Current Issue

Poetry Prize

Unsung Masters Series

About Us


Visiting Writers Series

> News

Back Issues


by Zachary Mason

The bow creaks as I draw the arrow to my eye. The sun gleams on the whitecaps crawling across the harbor and on the glory of Icarus’ broad white wings; he banks, giving me a clear shot, and my arms and the bow are one tension, but I imagine his smooth parabola turned to ragged tumbling, and Daedalus’ face when he sees his son’s body, and hesitate, and the moment passes. As he disappears into the grey fog coming in over the sea I fire my arrow high into the air, pointlessly, and share, for a moment, his flight’s euphoria.

Deep in the labyrinth’s mass I stand before the door to Daedalus’ cell. The key is in my hand but I am waiting, listening, for he is the master of artifice and nothing is more probable than that he has vanished with his son, and though I strain to listen there is nothing but a silence that foretells only evil, and then I unlock the door.

I find him bent over his book with his pen in his hand. The little light of the one barred window shows the cell’s squalor—the equations scribbled on the walls, the loose papers on the floor, the sour residue of meals pushed into a corner—and the light is at such an angle that I see the black pouches under his eyes, the skin hanging from his face like desiccated silk; he has never looked so old or so weary and I wonder if I’ve worked him too hard and if he’s been sleeping. When he raises his head to look out the window I follow his gaze but see only white cumulus whorling in the wind and below that the sprawling rooftops of the labyrinth, and, as though drawn by its complexity, my mind turns to its dust and shadows, the white passages and the chambers and the echoing arcades. Mustering myself, I break in on him and say, “Icarus fled Crete today on the white wings you built him. I could have shot him out of the sky, but I held fire, and watched him bank over the waves and vanish into the fog.”

Daedalus closes his eyes and then says, “Your Majesty is a gracious king, and I thank you for sparing him.”

“The one pair of wings implied another. I searched your workshop and found the second pair.”

He smiles and says, “I am too old for sky-larking.”

“You’re not so old,” I say, though he is ten years my senior, and few men my age still go to war.

“The wings were a necessary misdirection—my son only left when he was sure I would follow.”

“Your son is less wise than his father.”

“My son was right—I’ll be gone soon.”

“And yet I prefer that you stay.”

“You made my son a hostage, and me a prisoner, so yes, your preferences are clear.”

“You’re too valuable to let go.”

He closes his book, turns to me and says, “Minos, I have served you long enough. I have been the architect of your island and of your wars and of your cities; there is nothing in Crete that does not bear

my imprimatur. I made your ships and roads and siege-engines, and I made you a king, when you made me a slave, so I’m done with you.”

I can see that he’s been waiting a long time to say these words and watch him closely, weighing his certainties.

I start to speak but he raises an imperious hand and says, “I am old, and I am sick, and I will die soon. Now that Icarus is free, my one concern is this book,” and he holds up the book in which he’s been writing, and the day has turned to dusk already and the book’s black cover seems to soak up the little light in the small room and he holds it up just a beat too long which lets me know that there is something I’m missing. Guessing that the book is a distraction I scan the room for weapons, for traps, but there’s nothing here but the old man, his bed, the scholar’s clutter. “This book is all of me,” he says, and his voice has the ring of truth. “It is my soul, my life’s work, the sum of my mathematics, the key to the hidden order in the world. I’ve wasted decades winning your wars, doing my own work in rare stolen hours. My time is short, now, though the book is far from done, and soon I will leave you to finish it.”

My rage comes close to the surface but I don’t lash out because behind my anger is an intuition that somehow he’s already gone, though he’s right here before me, locked in a cell to which I have the key on the island that’s the center of my power. The imminence of his absence howls all around me and I foresee how when he’s gone Crete and the palace will be empty shells, how there will never be anyone who knows how things were, and I think of that first night when he came to Crete and we talked till dawn over the roar of the wind of the empire we’d build and of mathematics. I say, “You’re not dying, but I’ll bring doctors, the best there are. And you can go abroad soon, but wait just a little longer, because for now our kingdom needs you.”

“Our kingdom is yours, and always has been.”

“I have laden you with wealth, and rank, and honor.”

