Listening to Beautiful Darkness

Waking from the Nightmare

auroradescendingintomaturity

A little girl awakens in an autumn wood. She stands, looks up through the red-orange fire of the leaves to see a small patch of white sky. Then she brushes the leaves from her cardigan and walks out of the frame.

Someone screams.

The idyll is broken. We’re back in the nightmare forest in the middle of Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness, where a host of tiny creatures struggle for survival.

The scream came from one of the creatures, a feral sort of china doll with an enlarged head, who eats maggots and eventually comes to live in the rotting skull of the very girl from the dream. Feral china doll wakes up grunting, “Nightmare . . . Nightmare!” as if we’re the weirdos for having hoped that the book thus far had been the dream, that the girl was not dead but dreaming the graphic novel’s bizarre horrors.

I’ll admit that the first time I read Beautiful Darkness, I found it morbidly fascinating but too unpleasant to enjoy. I granted, with many online, that the artwork was gorgeous and dramatic, and that the plot was a kind of feminist anti-fairy tale. Still, I felt it demonstrated a kind of casual nihilism I see in lots of contemporary horror.

Then we had a presidential election, and half the country thought they were in a nightmare. The other half said they’d been in a nightmare, themselves, for too long. A host of conservatives screamed, “I told you so” to a liberal consensus. With deep pain and frustration in their voices, they moaned, “You didn’t listen!”

I don’t know how to process the complexities of the divide in this country. I don’t know that I listened well enough, or that, with what light I was given, I used what platforms I had to advocate enough for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Or that it would have made any difference.

But I know I want to listen better, for what it’s worth. And I can start not only with those around me but with this book. How can it change me?

Inside Out

nightmareI have come around to believing Beautiful Darkness works as a disturbing critique and warning about the primitive evil that lingers beneath our trite civilities.

The bizarre premise involves the humanoid citizens of a young girl’s imagination escaping her body after she dies, mysteriously, in the woods. Aurora, the fantasy embodiment of the girl herself, takes charge of feeding and housing the refugees, blithely promoting principles of fairness and generosity.

It soon becomes apparent that everyone is prepared to profit from Aurora’s leadership, but no one really shares her values. Rather, each character proves a creature of whim, appetite, and even violent instinct. Those that show any ability to deliberate use their reasoning powers to manipulate others for their own gain.

In the end, Aurora has to decide how best to deal with this host of dangerously destructive imps that seem to keep following her around.

The book is all about people’s blithe indifference to one another’s suffering. Worse, it’s sometimes about direct violence and society’s willingness to shrug it off if there’s something more entertaining to do. One large character literally eats a smaller one. A bystander says, “What did you just do?” but the large creature says, “Wanna play? Look, it’s like I’m pregnant!” and a person’s death becomes a perverse joke.

Characters steal from one another. They torture insects. They kill animals that had previously helped them, then eat their raw flesh. Betrayal is casual, murder is the stuff of games. It’s Lord of the Flies meets Strawberry Shortcake. Except all the Pastry People keep smiling and playing their baked-goods games.

It’s disturbing to think that the “big” folks in our society might consume the “little” ones, in more subtle ways, and somehow the rest of us would be complicit in laughing at it.

Teach Your Children Well

sohungryThis book does not try to force a message, and there’s no happily ever after in sight. The death and loss are too isolating, and Aurora’s hope seems to lie in a large human male who is associated with many violent images and may have caused the death of the human Aurora.

One way you can read it is as the human Aurora’s imagination living on after her, and her ego, the creature Aurora, doing her best to negotiate growing up in a world made dangerous by nature and cruel by people. If she overcomes, it is not by remaining purely good but by making hard choices maybe we’d rather she didn’t have to make.

Without anyone to teach her better, Aurora learns to “do what it takes” to survive. That’s a phrase used by self-proclaimed realists to justify morally questionable actions, and Aurora, eventually donning the pelt of a former mouse ally, is en route to becoming a tiny dictator of a world of one.

