A short story by Marion Bloem

It's a Friday afternoon in spring. The Dutch sun beats down through the classroom's high windows and Miss Sombroek says:"Today we're going to draw a tree. You can make it a bare wintry tree or a tree in blossom or a summertime tree with all its leaves, just as long as it's a tree. Think of the trees you know and do your best to draw one."
"From memory?" my classmates protest. A boy climbs up onto his desk to look out the window at the horse chestnuts in the schoolyard and the other children follow his example. The teacher screams at them and tells them off.
All winter it was too cold for me to play outside, but lately I've gone back to climbing the big tree across the road from our house every day after school. I go all the way to the top, where the trunk's really thin and sways back and forth even when there's hardly any wind. I look down on the roof of our house, the street and the tops of the other trees. I'm so high up that no one notices me spying on the whole neighborhood from above. If my mother catches me at it she warns me, "Be careful. Before you know it, a branch will break and that'll be the end of you." The boys from next door can't get up as far as I can. They're too heavy. The tree starts drooping as soon as they get past the last thick bough. Everything sounds different from up in the big tree, voices and the hum of the streets, even the quarreling children playing cowboys and Indians in the bushes. I'd like to build a roof at the top so that I can stay up there even when it's raining, but it's too hard to lug tools and planks up that far.
There’s a rumor that they're going to clear the woods to make way for expensive town houses. My sister is glad, because we might get some nice new neighbors, but I cry in bed. The woods out the back, where the condemned house used to be, are already gone. Once I built a secret hut there with an Indonesian girlfriend, but now there's an apartment building. I don't go over that way anymore. If I walk around there, I can't imagine that those woods ever even existed, and the smell of the condemned house has gone completely, just like the derelict cottage where an old lady who looked like a witch used to live. But when I'm at the top of my tree I don't have to close my eyes to remember what it smelt like or what my secret hut looked like. I remember every bush, the brambles and the blueberries and the bushes that don't have any fruit, even the tall stinging nettles.
All of a sudden Miss Sombroek is standing next to me. She's angry with us for taking so long to get started. She pulls the pencil I'm chewing out of my mouth, throws it into a corner of the classroom, grabs me by the ear and drags me out from behind my desk. "You can come down the front and write out all the tables up to twelve fifty times. You can draw that tree on the weekend for homework."
I wish I was sliding the soles of my shoes over the fragile branches and searching the smooth bark of the trunk for bumps to rest my feet on. Instead I sit on the stool I've slid up to the windowsill and spend Sunday afternoon, when all the kids in the neighborhood are out playing, drawing my tree. It's a bit windy and my tree bends away from me. Sitting by our living room window, I dig into the paper with the point of the pencil my father has sharpened for me, just like the boys dig into the trunk of my tree with pocketknives to carve initials and hearts and arrows. From where I'm sitting, the bottom of the heavy trunk is hidden behind smaller trees and bushes, so I draw that bit from memory. The green trunk is thick at the bottom and then splits into two. One side is shorter and bends down low. Sometimes my sister and her friends sit on that heavy bough and talk. They hang off it, bounce, and jump off screaming. The other part of the trunk goes straight up and gets thinner and thinner all the way up to the top, far above the houses, where it's no thicker than a branch.
I start off with little leaves, just like the ones that came out of buds not so long ago in their hundreds on thousands of branches, and sigh deeply.
"Pull your tongue in," says my mother, "you look like a moron." I didn't know the tree had so many branches. When I climb, it's hard to find footholds. The rubber soles of my lace-up shoes search the trunk. I hang by my arms before putting my weight on my feet. Some branches bend down too far, then I have to find another one. I know the tree so well I don’t even have to look at my feet. But I always know straight away if someone else, someone heavier than me, has been in my tree, because of the broken and split branches.
"Why don't you do a palm tree?" asks my father. "They're prettier and they don't take as long."
"It has to be a real tree."
"A palm tree is a tree!"
He draws them all the time. Whenever he's read the newspaper there's always a palm tree with a paddy field and a volcano or two scribbled in ballpoint or pencil somewhere on the edge of a page. My father paints in the nighttime, after dinner. When he comes home from the military airport he takes off his cap and his jacket and sits down at the table with us in his uniform. But after we’ve eaten he puts on his striped pajamas. He finds a quiet corner somewhere and squats down, surrounded by tubes of paint, and makes yellow and green landscapes on the back of pieces of old wallpaper or sometimes, on canvas. On Sundays, when he's not baking Indonesian cookies with my help in the kitchen, he draws and paints too, usually in his sketchbook at the table, while listening to sport on the radio. In my father's paintings the sun is always setting. One time an Indonesian acquaintance who makes egg rolls, rissoles and layer cake to order got him to cover her kitchen walls with palm trees, mountains and paddy fields. An orange-red sun is setting above the stove.
He taught me how to draw paddy fields as well, with what he calls perspective. I do it by using his wooden ruler to draw lines coming from the setting sun. I finish it off with horizontal lines, parallel to the horizon.
He tells me that the stripes on the trunk of the palm tree make it easy to climb. In my parents' country they climb barefoot. "If you'd been born there," he laughs, "you'd be able to as well." I rub out my tree but because I'd pressed a little too hard with the pencil, traces of it are still visible as I make a brand new start on the curved trunk of a palm tree.
My father watches. I know he's glowing with pride and winking at my mother when he thinks I won't notice. Encouraged by the two of them looking over my shoulder, I draw three coconuts in the tree.
"A coconut tree doesn’t actually look like that," says my mother.
"So what? They don't know that," says my father. "Don't worry. Leave it. You don't have to rub out those coconuts." By the time I've finished the drawing it's dinnertime and I'm not allowed outside anymore. My mother puts the drawing on the mantelpiece. She leans it up against the clock.
"I can do that as well," says my sister, who spent the whole afternoon playing hide-and-seek with some kids from the new apartment building behind our house.
"Of course you can," my mother agrees.
"You get that from your father’s side, not from mine."
My mother has put the drawing in an envelope for me to make sure it doesn't get crumpled. My sister lends me her schoolbag for just this once.
"You either traced that from a photo or else someone helped you. You can stay behind this afternoon and try to draw a real tree for a change, by yourself, and from memory," says Miss Sombroek when I give her my drawing of an orange sunset, green paddy fields, an erupting volcano and a palm tree.

Marion Bloem

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

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