“I am a slave with a golden collar.”

“You are Crete’s second citizen.”

“That distinction, like every distinction craved by your courtiers, is worthless, a complicated way of organizing nothing, as lasting and as valuable as smoke.”

The day is failing rapidly and he has faded to planes of shadow and pale light as I say, “Then I’ll build you a monument in stone, a colossal statue to stand by the harbor, so tall that every man who sails into Knossos will see your face and know your name. Your fame will be written in granite.”

“My face,” he says, “is a face like any other, and my name is a noise without meaning. The only thing about me that deserves to survive, if anything about me deserves to survive, is my mathematics, my aesthetics, my way of seeing the world. Faces are drawn in water, and names written in dust. Even persons are ephemeral—in the end, there is only pattern.”

“Stay with me,” I say, “for there are kings left to conquer, and we will break them, you and I, and build an altar to our victories from their brittle white bones.”

“It would be a monument to vanity and ruin.”

“Stay with me,” I say, “and I will give you libraries like gardens, and gardens like labyrinths.”

“What is worth reading, I have read. The only book for me now is the one I am writing.”

“Stay with me,” I say, “and I will give you time and silence and solitude. Write your book, and forget the affairs of men and cities. I’ll bring you mathematicians, if you want them, the best Hellas has.”

“I doubt you’d find another of the kind I need,” he says, smiling at me for the first time in as long as I can remember, and once again I feel a secret in the air, and I remind myself that Daedalus’ wit has been many strong mens’ undoing. He says, “You could have been a great mathematician, you know— you have talent, a talent not unlike mine. What a shame that you grew into a hard-headed man-of-affairs with no use for mere abstractions.” He coughs wetly, then, and as the evening light fades in the window he is all but invisible, though he is right there before me, and in a gentle voice he says, “My friend, you must learn to get along without me. My course is set—I’m going away.”

He is my oldest friend, in fact my only one, and he’s spent his life building my empire, and to my fathomless disgust my eyes begin to water. Moreover, if I let him go it would mean the end of my wars and so an end to the cries of the dying and the dead eyes of new slaves and the ash and stench of burned-out cities, but I remind myself that I am a man of will, and as the last light disappears I stifle my weakness and say, “The prince you serve will rule the Middle Sea, and that will be me, or that will be no one, and Knossos, which has been your home, is now your prison, and, I swear to you, you will die here.”

That night I dream of the days when Daedalus and I were never apart and a supplicant knelt not to me but to him, and death was in the supplicant’s face when he realized his error but I raised him up and said, “Never mind—he, too, is Minos,” and in the morning my chamberlain wakes me to tell me that Daedalus is gone.

I look for him in the workshops, in the smithies, in the deep tangle of the labyrinth, in dry wells, oubliettes, in the winding canyons of the inland mountains. I let no ship leave the harbor. I send soldiers to search the towns, huntsmen to set brindled hounds belling through the wood, divers to sink among the reefs. I search the deepest cellars, listen to their silences, look for footprints in the dust. I sit on the beach where we planned our empire, that first night he came to Crete, shouting to be heard over the wind; silent, now, but for the waves’ hiss and lapping. In his cell I watch the light fade in his window. He is gone, as are all his papers, leaving nothing but the book. A darkness settles on my mind and I lack the energy even to stand as my thoughts move sterilely and interminably over the locked gates, the inaccessible beaches, the crenellated towers that should have kept him with me.

My vacantly circling thoughts bring me no closer to a solution and I catch myself wanting to ask Daedalus’ advice. In the gathering dusk the book is terrible, its cover a black hole absorbing all the light, and I find I can’t look away, as I can’t bring myself to touch it, for Daedalus’ resource was endless, and he must have hated me, and he had years to give his malice form in spring-loaded needles or poisoned ink or some subtler trap. For a moment I long to burn the book as I once longed to break cities, but having nowhere else to turn, I open it.

