The trouble with the boy started in earnest four months ago. We were stopped at a nameless settlement pitched somewhere at the crossroads of torment and oblivion. After three days of exhibiting my paintings, I was leaving with two foreign coins and a few dried ears of corn.
I was loading the canvases when I spied a little girl drawing with her finger in the dirt. I had noticed her in the tent on several occasions; with her parents’ permission, we had made camp within sight of her home, a forlorn lean-to plastered with dried grass and clay. Her skirts were tattered, and her fingernails split. All morning, she had sat on the ground watching us work. I had passed her a half-dozen times, but I stopped in my tracks when I saw on the ground a remarkable likeness of the boy. I had just sent him to get water; she must have studied him closely. When I approached, the girl erased the drawing with her foot. She could not have been more than eight years old.
I rushed to my cart for a pencil and a nickel pad of paper. The girl turned to run home, but the implements in my hand caught her attention. I handed her the pad and asked her to return in a quarter-hour with some sketches from nature. You could count the missing teeth in her smile.
She drew a dead leaf, delicately curled at the tip like an old shepherd’s crook. She drew spears of woollygrass, the silky spikes tucked in tight sheaths like envelopes. She’d taken a common dandelion and made it something new: the head a towering cluster of stern parachutists ready to take to the air. A downy foxtail became—under her hand—a fearsome monument, solid as an oak and brimming with purpose. Her line was strong, her shading skilled, but what struck me was the colossal perspective—she had drawn each form at least ten times larger than life. It had never occurred to me that genius might bloom in the plains. I thought, Here is both artistry and ambition!
I was talking to her parents, a thick, bearded man and his child bride in bandannas, when the boy came around the corner. We stood in the yard, just a worn patch of dirt in front of the lean-to. I was explaining to them what a prodigy was.
I said, “She’s the most gifted draftsman I’ve ever seen at that age. I’m offering an opportunity for her to see more of the world than these four walls of prairie. I have engagements in cities and towns all over this land. Think of Art. Think of Culture. She could have a hand in the leading movements of the day.”
The father’s eyes swept over his homestead. He kicked at a cedar pole propping up his poor roof. His gaze could go no higher than my chin. “What was that you were saying about an indentured apprentice?”
The wife looked immeasurably sad, but she held her tongue.
Finally understanding what was transpiring, the boy started laughing and stomping his feet. He waved his lame hand in the air. “Woo-boy, Farmer John. Watch out! That means he’ll pay you beans right now and live off of her for the rest of his life.”
The wife burst into tears, and I could see the horses in the farmer’s mind start pulling the other way.
“I’m not a man to be cheated,” he said as he straightened. “You can get off my land.”
The boy spoke to him but looked at me. “That’s the right move there, sir. This one would go behind the back of his own kin.”
Since then I’ve been holding short experiments wherever I go, usually when the boy is off on his mysterious errands. Perhaps he disappears because he can’t stand to watch. I put out shards of slate and a few nuggets of chalk, and ask the children to sketch what’s around them. So far, my efforts have turned up only crude outlines of siblings, horses, and cows.
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