Feathers and Wax

Author’s Note: This is a short story I wrote for one of my classes in grad school. We needed to write a historical fiction piece. At the time, I was working in a school, and the students were doing a combined unit where they learned about ancient Greece in multiple classes. In English, they were reading Greek myths and in History, they were learning about the Athenian democratic system. This is what inspired me to write this story. I combined the myth of Icarus with Greek history and handed it in as my assignment.

Wax. Holding the wick of a candle as it burns, it provides light and warmth. Wax. My only medium to express the inner workings of my mind. Wax. Soft yet sticky, holding things together. I would have never thought something so vital would end up being my demise.

“I knew this was a terrible idea!” my father screamed at the tapestry-lined walls. He tore at them, ripping the fabric, the silken sleeves of his robe flailing as he did so. I watched as the family tree of King Minos was torn apart.

He paused a minute to breathe.

“I had a bad feeling about that King Minos, about that labyrinth,” my father continued. “And now we are trapped here! I knew that King was a tyrant.”

“But father, the king gives us luxurious and extravagant things,” I replied. I pointed to the golden statues that adorned the room and the beautiful crystal vases that displayed rare and exotic flowers. I didn’t point out the now-tattered tapestries and curtains.

“But at what cost, Icarus!” He grabbed one of the vases and flung it. It shattered against the wall, water and slivers of crystal getting caught in the tears of the tapestry. “That labyrinth we built is being used to kill men and women! The King is feeding it to that monster, to that Minotaur!”

“What kind of beast is the Minotaur?”

“It’s a giant creature, seven feet tall, with the head of a bull and the body of a human. It’s unnatural, and it is killing innocent people! And it’s all of my fault!”

“But father,” I pleaded, “We didn’t know. King Minos hired us because you are a famous inventor. You have been hired by leaders from all over Greece. How were we supposed to know that this one was so cruel?”

“I had heard stories of his oppression… But I didn’t listen to my instincts!” Another vase was tossed. “I had no idea he would force us to live here the rest of our lives! That he would keep us locked in here every night!”

“But at least we are given everything we need. We are provided for.”

I braced myself, afraid something was going to be thrown at me. Instead, my father grabbed a candle and one of his wax tablets that he used for writing his notes. “This is all I need,” he said. “I need to be able to see at night and write down my ideas.”

“Ideas?” I pondered.

“Yes, I have a plan, Icarus. To get out of here. I am not really sure how, but we are going to escape.”

“How? We are trapped in a tower, with only one window. Crete is an island! There is nowhere for us to go. What are we going to do – fly?” I laughed at my own joke, thinking I was clever.

But my father just stared at me with a strange, nebulous look in his eye. He went over to his desk and threw down the wax tablet. Its spine cracked against the wooden surface. He grabbed one of his styluses and began scribbling furiously on the tablet. I watched him, amazed. How can he be so forlorn when we have everything we need in this spacious room? I am comfortable and treated like a king. Yes, I can’t leave, but what can the outside world offer me that I don’t have right here?

As if reading my thoughts, my father abruptly jerked around in his chair and squinted at me. “Here,” he said, holding out a wax tablet. “This will be your freedom.” It wasn’t the same unfortunate tablet he had thrown moment ago, but it still looked sad and battered because it had been used countless times. It contained all of my father’s sporadic thoughts, written, erased, and then rewritten again. How could this possibly give anyone freedom? Without another word, my father turned back to his desk and continued writing long into the night, burning out several candles.   

Six months passed, and we were still trapped on the island. My father continued to scratch away his ideas on his tablet every night, but he was up to something else as well. Every morning and afternoon, he would place bird seed or other food on the windowsill, trying to attract birds. When they arrived, he talked to them, pet them, and collected their feathers. At first, I thought he was slowly – and surely – losing his mind, but I soon realized that he was just lonely and restless. He had no one to speak to except for me, and I wasn’t always cooperative or social because I had become restless myself. It was now spring outside, but I was locked inside, unable to feel the sun or wind on my skin.

I was bored with all of the commodities the King had given us. Actually, at this point, most of the pleasant things he had provided had been destroyed in my father’s fits of rage. But I understood my father’s feelings because I had no one to talk as well, since he was so involved in his “plan” and his feathery companions. So, full of angst, I decided to express my thoughts in the only place I could – the wax tablet he had given me. There I was able to vent my frustrations about my unease and my father’s mental condition.

 One night my father was in a less obsessive mood than usual and decided to speak to me. “Things are changing, Icarus,” he said to me. “Things are moving forward.”     