To see justice in the individual, Plato imagined the person as a city and the parts of the self as its citizens. Here, a child dies before maturing, so the parts of herself are arrested in pre-adolescence. If Beautiful Darkness is a parable of human evil, then it takes a rather banal view of original sin as a child’s lack of empathy, distractibility, and reflexive violence without conscience.

The book thus indicts those traits in ourselves as shamefully immature. How, after all, can we hope to train our children in doing good if we continue to act in any way like children? In an age of parents pouting about their children on social media while police shoot black parents’ children, there may be an audience that needs to feel the grotesque but profound disturbance of a book like this.

And may we each take the fanciful Auroras in our lives by the hand and, rejecting vengeance and rage, lead them down paths of righteousness.

GL banner

Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.

The above images are from the text reviewed here: Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness.

Microbes, Miracles, and Monstrosities

2765274506_049438a5d5_zI’ve always promised myself I wouldn’t work with anything living, a prohibition I applied first when, in high school, I job-shadowed a pathologist and fainted when watching a lung biopsy, fainted when seeing the wall of stored blood, fainted ad infinitum into the twenty-first century.

I couldn’t deal with watching pain, and I hadn’t considered that pathologists work not only with the dead, but with the suffering living, and with blood that is distinctly never where it ought to be. I’ve studied viruses for the past ten or so years, happy to research things that appear alive, yet are simply energized bits of rogue genetic material.

But for the past several months, I’ve been working on a new project, one that focuses on drug-resistant bacterial and fungal infections, and I can’t ignore the new relationships I have with living microbes that, like all of nature, can’t be characterized as good or bad. On the one hand, resistant strains are responsible for 23,000 deaths each year in the US, per the Center for Disease Control, yet their kin also let us digest our food and, back in the day, led to the emergence of an oxygenated atmosphere and all multicellular life. [Read more…]

My HIV Test

By Paul Luikart

CutHere’s something I never told my parents: some years ago I got an HIV test.

I was working and living at a Catholic Worker house in Phoenix, a place I wound up after college. I had a freshly conferred bachelor’s degree in creative writing (not exactly bait for corporate recruiters) and a swirling head full of idealism.

Imagine: I assumed I could save the world. I thought the world could, in fact, be saved, or even that the world had some notion of its need for salvation in the first place.

Among other things, the Catholic Worker had a soup kitchen, and on Saturday nights I was the staff person in charge of making sure the goulash got cooked and served, the local parish volunteers had jobs to do, and that general peace and order were maintained among the guests.

“Guests” was acceptable terminology for the homeless men, women, and kids who shuffled in for dinner, out of the dusty alleys, wearing their tribulations as ripped up jeans and sunburns so bad they’d sometimes turn black. [Read more…]

A Letter To My Sister

SistersEve, my sister
The one who took the fall
Eve, my sister
Mother of us all
Lift up your head
Don’t hide your blushing face
The promised One
Is finally on His way
—Mary Consoles Eve, “Rain for Roots”

You have been my first companion in a lifetime of laughter, quarrels, and confidences. Without you, the oldest of three girls, I would never know what it means to be a little sister, to race down to the end of cul-de-sacs on bikes, to fight kicking and screaming while our mother wept on the stairs.

I would never know what it was like to be defended with more vehemence than we ever directed at each other.

When you were two and I was a newborn, you introduced me to a visitor, walking him up the stairs to my room. “This is John Chester,” you told him, pointing to my crib. My parents thought it was hilarious, you mixing up my difficult name, Christiana. But I think you were disappointed that I wasn’t a boy so you gave me a name, pretending I was one anyway.

I know I’ve disappointed you since then. But you’ve still continued to name me.

I remember the shock on my classmate’s face in junior high, whose crime was talking behind my back; her punishment was an earful from you. I felt just a little sorry for her but also incredulous that you would fight for me. At that moment, you named, to everyone else listening that I was your sister.

I didn’t know much of life without that security. It was a heart lesson about you: that you would constantly surprise me, that you were fiercely loyal to me, even when I didn’t deserve it.

