By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life - Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER FIVE


Illustrations: Ruth McGraw

I seem to have gotten a little off the subject here. I had wanted to tell you about Renaldo Caprice as a means of illustrating what happened to Pepita after she fell in love with her one-armed knight.

Esther saw Renaldo for the first time on the second Saturday in April after a harsh and debilitating winter. He was a handsome man in his mid-twenties with a straight nose, strong jaw, brooding dark eyes, and a full head of curly brown hair. When Esther described Renaldo to her grandfather, she said that he “always looks mad,” meaning angry, but nine-year-olds are rarely keen on such grammatical distinctions.  

The artist had set up his easel opposite a magnolia tree with petals in full pink bloom.  

None of the trees had leafed out yet, so the only other colors in the park that day were the bright reds of tulips, the yellows of crocuses, and the deep purples of hyacinths.

Even back then, Renaldo was a good painter. But we all noticed that there was something peculiar about his work. Everything he painted – flowers, grass, sidewalks, fences, park benches, trees, and even the sky – came out looking like a sepia photograph. No reds. No blues. No yellows. No greens.  

But he was so talented that when Esther pointed him out to her grandfather, wanting to play their “What are they saying now?” game, instead of acceding to her wishes, Sam lifted her off my branch and led her toward the painter so that they could stand behind him and watch his brush dart expertly from canvas to palette and back to canvas again.

I have heard (you’d be surprised what we trees pick up while we are eavesdropping) that great artists often paint the same location or a theme or subject over and over again. Claude Monet did haystacks. Edgar Degas did ballet dancers. Marc Chagall did Russian villages. And Henri Rousseau painted jungles.  

Renaldo Caprice’s location, theme, and subject matter was the Samuel Swerling Park. He painted us in sunlight and in shadow. He painted us in winter, summer, autumn and spring. He painted our fountain, magnolias, maples, gardens, and even the stone bridge that goes across our little artificial stream.

The only things Renaldo did not paint in the park were people. This means that my fellow climbing trees and I were excluded from his canvases, because boys and girls were always scampering up and down our branches, and students were always reclining in our nooks to read books or lolling away a few hours of being pleasurably inert.

My Mostly Happy Life - Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER FIVE


Often a man or woman striding through the park would pause thoughtfully, as Esther and Mr. Swerling had done that day, to stare over the artist’s shoulder at the image springing from the tip of his brush. Almost as often, they would inquire about Renaldo’s other paintings, and purchase one from his studio, or buy the one that he was working on, right then and there. From overheard conversations, I learned that his work was on display in an art gallery on Madison Avenue, and that he was very much in demand.

This was right and proper, since Renaldo was a talented artist, and his paintings were compelling and attractive. But there was something sad about his artwork, too, for Renaldo painted a world with delicate flowers, stately timbers, winding pathways, and intricate wrought iron fences, but it was a world without people.  

A feast for the eyes, without eyes to attend the feast.  

A lush universe without any color.

Or, at least, that was how it seemed to us in the beginning.  

Then, Renaldo Caprice changed.

His transition was gradual, but we noticed at once. He had set up his easel not twenty feet away from my lowest branch. His subject was the same park entrance that he had painted many times before: Herringbone brick path, massive rhododendrons on either side of the wrought iron gate, flowering dogwoods, cherry blossoms in full bloom, and masses of azaleas.

This time, however, instead of painting everything in varying shades of brown, Renaldo added color.  

The rhododendrons became purple; the dogwoods turned pink; the cherry blossoms were a darker shade of pink; and the azaleas were unapologetic magenta.

That was the first change we noticed.  

More changes were to follow.  

Renaldo began to paint neon orange poppies, vermilion roses, sumptuous fuchsia lilacs, and daylilies as yellow as the sun. Grass and leaves marched across his canvasses in more shades of green than existed in nature, and most surprising of all, on a mild afternoon during the second week in June, Renaldo Caprice painted a human being.  

That’s right.

A featherless biped.    

A homo sapiens  

A girl!

She had golden brown braids, freckles, and scraped knees. She was kneeling at the base of a flowering redbud tree with her hands held out in front of her body, palms up, like an offering to the Gods.  

Balanced on the tips of her fingers was an enormous monarch butterfly.

For the sake of artistry, Renaldo had painted it with outstretched wings as big as a barn swallow. What made the image so compelling was how the girl stared down at the butterfly and the butterfly stared up at the girl. Each looked pleased to be in the other’s company, but not quite sure if they belonged on the same planet.

That painting was the beginning, or the end of the beginning, of Renaldo’s wonderful transformation.

After the girl with the butterfly, he painted couples strolling arm-in-arm, children climbing trees (of which, of course, I was one), and old ladies burying their noses in boughs of honeysuckle.

“Amazing,” Mr. Swerling said to Esther as they continued to watch Renaldo evolve.  

Esther pursed her lips thoughtfully and asked, “What do you think happened to make him change?” 

The old man did not immediately answer.  

First he studied Renaldo. The artist no longer fit Esther’s description of a man who “always looked mad.” Now, as he dabbed coral and lavender here and there upon the canvas, a tender smile softened his face.  

Next, Sam turned his glance inward, as if to reacquaint himself with epochs of his own life, which could have induced such a smile. He quickly found them. All had started on the day that he met his future wife Ghita.

Finally, he lowered his eyes to those of his granddaughter.

“Esther,” he said, his smile now identical to the one that lingered on Renaldo Caprice’s lips, “I think what happened here is that our favorite painter has fallen in love.”



 Why did I tell you this story?

Because I want you to understand Pepita St. Claire’s transformation after she fell in love with Alonso Hannah.

Like Renaldo’s canvases, Pepita burst into color.  

Like Renaldo’s magnolias, her pearly white skin developed pretty patches of pink. Like Renaldo’s peonies, Pepita’s lips became rosy. Her fair hair shimmered in the sunlight, her blue eyes sparkled, and her beautiful face became animated with joy.

What was lovely became lovelier still.

What had come to pass in Renaldo Caprice’s paintings also came to pass in Pepita St.

Claire’s heart.

It is truly amazing what wonderful things can happen to people when they spend time in a park that is filled with climbing trees.


Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

Shelly Reuben’s novels have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit