“Icarus”, a chapter from Eyes that refuse to forget: in memory of the nameless Great War heroes by Walter Hopkins (1920).
There was something about this man that attracted me intensely from the get-go. Me, who had been so anxious about going to war. Me, constantly second-guessing if that really was the right thing to do. I wasn't born to fight, I believed, and much less to kill. Actually, I even doubted if I was born to be brave. That was precisely the stage I was at when I decided to enlist in the late fall of 1914. I had little idea of who I was meant to be, and even less hope if that was going to be something, someone any good.
That was how I met him. We were companions from the same unit. We ended up in the same tent, and we stayed that way until our ways eventually parted in April 1918. Most of my fondest memories of the wartime, the light of the clear skies shining through that fog of atrocity, I owe to him.
E., this is what I shall call him here. The moment we met, I did not exactly feel blessed to have him as my tent mate, and I knew that these feelings were mutual, only much stronger, or much more reluctant, on his part. Heaven knows I could not have been more wrong, but also that he could not have tried any less to make a different impression.
He was rather cold, and very reticent, a conceited aura surrounding him everywhere he turned. He kept to himself. He rarely talked, almost never unless explicitly prompted. And yet he did not have to put it in any specific words: the piercing glare of his proud jade eyes were enough to know how much he looked down upon me.
He made me wonder what it was that he saw in me with those condescending eyes – or perhaps what it was that he could not see in me. He made me question my own self, what kind of man I was and where I was headed for. And not in a bad way.
But more than anything, he sparkled my curiosity. I felt an immediate urge to know him, or at least to know about him. In this blood-red wartime maelstrom, how could he stay so cool? With all the solitude forced upon us from all around, how could he bear the solitude he imposed on himself from within by keeping his distance from everyone and everything? I
wanted to know his secret like it held a key to understanding human nature.
Not surprisingly, he was not exactly elated by my verbosity and my sometimes obtrusive questions. He would often roll his eyes and shrug his shoulders the very moment he saw me open my mouth, even before he could even hear what I had to say this time. But I was determined not to get discouraged that easily. Inch by inch, I dug my way closer and closer to his mystery. Consequently, the thick curtains would slowly let go, one fold after another, until the broad daylight could finally reach my eyes.
E. was an artist. For a long time I had no chance to see any of his work, but from what he told me I was at least able to infer that his ways with art were pretty much the same as with people: he stood alone and appreciated no compromises. His artwork was called “smudgy”, and apparently most people – or “people” in general, people as such, as he would put it – found it downright ugly. He sneered at those opinions, at any opinions for that matter. He made it his point to leave no doubt as to in what disregard he held whatever anyone thought about his pieces.
And yet, every time he mentioned his “ugly” art nobody could care any less about, and every time he stressed just how he could not care any less about anyone’s opinions, there was this overwhelming anguish lurking in his seemingly arrogant eyes. That dark, lonely emptiness of someone who had tasted too much rejection not to feel sick in the stomach at a distant smell of an evaluation coming up; that quiet, resigned emptiness of someone who had had doors shut right in his face so many times that he would rather remain in his cell forever than take the chance of getting close to any doorway again.
That stubborn, resilient agony of someone who had so much to share with the world, only to find that the world refused to accept the gift, and even as much as understand it.
The miracles and marvels of the world as he saw it in his head were to remain locked there forever, just because that way was much less hurtful than to expose himself to ridicule and humiliation yet again.
And still, I realized that in his heart of hearts, E. had never let go of his yearning for understanding and togetherness; truly lonely people never do. The more he denied it, the more he fell into that unfulfilled fantasy of feeling welcome and respected for who he was, and for who he was meant to be.
He was an Icarus whose wings had long melted down. Being true to himself had been his sun. People’s envy, their pettiness, their biases had dragged him down.
