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art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson

Spellsketching

Vylar Kaftan has published several dozen short stories in such places as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and COSMOS, as well as an Incan Empire alternate history novella in Asimov's. She was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2011 for her short story, "I'm Alive, I Love You, I'll See You in Reno". Four years ago, she founded FOGcon, a science fiction convention in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs at vylarkaftan.net and tweets as @vylar_kaftan.

This is Vylar Kaftan's second appearance in Daily Science Fiction.
I figured the new boy would have trouble making friends. He sat alone on a swing, holding his open sketchbook and chewing on a yellow pencil. Around him, other children played tag, climbed on the jungle gym, or scrambled aboard the school's pride--an elaborate wooden fort with towers, rope ladders, and a playhouse. The whole community had built the fort with locally donated funds, and it still smelled like new wood. The boy squinted, looked at the fort, and started drawing. He reminded me of myself years ago, on other playgrounds in dozens of places.
I wasn't usually a playground monitor. The art teacher was out with chicken pox, of all things, so I'd volunteered for her shift. I felt awkward with older kids. The fifth and sixth graders grew up a lot faster than I remembered. Three of the girls wore mascara, and I'd already stopped a bra-snapping incident involving ten-year-olds. When the game of tag turned into tackle, I broke it up, wishing for the safety of my kindergartners' finger painting.
After things calmed down, I visited the swings to see what the boy was sketching. When I approached, he tucked the pencil behind his ear and hugged the book. I got the feeling someone had taken it away before. Probably more than once.
He stared at me. I tried to look harmless. "It's all right," I said. "You're not doing anything wrong. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
He was a small kid, but maybe ten or eleven--with golden-brown skin, rusty brown curls tight against his head, and long-lashed black eyes that most girls would kill for. He'd be a heartbreaker in a few years, but right now his legs had grown faster than the rest of him. His feet dusted the dirt beneath the swing. He pushed against the ground, rocking slowly.
I sat in the swing next to him and stretched my legs out. I walked forward a few steps, then back. Even if I'd tucked my legs all the way underneath me, the swing was set too low. "I know you're new here. That's hard sometimes."
He nodded, staring at the line my feet made in the dirt.
I smiled at him. "I'm Ms. Dayton. I'm pretty new here, too. I've only been teaching for two years. What's your name?"
"Kevin," he said, looking away.
"Well, Kevin, welcome to Harrison Elementary. Where are you from?"
"Texas. Before that, Arizona, and then Ohio and Michigan."
I raised an eyebrow. "You're very well-traveled."
He shrugged. "My ma likes to move."
"That's tough," I said, remembering my own childhood in a military family. We moved all the time. I'd missed my Christmas concert solo, a free trip to the White House, and my first prom date--not to mention all the half-finished art projects my mom had thrown away. I still missed that mosaic I'd made with seashells and beach treasure. I wrapped my hand in the swing's chain, smelling the familiar rust. "Grown-ups are easier to move than kids are."
He grinned, showing crooked teeth. "Yeah," he said. "Ma gets a new job when she moves. She's happy for a few weeks anyway."
"Isn't she happy later?"
"No," he said, scuffing the ground with his sneaker.
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said as kindly as I could, saddened by his unspoken tale. Shouts from other children carried across the playground. I glanced up, then returned my attention to Kevin. "What are you drawing?"
"I ain't drawing."
"Oh? What are you doing then?"
It probably helped that I didn't correct his grammar. He stopped his swing abruptly and dug his feet into the dirt. "Spellsketching."
I smiled. When I was his age, I'd invented a language that only princesses and fairies could speak, called Selarian. You only found Selaria when you least expected it, like Narnia or Oz. I wrote about two hundred words of the language in a green spiral notebook that I kept under my bed. Of course the words I spoke weren't really Selarian; they were the closest approximations that my non-royal human tongue could make. I gave up on Selarian when I finally realized how useful prepositions were and how I never remembered the ones I created. The notebook had vanished during one of our many moves--probably in that box that got lost on the way to Miami.
"That sounds very important," I told him.
"It is," he said solemnly. "There's only a few of us got to do it."
"A few of who?" I asked, but he turned away and looked at the chain-link fence. Cars sped past on the other side. A child shrieked inside the fort's playhouse, loud enough to carry through the plastic door. I smelled someone burning trash nearby.
"So what were you spellsketching?" I asked him.
"The fort."
"May I see it?"
He considered me, studying my face. I'm thirty and look ten years younger, which makes me seem more like a big sister than an adult. He offered me his sketchbook.
I must've worked myself into an imaginative frenzy, because I expected to see the accuracy of a young Rembrandt. Instead I saw dark smudges evoking an oblong object. Striped lines faded to the vanishing point. Strong slashes leaped arrow-straight like porcupine quills in all directions. Triangular turrets completed the chaotic spiky effect.