When I close the book the one window frames the glow of dawn, or perhaps of dusk, and my mind is full of the forms of clouds, all the shades and gradients of white in the airy calculus of vapor forming ethereal massifs, towering spires, vast plateaus, and finally fading away, and for just a moment I understand the upper air in all the elusiveness of its geometry, but as I try to hold this in my mind lucidity becomes confusion and I’m left with no more than fragments of the shapes behind the skies, and a sense of the simplicity underlying their apparent disorder. I look out the window but the incandescent sky is cloudless, and I’m distantly aware that I haven’t eaten in a long time, and then I go back to the book.

I’m stifled, drowning, the hard hand of black water pressing down upon me; I rise out of the dream with a lurch, sitting up straight and knocking my dagger from the desk; blood streaks my forearm from the wounds on my wrist where I pricked myself awake. The book lies open to the page I’ve read and re-read and dreamed of re-reading, and once again my eyes go to the ranks of equations that somehow abstract the crushing weight of water on the abyssal plains, the way the wind’s force on the surface stirs the cold currents in the deep; the densely written symbols swim before my eyes, and I know I will never understand them, but my heart is a soldier’s, so I blink, steel myself, and try again.

Black vault of night and as the sky lightens the stars fade until there are only a few lingering planets and then nothing but swallows arcing after insects through the morning air above the empty streets. I am happy, for it’s not far to the center of the city, and all the answers are there, waiting to be revealed, though they are fragile, even evanescent, and just to think of them is to risk their vanishing. As I go deeper into the city the walls rise and the light fades, the street becoming a canyon of uniform planes of shadow, and then I’m feeling my way through lightless, claustrophobic alleyways where there is only the pale quadrilateral of colorless sky, the wind’s restless octaves, the rough stone under my hands. Then there is a sheer wall before me, and sheer walls all around, and the sky has disappeared, but, still, I am elated, because I know that the center is close at hand, and then I wake to someone shouting. I’m sweating on Daedalus’ cot, which still smells of him, clutching the book to my chest, and with relief I remember that I’m still many pages from the end. A general watches from the doorway as the minister squatting beside me shakes my arm again and asks me a question but I turn my back on him, pull the blanket tighter, and sleep returns in a black tide.

When next I wake it’s morning and I’m alone. Without rising I open the book and immediately my mind is full of the forms of rivers, blood vessels, fractally branched lightning, but I haven’t been reading an hour when the writing stops.

I flip ahead but the rest of the pages are blank, except for the very last, which is covered with scrawled notes. It’s a sort of diary, mostly about his work, and the wings he built for his son. The last entry reads: Minos has a predictable mind, and as of now it’s a certainty that the book will be finished. I have one last thing to do, and then I’m gone.

I remember how my generals swore that Crete was bound in iron, bound in adamant, that not even a bird, now, could escape, and I am on the verge of relieving them first of their commands and of then of their lives, but then my rage collapses when I realize that the fault was mine, for who but a fool would expect those unremarkable men to contend with Daedalus and his sublimity? I throw the book at the wall, hesitate, gather it up tenderly.

He’s gone to Athens, I think, that city of chatter and philosophy, where Theseus, my old enemy, is king, and certain to give Daedalus a welcome. At first it seems that the only possible plan is to gather my armies and my fleets and commit everything to an invasion first of Athens and then of all Attica and either win a new empire or see all my works destroyed, but armies are slow, while news travels fast, and he’d be gone long before my siege-train reached Athens’ walls.

That night I go to the harbor in the small hours carrying a bag of gold, a sword, and the book swaddled in canvas. Among the creaking ships I find one whose captain has often served me with discretion. The sentry is asleep on the gunwales; I nudge him with my foot and say, “Wake up. The king has a message for your master.” The captain comes on deck in a night-cap, his sleep-blurred face clarifying when he sees me, and soon the deck is full of hushed activity and then the sweeps are out and then the sails are filling. As we leave the harbor I watch the city lights and in the receding spattered glow I intuit the presence of a pattern, but one I can’t quite articulate.

We sail for days and there are no other ships on the level sea. On the third day we drop anchor an hour before dawn, the shore implied by white breakers and a sense of land looming. The Piraeus, the captain says, is two hour’s walk north. “Good luck, sir!” he calls as I wade through the warm swell. Faint star-lit sails disappearing. I build a fire and sit with my back to a stone and watch the rising sun define the horizon as I listen to the sea’s sizzling blankness. He is out there somewhere, under the same brightening sky. The fire burns low and I let it fade.