And just when I thought that instead of the real Icarus I would be left forever to be looking at Icarus’ shadow, the unexpected happened. It was a leave that had him completely changed. He was suddenly vigorous and full of some newly found faith. He started to use his sketchbook – which I had hardly seen him do before, in spite of my encouragement – and talk about how he needed to survive the goddamn war. It looked like Icarus had grown his wings back.
It was a joy to see him grow so strong, even powerful. It was a joy to see him restore his faith in himself and his life. It occurred to me that just by looking at him during those days I became closer to him; unconsciously, perhaps even involuntarily, he shared with me his newest vision of the world. I could see it in the way his eyes lit up time and again, when something random around us brought back a memory of the one he had left back there, but was going to return to soon. I knew it by the gorgeously wide smiles he spontaneously flashed with his huge gleaming teeth every once in a while, even though before I would have had difficulties telling precisely what his teeth even looked like. And they were definitely not something you would easily overlook, not at all. It was just that before he had hardly even shown them at all.
E. was a man full of surprises, especially those based on contradictions. A walking riddle, one might say. There was this red hot passion underneath his cool. There was sensitivity and sympathy underneath his bitter, blasé indifference. He turned out to have heard every word you said, even though he always pretended not to listen. He turned out to remember exactly what you meant and what you were about, even though he always pretended not to care. You wanted to know him, and you wanted him to know you. It was like he inspired you, or should I say provoked you, to follow him in his quest for the sun.
Whatever he considered his sun at the time and whatever attracted him to that sun so much, I do not know. I am not certain if he himself knew that, either. I believe that throughout his lifetime he had had encountered – or imagined, or made up – a number of suns. To put this differently, his suns may have varied, and at times merged with each other. To be free. To be recognized and acclaimed. To share his vision of what was beautiful and true, and to have that vision acknowledged. To be accepted. To belong. To be loved.
What I found rather peculiar about him was that he reportedly did not feel the cold. This is what he argued on those hopeless fall nights when heavy raindrops struck fiercely against our tent and the wind moaned with rage, breaking right into under our blankets with its chilly waves. E. may have looked freezing, his hands may have felt like ice, but his body indeed never let out a single shiver, an almost unbelievable sight when compared to my constantly clattering teeth. He insisted that he was resistant to the cold altogether, because he could not feel it. My opinion was different. Just because you do not feel the cold, it does not mean that you are not cold , was what I would tell him time and again.
And maybe that was exactly the reason why he was searching and yearning for his sun so desperately.
In his mind, in his consciousness, he may have not allowed himself to feel the cold. He may have perceived it as an unwanted weakness, as if feeling vulnerable, even if just a little, would necessarily mean exposing himself to pain and abuse. However, outside his mind, deep within himself, he never ceased his longing for what he had been missing the most: his private sun, his own source of warmth and colour, a reason to stay strong and beat the odds.
He saved my life. Literally, on the battlefield. He remembered me saying I could not imagine myself taking some other man’s life, so the first time that we found ourselves in the centre of the action, he took great lengths to substitute me in killing the enemies who were coming to get me. He knew how hesitant and inhibited I was about the very idea of putting anyone – somebody’s son, father, brother, husband, lover, friend – to death for the sake of my own survival, and so he ended up as the one taking care of my own survival instead. He knew that if he had left me to my own devices, I would have been as good as dead, probably still trying to decide if there really was no way to avoid all this while an enemy was piercing me with his bayonet. And for some reason, E. chose to lighten my burden and to carry my share of kills on his shoulders. Not because he was blood-thirsty, or hungry for some kind of wartime glory. It was a sheer act of kindness. A selfless gift that touched me deep inside and, I reckon, changed me permanently.
Not much longer after that, Icarus had found himself even closer to the sun than ever before. It started when he received a certain letter from back home. I could witness with my own eyes how his wings grew upon reading that letter, and how they spread wider and wider with every single word, every single line he savoured so eagerly. Observing his delight, I sensed a mixture of admiration and envy tingle against my skin. How powerful a creature you must have been to become an Icarus’ sun so effortlessly, with just a couple of sheets of paper? How do you become anyone’s sun at all? That scene had me ponder about these questions, and to be honest, I have never stopped until now.
