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
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
"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.
Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer