Close your eyes. Imagine a world in which school, beyond minimal skills in reading and math, is something that only a wealthy few are able to attend. Especially, to study something as arcane and uselessly creative as art. In that time and place, there’s a girl who has a gift-- for visualizing space, making something from nothing; creating sculptural work that fits inside and goes through and around whatever is there, eccentric objects often activated by old-style engines and pulleys of string.
You see her first as a woman, less than thirty; tall, with long, muscled arms, chopped hair, and hands covered with the kind of scars that come from working with almost useless tools. But then, in a sudden flashback to a decade before, you are at the moment she’s accepted to the last remaining art academy, awarded a (rare) scholarship. She’s set to go, suitcase packed, when her deadbeat, petty-criminal parents are killed--maybe an accident, probably not-- and she has to give up her hard-won exit from the polluted squalor of her under-class world to take care of her younger sisters. (Girls, especially vulnerable in this future, are frequently kidnaped for slavery or organ donation.) Vanishing with them to escape their parent’s debts and crimes, she never shows up on the first day of class, or any other.
But now, at last, she has managed to get the girls into adulthood and decent lives. One is in a trade school, learning how to fix the vast climate-control systems necessary for all the cities; the other fell in love with a fellow orphan and emigrated to what used to be Finland. So it is that this gifted young woman is finally ready to go to school.
Back in the future present, it’s night. Dressed in clean clothes-- a patched, coarse shirt with short sleeves, baggy chino pants-- she carries the same big, beat-up suitcase she packed initially ten years before, up the steps of an imposing pillared building. Surprisingly, the door is unlocked. She walks through corridors and silent rooms looking for art, and when she finds it, she puts her suitcase down.
She’s standing at the center of the ground floor of the building. It's a tall, domed space; balconies run around its perimeter on several levels. Light from the city outside leaks in through a ring of high windows, faintly illuminating concrete sculptures that are clustered around her. Neither good nor interesting, they’re based on bits of old-fashioned architecture; arches and sills, doorways and corners, covered with badly-rendered ornament. She can’t believe her eyes. THIS is what she has spent the last decade of her life—no, the last TWO decades, counting the years when she was a girl—working towards? She sits on one of them, head in hands. Then, quietly, she raises her eyes.
She goes back to her bag and throws it open. Then she looks around. She goes through several battered steel cabinets, pulling things out: metal rod, string, plaster bandage. She finds some old mixers, removes their motors. She is ready to begin.
She starts to build a net of forms and functions, using some of the concrete forms as foundations for her system. She makes diamonds and triangles and crosses of rod, welded together with a torch from the suitcase. Rotating belts of bandage interconnect it all, moving, alive, but rickety and ticklish beyond belief. It keeps breaking down; she fixes it, patient. She has stripped down to an undershirt, solder on her clean pants and a big smear of dirt on her thoughtful face.
Then she hears a sound. She looks up and sees a girl with pale hair and wire-rimmed glasses, in the topmost balcony high above. But the girl says nothing, just melts into the shadows, and no cops show up, so our heroine just keeps on working, absorbed in what she is making, this fantastic work of art that transforms the room by covering it with a silvery network of shivering lines. She thinks that someone will be coming soon and it will all be over, but she doesn’t care.
A man with a beard comes through the door. She stops. He quietly asks who she is. She wipes her hand across her face and puts her shirt back on, embarrassed a little, and tells him she's the student who never came. He tells her his name, but she knows who he is, knows his voice: he's the teacher who called her to tell her that her long-ago application was accepted. But now he tells her more. When she didn’t show up, after all he had overcome to get the school to take and support her, he had been passed over as Chair, for the man who now teaches students how to make work like his own—namely, these ghastly concrete doorstops. He tells her that he tried, but couldn’t find even a trace of her. She bows her head. She explains what happened. Her parents’ death, her little sisters. Then, quietly, she says, --but I'm here now. I didn’t even want to write; I just came, to see if there was, could be, a way…
He shakes his head; tells her that the new Chair decided they should have no more scholarships, and that he doesn’t know where the money to get her through the program will come from. But then, he stops. Walks through the world she has created. Says, don’t go anywhere. Just stay here. Sit. Please.
She sits. Runs her palms down the front of the shirt, tries to make her hair lie smooth with her fingers. Thinks about the past. How hard it was for her to save them all-- the awful, often dangerous work, hiding her sex so she could get those jobs. But still, all the while, she had kept on thinking, making little sculptures out of junk and bits of trash, that she would leave around for others to find. She pictures some of the places she later encountered her creations: behind the bar in a gambling house, on the dashboard of her boss’s truck(that one was a shock), and once, in the pocket of a dead man she found lying on the street.
The teacher returns. He says, we have figured something out. You'll have to work thirty hours a week as the assistant here. You certainly have the skills, which none of the other students do. You'll be working for me. You can come home with me now.
She flinches. Thinks that maybe he means to take advantage, nice as he seems. Has she managed to avoid exploitation for years, only for this to be where it happens? But then she sees the girl from the balcony, coming into the room, and she realizes that the girl is a woman in late middle age-- hair silver, not blonde, with wrinkles framing her mouth and eyes. (This is unusual; people in the privileged classes commonly have youth procedures done every few years and avoid looking old until they die.) The silver-haired woman puts her hand on the man’s arm, smiling shyly. Of course. She’s the one who brought him here, before the night watchman walked in on the impromptu sculpture and its maker. They are husband and wife—both professors, she says, taking the younger woman's hand. --We've dreamed of a student who could change what’s happened here. And we think that might be you. We can make you this offer, but only on a single condition. You must stay for six years, instead of four, living with us. At the end of that time, you’ll have your Artist Letter.
The young woman is speechless. For decades, even if allowed to attend the academy, no one in her social class has been given the special papers which function like a pass, allowing entry into the world in which the very few live. She will eat real food; read real books, instead of fuzzy scratched-up screens. Most of all, she will soon be able to see real art. Silently, she nods agreement, tears running down her dirt-streaked face. The three of them stand there, listening to the chirping motors. One hiccups slightly as the bandage slows and chafes, and the man reaches into a drawer for something better. The student makes the substitution while her new teachers watch.
They are all very tired, but unable to leave. Clearly afraid that it’s only a dream.
Now: open your eyes.