The Fall of Icarus

The Fall of Icarus

Mel D. Sullivan

The fire burned faster than Meta expected. It started at four in the morning, igniting somewhere in Helicon Hall’s neglected basement. By five, all three floors of the mansion were aflame, the windows bright orange squares against the black March sky. From her spot on the hill with David, Meta watched Upton going from group to shivering group, determining if anyone was lost. So far, it appeared he’d been lucky.  

Her husband had always been lucky. His early novels were commercial and artistic failures, but when The Jungle was published to equal parts acclaim and outrage, he’d finally gained the followers he desired. During the winter of 1906, he’d traveled to New York to parties and concerts, lecturing on industrial exploitation while Meta and five-year-old David remained in New Jersey in the cabin Upton had never finished. When he returned on the weekends, he paced the twelve feet of their kitchen, his boots knocking against the uneven floor boards that let in the wind no matter how Meta stuffed them with newspapers and straw.

“Artists were not meant to live like this,” Upton decreed, as Meta wiped their son’s feverish face. “The drudgery of life kills creativity.” Meta pursed her lips and looked over to her desk, piled high with doctor’s bills, the pages from her half-started novel completely covered, and fetched another damp cloth from the basin.  

“What if,” Upton whispered, after David had fallen into a fitful sleep and Meta had extinguished the kerosene lamp. “What if artists could live collectively, with trained experts overseeing all domestic responsibilities. In a true utopia, there would be no need for servants or masters. Just equality and independence of thought. You could write again, too.” Meta grunted and then turned toward the wall, knowing that a vision at night might fade by morning.

But luck and the new mania for Progressivism favored Upton, and after a few well-publicized meetings, subscriptions poured in from artists who wanted to, for twenty-five dollars a share, buy a world where all meals would be cooked in a central kitchen and children looked after in a collective nursery. With the subscribers’ cash and $15,000 of his own royalties, Upton purchased Helicon Hall in Englewood, a former boys’ school with three floors of rooms, and ambitiously scheduled the grand opening for the following October. 

By the time the first residents arrived, it was clear that some details had been overlooked. No one of suitable education, politics and temperament could be persuaded to tutor the subscribers’ thirteen children, and the artists couldn’t agree if eggs should be served every Sunday. Meta organized the women so that food was cooked and laundry was done, while Upton stalked the halls, offering his opinion on Mrs. Kimball’s latest illustration and shouting at Professor Noyes about Gilman’s recent lecture on the changing role of the home in America. Most nights, Meta fell into bed well past midnight, completely spent.

By New Year, it was agreed that a serventless approach was unworkable, and Meta hired a couple of young poets as unskilled handymen in exchange for room and board. Upton then introduced Anna, who Meta immediately liked because of her no-nonsense reform dress and proposed schedule for rotating the kitchen duties among the residents. That Upton was also drawn to Anna did not bother her much. Helicon Hall already had a reputation as a den of radicals and free love, which was only somewhat deserved, and Meta had found herself in the arms of one or two of the poets, who turned out to be skilled at some things. Above all, Meta prided herself on her practicality.  

By February, it appeared that the experiment might possibly succeed. Upton had left all managerial issues to Anna and Meta, and remained in his private office for hours, writing pages of a sequel which he claimed would be even more explosive than its predecessor. He was so concerned that his work would be lost or sabotaged, each afternoon he locked his office with a specially made key, the only copy of which he kept on his person at all times.

But things could not last, Meta thought, as she cut biscuits in the kitchen. Her Upton was an Icarus, destined to fly high only to fall. It was simply a matter of time.

The cause of the conflagration was never determined, though it was suggested that an overturned candle or lamp was the likely culprit. Upton showed up at the inquest, his head still bandaged, and claimed that the Steel Trust was plotting to put an end to his latest investigations, a theory which was summarily dismissed by the inspectors. Only one worker died – Lester Briggs, a carpenter’s apprentice, who was known as a heavy sleeper. The property loss was total, the hall itself condemned, and the utopia disbanded as the artists fled back to the city.  

“But our true loss,” her husband told the press, “is the loss of the art created and yet to be created under Helicon’s roof.”

When Upton reached Meta, the night of the fire, before he asked about anything else – their son, her welfare, any of the others – he asked if she had been able to rescue his pages.

“How?” Meta asked. “You held the key.”

As tears fell from Upton’s eyes, making tracks in his soot-covered face, Meta turned back to the fire, which had broken through the roof.  

Though the fire was quick, its start was not, which again was lucky. The nursery was evacuated first, the children all dropped into blankets, and only a few of the adults had been seriously injured. Mrs. Kimball, who was among the last to be located, had descended on a thin rope made of her nightgown and walked the grounds naked until Professors Noyes offered his overcoat. Even Meta, exhausted after her day in the kitchen, had time to climb four staircases and lay silent between her sleeping husband and son before the first curl of smoke came under the door.

Mel D. Sullivan