She hauled it out and examined it. It was on a thicker, heavier frame than usual, and somehow gave the impression of being very old, even as it appeared fresh and ready for use. She vaguely remembered buying it at a garage sale or something. She carried it outside and set it up on her easel, facing the lake, then readied her palette.
She began to paint, swift sure strokes, capturing the autumn hues on the far ridge and the way they reflected in the placid blue water before her. She frowned at the house on the lower slope of the ridge. The rest of the few cabins scattered about Cedar Lake remained out of sight behind trees and brush, considerately preserving the view for everyone. That one house stood brazen, defiant.
The swath of trees cut down to give the owners unobstructed vistas from every window left a swatch of plain, uninteresting green lawn. Exposed against it, the house squatted, aggressively chrome and glass, a defiantly alien intruder on the peacful landscape. Wanda made an abrupt decision, scraped the canvas clean with her palette knife and a little turpentine, and began painting that section of the hill as it had looked only a few years before.'
She filled in the space with trees just like the ones she'd painted around it. Finished, she glanced up, then stiffened. The house, the hateful, infuriating, obnoxious house, no longer loomed over the opposite side of the lake. The forest there was unbroken, just as she'd painted it, just as it had been until workmen arrived to clear it three years ago.
Wanda could think of only one explanation, but she needed to test it to be sure. She glanced down at her canvas again, painted in more of the ridgetop and the forest along it. Then, slowly and carefully, she painted in a magnificent pine, towering above all the other trees around it. When she glanced up, the pine stood, majestic, just as she'd depicted it. The only trouble was, no such pine had stood anywhere near that spot for as long as she'd known the lake.
As carefully as she'd painted it, Wanda erased the pine from the canvas, and, with her mind on other things, filled in the rest of the landscape she'd begun. No pine now defied lightning and wind from atop the ridge. A disturbing thought crossed her mind, and Wanda set aside the palette and brush and went inside. She booted up her computer, logged onto the Internet, then frowned in concentration.
What was the name of the people who'd built that awful house? DeLark? No, but something like that. Thaddeus De'Lorco, that was it! With trembling fingers she typed his name into Google and hit Enter. She checked several entries. There could be no doubt it was the same man, although she'd been sure his wife's name was Lauren, not Samantha. Lauren De'Lorco was just too silly a name to mistake, after all.
It seemed, according to the information she found on Google, that he'd bought a slightly larger site on another lake two counties away. He'd caused the same fuss, though, insisting on building an eyesore in the middle of an unspoiled spot. If anything, the battle over his plans seemed to have been even more bitter, but he finally prevailed.
She decided she needed time to think about these things. She prepared a simple dinner for herself, just slices of tomato and mozzarella scattered with basil leaves and moistened with olive oil. Then she went to bed, sleeping soundly until dawn. When she first woke, she wondered if she'd just had a very strange dream, but she padded out to her front porch and peered through the branches to see the house was really gone. After breakfast, she went into her studio, where she'd brought her newest painting last night.
The canvas still leaned where she'd placed it, facing the door, but it was completely blank! She rushed over to study it, but she could not detect even the faintest traces of paint. She needed a few supplies anyway, so she hopped into her Volvo and drove to town, parking in front of the grocery. She picked up the things she needed, then pottered around until the few other shoppers had left. She took her things up to the counter, returned the grocer's greeting, and paid.
"Say, Ralph, do you remember anything about a house across from mine?"
"On the ridge?"
"No houses there that I know of. Used to be, way back in the eighteen hundreds, but if you didn't know where to look I doubt you'd even find the foundation by now."
"Not an old house, I was thinking of new construction. A fellow named De'Lorco."
Ralph frowned and scratched his nose. "De'Lorco? Wait, there was something... Oh, I remember. Four years ago, I think it was, fellow by that name almost bought a parcel on the ridge. Had another place he wanted to build, but they were giving him too much trouble. Then a court case went his way, or something, and he backed out. Never heard anything of it since. Why?"
"I happened to think of it, but I couldn't remember the details. You know how those things can annoy you."
"Oh, I sure do! Well, good day, Miz Milley."
"Thanks, Ralph! You've set my mind at ease." Without another word, she carried her bags out to the car and drove home.
She didn't touch the canvas again for two weeks. If it was really capable of what it seemed to be, if she could really alter reality just by depicting the result she wanted, it was a frightening power. She wanted to think it over, to be sure she didn't somehow abuse it, or fail to consider the consequences of what she might do. Every day, though, she longed to go back to it, to paint fresh scenes on its surface.
