“While you lay on your belly I kneaded the hard edges of your flight. You are a fallen angel but still as the angels are; body light as a dragonfly, great gold wings cut across the sun.” —Jeanette Winterson
My experience with the sun has always lacked proximity. Often, and for years, I have been outside of it, avoiding heat and sweat. As a child, though, I was always outside, always in the heat, but that was under trees (always trees). There were, however, annual trips to the lake with my dad to be with his family, but I spent less time at the beach than I did at the formica table on that blue, creaking, perpetually sandy floor—no matter how much time we spent with our feet under the hose. But I remember summers as a constant, insignificant peel of flesh from face and arms. Then it stopped, for years.
The pattern—or lack of anything to create a pattern—broke: I lasted more than a decade without a sunburn, severe or otherwise. Adulthood kept me inside, and socialization happened under new, larger trees. Then I got two terrible sunburns in a row: last year, from lying on the beach, my entire back red and brown and so intolerably itchy; this year, from a parade, my shoulders and biceps and forearms the painful brunt.
* * *
When we speak of Icarus in our collective tongue, we say He flew too close to the sun as a means of conveying that he flew too high. While the statement is true, by measurement, it also gives a false sense of proximity: When we say, He flew too close to the sun, the sun becomes tangible and very close, the distance between it and the earth, it and us, becomes truncated. I prefer it that way, nonetheless, because I like to imagine his experiencing the heat, the burn, the possible combustion—of both compounds in the sun and of his layers of skin—and because heat does seem very immediate, large and looming, and tangible.
There is something pleasing about conflating him with the Phoenix: the burning wings, entities of all fire, human-avian hybrid, and meant to die. But I just as easily fixate on the image of his extended arms swinging centripetal in the upswept down, circling the way light things do in alcoves (a labyrinth all of these), his laughter warmed by the sun on his naked back and escaping through a soft-lipped smile, the rachis and afterfeather sticking to his sweaty outstretched forearms, those fine hairs there—his father perhaps watching (perhaps with irritation) through eyes turned up from creation. The juvenile and quotidian complement the ingenuity and novelty of the wings fashioned by his father: the story (whether it is Icarus’ or Daedalus’) feels complete and full and round, running every gamut, and reaching wide and real—sky to water, useless organics to failing mechanics, eighteen kinds of happiness, and many separate disappointments.
But at that height to which Icarus flew, when the sun is so close to the earth: I like to imagine not only the wax melting from the boy’s wings, dropping the feathers so much more slowly than his non-hollow bones, but also the remaining feathers burning along with the frame and his flesh—his hair a sudden rank plume. I like to imagine the fall with his flesh charred, very much like a tomato, blackened and cracked yet so ripe underneath. His lips split and peeled back to reveal that smile again, skeletal. How he would anticipate the water below to be relief.
Reaching that height would have been not only arduous but also simply, excruciatingly painful. Had he flown high enough to melt his wings, his existence beyond the ozone would expose him to a greater than 82% increase in UV radiation, rupturing DNA in, I imagine, twice the time (I imagine with twice the severity, as if DNA may become by degrees less recognizable). That is, even before his wings decayed, his skin would become hot cracks of lineate slate.
* * *
Peeling begins abruptly, all at once. As our bodies attempt to eject the dead and irreparably damaged cells, some areas seem to be so burnt that the skin is hard, sore, too thick and scab-like to easily slip off. I see that I should not, but I cannot stop: I remember hearing that one should not pick off the skin, and, as I do, I consider the newly disclosed flesh—adolescent and not yet ready for exposure.
The picking and peeling is compulsory, anticipating the excitement and sense of achievement accompanied by the removal of not just a chip or flake but sheet of skin—sometimes larger than the pad of my thumb. It attests, somehow, to the degree of damage. As if size can judge.
