Information must be spoken and heard, transmitted and absorbed. To record knowledge is to bind it, but the process is fraught with peril. The safest way to tame the written word is with an inert substance such as charcoal, but charcoal smudges and smears and fights the most fearsome of fixatives, and it still strains against the page like a living butterfly strains against its pins.
The standard for textbooks is a simple iron gall ink, in a rigid font, on bleached paper, recorded with a thin wooden writing instrument. Even with these precautions, only the most naïve of novices would consider their books safe. Magician’s textbooks hunker on their shelves, crowded with spells from endpaper to endpaper, trembling in their bindings and chains. They patiently await the tiniest slip of an overeager student to spill their contents and reshape reality.
It is far better to teach by speaking, to practice by doing. Wise magicians maintain an oral tradition and leave the textbooks for historical storytelling. Wise magicians know that writing changes the world.
Lesson One: On writing surfaces
When Benedetto finally cracked, he did so in the privacy of his own home. There was no announcement, no humiliating breakdown. He walked downstairs, to the calligramancy workshop that was more home to him than the quarters overhead, and drew all the curtains. He opened the door just long enough to hang a sign from the knob. Closed. Indefinitely.
Surrounded by the tools of his trade, he almost achieved a state of calm, but it was the calm of conviction rather than the calm of clarity. No material was safe from his questing hands. Boxes were upended, drawers rifled, the honeycomb shelves nearly ripped from their brackets.
Sticky plant surfaces like papyrus absorbed the written word, anchored it, held it rigid and denied it the decadent pliability of linens and hides. They were entirely unsuitable for what he had in mind.
He tried traditional paper from pulverized cotton rags, hoping its flexibility and durable nature would prevail, but at the first touch of his pen a discordant sound arose that threatened to shatter his teeth.
Wood pulp papers were out of the question with their rapidly degrading fibers. Benedetto shuddered to contemplate the consequences of such potent decay, no matter the symbolic quality of the source tree. He padlocked that cabinet and threw the key into his yard to eliminate temptation.
For a while it seemed that animal skins were the only solution, given their overt connection to life. He made his own leathers, both alum tawed and tanned. He bathed and stretched and scraped and chalked his own parchment, both sheep and goat. Nothing. Not a tremble of energy, not a hint of success. His workshop reeked of lime and flesh, to no purpose.
For one bleak afternoon he considered acquiring a square of fine white uterine vellum. He made it all the way down to the Laurencos’ ranch, all the way down to the sad little stall where a mother goat was trying to lick clean her stillborn kid. Her back end was still a raw mess. A quivering ball of afterbirth lay forgotten in the drenched and bloodied straw. At the thought of skinning the infant, Benedetto’s hands shook, his gorge rose, and he rushed home to breathe deep of a potpourri bag until calm was restored.
He tried canvasses and rice papers. He painted on silk, on ceramic, on wood. One night, in a drunken and dangerous display, he wrote on his own body. The morning found him frightened and ill, and he scrubbed three times three ways and swore off his mad plan for nearly three days.
At the end of a month, his hands were rubbed raw by lime baths and pumice stones, his eyes stung by bleach, his clothing stained by tannins and dyes. Every mirror in the workshop was covered by a loose cloth, and the only reason the garbage pail wasn’t overflowing was that he had hardly made time to eat.
Enlightenment came late, but when it did he was electrified. He danced a circle around his workbench. He sent up a hasty prayer to Calliosaga, she of the tablets and reeds. What he needed was a palimpsest, and he knew exactly the text to deface.
Benedetto was sitting at his workbench, fingering the deckled edges of a child’s well-loved diary, when a sharp, familiar knock rattled his door.
Calligramancy was women’s work, and for that Benedetto endured some derision. He was by no means the only man practicing the art, but he was the only one in his town. Despite the social hurdle, it had been too much for him to resist: the complexity of papers, inks, scripts, writing tools, waxes, and seals. To break a seal was to break a spell, and something snapped wide in his chest the first time he beheld true writing.
