You have probably heard the old adage, “practice makes perfect”. I’m not entirely sure this is true, readers, but I see the sense behind it. I do not really expect my art will ever be perfect—if such a thing is even possible—no matter how much I practice, but I do think practice leads to improvement, and there are a great many steps on the way to perfection. So if practice does not necessarily make perfect, I think it will at least make passable, and decent, and perhaps, one day, even pretty good. All of which is to say that I intend to take my responsibility as illustrator seriously, and have been working hard to develop my abilities. It was with that goal in mind that I took my sketchbook out on a hike this week to capture some of Prism Bay’s natural wonders. I cannot claim my trip was any great success, but it was an adventure.
When I say “sketchbook”, by the way, what I really mean is “notebook generally used for outlines and story ideas temporarily pressed into service for sketching”. I am a little low on art supplies just now, readers. To be honest, I didn’t come to Prism Bay prepared for a career in the visual arts. Until now, I’ve been getting away using digital media, but I didn’t want to take my computer out hiking, which really left only my lined notebooks and ballpoint pens. That seemed like plenty for a few studies, however, so I took up pad and pen and set forth in search of inspiration.
I did not tell Mrs. Sylvester my plans for the day. In retrospect, I know this was a bad idea, but at the time I simply wanted the chance to see Prism Bay on my own. Mrs. Sylvester has definite opinions about what is and is not appropriate for her residents—meaning me, since I’m the only one here—and sometimes I get the sense that these are preventing me from getting the full experience of the town and its surroundings.
For example, last week I asked her whether there was anyplace nearby I could rent a scooter, so that I might tool around at a bit higher speed than a bicycle allowed, and she said, “None that I would recommend, Mr. Black.” Well, readers, there is such a place, Stan’s Fanciful Transportation, right on the town’s main drag. Mrs. Sylvester must have known it was there—she just wouldn’t recommend it. In the same way, on one of my first days here, I went out wearing an old baseball cap, and when Mrs. Sylvester saw it, she pursed her lips and frowned. I will admit that it was an old and somewhat raggedy hat, readers, but baseball caps are often old and raggedy. When I returned to the Hemlocks later that day, I found a new hat in my room with a note reading, Compliments of the house. It was a very attractive and stylish piece of headwear, readers, what I think is called a “Panama hat”. I quite like it, actually, and I do not mean to complain about receiving such a nice gift. But I did not miss the implied message, either: that my other hat—my ratty baseball cap—was not welcome. For being complimentary, it was awfully critical.
I am not taking issue with Mrs. Sylvester’s standards of suitable attire and behavior. The “Dress and Comportment” section of her fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information was enough to let me know what I was getting into. That isn’t why I made such an effort to leave the house without her notice. It is only that I was hoping to see Prism Bay for myself—to discover, to be surprised. I didn’t want the tourist version of things. I wasn't going far, and planned to be back in time for lunch. I thought I could handle that much on my own. I was wrong, dear readers, very wrong indeed.
Everything went wonderfully at first. It was a beautiful day—almost as if Prism Bay itself knew I was out to paint its portrait and wanted to be at its majestic best. The Hemlocks stands among a great many towering, old growth trees—tall pines, mostly, with thick, sturdy trunks. I have not seen any actual hemlock plants anywhere nearby—there is very little underbrush, which makes for easy hiking, as long as you’re careful around the thick roots knotted up beneath the layers of fallen pine needles. Once you’re out among the trees, very little sunlight actually reaches the ground, but a luminous green glow filters down from the canopy above, almost as if the ancient pines are emitting a light of their own.
There is a point at which the forest ends abruptly, and the ground rises toward windswept cliffs overlooking Prism Bay. You can see almost the entire town—the waterfront bit, anyway—and across to the head of land at the far side, what I’ve been thinking of as West Egg, with its roost of impressive mansions (so impressive they still manage to impress even from that distance). I tried sketching this view a few times, readers, but I think that particular composition will have to wait for another time. After a few pretty unsuccessful attempts, I decided to walk a little farther along the cliffs in the hope of finding a simpler subject, and eventually came to a spot where I could look out onto the open ocean. It was sublime, readers, but also a little less daunting than the full harbor scene—more in keeping with my nascent drawing abilities, I judged.
