Mary Rogers

The Myth of Ikaros

Tom inhaled the flavor of old paper and leather as he stroked the spines that lined the shelf like slabs of dark chocolate, the expensive ones from the Southern Hemisphere that his father had once brought home from an expedition. This corner resembled the rooms in Tom�s late-Colonial style home: dust settled on the bookcases, the metal a muted rhododendron color that brought to mind lukewarm lima beans; the fluorescent lights fluttered like a heart monitor, off and on, off and on, emphasizing an insect-shaped carcass above him; the air conditioning unit that powered the building bypassed this corner so that when one turned from the long, perpendicular aisle that cut down the center of the room into the small area where Tom now stood, it was akin to leaving one of Earth�s magnetic poles and landing on the Equator.
  Feet shuffled on the linoleum, along with the creak of a metal cart, pushed by a tired-looking drone wearing headphones and a pair of thick glasses. She paused, as though she meant to ask if Tom needed help�but then she continued in her trek to the circulation desk.
  There were different students every year, so none of them could know that Tom had frequented these books longer than they had been alive�the university had been a formative part of his life long before the commemorative plaque in honor of Dr. Thomas Kirchner, Sr. had been fastened to the oldest building on campus in a ceremonial apex to the career of a storied, real-life version of Indiana Jones. Tom�s faculty position in the anthropology department was finagled in large part to the pronounced effect his father�s reputation still held in academic circles. Tom, however, had proved to be a fantastic disappointment to trustees who hoped his academic pursuits would further the prestige of the small campus.
  A short metal stool�for those who, unlike Tom, were not tall enough to reach the uppermost shelves�served as a convenient seat as he removed a volume and positioned his backside on the rubber padding. Tom�s figure, the tall, lean sort associated with basketball players, had dissipated of late so that his clothes swished against his wispy form and bones protruded from his wrist as he maneuvered his body around the narrow space.
  Tom removed the letter from the front pocket of his shirt, where he�d placed it before shrugging on a bulky winter coat and venturing over to the Cold-War era building that comprised the entirety of the archives and reference collection. Each time Tom crested over the central green, a large patch of grass that had been renovated to encourage athletic pursuits like Frisbee and tag�he wondered, often, if he taught at a preschool or a post-secondary institution�he marveled that such a cold, impersonal building housed what Tom believed to be the greatest expression of human thought.
  He unfolded it and re-read the words, though he�d imprinted the note to memory before he�d even left the office. It contained a hand-drawn map in black ink, with sections marked for folklore, etiquette, customs, then the languages: English, Old English, Germanic, Romance, Italic, Hellenic, and then the area of most interest to Tom: the �other,� clustered together in a minority of tongues�Indo-European, Celtic, Afro-Asiatic�Semitic and Non-Semitic�,Ural-Altaiz, Paleosiberian, Dravidian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, African, North American, and South American�the last two sections circled in bright red, with an arrow pointing to where the book that Tom had pulled out must have been placed by the sender, as it had no call number or identification that he could see. He examined the front, back, and sides, but there were no markings, nor any sign that there ever had been.
  Tom cracked the spine and slit his thumb on one of the thick, uneven pages.

   14 July 1798�

The leaves in this place appear to melt from the inside out, the moist droplets a constant reminder of the infernal heat. What madness to live here, on the edge of the world. Remains of an ancient civilization are a testament to a people who are long dead�the stones are rather well kept, for all that, and we are able to climb the pyramid and observe the canopy. To think all that live beneath the cover of these trees�we have seen grand apes and cats and lizards�one of the hands, Banks his name was, got a bite from one of those and died within the hour. The natives took us in after that, when they stumbled across his blackened corpse. We pilfered some of his gadgets�a compass among them, though it�s little use, as we get turned round more often than not in these parts. We offered beads and bolts of cloth to persuade them to lead us. One of the men, the son of the chief, agreed to take us back to the fortress, after which we walked further past what would have been the walls of the palace, had they�the walls�not vanished. Unlike the structure that we climbed, the indents in the ground indicate the walls that are no longer there. It�s possible to see how they pressed into the dirt for many hundreds of years. It�s a curious thing, but when we tried to point it out to the savage, the man shook his head. It is a bizarre and haunted place, this southern land. We will venture past the walls again tomorrow. I feel there is something for me to discover here�my father, were he alive, would understand this compulsion.

