by Bad Wolf
A short story written back in college-1988. A ghost story
Here Mr. Rhodes remained for a time, his pencil moving silently as he outlined treetops and sketched the steeples and rooflines of the building that seemed strangely miniatue, as if they belonged not placed haphazardly in the valley, but perhaps set neatly on a shelf for display. Around him, water dripped over the edge and started down a narrow stream bed, which, judging from the cracked soil, had been dry for some time. A mist, nearly silvery-white, made its way down the hillside as well, slowly obscuring his view of the village. Mr. Rhodes relied more and more on his imagination as the mist grew thicker.
"Not very good weather, is it?" a voice, the voice of a woman, said suddenly, disrupting the rhythm of the rain.
Mr Rhodes looked up sharply, as the point of his pencil ran off the paper, extending the branch of a tree infinitely into space.
"Did I frighten you?" the woman asked. She then lifted the hem of her cape from a puddle of water, and tried, unsuccessfully, to smooth out the wrinkles with her hand.
"How long have you been there?"
"I only just came from below," she said smiling. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
Mr. Rhodes sifted his weight to get a clearer view of the woman. She was young, slender and considerably attractive. She wore a blue ankle-length dress and, her cape, matching in color, was tied tightly about her shoulders. In her left hand she held an umbrella, and-as though the umbrella wasn't protectin enough-she had her hair
tucked securely beneath a
"You didn't frighten me," Mr. Rhodes said. "I was more...amazed...than anything."
"Why amazed?" she asked, closing the umbrella and working her way under the rock to kneel beside him. Her shoes were thread bare and, when she was situated, she hid them with her dress.
As small as the shelter was, Mr. Rhodes managed to slide over enough to give them both more room. But the uneveness of the gound and the moistness of the wall behind them made it unpleasant all the same. "It's just that I didn't expect to see anyone walking through these hills. Especially in a downpour."
"Oh, I know," the woman said, brushing drops from the umbrella. "It seems sad in a way, but many people do. Walk through hills, I mean." She help up the umbrella and carefully checked for any signs of raindrops she might have missed.
Mr. Rhodes watched the woman for a moment, theh turned and gazed at the scene outside. "I can't say I blame anyone for staying away from here. It gets steep in places."
"Yes," the woman agreed. "Too steep."
As he faced her again he said, "Did you walk all the way up here? Alone?"
The woman loosened her bonnet and looked down at the sketchbook on Mr. Rhodes' lap. I didn't know you were an artist."
It wasn't until this moment that Mr. Rhodes realized rain had fallen on the drawing, smearing several of the lines and causing the paper to curl. When he saw this, he frowned, saying, "I'm not sure I am, by the looks of this."
The woman leaned closer and studied the work. "That's the village, isn't it?"
Mr. Rhodes paused, and in addition to the beating of rain there came a low sough as wind swept past the shelter. Then, as he tied to wipe the paper dry with sleeves, he said, "Hopefully it will end up that way, when I'm done."
"It is so pretty," the woman said softly. She laid the umbrella to rest and delicately folded her arms, as if to shield herself from a sudden cold. "I can remember coming up here qite oftern to look at the village. Usually at night though. It seems so much prettier at night, somehow." She stopped and looked pensively at Mr. Rhodes. "I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because off all the lights in the windows. Do you think that's the reason?"
Mr. Rhodes was about to answer, but the woman cntinued.
"You are lucky to have a talent. I could never draw. I can not even read very well." She lightly bit her lip and the color in her face, what little there was, seemed to disappear altogether. "Can you read? A man named Mr. Wolcott was teaching me on Sundays. And I was learning quickly, too. But he doesn't teach me now."
"Why did he stop?" Mr. Rhodes asked.
"Why do people stop doing any of the things they do?
Mr. Rhodes remained silent.
"Oh, I'm not boring you, am I? Hopefully I am not." She unfolded her arms and brought her hands together. "I don't see people very often, you have to understand and I like to talk. That's a fault, I guess. Being so friendly. And trusting. Of strangers, anyway." She studied the drawing once again. "You know something, that looks done to me. Except for that tree branch rising into the sky."
Mr. Rhodes laughed softly. "I'm afraid it's a long way from being done."
"Is it? the woman asked. "I think it's very good. Why do you say it's not done?"
"There are a lot of reasons, actually," Mr. Rhodes said, lifting his sketchbook. "It is out of proportion, for one thing."
"What do you mean?"
"The buildings are too large. They should be smaller for the distance I'm trying to show."
"I didn't notice that."
"And do you see the rooftops? And that steeple in the corner?"
The woman nodded.
