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Icarus' Wings

Salman Shaheen

 

Icarus’ broken body would have made ripples in the Venetian canals that day, the hottest that 1923 was to record, or so the book had told her. What it had not told her was that she would be running, as fast as her somewhat diminutive legs could carry her, through the crowded piazza, shortly to find herself sprawling on the sun-baked flagstones at the feet of a passer-by. An extended hand attempted to raise her to her feet, but she brushed it aside, hurrying past. The scorching mid-summer sun beat down upon her back as she dodged people left and right, faces from the crowd turning towards her. But on she ran.

            She ducked into a narrow alleyway, gasping for breath, her heart pounding, her snow-white hair drenched by the sweat that was now trickling down her forehead. The shaded alley provided a respite from the oppressive mid-day heat, but not from the fire that burned within. In a panic she glanced down. The relief that came as she saw that the thick, leather-bound book she held tightly to her chest remained secure, was passing; shattered by the soft footsteps that she could hear approaching. Clutching the book tighter still, she hurried down the alleyway. Her heart almost stopped with her at the low railings that blocked her path, separating the back of the alley from the canal below. Instantly she knew it had been a mistake coming here. The realisation came too late.

            Darkness enveloped her. She turned to find her exit blocked. Where once there had been light, there now lay a raven black. She was breathing faster, each breath weighed heavily upon her chest, as the mass of the package she held in her arms seemed to grow with each passing second. Terrified, she edged backwards towards the railings and to the promise of the light. But the shadow followed her every move. A faint voice emanated from the blackness, it’s chill rasping a barely audible whisper,

            “Give me the book.”

            She opened her mouth to speak, her mind willing her to utter some word of defiance, any word, but she could make not a sound, nor could her stone-dry lips form a single syllable. A tall, slim figure stepped out of the black, its face obscured by shadow, a withered hand outstretched. The voice came louder now, more substantial,

            “The book, it must be destroyed!”

            The figure advanced towards her. Still clutching the book to her chest she stepped back, but as she did so her foot caught the railings. She slipped and fell backwards, her head impacting on hard stone before her limp body hit the water with an audible splash. The figure stepped forwards into the light. And as this Dedalus surveyed his son’s body, a broken doll claimed by the murky waters that carried it away, he stared intently at the book in her vice-like grip, eyes fixated, seemingly devoid of all emotion he uttered the simple words,

            “A pity.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Cars trundled past on the busy streets of London; their drivers scarcely glancing up for a sufficient length of time to heed the black shape of Benjamin Richaud, silhouetted against the amber-illuminated cityscape that cast its picturesque reflection in the shimmering waters of the Thames below. As Ben stood on the bridge looking down, a thousand competing voices echoed inside his troubled mind, but one thought alone pervaded all others. His suicide.

            What brave new world had the passing of the last millennium brought? Ben had entered the new millennium with all the youthful optimism of any aspiring businessman. Little did he know that three years later he would be bankrupt and sleeping on a friend’s sofa. It was too much. He stepped up onto the railings.

            Eyes closed, arms outstretched, the halo of a car’s headlights a silver corona behind his eclipsed head; his crucifixion would not gain him a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor did he believe in such a place. But it was not this that caused him to climb down from the railings, nor to clamber carefully down the steps to the water’s edge. From the corner of his eye he had seen something sparkle in the moonlight.

            Wading into the chill December waters, Ben reached down. His hand closed on the floating object that had aroused his curiosity. How it had ever sparkled he could not fathom. It was but a thick book, bound in black leather. Not a word graced its cover, not a single marking. Turning the soggy pages; his heart sank to find they were all blank. Nothing valuable, nothing even remotely interesting. Shivering now and feeling worse than ever, he lifted his arm to cast the book back into the murky waters, but something stayed his hand. A feeling, an impulse, something inexplicable made him keep the book that night.

            When Ben arrived at the place he now called home, the realisation of the enormity of his intentions that night washed over him. He collapsed on the couch sobbing. Tears of sorrow and rage ran down his cheeks, but even they could not stave off the fatigue that gripped him as he drifted into a deep slumber.

            By the time he awoke it was already midday, the cloud-stifled sunlight attempting to force its way into the living room, beckoning him to rise. Rolling over, Ben saw the book lying on the floor nearby, staring back at him, mocking him. He glared at it with contempt. And then an idea formed. The same book that had ruined his plans last night, would now bear the full brunt of his wrath, vented from pen to page.

