By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree   Chapter 11

Esther’s mother came up with the idea.

You already know that Donna is a sculptress, and that she created all of the plaques in the Children’s Garden; you also know that each plaque quotes lines from a different poem.

There is more, though, that I haven’t told you.

Under each quotation, in a bas-relief style, Donna had also sculpted a small picture that illustrates lines from the poem. Bas-relief means that an images sticks out a little from the background, but is not three-dimensional.

Donna’s artwork is just about what you would expect. For Kipling’s The Camel’s Hump, it is a funny looking knock-kneed camel. For Stevenson’s My Shadow, it is a befuddled boy trying to stomp on his shadow. For Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, it is daffodils dancing in the sun.

And so on.

But Donna’s idea – her solution to Meg’s problem – was more complicated than merely to add another plaque.

I’ll tell you how it came to be.

By mid-afternoon on Esther’s birthday, Donna became concerned because her daughter and father had not returned home. So she walked across the street into the park and went looking for them. She found them sitting on a bench beside the lily pond in the Children’s Garden, conversing with a freckle-faced, red-haired girl that she did not yet know was named Meg.

At Donna’s insistence, Esther and Sam recapitulated everything they had done since they arrived at the park, starting with their first sighting of Meg and ending with Jarvis Larchmont fleeing in fear of what Alonso Hannah would do to him. Their narrative included vivid descriptions of Meg’s attempt to dig a hole in the flowerbed under the plaque for Ethan’s Best Friend; Jarvis kicking Meg’s trowel; Jarvis trying to break into Meg’s Moroccan magic box; Sam rescuing Meg; the threat of Alonso’s fictional security system; and Meg telling Sam and Esther why she wanted to bury Princess under Pal’s plaque.

Donna later said that the instant this last detail was conveyed, it was as if a muse had attached the design for her memorial to the tip of an arrow and shot it directly into her head.

Nor did she ever change a single detail of the sculpture as the project progressed.

Donna drew a sketch for her father.

He liked it.

She showed the sketch to her daughter.

Esther loved it.

Sam brought Donna’s design to the attention of the trustees of the Samuel Swerling Park, which means that he discussed it with himself, and the trustees approved the expenditure.

Then and only then did he, Donna, and Esther show the drawing to Meg.

“I won’t bore you with all the details of how to cast metal,” Donna explained to the still grieving child. “Briefly, though, what I’m going to do is create a life-sized clay model of what you see here.” She tapped the drawing with her forefinger. “Then, using a process involving latex rubber and plaster, I’ll make a mold of the clay model. The result will be a cast. If you think of the kind of cast that a person wears on a broken arm, you’ll get the picture. In the same way that the cast takes on the shape of an arm, the cast of my clay model will replicate every curve, crevice, and contour of my design. After the plaster cast has hardened, I will remove it from the clay model. Then I’ll coat the inside of the cast with a thick layer of melted wax. Once the wax has cooled, I’ll remove the cast; that will leave me with a wax model identical to the original model I had made of clay.”

Donna turned her eyes first to her father, then to her daughter, and lastly to the little red-haired girl. She asked, “Are you following me so far?”

Sam rolled his eyes.

Esther blinked.

And Meg stared at the sculptress in mute incredulity.

“Fine,” Donna said, eager to continue. “Now we’re getting to the tricky parts. First I’ll apply a plaster mold to the wax model. The mold will have a plaster center core, so that the finished piece is hollow and doesn’t weight a ton. It will also have one big hole in the bottom, and some little holes all around.

“Next, I’ll heat a chunk of bronze so hot that it turns to liquid. I’ll pour the bronze through the big hole at the bottom of the cast and keep pouring until it fills every nook and cranny of the mold, completely burning out the wax model except for the center core. Which brings us to the

little holes that I’d made in the cast. Their purpose is to channel the overflow of molten metal to the outside.”

Again, Donna paused in her explanation. She let her eyes glide over Sam and the two girls.

“Still following me?”

Without waiting for an answer, she hurried on, “Once all that is accomplished, I wait for the metal to cool; I break off the cast; I add some finishing touches and,” Donna tapped the sketch again, “the result will look like this.”

Meg ogled the drawing.

“We’ll mount it on a pedestal in the middle of the lily pond where everyone can admire it.” Again, Donna paused. But when she resumed talking, her voice had dropped an octave, and she sounded less like a pedantic sculptress than an affectionate aunt. “And with your permission, dear Meg, we will make a place in the base of the statue for Princess’s beautiful Moroccan box. Then, every time you come to the Children’s Garden to visit the flowers, you can say hello to your old friend, too.”

Donna waited for a response.


Unable to read the expression on the child’s face, she added, “Of course, if you prefer, you can bury Princess in the flowerbed where…”

“Oh, no!” Meg exclaimed. “Don’t say that. Don’t even think it!” Tears streamed from her eyes. “Your drawing is perfect, and that’s my favorite scene in the book. It’s just … I don’t know what to say. You’ve been so good to me. First to get rid of that horrible boy, and then to go to all of this trouble. You are the nicest and kindest people in the world, and I’m sure if Princess were still alive, she would…”

So it went.

The statue, after it was installed, had the desired effect, and everybody loved it. It illustrates the scene in Ethan’s Best Friend after Pal has plucked the flaming match with his beak from Ethan’s fingers and is poised to drop it out the window where – as all who have read the book know – it will land in a puddle, sizzle, and die.

The moment is filled with trepidation and tension. Ethan is sitting at his desk, his face frozen with fear for his devoted cockatiel. Pal is flying through the open window, his wings outstretched. Fire from the match in Pal’s beak rises upward, barely grazing his crown of feathers.

The flame looks real and Pal looks imperiled.

Donna had cleverly designed the piece so that each element which appears to be suspended in mid-air is actually connected to a vertical or a horizontal support. The window frame, for example, is balanced on a pencil box sitting on Ethan’s desk. Pal’s flight is sustained by contact of his left wing with the right side of the window. And, although the top of the flame appears to be rising from the burning match, the flame is actually being suspended from the top of the window frame.

If there is such a thing as a sculpting an illusion, Donna had done it in her tribute to the brave and heroic cockatiel Pal.

He appears to be in flight.

The match appears to be burning.

Ethan appears to be on the verge of leaping out of his chair in a frantic attempt to rescue his friend.

And Pal is about to drop the burning match out the window.

It is a wonderful piece, and it took Samuel Swerling’s daughter a full year to sculpt and install.

The bronze grouping has no name other than the title of the book, which perfectly describes it as a work of art.

The words Ethan’s Best Friend are engraved on a brass plaque at the base of the statue.

Immediately beneath that is a smaller brass plaque.

On it is only one word: Princess.


Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit