The Book of Small

The Praying Chair

The wicker chair was new and had a crisp creak. At a quarter to eight every morning Father sat in it to read family prayers. The little book the prayers came out of was sewed into a black calico pinafore because its own cover was a vivid colour and Father did not think that was reverent.

The Elder, a sister much older than the rest of the children, knelt before a hard, straight chair; Mother and little Dick knelt together at a low soft chair. The three little girls, Bigger, Middle, and Small usually knelt in the bay window and buried their faces in its cushioned seat but Small’s Father liked her to kneel beside him sometimes. If she did not get her face down quickly he beckoned and Small had to go from the window-seat to under the arm of the wicker chair. It was stuffy under there. Small liked the window-seat best, where she could peep and count how many morning-glories were out, how many new rosebuds climbing to look in through the window at her.

Father’s wicker chair helped pray. It creaked and whispered more than the children would ever have dared to. When finally Father leaned across the arm to reach for the cross-work book-mark he had laid on the table during prayers, the chair squawked a perfectly grand Amen.

One morning Father had a bit of gout and Small thought that instead of Amen Father said “Ouch!” She could not be quite sure because just at the very moment that the chair amened, Tibby, the cat, gave a tremendous “meow” and a splendid idea popped into Small’s head.

Small had wanted a dog—she did not remember how long she had wanted it—it must have been from the beginning of the world. The bigger she got the harder she wanted.

As soon as everyone had gone about their day’s business Small took Tibby and went back to the praying chair.

“Look, Tibby, let’s you and me and the praying chair ask God to give you a puppy for me. Hens get ducks, why couldn’t you get a puppy? Father always sits in that chair to pray. It must be a good chair; it amens splendidly. I’ll do the words: you and the chair can amen. I don’t mind what kind of a puppy it is as long as it’s alive.”

She tipped the chair and poked Tibby underneath into the cage-like base. Tibby left her tail out.

“So much the better,” said Small. “It’ll pinch when the time for amen is ready.”

Tibby’s amen was so effective that Small’s Mother came to see what was the trouble.

“Poor cat! Her tail is pinched. Take her out into the garden, Small.”

“It’s all spoilt now!”

“What is?”

“We were praying for a puppy.”

“Your father won’t hear of a puppy in his garden, Small.”

Small’s birthday was coming.

The Elder said, “I know something that is coming for your birthday!”

“Is it—is it—”

“Wait and see.”

“Does it commence with ‘d’? Or, if it’s just a little one, maybe with ‘p’?”

“I think it does.”

The day before the great day Small’s singing was a greater nuisance than usual. Everyone scolded ’til she danced off to the woodshed to sing there, selected three boxes of varying sizes and brushed them out.

“Which size will fit him? Middle, when you got your new hair-brush what did you do with the old one?”

“Threw it out.”

Small searched the rubbish pile which was waiting for the Spring bonfire and found the brush-back with its few remaining bristles.

“A lot of brushing with a few is as good as a little brushing with a lot . . .”

“Rosie,” she said to the wax doll whose face had melted smooth because a mother, careless of dead dolls, had left her sitting in the sun, “Rosie, I shall give your woollie to my new pup. You are all cold anyhow. You melt if you are warmed. Pups are live and shivery . . .”

“He . . . she . . . Oh, Rosie, what shall I do if it’s a she? It took years to think up a good enough name and it’s a boy’s name. Oh, well, if it’s a girl she’ll have thousands of puppies; the Elder says they always do.”

She plaited a collar of bright braid, sewing on three hooks and eyes at varying distances.

“Will he be so big—or so big—or so big? I don’t care about his size or shape or colour as long as he’s alive.”

She put the collar into the pocket of tomorrow’s clean pinafore.

“Hurry up and go, day, so that tomorrow can come!” And she went off to bed so as to hurry night.

Small’s father drew back the front-door bolt; that only half unlocked the new day—the little prayerbook in its drab covering did the rest. It seemed a terrible time before the chair arm squeaked Amen. The Elder rose, slow as a snail. Small wanted to shout, “Hurry, hurry! Get the pup for me!”

Everyone kissed Small for her birthday; then all went into the breakfast-room. On Small’s plate was a flat, flat parcel. Small’s eyes filled, drowning the gladness.

“Open it!” shouted everyone.

The Elder cut the string. “I am glad to see,” she remarked, noting Small’s quivering blue hands, “that you did not shirk your cold bath because it was your birthday.”

The present was the picture of a little girl holding a dog in her arms.

“She looks like you,” said Middle.

“No, she isn’t like me, she has a dog.”

Small went to the fire pretending to warm her blue hands. She took something from her apron pocket, dropped it into the flames.