I sat down and began to sketch. Even this was a long way from easy, dear readers: the ocean is always changing, and while I already knew as much on an intellectual level, it was not really made clear to me until I tried to draw a seascape for myself. Every time I looked, something about the view was different. The waves, the wind, the play of sky and water—it all combined to create something living and elusive. I was especially concerned with the color, which I knew would be one of the hardest things to get right, since all I had was a single black pen. The water was green from that height, readers, but it was a very different green from the soft, warm green of the forest. This green was cold, and deep—you could almost feel the chill of the water—and had many different shades, some subtle, some less so, varying with the light and what was happening beneath the surface. Darker patches might mean especially deep water, or a passing school of fish, or some change in the consistency of the ocean floor. There was one especially large area of darker green I thought must be a ledge or reef or other submerged rocky landform. It was roughly the size and shape of a traffic rotary, readers—so big I could only take it all in at once because I was up on a cliff. I made a few sketches, so I could color in the right shape and proportions later, but it wasn’t easy. Each time I started a new drawing, the thing seemed to have moved. I would almost have thought it was the shadow from a passing cloud, but the weather was clear, only my baseball cap between me and the sun (yes, I was wearing the maligned cap; I was being my own man today, readers).
Overall, I’d say it was a highly productive morning. I added several sketches to my notebook, avoided sunburn, and did not fall off a single cliff. As noon approached, I packed up my materials and set off for the Hemlocks and lunch. It was quite a change of scenery, stepping back into the forest; the bright sunlight was replaced by that green glow, and the rush of ocean wind became a whisper not even strong enough to rustle the leaves. I would not quite call it “murky”, but there was a powerful sense of seclusion—even isolation.
I hadn’t been walking long when I noticed a sound like the brushing of pine needles. The sound had, I realized, been there for some time, though only now had it become loud enough for me to be really aware of it. The brushing of pines is not such a strange thing to hear in a forest, especially one largely made up of pine trees, but it made me turn around, and when I did, I saw several shapes out in the woods, amid the shifting green light. They were human shapes, that much I could tell—a relief, because my mind had instantly jumped to images of wild beasts, no doubt a worry lingering from the threat of death by ravenous raccoons during my appeal to G’lal the Devourer. But these were plainly people—fellow hikers, I assumed. I waved and called out “Hello!” and “Lovely day!” and other such things one is expected to say when one meets strangers in a forest.
The shapes did not seem to hear me, readers, and at first I wasn’t too concerned. Having met my social obligation as a fellow hiker, I continued on my way to the Hemlocks, but soon I again heard the sound of brushing pine needles. When I turned to look behind me, the other hikers were still there, but much closer this time. I could see now that they were not clothed in what I would describe as traditional hiking attire. They were in camouflage, readers, and not the usual green-and-brown-and-black-looks-sort-of-like-a-forest print type of camouflage, but something that strongly resembled bits of actual forest: moss and grass and leaves and bark, or at least an impressive imitation thereof. Such outfits, I’ve heard, are called a “ghillie suits”, and are popular with hunters and military snipers especially serious about blending into the landscape. Here was a frightening thought, readers: what if these were hunters?
I knew hunting wasn’t typically allowed in Prism Bay this time of year—as stated clearly in my fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information. Deer were out of season, as were moose, bear, and most of your other standard game. But I also knew some hunters don’t really care what is or isn’t in season. And I was not wearing orange, readers; I was wearing jeans and a baseball cap and a t-shirt that said “riptide”. This is not how deer typically dress, but who knew what I looked like from a distance? I thought back to the section discussing hunting in those fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information, and how it had mentioned explicitly that the hunting of human beings is only allowed in October, a comment I’d considered funny at the time but which now seemed terribly ominous.
