a Story From The Edge of Christmas
“What if Father Christmas flew too close to the sun?”
“ut just supposing you wanted to, how would you do it?”
The taller, greying man gripped his shovel as the exposed island wind cut into his thick robes. He gazed up into the sky where the clouds permanently hid the sun and the gulls flew in great numbers.
“I don’t want,” he said. “If I were to want any part of our old life I’d be wanting to make this easier, not that.” He slammed a foot onto the shovel and sent it deep into the stony dirt. “And you don’t listen. I told you to cut around the crop, not into it. Now it’ll spoil before the sun turns again.”
Nicarus looked down and saw that his own shovel had neatly sliced through the carrots he was supposed to be digging out. “Well we can eat them tonight,” he said, always quick with a solution to the problems he usually made.
Daedalus grimaced and yanked his shovel out of the soil once more. “Go and feed the beasts,” he said. “And then wash and prepare the evening meal.” He was in no mood for more of Nicarus’ mistakes. They were increasing as surely as the food yield was decreasing. And yet, as he watched his son unfold a crutch which had been stored like a sword around the boy’s waist, he couldn’t help thinking of the problem he’d been set – and a thousand others beside.
Nicarus leaned into the wind and let the crutch take his weight. The crutch had been the only invention Daedalus has made since coming to the island. No, that wasn’t true. The crutch was a replacement. His father had refashioned the old one, a rough but sturdy slice of sycamore wood from the old country, to restore a broken mast on the voyage to the island. The seas which ran riot around these parts were an unruly lot, barely kept in check by their mother ocean some miles distant, and they had had their fun with the tiny sail boat.
The cold wind tore into Nicarus and he tightened the belt on his woollen robe as the gulls circled above. He must remember to bolt the barn door this evening. Last time the winds were this strong he had forgotten and, alerted by the sound of wood wrenching free from wood, he had hurried outside just in time to see the door tumbling towards the cliff top. They’d lost one of the beasts that night too, lucky it had only been one of course but what a sight to see that performing somersaults through the sky as the seas leaped to snatch it. In the end, Nicarus and his father both agreed the moon had eaten it and they had returned to their hut.
The beasts were the only thing living on the island when Nicarus and Daedalus had landed on its shores. They had grazed on the thin grasses which grew like surprised hedgehogs along the rising coastline. Nicarus approached the herd with caution. They were used to him by now but could easily be surprised. He leaned against his crutch and held out a fist, opening it to reveal a chunk of carrot. One of the beasts sniffed the air with its glossy black nose. It caught scent of the root vegetable and turned towards the boy. He waited, patient and full of wonder for the way these animals moved.
“Nicarus!” The name rattled over the cliffs like a stone falling. “Nicarus, hurry it up.” The beast closest to him shook at the sound. Its great bulk rippling upon lean slender legs. It whinnied and reared back its head. Mighty antlers pierced the darkening sky, as lightning often did. Nicarus held his breath.
“Easy now,” he said. The beast was smaller than the rest but if Nicarus could get one of them to follow him then the rest would fall in line. His father and he had tried to saddle them, thinking they might be useful to help till the fields. But this had never been possible. Though they looked like horses they were not suited to being ridden and no amount of trying would change them. And yet they stood in the way of growing food for each time a crop came near to harvesting, the beasts had moved to eat it. Daedalus had proposed eating them instead but Nicarus pleaded and promised to keep them in the barn at night so they could not feed. During the day the animals would merely graze higher up, away from the fields.
Nicarus listened for the beast’s breathing and timed his own to match. In. Out. In. Out. Together they slowed as the night drew in. Gently, Nicarus tossed the piece of carrot into the air and the beast skipped forward. At the last moment the boy’s crutch slid on the ground and he threw a little too high but to his astonishment, the beast seemed to adjust mid-jump and catch it anyway.
“It’s remarkable how you do that.” Daedalus spoke softly, his voice filled with admiration for his son.
“Did you see, father? Did you see what it did?” Nicarus kept his eyes fixed ahead as he gestured for the beast to follow but his heart skipped in his chest. “It flew, just like we saw the night of the storm.”
