Issue #54

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The Lighthouse Keeper

For as long as anyone in the coastal town of Lictia can remember, the light in the lighthouse has never gone out. Most people credit it to the lighthouse keeper, whose presence predates everything save the building itself. His face has remained warm and unlined, but there is something older in his eyes, the weight of the years they’ve seen.

And years he has seen.

***

Most of us know the myth of Icarus, or at least parts of it. The part where Daedalus built wings out of feathers and wax, the part where he warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, the part where the boy, drunk on his freedom did not listen or did not care, the part where his wings failed. Poems and songs and Renaissance art has been dedicated to the boy who flew, the boy who fell. Not one piece ever considered the possibility that when Icarus’s fingers reached upward toward that heavenly light, the sun reached back. Apollo in his fiery chariot extended his hand to this youth, so purely alive and unconcerned with his own death that for a golden second he too was immortal. Two gods, reaching for each other.

And then, the fall. Apollo watched in horror as Icarus tumbled toward the sea, becoming smaller and smaller.

He appealed to his uncle, Poseidon, to command the waters to catch him and hold him safely, but the Lord of the Oceans would not listen. Apollo asked each of the four winds- Boreas, Eurus, Notus, Zephyrus- to use their breath to cushion the boy’s fall, but each refused. He begged Athena to spare Icarus’s life as a favor to her favorite inventor Daedalus. She would not yield, not to save such a foolish boy. Apollo cried out to Zeus, his father, to spare this mortal, for no other reason than Apollo did not want him to die. And Zeus, ever fond of mortals, obliged. Somewhere on his way down Icarus found that although he had lost his constructed wings, another pair had sprung from his back, made of strong muscle and covered in tawny feathers. He stretched them out and flapped a few times to slow his fall, then glided down to a small and empty island.

Apollo watched all this on high and gave a sigh of relief, but he did not approach Icarus or leave his place in the sky. A new set of wings was enough godly intervention for one day.

“He is only a boy,” he would say to himself, “to children the gods need only ever be names in songs and whispers over altars.”

But Icarus would not remain a boy forever. He and his father went into hiding on a far-off and insignificant island, fit only for raising goats and tying up the small ship they used for fishing and picking up supplies at the nearest port city. Daedalus insisted on going alone, knowing his son’s wings would attract too many wandering eyes. But as Icarus grew older, he became hungry for the world he had only glimpsed at, the world that had laid waiting outside the labyrinth. When he was eleven years old, he stowed away under nets on his father’s boat. Daedalus discovered him before they reached the docks and agreed not to continue on if the boy draped a blanket over his back and walked as if he had a hunch. Icarus drank in every sight he saw that day- women singing as they spun thread, children shouting as they chased each other through the streets, merchants in richly dyed robes laughing over figs and honeyed wine, shepherds leading their animals to sale. He wanted more. He begged Daedalus to bring him along every market day, but while age made Icarus bolder, it made his father more cautious. Icarus’s only other relief was flight, so when his father went to port or out fishing and the clouds where thick enough to hide him from any ships passing below, Icarus would take off from the roof of their house. He dove and soared, letting his wings take him up, up, up, but never as high as he had gone that first day.

When these days happened to coincide with days that it seemed the rest of the world stood still, when no crops needed sunlight, when no festivals were being thrown and no oracles consulted, Apollo would check in on the winged boy. He saw him for only the second time when Icarus was sixteen, for it isn’t often that the world stands still. He witnessed him again, twirling through the air as comfortably as a fish swims through water, shortly after Icarus’s twenty- third birthday. His slender frame had disappeared with youth and now his deep brown skin covered sinewy muscles. Apollo stared a bit longer, but still he looked away without saying a word.

The first time they spoke, after the death of the old inventor, it was Icarus who came to Apollo. He flew higher than he had in nearly twenty years, no longer afraid of venturing so far when he had the weight of grief tying him to the earth.

He asked the god, “Do you remember me?”

Apollo sighed and shook his head in disbelief, “How could I forget.”

Icarus’s face broke into a smile and Apollo found that he no longer wanted to be the god of the sun, for he had found something brighter.

He offered to be Icarus’s guide as he travelled the lands and waters of the Mediterranean in search of the freedom he’d barely tasted as a child. He could walk wherever he wished, uncovered, for nobody questions the appearance of a man accompanied by a god. Apollo too, who had not come down to earth in more than a century was eager to see what it had become.

