The Book of Small


Small’s singing was joyful noise more than music; what it lacked in elegance it made up in volume. As fire cannot help giving heat so Small’s happiness could not help giving song, in spite of family complaint. They called her singing a “horrible row”, and said it shamed them before the neighbours, but Small sang on. She sang in the cow-yard mostly, not that she went there specially to sing, but she was so happy when she was there among the creatures that the singing did itself. She had but to open her mouth and the noise jumped out.

The moment Small sat down upon the cow-yard woodpile the big rooster would jump into her lap and the cow amble across the yard to plant her squareness, one leg under each corner right in front of Small and, to shut out completely the view of the old red barn, the hen houses, and the manure-pile.

The straight outline of the cow’s back in front of Small was like a range of mountains with low hills and little valleys. The tail end of the cow was as square as a box. Horns were her only curve—back, front, tail, neck and nose in profile, were all straight lines. Even the slobber dripping from her chin fell in slithery streaks.

When Small began to sing the old cow’s nose-line shot from straight down to straight out, her chin rose into the air, her jaws rolled. The harder Small sang, the harder the cow chewed and the faster she twiddled her ears around as if stirring the song into the food to be rechewed in cud along with her breakfast.

Small loved her cow-yard audience—hens twisting their silly heads and clawing the earth with mincing feet, their down eye looking for grubs, their up eye peering at Small, ducks trying hard to out-quack the song, pigeons clapping their white wings, rabbits hoisting and sinking their noses—whether in appreciation or derision Small could never tell.

White fluttered through the cow-yard gate, Bigger’s apron heralding an agitated Bigger, both hands wrestling with the buttons of her apron behind and her tongue ready sharpened to attack Small’s singing.

“It’s disgusting! Stop that vulgar row, Small! What must the neighbours think? Stop it, I say!”

Small sang harder, bellowing the words, “The cow likes it and this is her yard.”

“I wish to goodness that she would roof her yard then, or that you would sing under an umbrella, Small, and so keep the sound down and not let it boil over the fences. There’s the breakfast bell! Throw that fowl out of your lap and come! Song before breakfast means tears before night.”

“Whose tears—mine, the cow’s or the rooster’s?”

“Oh, oh, oh! That cow-brute has dripped slobber down my clean apron! You’re a disgusting pair,” shrieked Bigger and rushed from the yard.

Breakfast over, the Elder detained Small.

“Small, this singing of yours is scandalous! Yesterday I was walking up the street with a lady. Half a block from our gate she stopped dead. ‘Listen! Someone is in trouble,’ she said. How do you think I felt saying, ‘Oh, no, it is only my little sister singing’?”

Small reddened but said stubbornly, “The cow likes my singing.”

Cows are different from humans; perhaps the hairiness of their ears strains sound.

The Bishop came to pay a sick-visit to Small’s mother. He prayed and Small watched and listened. His deliberate chewing of the words, with closed eyes, reminded her of the cow chewing her cud. The Bishop was squarely built, a slow calm man. “They are very alike,” thought Small.

Rising from his knees, the Bishop, aware of the little girl’s stare, said, “You grow, child!”

“She does,” said Small’s mother. “So does her voice; her singing is rather a family problem.”

“Song is good,” replied the Bishop. “Is it hymns you sing, child?”

“No, Mr. Bishop, I prefer cow-songs.”

The Bishop’s “a-a-h!” long-drawn and flat lasted all the way down the stairs.

“You should not have said that,” said Small’s mother. “A Bishop is a Bishop.”

“And a cow is a cow. Is it so wicked to sing to a cow?”

“Not wicked at all. I love your happy cow-yard songs coming into my window. We will have your voice trained some day. Then perhaps the others will not scold so much about your singing.”

“But will the cow like my voice squeezed little and polite? It won’t be half so much fun singing beautifully as boiling over like the jam kettle.”

Small’s four sisters and her brother went holidaying to a farm in Metchosin. Small was left at home with her mother. Just at first Small, to whom animal life was so dear, felt a pang that she was not of the farm party. But the quiet of the empty house was a new experience and something happened.