His mother provided lessons when he was a young boy, guiding his letters with her strong precise hands. They were pocked by ink burns and callused where thumb met forefinger. Every day when his father came home from the field, he kissed those hands and called her Calli, and if it occurred to him to question his son’s unusual level of education he never mentioned it in the boy’s hearing. When Benedetto stamped the seal on his first rudimentary scrollwork, all three of them laughed at the colorful wobbling lights his spell had summoned into existence.
Benedetto learned that there was magic in the art of writing, but also that the art of writing rested in the hands of people.
Lesson Two: On surface preparations
Sidony held a thin copper box, three shades darker than the master’s bands knotted around her forearms. She rapped lightly on the door, eyeing the broken sigil above the jamb. For a month, the shop had been closed. For a month, there had been no sign of Benedetto at guild functions or public gatherings. Her colleagues were slinging rumors with gleeful abandon, but they’d always held a hard spot in their hearts for Benedetto. In the end, she had to see for herself.
On her third attempt she got a response, and regret coursed through her at the click of the lock. It was obvious in his flushed and forlorn expression: Benedetto had forgotten about the order he’d placed.
“I hope you’ve been well,” she said, as though wellness were in any way obligated to hope.
“And you,” he said, his voice raw with solitude.
He reached for the copper box, and she cringed at the scorched and tattered state of his master’s bands, cringed at the way his dirty clothing hung loose on his frame, cringed because she could not hide the worry and—yes—the mild disgust that gripped her at the sight of him. She hated to see him this way. She hated to see him.
“Let me fetch my coin,” he said.
She followed him inside and tried to maintain a considerate distance, but her eyes darted here and there, her curiosity overcoming her courtesy.
It was unfair, the way he summoned her here for these tense bimonthly appointments. It was unfair, the way she persisted in showing up rather than sending an apprentice in her stead. Some emotion stirred in her whenever his order arrived, and it was a little bit pitying and a little bit cruel.
But they were no longer married. They were polite because colleagues had to be polite, and he bought his pounces from her shop because they were the best in town. And if pain still thrummed the air between them, an insurmountable margin between the recto of her life and the verso of his, then so be it.
Benedetto dropped the box on the least-cluttered surface in the shop and disappeared into his private quarters. Whatever new spell he was crafting was a difficult one. Evidence of his many experiments was piled in trash heaps around the room. Those dangerous scraps of half-finished writing would have to be burned before long, lest they fall together, phrase against phrase, and spell out unintended sentences.
Rarely did a spell call for raw parchment. Pounces, applied lightly and uniformly, whitened parchment and reduced the natural greasiness of the skin’s flesh side. Sidony sold the usual chalks and ashes and powdered bones. She was particularly adept at grinding volcanic glass, distributed more frequently in its consolidated form as a pumice stone.
She liked the work of grinding pounces. She liked the way her hands ached at the end of a long day and the way that all of her tidily arranged rocks and bones were reduced to tidily arranged bowls of sand. A wise magician wrote magic with materials of her own making, but a wise magician also didn’t say no to easy coin if somebody else wished to pay for her work.
Benedetto believed that the school of calligramancy scorned his gender, but it was his reliance on shortcuts that arched their eyebrows. Yesterday Sidony would have laughed at the thought of Benedetto ‘market value’ Tibor crushing pigments or scraping parchment or delicately spreading a gesso in preparation for gold leaf. He had never understood that in the planning lay the execution.
But today she saw evidence of all that and more. Whatever he was working on had spurred him to new heights of meticulous construction. Heights, or perhaps depths.
She couldn’t help looking. The workbench was lit by a trio of lanterns reflecting against the otherwise pervasive gloom, practically begging investigation. A codex was centered between them like a holy relic, and when Sidony picked it up, her bones went brittle as glass.
She was still standing there, stroking the cover of the diary, when Benedetto returned. He made a sound like strangling. Her payment fell from his limp hand, the coins scattering with disproportionate ruckus.
“You still have this,” she said, and her eyes were hot even if her voice was cold.
“Get away from that,” he snapped.
She was quick to anger, her hands tightening around the book—this book of all books, this book was what he huddled over in his madman’s cave—but she did not yell. She had always kept a better leash on her emotions, and her composure was more upsetting to him than her rage. She knew it, and gods help her, she used it.