I glanced up at the wooden fort, neatly constructed and painted like a castle. Then I looked past the fort at the dumpster against the school's wall. In front of it stood a discarded cardboard box, large enough to crawl into. I recognized the proportions. Suddenly I longed for my own sketchbook, which was in my desk, and thirty minutes of recess to do as I pleased.
"I like the towers," I told him.
He beamed. "Yeah. They grow into the ground and the sky and the walls and everywhere. I thought it was wrong at first, but I looked again, and they're like that."
"Picasso always said you should draw what you see."
He nodded and looked too shy to say anything.
The bell rang, and the other kids headed inside. I handed the sketchbook back to Kevin. "You keep spellsketching," I said. "You're talented."
"Yeah?" he asked, his eyes shining.
I noticed the soles were falling off his sneakers. His toes stretched against his shoes like they might escape. That decided me. "Yeah. In fact, why don't you stop by Room 103 after school? I'll give you some colored pencils if you want."
"I don't see colors so good."
"No worries. I've got better pencils. HB, 6B, charcoal..."
He grinned. "Okay." His smile was thanks enough. He jumped off the swing and ran toward the school.
That afternoon, I waited for him to show up, but he didn't. Surprised, I propped the pencils against the classroom door as I locked up. I went home and made mac and cheese--gotta love a teacher's starting salary. I added hot dogs and Parmesan cheese so I could pretend it was something Italian. I turned on the TV, but kept flipping channels, so instead I re-read the first Narnia book. For a few short hours, I half-believed again--in magic and the lion, like they were as real as my cheap apartment. But it was never the same as my first reading, age ten, when I was sure Aslan would walk right out of my closet door.
When midnight came, I turned out the light and tried to make myself sleep. I used a trick from childhood: See the waters rising around my bed. The bed floats. A clear glass shield forms over me like a dome. I'm alone in my boat on a vast ocean, bobbing up and down, sailing from a forgotten origin to an unknown destination.
Later that week, on my morning break, I saw Kay Mazzone in the teacher's lounge. We rarely talked, but she taught fifth grade. Even if Kevin wasn't in her class, she'd know him. All the teachers in our school traded kids for our breaks. The lounge had peeling paint and scratched linoleum, like most of the classrooms, plus an old Formica table and chairs covered with unscrubbable stains. I wished the room had more windows. Kay microwaved water in a coffee mug while I taped finger paintings to the wall.
"Why do you do that, anyway?" she asked as she opened a packet of instant tea.
I looked at the paintings. Primary colors swirled on each page. I'd put up artwork from each of my students: twenty pages, five by four, like a paper crazy quilt. Each square had a different name in uneven block letters. "It brightens this room up a lot."
"So would some budget for fixing the lights," she said with a snort. The microwave beeped and she opened it.
"And besides, my kids will be your kids in a few years," I said, smoothing out the creased papers.
"Well, except the ones that move away." A chair creaked as she sat down at the table. The room smelled like bitter tea.
I turned around, holding my roll of tape. "I met the new boy. Kevin. Is he yours?"
"Yeah. Never says a word. Has nice handwriting though, which most boys don't. Hey, you know--it does look sort of like modern art when you hang them together like that."
"It's wonderful," I agreed. "There's such beauty in what these kids do. It's like they each have their own unique style, but it taps into the same universal creativity. A world beyond this one. You know?"
She blew her nose into a Kleenex. "It beats the fifth graders. At least your kids still do their own thing. Mine draw unicorns and rocketships and that's about it. I'm glad I can send them off to art class instead of dealing with it."
I dropped my tape. She didn't seem to realize what an awful thing she'd just said. She took a pack of nicotine chewing gum out of her pocket and said, "So did you read the paper this morning? Looks like the Academy Awards all went to the big studios."
"Kay, why did you become a teacher?" I blurted.
"Hmm? Oh, my mother was a teacher, and I liked how she had summers off to take me swimming. I figured I'd do that for my kids, except then Mr. Mazzone decided to run off with someone younger and blonder. How about you?"
"I was always happy in school," I said, troubled. "I wanted to stay here all the time. I got my degree and worked some office jobs, but I missed school. So I decided to teach. It's not really the same."
She laughed and said, "There's been other teachers like you, don't worry. Too much art, not enough reading and math. Give it a few years and you'll be wearing those jumpers with apples on the pockets."
I owned an apple-pocket jumper, which I hadn't worn since I lost twenty pounds. "What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing," she said pleasantly. "If someone's really happy with what they do, I think it's fine to keep their world small. Doing what you love is really important. It's just hard when you have a mortgage. Did you hear about the rising interest rates?"
I left the lounge, hoping never to have a mortgage, kids, or cynical outlook like hers.
I saw Kevin twice in the next week, but didn't have a chance to talk to him. On Tuesday, the kickball game turned into a fistfight. On Thursday, I caught four sixth-graders smoking a joint. We all ended up in the principal's office talking to cops for an hour. When the cop asked me for the third time exactly which kid had possession, I closed my eyes and wished myself elsewhere--back to the childhood I remembered, where kids were innocent.
