Aging Elements

Edited by Julia Rios

June 2019

Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:

I. Earth

The maze is making us mad, the smooth sandstone of one wall indistinguishable from the next, the turns twisting us back to where we started. At night, the boy sleeps fitfully. He won’t say so, but I know the tall shadows of the labyrinth’s walls populate his dreams with monsters.

Some monsters are not merely creations of his dreaming mind. Every night as he sleeps, I pray to the gods to protect us, to give me the wits to solve this puzzle as I have solved so many others before it.

I focus my mind’s eye, trying to remember, to visualize the maze as it appears from the castle above. From there, the walls were flat lines in the sand, like a child’s puzzle on parchment. From here on Earth, each wall is an endless flat surface, a vertical desert with no oasis.

We begin collecting feathers. The boy complains, though I know he appreciates the distraction. Wouldn’t it be easier to just find a way out? he asks.

No, I tell him. The only way out is up. I know. I made this maze.

When? he asks.

Before you were born.

He squints in disbelief. The young think the world began with their memory of it, their egos unwilling to accept that their lives are only the middle of a very long story.


II. Air

It’s been years since I’ve flown. I’d forgotten how much the wings strain the muscles of your shoulders, how intense the wind is in your face.

In his nervousness, the boy tightens his muscles, curling his body. He dips lower in the air, tightens more, and so sinks more. He is flapping too hard and too often, working against the wind instead of with it.

Stretch, I tell him. Stretch out your body as if a string were pulling you upward. Point your head up and your toes out.

He nods and stretches his spine upward, but his legs are still bent in, his arms madly flapping his wings.

Stop flapping, I say. Relax.

His face is stricken with terror, the same terror that drives the ceaseless beating of his wings. It is a terror I know well — the fear of crashing into the ground, the belief that only constant willful effort prevents you from plummeting, the certainty that disaster is as inevitable as gravity.

Look at me, I say, stretching myself out, gliding on the wind with barely a movement of my muscles.

He looks at me in disbelief, but gulps the air as if he could swallow up courage from the wind. He stops flapping and stretches out, then dives directly downward.

No! I shout. But then his wings catch the wind. The gust carries him upward, and the tension in his muscles eases. He gains in confidence, riding from one blast of air to the next, pumping his wings only to shift course, to gain height or to lose it.

He circles me, the terror on his face replaced with delight.

Look at me! he says. Look at all of this! We can see to the end of the world!

My boy. My beautiful impetuous wonderful boy has learned to fly.


III. Fire

We’ve been going for hours and my arms are as useless as sagging rags.

The boy’s energy is endless, he is still exhilarated with his newfound skill for the sky. Sometimes I find myself unable to turn my gaze to anything but him. His young skin is so smooth, his muscles the kind that inspire sculptors. My feelings for him are so many and so entwined. My admiration and pride and desire and love and resentment all come in the same breath and by the same cause.

He flies so well, and his young muscles will endure much longer in the air than my aging sinews. Yet he flies as if it were all his own doing, as if he had no memory of who designed and built the wings that lift us both.

He is getting more distant, several hundred meters ahead and above me.

Not so high, I shout. And slow down!

What? he shouts back. There is too much wind between us.

He turns and circles back toward me.

You must be careful, I say when he is nearer. If we fly too close to the sun, its fires will melt the wax of our wings. Our feathers will slide away, and we will plummet into the ocean.

No, he says. I’ve been much higher than you in the sky. The sun never grows in size, never seems any closer. It is far away, impossibly far away.

Even from afar, its fires are dangerous.

I’m not afraid of fire, he says, tilting his wings to the side, letting the wind take him higher than me again.

I drop the topic, gazing at the ocean below. My arms are so tired. We need land, I say. See that hint of green on the horizon to the south? That is an island I know well. I have friends who will take us in, help us until we get home.

Home? he asks, arching his back and looping below me. Why go home when we have wings that can take us anywhere? Let’s go west! West to the places that no one has explored!

