The Tree Climber: A Story Inspired by W.S. Merwin

Everyone in Maplewood knew Clare as the little girl who was always climbing trees. But she was so dainty and graceful and reserved that at first it surprised them all to see how deftly, even artfully, she could make her way up even the most formidable ones. It wasn’t just the trees in her family’s yard either. She climbed everywhere. “Oh, that’s just Clare Glendale,” people would say. “She’s got tree-climbing craziness.” 

            A lot of stories circulated about how Clare first came to love going up and down the trees of the neighborhood and the woods surrounding it. Some said her mother told her stories about how fairies lived up in the canopies, so she was constantly going up to visit them. Some said she once escaped bullies at school by climbing a tree on the playground, so now she feels secure hidden high in the foliage. And some say it began one day when she espied a lost treasure—a toy or an heirloom—from her high perch and now re-experiences that feeling of relief and reconnection whenever she’s up in the highest branches.

            Even when she was still just a little girl, though, what kept her climbing was much more complicated than any of these neighborly conjecturings could comprehend. Every child eventually climbs a tree. Clare did it the first time because she’d seen some girls on her way home from school dangling from a low branch and thought it looked appealing in its manageable absurdity. The girls were squealing and kicking their earth-freed feet.

            Approaching the big sycamore in her own yard just minutes later, she struggled to figure out how to make it up through the lowermost layer of branches. That the sequence of grips and reaches and toeholds she would have to traverse wasn’t clear from the outset yet gradually revealed itself through her concentrated, strenuous, grasping efforts, like a tactile puzzle she needed her whole body to solve—that was what she remembered as the earliest source of pleasure in climbing. There was also a feeling of overabundant energetic joy in the physical exertion, difficult but surmountable, of hoisting herself with her hands and arms, swinging and pushing herself with her toes braced against the bark. When she made it up near the highest tapering branches, too tiny to hold her scanty weight, she felt she’d succeeded in overcoming earthly constraints she’d never even been aware of up till then. As she rested at last, the breeze blew against her light wash of sweat, setting her skin aglow with the dissipating pulsing heat, like soundless music emanating from her blood into the air, even as she felt her strained limbs shimmer with life, discovered anew through the dancing ache. She breathed in the cascading sighs of the dry undulating sun-sparkled leaves, millions of tiny mirages, and thought about how they reminded her of ocean tides she’d only ever seen on TV. She would dream that night of dancing alone by a high-built bonfire on a moonlit beach.

            But whenever she thought about that day over the ensuing years she was never really sure the memory was really of the first time she climbed a tree. She went back to it for an explanation because not having an explanation, a clear motive, some way to justify herself in depth of detail should anyone show a willingness, or even an eagerness, to hear her out—it bothered her, making her feel her youthful isolation as a lifelong sentence, hopeless.

            When high school first started for Clare, she stopped climbing trees because it was too odd a habit, too conspicuous. But then one day she climbed again, after several months, and things seemed right with the world in a way that forced her to realize things weren’t at all right with the world all those months she hadn’t been climbing. She thought, “Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to let them think I’m weird.”

            Maplewood was a good school in a nice neighborhood. Clare’s classmates talked among themselves about how she climbed trees all the time—as something like a hobby. They knew she sometimes took her digital camera with her. They also knew she sometimes did drawings of parts of the neighborhood or the city beyond from the tops of the trees. They knew she brought little notebooks up there sometimes too and wrote what they assumed was poetry. Sometimes, her classmates even tried to talk to Clare about her tree climbing, asking her questions, saying they’d like to see her photographs or drawings, read her poems. No one was ever cruel, not even the boys. She heard herself described as “artistic” in a way that made her inwardly cringe because it sounded dismissive, impatient—artistic even though she’d never shared any art with any of them because she sensed they were just being polite when they said they’d like to see or read it.