  He flipped through until he reached a point in the center where there was an illustration. It was the diagram of a skeleton of a large winged creature. There was no name to indicate what it might be. Tom thought it to be some sort of dinosaur, but the figure seemed brutish�a beast mashed together of incongruous parts. Next to the sketch was another entry.

   15 Aug 1798�

Today have stumbled across skeleton of un-known species, which I have attempted to sketch here. I lingered over the bones�the density of the thing seems impossible for it to ever have taken flight, but there are very clear indications of wings. The preservation of the parts seems in large part due to the mud that it�s submerged in. In fact, would not have found if I hadn�t stumbled into the bog and grabbed hold of one of the wings. The beast appears to be of great size. Asked our guide to identify via our interpreter; was quite unwilling to discuss it. I don�t have much experience with these jungle-folk�will attempt to trade more of the beads and cloth to convince him to accompany me back here for another close examination of the remains to-morrow. If that doesn�t work�we always have the guns.

  At the sound of the cart approaching, Tom closed the book in a careful, slow movement so as not to disrupt more dust.


  January in the Mid-Atlantic was unpredictable and frustrating�one year balmy, with no disruption to the haphazard web of traffic routes that dissected the metropolitan area; followed by another year, like this one, when stepping outside each day was harsh, like the frigid slap of a spurned woman. The wind sliced against Tom�s cheeks and sucked the moisture from his eyes so that he had to squint against the afternoon sunlight and lift his free hand to shield his brow and study the brief stretch of road that constituted the main street of the town.
  It was named for a Lenni Lenape clan that had been wiped out from disease within eight months of its first contact with Europeans. When Tom was a boy, his father had taken him into the woods to look for the flint and obsidian the Indians used as weapons. The forest was littered with them, if you knew where to look.
  Dr. Thomas Kirchner, Sr. had always known where to find them.
  The town was as familiar as the house where Tom now lived, where he was born in the early morning hours, before the sun appeared. His father was in Peru at the time, high in the Andes. The doctor enjoyed saying that his son had entered the world as a squalling, bloody mess just as he had unearthed a three-thousand-year-old skull of an Incan infant and held it up against the Peruvian sky.
  Tom was well-acquainted with the entrance gates to the cemetery, though the second letter directed him from his office, across the campus, into the town and to its front gates. There were various landmarks on the paper�the borough hall, the restored mill, a tavern where Washington was rumored to have eaten�as though Tom were not able to compose an identical one in his sleep.
  He approached the grotesque granite columns whose carved wreaths and cherubs heralded something more than the drab slabs that sprouted from the earth. There was none of the charm of Pere Lachaise, which Tom had never seen but read about. His mother and father were here, together in death in a way they hadn�t been while alive.
  It had been nine months, seven days, twelve hours, and four minutes since his wife was buried. It seemed absurd that the ebullient woman he�d brought home two decades before, a young girl undaunted by the sudden morning sickness that prompted the transfer from the state school to Tom�s hometown�ridiculous that the same woman later shrank into a sickly, incontinent husk because of the same rapid growth of cells. Cancer was not the same as a fetus, though.
  Tom met Anne in the Valley. She was beautiful, at least to him. He knew that there were other women who could be considered more desirable, but he found her glasses and square jaw endearing. Their first date was at a pizza joint, where she had asked for pineapples on top. When he asked her why, she had shrugged and smiled and pushed her hair behind her and said, �Oh, I don�t know, it seemed like it would be exotic.�
  He had planned an excursion to the Argentine rainforest for the honeymoon, with a special trip to the Iguazu Falls. Tom devoured travel guides on the subject and read about the invigorating powers of the water that poured down and of the exhilarating baptism of the spirit that one would receive in the presence of such staggering natural power. He read of the legend surrounding the water�how a god who planned to marry a beautiful woman became enraged when she eloped with a mortal man on a canoe; how the god severed the river they traveled on so that the two were doomed, forever, to an eternal fall. When Anne announced she was pregnant, Tom gave the tickets to his father, who brought his graduate assistant and never came back.
  Anne�s was more ornate pillar in the Grecian style with an Emily Dickinson poem on the base. It was expensive, but the estate left him by his father had been generous. Tom pulled the book from the satchel on his hip. Tom pulled his gloves off and winced at the sting of the polar wind. His skin appeared translucent in the winter air, as though he were an apparition, and the fat that might have protected his muscles and bones was no more.
  He opened to the spot where he�d left off.