I began to wave my arms and shout things like, “Hey you!” and “Don’t shoot!”, but if the hypothetical hunters took any notice of these very specifically human activities, they gave no hint of it. They only stood there, watching me from within their mossy camouflage. Their faces were hidden, but I thought I detected the occasional flash of red, which I took to be the scopes of any number of laser sights. When waving and shouting failed, I ran. This was a dumb thing to do, I know. If these people did indeed have weapons trained on me, my sudden flight might cause one of them to reflexively pull the trigger, but I wasn’t thinking about this at the time. I only wanted to get out of there, and so I ran, now and then checking over my shoulder to see if the they were still behind me—and they were, readers, closer each time I looked.
When one is running through the woods as fast as one can go, it is important to pay attention to the path ahead. This is another sensible thing I had temporarily forgotten in my haste to escape death by hunting rifle or potentially bow and arrow, and as a result I ended up tripping over a particularly thick tree root. I wasn’t hurt—I was fortunate enough to land on ground soft with fallen pine needles—but it put an end to any chance of escape. The figures were close now, crouched among the trunks and mossy deadwood, probably aiming their weapons.
I was about to make one final appeal for my life, when from behind me, I heard, “Mr. Black, are you quite all right?” I knew without having to look that it was Mrs. Sylvester, but I looked anyway. There she was, in her usual elaborate attire, perched on the path leading back to the Hemlocks. I was about to warn her about the possible hunters possibly stalking me, but something made me glance back toward the forest, and when I did, the shapes were gone.
“Yes, I’m all right, thank you,” I said, getting to my feet, feeling very silly indeed. “I was just hiking, and I, um, tripped over those roots back there.”
“I see,” Mrs. Sylvester said, graciously accepting this half-truth. “In the future, Mr. Black, I hope you will let someone know when you are going out, even if you are just hiking.”
It was good advice, readers. I am not a regular hiker, but even I know that, before setting out on a hike, you ought to tell someone where you’ll be, and when you plan to be back, because bad things can happen to a person out alone, things much worse than tripping over a root. One only needs to watch the film 127 Hours with James Franco—or, as I have, read the plot summary on Wikipedia. Had something worse nearly happened to me? “Did you see those people?” I asked Mrs. Sylvester. “There were people out here with me.”
Mrs. Sylvester arched an eyebrow. “People?” she said. “Ah, you must mean the Forest Wraiths.”
“I thought maybe they were hunters or something,” I said, though really I was thinking, Forest Wraiths? Really?
“Oh, no, Mr. Black,” said Mrs. Sylvester. “There is no hunting permitted on the grounds of the Hemlocks.”
“So maybe, I don’t know, nature photographers?” I said, unable to shake the sense of having been in something’s sights. “Bird watchers?”
Mrs. Sylvester had nothing further to say on the subject. "Might you be mistaken for a bird, Mr. Black?" she asked, eyebrow still arched. "By the bill on your cap, perhaps?"
I could not escape the feeling, readers, that I might have been spared all this distress if only I'd worn the correct hat—the hat Mrs. Sylvester had given me—rather than my ratty baseball cap. How this would be, I wasn't sure, but I suddenly felt quite silly for not following my host's advice. When it became obvious I had no excuse for my fashion faux pas, Mrs. Sylvester only smiled and said, “Would you like some lunch?”
Fleeing for my life had distracted from my appetite, readers, but I really was quite hungry. I followed Mrs. Sylvester back to the house, putting thoughts of the Forest Wraiths Photographic and/or Ornithological Society—perhaps a sister organization to the Tide Wraiths Intramural Sailing Club?—as far as I could from my mind.
