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Tree When You're Tall by Alan Bern

Updated: Aug 30, 2023



“TREE when you're tall,

now reach up high,” the librarian calls out, jumping up in his sandals just a little bit, possibly a bare half-inch, wearing dress short pants, light green. All the kids at storytime and their smiling grownups reach tall, reach for the sky. Well, maybe not the babies, but the babies do look toward the librarian’s voice, toward his sounds, and they goo and goo. All the grownups with the babies goo goo too.


The librarian looks around, thinks, Where’s my bag … the one with my script all written out? The librarian remembers the beginning, but not the whole poem that he wrote. The violist plays a scale, then she points. “Oh, there it is,” the librarian says out loud to his worn bag. He pulls its rough zipper open and takes out some ratty looking pages stapled together, then finds his place and is ready to go on. The violist smiles and plays another scale; the harpist plays one too.


The librarian looks to his left, then to his right, and finally right up the center. There! He sees a young girl staring at the woman with her, waiting for something. The girl and the woman look engaged, very much. Good, the librarian thinks!


The librarian continues, puts his hands on his hips with his elbows sticking straight out, “TREE when you're wide.” The kids put their hands on their hips or on their waists; they do try for their middles. “Good job,” the librarian calls out,” Good job.” Loud. The violist and harpist play loudly and pleasantly together.


A kid in the back yells, “Wide,” then squirms around.

Twirls.


“TREE when your branches

reach out far,” the librarian chants, stretching his short arms as wide as he can while the violist plays smoothly, legato. The librarian feels the stretch in his shoulders, his arms, even his fingers. It feels great. He’s tight, but this stretch always loosens him up a little and makes him feel better. He brings the first finger and thumb of his right hand above his upper lip to twirl his mustache. Oh! He no longer has a mustache because he shaved it off two days ago. He touches above his upper lip, super-smooth, and touches his upper lip, too. Odd.


The librarian lightly sighs. And then he resumes,

“TREE in the Fall

when your green leaves change

to yellow and red and brown,”

as he starts to flutter his fingers on both hands. Meanwhile the harpist plucks with a pick and the violist plucks with her fingers. Most of the kids are having some trouble fluttering their fingers. The musicians stop. The librarian smiles and calls out, fluttering his fingers, “Flutter, flutter … like a butterfly, like a flutterby please.” Some of the older kids laugh, then the younger kids copy them and laugh too. The laughter spreads, the volume increases, then ebbs.


The librarian looks at his fingers.

Some of the kids do too.

“TREE in the wind

when your leaves

fall down to the ground.”

After he speaks, the librarian talks it out, “Now, like me, bend down and flutter your fingers down toward the ground. Like leaves falling. That’s right. Very nice, everybody.”

The harp plays a soft happy air.

The librarian repeats and mimes his movements again:

“TREE in the wind

when your leaves

fall down to the ground.”


The librarian pauses, freezes:

“TREE in the Winter

so cold

with no leaves in the snow.”

The librarian hugs himself and shakes. The violist and harpist start to play the beginning of “Good King Wenceslas” and then they stop and smile at each other. The librarian keeps hugging himself and shaking. He looks sad; and he feels sad. Everything is quieter now in the library. The librarians stays that way, hugging himself and slightly shaking, for what seems a long time, but isn’t a long time at all, maybe 20 seconds. All the kids and grownups look at him.


Then the librarian begins to smile and thinks of buds opening:

“Tree in the Spring sun

then the soft rain

grows new buds

[the librarian snaps and pops his fingers, showing the kids how to snap and pop]

and flowers in the showers

[the librarian covers his head with his hands like a hat].

Now all cover their heads together. The librarian laughs softly and the musicians play a short jig.


Then the violist starts “Here Comes the Sun,” and the harpist joins in.

The librarian grabs his panama hat and puts it on, chanting

“Tree in the Summer heat

taller than before.”

And he reaches up high again. Everyone reaches and reaches high up.


“Tree in the Fall again

older and older.”

The violist makes scratchy sounds while the librarian starts to stroke his chin as if he has a beard. Some of the kids stroke their chins, too, but the grownups don’t, all except one, the woman with the girl who was looking to her and waiting for something at the beginning of the librarian’s poem. She seems to enjoy stroking her chin. The librarian smiles at her as they both stroke their chins.


The librarian sighs loudly and the harpist begins a sad tune, low:

“Sad Tree.

[the librarian rubs his eyes as if he’s crying]

Where are the Kids?” The harpist stops playing.


Loudly the librarian shouts:

“Happy Tree

The librarian smiles and pulls up the corners of his mouth with his fingers.

“You Kids climbing up!”

The librarian makes climbing motions as if he’s on a rockside.

He stops as if he’s reached the top of the rock:

“Kids, your best friend

Tree!”


The librarian looks out and asks the audience, “Who has a tree for a best friend? Several kids raise their hands.

“I always pat trees whenever I am out for a walk. They are my good friends, and I tell them with my hands.”


After a pause, the librarian bows as do the two musicians. The applause is loud and long. Some of the kids dance around.

The hosting staff member comes back to thank the librarian and musicians.


She tells the audience of upcoming programs. Then the audience begins to pack up and leave.

The librarian and musicians now begin to pack up too.


Now appearing as if from … a woman and young girl are in front of the librarian facing him, but at a slight angle, maybe at thirty degrees. “Hello,” the woman says quietly— she is pretty, perhaps in her early 30s— “this is Daphne and I am Laurel.” Are they the woman and young girl from the center of the audience in the back?


The librarian smiles widely: “Hello Daphne, so nice to meet you and your Mom— this is your Mom, right?” Daphne nods. “Hi Laurel,” says the librarian.


Daphne smiles showing her front teeth, they are a light greenish color, but not unpleasing. Laurel begins, “I want to tell you how much Daphne loves your tree poem. We heard you do it last week at the Pleasant Valley Branch Library, and she loves it so much that we came to hear it again today. We are both so glad we did.”


The librarian grins, tears up. “I am so happy to hear that, Daphne,” the librarian addresses the girl though her mother has been speaking. Daphne smiles even more widely.


“Daphne’s best friend really is a tree,” Laurel says. Daphne blushes, looks down at her feet.


The librarian wonders (to himself, of course), Is this a lonely child or simply a child who loves

trees? Obviously he will never know, yet the news warms his heart. “Daphne, I truly love trees, and I have tree-friends, too. Thanks for letting me know, thank you both for coming up to tell me. It means a lot to me. Thank you.” The librarian smiles as widely as his face allows.


“We have to head home,” says Laurel, “thank you again.” They turn and walk toward the parking lot.


“Good-bye,” says the librarian gently.


Then he turns to the musicians: “I need to use the restroom.” They both nod.


In the restroom the librarian relieves himself after the long program, then looks in the mirror above the sink as he washes up. The water runs. He cannot believe how old he’s become though perhaps younger looking than others his age. And, yes, he is delighted to see himself again. And delighted to know that he still walks the earth. He gives himself a rapturous smile in the mirror and thanks himself silently so much for all the time spent together. Then he begins to silently weep, then quietly cry. Then cry more loudly as he continues to rub his hands together. He closes his eyes. The librarian imagines green branches growing from each of his temples, small delicate branches, leafy. He bows his head. He touches each temple, first left, then right; and the branches have begun.


When he opens his eyes, the restroom is dark. Besides his hands moving in the running water, he has not been moving at all, and the motion sensor timer must have turned the lights off. He pulls his left hand from the water running and waves it. No light.


The librarian sighs, consoled.

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