"Buildings aren't that smooth. You have to remember that when you draw buildings and trees, or anything else for that matter, you have to add texture. Lines and cracks..." He began to shade in bricks near the steeple. "And the surfaces start to decay, too. You've got to show that."
The woman lifted her head and looked at Mr. Rhodes. She then touched her cheek and stared into the moving mist. "No. Not everything is like that, is it?" she said, bringing down her hand and grasping Mr. Rhodes' arm. "My face. It's smooth, isn't it? You wouldn't draw my face with a texture like that."
Mr Rhodes stopped sketching and glanced at her hand. He then looked up and said, "No, you're right. I probably wouldn't. But you have to draw faces differently that you would buildings." He paused an instant. "Of course that doesn't mean they are always smooth."
"Doesn't it? Why not?"
"Well, again. there are a lot of reasons," Mr. Rhodes said. "Some faces have wrinkles, or a blemish, or maybe even a scar. You never know. It could be anything."
She slowly let go of him and felt her cheek again. "Have you drawn many faces before?"
"A few, now and then."
The woman stared deeper into the mist. "Could you do my face? Now?"
Instinctively Mr. Rhodes studied her: th cheekbones, high and tight; her small, rounded nose, thin lips. "Yes," he said, "I could. But it would be better in the sunlight. And with a different background."
"No. Please. Won't you do a sketch of me? Just as I am? Just like this?" the woman pleaded.
Mr. Rhodes hesitated a moment, but then slid away from the wall and opened to a blank page in the sketchbook. He wiped off the point of his pencil with his fingertips and brushed his hands across the page.
"Do I look pretty?"
Mr. Rhodes began to carefully outline her face. "You are fine. Just hold that position for a minute or two."
The woman stiffened. "Make my hair long and dark," she whispered.
Mr. Rhodes nodded, and slowly, against a backdrop of falling rain and a thick white mist there formed on the paper a vivid and exact portrait of the woman. And after he had finished, he turned the sketchbook around and held it up for the woman to see.
"Is that how I really look?" she asked, her fingers gliding over the drawing. "Is that how you see me?"
"It is a pretty good likeness, actually. Not bad at all."
The woman took a deep breath and kept her eyes on the drawing a moment more. Then she poked her head out from under the ledge and, without looking at Mr. Rhodes, said, "Would you mind if I show you something now?"
He placed the sketchbook on a dry part of the rock. "What is it?"
"It's not very far from here."
"Shouldn't we wait until it stops raining?"
She looked into the sky. "Are you afraid of getting wet? Don't be, I have an umbrella."
Mr. Rhodes leaned out and surveyed the area. "We will have to walk through an awful lot of mud and water."
The woman inched her way out and rose to her feet. "Better walking through it than lying under it." She then took hold of Mr. Rhodes' hand and he stood up.
"Just what exactly is it you are going to show me?"
"It is only a few feet from here. I do not get to show many people."
She turned and led the way to a small grove of trees not far from the shelter. As they walked, the woman kept the umbrella centered over herself, leaving Mr. Rhodes exposed to the rain.
"Are you sure it's close by?"
Without speaking, the woman stepped to the edge of the grove. Near the center, between the two tallest trees, stood a stone marker, to which she pointed. "It is right there."
For a moment Mr. Rhodes studied it. "I am not sure what it is."
She kneeled down and felt the wet grass. "I do not mind it being up here. It is lovely up here. But something is not right. It should be prettier."
"I do not know what you mean."
"It neeeds flowers," she said, stroking the grass. "The kind that come up every spring, or last all year, even through the snow. You know the kind I mean, don't you? Something to make it prettier. Things have to be pretty. Please say you will plant flowers for me."
"I don't understand," he said. "Is this for a garden?"
The woman slowly rose to her feet and walked to Mr. Rhodes. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to go whereever it is you are going. To run down the hill agin. Sometimes I think it unfair, but what can I do?
A gust of wind rushed past them. The woman turned away and tightened her bonnet. "I hate to leave. Oh, I do. But can't you hear the voices?" And she quickly started up the hillside.
Mr. Rhodes called out after her. "Wait! Where are you going?"
The woman disappeared over the crest of the hill. Then suddenly a shrill, piercing scream rang out and echoed through the trees. Mr. Rhodes stood petrified a moment, then ran through the mud, up over the top of the hill, following the same path the woman had. He searched left and right, pusing his way through the branches of the trees. But the search was to no avail as he stopped, exhausted, to see only the mist moving silently around him.
"Ya just warm yourself up there and I will have some food for ya in a minute," the barmaid said as she began to clear the table. "Ya must be starved."
"I wish you wouldn't go to all this trouble," Mr. Rhodes said. "I am not very hungry."
