"String" by Ty Hall
By Ty Hall
Originally published in Bohemia (January 2014)
In the corner of a dusty workshop, a cat manipulates a ball of yarn just before going in for the kill as Icarus approaches, trailing his toy dog behind himself by a string around its neck. The figurine was carved from oak by his father with free-moving legs connected by balls in joints and hinges. The lifelike toy sends the cat scampering away and the ball of string rolls beneath the carpenter’s bench where Daedalus leans looking down at his boy. His offspring. Strands of duplicate recognition. Lines that, if drawn on a page, hang down like the tentacles of a man o’ war facing land, floating just below the surface in every cell. The branches tangle down plotting out life, a series of decisions and choices making paths. A single misstep can cost another’s life; not their death, even, but their never having been. Blood, or more its lines, ran thin with Daedalus. His sister killed herself when he killed her son. Pride comes before a fall, and Daedalus threw his nephew over a cliff. Hubris destroys the things you love; engulfed by waves, as all men ultimately are. And more blood would be on Daedalus’ hands. His son’s, in fact. But Daedalus didn’t know that yet. It was already written, though still to be read.
So Daedalus, wanted for murder, hides away in a dusty shop where he draws lines at the request of a king, as all men ultimately do, whether they know it or not. It was here, in Crete, where he built Ariadne’s dance floor: Ariadne of the spiral moon, the white and utterly pure Dancing Goddess of the Labyrinth. But she wasn’t a goddess yet. Someday her lover would string her along and abandon her on an island, and the god of hedonism would make her his bride. Though she didn’t know it yet, her story was already woven in the tapestry of history in double-crisscrossed threads. Tonight she is only a mistress dancing at the grand opening of Daedalus’ dancehall as the band plucks lyra strings in two-four time, the vibrations of which set bodies in motion, all spinning intertwined in the controlled and measured chaos of harmony and tempo. It was said there are some three arts concerned with everything: the user’s, the maker’s, and the imitator’s. And Daedalus is the architect.
Meanwhile, Minos sought a sacrifice, and he prayed for one. Even kings must pay penance, though perhaps not pay as paupers do. Perhaps to kings all things are given, while those below work for those things. Maybe the gods, too, should pay propitiation for taunting men with perfection, as they granted Minos a bull. White and utterly pure. Too perfect, it seemed, to reinvest in the gods who provided it. For every cause there is effect. For every action there is consequence. And the gods punish with irony. The things you love are taken by love, and sometimes, when mistakes are made, love is mistaken for lust.
It was said Daedalus’ sculptures were so lifelike, they were bound at night lest they awake. So Pasiphae, the queen, went to Daedalus in secret. She commissioned a cow coequal to the consecrated, colorless creature, in which to consummate her carnal cravings. So she slipped inside the duplicate, and its duplicate spiral strands slipped into her. And the Minotaur was born — that cruel and hungry joke of the gods. An accident, perhaps, but no mistake.
The king could not face the facts of his faithlessness. So Minos went to Daedalus in secret and commissioned a prison to contain this abomination, and Daedalus built his labyrinth to contain the consequence of his carving. It began as inception, spiraling out through the pathways of his mind and manifesting itself in ribbons of sprawling byzantine logic. So innumerable were the paths and possibilities of deception, even the creator could not easily find his way back. The Minotaur roamed the maze and the mind of Minos; beast and man circling with rage, building with feedback — existing in two parts where each affects the other. And Minos, as all men do, blamed the blameless and demanded innocents to pay for his wife’s transgression, born of his own vanity. Every cause has an effect, and of fury was born a paladin.
Theseus stood as a solitary sacrifice to satiate the stomach of the sum; sanctified son of sin not surrendered. Standing in the center of the throne room wearing his white and threadbare smock, smugly staring into the eyes of both the jealous king and mother of that error of insatiable eros. So how could she not fall in love? Time is a circle and fate is an architect. Architects draw lines, and duplicate strands repeat: taunting tautological tautomers teach and trap in a spiraling and sodding double-helix. Ariadne, like her mother, fell in love with the sacrifice.
So Ariadne went to Daedalus in secret and he gave her a clue: a wound, red ball of string. “Go forward, always down, and never left or right,” he said, and Ariadne repeated these words to her beloved. It was with this centrist view that Theseus tied one end of his lifeline to the door and descended as his yarn unraveled.
Theseus stumbled — as all men do — drawing closer to the bull’s eye, waking the monster at his core. They struggled, and Theseus severed the sinew between the skull and sternum, removing the beast and not the man. All men are human, though some only apparently, and each with a strand of the divine. As thanks for Ariadne’s red thread, he will leave her his own, and abandon her on an island to be tied with the gods. He really only loved her for what she could give him.
As a consequence of his creativity, Daedalus was imprisoned with his son in the labyrinth birthed of his mind. And like all men, he thought he could escape the complex network of his thoughts by some grand design — no mere string tied to his finger would do.
“I had a dream,” Icarus will say on their seventieth night of wandering his father’s system. “I dreamt we were on the beach. It was night and I looked up to see the moon. But it wasn’t the moon, it was a shell. I wanted to touch it so I flew, just like a bird, up into the dark, cold, sky. I grasped the moon in my hands, but it was a shell, and I put it to my ear and heard the ocean. It was like the ocean was calling me. As I held it to my ear, the aperture opened wide and swallowed me head-first. I spun through the helix and came out the other side. I woke up just before I splashed into the water. What do you think it means?”