Two weeks of resisting, two weeks of building curiosity, and she set up the canvas again. Today, she was about to paint, not just making an image of what she saw, but actually creating reality. She couldn't wait to learn what she could do! At first, she experimented carefully, sticking to unimportant things. She added a fence around her garden, she got rid of a dead tree she'd been meaning to have taken down since last year.
She found that the canvas was always wiped clean as she slept. Anything she painted on it became real, and remained that way unless she altered the painting. She also found she could clean a painting from the canvas herself without disturbing the reality she'd created, as long as she cleaned away the entire painting instead of changing it.
She also learned that she was the only person who could recall things as they'd been before she altered them. She even accidentally discovered that the changes she depicted could lead to other changes as well. Making up her mind one day to paint a series of views of her little cabin outside and in, remodelling it as she'd so long wished she could, she painted the cabin as she wanted it to be.
She had made it her habit, after every painting, to do everything in her power to notice any change, even ones she hadn't planned or expected. That evening, she realised her paintings could command a higher price than had been true before. Thinking it over, she realised that, in order to allow her to have made the improvements she wanted in this new reality, she had to have more money.
Wanda began to consider that she could use an image to represent more abstract changes. This opened up new possibilities, but it also increased the risks of what she was doing. How could she be sure whatever power tied her canvas to reality would interpret such abstract ideas in the same way she intended them. She experimented, but even more slowly and carefully than she had when learning to reshape mere physical reality.
She worked her way up to a self portrait where she weighed twenty pounds less, glowed with health, and appeared fifteen years younger. Men stared at her again, and she felt much better than she had in years. Then one day the visiting nephew of a neighbout borrowed a canoe and fell into the middle of the lake. Men gathered, diving into the lake, grim faced, as Wanda watched from shore, tears soaking her cheeks, waiting for them to bring up the poor boy's body.
While she waited, she began to wonder. Could she do anything to change this reality? She rushed inside, dragged out the canvas, and began to paint a scene of the boy, who she'd seen once, alive and playing by the shore of the lake. Suddenly, the voices of the rescuers floating over the water ceased, and she looked up to find that she had, indeed, given that little boy back his life.
She began to look for ways to do good with this strange gift that she'd been given, painting intact houses where fires had struck the night before, depicting the dead alive and literally breathing life back into them with her brush. While wars raged in far-off lands, famines continued to haunt Africa, and murder remained an accepted part of life in any big city, the region where Wanda lived grew peaceful and content, a place where tragedy never struck.
Wanda spread her efforts over as wide circle as she felt she could manage, and continually sought ways to do even more. She ignored the wars, the reports of mass killings, the headlines that spoke of atrocities that might have left even Hitler with nightmares, because those were too far away, and she didn't feel she could stop those things.
Although she wondered why she had been chosen, she didn't let that stop her from doing what she could. Finally, one day when things were quiet and there was little work for her to do, she sat down and painted herself, looking up at a vague figure with its back turned. Both of them were gesturing at a canvas; Wanda wanted so badly to meet whoever was behind this wonderful gift, to thank them, and to ask why she'd been chosen to receive it.
She added the last brush stroke, and looked up to see a handsome man standing at her side, smirking down at her. Despite his good looks, there was something about him that made her uneasy.
"Who are you?"
"Don't you recognise me? I made the canvas you've painted on for so many years."
"Oh!" Wanda put her hand to her mouth, afraid she might have offended him.
"But perhaps I'm more familiar to you like this." As he spoke, his features sharpened. His skin turned the shade of a wood stove with a roaring fire inside, and sharp points appeared on his forehead. He smirked again, flipped a pitchfork from hand to hand, then caught it with the tip of a tail she hadn't noticed before.
Wanda stared, horrified. "But, but... You're... I've done good!"
His laugh held the sound of hot iron hissing in water, of rocks grinding on the shore in a storm where many men would never come home, of thousands of throats baying their hatred for men just like them. "Of course you have. It grated on me, I admit. But I had to let you do it. It was the only way."
Wanda was sure she would not like the answer, but she asked anyway. "But why?"
"If I hadn't distracted you, if I hadn't let you do good, your talent would have developed along much different lines."
Wanda waited, sure he wouldn't resist the opportunity to explain how he'd somehow tricked her. It only took ten seconds.
"I'll show you what you might have been, if I hadn't managed to give you a chance to do good!" He spat the words, then drew a circle in the air with his fingers.
Inside it, Wanda saw herself, about the age she was now, up on a stage, receiving an award of some kind from a man she didn't recognise. Then the scene changed, and she saw a newspaper with her photo on the front page, below a headline that read "Artist's Masterpiece Stirred Conscience of Al-Hijazi, Crippling Plans for Second Holocaust"
She buried her face in her hands and wept.