A thought that never really occurred to me until reading The Secret History is that the horrifying is also often the most beautiful. “Beauty is terror”, as Julian would say. As pointed out in the book, the passages in literature we find the most captivating are almost always the most visually repulsive. Bloodshed, misery, pain. Wilfred Owen’s soldier in the wagon with his “white eyes writhing in his face” (‘Dulce et Decorum Est’). Milton’s Sin* with “the shape of a woman above the waist, that of a serpent below, and her middle is ringed about with Hell Hounds, who periodically burrow into her womb and gnaw her entrails”. These are the passages, Julian says, that we cannot help but love.
Walking through Beaumont Park today, I looked up at the trees on a whim and had two, seemingly unconnected, thoughts.
1. The leaves are falling. The trees are dying.
2. The park looks so beautiful like this.
I did not connect these until afterwards. Morbid? Maybe. But the trees are dying and the park did in fact look very beautiful. The leaves, not quite green anymore, but not old enough to have lost all colour. The trunks and branches, looking suddenly proud now that their bare bones, their prime foundations, have been laid bare to the prying eyes of the human world. It doesn’t get more beautiful. But maybe that’s just the Romantic in me.
In light of this observation, I have chosen to share with you a short story I had planned, and failed, to have entered into a competition around this time last year. The rules were simple – create a story with the title ‘Abstract Christmas’ and be different. I believe the actual words stated were “Think Tarantino”. With this in mind I wrote my ‘Abstract Christmas’. It may not be to everybody’s taste – I was uncertain even showing it to my creative writing tutor – but for something a little different, read on. After all, I’ve already mentioned how sometimes the most horrific of events can seem somehow … aesthetically pleasing, perhaps. We love to love the gruesome parts of literature. It’s just in our nature.
This wasn’t in the job description. When they said they needed someone with training in the Arctic, he hadn’t realised they’d had this in mind. £30,000, half now, half after: the money had been enough to agree. So here he squatted, luxury white goose feathers free-falling around his person in their lacy, lazy swirls of silence.
Wellingtons crumping up the driveway. He drew his attention back to the task at hand. The woman’s feet stuttered sideways as her boots packed snow to ice. The child stretched its legs to follow: he fell; he went to cry but found he could not; newborn flakes in his lashes; he rose and his crimson overcoat was clad in white. Robson tracked the child up the path with his semi-frozen sight.
“Ma?” Robson stiffened: the child had ensnared his gaze.
“Yes, Billy?” Don’t blink. The bitter wind fought to out him.
“Ma, it’s watching me!” Eyeballs turned to stone. Arctic tactics pushed to full capacity.
“What is, Billy?” Ice inside his sockets stuck his eyeballs, statuesque.
Through quilted layers of crystals Robson heard the dreaded words erupt from the child’s mouth. He held still. The mother paused.
“The snowman? Billy, the snowman isn’t real. It can’t be watching you.”
“But it is, Ma! It is, it is!”
“Don’t be a Silly Billy! Come on, you’ll turn into a snowman if you don’t get out of this cold!”
A final, frosty, flicker of fear from the child, then Robson’s icy bonds were shattered. He blinked. Breathing evenly behind his mask, he flexed his fingers, felt the trigger. The pistol shivered in his grasp and gulped as the safety clicked off. Robson undid the top button of the snowman’s shirt and a subtle thud sounded as it found the floor. From his human igloo he watched the mother turn on the kitchen light, bright against the winter’s hollow night.
Shifting the cumbersome flakes from his long-shod lashes he sought out the silhouette of Billy, the kid. The counter-top raised his body high, the single light above his head forming a halo of golden curls about his temple. Billy lifted distressful hands as if to bless, and mist fogged the glass before his face. He turned his eyes to his snowman, standing to attention on the battlefield. His plastic horse, Bonney, lay toppled in no-man’s-land, a shroud of white embracing his motionless frame. Tears swallowed up his sapphire eyes.
Robson slid the barrel through the buttonhole, the copper petals unfurling to face the Mother’s sun. Robson had a mind not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind, the same wind that was blowing for Billy, and for the listener, who listens in the snow. Nothing himself, he beholds the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is**. The pistol’s icy bonds were shattered. It blinked.
“Merry Christmas”, breathed the snowman. The shattering of crystals trashed the heart-broken silence, and Bonney’s white overcoat became clad in crimson. Tonight, the £30,000 belonged to Robson.
*seem’d Woman to the waste, and fair, [ 650 ]
But ended foul in many a scaly fould
Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d
With mortal sting: about her middle round
A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark’d
With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung [ 655 ]
A hideous Peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
If aught disturb’d thir noyse, into her woomb,
And kennel there, yet there still bark’d and howl’d
** For the Wallace Stevens poem referenced in this passage click here