When the bell rang after my afternoon kindergarten session, I was glad to leave. Maybe I'd call in sick tomorrow. I headed out the side door, car keys in hand, looking up at the white feathery clouds above the playground. My path took me past the trash zone. The dumpster was empty and Kevin's box was gone. I glanced at the swingset. Kevin sat on a swing, with one foot propped against his backpack and his sketchbook in his lap.
I stood there, keys dangling. Then I shoved them in my pocket and went back inside. I got my sketchbook and joined Kevin, who glanced up as I approached. He was using the pencils I'd left for him. I sat on a swing, took out my colored pencils, and flipped the page. Years of art classes helped me knock out a quick sketch of the fort: the white flags on the towers, the platform bridge, the plastic spiral slide. The sketch came out well--the slide looked wrong, but the flags seemed to flutter on my page, as if I'd captured the wind. Not bad.
I looked over at Kevin, whose spellsketch resembled a feathery winged man with an airy sword. I had no idea what he was looking at. The figure leaped across the page like he might slash it with his weapon and escape. I stared at my own sketch, seeing it for what it was--an accurate drawing with no imagination. Frustrated, I added random turrets to the fort's towers, capping them with pink and silver striped domes. It just looked worse.
But what did I see? I closed my eyes and visualized kids playing on the fort. I heard their shouts from the kickball fight. I smelled the joint. I opened my eyes, grabbed a pencil, and shaded the skyline with red haze. With the black pencil, I hashed heavy lines like window bars across the sky. I still didn't think I was spellsketching. Kevin's work was raw and natural in a way mine wasn't. Angry, I drew a red dragon in the sketch's upper corner, detailing each scale as I'd been trained in my art classes. The dragon looked great, like something from a book cover. I gave it giant gold wings and black curved talons. Its wings spanned the sky over the fort, blocking the sun. It felt like I was trying too hard.
Kevin leaned over to look. I wanted to hide it, embarrassed of my mishmash attempts. He frowned. I thought he'd ask what had gone wrong, but he just said, "Is that what you see?"
"Yes. Well, some of it. I see a lot of things."
"The dragon looks like you made it up."
"It's my imagination," I said. "People see different things. What do you see?"
"Cloud warriors," he said, "but that's my spellsketching."
Those sounded neat. Much better than anything I'd thought of. "Can I have cloud warriors too?"
He shrugged. "Dunno. Maybe if you see them." He looked at the sky, where the wind moved the clouds. Now I recognized his subject. I used to cloudwatch all the time, before I'd obscured the pictures with words: cirrus, troposphere. I looked up, trying to see the warriors. I supposed one cloud might be a hill.
"Want to try another one?" I asked.
"I gotta go."
"It's okay. We'll do this again. Would you like to meet after school tomorrow?"
He looked confused, like he wanted to say something but couldn't decide how. "Next time," he said, "you gotta spellsketch what's there, not what you wish for. Else you get trouble."
"Okay," I said, slowly.
"Bye now."
"Thanks, Kevin."
Kevin got off the swing, shouldered his backpack, and left. His swing kept moving after he'd gone, like a pond rippling from a stone. Disappointed, I set my sketchbook down and walked to the fort. I climbed the rope ladder, my too-large feet snagging in the gaps, and bounded across the bridge in three steps. I went down the slide, knocking loose a spray of woodchips. The wind grew colder. I ducked into the fort's playhouse and pulled the door shut.
The playhouse was dark. Light filtered through the planks, drawing thin stripes on my arms and legs. I touched the wall and traced the cracks. My fingertips pressed against the unyielding wood. There was nothing for me, nothing as an adult in this world, and no amount of wishing would return me to the beginning.
I kicked the walls, wanting to break them. I spun in circles until I got dizzy. I could never go back. The playhouse seemed larger than it was, like a place where I could lose myself. I stumbled against the planks, following the lines as if they could help me. The cracks shrunk to slits at the vanishing point. Behind me lay darkness.
I stopped moving, but felt myself traveling. I knew this was real--the magic I'd always hoped for. A breeze touched my face. A faint glow appeared like a lighthouse at sea. I ran toward it, my heart pounding with excitement and hope. A silver arch rose before me, like a forgotten dream. I knew this place somehow. I'd been here before, but not any time I remembered. I passed through the arch. The light brightened like a stage.
I stood in a great hall with spiderweb pillars and gemstone draperies. The air smelled like salt water. The marble floor rolled like the ocean. Through the windows I saw my striped domes on the turrets--gaudy sculptures reaching pink against the pale blue sky. Before me stood a dark-haired woman with glittering wings. Her shining gown trailed around her like running water in a thousand colors. She set a crown on my head and spoke a language I felt I'd always known, but I didn't understand her.
Selarian, I thought stupidly, she's speaking Selarian.
I couldn't answer. I looked behind me, but the arch was gone. She grasped my arm and led me to the window. Below us stretched a vast sea without end. A glass dome covered us. Faint mist reddened my vision. My heart sank as I saw the black bars I'd drawn in the sky. She handed me a fragile shield of seashells. It's too late now. It's been too late for years. The boat only goes one direction, and I've forgotten what I need to know.
At the glass's edge, the dragon approached. I raised my shield against the cloudless sky.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 24th, 2014


I wrote this story from my own personal grief over the unalterable passage of time.

- Vylar Kaftan

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