Children’s Story: “Frederick and The Very Ugly Tree House”

I try to think of stories to help my son deal with sadness and trauma. The truth is that some pretty awful things have happened to him in his young life, and there’s no way around that. I had to come to this realization myself after decades of fighting a history I had to accept: no number of what-if’s or how-could-they’s could change the past.

So, I told him this story one day, and I’ve been working on it ever since.

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Once upon a time, there was a kingdom on an island. There were so many people, and so little island that the King had to assign living quarters to the people. Everyone agreed. They were a very easy-going people who liked to get along, farm, fish, and generally have fun.

The King did not decide who got which house, you see. He wanted to be fair. So, he put all the villagers’ names in one hat and all the houses’ names in another hat. He’d draw a villager’s name; he’d draw the name of a house. That person would live in that house. And so on.

Now Frederick’s family got The Tree House when he was a very little boy. He would get the Tree House when it was his turn; it was his forever and there was, quite frankly, nothing he could do about it. He grew up in the Tree House, and he hated it. See, in the middle of the house there grew a very large, and very ugly, tree.

The King was very sad that Frederick had to live in the house with such an ugly tree and he felt sorry for the boy. Frederick was not imagining how awful that tree was. That ugly tree twisted, bent and turned all the way from the floor of the center of the house straight through the ceiling. It was big and ugly. There could be no windows in the walls that stood behind the tree. It’s sharp old stumps stuck out every which way, on wet days it even smelled. Frederick had to be careful how he played and walked in the house, or he might scrape and scratch himself against one of the stumps, or worse, on any of the sharp pieces of bark that stuck out from the trunk of the tree. It was big and took up the entire center of the house! How could anybody live in a house with such a tree as that?

Frederick would stand on the front porch at night where he could see all the houses in the kingdom, past the village, past the white sand shore, and into the clear blue ocean. He would stand under the stars and look at the houses and try to find the perfect houses, with no trees sticking out of them. One day, he promised, he would live in such a perfect house.

As a young boy, Frederick would beg the King to move him to a different house whenever the King would come to visit.

Frederick had been to his best friend’s house: his best friend Jonah. Jonah’s house was in a cave. They could jump right from the living room into the cool waters and out to the ocean. Clearly, that house was better. There was nothing bad about that house.

“I’ll give you all my toy trains,” he said to the King when he came for breakfast one morning.

“It is the way it is, my boy,” the King would say, “there’s nothing I can do about it. Everyone gets the house they get.” The King left very sad that the boy had to live in the Tree House, but there was nothing he could do.

Frederick has been to his cousin’s house: his cousin Isaiah. Isaiah’s house was built into the side of the island mountain. They could climb out of Isaiah’s bedroom window and climb the rocks of the mountain all day. Clearly, that house was better. There was nothing bad about that house.

“I’ll give you all my toy blocks,” he said to the King when he came for dinner one evening.

“It is the way it is, my boy,” the King would say, “there’s nothing I can do about it. Everyone gets the house they get.”

When Frederick grew up, the house was finally Frederick’s, and Frederick’s alone. He begged the King for a different house. A better house. A house with no ugly tree.

“I’ll work for free for a year,” he said to the King one day.

“It is the way it is, my boy,” the King would say, “there’s nothing I can do about it. Everyone gets the house they get.”

By now the King had realized how sad the boy really was. He wasn’t sure he could do anything about it. “Son, you will have to learn to live with the tree. I cannot change it. You cannot change it.” The King put his hand on Frederick’s shoulder. “You will have to learn to live with the tree. I will be back in a year to see how you’ve done.”

So Frederick decided he would protest; he would not leave his house for the entire year. He would not work in the kingdom; he would not fish with the villagers. He would not do anything but sit in his house until the King saw how unhappy he was, then surely the King would give Frederick a better house to live in.

And so, there he sat, in his house, with his back to the tree.

                                                                ~                                    ~                                    ~

Finally, Frederick’s temper got the better of him. He hated that tree, how dare that tree be in the middle of his house. So, without thinking, Frederick stood up, turned around, and told that ugly old tree just what he thought of it.

“You ugly tree! What are you doing here? Don’t you know how much I hate you? Why don’t you shrivel up and DIE!” The tree did nothing. It stood just as it did before, in silence.

Frederick realized he could chop that tree right down.  So, he went and got an axe. He was going to get rid of that tree. So, he stood at the base of the tree, raised his axe, took one good last look at the tree, and thought to himself: if I chop this tree down, it will fall through the roof and I won’t have any house at all. That would not be good.

So, he went to the base of the tree at the foot of the mountain. There, he stood at the base of the tree, raised his axe, took one good last look at the tree, and thought to himself: if I chop this tree down, it will take the house with it, smash it to the ground, and I won’t have any house at all. That would not be good.

