The trumpet of the swan, p.4
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       The Trumpet of the Swan, p.4

           E. B. White
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  "What was it?" asked his father, when Sam returned indoors.

  "Swans," replied Sam. "They're headed south."

  "We'd better do the same," said Mr. Beaver. "I think Shorty will be here tomorrow to take us out."

  Mr. Beaver lay down on his bunk. "What kind of swans were they?" he asked.

  "Trumpeters," said Sam.

  "That's funny," said Mr. Beaver. "I thought Trumpeter Swans had quit migrating. I thought they spent the whole year on the Red Rock Lakes, where they are protected."

  "Most of 'em do," replied Sam. "But not all of 'em."

  It was bedtime. Sam got out his diary. This is what he wrote:

  I heard the swans tonight. They are headed south. It must be wonderful to fly at night. I wonder whether I'll ever see one of them again. How does a bird know how to get from where he is to where he wants to be?



  A few days after the swans arrived at their winter home on the Red Rock Lakes, Louis had an idea. He decided that since he was unable to use his voice, he should learn to read and write. "If I'm defective in one respect," he said to himself, "I should try and develop myself along other lines. I will learn to read and write. Then I will hang a small slate around my neck and carry a chalk pencil. In that way I will be able to communicate with anybody who can read."

  Louis liked company, and he already had many friends on the lakes. The place was a refuge for water birds--swans, geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. They lived there because it was a safe place and because the water stayed warm even in the coldest winter weather. Louis was greatly admired for his ability as a swimmer. He liked to compete with other cygnets to see who could swim underwater the greatest distance and stay down the longest.

  When Louis had fully made up his mind about learning to read and write, he decided to visit Sam Beaver and get help from him. "Perhaps," thought Louis, "Sam will let me go to school with him, and the teacher will show me how to write." The idea excited him. He wondered whether a young swan would be accepted in a classroom of children. He wondered whether it was hard to learn to read. Most of all, he wondered whether he could find Sam. Montana is a big state, and he wasn't even sure Sam lived in Montana, but he hoped he did.

  Next morning, when his parents were not looking, Louis took off into the air. He flew northeast. When he came to the Yellowstone River, he followed it to the Sweet Grass country. When he saw a town beneath him, he landed next to the schoolhouse and waited for the boys and girls to be let out. Louis looked at every boy, hoping to see Sam. But Sam wasn't there.

  "Wrong town, wrong school," thought Louis. "I'll try again." He flew off, found another town, and located the school, but all the boys and girls had gone home for the day.

  "I'll just have a look around anyway," thought Louis. He didn't dare walk down the main street, for fear somebody would shoot him. Instead, he took to the air and circled around, flying low and looking carefully at every boy in sight. After about ten minutes, he saw a ranch house where a boy was splitting wood near the kitchen door. The boy had black hair. Louis glided down.

  "I'm lucky," he thought. "It's Sam."

  When Sam saw the swan, he laid down his ax and stood perfectly still. Louis walked up timidly, then reached down and untied Sam's shoelace.

  "Hello!" said Sam in a friendly voice.

  Louis tried to say ko-hoh, but not a sound came from his throat.

  "I know you," said Sam. "You're the one that never said anything and used to pull my shoelaces."

  Louis nodded.

  "I'm glad to see you," said Sam. "What can I do for you?"

  Louis just stared straight ahead.

  "Are you hungry?" asked Sam.

  Louis shook his head.


  Louis shook his head.

  "Do you want to stay overnight with us, here at the ranch?" asked Sam.

  Louis nodded his head and jumped up and down.

  "O.K.," said Sam. "We have plenty of room. It's just a question of getting my father's permission."

  Sam picked up his ax, laid a stick of wood on the chopping block, and split the stick neatly down the middle. He looked at Louis.

  "There's something wrong with your voice, isn't there?" he asked.

  Louis nodded, pumping his neck up and down hard. He knew Sam was his friend, although he didn't know that Sam had once saved his mother's life.

  In a few minutes Mr. Beaver rode into the yard on a cow pony. He got off and tied his pony to a rail. "What have you got there?" he asked Sam.

  "It's a young Trumpeter Swan," said Sam. "He's only a few months old. Will you let me keep him awhile?"

  "Well," said Mr. Beaver, "I think it's against the law to hold one of these wild birds in captivity. But I'll phone the game warden and see what he says. If he says yes, you can keep him."

  "Tell the warden the swan has something the matter with him," called Sam as his father started toward the house.

  "What's wrong with him?" asked his father.

  "He has a speech problem," replied Sam. "Something's wrong with his throat."

  "What are you talking about? Who ever heard of a swan with a speech problem?"

  "Well," said Sam, "this is a Trumpeter Swan that can't trumpet. He's defective. He can't make a sound."

  Mr. Beaver looked at his son as though he didn't know whether to believe him or not. But he went into the house. In a few minutes he came back. "The warden says you can keep the young swan here for a while if you can help him. But sooner or later the bird will have to go back to the Red Rock Lakes, where he belongs. The warden said he wouldn't let just anybody have a young swan, but he'd let you have one because you understand about birds, and he trusts you. That's quite a compliment, son."