            But Clare was glad to have circulating all the stories explaining away her climbing, even though they were all wrong and her not being given to correcting them felt a little like dishonesty, because if someone had simply asked her, “Why do you climb trees all the time?” she wouldn’t have been able to answer. Not that she minded thinking about it. She wouldn’t have minded talking about it either except that it was impossible to discuss, honestly, without being extravagant, self-important, braggy, snobby—all the most horrible things a high school kid could be. She knew for sure she didn’t climb because she wanted to be seen as interesting. More and more she didn’t want to be seen at all.

            Sometimes, though, she imagined whole conversations. “Well, I’d say I climb trees because I like the feeling. But I don’t always. Sometimes my hands hurt, or I get up really high and I’m afraid I’ll fall, or it’s just really hot, or really cold. I get scraped up a lot. The view is often nice, but not always. Sometimes I go into these really peaceful trances, like dreaming while I’m awake. But that’s only rarely. Really, most of the times I go up it’s not pleasant at all. But when I don’t do it for a while I feel strange—like, my soul is stuck in a tight, awful sweater—you know, all itchy.” She imagines herself doing a dance to convey the feeling, all slithering arms and squirming fingers.

            Every time she thinks about her itchy soul she laughs, thinking, “Probably aren’t too many people out there who’d understand that.”

            It was when Clare was fifteen, months away from getting her license, that she overheard an older boy at school, one who wasn’t part of the main group, but sort of cute, sort of interesting, compare her tree climbing to something awful, something that made her face go hot in a way that had her ducking away so no one would see how brightly it burned.  It was an offhand joke for the benefit of his friend. She couldn’t really be mad about it. He didn’t mean it to be hurtful. He didn’t even know she would hear him.

            She went to the woods after school, hesitated before a monster of a tree she knew well but had always been too intimidated by to attempt, gave it a look of unyielding intensity, and then reached out and pulled herself away from the ground. The grips were just out of reach at every step, making her have to grope beyond the span of her arms, strain, and even lunge. But the tree was massive, promising to take her deeper into the bottomless sky than she’d ever yet plunged.

            She paused only long enough at each interval to decide on the best trajectory. In place of fear was a fury of embarrassment and self-loathing. She couldn’t fall, it seemed to her, because there would be a sense of relief if she did, and she just didn’t have any relief coming to her. Somehow she wasn’t deserving, or worthy, of relief. She reached, she lunged, she grasped, she pulled. The ache in her hands and arms enflamed her pathetic fury. And up she flew, gritting her teeth as she pulled down the sky.

            It was a loose flank of bark coming away from the trunk with a curt, agonized cough that left her dangling from one arm, supported only by a couple of cramped and exhausted fingers. Seeing her feet reach out for the trunk, rubbing against it like the paws of a rain-drenched dog scratching the door of an empty house, and feeling each attempt at getting purchase only weaken her lame grip, she began to envisage the impending meeting of her body with the ground. Resignation just barely managed to nudge panic aside.

            But Clare never fully gave up. As reconciled as she was with the fall that felt like justice for the sake of some invisible sacred order she’d blunderingly violated, she nevertheless made one last desperate maneuver, which was to push herself away from the tree with as much force as she could muster with her one leg. What came next was brutal, senseless, lashing, violent, vindictive chaos. The air itself seemed bent on ripping her to shreds. Her tiny voice was again and again blasted out of her in jarring horrific whimpers, each one a portion of her trapped life escaping its vessel. She thought she’d see the razor green streaking crimson so sudden and excruciating were the lacerating clawings of the branches.

            And then it stopped. She stopped. She felt herself breathing. Her legs were hovering powerless, but they were some distance still from the ground, which was obscured by the swaying mass of leaves still separating her from the just end she had been so sure of. Weak and battered, she twisted in the hard, abrasive net that had partly caught her and partly allowed her to catch herself, without her even knowing she was capable of putting forth the effort to catch herself, and saw that she was bouncing some ways out from the trunk of the other tree she’d had the last ditch hope of leaping into. Looking back to the one she’d fallen from, she saw she hadn’t even fallen that far—maybe twenty feet she guessed. She hurried toward the sturdier parts of the branches holding her aloft and then made her way down.

