About ten or so years ago I snapped the recently re-discovered photograph below through the window of a closed art gallery in Pt. Reyes Station, California. I shot it using black and white film (i.e. analog). The text is a framed story hanging on the gallery wall near the window, which I noticed as I walked by. Reflected in the window glass is a handrail, the street, the house across the street and some trees. The story on the wall is by a four year old named Trae, and I can’t remember if this story was a caption for the framed artwork hanging directly above it, the bottom of which you can see in the photograph, or if the story stood on its own, framed as a work of art, because that’s exactly what it is:
This is a compelling, very well-written story, and if it really is by a four year old (which I believe and desperately want to believe), it is truly amazing. As I said, the gallery was closed at the time, so I couldn’t find out any details, and I’ve never seen this online. Trae writes like Samuel Beckett, and this little story has great depth and mystery. Here is the full text of Trae’s story, taken directly from the photograph:
“When they came home their tree was gone. They called the police. There was gold on the tree. The robber went inside and stole everything. They went upstairs and took the blankets off the child’s bed. Then they went to the mother’s room and took her jewelry. They stole everything. They had no clothes to wear. They stole the couch and the table. They stole everything from the house. There was nothing in the house. It was all gone. They thought it was in the closet. They thought it was in the drawers, but it was all gone. Even the house was stolen and then they had to live outside in the rain. When they went home, they didn’t see the house or nothing. They thought maybe the house had gone down the road to the bridge and maybe they had gone to the wrong house, but they didn’t. They didn’t know where anything was because all the houses were there except their house.”
–Trae, age 4
I love the ambiguity of “they,” which keeps shifting back and forth between referencing the “family” that has just returned home to no home, and the “robbers” who apparently stole everything this family owned, even their tree. The tree itself had gold “on” it, though we cannot know for sure if that was before or after it was stolen (“golden” before, or only “golden” now that it’s missing, like a precious memory?). Finding the “golden” tree missing, the family calls the police, only to have the story flashback to describe the “robber” (singular), systematically going through the house and stealing everything the family owned, beginning with the blankets from the “child’s” bed. It’s like the theft of all presents and decorations in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though here it’s more sinister — all identity is being systematically erased.
Back to the strange golden tree (“Trae”?) that kicks off the story. Only two brief sentences are devoted to the tree, but its absence frames the story to come:
When they came home their tree was gone. …. There was gold on the tree.
This brings to mind the famous tree in Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot. Here are some excerpted Godot tree fragments from Act II:
(Next day. Same time. Same place…The tree has four or five leaves. Enter Vladimir agitatedly. He halts and looks long at the tree, then suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage….)
(… He halts before the tree.. Enter Estragon right, barefoot, head bowed. He slowly crosses the stage. Vladimir turns and sees him.)
VLADIMIR: (after a moment of bewilderment). We’ll see when the time comes. (Pause.) I was saying that things have changed here since yesterday.
ESTRAGON: Everything oozes.
VLADIMIR: Look at the tree.
ESTRAGON: It’s never the same pus from one second to the next.
VLADIMIR: The tree, look at the tree. (Estragon looks at the tree.)
ESTRAGON: Was it not there yesterday?
VLADIMIR: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you not remember?
…VLADIMIR: Wait . . . ah! The tree!
ESTRAGON: The tree?
VLADIMIR: Do you not remember?
ESTRAGON: I’m tired.
VLADIMIR: Look at it. They look at the tree.
ESTRAGON: I see nothing.
VLADIMIR: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
VLADIMIR: In a single night
ESTRAGON: It must be the Spring.
…VLADIMIR: … (Silence. He looks at the tree.) Everything’s dead but the tree.
ESTRAGON: (looking at the tree). What is it?
VLADIMIR: It’s the tree.
ESTRAGON: Yes, but what kind?
VLADIMIR: I don t know. A willow. (Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.)
