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Beauty,Spring 2005 Fifth Web Papers On Serendip

Make Something Beautiful

Alice Kaufman

Do something beautiful. Pah. What can I do? I can't act out a scene—that would require memorizing complex words in a fluid way, or giving emotions that I don't have in me. I certainly can't sing. I tried to learn to dance once, and while I think I could one day, I have to admit I don't know how right now. I used to draw, but what to draw, with what supplies, what picture would I form? I used to write poems, but that was a long time ago. I feel so tired and hollow, I couldn't even tell you a story. I could read one, certainly; I could read hundreds of beautiful things, but they are all reflected from me, not created by me. I feel like a mirror with no substance of her own.

But mirrors can lie, can pretend they have something of their own to offer the world. If I am a mirror, I can take what I see and what I'm influenced by, and twist it and shape it into something that seems to be from me. Then it will be from me, you see, then I will have added to it, created a tiny new piece. I can do that. I can tell you a story. I can tell you all stories.

Once there was a garden, with a large, beautiful tree in the center, with all plants and all animals inside, and a man and woman. This did not last, and they had children who came to no good at all (one had to move east). A sled named 'Rosebud' was built. Eventually, there was a great flood of water all over the earth. Meanwhile, a god named Uranus ate his children, until one of his sons rose against him, beat him, and then the son began eating his children. The cycle ended with a great deal of incest, and the family settled down a bit. At least, they seemed to, but then they fought a great deal again and started wars that men became involved in as well. In a particularly long stretch of fighting, a warrior named Achilles avenged his lover Patroclus, and fought very bravely until he was shot in the ankle. That war ended with Odysseus, who had a terrible time getting home because of the squabbling god family again. (The losing side of the war was very sad and sorry, because they then had to deal with Aeneas, who was very dull and did everything Odysseus had done earlier.)

The sled named Rosebud was given to a little boy on a mountain. The ancestor of a third cousin of Odysseus was a man named Gilgamesh, who went on a very long quest and got into quibbles with his own gods. These gods were older than Uranus's brood, and were born before the tree was planted in the garden. A brother and sister once hid in a nutshell from a different, but equally gigantic tree when the floods came (remember, this was the same flood as before.) The brother became a dragon and the girl was cut into tiny pieces, in one of the earliest examples of misogyny, and these pieces populated all the world with people. This must have been a different people than the children east of the garden and the warrior-kings. Eventually, all of these peoples (and a good many more) came together to fight, which was a shame. But they shared their stories, and that was a pleasure.

When several of these peoples met each other for the first time, there was an empress of Rome named Livia, who was awfully clever and occasionally mean. Her nephew Claudius wrote about her adventures and their family. Their empire was truly vast, and they had flush toilets, so people like to talk about them now. But in the frigid north, there was a small tribe who resisted. The tribe's greatest fighters were Asterix and Obelix. On a small island that the empire had conquered, there was a man named Beowulf, who fought two particularly bad monsters. My friend says it was really a story of the love between mother and son. Much later on this same island lived a wizard and a king and several knights and a funny table, and they each had adventures of their own, and were all terribly interesting. But even more interesting was the fairies who meddled and mixed families with them, and a debate whether or not one of the knights slept with the queen. (It all ended sadly, as these things seem to do.) Before the Roman empire was fully established, there was a prince who killed his father and married his mother to become king, and even though this was an isolated occurrence, a pinched little man would one day take this story and base all his theories on it. The little boy with the sled was taken away from the mountain.

Families continue to be complicated. Much much later, there was a king named Charles V, who was very fond of fish and seemed to live forever. He saw more wars and alliances and children and marriages than anybody in the world. Eventually he became tired of being king, for he had to be the Holy Roman Emperor as well, which didn't mean much at the time but by golly, it still wasn't a job to sneeze at. He left both of these jobs and went to live in a monastery. All the kings and queens at this time were marrying each other and their cousins, and everyone's family trees became hopelessly muddled. A little south of the old empire, a young girl had to tell a new wonderful story every night for a thousand and one nights, and each one was more entertaining than the last. We should all be so talented. A little north, there was a bandit king who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and everyone wore green tights, because it was so cold and damp.

The poor to whom the bandit king gave money were a strange and varied bunch. There was a girl who wore ashy clothes, and a pair of lovers that could turn themselves into carnations and churches. The girl was an acquaintance of a soldier that made a bargain with the devil, and became rich, but he had to wear a smelly bear skin. The devil wasn't so bad in those days, it seems to me; he told everyone the truth, and his grandmother lived with him, and she occasionally gave some of the devil's chin hairs to travelers on quests. This seems awfully obliging. Evil sprites, on the other hand, tricked people out of their children and cursed toads to sit on wells and poison water. Luckily there were good sprites and fairies too, who made some girls cry tears of jewels. This sounds like it would hurt to no end, but no one mentioned if it did. Back then, you could tie a knot in you handkerchief and tap it on the ground three times and an army of gnomes would come to you and build a mountain castle for you. Just try getting them to help you now.

If they weren't mucking about in the supernatural, people were falling in love with the children of their enemies, and tragically committed suicide because they believed the other to be dead. Some cross-dressed and wooed their true loves while pretending to be someone else. When two husbands are falsely convinced that their wives are cheating on them, the wives play tricks on them, and eventually everyone plays tricks on their supposed suitor. Husbands and wives always distrust one another in these types of stories; even the comedies are kind of sad, if you think about it. But the little boy on the mountain grew up to be a very rich man.

After seeing the disasters that the group of people above made with romance, some have gone back and tried to find love with magical sorts. Sometimes selkies can come to the shores and shed their skins to stretch out in human form. If you steal their skin while the selkie isn't looking, you can make her your wife, but she'll always look for her skin. She won't be happy. The man who had used to have the sled wasn't very happy either, even after he made all his money. Men can be unhappy too, you see. Remember the prince who married his mother; he was so sad he gouged his eyes out, and he didn't even mean to do anything wrong. Another man had to drink blood from the necks of other people to stay alive, and he must have had a pretty sad existence too. Well, he enjoyed his murderous life while it lasted, but he was stabbed in the heart in the end, and he couldn't have been happy about that. His friend was a fairy who collected teeth of children while they slept.

Don't think me morbid; this story isn't done yet, anyway. One of the children whose teeth were taken by the fairy moved from India to England, and found a secret garden. She met a young boy who then became a man, and he was was hired as a detective, and he had to try to find his partner's killer, and it turns out the statue of the falcon he was looking for was fake and the killer was the girl all along. His brother was a doctor, and he dug up a dead body and brought it back to life, and the creature he brought to life was chased by the townsfolk. The man with the sled and a lot of money lost his friends and wife, and he was lonelier than ever. Take heart, though—a little deer became prince of the forest. A southern woman lost her man, but she kept her plantation, and it was okay, because tomorrow is another day. The deer and the woman didn't know each other, but they did each know a man who haunted a Paris opera house. On the other side of the world, a little spider saved a pig's life.

The man with money and no friends said "Rosebud" before he died. Even though he had many things, we don't want to become that man. That was told to a little girl who was born in the middle of a country. She cried sometimes, but laughed sometimes, too. It would have been nice if she had been able to go where the wild things are, but she never made it. I think it was antisocial of her. She had a little brother with whom she could play and fight, but no cat in the hat, just a dog. The girl grew up some, and went to school, and met some very nice people. Their tests made them tired and uncertain. But they all lived happily ever after.

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