The following personal response is a short story, initially inspired by a symbol in Alden Nowlan’s “The Glass Roses,” but built upon by Sergeant Nibley’s epilogue regarding the Holocaust, in which he presents an invigorating question: “is it possible a picture so hideous and painful can be such a beautiful portrait of human love and dignity?”
I don’t believe the beauty of humanity is palpable only in a painting of the overwhelmingly hideous and painful. That is when we seek it, yearn for it, perhaps. That is when, caged by the heinousness of the world, do all acts of love and dignity stimulate a deeper recognition of beauty and set us free.
But really, beauty exists perpetually. Without it, there could not be the ugly, just as without evil good could not prevail. It is always within reach, always coexisting, if we so choose to seize it.
In times of brutality, the human capacity to be complacent can be unsettling. Yet, it is in such moments of understanding and tolerance, that the world slows down and allows equilibrium to be re-established.
I stared at the man’s contorted, twisted face. At his young daughter: her radiant, innocent manner. Both clad in ragged clothes, both playing a mellow, melodic smile on their lips. Inadvertently, I looked away.
He was a street vendor. For as long as I had come to this corner of the block, his cart had been present, brimming with glass roses he handcrafted and sold for a decent price. Unlike his demeanor, his cart brought wonderment to the eyes of any observer. It was beautifully painted, shades of red, yellow, pink— intertwining to create a captivating abstract scene undecipherable, yet
beckoning. It seemed out of place against the grimy, polluted street, against his unsightly appearance, but welcomingly so. Like his cart, the glass roses too drew even the sturdiest of men to tears. They were immaculately designed, each petal so delicately mimicking the real thing. After all these years, I too was moved by their beauty.
There were variations of two kinds of proceedings that I had seen occur:
As long as an unconcerned customer, allured by the grandeur of the display, intended to simply purchase, all would go smoothly.
However, the curious observer, the keen kind who wished to question the processes involved in creating such flawless designs: how long it took to construct, what materials were used, or something of this sort, would often hinder the transaction.
You see, the man was a dwarf. His face heavily scarred, a limp prominent in his walk. A good man perhaps, but what he was seen for was his appalling appearance. And as soon as a potential customer lay eyes on him, they were visibly conflicted. The man would be kind, gentle, persuasive—like any good businessman should be. The customers couldn’t help it, he knew, and I knew. To contain their stupefied expressions would be to overcome a reflexive response, and so they would flee the scene, from either embarrassment at their reaction or fear of the disfigured man.
Sadly, the man lost numerous buyers this way. After such an incident, his daughter’s face would be plastered with an array of understanding emotions, profoundly contrasting the ones presented by the customers. She would reach her petite arms around his stocky body, angrily murmuring about the incompetence of the buyers, and a smile would once again creep up onto his face.
He was unhearing of the things that were said about him. Where I sat on the street, though, I apprehended every envious string of words, every taunting agitated stab, aimed at the man and his
daughter. He was useless, they said, only surviving because his work was decent. Only allowed onto the bustling street because his cart attracted customers, he himself was a monster. His daughter probably wasn’t even his daughter, too pretty, too useful. And recently, he had started to scare off more buyers than he attracted. Something was to be done about this, they said: soon.
Soon came too early. I had barely settled into my spot on the street a few days later, when I looked across to witness several other vendors punching the poor man to the ground. Along with him fell his cart: dozens of brilliantly coloured roses shattered; their delicacy diminished alongside the numerous hours of hard work. Every time the man was pushed, he got back up. His daughter ran, flustered, to scavenge any unbroken roses, yet winced as shards made their way into her skin. She shared a glance with her father as he suffered blows apathetically: the father’s encouraging and tolerant, the daughter’s filled with fury and vexation. I too felt my blood boil. How could the man be okay with this fate?
Eventually, the vendors grew tired of the man and made their way back to their carts, satisfied. The daughter hurried to her father, silent tears invading the dimples in her cheeks. Beaten and bruised, her father managed a smile, and reached his stocky arms around her petite body.
Laying amidst his broken work, for once, he was the one emanating beauty.