“I’m not hungry—can I go and feed my ducks?” In the cow-yard she could cry.

The birthday dawdled. Small went to bed early that night too.

“Small, you forgot your prayers!” cried Bigger.

“I didn’t—God’s deaf.”

“You’re dreadfully, dreadfully wicked—maybe you’ll die in the night.”

“Don’t care.”

Years passed. Small’s father and mother were dead. The Elder was no more reasonable than Small’s father had been about dogs. Small never asked now, but the want was still there, grown larger. Bigger, Middle and Small were grown up, but the Elder still regarded them as children, allowed them no rights. Like every girl Small built castles in the air. Her castle was an ark, her man a Noah, she tended the beasts.

Unexpected as Amen in a sermon’s middle came Small’s dog. She had been away for a long, long time; on her return the Elder was softened. Wanting to keep Small home, she said, “There’s a dog in the yard for you.”

Dabbing a kiss on the Elder’s cheek Small rushed. Kneeling she took the dog’s muzzle between her hands. He sniffed, licked, accepted. Maybe he too had waited for a human peculiarly his. She loosed him. He circled round and round. Was he scenting the dream-pup jealously?

He had been named already. The dream-pup would always keep the name that had been his for his own.

“He’ll run away—chain him. Remember he must not come in the house Small!”

Small roamed beach and woods, the dog with her always. Owning him was better even than she had dreamed.

Small sat on a park bench waiting for a pupil, the dog asleep at her feet. The child-pupil, planning a surprise for Small, stole up behind her and threw her arms round her neck. Small screamed. The dog sprang, caught the child’s arm between his teeth, made two tiny bruises and dropped down—shamed.

“That dog is vicious,” said the Elder.

“Oh, no, he thought someone was hurting me; he was dreadfully ashamed when he saw that it was a child.”

“He must be kept chained.”

Chickens for table use were killed close to the dog’s kennel. He smelled the blood—heard their squawks. The maid took a long feather and tickled his nose with it. He sprang, caught the girl’s hand instead of the feather. The Elder’s mouth went hard and grim.

“I teased him beyond endurance,” pleaded the maid.

That day Small was hurt in an accident. The dog was not allowed to go to her room. Broken-hearted he lay in his kennel, disgraced, forsaken. Small was sent away to an old friend to recuperate. The day before she was to return, the old lady’s son came to Small blurting, “They’ve killed your dog.”

“Cruel, unjust, beastly!” shrieked Small.

“Hush!” commanded the old lady. “The dog was vicious.”

“He was not! He was not! Both times he was provoked!”

Small ran and ran across fields till she dropped face down among the standing grain. There was a dark patch on the earth where her tears fell among roots of the grain.

“Only a dog! This is wrong, Small,” said the not-understanding old woman.

Small went home and for six weeks spoke no word to the Elder—very few to anybody. She loathed the Elder’s hands; they made her sick. Finally the Elder lost patience. “I did not kill the vicious brute,” she cried. “The police shot him.”

“You made them!”

Small could look at the Elder’s hands again.

Small was middle-aged; she built a house. The Elder had offered her another dog. “Never till I have a home of my own,” she had said. The Elder shrugged.

Now that Small had her house, the Elder criticized it. “Too far forward,” she said. “You could have a nice front garden.”

“I wanted a large back yard.”

“A glut of dogs, eh Small?”

“A kennel of Bobtail Sheep dogs.”

The Elder poked a head, white now, into Small’s puppy nursery. “What are you doing, Small?”

“Bottling puppies—too many for the mothers.”

“Why not bucket them?”

“There is demand for them—sheep dogs—cattle dogs.”

“How many pups just now?”

“Eve’s eight, Rhoda’s seven, Loo’s nine.”

“Twenty-four—mercy! and, besides, those absurd bearded old patriarchs—Moses, Adam and the rest.”

“Open the door for Adam.”

The kennel sire entered, shaggy, noble, majestic. He rested his chin a moment on Small’s shoulder where she sat with pup and feeding bottle, ran his eye round the walls where his mates and their families cuddled in boxes. He embraced all in good fellowship, including the Elder, picked the sunniest spot on the nursery floor and sprawled out.

“Oh, Small, I was throwing out Father’s old wicker chair. Would you like it in the kennel nursery to sit in while bottling the pups?”

“The praying chair?—Oh, yes.”

So the Praying Chair came to Small’s kennel. Sitting in it Small remembered Tibby, the picture pup, the want, her first dog. Adam rested his chin on the old chair’s arm. Small leaned forward to rest her cheek against his woolly head. All rasp, all crispness gone, “Amen”, whispered the Praying Chair.


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