            Both feet on the ground, Clare turned back to retrace the course of her fall with her eyes, almost too afraid to breathe because breathing might reveal the mortal injury she still couldn’t believe she hadn’t sustained. After standing there until the momentousness of the occurrence dissolved into the hush of the forest, silent but for the insects’ evening calls and the millions upon millions of leaves sent atremble by the wayward wind, both of which seemed only to dimensionalize the silence, she began to walk, hesitantly at first but then with a determination borne of an unnamed passion.

            She lay awake all night, upstart thoughts and feelings surging, rolling over each other, crashing into shores of newly imagined possibility. The pain from her several less than severe injuries provoked inner crises and conflicts, setting her mind on a razor’s edge of rushing urgency. She had created a tear in the fabric of commonplace living—the insistent niceness she’d been struggling all her life to fold herself into. When the gray of dawn peeked into her room, she heard herself let loose the first half of a demented laugh before cutting off the second, lest her parents hear and start asking her questions of the sort now more than ever she would be hard-pressed to answer.

            Clare now knew that all her life she had been accustoming herself to a feeling of inevitability, of fatedness, of gradual absorption with growing maturity into the normal flow of life she saw emblems of in every last one of the really nice houses she passed on the way to school. But this morning they all looked different, like so many strained denials of the only true inevitability, a veil protecting everyone from what they assumed could only be some hellish nightmare.

            When after school that day Clare approached Dean Morris, the older boy who’d made the crude joke about her climbing, she managed to startle him with the wild intensity in her unaccustomedly direct glare. “You have to come with me,” she said. “I have something to show you.”

            And that’s how Dean became a crazy tree climber too. At least, that’s what everyone assumed happened to him. He disappeared with Clare that day and kept on disappearing with her almost every day thereafter for the next two years. It was only two weeks after their first climb together that he showed up at home injured for the first time. He told his parents he’d broken his arm in a motorcycle crash, but he refused to name the friend who had allowed him to ride, insisting that he didn’t want to get anyone into trouble and that it was his own fault.

            One or both of them was always showing up at school or the weekend jobs they each had with mysterious welts on their arms or faces. Their parents must have been in an agony of constant exasperated worry those last two years as, despite their best efforts to put an end to the excursions into the woods and the injurious goings on therein, they continued having to deal not only with their children’s defiance but with the looming danger it exposed them to. But everyone at school saw something to admire in the way Clare and Dean so uncompromisingly settled on the existence they would have be theirs. The girls remarked on Dean’s consuming and unselfconscious devotion to Clare and were envious. He always seemed naturally gravitating to a post standing guard close by her, intensely, passionately protective. What would it be like to see your first love nearly fall to her death again and again?

            For those two years, they formed their own region apart from the life of the school and the neighborhood. No trace of teenage self-consciousness or awkwardness remained. They seemed as though they were in the midst of actuating some grand design, some world-saving project only they could be relied on to handle and no one else was even allowed to know about. They knew themselves. They loved each other. And they together exuded an air of contented self-sufficiency that made all the other students somehow more hopeful.

            A lot of people said when it was over that Clare must have run away and started a new life in some far-away place. The truth is no one knows what happened to her. I used to think about those two all the time. When I came back to Maplewood years later, it was just on an odd whim. My parents had moved away soon after I’d left for college. I wasn’t in touch with any friends who still lived there. For some reason, I just up and decided to spend a day driving, get a hotel for the night, and maybe make a weekend of visiting my old home town. The first place I went was the woods where Clare and Dean spent their last moments together.

