Winter was the best season for dryad-watching. They don’t move around as much, and the naked forest cannot hide them as easily. In the deep snows, they sometimes forget to move at all.
After the autumn rush, barrel-making had worn my hands raw. I was ready for an uneventful winter, and I had paints and charcoal and some acceptable canvas. I was ready to find a subject to work on until the spring.
They swarmed in these woods, near the Navy sawmill. The shipfitters only wanted the toughest old oaks and the tallest firs; dryads only care about young trees, so it all works out. The foresters bring back stories with their timber of the beauties they’d seen or flirted with, or wilder stories about sexual liaisons in the leaf litter. They were all lies, of course. Until winter, all you’ll see is a flicker of motion; the only sounds a rustle or perhaps distant laughter.
Come the first snowfall, I began taking long hikes out into the wood, bearing some flats of birchbark and a good charcoal for sketches. I found a few dryads every day. Mostly old ones, their skin so rough and weathered they might easily be mistaken for tree trunks. I made a few quick tries at them, trying to capture how they moved, stalking away from me with stiff dignity.
Nothing really fired my imagination, though. Not until I saw her at the first freeze.
Vinh’s Creek takes its sweet time to freeze in the winter, and despite the narrowness of the watercourse, is too deep and rapid for the casual traveler to contemplate fording. So I set up at one of its many sharp bends, atop a large rock that gave me a fair view of the hills. I was going to rough out some landscapes. Instead, I saw movement.
She moved slowly, picking her way along the bank of the Vinh. Each of her steps was silent. She walked the way a fogbank moves.
I was afraid to move. There was no way she could have not seen me. Even if I’d remained still as death, my breath in the cold would have given me away. She came closer anyway, following the creek.
Dryads tend towards slender, while they still have features that can be discerned, but this one had the curves of a woman, not a maid. Red-brown skin, smooth like stripped cedar. She retained the last of her autumn leaves, brown and orange. Besides the leaves on her head, there were a few stubborn holdouts sprouted from her wrists and ankles.
Her eyes were on the water; I could not see them. This made my heart ache for some reason.
She made her way along, leaving no tracks in the snow, pausing only to look at where the ice built up at the Vinh’s still points. She had almost disappeared before I remembered to draw. I knocked out a quick rough of her walking away, and it was one of those times where everything went perfectly. Every line, every suggestion of a round, every smear of shadow broke just the way it did from my eye to the birch.
She was gone, but I had a little piece of her.
Back in my cabin, I placed the little sketch on my makeshift barrel-stave easel. It had everything. It had movement. It had subtlety. It had enough subtle eroticism to compel, but enough innocent nature to elevate it. It was the best work I’d ever done.
I had to get another of her.
The other dryads no longer registered to me in my walks. I returned straight back to the bend in Vinh’s Creek and my rock. For my devotion, I was rewarded. She returned there frequently, tracing out the same path, never acknowledging my presence.
It took some hauling, but I installed a half-barrel for a seat, and began bringing proper canvas. I wore mittens while I waited, but not when she appeared. It didn’t matter. I no longer felt the cold while I drew her.
A dozen large birch flats, and three old canvases filled with drawing of her: picking her steps along the bank, kneeling to examine pine seedlings or mushrooms, and even once when she looked up at the frosty sky and I saw her dark eyes like jewels and fell in love. Perhaps even dryads feel their sap run low, for she did not appear as frequently, nor move as quickly.
Every sketch was perfect. Every one looked like they’d been passed down by the masters. As long as she was my subject, I couldn’t put a mark wrong. I was ready for paint.
I painted over a treacly portrait of a town square I used to think of as my best. I needed some room to warm up.
She needed no background, save a blur to suggest the forest. The next decision still loomed: what pose? I had several to choose, but what would really capture her? For my first rough, I decided to use my first sketch as a model. The dryad walking away, one foot crossing over the other as she turned a corner, one hand tentatively brushing against a sapling, not for balance, but just touching a familiar landmark.
The exact color eluded me at first. Too red. Too gold! I trooped back out to the rock for two days until she reappeared again. I had a palette ready this time. She moved gingerly down to the ice, testing it. I painted daub after daub until I could match her skin. The paint was sluggish in this cold, and snow kept trying to make it run, but I got it.
I noticed she had lost more leaves, retaining only a few on her head. I supposed it was part of their seasonal cycle.
Dryad Nude #1 came together quickly, after that. I did not remember eating. When I managed to pry myself away from adding in one last detail and stepped back, it was no longer a sketch. It was magnificent, as if she was in the cottage with me. But it didn’t show her face.
I began another, on fresh canvas this time.
For days, the other sketches warred in my mind. Pick me! No, only I can show her! While they fought, I worked up a more detailed background. It idealized the features of that snowy bend of the Vinh, creating a sort of amphitheater in which my blessed subject could perform. I took the most interesting shapes from all my walks and populated this little world with them. The colors of winter blended themselves into a subdued curtain to display her autumn fires.
In the end, none of the sketches won the right to become Dryad Nude #2. I knew her shape by now. I could pose her in my mind’s eye. I left space for her to sit down at the creek’s edge, extending a graceful leg to test the icy water. It resembled a traditional female figure pose I’d studied, back before I lost my life to making barrels.
Only force of will kept me from losing myself in her details. I wanted to show every one. If I did that, though, I knew that the viewer would see only her eyes, her nipples, her errant leaves. Destroying her elegant totality would not serve her or me. I agonized over every stroke. It was no longer the effortless victory of the sketches, or the exuberant celebration of the rough painting. If I could place her image from my mind onto this canvas, she would be my dryad.
