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A Doe, In Charcoal

by Greg Costikyan

Originally published in the July,1992 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

This is a true story, or anyway, as true a story as makes no difference.

My mother and aunt and sister and cousins, we all grew up in a big house in Freedom, New Hampshire. My mother and aunt grew up a little while before my sister and cousins and I, of course. But for all of us, that was where our memories were green.

It was a big old farmhouse. It had been a country inn, once, and the doors were all numbered, as if they were still the rooms of a hotel. Even with my grandmother and the whole extended family, plus four cats and a dog and assorted mice and ants in the pantry, we didn't really fill it up. There were always rooms that no one used. One of them was the parlor. We didn't use it, nor the whole front of the house; when people came to visit, they came in the side door, by the porch.

At night, my parents would tell me it was time to go to bed, and I would have to leave the warm living room--with the fire in its great hearth, and my cousins playing games on the rag rug, and my father and my uncle smoking their pipes companionably, and my mother and aunt and grandmother with their knitting or crocheting or rugmaking--and go into the cold, dark parlor, through it to the front stairs, and up to my room.

It was more than dark in the parlor. No one went there, so the furniture was worn and old and shabby. And there was a pump organ that didn't do anything but wheeze when you worked the pedals. But there was something else there. I could feel it. The parlor was haunted.

I used to run through it as fast as I could -- but even so, I could feel the touch of something cold on my spine.

I told my mother that, once. She said, "No... No. The parlor isn't haunted." But she said it with the slightest stress on the word "parlor" -- as if something else might be haunted. That didn't make me feel any better.

My grandfather had bought the house. My grandfather; I never really knew him. I have only the memory of sitting on his lap as he drew something with charcoal on a pad. I cannot have been older than three at the time. He was a professional illustrator; he drew marvelous pictures, to illustrate stories, advertisements, and for his own amusement. Scattered about the house were his "Freedom drawings," depictions of our town and the people in it; unlike his other work, they were not drawn for money, but simply because he wanted to draw them. I liked them best.

My grandfather died quite young, of Parkinson's disease. In the final stage of Parkinsons, your limbs tremble uncontrollably. That, I always thought, was a particularly terrible fate for a man who made his living by drawing.

I said I grew up in that house. That isn't quite so; I never spent more than two months out of every year there. Most of the time, I lived back in the city with my parents, going to school. But in the summers, we went up to Freedom and lived in the big house with our cousins; and those were the best times, the true times.

The part of the house I liked best was what they called the studio. It was an add-on, not originally part of the house; it was an attic, really, built above a shed. It wasn't heated, and couldn't be used in the winter. But my parents used to sleep there during the summers.

My grandfather had used it as his studio. It had a big, plate glass window facing the hill, to let in the light. It was bare-timbered, with dark beams criss-crossing the open space above. Against one wall were the fishing rods and wooden skis my grandfather had used. There were drawers full of pictures; a table where he had worked; oil paints turning solid in their tubes, unused since he had died; brushes of all sizes; colored pencils and pastels. I remember my mother sitting at his desk, and staring out the window, up the hill toward the pines. She loved that room as much as I, I think; the dark wood, the smell of it, the coolness even on the hottest days. But I wonder, sometimes, what it is my mother saw, out that window; what it is she heard, sitting there, at my grandfather's desk.

We used to pack picnic lunches and hike up the hill above the house. It was covered with woods and patches of meadow; pine groves and juniper bracken, stone fences built by long-ago farmers, glacial boulders, and rippling little streams. We would clamber over rocks, climb trees, and explore.

Once, I was climbing along a stone wall, through white pine, needles scenting the air, so far from the rest of the family that I could not hear them. Yet I did not feel lost; I could easily find them by walking back along the wall. In midsummer, at midday, in the forest, there is little sound; no birdsong, no insect noise, only the gentle soughing of the wind in the trees.

I topped a rise. There, not ten feet distant, was a little brook, tumbling down a notch; and standing above it, nose to the water, was a doe. I froze, astonished; I had never seen one, not so close; they are shy creatures. She was surprisingly small; one tends to think that deer are large as horses, but they are not. Her legs looked awkwardly long; she was spotted with white; she -- she looked up, perhaps scenting me at last; spotted me, and instantly disappeared, disappeared into the wood.