I think Mrs. Sylvester could tell I was somewhat shaken from my experience in the woods, and even if she didn’t seem to consider an encounter with the Forest Wraiths much cause for distress, she sympathized nonetheless. As we finished our meal—excellent, as always—Mrs. Sylvester suggested I might enjoy a trip to the Prism Bay Beach Club, to which all residents of the Hemlocks enjoy complimentary membership. “You would find it relaxing, I think,” she said.
It sounded like a superb idea. I had planned to spend the afternoon trying to translate my sketches into color by way of my computer, but just then I was definitely in need of a little relaxation. I went to my room to change and pack a few items for the beach. As I was picking out a book from my mobile library, I noticed something on the floor. The desk in my room is an elegant old thing, probably made for hand-writing letters, though it’s an excellent fit for my laptop also. Just underneath, I saw what looked to me like a large pendant necklace lying on the carpet. It was a little gaudy, in my opinion, with a lot of gold and precious-looking stones. To me it resembled costume jewelry more than anything else, but at the Hemlocks, things are rarely as they seem. For all I knew, it was some ancient Sylvester heirloom, worth thousands of dollars, or pounds, or pieces of eight, or whatever currency Mrs. Sylvester uses in her daily transactions. Either way, the floor probably wasn’t where it was meant to be; I left it on my desk, planning to ask Mrs. Sylvester about it later, and set off for the beach.
I have already described to you some of the stranger elements of Prism Bay’s summer community, dear readers, but it would be wrong to suggest the entire seasonal population is made up of what I’ve begun to think of as “summer people”—your forest wraiths and tide wraiths and crepuscular customers. In the time since I took up residence at the Hemlocks, the tourist season has begun in earnest, and Prism Bay has swelled with visitors, most of them just the sort of people you’d expect to find in any summer town: families with young children, couples enjoying a romantic getaway, single men hoping to make progress on their novels. They often have an air of affluence and privilege that sets them apart from the locals, but if the presence of a pink polo or set of lobster-embroidered trousers is sometimes a giveaway, they’re not always as easy to tell apart from the year-round residents as if they were, say, veiled in white, drifting silently through the fog on an oarless rowboat. And it was by and large this sort of summer person, the more traditional sort, that I found at the Prism Bay Beach Club.
The club itself is quite a lovely place, a two-story shingle-sided building, comfortable but not excessively lavish, set on a secluded stretch of beach. The broken shell parking area was full of old-fashioned but well-maintained cars, ranging from a pretty badass old LaSalle convertible to a Volvo station wagon of possibly 1990s vintage. Nothing, so far as I could see, from the present century. Inside, the floor plan is mostly open, with tall doors opening onto a patio and from there, the beach. It turned out there was a changing area with lockers for valuables, but since I had already changed I headed straight for the water. The beach was busy but not crowded, boisterous but not loud. There were a good many children, all of whom seemed remarkably well behaved for kids just released to summer vacation. There was a small library, too, and even though I’d brought a book of my own, I took a quick inventory, impressed to see, in addition to the expected thrillers and mysteries, a few quite enormous reads, including William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton.
I set up on a lounge chair beneath one of the abundant beach umbrellas lining the shore, and spent the next hour or so reading and watching the waves. Before long, the day began to heat up, and I decided it was time for a swim. The swimming area was quite overrun by then, and I didn’t much like the idea of fighting for space with screaming children. Fortunately, there was plenty of ocean outside the roped-in boundary—but as I made my way toward the water, I heard someone call out, “Sir! Excuse me, sir! You can’t go in there!” At first, I didn’t think I was the “sir” in question, until the voice said, “Hey, mister! You in the plaid bathing suit!”
That was me, readers. I stopped and looked around for the source of the voice, and discovered a peculiar young man running toward me along the sand. He was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, and he was not dressed for the beach. Not only was he without a swimsuit, he was covered from head to toe in some kind of metallic getup. He had pads and plates on his arms and chest, and a thick face cage, like a catcher’s mask. He looked like he was getting ready to feed a pack of hungry bears. “Excuse me, young man, are you talking to me?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “I’m sorry, but you need to stay in the swimming area.”