"Nonsense now. It ain't no trouble at all. And believe me, you can just sit there and be thankful ya didn't get yourself lost hikin' through them hills." She moved behind him and took his coat from the chair. "Ya must a' been foolish for runnin' around in weather like this."
"I'm beginning to think I was," Mr. Rhodes said.
The barmaid hung up the coat and walked back to the table. "Now if I was you, I'd take it easy for a couple a' days." She bent over and began remove the rest of Mr. Rhodes' belongings.
"If only I could," Mr. Rhodes said.
Suddenly the barmaid stood erect. "Look at that now, will ya!" she shouted, picking up the sketchbook. "What a lovely etching of the village! I never seen it like this before!" She turned the drawing sideways. "It's perfect, 'cept that long branch on that tree. Looks like a mistake."
"Just one of many, unfortunately."
"And a lovely lady!" the barmaid exclaimed as she turned the page. "Lordy, she's almost as pretty as myself!"
Mr. Rhodes smiled.
"But ya know, I'm almost sure I seen this lady before."
Mr. Rhodes looked up at her. "You've seen her before?"
"I can't remember where tho'"
The tavern keeper came into the room with a basketful of potatoes braced in his arms.
"Arnie," the barmaid addressed him, "where d' ya suppose I seen this lady before?"
The tavern keeper glanced at the sketchbook, then put down his potatoes. He wiped his hands, walked over and took the drawing for a closer study. "You draw this, did ya?" he asked Mr. Rhodes.
Mr Rhodes nodded. "Yes, earlier this morning."
The keeper handed the sketchbook back to the barmaid and walked over to the potatoes. "I expect you was at the museum today, is that it?" he said, picking up te potatoes and walking out.
"A' course! said the barmaid. "I seen her at the museum. This looks just like this museum lady."
Mr. Rhodes pushed himself away from the table and rose out of the chair. "What museum lady?"
"Why, here's a lady in the museum that looks just like this. Ya must a' copied her."
Mr. Rhodes reached over and took the sketchbook from the woman. Quickly he began to gather his belongings.
"Ay! Now what are ya don' there?" the barmaid shouted. "Your food's almost ready to dish up!"
He pushed his chair aside and made his way to the door, leaving his coat hanging on the wall. After shifting his belongings, he freed a hand and took hold of the latch. "Thanks for the help," he said, pulling the door open and hurrying out.
"Have ya lost your mind?" the barmaid said. She stared at the windowpanes, unable to see past the frost that had formed. "You'll catch your death out there!" She then turned toward the kitchen. "Now what d' ya suppose caused that man ta act so foolish?" she asked her husband, who made no effort to respond.
Outside Mr. Rhodes waited for a trolley car to pass, then crossed the street and hurried along to where a sign indicated the museum to be. He raced up the steps of the building and made his way through the entrance.
"I'm sorry sir," a man at the desk said upon seeing Mr. Rhodes, "But we're closing in a few minutes."
"Please," Mr. Rhodes said, trying to catch his breath, "I need to ask you a question. This woman. Do you know her?"
The man nodded as he looked at the drawing. He stepped from behind the desk and montioned Mr. Rhodes to follow. "A local artist, we assume, drew a portrait very similar. But it was never signed."
They walked past a staircase to a small room at the end of the hallway. There the man removed a set of keys from his coat pocket and unlocked the door. Inside, on all four walls, were several sketches of the woman, along with paintings, a sculpture and even some pieces of scrimshaw.
"Who is she?" Mr. Rhodes asked.
"We believe she was a farm woman who lived outside the village, over a hundred years ago I suspect. They say she was found some day, her body badly beaten, almost beyond recognition. She was an awful sight, or so some reports state. Hair torn out, face gnashed. They put it down as murder."
"She was murdered?" Mr. Rhodes said slowly, staring blankly at the drawing.
"Yes. They never found out who did it, or why, as far as that goes. People who knew her said she was friendly. Liked to talk alot."
Mr. Rhodes continued staring at the drawing until the man reminded him that it was closing time. Mr. Rhodes shut the sketchbook and placed it on the floor below the wall of faces. "Would you mind doing me a favor? Would you please take care of this for me?" he asked the man, and then turned and headed back through the lobby. He paused briefly at the front entrance, then pulled the door open and steppd outside. The street was growing dark, and the air was beginning to smell of burning wood. Mr. Rhodes walkd slowly, his eyes focused straight ahead.
"Excuse me sir," the man from the museum called from the steps.
Mr. Rhodes stopped and turned toward him.
Pointing to a side street the man said, "The nursery is at the end of town."
"Nursery?" Mr. Rhodes asked.
"Yes," the man said. "You will find all kinds of flowers there. The kind that come up every spring, and those that last all year, even through the snow. Those are the kind you need, aren't they?"