A White Lie

“The King signed it!” He was beaming at me with the fierce tenderness that always set me alight, like the morning sea glowing in the warmth of the sun. “Look!”

Gingerly I took the scroll from him, and traced the beautifully inked markings with my finger. I could not yet read whole words, only the letters Daedalus had taught me that were scattered inside them, and my own name.

“This paper makes you a free woman, Naucrate. Do you understand?” I did not, but I knew he would not wait for my answer, so I nodded nonetheless. “It means that my son will be born to a free woman of Greece – my wedded wife, not a bedslave from the household of Minos!”

In celebration he gave a great feast, and all in Crete flocked eagerly to it, gentle and common alike. Some for love and friendship of my lord; most because they knew Daedalus was in high favour with the king. They brought gifts for me too as I sat beside him, fourteen years old and visibly near motherhood, a free woman of Greece, for all that I had the red-gold hair and green eyes of my slave mother. I knew they sniggered, but I did not care.

I have always wondered if it was in truth the happiest moment of my life, or merely the last one without the taint of dread upon it … Afterwards they told me it was that very night that Pasiphae was to lie with Poseidon’s snow-white bull … but you must have known this then, Daedalus, though you gave no sign of it.

And how the fates laughed to watch us! No – they did not laugh; they were angered. Else they would not have sent us Alcisthene. For twenty years I have thought of her only with loathing – but now – now that I should hate and revile her more than ever, I think I understand: it was never she who doomed us, Daedalus. It was you.

I felt the iron steal into Daedalus as she walked up to us and bowed, the slave boy behind her holding up her gift, felt his hand stiffen on mine. “I felicitate you, Uncle,” She said. “I pray that your child may he be born a boy, strong and healthy, and that he may grow up to be a credit to his father.”

Daedalus said nothing; it was I, finally, who stammered out the ritual thanks, but it was at him that she looked. “May your firstborn child be a boy, dear Uncle Daedalus, and may he grow up to be like his cousin Talus.”

“Out! Get out!” He hissed, and I flinched for her as he raised his hand to strike. But she stared him back down, smiling all the while.

“Ah look, I have frightened your little slave concubine. Did you never hear the name of Talus, little pigeon? Talus, my baby brother who worshipped the ground his uncle walked on, like our poor mother – and yet was so brilliant he invented the saw at the age of ten just by looking at the spine of a fish. No? Never?”

“But it was Daedalus who invented the saw!” And until that moment I had believed it – I would fain have gone on believing it all my life, but that I could not unread the truth of her words in his eyes.

“Is that what he told you? No, my poor deluded child, all he did was throw the boy out of a tower, for fear that he would become a greater man than himself. Look how she clings to him, the little fool! … He loved you, Daedalus. Loved you and trusted you like his mother, like this child here. You remember her, don’t you? Perdrix, your sister who still refuses to believe you murdered her son…” She spoke softly enough, but the guests were beginning to gather around us, listening avidly to this story they all knew but would never have dared to repeat in the presence of Daedalus.

“You know, when they told her Daedalus had killed his nephew, she refused to believe them. They showed her Talus’s brains spattered on the rocks next to his broken body, and she would only say ‘My brother could never have done this’. And do you know what he did, little pigeon, when she went to see him in prison? He held her and kissed her cheek and told her ‘He fell. There was nothing I could do.’ When they imprisoned him for his crime, she knelt before his dungeon and prayed for his freedom. When they cast him out as a kinslayer, she clung to him and wept. Wept …”

She took the box from the slave’s hands. “She sent you her love, Daedalus, and bade me tell you she burns an offering every day to pray for your return. Look – here is her gift for your lady – an armlet blessed by the priestess of Pallas Athene herself. Look, is it not beautiful?”

Daedalus tore it from her hand and flung it to the floor, scattering the beads to the sound of her harsh barking laughter. “Get you hence, Alcisthene,” he said, caring nothing for the whispering Cretans all around us, “or I swear I will kill you too.”

“Oh I am going, dear Uncle, don’t fret … Goodbye, fledgling.” I shrank closer to Daedalus as her hand rested fleetingly on my cheek. “I am going, Daedalus, but this curse I now pronounce upon you will linger in every broken fragment of that wretched trinket my mother made for you: may your son die at your hands as Talus died – may his mother suffer as the mother of Talus suffers!”

I asked him nothing, I spoke no word, not even when they were all gone and I stood trembling in our bedchamber looking blankly out upon the starry night. “Alcisthene is gone,” he said and wrapped me close to him in the Persian shawl he had given me that morning. “She will never hurt our baby. I made sure of it.”

And in his strong, strong arms I was sure of it too. Icarus, how was I to know that he had already sealed your cousin’s curse upon you with her blood? It was not fear for you that made me tremble that night … though if I had known then what I know now I would have jumped from the window ledge and let the sea swallow us both then and there.

“Did you really lie to your sister?” The horror growing inside me spilled past my lips, though I had bitten them to the quick to stifle it. “That wasn’t true, was it, Daedalus? Daedalus?”

He flung me from him then, and the repulsion, the wrath in his face made me crumple to his feet. “Aye. It was a lie – a little white lie, to save the stupid woman’s life. Do you think she would have survived the knowledge that her precious brother had murdered her son? Do you think I should have told her the truth? Do you?”

