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Third Place: Far From Icarus



The studio stood on a low hill and had one small and dusty window. Beyond the window was the river, and beyond the river, the evening sun. The window turned the passing sunlight into something waxy that stained the floor a sticky orange. The studio had belonged to Matthew's father and had always been a foreign land to Matthew. It felt even more so now, a few hours after his father's funeral. Nothing in his death had been revealing.

The studio was its usual mess. Loose papers lay everywhere, covered in his father's thorny scritch: ideas, sketches, sparks thrown off a febrile brain attempting to capture another aspect of his father's specific idea of truth, or beauty, or whatever he had chosen to call it.

"There are only two forces that matter in the end," he had once said to Matthew. "Creation and destruction. I intend to be connected across the whole arc of existence."

This was after he had destroyed a sculpture he had spent nearly a year creating. It was a suspension bridge of wood and wire, detailed to a painstaking degree, down to the anchorages and saddles that secured the support cables. At a gallery one Friday night he broke it apart, piece by piece, with his bare hands. It took a little over three hours to destroy the thing that had taken him a year to create, and he wept as his fingers snapped the pieces they had so lovingly brought into being, and at the end the gallery patrons had applauded, wiped tears from their eyes and embraced him, and told him how surpassingly beautiful and brave it had been.

To Matthew, it seemed a waste of a year's work, but then Matthew was a practical man, the CFO of a large engineering firm. He had helped build his company from 10 people to 300 with six offices across the country. At the moment, they were negotiating to acquire a firm in Houston. He believed he was building something that would endure.

His father, on the other hand, was determined to undermine the notion that anything could endure. He had built a reputation in the 20 years he had been destroying his own art. He had been a salesman once and had saved enough to live on. He must have been very successful but he never talked about it, except to say that he had hated it, every second of it.  Matthew's mother had died when he was 10 and that's when his father quit his job and began building things.  At first it was harmless enough -- to be a sculptor wasn't so bad — but then he started destroying his sculptures, destroying them with the same kind of painstaking care with which he had created them, and that had been his reputation ever since: the sculptor of fleeting beauty.  Ever since he was in college, Matthew had found the entire enterprise slightly embarrassing.

His father had never smoked nor drank, never ate red meat. Therefore, when he told Matthew he had been diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, Matthew couldn't believe it. This was his reward for clean living?

"It can't be right," he said. They were sitting at the kitchen table in his father's house, down the hill from the workshop.

"It's right," said his father.

"I'll find out who the best specialists are," said Matthew.

"You don't need to do that."

"Of course I will. We'll fight this thing with the best weapons we have."

"I'm not interested in fighting it."

"It will kill you if you don't fight it."

His father nodded.

"So that's it, you just want to kill yourself?"

"I'm not killing myself."

"If you don't fight it, it's the same thing."

"It's not the same thing at all."

A realization dawned on Matthew and with it a flood of anger. "Oh, Jesus, Dad. Don't tell me this is some arc of existence thing."

"I would appreciate it if you didn't mock me."

"But you aren't an art project."

"I don't do art 'projects,' Matthew."

Matthew put his hands on the table. "Dad, come on, please be reasonable about this."

His father looked at the table, at Matthew's fingers spread on the wood. "I'm being perfectly reasonable."

Matthew looked at him, unable to speak for fear of what he would say.

"I have the right to accept this," said his father, placing his thin, callused hands on Matthew's, as if it would make him understand.

Understand, thought Matthew, looking around the studio. What had he ever understood about his father? On the worktable in the middle of the room was the last project his father had been working on. A figure of a woman dancing, created from copper tubing. An acetylene torch sat nearby. Next to the torch was a box full of very thin wires, hardly more than filaments. Obviously, his father wasn't close to finished with the dancer, but what he might do with ten thousand filaments was anyone's guess.

Matthew had never spared much consideration for the quality of his father's work — why bother when it was just going to get trashed? — but he found the dancer very appealing. His father had crafted a natural grace into her form. He could have sold it, or given it away. Someone would have appreciated it.

But Matthew was sure he would have only destroyed her in the end.

In his pocket, his cell phone vibrated.  The negotiations with the Houston firm were in their final stages. Matthew had asked his team to leave him voice-mail updates. He took comfort in this small reminder that something out there was still normal.

The vacancy in his father's studio was another matter altogether.

In the corner stood another unfinished project.  A pair of wings, each nearly as tall as a man, formed from balsa wood, gentle swoops.  Some of the wood had been covered with feathers, snowy white, applied in perfect layers. No doubt his father had intended to cover it all.

Shortly after his diagnosis, his father asked Matthew, "What would you do with a pair of wings that worked?"

"I'd beat rush hour traffic," said Matthew, who was thinking about the effort it had cost his father to ascend the steps he had climbed with ease a few weeks before.

His father grimaced as he lowered himself into his chair. "I was just reading the legend of Icarus," he said, indicating a book of mythology on the table.