Last year, as I peeled, so too did he. It did not take long before our burns were recognized, but the itch settled much sooner: This was neither the itch of skin coming off (because it wasn’t, it hadn’t yet) nor the itch of something that has become foreign sitting between body and clothes (because, even if foreign, not yet separate); this was what we learned to call Hell’s Itch—something I thought his hypochondria had invented (a thought corroborated by its inexistence in any kind of medical dictionary or journal I could find). It was an itch the like of which I had experienced only once before, when I had shingles: a deep nerve-itch, one so severe that I scratched until I drew blood, an itch that makes your flesh seem parasitic. I wanted to slip it off, all of it: scratch my back with a knife, because it seemed as though the only way to get rid of it was to get rid of the skin and let the itch come out with the blood.
We gingerly massaged peppermint oil (which is the only cure for this) into each other’s backs. This became a ritual, timed and scheduled so that we would not have to suffer again once its effect wore off. My itch was delayed, and it lasted longer than his. And the last time he rubbed the oil on my back, I had just gotten out of the shower, and the water that pressed on my skin exacerbated the prickle. My flesh, though, was open, all laceration. I tolerated the pain for as long as I could (which was not long at all) until my voice became frightened and unfamiliar, cracked, and my entire body shook. He told me to get back under the water to wash off the oil, the peppermint, so I did, but the pressure hurt, the water hurt, the coldness of the peppermint hurt and crawled along my ribs and spine—through them, it seemed. He turned off the water (because, despite the pain, I was unable to move) and wrapped a towel around my shoulders, and I cried loudly and without pause. I could do nothing but weep, kneeling there in the shower, hands clutching at my face while he stood behind me pressing the towel into my freezing burnt skin.
That is the pain I imagine Icarus to have suffered—the crippling, debilitating, panic-inducing sensation of your skin overflowing with a pain that seems liquid in how it courses and permeates and steeps even ribcage. And how the water would in fact not be any kind of relief, despite its slap. And the fear created by the knowledge that, no matter how close he is, no matter what he is willing to do for you, you are suffering alone, and he cannot save you.
* * *
Once we began to slough, we peeled the parchment from off each other’s backs, handing these bits of text to the other, who then balled it all up between thumb and finger. That, I think, was our last intimate moment—one of our last most intimate moments: calmly speaking myth behind the other’s ears as our fingers felt along vertebrae and scapula (no-one suspects your shoulder blades of wings).
Twisting my neck and wrists now to get at the dogears of flesh should be cathartic—simultaneously removing something physical that has become other (because now lifeless and genetically unrecognizable) and removing something emotional that became toxic (because other and unsustainable). I think that the parallel is obvious enough for these to be conflated: each square inch removed ought to be less of him with which to live.
But this is not true beyond the fact that I think about thinking about it—the way thinking about the thought of suicide does not constitute suicidal ideation (my therapist confirms this). Instead, as I scratch and pick and pull, I am almost horrified that he and I did this for each other (for, as if favor; as if needed; as if in some way generous) and more horrified that this sunburn, a year later, reminds me of us, a year ago. Because I think that one should be able to will himself into unremembering. Because it is frightening, the damage that can be dealt by an object so far away—or so long ago.
* * *
There is a problem in the narrative, though, because, if the wax were to melt, and it wasn’t melting already in the labyrinth, Icarus would have flown higher than the aurora—and then fallen back through it. The temperature decreases up to about 10km and then increases only to about 80% of sea level’s temperature at 50km. This pattern of rising and dropping temperatures continues and does not reach even sea level’s temperature again until an altitude of about 120km—and then he would have had to have flown higher still, because the temperature of the flat sea and the flat land I imagine the labyrinth to be on is not enough to melt beeswax.
And Icarus would have suffocated 110km lower. It would not have been even remotely—not even miraculously, not mythically—possible for Icarus to have made it high enough to melt his wax. But. If he had, there would be no body left to bury—so frozen then chipped then burnt then sublimated upon reentry.
