Last week, I saw the Yeti. Facebook feeds were alive with news of the sightings. I clicked link after link until I landed on a blurry video allegedly shot by skiers at a Spanish resort. The footage is predictably poor, the scene shrouded in mist. Amid the conifers peeking out from the snowy landscape, something could be seen. A figure. Animal-like, at times vaguely anthropomorphic. Shot at a distance and distorted on the extant video, there’s no telling what exactly it might be. My first thought was a large goat, a sheep, a wolf hound, and yet the internet went wild, proclaiming the beast to be the fabled Yeti, a species of fanciful fabrication found mostly in the minds of hucksters and Scooby Doo cartoons. In some tellings, Yeti are the legendary Abominable Snowmen that viciously chased after a red-nosed reindeer, forcing the red-nosed reindeer to flee to The Island of Misfit Toys. In others, they are the ape-like Meh-Teh that terrorize indigenous Himalayan peoples. Pre-Buddhist societies are said to have worshipped the creatures as “Glacier Beings” akin to demigods. Though pursued vigorously by esteemed cryptozoologists, no living example of the species has yet to be captured.
Last night, a friend, the composer Michael Fiday, posted a picture of Pieter Breughel the Elder’s “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap” on Facebook. I had seen images of the painting (c 1565) dozens of times but until seeing it on Fiday’s Facebook page, I never seriously considered its composition. The straightness of the trees, the downward perspective on a Netherlandish village and its villagers skating upon a frozen river, and the distant city on the horizon. The whiteness of the snow and the frozen river upon which the villagers skated, and how the whiteness contrasted with the dark clothing of the skaters.
And the crow in the center foreground! Who can ever forget the ominous crows that hover in all our foregrounds?
Much of Breughel’s other surviving work is horrifying. Consider “The Triumph of Death.” Or “The Fall of the Rebel Angels.” Like Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlandish painters of that era were jonesed up on phantasmagoric perdition. For years though, I thought “Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap” was the exception to Breughel’s didactic allegories. Which is to say, I looked upon it as if it were nothing more than a pretty picture. Or the documentation of contemporary life and leisure pursuits. Yet the more I look at it, I sense something metaphysical going on.
In one sense, freed of phantasmagoric heavy-handedness, it’s an honest picture depicting an honest slice of Netherlandish life. Humanity, in the form of Breughel’s skaters, occupy only a sliver of the picture. The viewer’s eye follows the bend of the frozen river, which leads to the white horizon. Not coincidentally, it is that horizon and what lays beyond it that occupies the greatest portion of Breughel’s canvas. Rightly or wrongly, I read the painting as an aspiration message: he’s showing his readers where they are, and leading their attention to the heavens where they ought to aspire to be.
Years ago, as a high school senior, I edited our school newspaper. Decades later, I can’t remember much about the newspaper stories we ran. One of our reporters knew a freshman girl who drew well. This was at a time when we were struggling to fill an issue. I needed content. Desperately. The girl offered us three drawings. I had been expecting works of outstanding brilliance, yet what she submitted was appalling in it cartoonish simplicity. Technique-wise, the drawings just were not very good. Imagine a child’s line drawing of a house: a rectangle topped by a triangle. That, basically, characterizes what these drawings were. Because we needed to fill space, and because I wanted to be polite rather than abominable, we ran one of the drawings.
To this day though, I remember that drawing. Imagine the line drawing of the house I described above. Imagine that house with a rectangle atop the triangle to signify a chimney. Imagine curlicues of smoke rising from that chimney. Imagine snow falling down upon this scene as thick black dots. Imagine the center of the sky taken up by a caption. Imagine the caption reading, “It’s Snowing.”
I’ve thought about the drawing and its comforting simplicity for decades. I’m thinking about that drawing again today because, here in Blacksburg, it’s snowing again. Looking out the window, my guess is that ten inches have fallen since last night. My kids, who would have been home from school anyways because of the President’s Day holiday, have stayed inside all day, my middle child playing video games while my wife reads to our daughter. Downstairs, my oldest son (16) has been watching YouTube videos of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. My guess is that he wants to be a firework, which is fine by me because, hell, everyone needs a spark of some kind in their life, right?
Tolstoy says that happy families are all alike. Today, we are a happy family. There have been no shouting matches, no petty bickering, no need to hound the kids to clean up their rooms, brush their teeth, do their homework, or stop farting. Yet this is not always the case. Please do not inquire about the details, but some days in my house over the past year have been hellacious.
Earlier, typing the word “Netherlandish,” I was reminded of an Atlantic article about “Neanderthals.” Researchers apparently believe the source of the clinical depression many people fall into lays in the Neanderthal genes in our DNA. Which is a) appalling when you try to visualize the intermingling that occurred among our ancestors to give us our precious Neanderthal DNA, and, b) metaphorically apt. Depression is a hellacious monster. Just ask anyone who experiences it. Or, if they let you inquire about the details, ask the sufferers’ family.
Today, I think of Neanderthals as creatures who were smart enough to bludgeon their prey with blunt instruments but too stupid to master the invention of fire. Monsters. That’s the first word to spring to mind when I consider “Neanderthal.” That the monster of our depressions owes itself to an actual monster is strangely soothing in a metaphorical way.
If each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, it is because we each have separate monsters that we hold dear to our hearts. Or, to put it another way, differing levels of monster DNA coursing through our gene pool. This is what I struggle to portray when I pick up a pen and try to write a short story. We have our own demons running hog-wild through the landscape of our emotions, kidnapping us from our better selves. I once knew a man who, in college, would go out and howl at the moon. He did this, believe it or not, because he wanted to impress women. When I confronted him with how unlikely this would be, he stared me down and said, “But, ahh, you don’t know the kind of woman I hope to attract.”
I have studied the Spanish Yeti video for longer than I care to admit. After much consideration, I believe it to be—shock—a hoax. Someone, most likely operating under the inebriation of a hearty Spanish rojo or the bitingly harsh enthrallment of good grappa, looks to have donned a furry white costume. Monstrously gleeful, this costumed fool prances about the Spanish Pyrenees, howling, the wind at his back gusting through his white fur, the snow on his bare feet. Days after this film went viral, he is probably still suffering the frostbitten consequences of his wild rumpus and the dehydration brought on by pneumonia. Wheezing in a hospital bed and worried about how he can possibly afford the cost of his convalescence, he is too weak to lift his small children onto his lap, too weak to kiss his tearful wife on Valentines’ Day.
Mind you, I am not an expert in hoaxes and fabrications. I am not the man who shot the famed Loch Ness Monster film. Nor have I taken photographs of frisbees and tried to pass them off as documentation of a UFO sighting. I have never taxidermied a jackalope, nor schemed to defraud my fellow countrymen with claims of being a Nigerian banker eager to impart millions of dollars in cash into your bank account. I am not the recorded voice who dials you up at inconvenient moments and announces that you may have won a free Caribbean cruise, but I have written short stories—phantasmagoric stories in which I’ve attempted to explain that our democracy has been high-jacked by corpulent uber-capitalists and an uncaring God. I have attempted to explain how the howls you hear on windy nights come from a very real place inside your heart, your soul, your DNA.