“With your plan?” I asked.

“Not yet. I stilled need time to finish our method of escape.” The candlelight flickered off of his face as he looked around nervously. “But I know where we are going once we get out.”

“Where?”

He put his finger over his lips, indicating me to speak quietly. “At first I wanted to go to Sicily,” he whispered. “But now I have decided that we should go to Athens.”

“Why Athens?”

“Because it is closer.”

“Okay.”

“Also, Sicily has had turmoil for years; different countries keep trying to seize control of it. I am not sure what is happening in Sicily right now because we have been trapped here. But even if it’s stable right now, I believe that country is cursed, and soon more chaos will emerge.”

“Okay…”

“But I have heard that good things have happened in Athens recently. The guards have been talking about it, and they seemed scared. Even the king is scared.”

“What is happening in Athens?” I asked curiously.

My father jolted and again put his finger to his lips, which were shaking at this point. He looked around the room, eyeing the expensive décor as if he was going to smash something. But he thought better of it, knowing the guards might come and hear our furtive conversation.

“They have a new political system. They have decided to no longer have kings, dictators, or oppressive rulers.”

“How is that possible?” I asked, incredulous. “With no one in charge, won’t there be anarchy?” 

“No, because there is still some kind of leader… The current one is called Cleisthenes, and he is the one who created this system… where the people are able to choose that leader and also help make decisions for society.”

“But how can a system like that work?”     

My father explained to me how the city was split into three sections. The first was the “Assembly,” where members of the community met 40 times a year to vote and make decisions. However, only men were allowed to do so; women, slaves, and children could not participate in the meetings. The second group that existed within Athens was the Council Of Five Hundred. As the name states, it was made up of 500 members (again, all men) who met every day and dealt with more practical matters, like supplying the army with horses. The final installment of Athens’ system was The Popular Courts, where 500 jurors were chosen by lottery every day to help uphold the law of the city because there was no police force.

After this explanation, I told my father that I liked the idea of the system, but I didn’t think it was fair that only men could vote and participate.

“Nothing is fair, my son,” he answered. “That is why the people of Athens have created this system. Of course it isn’t perfect; no system of government ever is. But at least it is a step away from the current forms of government. People are tired of being ruled over by the rich and aristocrats, as I am.”

I nodded in consent.

“I have heard that the men who participate in the system feel very involved and satisfied. They actually get to make decisions about things, unlike me and you.”

Without another word, he turned away and walked over to the window, where his usual birds were waiting for their daily snack. After feeding them and collecting some of their feathers, he went to his work desk. From that night on, he worked more ferociously than ever, scribbling away on his wax tablet until the late hours when the candles were dim.

I did the same. I didn’t have some convoluted plan like my father, but I continued to write down my thoughts. Unable to make my own decisions, my only option was to sprawl my ideas out to something that couldn’t even answer back. However, it helped me organize my thoughts about Crete, King Minos, and our situation, and I realized how unfair all of it was. I tried to imagine the society of Athens with a fairer, freer system, where perhaps one day I could help with the councils and institutions. The more I wrote, the more I liked this idea.

This pattern continued for the both of us for another six months, hundreds of candles and tablet pages torn through. Until one morning, my father shook me awake. I glanced around, confused. The tower looked tidy. Nothing was disheveled or thrown all over the floor. My father’s work desk was neat and clean; there were no remnants of wax scattered across its surface like usual. I could tell that today was the day he was going to place his plan into action.

“Today we make our leave,” he announced.

“But how?” I inquired.

“With these.” From under his bed, he pulled four gigantic, human-sized wings. “This is what I have been working on for the past year. I collected feathers from those birds every day. At night, I quietly put these together and worked on calculations.”

“But how are we going to use them? They aren’t attached to us,” I pointed out.

Even though I had asked, I somehow already knew the answer. It was the one thing that had kept us alive throughout the past year, the one thing I relied on the most: wax.

My father lit a candle and let its gooey content fall onto my back. I winced in pain as it burned, but the sensation subsided as I felt my father press the manmade wings onto my shoulder blades. He rambled on, explaining all kinds of things about being aerodynamic and not flying too high and –

I wasn’t paying attention. I was too excited and too anxious about getting out of that cramped, suffocating tower.

“We have to get going, Icarus. Don’t worry about any of your belongings.”

“Hold on, Father,” I interrupted. “There is one thing I would like to bring with me.” I grabbed my wax tablet and tucked it into my robe.

The next thing I knew, he was pushing me onto the window ledge. Looking down from the tower, the ground dropped hundreds of feet. What if the wings don’t work, and I fall to my death? “But Father, I’m scared!”

