When my sons were younger, they occasionally shimmied up one of our apple trees to shake the branches and dislodge the hard green fruit. At their father's house, a closely bunched stand of mature pines became the weekend fort where they hung zip lines and set booby traps.
None of my kids, however, entered the world of the treetops in the spirit of a true tree climber -- one who has chosen a perch high above the world as her favorite place, a haven to return to day after day, bare skin against bark, a place to hide, a place to watch the world pass by from a vantage point of absolute secrecy.
When I was 11, I spent the good part of a year in a tree. My family had moved for the first time in my life, barely across town to a new neighborhood that seemed like an entirely new universe. I wasn't comfortable in the nice homes of our new neighbors, and my own house was chilled by a vague sense that with the move had come a permanent alteration in our family's structure. My brother, whose bunk bed had been my childhood ship, retreated to a bedroom in the far corner of the basement, far away from the rest of the family.
From my perch in the backyard, a corner lot that bordered the playground of the elementary school next door, I could see across the hedge to the swing sets. I could see across the side street to the overgrown strip of weeds and untended trees that separated our neighborhood from the highway and the world of traffic and commerce. I could see into my own bedroom window, into the room I coveted with its pink Princess telephone and from where I could hear the laughter of my sisters and the muffled late-night mumblings of my mother and father.
Every day after school, I entered the leafy kingdom, carrying a book, a pile of Archie comic books and a cream-filled doughnut from the Krispy Kreme around the corner on the highway. My perch rose higher as I became more confident. I outfitted the tree with slats of board for storage and a rolled-up sweatshirt for a headrest. As the afternoon passed, I absentmindedly leafed through the Archies, the Betty and Veronicas, and watched the slow activity of the neighborhood from my bird's-eye view.
My brother dribbled a basketball in the driveway below, oblivious to my presence above. My sister played on the schoolyard swings with neighbor kids, their singsong conversation mingling with birdsong.
One afternoon I watched a 13-year-old named Johnny Hawkins wander along the ditch that bordered the field of weeds across the street, dragging a stick as long as his entire gangly body. Johnny, with his dark curls and laughing eyes, was the object of numerous schoolgirl crushes, but it was understood he wasn't "safe" like our brothers. He sucked on cigarettes that dangled out the side of his mouth; his clothes were faded and torn; he lived with a bunch of grownups of indeterminate roles.
Johnny stopped and faced the ditch. He raised the stick up, then jabbed it into the soft mud over and over. He bent over and fiddled with something in the ditch, then wiped his muddy hands on his jeans. Finally, he lifted the spear. Looped over the end of it was a very large, very dead box turtle, one that frequently crossed the road and entered our basement through the open garage door.
I stood witness to the murder from above, silent and still. I watched as Johnny sauntered home.
My sister skipped up the back sidewalk and up the kitchen steps, her pigtails flapping against her shoulders. Lights began to appear through the windows of the house. I scooted down from my chilly outdoor room and headed for the warm kitchen, the secret knowledge of what I had seen from above coloring my cheeks and churning my insides.
I remained a lover of treetops, returning to them again and again, to bigger trees and higher branches. But I had learned the hazard of seeing and not being seen, of silent witness. I should have screamed at Johnny Hawkins, but I didn't. Only the tree -- the whispering leaves, the cool bark, the sturdy branches -- knew the secret of what I had seen down below.
A version of this essay was first published in 1999.
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