Beauty: A Fable
“I’m so beautiful,” said his mother, gazing into the mirror. The large looking-glass atop her vanity was surrounded by a fan of smaller mirrors, all tilted and turned and angled and positioned to reflect her beauty back to her, and among those was a spray of cameras, all humming and snapping and clicking and whirring to record her beauty. On the vanity before her was an arsenal of creams and sprays and powders and paints, all standing ready to enhance her beauty.
"Yes, you are,” agreed the boy. He thought for a moment, then asked, “Why do you take so many pictures of yourself?”
“To send to my friends.”
“So they can see how beautiful I am.”
“Don’t they know that already?”
“They don’t know how beautiful I am today.”
He thought for another moment, then asked, “Do they send pictures of themselves to you?”
“And are they beautiful too?”
“I don’t know.”
“I never look at their pictures.”
“How could they possibly compare to mine?”
It was her turn to think for a moment. “Could they?” she asked her mirrors. “Could they possibly compare to mine?” With a visible shudder, she reached for her makeup, and her head disappeared in a cloud of powder and spray.
“Am I beautiful?” asked the boy.
“You’re my son,” said his mother.
“That’s not an answer.”
“I’m so beautiful,” said his mother.
“How can I tell if I’m beautiful?”
“How do your friends react to the pictures of yourself that you send to them?”
“I don’t send them pictures of myself.”
“What do you do with the pictures of yourself?”
“I don’t take any.”
His mother considered this. “Then how can you know if you’re beautiful?” she asked.
“Do your friends think you’re beautiful,” asked the boy, “when they see the pictures that you send to them?”
“I don’t know. They just send me back pictures of themselves.”
“Which you don’t look at.”
“Which I don’t look at.”
“Then how do you know that they-“
“Go outside and play.”
Her head disappeared into another cloud of powder and spray. “Go outside and play,” she said, from deep within the cloud.
He saw the sign as soon as he stepped out through the front door.
‘THIS WAY’, it said. It was shaped like an arrow pointing to the right. A bird sat on top of it. It was bright blue. The bird, not the sign. Although, he noticed, the sign was blue too. With yellow letters.
“This way to what?” he asked the bird.
The bird said nothing, but hopped a couple of hops along the top of the sign.
“You don’t know, do you?”
The bird said nothing.
“Is it that you don’t know, or is it just that you’re a bird, and birds can’t speak?”
“It’s just that I’m a bird, and birds can’t speak,” said the bird.
“That’s what I thought,” said the boy.
“Well, I guess I’ll go and see what’s this way.”
“And anyway, birds can speak. Parrots can say ‘Lucy want a cracker’.”
“It’s ‘Polly want a cracker’.”
“I don’t know any parrots named Polly.”
“Do you know any parrots named Lucy,” asked the boy.
“Do you know any parrots at all?”
The boy walked in the direction indicated by the sign. There was a path, flat and winding, that seemed to invite him to follow it.
The bird fluttered along beside him. It was now yellow.
“Weren’t you blue?” asked the boy.
“Maybe a little melancholy,” agreed the bird.
“Now you’re yellow.”
“Them’s fightin’ words,” said the bird.
There was another sign ahead. “STILL ON THE RIGHT TRACK”, it said. It pointed to the right.
“That’s encouraging,” said the boy.
They stopped in front of the sign.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” asked the boy.
“Compared to what?” asked the bird.
“Not compared to anything. Just do you think I’m beautiful?”
“That’s kind of like a piece of string asking me if I think it’s long. I’d have to know something about the length of all of the other strings in its life.”
They walked on.
“What’s your name?” asked the bird.
“Nivek,”said the boy.
“What?” said the bird.
“What kind of name is Nivek?”
“It’s Kevin backwards. I was originally called Kevin, but when I was small my mother decided that Kevin was too common. It didn’t reflect well on her creativity, she said. It didn’t let the world know that she was special, she said. She used the word ‘bourgeoise’, though I don’t know what that means. So she changed it.”
“What did your father say?” asked the bird.
“I don’t think she consulted him.”
“Which do you prefer?”
“Kevin it is, then,” said the bird.
“And what’s your name?” asked Kevin.
“Nivek,” said the bird.
“No, it isn’t.”
“Of course it isn’t,” said the bird. “I don’t have a name.”
“Because I’m a bird. Birds don’t have names.”
“That’s true. It’s Lucy.”
They walked on.