Daedalus chuckled. “We saw the winds carry away a barn too. Did that fly?”
“Bring them in, boy,” said his father. “It’s time we ate.”
Nicarus knew better than to argue. Daedalus was a man of machinery and invention. His flights of fancy were grounded in what was possible. The boy remembered the many wonders his father had brought to life back when they enjoyed the favour of the king. “Yes, father,” he said, leading the beast down the slope towards the barn.
The herd followed its leader, braying as their barrel-bodies rocked from side to side with their gait. The terrain was rough, as though the island were still trying to decide what to become but their footing was as graceful as a boat through air.
“I still don’t want,” said Daedalus. “But I suppose there’s no harm in talking. A little.” The fire of his imagination burned his tongue. “Only a little, mind. I’ve no tools even if I wanted to take it further. The king saw to that, as well you know.”
Nicarus smiled. He opened the barn door and his smile was just as wide. “So how would you do it, father?”
“Well how would you? I’ve taught you the craft. How would you leave these shores?”
Nicarus made a show of thinking. He’d thought long and hard on this so he didn’t need the time. He knew exactly how he’d do it. “A boat, father,” he said.
Daedalus laughed, a deep rolling laugh which sent the herd into a huddle. “A boat? A boat wouldn’t work, boy. A boat barely got us here and then only because the king didn’t mind us heading away from his lands. If we built a boat we’d be smashed by the sea or shot by the navy.”
“Not that sort of boat, father.” Nicarus could barely keep the glee from his voice. He’d outsmarted Daedalus this time, he was certain. “A sky-boat, father. A boat that uses the heavens as its ocean.”
There was a silence as the older man considered his son’s ideas. “There’s thought in there, my son,” he said after a while. He swung the wooden bar down to lock the barn doors and slung an arm around Nicarus’ shoulder. “A good thought.”
Over a late dinner of carrot mashed into a shredded mess of cooked gull, Daedalus got Nicarus to detail the thought. “Sketch it for me,” he said. “Carry the thought through to its finish.”
Pleased at being given so much time, the boy drew out every measure of every detail he had in his head. Line by line, figure by figure, the sky-boat took shape until Daedalus sat back and laughed his belly laugh again. “That’s very good, Nic,” he said. “That’s even remarkable.”
Nicarus beamed. His father’s praise was the joy he craved on this remote island. The pleasure of making something for someone else ran through his blood.
“But it won’t work.”
Nicarus felt his spirits sink. “It can…” he began.
“Didn’t say can’t,” said Daedalus. “Said won’t. Your design is solid but it would take years and a whole pile of tools we don’t have and would need to invent. It’s bright, just not within our means.”
There was nothing more to be said. The candle burned lower and Nicarus pushed the food around his plate. “So we are stuck here,” he said. “Til you’re dead and I’m old and fat and with a long, white beard.”
That brought out another laugh and the candle struggled on its wick. “Well since you put it like that I think the world deserves the sight of such a man,” said Daedalus. “And all your work isn’t completely wasted.”
Nicarus looked up. “So you’ve an idea too?” he said.
“I have,” came the answer. “I’m not so old as to be needing my son to think for me.”
Then in soft whispers which outlasted the gull meat and the candlelight, Daedalus described his invention.
When he’d done, Nicarus banged his crutch on the ground. “Can we build them, father? Can we build them now?”
Daedalus stood and lifted his son into his arms. “Yes to the first and no to the second,” he said. “Get some rest and maybe we can begin in the morning. Though that’s not so far off.”
There wasn’t much sleep to be had but neither father nor son felt too tired to work when the grey light returned. Nicarus let the beasts out to graze. Chances are they would find their way to the ploughed fields too for those would not be worked today. “We’ll set up in the barn,” Daedalus told him. “Then we’ll set the gull traps and gather wood.” He tapped the crutch with his foot. “And I might be using that for yours,” he added.
It took weeks but between them the invention took shape. Daedalus measured both of them in every possible way. “Stretch your arms,” he’d say. “Now raise them. Higher.” Nicarus did as he was told, trying not to go his own way as he so often did.