Mrs. Gregory, her mother’s friend of long standing, came to spend an afternoon.

Both ladies were nearing the age of fifty—straight-backed, neatly made little ladies who sat primly on the horsehair chairs in the drawing-room wearing little lace-trimmed matron’s caps and stitching each on a piece of plain sewing as they chatted.

Having exchanged recipes for puddings, discussed the virtue of red flannel as against white, the problem of Chinese help and the sewing-circle where they made brown holland aprons for orphans, all topics were exhausted.

They sewed in silence, broken after a bit by Mrs. Gregory saying, “There was English mail this morning, Emily. Do you ever get homesick for the Old Country?”

Small’s mother looked with empty eyes across the garden. “My home and my family are here,” she replied.

The ladies began “remembering”. One would say, “Do you remember?” and the other would say, “I call to mind.” Soon this remembering carried them right away from that Canadian drawing-room. They were back in Devonshire lanes, girl brides rambling along with their Richard and William, pausing now and then to gather primroses and to listen to the larks and cuckoos.

Small’s mother said, “Richard was always one for wanting to see new countries.”

“My William’s hobby,” said Mrs. Gregory, “was growing things. Here or there made no difference to him as long as there was earth to dig and flowers to grow.”

Small knew that Richard and William were her father and Mr. Gregory or she would never have recognized the ladies’ two jokey boys of the Devonshire lanes in the grave middle-aged men she knew as her father and Mrs. Gregory’s husband.

The ladies laid their sewing upon the table and, dropping their hands into their laps, sat idle, relaxing their shoulders into the hard backs of the chairs. Small felt it extraordinary to see them doing nothing, to see Canada suddenly spill out of their eyes as if a dam had burst and let the pent-up England behind drown Canada, to see them sitting in real chairs and yet not there at all.

The house was quite still. In the yard Bong was chopping kindling and droning a little Chinese song.

Suddenly Mrs. Gregory said, “Emily, let’s sing!” and began:

“I cannot sing the old songs now I sang long years ago. . . .”

Small’s mother joined, no shyness, no hesitation. The two rusty little voices lifted, found to their amazement that they could sing the old songs still, and their voices got stronger and stronger with each song.

Sitting on a stool between them, half hidden by the table-cloth and entirely forgotten by the ladies, Small watched and listened, saw their still fingers, unornamented except for the plain gold band on the third left of each hand, lying in sober-coloured stuff-dress laps, little white caps perched on hair yet brown, lace jabots pinned under their chins by huge brooches. Mrs. Gregory’s brooch was composed of tiny flowers woven from human hair grown on the heads of various members of her family. The flowers were glassed over the top and framed in gold, and there were earrings to match dangling from her ears. The brooch Small’s mother wore was made of quartz with veins of gold running through it. Richard had dug the quartz himself from the California gold mines and had had it mounted in gold for his wife with earrings of the same.

Each lady had winds and winds of thin gold watch-chain round her neck, chains which tethered gold watches hiding in stitched pockets on the fronts of their dresses. There the ladies’ hearts and their watches could tick duets.

Small sat still as a mouse. The singing was as solemn to her as church. She had always supposed that Mother-ladies stopped singing when there were no more babies in their nurseries to be sung to. Here were two ladies nearly fifty years old, throwing back their heads to sing love songs, nursery songs, hymns, God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia—songs that spilled over the drawing-room as easily as Small’s cow songs spilled over the yard, only Small’s songs were new, fresh grass snatched as the cow snatched pasture grass. The ladies’ songs were re-chews—cudded fodder.

Small sneezed!

Two mouths snapped like mousetraps! Four cheeks flushed! Seizing her sewing, Mrs. Gregory said sharply, “Hunt my thimble, child!”

Small’s mother said, “I clean forgot the tea,” and hurried from the room.

Small never told a soul about that singing but now, when she sat on the cow-yard woodpile she raised her chin and sang clean over the cow’s back, over the yard and over the garden, straight into her mother’s window . . . let Bigger and the Elder scold!


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