When Frederick stopped, he realized that the tree was inevitable, and he could not get rid of it no matter how hard he tried.

Frederick was tired, so he sat down again with his back to the tree. As he sat there, Frederick could see out the back porch and watch the sunset over the blue ocean, and then see the sky full of sparkling stars in the clear black sky. While he hated the tree, the view was beautiful.

Then Frederick’s best friend Jonah came over.

“Frederick, why haven’t you come out to play with your friends, or work in the fields, or fish in the sea?”

“Because I am going to stay in this house until the King sees how unhappy I am, and then he will have to move me to a better house.”

“But Frederick, where will you go?”

“I don’t know. But you don’t understand how awful this house is, because you have a perfect house.”

“What?” Jonah laughed. “A perfect house? The water from the cove rises into the living room during the rainy season, and we all get wet. It’s dark, we can’t see outside and there is no place for the sun to shine through except for the tiny little hole in the cave above the cove. We have to swim to leave, so we must leave towels and dry clothes outside the cave when we go places. Frederick, it is not a perfect house.”

“But the tree is much worse,” Frederick insisted.

“Maybe so. I’m sure it’s worse than many houses on the island, my friend. But ours is not the perfect house.”

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Then Frederick ran out of dirty clothes. On the day Frederick had to wash his dirty clothes, it rained. So, he could not dry them on the porch the way his mother did. He could not hang a line in the kitchen, because then he could not cook his dinner. He could not hang a line in his bedroom, because then he could not use his bed. The only thing left to do, to hang his clean, wet clothes was to hang them – and he could not believe he was going to do this – but hang them from the smoother stumps and branches of the tree.  Which he did.

The tree had plenty of stumpy branches and arms to hang his clothes. He was able to saw off the sharp points, file down the sharp bark so they did not rip his clothes or hurt him anymore when he accidentally touched the tree. When he was done, all his clothes were hanging from the tree, dripping onto the bark, or through the hole where the tree grew, and not onto his clean, dry floor.

When Frederick was done, he realized that the tree had been helpful, and he could make good use of it sometimes if he tried.

So, Frederick sat down again in his house, but this time, he stood with his face to the tree. As he sat there, the open windows let the ocean breezes blow the smells of the salt water, and the sweet scent of the leaves that grew high above the tree. While Frederick hated the tree, the breeze was nice.

Then his cousin Isaiah came over.

“Frederick, why haven’t you come out to play with your friends, or work in the fields, or fish in the sea?”

“Because I am going to stay in this house until the King sees how unhappy I am, and then he will have to move me to a better house.”

“But Frederick, where will you go?”

“I don’t know. But you don’t understand how awful this house is, because you have a perfect house.”

“What?” Isaiah screamed with laughter. “A perfect house? The lava from the mountain is hot in the summer, and we can feel it through the walls. We cannot touch the walls, or we could get burned. The cold winds blow across the mountain in the winter, and we get cold, so we must wear all our coats and sweaters and socks. Stinky Goats and other smelly animals climb the mountain around the house, and make noise morning and night.”

“But the tree is much worse,” Frederick insisted.

“Maybe so. I’m sure it’s worse than many houses on the island, my friend. But ours is not the perfect house.”

                                                                ~                                    ~                                    ~

“You’re still ugly, and awful,” he said to the tree, which stood there in silence, unchanged. “I still hate you,” he said to the tree. Frederick did not lie; it was an ugly tree.

But really, Frederick asked himself, was there nothing he could do about it? He had learned that the tree was inevitable: his house was built around it. He had learned that the tree could be useful: he could hang things from it. He had even learned he could change the tree. Maybe …. Just maybe ….

Frederick ran and got his paints and knives and brushes. All night Frederick painted and carved and brushed and drew. In the morning he was done. He stood back, took a look, and laughed.  Frederick laughed so hard at the silly face he painted on the tree that he rolled on the floor.  Frederick laughed so hard at the little climbing monsters he carved into the side of the tree that tears rolled down his checks. Frederick laughed so hard at that ugly tree his sides hurt.

Then the King came over.

“Well, the year is over.” said the King, “Have you learned to live with that ugly tree?”

The King and Frederick stood on the porch of the Tree House. They stood and looked at all the houses of the kingdom, out to the clear, blue sky and the sunset over the ocean. Those houses weren’t perfect, Frederick saw now. Jonah’s house got wet and you could not see the sun setting over the ocean. Isaiah’s house could be hot and cold, and you could not feel and smell the warm sweet breezes The ones in the fields were used for farming; children couldn’t play in the fields when the crops were growing. The ones on the shore could flood easily during a storm. There was no perfect house, Frederick realized.

“Yes,” Frederick said, “Yes, I have.”

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