Beauty is the Battlefield

I.

It was January when Marie first discovered the star shop.

At a quarter past five she emerged from her office, all bundled up in a long coat, carrying a dark grey satchel. She crossed the hall to the elevator, rode down seven flights to the lobby, and pushed through the spinning glass doors out into the city. The evening light glimmered on the skyscrapers that towered along either side of the street. Around her, big diamond-like flakes made slow pirouettes in the air, arousing the twittering delight of a little songbird, tucked away in the inmost chamber of her heart.

Usually, Marie walked directly from her office to the train station, rode the pink line five stops west, and walked two blocks from the station to her flat. But this Friday evening, the twittering little bird urged her to linger a little longer in the city. So rather than turning left on Augusta, she set out weaving a new way through the lighted streets in the general direction of the station.

After turning several corners, she found herself peering down a narrow shopping strip, set back from the general bustle of LaSalle. Something in the aura of it intrigued her, so she ventured a few steps down the street. A neon green light flashed the words LAI THAI over a dimly lit restaurant parlor. Beside the restaurant was a bookstore, unfortunately closed. She squinted to read the titles of the books in the dark window, but the light from the sun was nearly gone and the words were difficult to make out. As she turned back towards the street, another storefront caught her eye. In the window hung a shimmering cluster of glass stars, reflecting brilliant rainbows onto the snow outside. She quickly crossed the street and climbed the two concrete steps to the green shop door. A bell tingled as she pushed it open and stepped into the shimmering light of the stars.

She unwound her scarf and looked round the room with wide eyes. It was an empty room—empty except for the myriads of stars that hung from the ceiling, each star a uniquely shaped arrangement of glass prisms, reflecting light of all colors onto the ceiling, floor and walls. The air from the door had disturbed the stillness in the room, and all the stars spun slowly on the cool breeze making fluttering rainbows all around her. Marie dropped her satchel and began to dance on the hard wooden floor amidst the starlight, and as she did so the little songbird in her heart threw back its head and sang.

The melodious song floated through the shop, at last reaching the glassmaker where he sat in his workshop, carefully sketching the skeleton of a star onto a cube of unpolished glass. At the sound of the bird’s enchanting music, he set his pencil down on the long worktable, and rose to see what kind of creature had entered the shop.

She was startled out of a gentle glissade when the back door of the shop opened and the man, still cradling the glass cube in his hand, stepped into the room. He was not too tall. His face was young. He hadn’t shaved in several days and the stubble softened an otherwise pronounced jaw.

“May I help you?” he asked gently, sorry that the music suddenly ceased.

“Are you— Is this your shop, sir?” she asked, brushing the curls away from her eyes.

“Yes, ma’am, it is.”

“Tell me,” she said, taking a step toward him, “do you make these stars, then? And if you do, why do you make them?”

“Why do I make them?” repeated the shopkeeper, smiling. “I make them because they are beautiful. Isn’t that reason enough?”

“Of course,” she laughed. “Dostoyevsky says,” she sparkled under the star light, “that beauty is the battlefield wherein God and the devil fight for the souls of men. And what’s more, he says that beauty will save the world. I’m sure he is right,” she added, as if her own pronouncement established the validity of the great man’s claim.

“Of course.” he echoed. “What’s your name, Miss?”

“Marie.” She curtsied.

“It’s good to make your acquaintance, Marie. I’m François. You must come back and visit my shop again.”

“Thank you, I will,” she replied.

When Marie arrived back at her flat late that evening, she hummed as she chopped potatoes for a warm winter chowder. As she stood over the stove, stirring the simmering pot of soup, she closed her eyes and swayed back and forth remembering the thrill she had felt when she danced under the starlight.

The following day when she left the office, she decided to retrace her path from the evening before. Once again, the Thai restaurant tempted her, a closed sign hung in the bookstore window, and the light of the stars drew her up the concrete steps, through the green door and into the star shop. And when she danced under the starlight, the little bird in her heart threw back its head and sang.

II.

It was February when François first danced with Marie on the hard wooden floor under the light of the stars.

In the earliest days when she came and danced, François would emerge from the workshop sanctuary and stand quietly in the doorway, watching her with silent admiration. But one Wednesday evening when she stepped inside the shop and unwound the great wool scarf around her head, the songbird in her heart began to sing something rather like a waltz. So Marie waltzed with her eyes closed, her arms hovering in the air, gently following the lead of an invisible partner. And in that moment, François felt keenly jealous of the invisible partner, and so found himself catching her in the middle of an underarm turn, and slipping his hand over her waist and they danced out the rest of the waltz together.

It was an exhilarating experience for Marie and the little bird. François himself wondered at the unexpected flutter of pain that he felt in releasing her hand when the waltz died away. But he smiled, because it was a beautiful pain and François loved beauty.

This love was, of course, one of the reasons why Francois devoted himself to the stars—but it was not the only reason. He also made the shining glass stars because they multiplied the light. And François needed the light, because deep in the inmost chamber of his heart was a darkness. In the darkness lived a small but troublesome creature. It was so dark in that chamber that he had never been able to make out what kind of creature it was. Sometimes it scurried quietly, tunneling beneath the foundation of the chamber like a little mole. Other times it glided smoothly like a snake, flicking its tongue and whispering the most loathsome lies.