Dryad Nude #2 resisted any further attempts to improve it some time after the equinox. I hadn’t been eating or sleeping adequately for weeks. I hadn’t left the cottage since my color test. The dryad stared at the water in my painting, content yet slightly mournful for something the viewer couldn’t see.
There was nothing I could do without seeing her again. A vision of showing the painting to her formed in my mind and wouldn’t leave.
With the canvas wrapped against the snow, I hauled it and a small supply of paint out to the rock. A false thaw had laid hidden ice for the unwary; I nearly lost everything when I slipped.
She was already there when I reached Vinh’s Creek, standing still as one of the trees she cared for. It had clearly been a hard winter for dryads. She was bald of any of her leaves, and didn’t move at all while I checked for any last touches. I decided to widen her eyes a little, based on her expression that day. It made her look more vulnerable, a little afraid.
It was perfect.
“Thank you,” I said to the dryad before packing up and starting home. They were the only words I ever spoke to her. I celebrated with a little bad apple brandy.
Dryad Nude #2 (I’d need to think of a better title before taking it down into the city) was going to end this squalid existence of mine. No more buying sawmill scraps, no more melting pitch, no more humping out in the midsummer heat to plug barrels for ungrateful customers. They’d see I was an artist of the fine mould now.
I perhaps celebrated too much. It was already dark when I found myself staggering back into the wood without even a lantern. Looking back, I suppose I would have died right then, lost. The moonlight guided me through, though. I was drunk enough to be stubborn, not so drunk as to be unable to walk.
She was still right where I left her.
Dormant? I couldn’t think. I actually made up my mind to go cross the creek and thank her with a kiss. She’d run off, of course, and nothing would come of it. Or she’d be asleep, and never know, and nothing would come of it.
She looked different in the moonlight, as if her shape had changed. Before I managed to pitch myself off the bank onto the ice, I noticed she had indeed changed shape.
Her arm had fallen off. Beetles had bored holes in her wood. She’d been dead for weeks.
Of my flight through the woods, I recall nothing. When I awoke in the sawmill, I was feverish and still in panic. The kind woodsmen hadn’t a chance to contain or even dress me before I bolted out of the building, headed for my cooper’s cottage not far up the hill. Snow burned my bare feet, and I didn’t care. Only the painting mattered now.
It was still there, still on its easel, perfect. Damned and perfect. The dryad still lived in my little world, with her beauty and her deerlike caution.
I immediately knew I’d killed her. This painting had captured her in a real sense somehow, trapping her spirit so that her body had withered. It hadn’t been the winter. It hadn’t been the beetles. I had murdered her.
With Spring Thaw approaching, I should have been getting my business ready for the season. I had a standing Navy contract for hogsheads I allowed to slip into arrears. The two paintings and smattering of sketches haunted me. I wanted to destroy them, came close to doing so several times. In the end, I thought that keeping them was a better punishment.
I’d never sell them. No fat brothel owner would have my dryad up in their parlor for dissolute patrons to leer at her curves. No one deserved her. I certainly didn’t either, but I needed reminding of what I’d done. Never again would those glittering eyes see the birds. There would never be another gentle shrug of those brown shoulders. I never even learned her name.
The thaw found me a filthy scarecrow hermit. The foresters tried to leave me food. Animals ate it from my doorstep.
I found myself examining all the pictures in detail. If I could find some imperfection, perhaps I wasn’t the culprit after all. Perhaps it had been coincidence. That hope died quickly. Whatever vengeful spirit had gifted me with talent beyond myself had also ensured her doom.
Spring came, and there was no food. I hadn’t been eating much, but even so I’d depleted my winter stores. I looked out at the buds on the trees and it was abomination that anything should be hopeful again.
I picked a few of the first few snowflower buds, at first because their beauty angered me, and then because a new idea had seized me. I would put flowers on her remains.
They were in as sad a state as I was by the time I’d staggered out to the bend in the Vinh. The dryad had crumbled quickly, leaving almost no sign that she’d been. Other dryads were moving around again. They gave me wide berth as ever. I left the flowers and retreated.
The paintings were her last traces. I resolved to put them up for safekeeping and view them every spring, so that she would not be
forgotten. As I went to wrap up #2, I noticed it had green leaves.
The dryad had green leaves that I’d never painted.
I wasn’t sure if spirits, or rickets, or the madness that had taken me over the winter was responsible. But every time I looked, I could see them. Her expression looked a little less afraid, a little less mournful. The painting had changed! I touched the canvas. It wasn’t fresh paint; no one had sneaked into the cottage and changed it, and I hadn’t had some kind of fit and painted over it and then forgotten. Or had I?
If there was a way to trap a spirit in a painting too perfect, could that spirit actually live on? Was I keeping her prisoner here? If I destroyed the canvas, would that release her? Or would she be utterly, finally dead?
By the souls of my mother-line, I didn’t know what to do.
Eight times (I counted!) I had all my paints ready to add to the painting, seizing on the hope that if I added a path leading off out of the little dell that she'd escape. I had the canvas over my knee, ready to break the frame and free at least one of us from this torment, but couldn't bring myself to do it.
A messenger from the Admiralty delivered a writ demanding I produce the barrels I was contracted for, or pay a fine. I used the paper to mix exactly the right shade of her green.
If keeping the picture was a kind of slavery, then I decided to damn myself as a slaver rather than risk being a murderer, again. I added the path, after the ninth false start, but she never took it. She still looks down at me from my wall, a little greener each year. I think I may pint something else, soon.