“I have as much a right to look,” she said, and now she noticed the other items on the tabletop: galls and pigments, pounces and grounds, reeds and quills. A pumice stone.
He snatched the book from her, and it was this bit of physical aggression that set her off. They yelled the way they’d always yelled, and it was a bitter satisfaction to break her calm and tap the storm beneath. He told her she’d lost her rights when she left. She told him there’d been nothing left to stay for. He told her to collect her payment and go, gesturing at the coins on the ground. She said she would send an invoice, and she slammed the door on her way out.
One way to limit the potency of textbooks is through the liberal use of abbreviation. Suspensions, contractions, notae communes, tachygraphic systems as diverse as their scribes. Symbols are inserted in lieu of words, and in the obstruction of meaning comes the obstruction of magic. However, it often bears reminding that this technique will backfire when the same system is used too frequently. A symbol takes on as much meaning as a word composed by standardized alphabet, because what are letters but a series of symbols?
Magicians trained in abbreviation grow accustomed to curtailing themselves. They abridge their explanations, condense their condolences, and truncate their apologies. A relationship with a magician is composed of many ellipses. Two magicians in the same household is a formula for silence.
Lesson Three: On the selection of an instrument
He needed it clean, but not too clean, not for this spell. For this spell he wanted a hint of the words underneath, a hint of the writing below his own. This was essential. He would not apply a ground to the surface. He wanted no paint, no plaster, no glue to separate his words from hers. They must mingle and be fused. This was essential.
So he tenderly liberated a page from the diary and scraped it smooth, scraped it with one of Sidony’s pumices, and there his preparations ended. It was ready, sharp cut on one edge and ragged on three, a soft sheet of paper made from the pulp of hand-me-down clothing. At the top, so faint it was almost invisible: dear diary.
He fumbled through his writing instruments. There were animal-hair brushes in wood handles, frayed reeds, split reeds, metal styluses, bone styluses, quill pens of many birds and cuts.
Reeds were best used on papyrus, animal hair on parchment, styluses on wax and clay. It had to be a quill, but which one? The flight feather of a goose, a crow, an eagle, an owl? Insufficient. Untenable! The thought of writing on this page with crow almost brought him to tears.
And then he remembered. One mad scramble later he emerged, dusty and triumphant, with the sole swan feather in his collection. Expensive, pristine, held in reserve for something truly special, the feather glowed in the light of his lanterns. Yes, a swan for purity, for grace and beauty and love. It would make a broad pen for formal script.
The feather was already stripped and tempered. He cut the nib at an oblique angle.
A slip of the knife. Blood spattered the table.
Sidony was halfway home when outrage forced her back. She was angry about the book, yes, but it was more than that. That assortment of supplies nagged at her. That pumice. The argument had blinded her and only now, in the clear air of the autumn evening, it came together. A palimpsest. With Adrianna’s diary, a palimpsest!
The certainty of it caught her like a blow to the chest. She stumbled back through streets gone blurry, and she was lucky that Benedetto’s door remained unlocked or else she would have injured herself to knock it down.
She burst into the workshop to find the deed nearly done. A deckled page lay before him. Raised above it, a pen nib shimmered with red brazilwood ink. The rubric was already written: Adrianna.
“Benedetto, stop!” she cried.
He jerked up, marionette-like, and she flinched at the ferocity in his gaze. Nothing but wildness there, like an animal in a trap. Over the years she had loved him and loathed him, but she had never before feared him.
Sidony raised her hands in supplication. “Please don’t do this,” she said, inching closer to the table.
She thought she would have to wrestle it from him (he was malnourished, he was weak, she could overpower him easily), but something softened in his expression. The pen was lowering, the pen was down. She had arrived in time to stop this travesty. Sidony allowed herself a shaky sigh of relief, one hand outstretched to take the book.
And then Benedetto pulled a scroll from a drawer, rolled loosely with twine. He looked at her with something akin to pity, and now she saw the tube of sealing wax that had been warming against the lantern while she was distracted. In one deft move, he dabbed blood red wax on the edge of the scroll, sealing the spell.
