He stood alone.
A silent sentinel, lost in anonymity amongst the hundreds of cedars in the forest.
He stood, twisted and uncomely.
The other trees were of varying sizes and figures, but all were tall and stately.
His grotesque figure and crooked scar set him apart like a leper from the clean – they are both men, but the leper is also not a man.
He stood, knowing that his misery brought no beauty to a beauty-hungry world, yet unable to do other than stand in disfigured solidarity, his crooked tattoo a mute shout.
When the woodsmen came, he prayed that they would take him from this forest where his ugliness was so apparent. The sharp ring of the axe seemed to toll imminent freedom. But when the last tree had fallen and the dying ringing had been swept away in the breeze, his bark remained untouched. Unwanted.
He stood alone, a scarred figure on a scarred landscape.
In his lonely and ignoble existence, it seemed a cruel hand that nurtured beauty in the world around him, exhibiting it before his longing soul, yet never allowing him a taste of the unknown.
The sleek and elegant crane swept by in effortless flight, and it was beautiful.
The silver river gracefully wound its way through the valley below, glinting with liquid shards of sunlight; it, too, was beautiful.
The little sparrow carefully laid her smooth, blue eggs in his crooked branches, and though he could hold such beauty, he could never own it.
The fields bowed their golden heads of grain to the wind, round grapes clustered on curling vines and quivered with the pure joy of life, the sunset flung glorious pastel colours across a canvas sky.
Beauty pulsed around him in relentless, wondrous waves.
It danced in the date palm, tiptoed through the lilies, echoed in the sultry song of the dove.
It was alive and real and utterly unobtainable to him.
He both longed for beauty and cursed it at the same time, and hung his graceless head in sorrow and relief when the night softly covered his scars and shame with darkness.
It was fitting that the one who finally took him away from the desolate landscape was a shrivelled and scarred old man, who picked his way through the forgotten stumps with an equally scruffy mule.
The tree felt no sorrow as the unsightly pair dragged him down the mountain, nor did he feel any joy; the only emotion that clung like a weary stain was emptiness.
In a run-down, lopsided shack, he passively bore the ministrations of the hunched little man. His outer branches were lopped off, and both ends of his trunk were cut roughly with a saw.
He wondered what anyone could want with his battered body. He wished he could be blind to the jagged scar that tore along the length of his frame. But he was all too aware of his own ugliness.
The man began to tear off the rough outer wood from his trunk. Shame overwhelmed him as his naked body was turned to the light. Stripped of his bark, the dark scar was even more obvious.
It was not a deep mark, but years of exposure on the hill, and rain and dirt slowly seeping deep into his tender wound and then drying, had marked him permanently. Not enough to cause him to rot and blissfully perish, but plenty enough that he was forever stained. The mottled colour spread in mismatched patches along the scar, heightening the defect and blemishing the smooth wood hidden underneath.
He stood alone, silent. The huffing old man laboriously cut him down further into coarse beams, rugged planes of wood.
And he knew then; he would never be beautiful.
Is it any wonder that he was the first to hear the ugliness of the voices?
He recognized the familiar trait like an artist recognizes his own brush stroke in a painting.
The voices were loud and demanding, and the crippled old man was swept before them and across the decrepit workshop to yank him away from his post. One beam was laid along the workbench, and the other was hurriedly laid on top and hammered into place with large iron nails. Then the old man gladly handed him over like a dispensable entity, and he was swept away in a harsh sea of malevolence.
Out in the garish sunlight, he was even more aware of his unsightly scar and coarse, unrefined lengths. His ugliness seemed to please the crowd, for it fitted the mood that was throbbing beneath the surface. He saw it in the faces and heard it in the shouts. The scent and sounds of ugliness threaded through the air to settle on him like a disease.
He could not understand the magnitude of this ugliness that clogged the atmosphere, nor why they had added him to the grotesqueness of the scene.
Then he saw the man.
He stood alone.
His face was twisted with pain. Long ragged scars colored his torn robe with red ribbons. Large purpling bruises were rapidly forming lumpy ridges on the smooth, brown cheeks, and his battered eyes were half-shut and leaking tears and dirt.
He stood, twisted and uncomely. The agony rippled through the powerful, muscled body. The anguish poured from the weeping eyes. The crown of ugliness crunched the noble head, tearing holes and caverns that overflowed with the dark red color of pain.
Once, perhaps, he had been a man. Now he was a crippled, maimed mess.