Years later we lived only a few miles apart. I, the single and newly graduated writer living alone in a creepy apartment complex, scared from staying up too late reading the latest Harry Potter. You, the young mother of four small children, up at all hours of the night with kids. And still you rushed to my aid when I called you, terrified, alone, sick in the middle of the night.

You spent the night on my couch.

Now, we are thousands of miles apart and, now I am the mother to my own small children, while your oldest is graduating high school.

When our little sister telephones from Texas, I can hear something in her voice. Her first words display the intricate weaving of a lifetime of shared familial meaning. At first, I think she is going to tell me that our grandmother has died, or that there’s something urgent with our father who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago.

But this time, it’s you.

“She’s in the ER,” our little sister says about you. “But it’s probably just a panic attack.”

Panic is such a mild word for the overpowering sense of falling into darkness and fear that comes with such an episode, as if it could be washed away with a cup of tea and a warm bubble bath.

We are all, three sisters, intimate with such darkness. And you are saddled with the burden of being the oldest daughter in this family who is struggling through the complexities of cancer, dementia, and a shrinking nest.

But this is something worse. At midnight, another call comes from our mother. You haven’t had a panic attack. You’ve had a stroke.

A stroke. At forty years old.

Suddenly the litany of terrible things we only imagined could happen, finally has; the things we have all feared in those darkest moments of panic—pain, sickness, and death—are all possible.

And I am far away, only able to imagine how you feel, how you look in that hospital bed. You can’t use your hand, and even though your speech is slowly returning, the whole right side of your body is numb. I get the updates via text; your friends come to cheer you up. Your youth pastor shares your progress with your listening prayerful world.

Even though I’m grateful so many people are surrounding you, I want it to be me sitting beside you, fighting for you the same way you did for me, staying up late by your bedside.

Maybe you are too gracious and too busy healing to be disappointed with me. But I can’t help feeling like I’ve failed you as I sit thousands of miles away, my prayers, tears, and words the only things I have to offer.

You’ve always taken the fall for your little sisters, taking the brunt of some of the early pain of learning and struggle. As my own oldest daughter lives out an internal urge that I will never understand, this urge to manage her siblings and even, at times, her parents, I see how much pressure you have always lived under.

You truly are the “mother of us all.” From you, I learned about sex, how to fight in marriage, how to mother strong children, how to love with a vehement love.

I can only imagine, sister, your fear that this stroke will unmake you; that your hands and body are moving without your consent. I have nothing to offer you, save to remind you that nothing can really unmake you, except the fear itself. Nothing can un-create what God has knit together in that valiant heart of yours.

Let me be a witness; remember, I have seen you fight. I have felt your fierceness when we were on the floor kicking each other as children. I have seen you fight for me, for our sisterly bond. I feel your love even more now that I’m a mother, knowing that you sacrificed your sleep for your scared, lonely sister.

I have seen your strength mature you into a beautiful lioness.

I know, too, that you are good at renaming. Now, use that strength and rename this cursed stroke:

My sister, the one who took the fall
Lift up your head…
He comes to make his blessings flow
As far and wide as the curse is found
He comes to make His blessings flow

 

Image above is by Laura Betancourt, licensed by Creative Commons.

Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.

GL banner

The Long Regretful Wait

By Tony Woodlief

PhoneMy mother’s quavering voicemail was right: I hadn’t called in a long time. I justified my neglect with the assurance that I’d called on her birthday, I’d called on Mother’s Day, I’d made my dutiful calls even though I suspected she was mad at me. I made them and she didn’t answer.

I hadn’t called in a long time, but goddammit, neither had she.

My mother’s tears always put a knot in my gut. Once as a boy I fell asleep on her bed, and woke to her weeping. On the television were men, some in brown uniforms, some wearing white sheets. They stood shouting in the parking lot of our local library. The next day Mama put a letter in our mailbox, and the newspaper published it.

A week later, angry people were calling our house. Mama argued with some, hung up quickly on others. I beat her to the phone once, and a woman asked: “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?”

Only God knows what my mother would have done to that woman, had she possessed the power to reach through the phone. [Read more…]