He seemed like a very polite young man, and to me, at least, his outfit didn’t seem that strange. I could imagine how a kid, especially a geeky kid with an active imagination, might not go in for the traditional beach activities, and would prefer some fantasy-themed costume to the more traditional swimsuit and sunglasses. He probably got enough grief from other children his age, less socially awkward children who would spend this summer going on mock dates and having first kisses while this kid clanked around in a world of his own. Maybe I was projecting a bit. Anyway, he didn’t need me hassling him, too. “Oh, don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m a pretty good swimmer.”
“Sure, sir,” he said from inside his catcher’s mask, “but I still can’t let you go outside the designated swimming area. It’s not allowed.”
“I just want to take a quick dip,” I said, and made to continue on my way.
“I sorry sir,” he said, louder but still very polite. “I can’t allow it.”
“Why not?” I asked, turning to glare at him. “Are you the lifeguard?”
“Well, yeah,” he answered, unfazed.
Readers, he was not the lifeguard. For one thing, a person has to be at least fifteen to be certified as a lifeguard—something I know from having done it myself—and this young man, as I have said, could not have been much more than thirteen. Also, he was rather small, and I couldn’t exactly see him dragging a fully-grown adult from the water, even had he been wearing appropriate swimming attire instead of this full suit of armor. Plainly he was having difficulty separating fantasy from reality. And as I tried to figure out how to deal with this young weirdo, I noticed something else. “Is that,” I said, sputtering with surprise and indignation, “are you wearing a sword?”
He followed my incredulous gaze to the item hanging from his belt. “Actually it’s more of a dirk,” he said.
“A real one?” I asked. Readers, the weapon was nearly as long as my forearm.
“Well, yeah,” he said, shrugging. “No one would take me seriously if I only had an imaginary one.”
I did not quite know what to say to that, readers. Fortunately—or so I thought then—we were at that point joined by a woman in a red one-piece swimsuit. She had sunglasses and a whistle and was, in short, the very picture of a more traditional lifeguard. Really, I was just glad to have another adult present. “Is there a problem here, Tyler?” she said to the young man in beach armor.
“Hi Shirley,” said the kid who was, presumably, named Tyler. “No problem. He’s just trying to swim outside the swimming area.”
“You’re not allowed to swim outside the swimming area, sir,” Shirley said to me.
“Thank goodness you’re here, ma’am,” I said, ignoring most of their conversation and pointing to Tyler. “This child is armed.”
Shirley glanced at Tyler and the dirk at his waist. “Well of course,” she said, with complete sincerity. “He’s a lifeguard.”
Readers, I was out of patience. I did not know exactly what was happening here, but I knew that, if it continued to happen, I was going to do or say something inappropriate. Maybe this Tyler was the child of rich and influential parents who could arrange for people to humor his bizarre behavior. Perhaps Shirley was not a lifeguard at all, or any other type of authority figure, but his irresponsible and indulgent mother. Whatever was really behind this strange situation, I didn’t think I could confront it without making a scene, and I didn’t want to make a scene. Word might get back to Mrs. Sylvester, and I knew she would not approve of scenes. I might even be risking my welcome at the Hemlocks. So I gave up on the idea of swimming, and went to the bar instead for a daiquiri time out.
I was glad to see that at least no one else got to swim outside the designated swimming area. If it had transpired that this club had a different set of rules for privileged rich people, I doubt I could have restrained my indignation. As it was, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and sketching—and secretly watching Tyler and Shirley in case they did anything bizarre, though there were no further incidents so far as I could tell. And I will admit, too, that the water outside the designated swimming area did look unusually cold, and that the surface seemed to churn in a different way than the surrounding water—so, who knows, maybe there was an undertow out there, and Tyler the well-armed young man, patrolling the beach in his costume, guarded my life after all.
Until next time, readers, don’t go into the woods alone, and don’t bring a sword to the beach!