He stood, a remnant of a man. A picture of unspeakable rejection. Ugliness.
Crushed and colored with blood and bruises, the ugliness was reflected in the hateful faces of the crowd and in the rough beam cross that was now thumped onto his shoulders, scar side up.
The man staggered through the streets amidst clods of dirt, streams of spit and the continual poundings of anger and disgust. The tree was sickened by this overwhelming ugliness that mercilessly whipped himself and the broken man. He felt the weight of it as heavily as the man who bore him in painful silence. The ugly silence of the condemned.
They drove the twisted nails into the man and the tree, bonding them in mutual repulsive pain.
The man groaned as they pounded the nails. The tree groaned with him. He had felt unsightly and reprehensible on the hill, but this was a whole new level of hideous existence.
The cross was stretched upright and dropped into the ground with a jarring and final thud. All that is opposite to beauty was now erected on a high hill for the world to see.
The man shuddered. The day was dark. The world was a mess.
The tree swayed under the weight of their hate and despair. He had never dreamed that such ugliness could exist. Or that he could be the epitome of it.
Ugliness was nailed to them both, and they wallowed and writhed in its grip.
Blood and sweat crawled down bark and skin, until both were drenched in the savour of death.
They stood united in their ugly bonds, alone in a multitude. Forsaken. Waiting to be forgotten.
They stood, scarred hands pressed into scarred wood.
The man hung upon the cross. The tree hung the ugliness high.
At their feet, women threw up their hands to God and shook with sobs. They cried out for innocence, and begged for life. They gasped and wept, and poured out their story and their sorrow below the man, the Christ, on the cross.
The tree knew his own sin of ugliness, but now he also knew that this man was innocent of such sin. Of any sin.
He did not know why one of purity must be condemned to die, smothered in a sin that did not belong to him. It did not fit. It did not match the glimmer of beauty that he had seen, was surely just visible under the veneer of ugliness.
This was a man of peace and love. This was a man whom the women called “Lord”.
Yet he hung, beaten and broken, clothed only in rejection and hate.
The sun relentlessly poured fire upon ragged flesh and wood. The seething crowd slapped their blades of hate and cruelty again and again against the helpless pair. The air throbbed with violence and evil, and the crowd punched it in glee, their ugliness shouting with raging voices that drowned out the cries of the women and the groans of the man.
Then all at once, the raucous world fell silent. The pumping fists and cursing mouths fell silent.
The scorching sun fell silent, and darkness swallowed the earth in a sucking gulp.
A shiver crept along the tree and the man, joined as one.
A voice whispered. God whispered. Or was it the wind crying in the eternal night?
But though the tree waited and even dared to hope, nothing changed. The man hung heavy against the nails. The tree felt the blood run down his scarred face like tears.
They stood alone, shrouded in the ugly garment of hell, a monument of death.
A shuddering gasp pierced the gloom and fog like a spear, as the man hauled himself up on shattered arms.
“Father – ” he gasped. And something changed in the darkness. A charge rippled through the air.
The tree was afraid of something, he knew not what, that seemed worse than all the ugliness he had ever known and endured.
“Father – ” the man’s voice was hoarse and dying, but his spirit rang out strong as he spoke the words, those strange and shocking words, to the ugliness. For the ugliness. Despite the ugliness.
The man bore everything the ugliness had forced upon him, and offered back the words that broke all it stood for.
A final breath shuddered from the wracked body. “Father – forgive them… For, they know not…what they do.”
The sudden explosion burst upon the tree, now frozen in terror and wonder.
For the words had changed everything, and suddenly he was overwhelmed by the sheer power of the beauty that he glimpsed in that second – that split second when two worlds collided and he saw through the open door.
It was brilliant and dazzling. It flashed through the night like stars, and draped itself across the world like a sunset cloud, caressing and blessing. It was invisible, unseen, and yet more real than anything had ever been.
He saw the world, the man, himself the cross, and the indescribable beauty of them all.
The ugliness was mysteriously lost.
Eternally extinguished like a whimpering candle.
Overpowered and overcome.
He stood alone. He stood in beauty.
It had irretrievably exploded into being, giving life to the hope that now coursed through the veins of mankind.
He stood, twisted and uncomely, and perfect.
Miraculously birthed amidst the ugliness of pain and suffering and darkness, beauty had been set free.
He knew. He had carried it into the world.
It was finished. It was unfathomable and unthinkable. Wondrous and glorious and forever.
© Emma McGeorge