There was no getting through to him. He had that crazed look in his eye. His plan was finally being realized – months and months of careful calculations, endless hours and candles burned – and there was no stopping him.

“Just fly, Icarus! FLY!!!”

He pushed me. I fell. The wind shot through my senses, and the ground seemed to be propelling toward me.

“Spread your arms, Icarus! OPEN YOUR WINGS!”

Even with the immense pressure tearing through my body, I gathered all of my strength, and I managed to open my arms.

I soared. 

The wind was no longer fighting against me – it lifted me. 

I flew out past the island, over the ocean, a blue floor beneath me. I flew down toward the sea; its mists sprayed salt in my eyes. I wandered upwards and scuttled around complaining, prodding seagulls. Annoyed, I went up even further, but the clouds and mists were vaporous, making water cling to my skin. I decided to fly even higher, away from the water, toward the sun, thinking it could dry me.

But then… I noticed the sun was so high and mighty… it ruled over everything in its fiery reign… there was nothing that could possibly stand up to the sun… it was like King Minos who had kept us prisoner… like one of the tormenters that persecuted so many people…

I burned. All of the pent-up frustration I had been feeling for the past year came out in a wave of angst.

“You!” I yelled at the sun. “You think you are better than everyone else! That you are the highest in the sky, in the world! But my father and I have overcome the fate you set out for us! And I will show you how insignificant you really are!”

I flew toward the sun, attempting to show it my greatness, to conquer it. At first, I didn’t notice the heat or the sweat on my forehead that dripped down toward my back. Swoosh, swoosh. I faltered. The control over my wings was becoming unsteady, and I panicked, flapping my arms vigorously.

In doing so, the wax tablet I held so dear became loose and slipped out of robe. Seeing it fall, I jerked my arm downward, trying to catch it. But the movement was too powerful and too abrupt. The force caused one of the wings to crack. It tumbled toward the falling wax tablet, and I along with it.

Down through the clouds and mist.

The last thing I heard – before being engulfed into the ocean – were the calls of the seagulls and cries of my father.

I had not heeded his advice, and here I have lain since that day, lying on the bottom of the ocean, a pile of bones and feathers. However, most of me has been swept away into the tides.

I will never know if my father made it to his destination, but I have heard many whispers of Athens, of all the cities of the worlds. Their rumors and secrets come to me, on the waves, on the backs of sea creatures, on the remains of human waste.

The system my father spoke of prospered, but eventually became corrupt, as all things do. It was overrun with greed and power, bringing war. I heard the next leader after Cleisthenes was named Pericles, and while he was a great leader, he let the democracy (as it is now called) that had been created turn more into what me and my father hated the most – an aristocracy. However, over time that too died out.

But this is nothing new to me.    

As I have seen throughout time, there have been many wars, many leaders, come and gone. But the sea is perpetual. It is ever moving, yet it stays the same, just like the world.

Throughout the centuries, I even heard about how King Minos’ rule ended. Crete evolved and changed, and now the only evidence of his tyranny and the Minotaur are the dilapidated ruins of the labyrinth my father and I built. Now Crete is like most countries in the world. They have adapted some form of the system that Cleisthenes created so long ago.

But I have heard whispers of this system, floating in on the currents, from seas far away. As my father said, no system is perfect. The people, like my father, are tired of wealth and greed because it always arises in some form or another.

I will wait here at the bottom of the sea and listen, to hear if these systems and societies will suffer the same fate as Athens – and myself – so long ago.


Works Cited

Meiggs, Russell. “Cleisthenes of Athens.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

Farrar, Cynthia. “The Origins of Democratic Thinking.” Google Books. Cambridge University Press, 1988. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

History.com Staff. “Ancient Greek Democracy.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 01 Jan. 2010. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

History.com Staff. “Pericles.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 01 Jan. 2009. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

Thorley, John. “Athenian Democracy.” Google Books. Lancaster Pamphlets, 1996. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

 Walter, Burkert (1995). The orientalizing revolution: Near Eastern influence on Greek culture in the early archaic age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 30.

“Cleisthenes.” Ancient World History. Ancient World History, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

Salerno, Vincenzo. “Sicilian Peoples: The Ancient Greeks – Best of Sicily Magazine – Greek Sicily, Hellenic Society in Sicily.” Sicilian Peoples: The Ancient Greeks – Best of Sicily Magazine – Greek Sicily, Hellenic Society in Sicily. Best of Sicily Magazine, 2005. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.

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