They began at Apollo’s temple in Delphi, then journeyed through the fields and orchards of the countryside before scaling the sides of the tall Mount Ida. They walked along the shores of the Aegean and Ionian Seas, admired the Parthenon in Athens and gazed out from the newly built walls of Troy. In those early months, it was not attraction or affection that bound the two as companions; it was a mutual sense of wonder for the world around them.

But eventually, both began to see the other as more than a travelling companion. During the day, Icarus would catch himself staring at Apollo and then chide himself for chasing after a god. But at night lying by the campfire or on the cot of a generous host, he wished that Apollo would lay beside him. Apollo, fearing that Icarus would soon grow tired of their travels, found places fearsome and awe inspiring to show him. They visited the great statue of the Kraken, turned to stone by Perseus just as it was about to devour Andromeda. They descended into the Underworld, where Icarus briefly reunited with his father. When they left, the old ghost was smiling with pride, and he wiped tears from his eyes. They went to a hill that rose up from the middle of a marsh. At its peak two trees, an oak and a linden, grew intertwined. As they climbed the hill Icarus asked why they had come to this place.

Apollo answered, “My father came here long ago. He traveled in a beggar’s disguise and went from house to house asking for shelter, but no one would take him, until he came to the house highest on the hill. There lived a husband and wife. They had very little but shared it all with him. The next morning, he revealed himself as Zeus. He thanked the couple for their hospitality and piety, while disparaging their neighbors. He flooded all the lands below their house. In exchange for their kindness, he granted them a request. Both asked that they never live to see the other laid into their grave. And so, their wish was granted. When the time came for their lives to end, they stood atop the hill, and both were transformed into the trees we now stand beneath.”

Icarus ran his fingers along the bark. He had never known his mother, only that his father had loved her. He knew very little of that kind of love, save for his muddled feelings, but standing under the oak and the linden, he thought he understood. Gazing at Apollo, he thought he understood.

Apollo reflected on the story he had just told. The man and wife had wished to face all their years together, not even being parted by death. Being immortal, the desire to grow old with someone confused him, but standing under the oak and linden he thought he understood. Gazing at Icarus, he thought he understood.

Standing under the oak and the linden, Icarus and Apollo kissed.

Icarus’s heart grew wings of its own. It soared and dove and sang with joy. He was happier and more alive than the day his father strapped a pair of wings to his back.

When they broke apart some time later Apollo said, “My wish is the same as in the story, to never see you buried in your grave.”

“Can it be done?”

It could. Apollo snuck into the Garden of the Hesperides and stole a golden apple of immortality, although to Icarus, it tasted like an ordinary apple.

The first day he felt no different. The next he thought that maybe he felt stronger and lighter. On what he thought was the third day, he learned that nearly a month had passed, for time moves differently when you have no shortage of it.

It was like water around them, at some points flowing in a fast current and at others pooling and almost standing still. They witnessed the abduction of Helen of Sparta by Paris; the beginning of the end of Troy. Aeneas’s death and the founding of Rome passed in the blink of an eye. Not all of the gods approved of this new civilization and its growing strength, despite the fact that they still received prayers and offerings under different names- Diana, Juno and Jupiter. Apollo was pleased that his name remained unchanged by these Italians.

Democracy and conquest and circuses- these things didn’t greatly concern Icarus or Apollo. As long as they could still find a mountain meadow or bountiful orchard to roam through, they were content. Summers came and left. Trees grew taller. They recounted old myths to each other and invented new ones. Icarus took up his father’s habit of posing riddles. There were endless kisses and tender moments. They had created their own golden age.

Then, slowly, the gods began to lose their footing in Western Europe. Forces arose, new and old religions becoming more popular. Their altars were smashed or abandoned. Jupiter and Juno were displaced. Minor deities scattered to the winds.  Under the sea, Neptune slept and would not wake; barnacles and algae grew over his body and face. Artemis disappeared into the forests of the North. Apollo did his best to ignore it, since humans would never stop needing the sun, or writing poems or singing songs, but Icarus knew that he missed the offerings of honeyed wine. With no new prayers to answer, no sacrifices, no temples, they detached themselves even further from the world of men. Wars were waged and lost. Kings and tyrants rose and fell. New lands were discovered with people and gods of their own. Icarus drew Apollo’s attention to the sculptors and artists of Italy as they retold ancient stories.

Some works the sun god admired, while others he scoffed at, “That looks nothing like me,” or “He painted you with light skin. You don’t have light skin.”

To which Icarus would reply, “Yes, I know, but unless you’d like to pose for them, this is what we get.”

And Apollo would smile and lean in, “I would prefer if you limited your posing in nude for me.”

