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Zanna's Gift

Orson Scott Card

  Copyright © 2020 by Orson Scott Card

  E-book published in 2020 by Blackstone Publishing

  Cover design by K. Jones

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced

  or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the

  publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious.

  Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental

  and not intended by the author.

  Trade e-book ISBN 978-1-982696-83-2

  Library e-book ISBN 978-1-982696-82-5

  Fiction / General

  CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

  Blackstone Publishing

  31 Mistletoe Rd.

  Ashland, OR 97520


  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 close 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), worshipped 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 the 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.


  Ernie could have died so many ways. Furnace work was dangerous; there were accidents. When he rode his bike to and from work, he had to share the road with automobile drivers who, as Mr. Pullman often pointed out, were murderers in their hearts.

  But there was no accident.

  Nor was Ernie ill. Oh, he had had a cold as the weather started turning nasty in late October, but that was gone except for a sniffle now and then, and a little huskiness in his voice.

  There was no warning at all. Ernie went to bed on the first Monday night after Thanksgiving, and did not get up in the morning. His mother noticed at once that he had not gotten up at his usual time, but her thought was,
The poor boy, he works so hard, how can I begrudge him one morning of sleeping in just a little? She kept expecting him to rush into the kitchen as she breakfasted the other kids, frantic about being late and demanding to know why she hadn’t woken him, and she planned just to smile and pretend not to have noticed the time.

  But then it grew late enough that he might not be able to make it to the bus on time, so she left Davy in dubious charge of the kitchen table and went to waken Ernie in his room.

  He was lying there peacefully on his side, his body curled like a question mark under the blankets, one leg drawn up, the other extended, the way he always slept. But when she spoke to him he did not stir, and when she shook his shoulder it did not yield.

  Was he sick? She felt his forehead for fever, but it was as cold to her hand as tap water in winter.

  She knew then that he was gone. She had dressed both her mother and father for burial; she knew how a dead body felt under her hand.

  It was so impossible, though, that he could be dead, that she simply walked out of the room and closed the door behind her and went back to the kitchen. She interrupted the inevitable fight between Davy and Bug and wiped up the pile of congealing oatmeal that Zanna had made beside her bowl. Calmly, emotionlessly, she explained that Ernie was ill and wasn’t going to school today, and fended off Zanna’s attempt to go see him. “I don’t want you catching it, Zanna.”

  Davy and Bug were out the door and on their way, bundled up against the cold—their school was in walking distance. Mrs. Pullman got Zanna some crayons and paper, knowing that she would concentrate totally on her drawing for quite some time. Only then did she call the doctor, keeping her voice low and her explanations oblique, so that Zanna would hear little and understand less.

  “You must come look at my son Ernie,” she told Dr. Wood. “His forehead is very cold, and he doesn’t move.”

  It took Dr. Wood a moment to register what she was saying.

  “My four-year-old is here in the kitchen with me, Doctor,” said Mrs. Pullman, “and I hope that when you come, you can handle things quietly for her sake.”

  “I’ll be right there,” said Dr. Wood.

  It took him only ten minutes. He found Mrs. Pullman very calm, except for the handkerchief she was wringing and twisting around her fingers. Wordlessly she led him to Ernie’s room and closed the door behind them.

  When the doctor rolled him over, Ernie’s arms and legs stiffly held their positions. It was grotesque, and the doctor could not bear to have Mrs. Pullman remember her son in such a state, so he rolled the boy back. He went through the motions of looking for signs of life, but rigor mortis was obvious.

  “He must have passed away in his sleep almost as soon as he went to bed last night,” said the doctor quietly.

  Mrs. Pullman nodded.

  “There was nothing you could have done,” said the doctor. “Did he complain of being sick?”

  She shook her head.

  “It could have been his heart,” said the doctor. “Sometimes the heart is weaker than anyone knows.”

  “His heart,” said Mrs. Pullman almost angrily, “was very strong.” Then she let out a single great sob and slumped against the wall, burying her face in her handkerchief.

  “Would you like me to call your husband?” asked the doctor.

  She nodded.

  “And is there a neighbor I can ask to come over and sit with Suzanna?”

  Mrs. Pullman nodded and pointed toward the south. Dr. Wood went there first, explained briefly to Mrs. Higham, who immediately scooped up her own two-year-old daughter and hurried over.

  “Come and play at my house, will you, Zanna?” said Mrs. Higham.

  “I’m busy,” said Zanna.

  “Your mother really needs you to come to my house so she can take care of Ernie. I’m baking cookies.”

  But Zanna had no interest in cookies. She bent over her drawing.

  “You can finish your drawing at my kitchen table.” When Zanna didn’t answer, Mrs. Higham put a hand on her shoulder. “Sweetheart, you really must come.”

  Zanna gathered up her crayons and paper and followed Mrs. Higham through the autumn cold. Only then did the doctor dial the number for “Dad’s Work” beside the telephone on the small table in the parlor.

