Beauty, The Beast: a story
The little boy looks out the window on to the noisy avenue. He is three and has only just learned to walk. Pulling the little chair to the window and looking out is his favorite new adventure. In the early January evening, from three stories up, he looks down on what seems to him a dark river. Giant fishes with bright eyes, white and red, swim in straight lines. So many people hurry along the concrete river banks. The boy wonders who they are, where they’re going. The boy wonders if they have homes, and if those homes are happy. The lights attract him. Beautiful and frightening, they beckon.
He looks out because the world calls to him, but also because it distracts him from what’s behind him, in his home. The world of lights and strangers is better than turning and seeing his little world fall apart, the one contained in the small apartment, the one with a population of three. He doesn’t think of it as falling apart – how could he? In its damaged state it is still all he has ever known. But deep in his heart there is a murmur which tells him, no, there’s something wrong here. He worries that the wrong thing is himself. But the faintest whisper says, no, you are beautiful, whole and close to angels.
And yet a cancer has just begun to grow inside him. This cancer is not biological, not attached to any organ. It is attached to love. In his life now, where there is love, so will there be this cancer, this misshapen form, this shadow, clinging.
The boy looks out the window and feels his heart longing, reaching, and wonders, will someone down there reach back? Will someone down there catch me if I fall?
Later, in his stroller, the world seems to tumble down at him. He rides the sidewalk at the bottom of deep canyons, bracing himself for an accidental blow, glittering windowed walls rising up on either side. All these faces rushing by, sometimes stopping, stooping, peering at him. Angel, they say, what beautiful eyes you have. Sometimes he forgets who’s pushing him, so fearful and so huge is his experience.
Then they were apart, the two that made him, and his world diminished by one. The man stood by him and the woman wandered off, his queen, his goddess. And the cancer throbbed, an angry mass now, urging him to darkness, a darkness with a female shape. It urged him to destruction. But small as he was, he couldn’t destroy anything but himself, a skill he began to refine in different ways, a skill which would become an occupation later in his life. And though he didn’t know it then, there was another growth inside him, stronger than the first. It was his own light, liquid and luminous. It kept him company and fed him.
At ten, in the subways of the great city, he feels he is in the belly of a great fish now. He is Jonah but he has his companions – the strange congregation he wades through, these myriad faces of longing, dreaming and mystery. Under the city, the great fish is a rumbling chapel, full of thoughtful, silent prayers, rushing towards destinations stretched between euphoria and heartbreak.
In his teens, love becomes his own, not something borrowed or observed. He is drawn to particular girls: each had a misshapen mass like his own. Each is beautiful and deformed with darkness, and in loving them, he hopes to love his own deformation into rightness. In each other, the wounded boy and the girl recognize darkness and couple, trying to burn the wounds away with passion, only inflaming them more.
About this time he discovers a magical place where the lights point at him, obliterating the darkness for a time, and he can dance and delight those who came to watch. It is a place that allows him to hide his deformity. When he stands there, he glitters too, the way the city glitters, the way stars and beauty glitter. This place is his salvation, and he lives out a temporary respite there, a circular escape, which tragically brings him back to himself at its end.
At this time too, the pain becomes unbearable and he cries out in his solitary room. He might have said –
I call to the Lord out of my distress, and he answers me; out of the belly of Sheol I cry, and You hear my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounds me; all your waves and your billows pass over me.
He does not receive relief, he receives resolution in the person of a real Jonah, a young Jonah who swings on a rope over a river, slips and falls, his young body following the downward trajectory to the shallow rocks, rather than swinging up in the hopeful arc. Jonah drops in a wet thud and lays motionless in the rocks like something beached and gasping. With Jonah’s family wailing behind him, the boy – now almost a man – runs into the woods seeking help, begging Something for help. Then comes the man in the Jeep. “I am a paramedic – is there trouble?” And the boy leads him to Jonah. Later, as Jonah flies through the air to the hospital, the boy feels his calling seize him. Seeing that life might be taken from him suddenly he thinks, God, I want to be an actor. The moisture in his eyes, the tremor in his upper lip is a sign that it is more than a thought. It is his second prayer of that day.
Still his shadow grows. Not understanding his dark cancer, but feeling that something is terribly wrong with him, the teenage boy becomes frantic. Forced to become aware of his own deformity, he rips and tears at himself. He cuts and abuses himself. Finally he casts the shadow in front of him and says, what are you?
My name is legion, and we are many, it answers. You may put me down, but you may never leave me. And so the shadow follows the boy everywhere, even as he dances under the lights and grows into a man. Even now as he writes these words, the lumpy shadow is always there.
In the place where the cancer had been, there is now a hollow. The young man feels a vacancy inside. So he pours all kinds of salves into himself to fill the empty place up. He rubs tinctures on his love until it aches. He stuffs himself with dirt and contaminations trying to be full and whole. But the salves evaporate, and the tinctures wear away, and whatever he puts inside himself becomes him, until finally he is contamination walking. Whatever he does, after the ritual comes to its embarrassing conclusion, he always ends up with his nightmare: himself.
Good, says the shadow, consume. You have found the means of your own destruction.
But the little light will not be extinguished.