And to say that the height physically could not be reached—because of oxygen deprivation, because of chill, because of pressure and tired muscles and someone not wanting it—is both explanation and consolation for not figuratively reaching that height myself.
* * *
I consider the presumed sweetness of our gestures, our symbiotic nature present in removing our dead selves from each other. To do something for someone for yourself. It is outrage, then, at our selfishness, our codependence, and our—what—need to need. Each other. The other. This is how quickly the masochism of damaging my own flesh turns to flagellation, to punishment—picking, now, because I am angry.
But the word that strikes me regarding this moment (and it is a strike—sudden, surprising, forcing unbalance) as being most appropriate for what my burnt skin makes me feel is disgust: at my newly mottled skin, how different it is; at the thickness of it and how completely I am covered by it, weighing down on my shoulders very literally though not very noticeably; at the time spent picking and picking; and at how I let it all fall to the sink basin; and at how I leave it there, dark brown splinters and sheathes of radiation collecting and sticking to the porcelain. And ultimately disgust that I would ever let myself think that this had anything to do with him or with us. Despite the analogue, the fact is that these burns happened independently of each other.
Of course I consider, though, that my disgust at letting myself think of being reminded of him is proof that I do, in fact, think of him—despite how much I wish to no longer. I want a sunburn to be emotionally benign. I am tired, I think, of finding remnants of him. And of us.
Regardless (that word that appears so often when I intellectualize (mythologize)), I am more than covered in remnants of him; more than just the topmost layer of me acts as an index. Despite the (corporeal and temporal) distance between us, I am apparently meant to feel him beside me, even if only as absence: the question, Why did he let go, asks me to be responsible somehow, forces me into accountability; when someone apologizes for calling him handsome, there is the presumed allegiance and betrayal; the missing door, the broken door, the broken coffee pot, the only-four forks; and when I am told not to write about him, he is made a void into which I may not trespass, because the cordons are so real. His entire being is here, still here, in very close and very literal proximity.
* * *
I resist the interpretation of the myth as an allegory of youth’s perceived immortality. For that to be dominant, we would need Icarus to fly, as it were, in the face of Daedalus’ warning—some action to demonstrate disbelief. But this interpretation cannot even be covert, as the warning was not even of death. Mortality and immortality (or proof of either) were never mentioned. The warning, as we say in our collective tongue, was actually advice: Stay the middle course. No or else, not from Daedalus and never reaching Icarus’ ears.
All with which we have to work is youth and joy, which notoriously make us reckless, but neither suicidal nor innately in disbelief of our mortality. I consider Icarus’ jubilation at his fledge: I don’t know how many would blame him for enjoying what he could, when he could—excitement from freedom, success, and flight. Why not test our ability at that which should be impossible. If we fly, why not as high as. If anything, not heeding his father’s advice only demonstrates his immaturity, but that is no indication of immaturity’s belief in immortality or even sustainability.
Again: We each would fly, because we each know that to stay would mean death—literal, violent, bloody death at the hands of a monster (a literal, violent monster). Fly, or else. Or else Minotaur, or else starvation, or else. Fly or else no flight. Altitude, here, like time and light-years, is only another way of measuring distance.
* * *
Daedalus’ expectation of Icarus’ overzealous flight may prove either protective or destructive. His advice was given knowing this boy’s (any boy’s—anybody’s) tendency to extremes, but the wax would only suffer if he went too high.
The lower feathers were attached with wax (and where, indeed, did Daedalus find so much (of wax or so many feathers) inside his labyrinth, unless the whole structure was designed to produce or gather these in protective anticipation of incarceration), while those eight primaries were attached with string.
When I consider the feathers used, the immediate image is of seagull feathers, given the amount of water, given the island and the latitude. The association, then, is with the M-wing, militaristic, like the seagull’s. And while this is probable, I also consider the number of corpses littering the labyrinth left by the Minotaur; I decide that carrion feathers would be just as probable as seagulls’: just as Icarus swung his arms around to feel the rush of blood to his fingertips, so too would the ravens or the vultures circle in the air above.
