By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree  (Chapter 7)

Chapter 7-The Children’s Garden

 

Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Long before Meg first read about Ethan and Pal, she had her own cockatiel.

Like Pal, it had been in her family for many years. Unlike Pal, it was a girl.  

Meg’s cockatiel had snowy white feathers that extended from her beak to her tail, except for the feathers on her cheeks, which – like those on Pal – were bright red, and the ones that exploded from her crown, which were bright yellow. Her name, Princess, was inspired by her tiara of daffodil-colored feathers.  

By the time I met Meg, Princess was over thirty-years-old.  

That is very old for a cockatiel.

Every time that Meg came to the park, she brought along a book. Sometimes it was Ethan’s Best Friend; other times, it was a book by one of the writers quoted on the brass plaques in the Children’s Garden.   

Meg loved the Children’s Garden, not only because of the poetry, but also because every flower that Mr. Swerling and Alonso had planted there came from a nursery rhyme. Lavender for “lavender blue, dilly dilly;” roses and violets for “roses are red, violets are blue;” buttercups and daisies for “as I was going to Strawberry Fair;” silver bells and cockleshells for “Mary Mary quite contrary;” lilies from “Oh, dear what can the matter be?” and many more.  

What the Children’s Garden did not have, however, were climbing trees.

So when Meg and Pegeen wanted to read, they would bypass it all together, and climb into one of my huge branches.   

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree  (Chapter 7)




I often pretended that instead of reading to each other, the mother and her daughter were reading aloud to me. In time, they recited the poetry of all the authors quoted in the Children’s Garden. Among my favorites were:

 

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

By Robert Louis Stevenson  

 

The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump

Which well you may see at the Zoo;

But uglier yet is the hump we get

From having too little to do.

By Rudyard Kipling

 

“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things:

of shoes and ships and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings.”

By Lewis Carroll

 

And, of course: 

 

Twix man and bird in such a way,

Did love and friendship save the day.

From Ethan’s Best Friend

 

It was there, at the back of the flowerbed with the plaque honoring Ethan’s Best Friend, that all of the trouble began. Trouble that grew out of Meg’s devotion to her own cockatiel, Princess.

Although much of the knowledge I have acquired over the years was obtained by the noble art of eavesdropping, what I know about Princess, I learned firsthand, for that dear little bird perched on my branches, pecked at my bark, and flew from twig to twig, sometimes bouncing up and down on them like a child on a trampoline.

She sang to me.

Princess had a soft, trilling voice, not strident as with so many birds. She also chatted incessantly; but of her vocabulary, I only recognized three words. When Meg and her mother gently scratched the feathers under her chin, Princess would say, “I love you.” And when she rubbed the side of her pretty head against my trunk, she would say, “I love you” to me as well.  

In good weather, when there were no strong breezes, no chill in the air, and no threat of rain, Meg would put Princess in a small wire cage and carry her from their apartment to the Samuel Swerling Park. Princess did not live in the pretty white cage at home; it was merely a means of transportation. It had a circular handhold on top, with curlicues here and there to make the whole thing more decorative.

Immediately after Meg arrived at the park, she would put Princess’s cage on one of my branches and, quick as a blink, that clever little bird would unlatch the door by herself, poke it open with her head, and hop outside.

I am over eighty-years-old, which is not old for a tree of my species. 

And I have lived at the Samuel Swerling Park for most of my life.

In that time, I have encountered many thousands of living beings, including birds, chipmunks, squirrels, cats, dogs, insects of all varieties, and even a lynx who escaped from the zoo. I tolerated most of those creatures, and I even liked a few.

But none were sweeter, gentler, more innocent or more loving than Princess.

Meg’s little cockatiel was not noble and courageous, like Pal.  

Nor had she risked her life to save the soul of her best friend, as Pal had done for Ethan.

But she was real, and Meg loved her.

Meg also idolized Pal.

Which is why, when Princess took ill, only thoughts of Pal gave Meg the courage to carry on. For if Pal could recover after his valiant and perilous encounter with fire, then Princess would recover from what ailed her, too.  

Or so Meg thought.

But Princess did not recover.

She was old (for a cockatiel).

And she was very, very tired.  

One beautiful day not long after Princess’s thirtieth birthday, Meg put a hand into the little bird’s cage and waited for it to hop onto her finger and sing a happy, wordless song. But Princess did not hop, and she did not sing. Instead, she looked deeply into Meg’s eyes, cocked her head to one side, and sighed.

Then she softly twittered out the words “I love you” one last time.

And she died.

 

Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

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