I have so rarely been alone.

I dream I am on the battlements of the walls around the harbor watching Daedalus make adjustments to the rows of mirrors that glow like low moons in the dusk. The harbor is fathoms below us and there at its mouth are ships sailing in, rank upon rank of them, and they are innumerable, an armada blackening the sea and the great void below is pulling at me as I say, “So many—I never thought the sea had held so many,” but Daedalus only points into a mirror’s silver concavity which holds a light so bright it blinds me, for it’s noon, suddenly, and the mirrors blaze like a rank of suns, and their light is a bridge plunging down through the deep gulf of air to the prow of the foremost ship, which kindles, as I watch, the orange flame engulfing its sails, and the wind brings faint screams and wood-smoke, as, ship by ship, the armada ignites, its rigid formations dissolving into an incandescent scrawl, and I know I should rejoice but my mind is full of angles of incidence and angles of reflection, flash points, burn rates, luminosity.

I see Athens at dawn and approach the gates dressed as a freelance and ill-at-ease, for Theseus hates me and has many soldiers and my armies are far away. The slouching guard rubs his stubble and waves me through with hardly a glance and I master the impulse to call him to attention and say that I’m Minos, by god, whose hands are steeped in Athenian blood, and I demand the respect and the hatred that are due me, but in fact I say nothing and enter the city as no one in particular.

I have always known Athens from a distance as an abstract locus of shipyards, fortification and supply, and I wander bemused through the tangled streets, past the jumbled tombs, the walled gardens, the derelict factories, and the city seems to have a significance that I haven’t learned to name. In the evenings I linger in the inns and the caravanserais nursing endless cups of watered wine and though I buy many drinks and listen carefully I hear of no new engineer in Theseus’s court, no resurgent barbarian prince, no sage unraveling the riddles of antiquity. An officious Theban mercenary says he knows a Cretan when he hears one, and wants to know what I’m doing in Attica; I tell him I’ve come to find a certain teacher of mathematics, and when he asks the teacher’s name I have to overcome an absurd reluctance to say that it’s Daedalus, Daedalus who I’m seeking.

One day in the agora I find walls covered with graffiti and among the lovers’ names and vulgar drawings is a row of scribbled symbols that seem almost to float off of the wall, that seem almost to glow, and I realize that what I had taken at first for a haphazard scrawl is in fact a theorem of the first water, and I am first enraptured, and then relieved, for Daedalus’ style is unmistakable.

A few feet away are men with serious faces and chalk on their hands, deep in conversation. I say, “Where is the man who wrote that on the wall?”

“That?” says one. “That’s nothing, just some rubbish—it’s been there for months.”

“Who wrote it,” I ask again, controlling my breathing, and again he says he doesn’t know and turns away from me, and I am relieved to finally have a tangible enemy. I tap him on the shoulder and when he turns I punch him in the face, and when he clutches his nose I drive my knee into his stomach. “Who wrote it,” I ask again as I draw my sword and he raises his hand to ward off the blow that doesn’t fall for in his terror there is an innocence that makes me hesitate, and then he and the other men have scattered and someone is calling for the guard. If I’m to meet Theseus again I don’t care to do it in chains so I scramble over a wall and run through a maze of alleys and soon find the gates and leave Athens behind.

Daedalus is the father of weapons and I expect to find war in the wastes between cities but in the event there are no crumbled walls, no shattered towns, no siege-trains sprawled across the desert, just city walls rising where I’d looked to find ruins.

Before the walls of Thebes I find an old man drawing diagrams in the sand and mumbling about geometry. He has dried gruel in his beard and can’t bear to look me in the eye but his work has a grace and a fluency that I think I recognize. Having learned discretion I spend weeks listening to him ramble on about his work before I dare to drop a hint that I, too, have known a great teacher, one he might know himself, but he ignores me, even when I repeat myself, and then something breaks in me and I seize his shoulder and insist that he tell me how and when he knew Daedalus but he writhes feebly in my grasp and weeps with fear and there is nothing for it but to let him go, swallow my rage, and move on. I’m sleeping rough in the hills on the road to Arcadia on a night of brilliant cold clarity and wake with the full moon in my eyes, and before the fog of sleep disperses I realize that I know what the moon’s phase was a year ago, and a century ago, and what it will be in ten thousand years, but how I know this remains a mystery.