And then the day came when Daedalus threw down his knife and his hammer and laughed.
“We’re done, my boy,” he said. “There’s no candles left to burn and we’ve let the crop go to the beasts and the house to ruin, but we’re done.”
Before them, upon the floor of the barn where the beasts still came to sleep and be near Nicarus, lay two sets of magnificent wings.
They were laden with gull feathers and folded as cleverly as the crutch. The wooden struts were as delicate as bird bones and the feathers were held together by rivets of wax and they were as bright and marvellous an invention as the world had ever seen. “These will be the ninth wonder of the world,” said Daedalus. There was no boast nor pride in his voice, just the certainty of an engineer.
The boy’s father dragged wings up to the cliff. It was a peculiar procession. Nicarus hobbled behind the wings, aided in part by one of the beasts. The herd followed after, black noses sniffing the air in hope of a carrot or some such reward.
At the top, Daedalus strapped his son into the wings. He tightened every binding and triple-checked every joint. Then he stepped into his own set.
“We are angels,” said Nicarus, looking at the wings which flexed as easily as his own arms. “We are angels bringing joy to the world.”
“We’re getting the heck out of here,” said his father. “Or will be if you manage to fly straight and do as I say.”
Nicarus grinned. He’d a few ideas in his head but he was as eager as his father to reach new lands and make a new life. “I’ll follow your lead,” he said.
The winds had been prowling around the island as Nicarus and his father had climbed to the top and now the stronger gusts were beginning to advance towards them. “It’s time,” said Daedalus. “Spread your wings, my son. Stay above the waves and below the clouds and you’ll be fine.”
Nicarus stretched his arms and leaned forward. At once the winds gripped him, keen to gobble up this strange creature. But the wings were too well balanced to be snatched away so easily and they bore the boy high into the air. Like a musician jumping to the next note, Nicarus moved from gust to gust, eddy to eddy. He rose and fell and spun and soared and his flight carved a song from the sky. But there was more yet to do.
As he flew, Nicarus sometimes caught sight of his father. Daedalus kept a steady line between sea and cloud and flew with the certainty of age. His son, however, did not.
A blossom of wind opened beneath Nicarus and he took his chance to catch it in his wings. It took him upwards, high above the waves and into the clouds. There was one thing Nicarus yearned to see.
He wanted to see the sun.
The king had banished them from lands lit by the warmest sun and, like an old man wishing again for childhood, Nicarus wanted to see it once more. Up he sped. Through the clouds he raced, his mighty wings beating until the grey mist split apart and he was swimming through gold. He closed his eyes and felt the warmth.
The heat of the sun rushed through his body and he held his arms still and wide for a moment. And a moment was all it took.
He felt the strength of the wings soften and opened his eyes to see feathers rising above him. He gathered his arms in to himself, trying to hold the last of the wind but it was too late. The wax binding melted and the gull feathers drifted away to reveal the wing bones – beautiful but now useless.
Nicarus plummeted. His arms flapped and his legs flailed as they had when he had first learned to walk in his limited, broken way. Clouds rushed to his aid but they could not hold even a child and he slipped through their fingers. There was no sign of his father, only the turbulent sea gleaming and gushing towards him. His heart sank first as he realised how he should have listened to his father.
And then he saw something.
At first it was a dot above the waves but then it grew, followed by more dots. His eyes strained through the tears until he could make out a shape. It was not his father but one of the beasts. That beast was followed by the rest of the herd. His father had told him to name them. “We can’t go on calling them beasts,” he’d said. And so Nicarus had looked into their eyes and named them “reindeer”. Now these reindeer galloped upon the unseen road of heaven, heading straight towards him.
He hit the first reindeer with the force of a sack of sand. His body thundered into its back, knocking the breath from his lungs. But he was safe. He gripped it as tightly as he could, shifting himself to a more secure position. The spray from the sea dashed against his face and he held on as the reindeer flew towards the sun so high that its nose turned from black to red and Nicarus felt laughter fill him.
The boy who would one day bring joy to the children of the world had found his freedom.