Novel Excerpt: Despina


The slow seaweed and its tangled songs
Around the less-than-hidden body of the boy
With the fatal wings. He was the child of
A certain kind of famine, of a certain kind
Of love. He dreamed a magic and thought
To throw the sea behind him and, when
The voice was ready, he plunged into a morning
Whiteness that was the sky. And hovered wonder-ful
And slowly like a dream. The roaming
Pearl-smooth boy, feathered and too
High, and now floating face upward to the sun.

1) Ikaria

Seven-year-old Despina and four-year-old Regoula kneel in the bed that they share. Their grandmother, Manoula—“little mother”—is telling them the story of Ikaria, the island on which they live.

“In ancient times, our isle rose from the Aegean where Ikarus, the son of Daedalus, fell. Daedalus had crafted a labyrinth for King Minos. And in that maze lived a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man. The half-man half-bull roared constantly because he was hungry for the blood and flesh of humans. So, every year, Athens, which owed tribute to King Minos, sent young boys and girls to be devoured.”

“Were the boys and girls our age?” asks Despina.

“No,” says Manoula. “They were older than you are. They were of that age between childhood and adulthood.”

“The bull man wouldn’t have devoured me,” says Regoula. “I could run faster than he could. I could fight him.”

“Shh,” says Despina. “You’re just a baby. You’re not stronger than a bull man.”

“Both of you, shhh,” says Manoula. “And listen. One at a time, the boys and girls were sent to meet their fate. They wandered, lost, in the labyrinth, and sought, in vain, to escape the twists and turns of the passageways. No one, except Daedalus, the builder, knew the way out from the labyrinth. King Minos, afraid that Daedalus would reveal the secret, kept the builder and his son, Ikarus, captive. Each day, father and son were allowed only a few hours in the courtyard outside the jail. There, Daedalus looked up at the birds, way up high and so free. Daedalus had a plan. Secretly, he constructed a wooden frame that fit his own torso and arms and he attached wax wings to it.”

“Was it a wax like from our beehives?” asks Despina.

“Exactly,” says Manoula, “like the wax from our honeycombs.”

“I like honey,” says Regoula.

“After Daedalus made the wings for himself . . .” continues Manoula.

“He made a smaller pair of wings to fit his son,” says Despina, who has heard Manoula tell the story many times.

“Yes. He made a smaller pair for Ikarus.”

“Would those wings fit me?” asks Regoula.

“No,” says Manoula. “Ikarus was the same age as the children who entered the labyrinth.”

“See,” says Despina, “bigger than we are.”

“When the wings were ready,” Manoula continues, “father and son flew. But Ikarus, disobeying his father’s warnings, soared up and up and up and up, until the sun’s rays melted the wax of his false wings, and he tumbled down and down and down and down, into the water. When Daedalus looked to where his son had fallen, he saw a huge rock rise powerfully from under the sea. And there, where there had been nothing before, was Ikaria. An island born of the stone of sorrow. Daedalus, unable to bear looking at what had grown from his son’s death flew away, away. His cries became the gull’s calls that we hear today.”

“I could fly with wax wings,” says Regoula. “I could fly even without wax wings.”

“Don’t be silly,” says Despina. “Manoula, tell us another story.”

“Tomorrow evening, another story. Now is time for sleep.”

The two children lay down, and Manoula covers them with the chlamy, the heavy, unbleached, white blanket the old woman has woven from the wool and hair of her own sheep and goats. Despina lays peaceful. Regoula wiggles and wiggles.

“I could,” said Regoula.

“Could what?” said Despina.

“Could fly.”