A wall of energy sprang up between them. Sidony recoiled from a ward that was by turns icy and hot, her fingers already blistering where they caught the lip of it. She screamed at him.
They had a child. A girl with bright eyes and steady hands. She took turns on her parents’ laps, forming her child’s block writing with increasing ease. Only pencil at first, and then stylus and wax, and then quills. At every success she laughed, bright twinkling laughter that filled a house covered in ink and dust. At every failure she frowned, and focused, and tried again. She was the thread in their binding, drawing their signatures together with a tight Coptic stitch.
The day she died they turned off every light in the house and did not say a word.
Lesson Four: On varieties of ink
Tears poured down his bearded cheeks. Sidony raged and paced outside the ward, her pain amplified through the quivering light. The fact that she wanted to stop him only intensified his anguish: how could she not want this?
He set aside the goose feather with which he had drawn the rubric and picked up the swan feather. Adrianna glinted, still damp, the gory lines of brazilwood ink humming her name at the top of the page. He could not write the entire spell in this manner. That would be obscene.
The workshop was lined with stained and drooping shelves clustered end to end with glass-stoppered bottles. Vegetable, mineral, and animal extracts, ground or soaked free of their hosts, mixed with glair and glue. There were three shelves of additives to modify color, texture, opacity: urine and honey and ear wax, chalks and eggshells and white lead. There were four cases of binding mediums: egg whites and gums, fish glues and gelatins.
He had ground pigments of every kind. Ultramarine from lapis lazuli, saffron yellow from crocus stamens, mercury-based vermilion and copper blues, red leads and verdigris greens.
He had delicate boxes of gold leaf, but that was mere ornamentation, showmanship, flair. Magic resided in the sweep of pen on paper. This spell must be black, classic black, but not lampblack, certainly not oak gall. He did not want ferrous inks that would fade to brown or copper salts that would fade to green. This must be permanent and opaque.
Benedetto stroked the cut-crystal side of a tall, thin bottle: pomegranate ink. Fermentation of the rinds produced a liquid that was bright red but ephemeral, and the addition of copperas turned it a gloriously deep black. It was waterproof, permanent—perfect.
He dipped the pen, wincing at the ebony slash that soaked the nib.
“It’s wrong and you know it,” Sidony yelled. “It’s wrong! It’s unnatural!”
“We’re magicians,” he said. “We’re masters of the unnatural.”
He brought the pen down in steady vertical strokes, crafting each letter with painstaking precision. He described a girl with bright eyes and steady hands. She snorted when she laughed. She smelled of flower-scented waxes, and when she died they all turned to rot. Her father was sorry for looking away. He was sorry for rushing across the street without taking her by the hand. He wanted her back so he could apologize, so he could make it right, so he could have a second chance, so he could show Sidony how much better he could be.
Sidony wailed on the other side of the ward. Her palms were outstretched, hovering just beyond the flickering burn of energy. “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
But Benedetto was focused entirely on the page, and as he sketched Adrianna in words a shadow formed at the center of the workshop. It was an indistinct blur at the corner of his vision, but even that glimpse made his heart stutter.
A figure began to take shape.
Their classmates and their colleagues were dismissive. Men are too emotional, they said, too impatient. They aren’t cut out for the meticulous and tedious nature of calligramancy. Why don’t you butcher something and start dinner?
For years Benedetto worked hard to disprove them. He experimented with wild abandon, he embraced exotic imports from foreign lands, he wrote spells that stretched three feet long. They saw his experiments and his exoticism and his lengthy constructions, and they said oh my, oh no, this is proof positive that he only wants a shortcut. Magic isn’t a shortcut, they said. Magic is a way of life.
Sidony told him not to listen. She assured him that she knew many level-headed men and she was sure he was one of them. It wasn’t as comforting a statement as she thought, but he let it go. Well-intentioned, and all that.
Their teachers wielded switches and smacked their hands, their faces, the backs of their calves. Learn these words, they said. Don’t abuse them. Don’t twist them. Remember the importance of your role. The city depends on you, on all of you, to keep the lights lit and the mills turning and the walls secure against invasion. This isn’t a matter of personal glory but of maintaining a safe and productive society.