Usually, when the light of the stars shone near his heart, the dark little creature was pushed back into the far corners, and the light almost overcame the darkness. Other days the darkness seemed all enveloping and it rose up like a great cobra, covering his heart in the shadow of its hood while it whispered to François that there was no light, that there would be no light, and that there could be no light in his heart. In those times, he needed the stars more than ever.

One Friday evening when the little bell tingled and Marie waltzed into the shop, François didn’t hear her come in, because the darkness had grown so very dark that the light of the stars could not reach it. But on that day, when the bird in Marie’s heart threw back its head and sang, the song reached where the light couldn’t, pushing past the snake’s long black shadow.

And so it happened, that on the very dark days when the light of the stars could not overcome the darkness in his heart, the song of the bird in Marie’s heart could always reach a little farther than the light.

III.

It was March when François called Marie to come back into the workshop and help him with a project. He smiled in anticipation of her delight as he described a gift. Together—he said—they would craft a star that could always belong to Marie. He spread out his sketches on the workshop table, and she giggled as she pointed out her favorite one.

Then they selected a largish scrap of glass left over from one of the bigger stars. François sketched the design that Marie had chosen on the surface of the glass, then took a long diamond tipped blade and sliced through the glass along the lightly drawn lines. Next, he gently showed Marie how to run the rough surfaces along a grinder, polishing the newly carved star.

When they were finished, he held up the star to the light, and Marie gasped in wonder at the little ornament. Together they hung the delicate star from the top of the chamber in Marie’s heart over the bird, so that the bird might always sing in the light of the little star. In that moment, both felt sure that dark creature in François’s heart was gone, defeated by the beauty of their light and love.

IV.

It was April when François changed his mind about everything.

The icicles dripped merely from the rafters outside the little shop, when Marie threw open the door that evening and the bird in her heart twittered a half dozen bars of Vivaldi’s Spring.

“Dance with me, François,” she called, “the snow is melting!”

But François did not emerge from his workshop. And when the songbird erupted enthusiastically into an aria, François did not open the door and come out to dance with her. In fact, she could hear him running plane after plane of glass along the grinder. His willful absence dampened the birdsong just a little, and so she knocked on the workshop door and called to him again.

After a pause, he called to her, “I’m busy, Marie. I’ve decided to make a star more beautiful than any I have ever made.”

The bird in her heart twittered.

He called out again, “Could you make it quiet? The music distracts me.”

Confused and disappointed, Marie turned to go. She walked slowly back through the lighted shop and down the city streets to the train station. When she reached her flat that evening, she curled up in the easy chair and rocked back and forth with her eyes closed.

The next day as she went about her tasks in her high city office, she wondered how François would greet her that evening. When she left the office at five, she walked a little slower than usual, savoring the sweetness of the familiar walk with a the same flutter of pain that François had felt the first time he let go of her hand. The shop was empty, as always, when she stepped inside. For a while, she danced alone while the bird sang. But waltzing with an invisible partner no longer seemed quite so satisfying, so she peered through the cracked workshop door at François.

There he was—bent over the workshop table—his lips pursed in deep concentration. He abruptly took two steps backward, surveying the glass structure with a hard expression. He lifted a diamond tipped drill from the table and pressed it hard against the star’s central prism, shaving the glass down to a delicate width. He leaned in, pressing even harder till the projection snapped off the main body of the star. He muttered something incoherent to her, and tossed away the broken shard. It shattered as it landed on the floor. Her heart ached for the discarded glass. But François barely looked down; he strode across the room and lifted a new glass bar from a nearby box.

She called to him once—just his name—but he didn’t answer her. The singular beauty of the star he had fixed in his mind had eclipsed everything else. Marie wondered if some other creature had moved in to fill the void in his heart.

She blinked to keep back the tears, and the bird in her heart was silent. She slowly walked back out to the street, and from there to the train station. Her flat was dark inside when she pushed open the door, so she rummaged around in a kitchen drawer for some matches, and lit a candle on the table. The light of the flame glimmered on the surface of the star that she and François had hung together in her heart. As the light caught itself in the prisms of the star, the little songbird in her heart lifted its head and sang. And Marie dropped to her knees on the floor and sobbed.

V.

It was May, when Marie worked up the courage to explore the city streets again.

After Francois had made clear the exclusivity of his work, Marie reverted to her earliest route from the office to the station. After the numbing train ride home, she would sit quietly in the easy chair rocking back and forth while the bird in her heart sang slow, haunting melodies. She wondered sometimes if she ought to remove the little star that dangled above the bird, but she refused to allow François’s rejection to darken the happy memories that she carried with the star. And besides she wasn’t sure she could take it out even if she wanted to.

As the days got longer, the haunting melodies got shorter and more infrequent. Then one Tuesday evening in May, when Marie pushed out through the spinning office doors, the bird in her heart twittered at the fresh sounds of spring. The sun was still high in the sky. The snow lay in dirty heaps along the sides of the road and freshly melted water trickled down along the curb. The songbird suddenly broke into a sprightly tune. Marie smiled as she wandered in the direction of the station. She could feel the shimmering glow of the star lending its strength to the songbird’s music. And in that strength, she set out tracing a new path through the city in the early evening light.

 

Image Credit: Pascal Campion

3 Comments

  1. Beautiful: and good: but not too good to be true. A gift for the work of healing: of mine: and who knows how many others. There is a Francois within many of us: but also – I pray – a Marie.

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