The doomed flight has been rendered many times and ultimately all of mythology comes to rest on the fact that the child always forsakes the parent, one way or another.
The story goes that mortal Phaeton, upon meeting his father, Helios, for the first time and being granted any wish, asked only to once drive his fatherâ€™s chariot pulled by its legendary flaming horses, which the sun god daily rode across the sky, shedding light on the earth. Here the father waffledâ€”it was folly, Phaeton would not be able to control the horses, the heavens moved swiftly, it was too difficult a courseâ€”but the son insisted, and Helios buckled under his promise: He showed him to the golden chariot, he handed him the reins.
The last time I remember you in the house, after your first year of college, I passed through a room that you were occupying and found its furniture splayed with others, helpless in summer glow. When I asked for introductions, you gestured lazily to your friends en masse and said, â€œThese are my fellow outcastsâ€â€”like this was a life Iâ€™d once expelled you from, a dead thing you only returned to for spoilsâ€”and I was reminded that your record of history was not to be trusted. It was hardly the first time youâ€™d tried to mask me over, and I coped with the moment, the word as I had with many others, by picturing its physical bounds: I imagined the facsimile of another son ghosted in wax, slurried and then fired in a kiln and filled with hot metal, which once cooled Iâ€™d hammer away, leaving the full figure behind, literally â€œcast outâ€â€”yes, this was what heâ€™d meant, correct, exactly as I had fostered him, filed down sprues and all, no sign of the mold left on him.
And it was inevitable, fated. Phaeton careened through the sky, not knowing the way. The horses ran wild. He veered too close to the earth and set it aflame, he cast his smoke-stung eyes frantically to the western horizon he knew he would never reach; in his panic, he dropped the reins. High above, knowing the earth would be destroyed if he didnâ€™t intervene, Zeus, king of all gods, struck Phaeton dead with one of his famous thunderbolts. He fell. The story ends with poplar trees on a riverbank, metamorphosis of grief.
Sebastiano Ricciâ€™s version is finely neoclassical, depicting the moment of the fall, absent the spectral effects that characterize other interpretations, the Titians and Rubens and Moreaus. Plunging Phaeton and his fatherâ€™s wrenching horses are front and center (neither aflame), dramatically shadowed, all rippled muscle and tasteful nudity, while Zeus is wraith-like and out of focus, atmospheric destruction splaying from his hands. (In Ovidâ€™s text, the light of the blazing horses, the fiery earth, the splendiferous chariot glares out all shadow; a proper interpretation would be cast as beneath the morticianâ€™s lamp.)
Ricci renders the scene as simple human tragedyâ€”beautiful human tragedyâ€”a boy far out of his depth, the terrible real. Mine: He cannot be trusted to follow the wheeltracks Iâ€™ve deep inscribed into these roads, this path I have carved for us to travel together. And I recall a much earlier time when we were thus arrayed on the way to school, with me at the helm and you breaking eleven in the seat beside me, suddenly after all these years gone squirmy, early light pinking around us, and when we came to pause at the stoplight dividing one field from the next, you threw open the door and fled into the swarming grains, which swallowed you like an ocean. When I looked out and could no longer see you, son of mine, I can tell you it was like all the invisible titanic stars had come crashing down around my ears, and I knew that I would burn every field in the world if I had to, until you were plain before me. I followed like a harvester follows, stripping the land bare. By the time we returned to the car together the sun had already finished going up; itâ€™d got there on its own.
A dozen years later, I didnâ€™t even know it when you left, you had drawn our distance so wide by then. I was in the workshop and I was fashioning a new arm for one of the chandeliers, North 2, I was using a pair of pliers to glob the hot stem, and I noticed the fine red strands pulling within the glass like bloodveins, and this, I take it, was the moment that you, somewhere distant and adult, crossed finally out of sight.
Still, I have always kept a seat beside me for you, and when the notice came from the hospital at St. Maryâ€™sâ€”blessed parentâ€”I knew it was a call for help, a sign that the horses were out of control, that they didnâ€™t recognize your weight in the chariot, your right to these skies. I knew from this gesture alone where you had gone, who withâ€”I remembered the haircut, a leg flung over one of the divans in my living room, a conspiratorial lookâ€”and what must be now that hadnâ€™t been before. I felt our dynasty expanding.
I loosened the reins; I permitted the charge to the magic card (as everything in our house was possessed of a magic, the magic of my backing), I packed what I needed to make it to the shattered East. I have it in my heart, here: Unlike the god who traveled the flaming skies in antiquity, I will be there to catch him when he falls.