Having somehow managed to pilfer the golden tree, “the robber went inside and stole everything.” Trae isn’t kidding about that! We’re told right off the bat that “everything” was stolen, but the story goes on to marvelously catalog this epic theft. Strangely, however, and perhaps it takes a genius like Beckett or little Trae to do this, but the singular robber is suddenly pluralized:
They went upstairs and took the blankets off the child’s bed. Then they went to the mother’s room and took her jewelry. They stole everything.
How did “the robber” become “they”? And more importantly, why does the story then shift yet again, with “they” alternating between signifying the robber(s) and the family whose existence is being filched:
They [the family] had no clothes to wear. They [robbers] stole the couch and the table. They [robbers] stole everything from the house. There was nothing in the house. It was all gone.
Very strange. Could it be that the family is also the robber(s)? That they simultaneously steal their house and all belongings inside and are the ones to discover the theft, like subatomic particles that can be in two places at once? It seems like the kind of scenario that Beckett might have dreamed up; here is an excerpt from Beckett’s novel Watt:
The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked also, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.
In Trae’s story, a golden tree and all the contents of the house are now missing. But that doesn’t stop the family from searching inside the house for the missing things, which are referred to in the singular (“it”), perhaps suggesting that it is something else entirely they are looking for (Godot?):
They thought it was in the closet. They thought it was in the drawers, but it was all gone.
It was all gone. Including, suddenly, the very house they were just looking in:
Even the house was stolen and then they had to live outside in the rain.
The house now entirely gone, rain is introduced (very Godot-like), to add to the family’s misery. But not only that — time is rewound and history rewritten! The family is shown returning to their home again, but instead of finding their tree gone and then searching inside the house for the missing things, this time the house itself is gone, “When they went home, they didn’t see the house or nothing.” We can only assume that “or nothing” refers to all the family’s belongings they normally keep inside the house, and the golden tree in front of it. But could “or nothing” mean all they see anywhere is an endless void? Such might be the case if their own existences had been stolen and “voided.” Again, from Act II of Godot:
POZZO: Where are we?
VLADIMIR: I couldn’t tell you.
POZZO: It isn’t by any chance the place known as the Board?
VLADIMIR: Never heard of it.
POZZO: What is it like?
VLADIMIR: (looking round). It’s indescribable. It’s like nothing. There’s nothing. There’s a tree.
POZZO: Then it’s not the Board.
Like Beckett’s sorry characters, Trae’s “family” is bewildered, and thinks for a brief moment that maybe the house wasn’t stolen, maybe it had just, “gone down the road to the bridge,” or, as if different family members were tosssing out explanations for this mystery, “maybe they had gone to the wrong house.” But that single sentence can’t even find its way to the period before Trae emphatically kills off all such speculation with, “but they didn’t.”
Surveying the situation, we see the family is not in some existential void of nothingness as far as the eye can see. Rather, it is only their house and tree that are missing:
They didn’t know where anything was because all the houses were there except their house.
Fade out, end of story. Here in one paragraph a four year old has held his own alongside the great Samuel Beckett. And while it’s entirely possible that the unstable shifting points of view and fluctuating grammatical person in Trae’s writing — or, likely, narration: notice that the entire story is in quotation marks — can be attributed to error or youthful ignorance, it is also likely that children might just be innately brilliant, and only the most genius of adults can get back to that original greatness. As Picasso famously said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
I love the photograph I took in passing all those years ago, the way the text about a missing house and tree merges with the reflection of a house and tree and street. But most of all I love Trae’s story, which was the catalyst for taking the photo in the first place. To me, this story captures pure imagination in its most dazzling essence, and serves as a constant reminder that in art, “mistakes” are often truth, rules are often at their best when broken, and anybody at any time can make the transcendent leap.
Trae, if you are out there and you or your family stumbles upon this blog post someday, please contact us — we’d love to hear what you are up to. You have inspired me, and others too I’m sure, with your brilliant story. I hope you find your golden tree.