   22 Aug. 1798�

I must know more about this beast. I have returned each day for the past week to render the parts on paper, though the tools I have available are but rudimentary. Then men grow anxious with the tribe, who are less than pleased with my fascination of the creature. There is a legend, though they only told me a brief version of it�these people know the name for it, but refuse to speak it aloud. There is a great curse involved, from what I understand. Superstition, of course�the thing is quite dead, and its bones, its magnificent, preserved skeleton, are all but remains of the ancient monster. It ought to be excavated and put on display where the world can see the treasures of this jungle�in the British Museum, with all the great artifacts of Greece and Rome. It will not happen on this expedition�we have lost too many men as it is, and several more are overcome with symptoms of the fever. If I can extract measurements and the indigenous tale that surrounds the creature, I can petition for more funds to come with a larger, better-equipped party. We will need better cartography of the place, as I�m sure that we will not be welcomed back here. I�ve been warned by the chief that if I go to the beast tomorrow, I must not return to their camp�we will all be turned out and made prey to the threats of the jungle, least of which is that pile of bones. I must reason with them. I must. I must.

  �This is the most unusual thing that I�ve ever encountered,� said Tom. �I wish you were here.�
  He struggled to put his fingers back into his gloves. The pain had numbed the nerve endings in his skin so that he felt like a clumsy Cro-Magnon as he grunted and slapped his hands together.
  It was Anne who was most interested in indigenous Americans. He met her when she tripped into his study table with a stack of reading material the size of a small child. As Tom helped her to carry them back to her carrel, where she was writing on her thesis�this all she explained to him in an excited whisper, Tom�s gaze focused on the movement of her jaw and the shape of her eyes as she spoke about the linguistic variations among different peoples.
  When she first got sick, Tom was more comfortable with Western medicine, but Anne insisted on alternative healing methods. It didn�t matter, in the end.


  The baby was stillborn�the doctors, at the time, assured them that it happened to many couples, despite the conveniences of modern medicine. Anne contacted a shaman, but there was nothing to be done. They performed a ceremony over the child but it�he�hadn�t been baptized and was not buried in the cemetery. They dug a plot in the backyard, where there was a small memorial with an arrowhead carved into it.
  Tom and Anne discussed the baby in a way that suggested he was a deer, or a shrub, or a leaf that fluttered to the ground.
  �It�s warm today, I wonder if he�s comfortable.�
  �The sun is so bright today, I hope he gets some of the light in that corner.�
  �It�s so lonely out there.�
  Anne did not specify where she wanted to be buried, so Tom separated them.
  When he was a child, Dr. Thomas Kirchner, Sr. would sometimes send a postcard, but more often he did not. Tom and his mother waited until his return to find out where he�d been, at which point the man fled into his office to write journal articles until his next expedition. The very last time he left a half-eaten donut and a mug of coffee on the counter top.
  The third letter arrived at his home on the date of what would have been his twenty-third wedding anniversary. There were etches of the forest that lined his property. The exposed trees accused Tom in their naked stance, as though he had committed some sin of omission in looking at them through the double-paned glass of his rear kitchen window. The same indigo color had scribbled thin lines and marked the Douglas fir, the white pine, and the sugar maple that Anne had so loved. The red indicated the spot where the child lay.
  Tom left his coffee in the kitchen and dressed for the long walk from the back door, then strode across the two-acre tundra that comprised his backyard.
  �Hello,� he said. �It�s been awhile.�
  Tom had brought the book with him, and so he opened it as he had done next to Anne�s grave. There were no more entries following the one from 22 August 1798, and so Tom concluded that the explorer�whoever he had been�had not listened to the warnings and explored for something in the jungle that was not meant to be discovered. Tom studied the diagram of the skeleton in the book, then looked at the anonymous writing�the loops and curves of words weren�t similar, but he pretended that they were, that this forlorn man on the edge of the world had traveled miles and decades to march Thomas Kirchner, Jr. out to his son�s grave, where together, the two of them could contemplate the bleak distinction of their home.

MARY ROGERS writes, reads, and lives in her native suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared online in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Arcadia University and a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University.

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