Crossing the river on our drive to the station, I noticed a swan and pointed it out to my son.
“They’re beautiful,” I said.
“Yeah, but they can kill you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They attack you with their beaks, or something like that.”
“I have heard that swans are mean.”
“Yeah. Dad, why are some things mean and beautiful?”
My head flooded, like the river below us swelling its banks, my mind swamped with memories of a beautiful face, twinkly eyes, flowing hair, a fine feminine figure—a form attractive to the eye containing a soul repulsive to the spirit, a conundrum of grace and malice, tender looks and steel-tipped stares, sweet smiles and vile treachery, a lovely creature capable of the most intense cruelty.
I thought of the title of a book submitted, unsolicited, to Random House when I worked there over 20 years ago: The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy.
I thought of the theme of Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, illuminated in my first alliterative A+ high school English paper: Outer appearance and inner reality rarely coincide.
I thought about beauty, about what it means to be a beautiful person, to build and lead a beautiful life.
And I thought about ugliness, the ugliness of contempt and hatred, the ugliness of rage and abuse, the ugliness of belittling insults, disparaging remarks, character assassination, withholding of love, the ugliness of inflicting psychological torture, and of punishments incongruous with the crime.
I didn’t have an explanation, other than the eye sees, while the heart feels. The eye can be tricked by an illusion of beauty, while the heart suffers with every struggling beat when clamped in the iron grip of meanness. The eye wants to believe, and the heart wants to ignore, to swell with hope, to pump out the knowledge and fill with the fantasy, to pretend it can live without oxygen, without the lifeblood of love.
The mean and the beautiful coexist, like good and evil, sometimes in the same creature, sometimes in the same moment when hurtful words escape from luscious lips, when a slap flies from a fine-fingered hand, when a kick in the shin is struck by painted toes, when rage twists a handsome face, when well-toned muscles are used to grab, shake, choke, or throw, when a sane smile morphs into the gleeful gloat of demeaning, diminishing, and defeating someone more vulnerable than oneself.
I though of all of this, crossing the river, staring at the swan, white and elegant on the dark water, grooming its feathers, preening, ready to stab with its sharp beak.
“Some people,” I said to my son, “are mean and beautiful, just like the swan.”
A look of understanding passed between us.
And in the silence, the waters receded, and I could once again see the shore.
Originally published on Tom Aplomb