the silver feathers, breaking my fall and lifting me with it. Now it was my turn to laugh as gravity hurled curses. I went soaring up, past the cliff's edge. At seeing my ascent the gathered crowd went up in a roar. I was flying! I was actually flying, on wings of steel!
I looked down and caught sight of my mother. She wasn't screaming anymore. She just stood there stunned, hands clasped beneath her chin, staring up at me in wonder. I turned to look out across the blue world and the green one beneath, feeling my own lightness of being as I glided on the wind. Daddy's invention had worked. He hadn't failed after all. He didn't know it at the time but he wasn't crafting these wings for Daedalus. They'd been meant for Icarus, for whom they worked just fine. I smiled, thinking it was a fitting last gift as I soared like an angel, towards the sun.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

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