            Opening the weighty volume Ben was too angry to even notice that the pages were not merely dry now, but in pristine condition. Taking a pen he scribbled the date onto the first page, ready to make his first diary entry. But then something peculiar caught his eye. Where once the page had been blank, beneath the date Ben could make out faint markings, slowly becoming more distinct. They covered the page. He turned over, there were more of them, they filled the book. Turning back, Ben now saw that the markings were in fact tiny words. He was shocked to find that not only did they appear to be written in the same ink that he had used to write the date, but were in his own handwriting!

            Ben began to read; ‘Friday December 12th, 2003: Oil reserves found in North Korea, America bombs Pyongyang, Mars landing…’ Ben closed the book, this was clearly some form of practical joke. Feeling embarrassed that he had been taken in by it, he slumped back onto the couch and turned on the television. His jaw dropped as he saw images of a B52, the North Korean capital ablaze, shortly followed by a news reader talking about some Mars project Ben had never heard about before. Only he had!

            Astonishment soon gave way to the realisation of the power that Ben now held in his hands. A book that could tell the future! All the good that could be done and… an answer to all his financial woes! Yes, he would put the book to good use, there was no question of that, but first… Ben flicked to the back of the book and sure enough, there was the winner of the horse race!

            Half an hour later, sitting in the bookies around the corner, Ben was feeling more miserable than ever. Sunshine Lilly, the horse he had bet the last of his money on was trailing miserably behind the others on the small screen in the corner of the room. Everyone but Ben was cheering raucously. And then the cheering stopped. Ben looked up. By some miracle Sunshine Lilly was in second place. But there was only a short distance to go, and the horse in front was at the last jump. And then it fell, stumbling, its rider falling beneath the hooves of the horse behind, the horse that crossed the finish line first, Sunshine Lilly!

            Ben leapt up, shouting with joy. He crossed a room to collect his winnings, failing to notice the shocked silence around him, nor the televised images of a jockey’s clearly lifeless body being carried away by stretcher. He left the bookies with money in his pocket, and stony stares at his back.

            When Ben returned to his friend’s house he found himself surprisingly tired. Lying back on the couch he had only meant to close his eyes for two minutes. When he awoke it was morning the next day. Ignoring his hunger, and curious fatigue, Ben remembered only the luck that he had enjoyed the day before. He opened the book again. The pages had yellowed slightly, and gathered a thin layer of dust, but were blank once more. He put pen to paper, inscribing the date and watching as the book performed whatever magic it had within it.

            Bingo that night went flawlessly, Ben had won all three games. It was a shame about the old man who had shouted Bingo at the same time as him in the third game. People with weak hearts should probably avoid such excitement Ben concluded. Maybe Ben would give some of his winnings that night to his widow. But then again, he was hardly made of money at the moment. This however, was something the book could change!

            He awoke next morning to find his friend Tariq standing over him,

            “Ben, Ben wake up!”

            “What is it?” Ben mumbled.

            “You must have been having a bad dream. You were shouting in your sleep.”

            “I was?”

“All this stress must be getting to you; you’re getting grey hairs! Ben, I’m off to the university now; the new head of department, Professor Harcourt I think his name is, wants me to assist him in one of his lectures. I’ll see you later.”

            After Tariq had left for his work at the history department, Ben went into the bathroom. Looking in the mirror he noticed that his friend had been right, he was going grey! Still the financial worries that had surely caused it were soon to be long gone after the race today!

            After a week of using the book to his advantage Ben had become a rather wealthy man. It was little surprise that he was having nightmares though, waking in a cold sweat each morning, even spending the daylight hours somewhat tired and distant, no longer eating or washing. No, not with the number of people he had seen fall prey to fatal accidents recently. His luck may have turned for the better, but things were not looking hopeful for the families of the poker player last night, of another two jockeys or of a woman queuing up for her lottery ticket. In fact each time Ben had used the book, the hand of fate had claimed another life. And as time passed Tariq became increasingly concerned by his friend’s behaviour.

            One day Tariq came home, followed by a tall man in a white suit; with a flamboyant grey beard and a rather eccentric looking hat. Ben was lying on the couch, staring into space, the book clutched tightly in his arms. Every hair on his head was now sheet-white.

            “Ben, I’ve been worried about you,” Tariq began, “I’ve brought along Professor Harcourt from the history department. He’s an expert in his field. I’ve told him all about your condition. He seems to think that it is something beyond the realms of medical science. Something to do with this book you’ve been reading lately. I’ve not known him long, but he’s certain he can help you.”

