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art by Liz Clarke


Laura Lee McArdle writes in Winnipeg Manitoba, where she perseveres through seasons of blistering heat, breathtaking cold, and maternity (which cannot be described with one adjective). Her short stories have appeared in AE-The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

Zaphira spoke to God. It wasn't that she had been taught to, or that she was at a loss for conversation partners. It was mainly that no one else was interested in talking metaphysics with a four year old. The other children at daycare would stare blankly, and if she became too insistent Miss Carnegie sent her to Quiet Corner. Which was where she was now.
She rocked forward on the Quiet Corner carpet until her forehead bumped against the dust-colored wall. She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against the lids creating bursts of color that matched the rhythm of the bumping.
"A little help?" she sent up to God silently.
With what? boomed God's genderless voice inside her head.
"Life, the universe, everything..." mumbled Zaphira.
You've gotten into your parents' paperbacks again, haven't you?
"Yes," thought Zaphira, which of course they didn't notice. But she abandoned that train of thought.
It was old territory between her and God.
"Why did you make a nursery school teacher so devoid of creative capacity?"
Ah, said God. Perhaps you're asking the wrong question. What circumstances made Miss Carnegie, whom I created, simultaneously abandon imagination and yet desire to work with children?
"Same difference," said Zaphira. "Didn't you make the circumstances?"
God harrumphed.
Zaphira laughed out loud, which drew a shrill reprimand from Miss Carnegie.
Zaphira put her fingers in her ears and swiveled to see if Miss Carnegie would react. Unfortunately she was busy explaining to Marco that pumpkins are orange, not the wild shade of violet he had splashed across the coloring page.
Creating may be unspeakably wonderful, mind-blowing even, but it's also disconcerting. I created Miss Carnegie. How is that working out for you?
Zaphira rolled her eyes.
Miss Carnegie wants to be safe. She wants the children she takes care of to be unruffled by troublesome questions of what might be, and even the more unpleasant parts of what is.
"So I'm supposed to be sympathetic because Miss Carnegie is a control freak laboring to insulate the poor children from the vagaries of imagination? You want me to shut up, make nice and color in the lines?"
Oh no, Zaphira, my child, said God with tender authority. I haven't stopped creating this world, nor Miss Carnegie, and transformative lessons are seldom easy.
Zaphira realized that there was something in her pocket that hadn't been there before. She turned her back to the room again, fished inside and brought out a pack of matches. At the same time she noticed a stray wooden animal stuck under the edge of the Quiet Corner carpet. It was a giraffe from the Noah's Ark set with a frayed, ropy mane and tail. Zaphira grinned, but hesitated.
Yes, whispered God.
Yellow-orange flame blossomed on the end of the match, and practically leapt up the neck of the giraffe. With a second kiss of the match the tail flared up too and the painted body began to peel and char.
Zaphira had only a few minutes to watch the dancing flames and the exquisitely curling wisps of smoke as the toy animal was consumed and remade into cinders and ash. By then the curtains had caught in a whoosh of heat. Then the smoke alarm exploded in her ears and the sprinklers let loose in a jubilant torrent. The children, Zaphira and Miss Carnegie were washed out of the classroom on a chaotic tide of noise, water, and smoke.
Outside, Miss Carnegie sat on the green grass hugging Marco as he cried into her blouse, and for this moment at least she didn't seem to care about dirt, or missing buttons, or the right way to do things. Zaphira drank in the sunshine under the blue, blue sky and didn't protest as another teacher reined her into line to be counted.
"Thank you," she sent up to God.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Author Comments

This story was originally sparked by the image of a flaming giraffe in a surrealist painting and a distinct childhood memory. It was actually me who told off a fellow preschooler for coloring a pumpkin purple. I don't remember anything else about the girl, not even her name. Perhaps this story is for her.

- Laura Lee McArdle
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