And Icarus would smile and kiss him. Apollo spent many of the years writing poetry. Most focused-on Icarus. He joked that there were enough to fill the library of Alexandria three times over, which wasn’t untrue. When Apollo ran out of ways to say “love” in one language he would simply move on to another one.

It was not long after this that Icarus noticed a change in Apollo, he became more restless and easier to anger. When asked about it, he brushed Icarus off. But his mood continued to darken. Desperate for answers Icarus began to pay more attention to the world of humans. He had always been more interested in it than Apollo had, having been human once. He knew their strength, their ingenuity, their belief in hope even in the darkest times. But he also knew their foolishness. Could something have happened in their world to affect Apollo? Land was under dispute, people abused other people, and there was sickness, and death, and war. There was always war. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

It was a good while before he remembered that Apollo was also the god of prophecy. Perhaps the thing upsetting him had not yet come to pass. Icarus asked, and this time he had his answer.

“There will be whispers, among their scientists, of the sun eating a hole in the sky and it will become a shout. They will develop tools that allow plants to live without sunlight. There will be wars, each greater than the one before, and there will be little time for songs and poems.”

Icarus saw the sorrow in Apollo’s eyes and he understood.

“You don’t think you will be needed anymore.”

“I’m not sure if anyone has needed me in a very long time.”

Icarus took his hand. “I have always needed you.”

Apollo covered Icarus’s with his own. “But I do not know if I am enough.”

“You are,” he said, pressing his lips to Apollo’s forehead, “you always will be.”

But Apollo was not convinced. With Icarus he was sorrowful, but to the rest of the world he was only angry. Angry for what it had made him. And his anger made him yet something else. Icarus loved him, but he felt he no longer knew him as he once had. Everything fell apart when Apollo accused Ares, still a powerful god, of greed, of demanding too many sacrifices. Ares did not appreciate what he had to say. There is no winning a battle with the God of War. In his defeat Apollo destroyed an entire town of people; Icarus saw it on the news. He returned home from the fight hanging his head in disgrace. He could not look Icarus in the eye.

The next week he came to him and took his hand. “My love, I am not myself. I have not been myself for a long time.”

Icarus only nodded.

“I think I need time and rest, to let my heart find peace. I have asked Morpheus to put me to sleep, a sleep that I cannot wake from until I am myself once more.”

“That can’t be the only option.”

“Perhaps not, but I cannot go on like this.”

“And what am I to do? While you take your nap?” Icarus asked.

“You can be free of me.”

“I know plenty of prisons and you are not one.”

“I can’t ask you to wait.”

Icarus crossed his arms, “You don’t have to. I’ll watch over you.”

“But-” Apollo tried to protest.

“End of discussion.”

“I yield. Remember that you may change your mind. I will not blame you.”

Continuing on, as if not hearing Apollo’s comment, Icarus asked, “So where will you sleep?”

“I would hope somewhere pleasant for you, somewhere I can remain hidden from the world of men.”

Icarus looked out, down the mountains, then out to sea.

“When my father and I would sail, we always had to be wary of reefs and sharp rocks under the water. We never sailed at night because they were invisible in the darkness. Humans have solved that problem.”

“Lighthouses,” Apollo said.

“They guide ships to safety and warn them of danger.”

“I should like that. To be the light showing them the way home.”

Icarus nodded, his eyes pooling with tears.

***

The light in Lictia’s lighthouse has never gone out. And it never will. The lighthouse keeper makes sure of it.

He comes into town to buy supplies, walking into the store with his back hunched and wearing a long trench coat no matter the weather. He smiles at the grocer the same way he smiled at her father and grandfather. He thanks the librarian who works very hard to track down books that he hasn’t yet read. He talks about tides and the weather with the fisherman and sailors at the dock when he ties up his small rowboat. Sometimes he will bring his dog and sometimes he will go in search of a new pup at the shelter a few towns over. The only visitor he takes back to the lighthouse is a woman named Diana, or at least that is one of her names. She knows something of his loneliness.

Most days he can find contentment in solitude, working in his garden and playing with the dogs on the sunny days, making coffee and reading on the rainy ones. He always wakes up early to see the sunrise, and loves to watch it set into the sea from the lantern room. When darkness falls he remains there, as close as he can be to Apollo. He watches boats arrive at the distant shore. Every so often he points and says, “There goes another one, another ship that found its way home because of you.” Then he leans in, presses his forehead to the glass and whispers, “I know that one day you will find your way back to me.”

Lilac Wine

Sociology 301: Introduction to Interpersonal Relationships