Zanna's Gift

A Life in Christmases

Orson Scott Card

Forge Books

ZANNA (Chapter 1)

There are many ways to lose a child, and none of them is merciful. But like all unbearable things it can be borne, and in the weeks before Christmas 1938, the Pullmans were learning how.

Ernie, their oldest boy, had turned fifteen in August and was in his next to last year of high school. There would be little money to send him to college, but he was smart and studied hard. He hoped for a scholarship.

But he didn't count on it. He didn't count on anything. That was why he also worked at Virgil's Furnace.

Ernie had started with Virg as a boy, looking over the man's shoulder while he worked on eking some more life out of the Pullmans' old coal-burner.

"Can't be saved," said Virg, and then told them the bad news about what a new one would cost.

Ernie spoke up before his parents could say a thing. "What's the cost if I go to work for you?"

Virg looked the boy up and down--which wasn't far, he was only ten at the time, and not big for his age. Ernie had watched closely during the attempted repair. He'd made himself useful, fetching this and holding that. And his questions showed that he understood what Virg was doing.

So Virg looked at Mr. and Mrs. Pullman and said, "I'll take him on, but I can't say how much it'll take off the price till I see what his work is worth."

"That's fair," said Ernie, again before his parents could respond. "I'll make sure the discount is good and big."

Ernie learned so fast and worked so hard that in the end, his parents paid exactly what their furnace had cost Virg. And Virg kept Ernie on, helping with repairs and installations and helping with the books, too, until, at the age of fifteen, he was the unofficial junior manager.

The other two furnacemen and the coal truck driver might have resented this, but Ernie had such a respectful way of talking that it never felt as though he was giving orders to men twice or three times his age.

Half the money he earned, he handed over to his father. The other half went into the bank, for college.

Mr. Pullman was proud of his oldest son, saying little about it, of course, because a man didn't gush about such things, it would only embarrass the boy.

Mrs. Pullman, on the other hand, looked with suspicion on the teenage girls who had a way of routing their walk to school past the Pullman house, on Lily Street. She knew perfectly well what a prize catch her boy would be, and knew there wasn't a girl alive who was worthy of him.

Ernie's two younger brothers, Davy and Bug (short for Beadle, a name which even Mrs. Pullman, whose mother's maiden name it was, now realized had been a mistake), worshiped Ernie, but from afar. Ernie had always looked out for them, but never fought with them or bullied them or, as they got older, played with them. He was too busy, and they were too in awe of him, for roughhousing or rivalry.

But when Suzanna was born in spring of '34, Ernie took her to his heart. Only to hold fussing baby Zanna would he interrupt his homework, and she seemed to quiet most quickly in his arms, looking up into her brother's face as he cooed to her in a voice that Bug declared was sickening enough to make a grown man puke.

She sat on his lap while he studied, until she was old enough to crumple the pages or seize the pencil, and then he bought crayons and paper for her out of his own money and encouraged her to draw.

Zanna was no scribbler--instead of bold strokes, she made tiny, meticulous curlicues and filled-in dots, working for long stretches of time to fill just one corner of a piece of paper.

Then she would slide it over to Ernie, who would look up from his books and papers, examine the drawing carefully, and then look steadily into her eyes.

"I know it's a child," he might say, "but I don't know who."

" 'S not a child," Zanna would say--or sounds to that effect. "It's a dog."

"But it's a very young dog." He pointed to another part of the drawing. "And I don't appreciate the way that dog is nipping at me while I'm trying to get a new furnace hauled into the Petersons' cellar."

And she would giggle at the fantasies he spun around her incomprehensible art.

Gradually, though, her art became comprehensible to him, and it wasn't long before his guesses were usually right.

Nobody else understood how he did it. One night, after four-year-old Zanna was in bed and asleep, Mrs. Pullman held up her night's work and asked Ernie, "How in the world did you find a car on this paper?"

He pointed to a spiral near the bottom. "That's how she makes wheels."

"But there's only one."

"She only draws one in detail. Those dots are the other three tires."

"She puts all four tires on a car? You can only see two at a time."

"She's short, Mom. She sees all four."

"OK, but where's the rest of the car?"

"That's the steering wheel. That's Dad driving the car."

"They're just twisty little spirals."

"But that one has a nose, so it's a person, and that one's on a stick, so it's the steering wheel. Who would be driving except Dad?"

"Why doesn't she draw the whole car?"

"She has an eye for the round parts," said Ernie. "It's like the whole world is a big connect-the-dots, and all she bothers to draw are the dots."

"What Ernie's saying," said twelve-year-old Davy, "is that Zanna's crazy, but he's crazy the same way."

"Yep," said Ernie.

Zanna never heard that conversation, but she knew that Ernie was the only one who understood her drawings, and so it was only natural that all her drawings were for him. She didn't bother showing them to anyone else. He showed them off, explaining them to everybody else, while Zanna beamed in pride.

Zanna knew that drawing was the best thing she did. Her only evidence for this belief was that Ernie understood and praised her pictures. But that was more than enough for her to be convinced she was an artist of extraordinary merit.

ZANNA'S Copyright © 2004 by Scott Richards