  Mr. Pullman came home at once, and bore the news as calmly as if he had been expecting it. He took his weeping wife into his arms and held her, nodding as the doctor suggested that he could have Ernie’s body taken to the hospital to try to determine the cause of death.

  Mr. Pullman shook his head.

  “Won’t you always wonder why he passed away?” said Dr. Wood.

  Mr. Pullman said, “I don’t want you cutting into him.”

  Mrs. Pullman sobbed again and Mr. Pullman helped her slump into a chair.

  “Mr. and Mrs. Pullman,” said the doctor, “I’m sorry to be blunt, but the undertaker will also open the body in preparation for burial. Please let me try to find out why such a strong and fine young man was taken from us.”

  They seemed not to be listening. Until the doctor added, “What if it’s a hereditary condition that might affect the other children?”

  So it was an ambulance, not a hearse, that came to the Pullman house, and the men who carried Ernie’s body from the house wore white, not black.

  It turned out not to have been Ernie’s heart at all. As the doctor explained it to the parents, something in his brain broke open and killed him instantly. “It could not have been predicted,” he said. “It could not have been prevented. It was just his time.”

  “No it wasn’t,” said Mr. Pullman quietly.

  “Hush, dear,” said Mrs. Pullman, but her voice was tender and her hand gentle as she rested it upon her husband’s hand.

  “It was not his time,” said Mr. Pullman, but his voice was soft, his insistence more of a murmur to himself than an argument.

  “No, I agree,” said Dr. Wood. “It was not his time. A boy like that should have had a long life.”

  “He had greatness in him, Doctor,” said Mrs. Pullman.

  And as they left his office, Dr. Wood saw that now it was Mrs. Pullman who comforted her husband, who seemed to have aged ten years in the day since his firstborn son had died.


  The Pullmans had told the children separately, because the explanation that the boys could accept would not have been right for Zanna, being only four, and so devoted to her brother. The boys were told the simple truth, with some comforting words about the resurrection and heaven, where someone as good as Ernie was bound to go.

  But Zanna was given the story of a journey to a faraway place, from which Ernie would not be coming home.

  “Yes he will,” said Zanna.

  “I’m afraid not, darling,” said Mother.

  “He’ll be home for Christmas,” said Zanna firmly.

  Father put his hand on Mother’s shoulder. It was enough for now.

  Mrs. Higham tended Zanna during the funeral. Zanna never saw her brother in the casket. Nor did she see her mother cling weeping to Ernie’s hand, or her father bend over and kiss his son’s lips before lowering the lid of the coffin with his own hand. It would not be until years later, when her brother Davy told her what he remembered of it, that she acquired her imagined memories of that parting.

  At the time, though, she only knew that Ernie did not come home, and her parents looked so sorrowful that she felt the need to comfort them.

  “Ernie will write to us,” she said. “You’ll see. You don’t have to miss him so much.”

  But this did not seem to comfort them after all, and young as she was, Zanna realized that there was something they were not telling her.

  Her mother cried so easily these days that Zanna went to her father with her question, one night after supper, when she was supposed to be getting ready for bed.

  “Ernie’s dead, isn’t he?” she asked.

  Father looked at her for a long moment, and then nodded.

  “Can I give Heavenly Father a message for him in my prayers tonight?” asked Zanna.

  “Whenever you want,” said Father.

  “Heavenly Father won’t forget to give him my message, will he? Sometimes you forget to give a message.”

  “Heavenly Father doesn’t forget anything,” said Father.

  But Zanna knew what Father’s voice sounded like when he was angry, but trying to hide it.

  “Don’t be angry at Ernie,” said Zanna. “I bet he didn’t mean to die.”

  “I’m not angry at Ernie,” said Father. “I’m just sad.”

  “So am I,” said Zanna, and then, as if to prove it, she burst into tears and buried her face in her father’s lap as he stroked her hair and her back and murmured words of comfort and love.

  But her tears ended as quickly as they began. She stood up and dried her eyes on her sleeve and said, “I have to get ready for bed now so I can say my prayers.”

  Father wanted to explain to her that she didn’t have to wait till she was in her nightgown to say a prayer, but she was out of the room too quickly for him to form the words.

  So instead he got up to warn his wife that Zanna knew, and that her prayers would be hard to listen to tonight. Father and Mother held hands as they listened to Zanna’s message for her brother. It was simple enough. She loved him. She missed him. She wished he wasn’t dead. She hoped he wouldn’t miss her too much in heaven.

  Zanna didn’t cry again until she was in bed. Her mother offered to stay by her bed, but Zanna shook her head, and her parents left the room as she cried herself to sleep.

  Children are resilient, and their emotions come and go quickly, as their minds turn from thought to thought. Zanna was as cheerful as ever the next day, and the day after, and when she talked about Ernie sometimes it sounded as though she had forgotten he was dead, and sometimes it sounded as if he had died many years ago, and she was completely used to the idea. Her parents were grateful that Zanna was taking it so well—better than her brothers—and also admitted to each other that they envied her the peace in her heart.