“Are you beautiful?” asked Kevin.
“Yes,” said the bird.
“How do you know?”
“‘Cause I’m a bird.”
“And all birds are beautiful?”
“Ostriches aren’t beautiful.”
“Say that to an ostrich. It wouldn’t end well. Have you ever been walloped by an ostrich?”
Kevin scratched his chin and thought for a moment. “Not that I remember,” he said.
“You’d remember an ostrich-walloping,” said the bird.
“Well, walloping or not,” said Kevin. “Ostriches aren’t beautiful.”
“Hold a beauty pageant for ostriches’” said the bird, “and I’d bet all the worms in the world that an ostrich would win.”
Kevin stopped walking, and looked at the bird. “You’re green,” he said.
“As green as something jealous being jealous about something,” said the bird.
“Weren’t you yellow?”
“Not that I remember.”
They walked on.
“Shouldn’t there be another sign soon?” asked Kevin.
“There’s one ahead,” said the bird.
“That’s not a sign. It’s a... I don’t know what it is.”
As they approached the not-a-sign it revealed itself to be a man. But not just a man - a man wrapped in pictures. On top of his head was a metal cap, and attached to the cap was a cage of metal tubing, and attached to the metal tubing were pictures. Many pictures. They were all in wooden frames, and all arranged to faced in towards the man’s face. Through the spaces between the pictures Kevin could see that the man’s face was battered, bruised and bandaged.
“Are you beautiful?” Kevin asked the man
“What’s it to you?” said the man.
“Just asking,” said Kevin. “So, are you?”
“I was,” said the man.
“But not any more?”
“No, not any more.”
Kevin tried to see the man’s face more clearly, but the pictures blocked the way.
“What are those?” he asked.
“Pictures of me,” said the man.
“Why do you have pictures of yourself all over your head?”
"To block out the world's ugliness"
Kevin tried to make out what was in the pictures, but he could only see the backs of their frames.
“And you’re more beautiful than the world around you?”
“I was,” said the man.
“But not any more.”
“No, not any more.”
“What happened?” Kevin asked the one eye, purple and puffy, that he could see clearly through a gap.
“That ugly, stupid world kept tripping me, and making me fall into things,” said the man. “Now I’m scarred and stitched, and battered and bruised.”
“Maybe you keep falling over because you can’t see where you’re going.”
“No, it’s the world’s fault. It knows that I won’t look at it because I am - or was - more beautiful, and it wants to hurt me.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to take the world as it is,” asked Kevin, “and try to appreciate what’s all around you?”
“What’s the world ever done for me?” asked the man. “I wouldn’t give it the time of day.
And before you ask, I don’t think much of you either. Or your stupid bird.”
He turned and began to walk away from Kevin and the bird, wobbling back and forth like a drunken hippo.
“And I’ll always be beautiful in the pictures, which is more than I can say for you,” he called back to them, and then fell into a ditch.
Kevin, watched by the bird, helped the man back to his feet. The man staggered away without thanking him.
Kevin and the bird walked on.
“Do bruises and scars and bandages make someone ugly?” asked Kevin.
“You’re asking me?” said the bird. “How would I know. I’m a bird.”
“He seemed to think that they do,” said the boy.
“And do you think they make someone ugly?” asked the bird.
“No, but I’m just a boy. He’s a grownup.”
“He didn’t strike me as a very good role model.”
“Still, I’m always supposed to listen to my elders.”
“I think that should depend entirely on what those elders have to say.
“Are you older than me?” asked Kevin.
“Are we talking bird-years or boy-years? Either way, I’m probably older. Why do you want to know?”
“If you’re my elder, I’m supposed to listen to you about not necessarily listening to my elders.”
“Then I’m older, and I say that that man was definitely ugly, but it had nothing to do with bandages or bruises. I don’t think bandages or bruises ever have much to do with beauty or ugliness.”
Kevin pondered this as they walked on.
They came to a fork in the path. There were two signs this time. The one pointing to the left said “YOU LOOK TIRED. THIS IS THE QUICKEST WAY HOME”, while the one pointing to the right said, DON’T LISTEN TO HIM. YOU’RE MAKING GREAT PROGRESS. KEEP GOING THIS WAY”.
Kevin studied the signs, then said, “I am tired. Think I’ll go home,” and took the left path.
“Well, that’s a surprise,” said the bird, fluttering after him. “I thought for sure you would keep going.”
They walked on.