The Book of Small

British Columbia Nightingale

My sister Alice was two years older than I and knew a lot. Lizzie was two years older than Alice and thought she knew it all. My great big sister did know everything. Mother knew all about God. Father knew all about the earth. I knew more than our baby, but I was always wondering and wondering.

Some wonders started inside you just like a stomach-ache. Some started in outside things when you saw, smelled, heard or felt them. The wonder tickled your thinking—coming from nowhere it got into your head running round and round inside until you asked a grown-up about this particular wonder and then it stopped bothering you.

Lizzie, Alice and I were playing in the garden when our Chinaboy Boy came down the path—that is how I know exactly what time of evening it was that this new noise set me wondering, because Bong was very punctual. The tassel on the end of his pigtail waggled all down the path and, as he turned out of the gate, it gave a special little flip. Then you knew that it was almost bed-time. It was just as the slip-slop of Bong’s Chinese shoes faded away that I first noticed that new noise.

First it was just a little bunch of grating snaps following each other very quickly, as if someone were dragging a stick across a picket fence as he ran. The rattles got quicker and quicker, more and more, till it sounded as if millions of sticks were being dragged across millions of fences.

I said, “Listen girls! What is it?”

Alice said she did not hear anything in particular.

Lizzie said, “It’s just Spring noises, silly!”

First the sound would seem here, then there, then everywhere—suddenly it would stop dead and then the stillness startled you, but soon the rattles would clatter together again filling the whole world with the most tremendous racket, all except just where you stood.

I was glad when my big sister put her head out of the window and called, “Bed-time, children!” I wanted to pull the covers up over my head and shut out the noise.

We went into the sitting-room to kiss Father and Mother good night. The fire and the lamp were lighted. Mother was sewing—Father looked at her over the top of his newspaper and said:

“Listen to British Columbia’s nightingale, Mother! Spring has come.”

Mother replied, “Yes, he certainly does love Spring in the Beacon Hill skunk-cabbage swamp!”

“Come along, children!” called Big Sister.

Upstairs our bedroom was full of the noise. It came pouring in through the dormer window. When the candle was taken away it seemed louder because of the dark. I called to Big Sister as she went down the stair, “Please may we have the window shut?”

“Certainly not! Stuffy little girl! The night is not cold.”

“It isn’t the cold, it’s the noise.”

“Noise? Fiddlesticks! Go to sleep.”

I nosed close to Alice, “Do you know what nightingales are Alice?”

“Some sort of creature.”

“They must be simply enormous to make such a big noise.”

Alice’s “uh-huh” was sleep talk.

I lay trying to “size” the nightingale by its noise. Our piano even with sister Edith pounding her hardest could never fill the whole night like that. Our cow was bigger than the piano, but even when they shut her calf away from her and great moos made her sides go in and out, her bellows only rumbled round the yard. This nightingale’s voice crackled through the woods, the sky and everywhere. The band that played in the Queen’s birthday parade died when you lost sight of it. This sound of something which you could not see at all filled the world. Why, even the cannon that went off at Esquimalt for people to set their watches by every night at nine-thirty and made Victoria’s windows rattle, went silent after one great bang, but this monster in Beacon Hill Park adjoining our own property kept on and on with its roar of crackles.

I knew now why we were never allowed to go into Beacon Hill swamp to gather spring flowers: it was not on account of the mud at all, but because of this nightingale monster.

“I shall never, never go into Beacon Hill Park again,” I said to myself. “I won’t let on I’m scared, but when we go for a walk I shall say, ‘Let’s go to the beach, it’s much nicer than the Park.’ ”

I thought, “Perhaps she comes to the Park like the birds to nest in the Spring. Perhaps the Park might be safe in winter when the Monster went south.”

I heard Father shoot the front-door bolt and the grown-ups coming up the stair. As the candles flickered past our door I whispered, “Mother!”

She came to me.

“Why are you not asleep?”

“Mother, how big is a nightingale?”

“Nightingales are small birds, we do not have them in Victoria.”

Birds!—None in Victoria!

“But Father said—”

“That was just a joke, calling our little green frogs nightingales. Go to sleep, child.”

Dear little hopping frogs!—I slept.


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This work (The Book of Small by Emily Carr) is free of known copyright restrictions.