            Everyone knew the story no one professed to believe. Beyond that, there were quite a few versions of an official account. Some held that an animal, or maybe a few coyotes, had dragged Clare’s body away. Others insisted that she was still alive and that seeing what had just happened to Dean she panicked and fled and never came back. Maybe she was afraid they’d blame her. Maybe she blamed herself and couldn’t bear to face his parents. There was something desperate about this version of the story. The fact seemed plain that Clare had died that day too. I always imagined Dean standing high up in the tree, seeing what happened to Clare, and yet never for a moment hesitating to follow her no matter where it took him.

            I found myself thinking surprisingly little about what had happened on their last trip to the woods together as I drove around town, stopping by the school to see if anyone was still around to let me inside to indulge my nostalgia. What occupied my mind was rather the way those two were together, locked in to each other, suddenly mature. They seemed—what’s the word? Knowing. They both knew something the rest of us, even our teachers and parents, simply didn’t know—or couldn’t know. What that something might be is a question I put to myself with some frequency to this day.

            It was late on a Friday night when I tried the door at the school. It was locked. I ended up wandering around the town in dreamy reverie without running into anyone I recognized and could invite to sit with me somewhere to reminisce. That was fine by me though.

            By Sunday afternoon, I was beginning to question my decision to come. I didn’t exactly have all the time in the world to amble around my old stomping grounds in a feckless daze. Impatient to get back on the road, I responded with mild annoyance to being recognized and addressed at the gas station. When I saw it was Bret Krause, though, the boy Dean had told that crude joke to about Clare’s climbing, his best friend right up until Clare pulled him away into that separate world of theirs, my curiosity got the best of me. I was amused when he pulled out his phone to call his wife and let her know he would be stopping by a bar to have a drink with an old friend from school. Bret hadn’t exactly been a lady’s man back in our glory days, but the picture he showed me was of a striking but kind-eyed beauty. It’s funny how things like that seem to work themselves out.

            I enjoyed hearing all about Bret’s life since high school. We’d never been close friends, but we’d had classes together and knew each other well enough for casual exchanges of greetings and pleasant small talk. I do have to confess, though, I was glad when he spontaneously began to talk about Dean. Anything I knew about the story had come to me in rumors thrice removed, and as curious as I’d been after they found Dean’s body in the woods that day it seemed to me untactful to barrage anyone with questions—though plenty of others apparently hadn’t felt the same scruple.

            Bret had gone away to college and returned to Maplewood to teach Algebra, of all things. He brought back with him the girlfriend he would marry soon afterward. They planned on having a couple kids but weren’t ready just yet. After letting us into the school, he took us directly to the spot where Clare had walked up to Dean and told him to come with her because she had something to show him.

            “I was a little worried coming back here,” he said. “I thought it might be too painful to be reminded of him constantly. At the same time, though—I know it’s a weird thing to say—it was sort of like his memory was one of the things that drew me back.”

            “I know what you mean.”

            “For a long time, I really thought any day we were going to hear that Clare had just shown up somewhere. It’s just such a strange thing in this day and age.”

            Bret turned the key to let us into the classroom where he taught his students quadratic equations, the same classroom where I’d learned pretty much the same lessons all those years ago, with Clare and Dean sitting four rows behind me in the back corner by the windows.

            “What do think happened to her?” I couldn’t help asking.

            Bret laughed good-humoredly. “Everyone knows what happened to her,” he said. “Haven’t you heard the story?” 

Inspired (partly) by:


Stories come to us like new senses

a wave and an ash tree were sisters

they had been separated since they were children

but they went on believing in each other

though each was sure that the other must be lost

they cherished traits of themselves that they thought of

as family resemblances features they held in common

the sheen of the wave fluttered in remembrance

of the undersides of the leaves of the ash tree

in summer air and the limbs of the ash tree

recalled the wave as the breeze lifted it

and they wrote to each other every day

without knowing where to send the letters

some of which have come to light only now

revealing in their old but familiar language

a view of the world we could not have guessed at

but that we always wanted to believe

                 -from W.S. Merwin's 

The Shadow of Sirius