The Book of Small

The Orange Lily

Henry Mitchell’s nursery garden was set with long rows of trees, shrubs and plants. It sat on the edge of the town. In one corner of its acreage was the little grey cottage where Henry and his wife, Anne, lived. They were childless and well on in years, trying honestly to choke down homesickness and to acclimatize themselves as well as their Old Country plants to their step-land.

Small came into the nursery garden taking the gravel path at a gallop, the steps at a jump, tiptoeing to reach the doorbell—then she turned sharp against the temptation of peering through the coloured glass at the door-sides to see sombre Anne Mitchell come down the hall multicoloured—green face, red dress, blue hair. The turn brought Small face to face with the Orange Lily.

The lily grew in the angle made by the front of the house and the side of the porch. Small’s knees doubled to the splintery porch floor. She leaned over to look into the lily’s trumpet, stuck out a finger to feel the petals. They had not the greasy feel of the wax lilies they resembled, they had not the smooth hard shininess of china. They were cool, slippery and alive.

Lily rolled her petals grandly wide as sentinelled doors roll back for royalty. The entrance to her trumpet was guarded by a group of rust-powdered stamens—her powerful perfume pushed past these. What was in the bottom of Lily’s trumpet? What was it that the stamens were so carefully guarding? Small pushed the stamens aside and looked. The trumpet was empty—the emptiness of a church after parson and people have gone, when the music is asleep in the organ and the markers dangle from the Bible on the lectern.

Anne Mitchell opened the cottage door.

“Come see my everlasting flowers, Small—my flowers that never die.”

With a backward look Small said, “What a lovely lily!”

“Well enough but strong-smelling, gaudy. Come see the everlastings.”

The front room of the cottage was empty; newspapers were spread over the floor and heaped with the crisping everlasting flowers, each colour in a separate pile. The sunlight in the room was dulled by drawn white blinds. The air was heavy—dead, dusty as the air of a hay loft.

The flowers crackled at Anne’s touch. “Enough to wreathe the winter’s dead,” she said with a happy little sigh and, taking a pink bud from the pile, twined it in the lace of her black cap. It drooped against her thin old cheek that was nearly as pink, nearly as dry as the flower.

“Come, Mrs. Gray’s wreath!” She took Small to the sitting-room. Half of Mrs. Gray’s wreath was on the table, Anne’s cat, an invalid guinea hen and Henry huddled round the stove. The fire and the funereal everlastings crackled cheerfully.

Presently Small said, “I had better go now.”

“You shall have a posy,” said Anne, laying down the wreath.

“Will there be enough for Mrs. Gray and me too?” asked Small.

“We will gather flowers from the garden for you.”

The Orange Lily! Oh if Mrs. Mitchell would only give me the Orange Lily! Oh, if only I could hold it in my hand and look and look!

Anne passed the lily. Beyond was the bed of pinks—white, clove, cinnamon.

“Smell like puddings, don’t they?” said Small.

“My dear!”

Anne’s scissors chawed the wiry stems almost as sapless as the everlastings. Life seemed to have rushed to the heads of the pinks and flopped them face down to the ground. Anne blew off the dust as she bunched the pinks. Small went back to the lily. With pocket-handkerchief she wiped the petals she had rusted by pushing aside the stamens.

“There are four more lilies to come, Mrs. Mitchell!”

Anne lifted the corner of her black silk apron.

“That lily has rusted your nose, Small.”

She scrubbed.

Small went home.

“Here’s pinks,” she said, tossing the bunch upon the table.

In her heart she hugged an Orange Lily. It had burned itself there not with flaming petals, not through the hot, rich smell. Soundless, formless, white—it burned there.


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