He had found a new will inside of him. A voice within that told him to survive at all costs. Finally, for once, the sun was within an arm’s reach. All he had to do, it seemed, was to be brave and stay strong.
And strong he stayed. His endurance against the front’s discomforts and hardships was simply impeccable. He never complained. Bruises, sores, thirst, hunger, the chill, the heat, the dark – nothing ever seemed to harm him. Nothing could reach him anymore. Not now that he had his own sun, his own reason to survive. Nothing could possibly break his steady, fast-paced stride towards his safe haven of the woman he loved and the child he begot.
Then, fate and gods had their cruel say. His wings melted down just as suddenly as they appeared. Alas, it happened on the very same day when I finally got my chance to pay my debt to him.
What worse time to save someone’s life than when you realize that you can be no hero to him, since he does not wish to be saved? What worse way to save someone’s life than to realize that while you are still fighting for him, he has already surrendered?
Yes, he had let go and he fell down that long, long road into a pitch-black abyss. I thought I had caught him on time, but I am not so sure if I had made it before he hit the ground. And the effects of hitting the ground cannot be reversed. Not even for an Icarus.
What worse chance to save someone’s life than when he wishes you had just left him there to die?
E. was crippled on a battlefield. Cowering under the bullet rain, with flames pouring down from the powder grey skies like they had never known any sun, I carried him over my shoulders and prayed for us both. Inching my way through the landmines and the gunfire, wading in the trench mud to bring E. back to safety, I was seized with disbelief at how unafraid I was at the time. It was as though I was not aware of the omnipresent death reaching out with her claws a hair breadth’s away from the two of us. I somehow could not recognize the danger of the circumstances, like me and E. belonged to some utterly different dimension than the rest of the world. I did not think myself valiant. Honestly, I did not think at all. I simply repeated the stubborn pattern. I walked. I crouched. I ran. I evaded. I shot. Then I walked some more, all the while holding an unconscious E. close to me and commanding his every single breath not to be his last.
E.’s blood gushed all over me and it felt shockingly warm, exactly like the warmth I had always suspected he kept within himself, and to himself. The thought that by bleeding like that he would be deprived of any heat that had still resided in his body, that ultimately he would be infected with the relentless eternal cold on the inside, made me sincerely terrified. The contrasting frigidity of his skin against mine only confirmed my fears, rendering my heartbeat and my footsteps that much faster.
In the aftermath of the battle, upon waking up and realizing what had happened to his body – and what would inevitably happen to his future – this strong, proud man broke down in an instant. Trembling like a flame in the hurricane, he clung to my arms and sobbed helplessly like a child fatally lost in the woods. Those tears, too, resembled droplets of ice. There was no heat in them, there was no life, because those were no tears of hope. Those were the tears of a dead man. And there was absolutely nothing that I, or anyone else, could do for him. No power in the world as we know it could bring him peace and relief as he needed and deserved it.
That tragic event caused our ways to part: naturally, he was sent back home (albeit not exactly to the place he would gladly call home in his heart of hearts), and I stayed in the centre of that inferno, left to fight my own way through the terror and the unknown. I have not heard from him since then, but from what I have known about my dearest of brothers in arms, I am afraid that he has also parted his ways with the sun. Maybe forever.
If I could, I would choose to believe that I am in the wrong. Maybe Icarus is not as tragic a figure as we all think, after all. Maybe what seemed to have ripped his wings away was in fact but a momentary storm, and once it was over, Icarus got back on track in his quest for the solar oasis yet again.
Maybe one day he has found out, or maybe he still will – that the sun he has been looking for so eagerly since the day he was born, in reality has always been right there.
That sun within.