Writing shapes reality. Writing changes the world.
Lesson Five: On the use of a proper script
The final component of crafting a spell is, of course, the selection of a script. Majuscule or miniscule. Set scripts, cursive scripts, current scripts. A wise magician has several hands at her disposal.
Sidony had always been more enamored of the physical components of magic, the pens and pigments and pounces that encapsulated her intentions. She lost herself in cutting and carving and grinding, and it was almost an afterthought to write out the spell itself. Conversely, Benedetto purchased most of his supplies because he was so impatient to reach the final step.
He had mastered every form he attempted, and that was dangerous variety in a profession known for specialists. Simple rounded uncials, rigid and square capitals, tall exaggerated court hands, bold and italicized book hands—each and every one was at his disposal. He could scratch out light and temporary spells in rapid secretarial scripts or spend all afternoon with a quill pen writing in traditional calligraphic form.
Sidony did not know what he had chosen to write over Adrianna’s book, and she did not care. Something somber. Something fixed. A set script, no doubt, formal and slow. Perhaps something Gothic. It gave her a little more time.
But there was a shape forming at the center of the workshop. There was a shape forming and she couldn’t look at it, she couldn’t even dream of it; she feared she was already too late.
His ward burned the air between them but did not block sound or sight. Sidony wanted to beat against it, to scream at him, but she slumped to the floor instead, a careful few inches from blistering herself any further.
“It’s over,” she said quietly. “It’s a mistake.”
Benedetto hunched over his workbench, his entire body rigid. She could see the pain in his profile; the terror. Had anyone tried this before? Of course they had. There was a reason such spells weren’t taught in school.
“She’s dead.” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “She’s dead and she isn’t coming back.”
He was crying, his tears splashing the page, and in the corner of Sidony’s vision the apparition wavered. Arms and legs and a dress that was slowly blossoming green. But not yet a face, not yet a face, oh everything holy please don’t plaster that little girl’s face on a parchment phantasm.
She felt it coming, panic at the back of her throat. Sidony shut her eyes and breathed deep. She tamped it down. Three years’ grief threatened to eat her alive, but she had worked hard in those three years. She had kept going.
Softly she called, “Benino.”
For the first time, he stilled.
“Benino,” she repeated. “Please listen to me.”
He would not turn, but he whispered in a sad and ragged voice, “Writing changes the world.”
Sidony hugged her arms, fighting everything in her not to look at the figure in the translucent green dress. “No spell is permanent,” she said. “The tannic acids will eat through the paper. What will you do, write her every day of your life?”
His shoulders began to shake. “You don’t want her back.”
“With all of my heart I do,” she said. “You’ve called me callous. You’ve called me cold. Did you think my pain any less than yours because I swallowed mine whole? The tragedy of being able to change the world is knowing that you can’t, not really, not when it counts. Darling, that isn’t really her. And you know it.”
His hand stretched, trembling, toward the tube of sealing wax that sagged beside his lantern. All he had to do was roll up his spell and seal it, and whatever he had written would snap into existence. An illusion in the shape of their daughter, her existence bound to a linen scroll.
“If you ever loved me,” she whispered, “do not pour that wax.”
He stiffened again, and she thought the battle lost.
But then he looked at her. Truly looked at her. And for the first time in three years, Sidony found her guard crumbling. She met his eyes without flinching, and when the tears welled up she didn’t hold them back. In the span of a few heartbeats, she tried to show him everything she’d never said.
His body shaking, Benedetto reached past the wax, to the finished scroll still humming with energy. Its seal snapped between his fingers with the finality of a cannon shot, and the ward disintegrated into so much dust. Before his nerve could leave him, Benedetto plunged his unfinished palimpsest into the closest flame. The old paper caught in a flash, the black and red ink bubbling into nothing. With it went the apparition, which tumbled to the ground as a pile of soft ash.
Sidony reached him just as he collapsed to the ground, and he buried his face against her neck.
They held each other until the lanterns guttered, and then they began to talk.