One day in Corinth I’m hungry and find my gold all spent. I could turn mercenary, but that’s beneath the dignity of a king, and of no interest to a mathematician, so I trade my sword for bread; it gives me pause to be without a weapon but I’m no longer afraid of being recognized and in fact am often mistaken for a holy man or scholar.

Soon it seems that I’ve always been walking through the white dust of Attica.

Sometimes I wonder what will become of me, a line of thought that raises questions that can only be avoided by stopping and reading the book. In each new city I seek out the mathematicians, who often seem to be expecting me, and are generally kind, though I find them disappointing; I had been expecting men of my friend’s caliber but almost invariably their technique is crude even by my standards. When they ask me to critique their work I do so honestly, which is to say, I tell them it is worthless, except in those rare cases when it has a beauty in which I recognize my friend’s hand. When I confront them they insist on pretending that Daedalus is a figure out of parable, or perhaps a way of speaking; it’s shocking how much this wounds me. My despairs deepens as my acuity grows and I find Daedalus’ imprimatur in the faded graffiti on temple walls, in patterns of white stones scattered by road, in the striations of dust storms, in the sickly illumination of thunderheads, and I wonder who it was who once served me. I often hear that Daedalus has been seen in this city or in that one but I can never find him, and I wonder why he still flees from me, as he must know by now that my anger is gone, that I only want to see him again and talk about the book.

In one city in the endless succession of cities someone says, “But are you not him?”

“Not who?” I say.

“Daedalus,” he says, smiling, looking intently into my face, and I laugh and admit that once I was his master but now have lost him.

I’m sitting in the sun in a garden colonnade in what I think is Athens and my host, whose work verges on the competent, dips his bread in olive oil as he says, “We’re founding an academy, my friends and I, to which we hope to attract the best minds.” I nod abstractedly and he waits a beat and then says, “We’d be honored, of course, if you’d join us.” I’m taken by surprise, and it seems there’s much to be said for an end to wandering, a garden of my own where I could sit and think through ancient problems away from the road’s dust and weariness, and perhaps there’d even be a woman, and for a moment I even think of going back to Crete—I am king, so why not?—but the pomp and blood and intrigue belong to someone else’s life. That night asleep in the guest room the book’s logic burns behind my eyes and I wake in the knowledge that the academy is a trap and I steal silently out into the garden and then the night and the world.

Soon I’m in high broken country where there’s no road and in that solitude my mind becomes a void that the book rushes in to fill. I find a shallow cave in an arroyo scoured by the wind and as the day passes nothing changes but the light and the shadow gliding over the stone. I read while the light lasts and my thoughts crystallize around the negative space of the blank pages at the end of the book. Somehow I know that Daedalus is nearby, and if he ever arrives I will embrace him, and say all is forgiven, and show him that I, even I, have attained a certain standard of mathematics.

Time passes, and sometimes I find bread and water waiting at the cave-mouth, which I accept without question. I have the book by heart, and come to know it so well that I feel I wrote it. To my surprise, I find mistakes, for it seems that even Daedalus erred, that even he was getting old. I have an intuition of how the book would have ended, had Daedalus had time to finish it, had he been the man he once was, but though I try a long time it won’t quite come into focus. I wish I were more intelligent, and I am on the verge of giving up, but instead I accept that the failure and the pain are mine forever, and shortly thereafter I know the ending of the book. I write out the last pages, and as the ink dries I know I’m alone, and that Daedalus has been lost a long time. I wonder how I had ever been content to be nothing more than a king and a soldier, blind to all the beauty in the world.

Finished, I am absolutely empty. A raven’s rattling croak, a wind in the arroyo, but otherwise the world is still. I wonder if I will die soon, and if it matters. I know that Daedalus himself could not have done better, but I am without vanity, for what matters are not names, or persons, but pattern.