And... that was that. I stood for a long moment, reluctant to turn back; but it was unlikely I would see the doe again. I turned, to descend the hill, to find my cousins.

I went to the studio often, sometimes to escape the heat of a summer day; sometimes to find my parents; sometimes to look at my grandfather's books. He had many there, books with pictures of people in costumes, books with pictures of buildings and scenery; he had used them in drawing his own pictures, no doubt. I used to pore over them for hours.

One day I went there, and took a particular favorite, a book that showed people in historical dress, and sat in my grandfather's chair. It was afternoon; the sun was behind the hill, and the light was already beginning to dim, the air begining to cool, the mosquitoes that plague New Hampshire summers beginning to venture forth. My mother had put a sketch pad on my grandfather's desk, and had jotted some notes on it; call so-and-so, pay the tab at the village store, take the wash to the laundromat. I sat with the book on my lap, turning pages, head bent over to study the pictures in the dimming light. From the corner of my eye, I caught motion; a fly, perhaps. I waved a hand absently; not a fly. A fly would duck, respond somehow to my wave. Its motion was steady, a curve through space....

I looked up from the book and stared ahead, already feeling a chill, not quite wanting to know what that motion might be. But I could not put it off forever; my only options were to look, or to flee; and to flee was excessively childish, even at my age then.

I turned my head.

No fly, that was certain. It was a thin tube of black, three inches long: a length of drawing charcoal. It hung in the air, warm afternoon light shining on it, unsupported; hung in the air as nothing could hang. I gawped at it, realizing the impossibility, but searching still for an explanation. The charcoal moved in an arc, through space; one end touched the sketch pad.

And there it hung, one end against the paper, for a long moment, as if its motion had tired it. The full insanity of this had struck me; goosepimples sprouted on my arms; I was frozen, unable to move.

The charcoal moved before I; moved in a broad curve against the paper, a single line; lifted, to touch the paper not far distant, and moved again. A line; a line; a line; and in the space of no more than five seconds, blank paper was transformed to the recognizable outline of a doe.

Sometime in there, I cannot say when, fear was transformed to wonder; perhaps I should say, one form of awe to another. I was still transfixed; still unable to move. I watched as the doe was better realized, strokes and rustles of the charcoal filling in details. It was a doe, drinking at a brook, downhill from the viewer; the doe, precisely as I had seen her, there, on the hill above the house: the hill that faced the studio.

After -- oh, a minute, two minutes; long months of frozen awe -- the charcoal tottered, landed against the paper, and rolled, down the slope of the drafting table, into the gutter that held pens and pencils.

And... that was that.

Trembling, I reached out; tore the sheet from the pad of paper; ran through the house to my room; and hid the rendering, stowed it away under my socks and underwear, under an ancient Sears catalog that had been in my dresser since time immemorial.

I took it back to the city when that summer ended. From time to time, I would pull it out and study it again. It was mine, I knew; it was for me. I had no ready explanation for its origin; I could not articulate my attachment to the drawing; yet I felt an intensely personal ownership of it. My vision -- my sight of the doe had, in some mysterious fashion, engendered the picture, was that not so?

Years later, studying the picture, I realized what a fool I had been. Of course the house was haunted; how could it not be? When we went up the hill to picnic, my grandmother and mother and aunt and sister and cousins and I, was there not someone missing? Someone bearing an easel and pencils, to sketch while we played? When we piled in the car to go skiing, how could we fail to miss the bewhiskered man bearing his wooden skis, who had struggled up the slopes of his hill before there were commercial ski slopes, who had taught his daughters to ski, who had introduced my father to the slopes? When my mother sat at his desk, the oil paints left unchanged from the day he died, his sketch pad ready for the pen, with whom else did she commune? When we sat in the living room, the fire in the hearth, the children lying on the rug and playing cards, he was there: in his paintings on the wall, in the table he had built himself, in the memories of an old woman hooking a rug.

I showed my mother the picture, once, not long ago. She studied it for a while, and said, "That's a nice one. I haven't seen it before. Where did you find it?"

"Oh," I said, "when I was a boy, I found it in one of the wooden files in the studio, and I hid it in my room because I liked it. I've had it ever since."

She looked at me oddly, wondering, no doubt, why I had hid it; if I had asked for it, they would have framed it for me.

But she confirmed what I had long suspected.

It was by his hand.

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Copyright © 1992 by Greg Costikyan.