The Tree in the House: a novella by Alberto Moravia (Racconti Surrealisti e Satirici)
L'Albero in casa
Odenato and his wife Carina continually debated whether to live in the country or in the city. Odenato, a disciplined and studious man, had a preference for a cultured, domestic and urban life, far from the natural forces and mysteries; Carina, on the other hand, loved the sun, outdoor activities, swimming, the woods, walking naked on the beach and other such pursuits. To better describe this conflict, which they always managed to keep within the confines of their married life, one could say that the husband represented a rational, human, urban society and the wife the exact opposite. In middle class families, there are sometimes such minor conflicts, which conceal enormous ones.
However, as we said, their conflict had always been kept within the confines of their married life. It is true, they did not agree on that little detail, but otherwise they could not have been more compatible. And everything would have continued to go smoothly had it not been been for the unsettling question of the tree.
The couple, well-off if not rich, lived in an old palace in the city centre. In their apartment, among the other rooms, was a large living room. One day Carina, coming back home in the early afternoon, found her husband who, armed with a poker, was about to tear apart a shrub, in reality a small tender tree that had suddenly sprouted in a corner of the living room, between their Empire style fireplace and the Louis XV credenza, full of rococo statuettes and Sevres porcelain. The tree, or sapling, was already a metre tall. Odenato's wife had never seen such a tree before. Tall and upright, with large green leaves shiny on one side and slightly hairy and whitish on the other; leaves, in other words, very similar to those of a plane tree, except that these leaves, instead of being shaped like the typical plane tree leaves with the tips taking a shape reminiscent of a hand with open fingers, these leaves were shaped like a heart. A heart with two tips, or rather two hearts combined as one and pierced by a single arrow, very similar to the ones lovers carve on trees. This shrub sprouted up from the hardwood floor and its roots visibly grew between the tiles.
The wife let out a scream when she saw Odenato menacingly brandishing the brutal poker on the tender plant; and that scream came just in time to divert the strike which fell on the Louis XV credenza instead and broke its glass. There followed a rather heated discussion. As always happens in these cases, the tree, insignificant in itself, offered them an occasion to give vent to their many old rancours. Odenato maintained that the plant, which in his opinion did not match the style of their furniture, had to be uprooted. Carina reproached him for his constant hatred of nature. “That is just like you! - she screamed. “The moment you see a tree, your first thought is to cut it down. Don't you know that trees are sacred?” To this, Odenato answered that he did not have anything against trees, but that honestly a tree in the house was a great hindrance. Without even taking into consideration that there are trees and trees. At least if it had been an oak, a noble tree whose branches were used to crown ancient warriors, or a tree sacred to the muses, or a pious and peaceful olive tree, or a mournful but pensive cypress, or even a pine tree to decorate at the end of the year with candles and garlands; but this tree was repulsive and nobody knew where it came from. And to this his wife went on: “Why does it bother you so much? It doesn't bark like a dog, it doesn't soil like a bird.. it is quiet, discreet.. no, no, your objection is purely deliberate.” Odenato put away the poker under the fireplace while protesting against the presence of the tree and under his wife's invectives, slowly withdrew from the situation and headed toward his office. He usually ceded to Carina, who was much more impetuous and authoritative than him. As long as, as he was in the habit of saying, she did not interfere with his own affairs, she could do whatever she wanted. And so that day, after having stated decisively that he did not approve of this tree at all, Odenato opened his office door and disappeared.
Carina spent the rest of that afternoon and evening reading botanical treatises hoping to find out which species the mysterious tree could belong to. No doubt it was a tree, the trunk already having a wooden colour and consistency. Furthermore, due to the shape of the leaves it could undoubtedly be ascribed to broadleaf trees with deciduous foliage. So far Carina was on safe ground. However, it was impossible to establish its name. It must have been a fast growing tree; Carina did not recall seeing it the night before during a small reception that had taken place in the living room. It had grown almost one metre tall overnight. Carina estimated that, at this rate, the tree would reach three or four metres within one week. While researching the tree, she got up from time to time and went to caress its leaves. That night Odenato, feeling irritable, deliberately did not talk to his wife at the table. But Carina felt happy just thinking about her tree.
During the next few days Carina's predictions proved right. The tree was growing visibly. Barely a plant the night before, it was already a small tree in the morning. The trunk, already wooden at the foot, became darker also towards the top and the brown of the adult bark replaced the green of the leaves. The branches too acquired form, the bigger ones getting larger and the smaller changing from the tender pulp to flexible fibre covered with bark. One particular branch stretched as far as the credenza which it had not even brushed the day before. Carina was full of joy. Odenato himself, while insisting on the inconveniences of this situation, the primary one being that this tree did not match the living room furniture, had to reluctantly admit that it was a nice little tree. That day Carina, full of enthusiasm, did nothing but take care of the tree. She folded the Bokhara carpet whose tip reached the corner of the room and removed a couple of withered leaves. She took a watering can and poured a puddle of water on the floor. The puddle became smaller and smaller and soon disappeared; a clear sign that the tree had absorbed all the water.