I called after him, clutched at his cloak, sobbing, incoherently begging forgiveness – but he knocked me aside and went away. Sometime during the night I must have fallen asleep on the floor, because I woke up screaming to a boy with his brains smashed on the rocks and Alcisthene making a mountain of armlets around him. But he was there to hold me and soothe my terror away, and in the months that followed our happiness returned to us, piece by piece at first, and then all of it at once when Icarus was born.

He had his father’s handsomeness and his fierce courage, but none of his skill, for which I offered up a prayer of gratitude every single day. Because I knew instinctively that Daedalus could never have loved him so unreservedly otherwise … Icarus had no love of his father’s craft, and so I thought him safe from him, from Alcisthene’s curse. And then five years later came my baby Iapyx, a gift from the heavens, with the green eyes and the sweet calm goodness of my own mother, a serenity that spread around him like a breath of divine love. Icarus dreamt of wars and gallant deeds, but Iapyx yearned always to heal: from babyhood he could soothe a withering blossom back to life. He was devoted from the first to Daedalus, like Talus, like his sister Perdrix, with that total and unshakeable devotion which the guilelessly good always give to those who deserve it the least.

We were happy all those years, while my boys were growing up. Now I know it was only a fleeting, borrowed happiness, doomed from the first – how could it not be, with kinsblood upon my husband’s hands and a Minotaur ranging the labyrinth of my husband’s making, gorging upon the tribute of innocent lives offered unto it every day? I wish I could say now that it weighed upon Daedalus, or at least that it cast a shadow upon my own blissful contentment: but the truth is, I was completely, thoughtlessly happy.

And then Princess Ariadne fell in love with an Athenian Prince, and gave him the ball of unbreakable endlessly stretchable golden thread Daedalus had gifted her, so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the vile beast. It was Iapyx who brought me the news – the bringing of ill news always did fall to him, for there was no sorrow his very presence could not lighten. Minos had locked Daedalus in a tower-cell, and Icarus with him … Almost I was glad of it, for I knew there was no prison in the world that could hold my Daedalus. He would find a way to break free, to come home to us or to take us wherever he went, and Icarus, who might otherwise have done something reckless upon learning the King’s decree, would be safer with him meanwhile than he would be anywhere else.

I knew Daedalus loved him as dearly as I did; I thought he would die before he let any harm come to our son … Icarus, Icarus, my first-born, my darling boy, did you call for your mother as you fell from the sun on the wings of your father’s making? Did you think of me as the waves swallowed you and he flew on, weeping? … Iapyx brought me Daedalus’s letter when he told me, but it did not speak of you. It was a scrip of parchment, soiled and torn, that said only “The boy fell. I told him not to fly so high, but he did not listen. There was nothing I could do.”

“He fell. There was nothing I could do.” And there she was, Alcisthene watching her mother’s armlet shatter on the wooden flooring, laughing, laughing, building mountains of armlets around Icarus lying smashed upon the cliffs, building mountains of armlets soaked in the blood dripping from her own slashed throat.

They tell me I lay in a fever for weeks, screaming “it was a lie! A little white lie” … but it is not a lie this time, is it, Daedalus? You could lie to all the world and to yourself too, but you never could lie to me.

I can see you now in the tower cell, your magnificent brain already at work as you watch the gulls soaring past, measuring, calculating, planning, not with glazed and dreaming eyes like Icarus standing beside you. I can see how you set yourself to copy their wings, so intent upon your craft you are free already from the prison Minos thinks will hold you for life.

I can see Icarus standing beside you, his eyes wide with wonder and admiration, all without understanding a word of your numbers and squiggles and triangles chalked up on the wall. He is nodding as you fit the harness around his shoulders and warn him not to fly too high; but already his heart is yearning to brush the wings of Apollo’s chariot with his own, and he hears nothing …

Iapyx tells me you have promised to send for me as soon as you have found us a secure refuge, and I smile and agree. But I know you, Daedalus. I know you as nobody else in the whole world does, and I know you will never send for me. I will never see you again, Daedalus, because to me you cannot tell the half-truths you tell yourself. I know that the only refuge you need now is from me, lest I hold you up to the mirror of your own soul as I should have done all these years. You cannot look into the eyes of your son’s mother knowing that you watched him drown and did not plunge into the waves after him as he would have after you without an instant’s hesitation.

But you would not have to, Daedalus. It is not the truth I want from you: I know it already, and unless you are here to hold me I cannot shut it out of my heart as I always have done. Daedalus, Daedalus, for once in your life, please tell me a lie too. A white lie – a little white lie … that is all I am asking of you now, all I will ask of you forevermore.

Tell me how you watched over our Icarus, flying into the sun to pull him downward, hauling him up again and again when he swooped too low. Tell me how, when his wings gave way and he fell, you cast away your own and threw yourself in after him, offering your life to Poseidon instead of his, offering your knowledge, your art, everything that you are and could be …

Hold me now and tell me how you wept and prayed that the tears of Perdrix and the blood of her children would be repaid by your life and not his, how the power of your love and the wonder of your craft won my child’s life from the ocean itself. Tell me over and over that Alcisthene’s curse had no power in it, until I can pretend to unknow the truth about you as I always have done, Daedalus.

Tell me how you left our son to rest upon a rocky little islet you named for him, living and waiting for us, and that one day, we will all go there to live with him, flying out over the ocean on wings stronger than the sun, stronger than the wind and the waves, and live happily ever after, away from towers and minotaurs and the palaces of Kings.

Come back to me, Daedalus. Don’t be afraid of me. It’s not the truth I want from you. I know it already. All I am asking for now is one little white lie …

Do drop me a line!

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