Neither son nor father slept that night.
Tangled in sheets, the wide-eyed boy
stared into the chamber’s pearly dark.
He twitched his hands on the pillows,
guiding the heads of invisible horses.
From the apex of heaven, he saluted
his awestruck mother as her neighbors
sank to their knees in tardy admiration.
His father made no pretense of dreaming.
Late into the night, he sat in his throne room
watching the stars wander the heavens—
braggart Orion cinching his belt, the clumsy Bull
pawing at a black meadow. But toward morning,
before Dawn could arise from her bed in the east,
the god was in the stable, running practiced hands
over wheels and axle, checking hooves for stones.
When Phaeton appeared, crumpled and shining,
the Sun was leading his winged horses from their stalls.
Rested, well-fed, they tugged against their halters,
and at each breath, fire flared from their nostrils.
Through the stable gate, the god and his son glimpsed
Dawn unfolding her rosy sash on the horizon.
The Moon’s curl had vanished, and far below the palace,
Earth’s blue outline trembled under coils of mist.
As the Sun harnessed the stamping horses,
backing them four abreast, snorting and dancing,
into the chariot’s jeweled yoke, he advised Phaeton
on how best to manage the unruly team.
Though his voice was steady, his gestures calm,
his heart was heavy with foreboding.
After each caution, the boy nodded.
His eyes glowed. Perhaps he was listening.
“Leave the whip alone,” said the god.
“Keep your weight on the reins.
Holding back is your hardest task.
Earth and sky need equal magnitudes of heat.
Follow the middle road; my wheel tracks are clear.
And there is still time, plenty of time, to change your mind.
Give me the reins; go, eat something,
and we will sit together under the Moon tonight.”
But the boy had already climbed into the chariot.
There he stood, tense as a hare, clutching the reins—
joyful, oblivious, smiling up at his father.
Where was the terror that yesterday
had burdened him like a barrow of slag?
The horses snorted, snapped their gilded wings,
rang their hooves against the bronze bars of the gate.
The chariot trembled on its gleaming wheels.
Leaning into the car, the Sun kissed his child.
Then he lifted the fiery crown from his head,
tightened it, and slipped it over Phaeton’s curls.
“You see, it doesn’t burn me!” cried the boy,
proudly tossing his cumbered hair. “Father,
watch me at noon! Watch me wave to you!”
But the time for talk was gone. Dawn’s gaudy robeblanketed the sky, and the Sun heaved open the gate.
[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]