Seagull wings are perhaps the most easily collectively imagined, because they are white and grey, the way we imagine angels’ wings to be, and sleek and smooth the way we imagine humans to be; but they are small in comparison to a vulture’s, and we would need the largest feathers possible to fly in myth—mythically large feathers (more likely those of a roc). I think that for efficacy, the primaries would need to be these flat dull muted black vulture feathers, although I do enjoy the image of a mix: pairing these with alula and secondaries fashioned from seagulls’. This would create what I imagine to be a balanced and beautiful wing—dynamic and strong, long and thick.
* * *
Daedalus’ design attached the feathers that are principally used to gain thrust more securely—using a a method of attachment that would less easily succumb to the heat, to the sun—while the feathers designed (necessary) for lift were attached with wax, the very downfall of the design.
The man was a genius (Minos knew it), and he is described this way (it is in his name, after all), as so cunning as to almost outwit even himself. It should go without saying that someone so intelligent should be able to craft wings. His supplies would have been limited, of course (or perhaps not, by his own design), being trapped in a labyrinth, but the fact with which we are presented is that he had more than just wax at his disposal. And yet, he chose a material that could melt, knowing that there was a serious probability that Icarus would fly, if not too close to the water, too high—too close to the sun. This must have been a conscious choice, but the purpose is ambivalent.
Attaching the secondaries with wax could have been a measure to prevent Icarus from flying too high to begin with: reach a certain altitude, and the secondaries would have slid off, preventing him from gaining excess height. This could be demonstration of the most profound intimacy and knowledge with and of his son, a recognition that his word would not be heeded. Wax, then, could be proof that Daedalus did not want Icarus to soar too high. Destruction, a measure of protection.
But it could also have been sabotage. Again, knowing that Icarus would climb to extreme heights, the melting (meltable) wax would, again, prevent him from proceeding higher still; but so too would it have prevented him from recovering from the fall. Falling, unable to right himself, unable to gain height once fallen. Fallen, indefinitely grounded; fallen, flightless. Also (necessarily) dead.
* * *
Although this can’t be quite right either: not all of the feathers were lost, so Icarus could have, if not gained height enough to continue flight at a reasonable altitude, then glided, floated, slowly descended in a controlled enough manner to land without crash. I imagine that his immaturity led to significant panic and an inadequate ability to problem-solve: he may simply have not realized that this was a possibility.
Or perhaps he did, and the best he could do was land in the middle of the sea, tied up by his father in his father’s heavy wooden flying apparatus, making swimming an impossibility. And slowly succumbing to torrents.
* * *
This is so often how it happens, isn’t it: We commit to something so adamantly, with so much zeal that we make ourselves see it through, even to the destructive end. Because the alternative is or else. We say we will see how far we can go, how long we can sustain it, and then we don’t—don’t go, don’t sustain. And the fall takes only a fraction of the time it took to ascend.
It is the proverbial crash and burn, only without the crash, and probably without the burn. Instead, just the flames, the phlogiston, the four pounds of ashes (if there were even one). This is the emotional fall from that height.
And it is not just seen in father-son relationships: this obviously trespasses upon many kinds. Needless to say, I mean to speak specifically of the romantic: Once we learn to fly—once we are given the opportunity and tools to fly, we do, because we have never felt so weightless, and we have never felt so free. We test the relationship: How much may I pull back; how close may I get. But there is a definite beauty—a light, a fire—to which we fly, continuously, if circuitously. The warmth of the sun rejuvenates us from a lonely solitude, suddenly, as if we have been trapped outside of it for a very long time. And perhaps we do not yet know how to take things in moderation. And we only have two choices, anyway: get closer to the object that makes us feel as if we are flying (we are, we do), or let ourselves drop unnoticed into the ocean. So the choice is made, because none of us are self-destructive—not admittedly—and we get closer and closer until the pleasant, encompassing heat of that object is the same that engulfs our wings, burns our backs, and we fall without notice. Regardless.