            “Relax Tariq,” Harcourt’s tone was silky-smooth, “He cannot hear you now. He is slipping from the physical world, his every waking thought is preoccupied by the book he is clutching so tightly.”

            “You said you knew what this book was?”

            “Yes, it is ancient beyond imagination. It has held many names throughout the centuries, but few have come close to accurately describing it’s potential. It has the power to foretell the future, to probe the fourth dimension and to relate it to inquisitive minds. Its power is derived from a spirit that rests within, feeding on the desires of the owner of the book until ultimately it can fulfil its own ambition to break free.”

            “You mean to say that this is the work of an evil spirit?”

            “No, the spirit is no more evil than a human child. It is pure, innocent in its conception. But it is tainted by the will of those who own the book. Imagine the potential for good that this book contains. Wars could be prevented, diseases and famines halted before they had even taken hold. Or it could be used for greed. How this book came to be, who can say? But it was a gift, a great gift, that mankind, time and again, has corrupted with a selfish heart. This book now contains a malevolent spirit. To maintain the order of balance it has killed with each act of greed that has passed through its pages. Your friend’s good fortune has harmed the fortune of others. It now seeks to strike at the heart of the beast that has created it. It would destroy us all. It may even have taken physical form, but the extent of its powers cannot be fully realised until it is truly freed from the book, and from your friend’s mind.”

            “How do we stop it? How can we save Ben?”

            “The book must be destroyed.”

            “No!” Ben came to life with such abruptness that both Tariq and Harcourt were so taken aback that they were unable to prevent him from bolting out of the door and into the cold London night.

            Harcourt was not a young man, but he was able to keep pace with Ben as he dodged traffic left and right. Following behind, Tariq found it hard to keep up with them. He was desperate to save his friend, but there was a nagging doubt in the back of his mind, something that just did not seem to make sense. And then he remembered. He had heard of the book before, he had read about its last appearance in Venice in 1923. The woman who owned it then, she had been haunted, possessed, possibly even hunted by something that had led to her death. It could only have been the spirit, turned to evil by her own selfish desires. Oh when would mankind learn, Tariq thought. That such a gift for good could be turned to darkness by nothing more than the nature of our own imaginations. An innocent child, taken by a corrupt society might turn to evil, but it was no more the child’s fault than the world it lived in. Mankind was not ready for such a gift, Tariq concluded. But there was something else amiss. According to the legend he remembered, the book’s destruction would free the spirit! The Professor was wrong! Tariq had to warn him before it was too late, but he was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Ben!

            Professor Harcourt had been more vigilant. He had cornered Ben between the river and a steady stream of traffic. Ben clutched the book tightly to his chest as he backed up towards the railings of the very bridge from which he had first spied it over a week ago. There was nowhere to run. The night was cold, but Ben’s ghost-white hair was drenched with sweat, he was panicked, terrified, bewildered and confused. He could not lose the book! What had they been saying? Malevolent spirit? This book had brought him nothing but good fortune!

            “Ben you are ill,” Harcourt began, “We must cure you, give me the book!”

            “No, this book was a blessing!” Ben’s shouted back in rage.

            “And you turned it into a curse. We lack the imagination to bring such an innocent gift into this world. Something society would be well to remember, and it is a lesson I shall teach them, all of them, just give me the book, let me free your mind! The book must be destroyed!”

            “No, Professor!” Tariq gasped as he ran towards them, “We cannot destroy the book, it will free the spirit!”

            “Give me the book!” Harcourt stepped forwards with an outstretched arm. Ben took a step backwards, but his foot caught the railings. The book flew from his hands. Harcourt leapt to catch it, but was too late too reach Ben who, like an angel, wings clipped, fell through air and into water. A column of white spray rose up to claim Benjamin Richaud’s shattered form, and then he was gone. He had flown too close to the sun that day, Dedalus knew this.

            “We have to save Ben!” Tariq cried, “He might still be alive down there! He can’t swim!”

            But Professor Harcourt, holding the book in his arms, was not listening. What were the concerns of these people to him? They had brought it upon themselves. They were not ready for the gift of their wings. Always would they fly too close to the sun, always would they fall to their doom. No they were not ready now, and now, not ever. He would see to that, he assured himself as he lit a match and held it to the book’s now withered and tainted pages. There would be nothing to restrain him now. And as the flames of the burning book illuminated his shadowed face, gazing coldly down at the ripples in the water below, with all his wisdom, all his experience of years, all he could say was…

            “A pity.”

 

 

January 2005

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