"He flew too close to the sun," said Matthew, remembering it from college. "His father warned him not to but he did it anyway."

Matthew's father shook his head and said, "I tell you, you put a pair of working wings on me, I fly straight for the sun. Icarus had it just right."

He meant nothing more, but Matthew couldn't help but wonder if somewhere deep inside his father wished for a son like Icarus.

The cancer was a billion tiny meat grinders, chewing his father's body up from the inside out. Day by day and week by week he failed. Everything except his eyes, which seemed to have been shocked with blue, and which some days sparkled so brightly they hurt to look at.

Matthew recoiled from the pain. "You could do something to help yourself," he said one evening. He had brought dinner that his father had barely touched because the swelling in his throat was so bad.

"The pain is part of it."

"You almost seem like you're enjoying it," said Matthew sharply.

His father turned the flash of his eyes on Matthew.  "Does any of this seem enjoyable to you?"

"Then do something!"

"Why? So I can spend my last days incoherent? No. I choose to participate."

"You're choosing misery."

His father just sighed. But there was no such thing anymore as just a sigh. Everything rattled and gurgled, life leaking out through the meat grinder's wreckage.

When the finality of his father's disease became unavoidable, Matthew said to him, "I need to know what you want me to do with your studio."

"I'm not finished with it quite yet," said his father, though Matthew doubted his palsied hands allowed him much work.

Still, Matthew pressed on. "But afterwards ... if there was a plan. ..."

His father rolled his lapis eyes.

Matthew's cell phone vibrated again. Like a heartbeat. He flipped it open and listened to the updates, thankful for the familiar voices of his team. Problems arisen, problems solved, progress made. Then the messages were done and it was just Matthew and the intractable problem of the studio.

Three days ago his father had fallen down trying to make it to his studio. In the hospital that evening, he had been in such pain that sometimes he could do nothing but cry out in agony.

"Please," Matthew begged. "Take something for the pain."

But his father shook his head, his eyes still too bright and blue, and said through clenched teeth. "I intend to be fully present."

"What can there possibly be about this that you wish to be present for?"

Another spasm of pain and his father said, softly,  "This is sacred."

"Sacred," Matthew returned in disbelief.

A clawlike hand shot out and snapped around Matthew's wrist. "This is the most important part!" And though his father's voice was barely a gasp, it resounded in Matthew's head like a thunderclap.

A little while later his father began to slip away. Even his eyes had gone rheumy and limp. Matthew tried to make him understand. "The studio ..."

His father smiled like he was dreaming.

"Please," said Matthew, pleading, helpless, "tell me who should have it."

But his father just shifted a bit, his head rolling with some effort, and Matthew nearly lost his wasted body in the white hills of the sheets.

"I'll take care of it, Dad," he said. He put his hand out, found his father's breast, nothing left.

And now it was just Matthew and the problem of what to do with the studio. He would take care of it. It was what he did best: take care of problems. The dancer arched her back on the table, suspended in a perpetual grace. Beside her, the hairlike filaments. What impossible level of detail was his father going to add, over months of painstaking work, to bring life into her? And to what end? To destroy her all over again? Why did he have to be such an unreasonable steward of his creations?

Matthew wouldn't allow the dancer to go to waste like everything else. He picked her up, surprised at how light she was, how delicately she rested in his hand. He would take her home, place her on his living room table. She, at least, would be preserved.

As for the rest of the studio, he would find some of his father's artist fans, those who wept so profoundly when he demonstrated what it meant to be connected across the whole arc of existence.

They would know what to do with it.

The sun was level with the window now. Its congealed light had crept up the far wall and lit the white-feathered wings a dull and dusky orange.

He wondered what plans his father had had for the wings. Surely the same as for everything else. But how? How would he have destroyed them? Would he have strapped them to his body? Would they be as light as the dancer? Would he feel the resistance when he flexed them downward, the air gathering beneath in silent expectation? And what if, beyond reason, they worked?

He looked out the window, face to face with the waxen sun. It was bruised and sinking, too weak to summon him. But still, he thought, his father would have tried, flying straight for its stricken heart, willing it to turn his wings to fire. S

About the Writer

Christopher Moore, a native of Hampton, moved to Richmond in 1991 to pursue a master's in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. At 40, Moore is a stay-at-home dad who works as a part-time computer consultant. He also volunteers on the board of the Peter, Paul Development Center and the advisory board of ACTS, an interfaith coalition that works to prevent homelessness. He has had several short stories published in different literary journals and is a member of James River Writers.

Moore says that the characters in "Far From Icarus" are extreme examples of him and his aging father, in reverse. "I don't run around destroying things, although my wife would tell you differently," he says. "What prompted me to write this was the idea of role reversal, if my personality was in his body." Moore says that one of his sons is "a master of destruction," while the other is more "business sensitive." Moore says it's too soon to know whether or not they'll stay that way, or reverse roles themselves. -— Valley Haggard

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