Then, after such fortunate beginnings, the tree did nothing but grow. The trunk, as big as a human leg, rose almost halfway through the wall bending slightly toward the centre of the room. The bark had already reached its mature look; it was smooth, soft, light, white here, yellowish there, light blue towards the top, very similar to that of a eucalyptus. The tree had four main branches: one protruded in the direction of the credenza, providentially hiding the glass Odenato had broken; the second one extented towards the fireplace, where the Psyche that adorned the Empire pendulum clock disappeared behind its leaves; the third branch, larger probably because it could stretch more freely, reached the centre of the living room with its foliage; and finally the fourth rose vertically and pressed against the corner of the ceiling.
Full of joy, Carina invited her friends to let them admire the tree. These women came full of curiosity. They had already heard about the tree, but only vaguely and they expected the usual fuchsia or azalea, or other similar plants that women keep in vases in the corners of their living rooms. But they were left dumbfounded when realizing that it was an actual tree with roots, trunk, branches and everything; such unique boldness, even in a time like this of extravagant trends. For a moment, envy and amazement left them speechless, not only verbally but mentally too. In other words, these gossips didn't know what to say or think. But soon after having left Carina's house they cheered up and started to say that after all it wasn't as special as Carina believed. Sure it was a tree. And with this? It would certainly be more original to keep, one might say, an aviary or a domesticated lion cub. Besides, added one of them, a tree was no use. Static like a rock, mute like a fish, and Carina wouldn't even need it to give shade, as the house walls already fulfilled this function. And so the malicious women concluded that it was a complete eccentricity and therefore of questionable taste.
After a week, the adult tree had already reached a diametre of one and a half metres at the base. With the trunk more and more tilted towards the centre of the room, the tree seemed to be stretching not branches but arms in the act of seizing the room. And the light fleshy colour of its bark confirmed this impression of tentacular animality. The sinewy and twisted roots sank like claws between the tiles
lifting and dislodging them. Carina, obsessively in love with her tree, had the living room cleared out completely. And it was definitely curious to enter that spacious room and find, within the four unadorned walls covered in damask red wallpaper, nothing but the tree, enormous, solitary, confined in a corner, similar to a plant octopus with leafy arms extending to seize the space or stretching upward as if examining the ceiling. It was almost surprising that such a mighty and imposing creature was silent and did not advance its demands shouting in a dark and irritated tone.
Odenato, who just wanted to be left alone, no longer fought with his wife. But secretly in his office he vented his frustrations to his friends. “Not that I have something against the tree itself”, he said, “but everything in its place ... trees in the woods and people in the houses ... what is a tree in the living room supposed to mean? This habit of bringing nature into the houses is a Nordic trend... Nordic people, probably reminiscing the still recent past when they curled up inside the cavities of the oaks, fill their houses with plants ... but we belong to a more ancient civilization ... we do not tolerate confusion or contamination ... our cities are made of stone and the countryside starts outside, not inside the walls...” So Odenato spoke, gravely. But amongst themselves, his friends said that he was weak and that in his house, as the masses say, his wife was the one wearing the pants.
It turned out that one pleasant summer night a very loud creak followed by the fracas of a deluge of pieces of plaster, woke Odenato and Carina. They rushed to the living room and the first things they saw through the large hole in the ceiling were the stars and the crescent moon. “My dear tree wants to enjoy the fresh air!”, exclaimed Carina running towards her beloved tree to kiss its trunk. “That's how women are!” thought Odenato irritated. But this time again, he did not dare to protest.
A month later the tree filled the entire living room with its thick, tangled foliage. Opening the door, you would find yourself face to face with a forest, so to speak. Leaves, leaves and more leaves. That said, it is not surprising that one of those nights Odenato found the tree even in bed. That's right. A branch knocked down the door and stretched all the way to the bed. Husband and wife found themselves irremediably separated by a barrier of leaves and branches. Odenato also complained that the tree grew around him, making him uncomfortable with certain prongs pressing against his back and legs. But Carina just told him that he was intolerant and did not understand anything. For her, on the other hand, feeling those leaves all over her body had a completely different effect. A nature bath, she said.
As fall arrived the leaves fell and filled the living room with rustling yellow piles. Carina called a woodcutter to prune the tree. For a few days Odenato's studies were disturbed by the woodcutter's axe. Finally, proud like a mother who shows off her child's first haircut, Carina showed her husband the pruned tree, left with only the bigger branches, without leaves or offshoots, as strong and vigorous as ever, and ready to endure the harshness of winter. Odenato, resigned, pretended to admire it. Deep inside, however, he thought that nature was serious trouble and that in a respectable society it should be kept as distant as possible.