Then came a night when he finds himself crawling through a dark forest. He doesn’t know why, or where he’s going. He is polluted with shame, remorse, bitterness. In fact, he is barely there, so dimmed has he become by his relentless self-abuse and punishment. The shadow he had cast away once is upon him again, riding him like some dreadful succubus, whispering lies in his ear. The poisons slosh inside him.
He comes upon an empty lake. He stares dumbly into the great dark expanse, and he sees that it is not really empty. In its great void is grief invisible, but palpable, like a midnight mist you cannot see but taste. It is a maw of sadness and desolation. The man puts his fingers in where water should be and feels despair lap against his skin. It sucks at him, and he feels drowsy as he thinks of swimming in it. He is jolted when his light pulses inside him, splashing up against his ribs, and he recognizes that the lake forms the same hollowness as his own wound, but visited upon the world. He sees that the world is wounded too, and the light inside splashes again, brighter. And he becomes aware that he is not alone.
Around the lake’s edges he sees small groups, and solitary individuals. The groups are talking softly together and the individuals stare into the empty lake silently. Go to them, the murmur says. You dare not, say the shadow, you are deformed and filthy, stare into the emptiness and be still. The light leaps, the shadow cowers, the man stands.
He its quietly among a little group of others. He sees that each contains the hollowness of a different shape. But in most it is not hollow. His light is boiling now as he sees that in most gathered by the empty lake, the hollow place is full. In the glow of other’s light he sees their features too. He is struck by how beautiful and brave they seem to him. And then, suddenly, he is speaking. And the others turn to him. And in their faces he sees the illumination of his own light, light which is slowly, slowly filling up his void as it creeps towards the light of others. And all around the edges of that gathering the shadows wait, patient, cynical, so many dark lumps of disease, sullen at being cast aside by their masters.
After talking with them for a while, he looks around the lake again and sees little gatherings of light, and wonders why he has not seen them before. Your shadow was upon you, said another, you cannot take it off by yourself, and so you were blind before, but now you see.
Tell us your story, said another.
And as he does, he feels his light streaming out to others, mixing with ones who are full, and filling up ones that are empty, pushing his own poison out. But in a strange paradox he couldn’t fathom, as he fills others, he was also being filled. He is not left with a deficit; rather, in filling others, his pool of light is increased.
Look, says another. And they turn and see one of the solitary ones fall into the empty lake, not in a graceful dive, but tossed grotesquely, like some doll tormented by a sadistic child. The man stares into the lake, and sees that it is a bone yard at bottom. Look, says another, and one is wanders towards them out of the shadows by the shore, as the man had before.
Come, said another, there is work for us.
And they come to another empty lake, much smaller than the first, barely more than a drained turtle pond. Gathering around the empty pond, some work with their hands shoring up the edges, some draw designs for small huts for the little shore, some cook so others could work, some care for the bumps and bruises the work produces. And when they tire from all the work, the man feels ashamed that he has not helped them in any way. But to his shock he sees them gather before him. And all their lights shine on him in a familiar blinding wash, and in an instant he knows why he is there.
He tells them a story, he sings for them, he dances. And the little pond fills with water.
He leaves the woods and makes a little family of his own. Hollow no longer, and with new sight, he sees all the wounds and shadows on everyone he meets – even on his mother and father, wounds he could not see when a boy. And all through his life, he would meet others with the hollow wound, some more full than others, and there would be a recognition.
And he looked for the light inside them, and his light answered.
And he listened to Francis Dunnery sing:
You can hear me call your name and I haven’t said a single word tonight
Like a bird that sails the thermal sky trusting the invisible
How can I fall? How can I fail?
When I’m Jonah Jonah Jonah
Inside the whale
So I cry out like a baby and I know you hear my words
And I can get to tomorrow if you hold on to this heart of mine
Jonah, Jonah, Jonah
Inside the whale
You can hear my cry for freedom as I learn to trust the living that’s inside
In a world that sells a pack of lies and draws me to my ego
How can I fall? How can I fail?
When I’m Jonah Jonah Jonah,
Inside the whale
And I know you’re always with me even though you can’t be heard
A perfect understanding as you breath into this heart of mine
Jonah, Jonah, Jonah
Inside the whale
So the fox is in the hole again, the hounds are at the door
Newspaper stories lying more and more
There’s a little girl starting school today to learn the whole thing over
How can she fall? How can she fail?
When she’s Jonah Jonah Jonah
Inside the whale
And he rode the subway whales, and saw the angels there, with their wings of desire.
And he witnessed his life in patterns and poems, streaming from a Source, the Source which sent him his liquid light.
And he embraced the paradoxes – that his joy was born out of grief, that his light swelled like a tide out of darkness, that his fusion with others came from the loneliness of the little boy he once was.
And in the words of the songs he loved, he heard the singing Source, and felt its ministry:
That beauty was a beast before, and was transformed.
And that strangers are not strangers – he has seen them all before, underground, on the avenues, in the woods, in countless rooms all across the world. He sees them across the lip of the stage, beneath the blinding wash of light. He falls and they catch him, hold him, heal him. And now he is the healer. And there is a big lake to fill.