Daedalus will only be half listening to his son, because getting to the center of your mind’s work and coming out the other side unscathed are two entirely different matters. Go forward, always down, and never left or right. Walking out the front door is out of the question, as his previous discretion made all the wiser his captor. Nonetheless, he answers his son.
“The moon and the ocean are connected, that’s why you concocted it as a shell and heard the tide when you put it to your ear. The moon and the ocean are connected by strings, like a marionette. Like your toy dog. When the moon rises, so does the tide.” Though he didn’t know the word for it, he knew there were invisible forces; strings that manipulate the universe. “As for the getting there,” but Daedalus trails off, thinking of a way to rise above his work.
Daedalus constructed four wooden lattices — two smaller — fastening to them feathers with wax at their base and string at their center. He knew the string would not hold forever, so he placed his faith in the wax and instructed his son not to fly too high. The sun will melt the wax, and the string will come undone. With wings affixed, father and son take flight, as the maelstrom of dust bids them farewell in a swirling demonstration. Like Noah’s dove and raven, they flew above the rolling waves. “Remember son,” he called after Icarus, “the binding is unstable. If the wax melts, there’s nothing holding you aloft but string.”
And like all fathers, he leads his son farther from the twisted prison his mind created; like all sons, Icarus disregards — or gives too much credit to — his father. With reckless abandon, Icarus writes in the sky with flourished cursive his prideful valediction letter. His tail feathers waver, fluttering like baseball cards in bicycle spokes, drowning out his father’s calls. The ties that bind came undone, and Daedalus could not — or would not — go back for his son. Icarus plunged — forwards, down — into the ocean. Engulfed in waves, as all ultimately are.
So Daedalus will take shelter in a workshop on Sicily, building constructions for another king who grants him asylum. But there will never be a joist capable of bearing the weight of guilt that weighs on a hunted father’s heavy mind.
Minos sought an escapee, so he devised a plan that was sure to draw Daedalus out. To whichever king could solve a puzzle, unimaginable riches would be given. The task: string a thread through a conch shell. Greed, it seems, often goes unpunished. The problem was sent down the line to Daedalus who, looking it over, supplied his solution. The few that gathered round looked on in bewilderment as Daedalus pierced the tip of the shell, smearing it with honey. Daedalus delicately trussed the string to an ant, which pursued the prize at the end of the coil. Daedalus pulls the string taut between his fingertips as the ant reaches the finish line, and the shell oscillates in the air as the few that gathered applaud.
Daedalus knew it was a trick. He hoped, at least, it was. Daedalus was tired. His mind was heavy. There are too many possible outcomes, too many variables, and a mind like his sees every one of them. Every action has a consequence. Go forwards, always down, and never left or right. But lefts and rights are inevitable. Perhaps he never left the labyrinth at all. Time itself does not move downwards only, nor straight; time is a wave. And if every action has a consequence, and there are infinite paths, each variable is its own thread, potential or otherwise. And with infinite consequences, each is rendered equally inconsequential. And if everything is inconsequential, why not simply dangle from a string like a carrot before a horse, seemingly stationary while moving forward? ‘Why not dangle from a string?’ he thought, looking out over the waves from his bedroom window. So that’s what he did.
And the world moved forward.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. Though now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I am also known.
My mother used to cross-stitch. I would sit on the ground, drawing or cutting paper, and look up at the incoherent tangle of strings dangling below the canvass. It never made any sense until I sat up in her lap and looked down at the threads overlapping each other; crisscrossed patterns telling the story, drawing the curtains of the window to a moment.
God once asked: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Surely you know!” He taunts. “Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together?”
A mistake, perhaps, but no accident. It all hangs upon a string. Reality is flexible because time is flexible. It ties itself up into knots like an anxious child. It’s a conversation; a dance, with the strings vibrating like mandolins creating infinite harmonies weaving together to make infinite universes. Lower the submediant of the Mixolydian and converse with the Creator, who sits up in the sky and knows reality itself is contingent upon where one stands in the universe; each of us walking that tightrope He strings taut between His fingertips. So the observed demands of the observer ‘See things as I see them.’
And maybe Atropos looks down with her abhorred shears at the sheer audacity of it all and is displeased with the tapestry she’s woven. Maybe she decides to cut the thread. Maybe with a razor edge I am Atropos. Maybe the story isn’t finished yet. The future looms, warped and weft. If I look up I might see the selvage and salvage what’s left by grabbing at the dangling threads that keeps it all from unraveling. Maybe I can pull myself up, following the string. Maybe I can find my way back home.
But for now, my coffee is getting cold as I look out the window of another truck-stop diner situated someplace between Point A and Point B. Headlights speed by in the early morning fog like a parade of ghosts on the highway, north or south. I’m the only one here, save the waitress who looks no older than twenty-two. God, save the waitress. Her teeth are bad from years of boredom but the rest of her is pretty. The nametag on her bleached white apron reads ‘Anna,’ and it suits her. A palindrome. She paces ellipses between her post and the jukebox, feeding it nickels. She’s making her way down a fairly comprehensive list of Elton John’s greatest hits and pulls a remote control from behind a stack of menus to raise the volume. The bass notes make circles in my cup and I see myself dissolve away, as I am also known. Anna picks at the loose string on the hem of her apron. Disinterested, she looks up and freshens my drink on the way to the jukebox.
The universe is a melody, and the stars sing.
Ty Hall lives in Texas, makes up stories, and tries to be good. Ty is on Twitter @thenunspriest.