the drawing tree

There once was a girl, who knew a boy, whom she used to meet every day at a certain tree in the forest. The tree had a broad, smooth trunk, and thick, sturdy branches that seemed to reach all the way to the sky.

The boy and girl had made up a game to play. Each day, they would take turns carving a picture into the tender column of the tree's base. First the boy would make a cut, then the girl. They used a small pocket knife that didn't scar the tree too deeply, but that left a clear imprint in the wood.

Every day, they built on the design they had started. The girl would pick up where the boy left off, and vice versa. Neither of them really knew what they were making, because the shape and pattern changed with each of their cuts. One day it might look like clouds in the sky; the next, a nest of birds. Neither knew what picture the other ultimately had in mind.

One day while she was waiting for her turn, the girl looked up and noticed how strong the tree's limbs were. "Let's climb it," she said to the boy, who was concentrating on the bark beneath his knife.

"I can't," he said, without looking up.

"Why not?" asked the girl, surprised. "Don't you know how to climb trees?"

The boy paused in his work and looked at her. "I do," he said. "But I can't climb this tree."

"I don't understand," the girl said, frowning. "Look how easy it would be. These branches would certainly hold our weight, and we'd be at the top in no time."

"I can't," said the boy again. And he turned his attention back to the tree's trunk.

This went on for quite a while. Their picture continued to grow day by day, thanks to their combined efforts. But as the days stretched into weeks, and the weeks stretched into months, the girl longed more and more to climb the branches above them. She invited the boy to join her again and again, but he declined each time.

Eventually, the girl grew tired of their game. The design they were carving had ceased to be interesting to her, because it seemed like it would never be finished. She wanted to try something new. She craved the challenge of pulling herself up through the tree's body, bit by bit. She knew she could do it. And she knew once she reached the top, she'd have a beautiful view of the forest below.

But she didn't want to do it alone. Once more she pleaded with the boy. "Please, let's climb the tree. I'll help you. It might be difficult at first, but I promise we can do it."

The boy shook his head. "No. I can't climb this tree," he said flatly. "Let's just keep drawing. Look at how beautiful it is so far."

But the girl didn't see anything beautiful. She saw a tree trunk covered with grooves and scratches that didn't add up to much at all. She sighed, saddened by their wasted efforts, and she decided today would be the last day she came to meet the boy.

She told him, saying "I'm not going to come here any more, if you won't at least try." And the boy was angry. He said some unkind things to her. He didn't understand why their game wasn't enough for her.

"Because I want to see how high I can get," she said. And she turned and left the boy alone at the tree. And she didn't come back to it the next day, or the next, or for a very long time.

But one day, the girl happened to be walking through the woods, near where the drawing tree was. She was curious and felt nostalgic, so she decided to go look at it.

She approached the tree slowly, scared that seeing it might make her sad. But as she got nearer, she frowned. She couldn't see their carving. It was gone. The trunk of the tree was smooth and blank, erased of all the shapes she and the boy had made in it. It was as if they'd never been there.

She stared at it, nonplussed. It was surely the same tree. She recognized the twisted fingers of its roots, and the gnarled knot just below the first branch. But no trace of the picture remained.

The girl felt her chest tighten. She felt angry and sad and disappointed and hurt and confused. She'd spent so many afternoons here, playing the game the boy wanted to play, long past the point that it was fun for her. And now there wasn't even any evidence she'd ever been there at all.

She took a deep breath and waited until she felt calm again. She leaned against the tree and closed her eyes. The girl listened to the sounds of the forest around her: a distant birdsong, a light breeze whistling through the leaves above her... Suddenly, she had a thought. And a smile came across her face as she turned back to face the tree and reached up. Her hand grasped the nearest limb tightly.

She climbed slowly and carefully. She concentrated on finding sure footholds and balancing her weight. She glanced down once or twice, but in excitement at how far she'd come - not fear. When she looked up to see how close she was to the top, she saw nothing but more branches. She realized it might take her quite a while to go all the way up. But she kept going, determined.

A few minutes later, as she was taking a break to catch her breath, she heard voices. She looked down and saw two people walking towards the tree she was climbing - a boy and a girl. She squinted, trying to make out who they were. And at the same moment she recognized him, she saw the boy reach into his pocket and hand the girl a small knife.

The girl watched the couple for a few minutes. She heard their laughter. She saw the girl make her mark on the trunk with a practiced hand. The girl down below was pretty, with long hair and an eager smile. The girl in the tree felt a little bit melancholy, but strangely unsurprised. This was the game the boy loved to play, after all. She briefly wondered whether he would tell his new partner about his previous visits to the tree. And she wondered if it was him who'd made their picture disappear. But then she realized it didn't matter at all. It had nothing to do with her anymore.

She continued to watch quietly for another moment, afraid of being discovered in her perch. But the boy and girl on the forest floor were busily engaged in their game. She doubted they'd hear her. And from the enraptured expression on the new girl's face, she knew it would be a while yet before she grew restless and bored - before she looked up to see what was above them.

And she doubted the boy would climb the tree with her, anyway, when she inevitably asked. He seemed content to stay right where he was.