If we go west, I say, then we will fall off the edge of the world.

The world has no edge, he says. There’s always a horizon.

Where does he get this confidence in these notions that have no foundation?

I’m tired, I say. I need rest.

He turns from me, toward the west, flying higher.

From higher up, he says, I think I saw another glimmer of green toward the west. You can rest there, and then who knows what adventure we’ll find!

No, I say. No western island is close enough. Please, turn south with me.

Either the wind carries my words away from him or he pretends not to hear. He flies on, further westward and ever higher, toward the bright fires of the sun.


IV. Water

I follow him west for as long as my arms allow, until he has become nothing but a distant dot in the sky, indistinguishable from a bird. I follow him for long after that, hoping that he will turn around and come back for me.

With a last muster of strength, I lift my right wing ever so slightly and let the wind turn me to the south. I feel the water well up in my eyes. It is the tiredness, I tell myself. It is so easy to cry when one is tired.

I stare at the ocean below. From here, its waters look calm, gentle ripples skimming across its face. But each of those ripples is a mighty, unforgiving wave, and the sea is full of horrors.

I am almost to the island, but I have no strength for the landing. I let gravity carry me downward, catching the air as the ground approaches, just enough to ease my fall.

I crash in the waters just beyond the shore, my right leg awkwardly smacking the surface as I land. I lie there exhausted, letting the water hold me up. My leg throbs — I think it may be broken. The water comforts my pains and my aches but not my sorrows. The salt water is dissolving the wax, sliding the feathers off my wings. I lie floating on my back for at least an hour, surrounded by the feathers of my once mighty wings, the waters of my tears rejoining the ocean.

Eventually I limp to the beach. I find my friends.

What of Icarus? is the first thing they ask.

I can barely get the words out. He flew so high. Up to the sun. To the west toward the end of the world.

In soft tones, they ask if the wax of his wings had melted.

I don’t know, I say. He thought the sun was too far away to be a danger.

They look at each other, nodding gravely.

They believe Icarus’s notions to be impossible, that his wings most assuredly melted in the sun. Its light is too bright and its fires too warm for it to be anything but close at hand.

My friends tend to my injured leg and help me rest. One day while I lie in bed, I hear my friend’s children playing outside, climbing to the highest branches of a lofty tree.

Get down from there, my friend yells at his children, before you fall and hurt yourselves. Mind your father and mind your limits! Do you want to end up like Icarus?

I wince upon hearing his name. I feel the urge to struggle to my feet and go outside, to tell my friend that life’s lessons are never so certain or so simple. But I am his guest, and my leg is still too weak to stand on.

My leg begins to heal. I ponder what to do next. There is a king with an interesting puzzle — how to wind a string through a spiral seashell. An easy one to solve. But mazes and puzzles do not excite me as they once did.

I can walk again now, with difficulty. Sometimes in the mornings, I walk to the beach and gaze at the ocean, at the horizon. I think of what Icarus said, that there is no end to the world, that there is always a horizon. What if the world curves back on itself ever so slightly, forming an enormous globe? It is difficult to conceive but mathematically quite possible. What a wondrous creation of the gods that would be.

I used to pray to the gods for them to help me solve every puzzle. But now my prayers are different. Every day I pray to the gods for Icarus to be right. I pray that Icarus knows more than I do, that he is still flying across the uncharted lands of the west, solving new puzzles, and exploring all the things that I had imagined to be impossible.

© 2019 Ben Francisco

About the author

Ben Francisco

Ben Francisco’s stories have been published in Podcastle, Realms of Fantasy, Dreaming Again, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer Magazine, Best Gay Stories, Wilde Stories, and From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction. His stories range from magic realism to space opera, and have been known to feature oversexed ghosts, depressed precognitive psychics, and pantheistic vampire aliens who reproduce like moss. Common themes include cultural misunderstandings, family dysfunctions, LGBT experiences, and spiritual searches.

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