As we swallow our salts and return the water’s slaps to stave off the inevitable drowning, we understand that our proximity to the object which guided our flight was destructive. The object—the sun, the romantic other—was not destructive, not innately; our fathers’ wax was not inadequate; we possessed both the strength and the endurance; and we each were able to fight gravity well enough to see it through. But we ascend, and the relationship intensifies exponentially—till it elevates to a place we can’t breathe. As our face (collective, here) returns to a regular pallor and our carotid arteries deliver oxygen again and our swollen supratrochlear artery inters itself under our blackened, flaked skin—there is nothing left to grieve, because we have that for which we (perhaps) flew: the damage that proves we did—we flew higher, and we survived.
* * *
My skin continues to peel, only now in small holes near my wrists, like blisters, like open pustules, like cavities that I open wider and carve deeper. I know that this is new damaged skin being exposed and sloughed as quickly; I know that this could also be bits of flesh that were not damaged as severely and are thus rejected less quickly (as if they have been still remotely recognizable and usable). I associate this, though, with the knowledge that our skin continues to burn even once we remove it from ultraviolet exposure. We cook from the inside out. And these flaky eruptions, almost insignificant when compared to my scabbed and desiccated shoulders, seem that way to me: my bones provide the heat, and my skin is now at a rolling boil.
And my therapist asks what would happen if I did not intellectualize these experiences: If not, then my skin is boiling from a heat that must exist somewhere inside me. And Icarus did fly and flew high and crashed and died. And there is nothing to explain the ribbons of flesh falling from my shoulders. And the pictures are as, if not more, accurate: his wings were his own, and they grew from his back, and when they burnt, it was terrible; the bones became exposed, charred there too, crumbled to just the frame—just ulna, metacarpus, phalanx. If I did not intellectualize the burn or the time between us, then that time would not exist, and the burn would be much more frightening, because it would be unexplained. Memory would contract everything, and he would be very close, still, and our fingers would overlap over my own shoulders, pulling some of the same flesh off of me—never having grown or shed or changed or burnt again. My skin would tell me that something has changed, but nothing hurts. And that would be it. If, then it is all conflated and impossible.
* * *
The physics of all this is a way to manage the site of trauma, keep it as clean as possible so that it may heal without scarring, to tidy it up to prepare for something else: the definite answers to the definite, serious problems, the math involved, the narrative itself, the fantastic images that I can’t not see now—they give me something to say, words to speak into what is otherwise an absence, a reason for or cause of the damage I (again) find (on (in) me).
* * *
The fall could not have surprised him. (I wonder if falls ever do.) To climb to such ecstatic heights, we only may plummet. And he would have exhausted himself, buffeting his wings so vigorously and adamantly to, perhaps, make up for such flimsy feathers. How often do we find ourselves tired from attempting that which we know we should not be able to do—continue the ascent when all we want is to glide, for things to be easy. That is part of the (romantic) commitment: try as we may, we get as far as we can, and when we cannot proceed further, we cannot proceed further. So end.
For Icarus, there would be that moment of stillness at the full height when his momentum waned as gravity dominated again (as if it ever doesn’t). Just a singular moment of weightlessness—between (merging) ascent and descent—before falling for mere seconds before what I imagine as an eruption into the flames he and his wings would become. And I wonder how long that singular moment feels: to look up and see, unimpeded by atmosphere, all the stars and see below the aurora and past that to the earth that has become unrecognizable and, suddenly, spherical—it would be so pleasing and calming and frightening.
Does that stretch the moment. And if so, how long does it seem. Do we stretch a singular moment into years—or three. And when it is over, do we remember the years, or does it contract back into negligence—our backs a clayey landscape of mudcracks.
Wes Jamison’s work appears or is forthcoming in 1913, Diagram, Fifth Wednesday, Essay Press, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.