IT WAS ONE OF THOSE CHILLY, FOGGY DAYS THAT MAS-querade as summer in northern California, as the wind whipped across the long crescent of beach, and whiskbroomed a cloud of fine sand into the air. A little girl in red shorts and a white sweatshirt walked slowly down the beach, with her head turned against the wind, as her dog sniffed at seaweed at the water's edge.
The little girl had short curly red hair, amberflecked honey-colored eyes, and a dusting of freckles across her face, and those who knew children would have guessed her to be somewhere between ten and twelve. She was graceful and small, with skinny little legs. And the dog was a chocolate Lab. They walked slowly down from the gated community toward the public beach at the far end. There was almost no one on the beach that day, it was too cold. But she didn't mind, and the dog barked from time to time at the little swirls of sand raised by the wind, and then bounded back to the water's edge. He leaped backward, barking furiously, when he saw a crab, and the little girl laughed. It was obvious that the child and the dog were good friends. Something about the way they walked along together suggested a solitary life, as though one could sense that they had walked along this way often before. They walked side by side for a long time.
Some days it was hot and sunny on the beach, as one would expect in July, but not always. When the fog came in, it always seemed wintry and cold. You could see the fog roll in across the waves, and straight through the spires of the Golden Gate. At times you could see the bridge from the beach. Safe Harbour was thirty-five minutes north of San Francisco, and more than half of it was a gated community, with houses sitting just behind the dune, all along the beach. A security booth with a guard kept out the unwelcome. There was no access to the beach itself save from the houses that bordered it. At the other end, there was a public beach, and a row of simpler, almost shacklike houses, which had access to the beach as well. On hot sunny days, the public beach was crowded and populated inch by inch. But most of the time, even the public beach was sparsely visited, and at the private end, it was rare to see anyone on the beach at all.
The child had just reached the stretch of beach where the simpler houses were, when she saw a man sitting on a folding stool, painting a watercolor propped against an easel. She stopped and watched him from a considerable distance, as the Lab loped up the dune to pursue an intriguing scent he seemed to have discovered on the wind. The little girl sat down on the sand far from the artist, watching him work. She was far enough away that he was not aware of her at all. She just liked watching him, there was something solid and familiar about him as the wind brushed through his short dark hair. She liked observing people, and did the same thing with fishermen sometimes, staying well away from them, but taking in all they did. She sat there for a long time, as the artist worked. And she noticed that there were boats in his painting that didn't exist. It was quite a while before the dog came back and sat down next to her on the sand. She stroked him, without looking at him, she was looking out to sea, and then from time to time at the artist.
After a while, she stood up and approached a little bit, standing behind him and to the side, so he remained unaware of her presence, but she had a clear view of his work in progress. She liked the colors he was working with, and there was a sunset in the painting that she liked as well. The dog was tired by then, and stood by, seeming to wait for a command. And it was yet another little while before she approached again, and stood near enough for the artist to notice her at last. He looked up, startled, as the dog bounded past him, sending up a spray of sand. It was only then that the man glanced up and saw the child. He said nothing, and went on working, and was surprised to