  Mr. Beaver looked pleased. Sam looked happy. Louis was greatly relieved. After a while everyone went in to supper in the kitchen of the ranch house. Mrs. Beaver allowed Louis to stand beside Sam's chair. They fed him some corn and some oats, which tasted good. When Sam was ready for bed, he wanted Louis to sleep in his room with him, but Mrs. Beaver said no. "He'll mess up the room. He's no canary; he's enormous. Put the bird out in the barn. He can sleep in one of the empty stalls; the horses won't mind."

  Next morning, Sam took Louis to school with him. Sam rode his pony, and Louis flew along. At the schoolhouse, the other children were amazed to see this great bird, with his long neck, bright eyes, and big feet. Sam introduced him to the teacher of the first grade, Mrs. Hammerbotham, who was short and fat. Sam explained that Louis wanted to read and write because he was unable to make any sound with his throat.

  Mrs. Hammerbotham stared at Louis. Then she shook her head. "No birds!" she said. "I've got enough trouble."

  Sam looked disappointed.

  "Please, Mrs. Hammerbotham," he said. "Please let him stand in your class and learn to read and write."

  "Why does a bird need to read and write?" replied the teacher. "Only people need to communicate with one another."

  "That's not quite true, Mrs. Hammerbotham," said Sam, "if you'll excuse me for saying so. I have watched birds and animals a great deal. All birds and animals talk to one another--they really have to, in order to get along. Mothers have to talk to their young. Males have to talk to females, particularly in the spring of the year when they are in love."

  "In love?" said Mrs. Hammerbotham, who seemed to perk up at this suggestion. "What do you know about love?"

  Sam blushed.

  "What kind of a bird is he?" she asked.

  "He's a young Trumpeter Swan," said Sam. "Right now he's sort of a dirty gray color, but in another year he'll be the most beautiful thing you ever saw--pure white, with black bill and black feet. He was hatched last spring in Canada and now lives in the Red Rock Lakes, but he can't say ko-hoh the way the other swans can, and this puts him at a terrible disadvantage."

  "Why?" asked the teacher.

  "Because it does," said Sam. "If you wanted to say ko-hoh and couldn't make a sin
gle solitary sound, wouldn't you feel worried?"

  "I don't want to say ko-hoh," replied the teacher. "I don't even know what it means. Anyway, this is all just foolishness, Sam. What makes you think a bird can learn to read and write? It's impossible."

  "Give him a chance!" pleaded Sam. "He is well behaved, and he's bright, and he's got this very serious speech defect."

  "What's his name?"

  "I don't know," replied Sam.

  "Well," said Mrs. Hammerbotham, "if he's coming into my class, he's got to have a name. Maybe we can find out what it is." She looked at the bird. "Is your name Joe?"

  Louis shook his head.


  Louis shook his head.


  Louis shook his head again.

  "Is your name Louis?" asked Mrs. Hammerbotham.

  Louis nodded his head very hard and jumped up and down and flapped his wings.

  "Great Caesar's ghost!" cried the teacher. "Look at those wings! Well, his name is Louis--that's for sure. All right, Louis, you may join the class. Stand right here by the blackboard. And don't mess up the room, either! If you need to go outdoors for any reason, raise one wing."

  Louis nodded. The first-graders cheered. They liked the looks of the new pupil and were eager to see what he could do.

  "Quiet, children!" said Mrs. Hammerbotham sternly. "We'll start with the letter A."

  She picked up a piece of chalk and made a big a on the blackboard. "Now you try it, Louis!"

  Louis grabbed a piece of chalk in his bill and drew a perfect a right under the one the teacher had drawn.

  "You see?" said Sam. "He's an unusual bird."

  "Well," said Mrs. Hammerbotham, "A is easy. I'll give him something harder." She wrote cat on the board. "Let's see you write cat, Louis!"

  Louis wrote cat.

  "Well cat is easy, too," muttered the teacher. "Cat is easy because it is short. Can anyone think of a word that is longer than cat?"

  "Catastrophe," said Charlie Nelson, who sat in the first row.

  "Good!" said Mrs. Hammerbotham. "That's a good hard word. But does anyone know what it means? What is a catastrophe?"

  "An earthquake," said one of the girls.

  "Correct!" replied the teacher. "What else?"

  "War is a catastrophe," said Charlie Nelson.

  "Correct!" replied Mrs. Hammerbotham. "What else is?"

  A very small, redheaded girl named Jennie raised her hand.

  "Yes, Jennie? What is a catastrophe?"

  In a very small, high voice, Jennie said, "When you get ready to go on a picnic with your father and mother and you make peanut-butter sandwiches and jelly rolls and put them in a thermos box with bananas and an apple and some raisin cookies and paper napkins and some bottles of pop and a few hard-boiled eggs and then you put the thermos box in your car and just as you are starting out it starts to rain and your parents say there is no point in having a picnic in the rain, that's a catastrophe."

  "Very good, Jennie," said Mrs. Hammerbotham. "It isn't as bad as an earthquake, and it isn't as bad as war. But when a picnic gets called on account of rain, it is a catastrophe for a child, I guess. Anyway, catastrophe is a good word. No bird can write that word, I'll bet. If I can teach a bird to write catastrophe, it'll be big news all over the Sweet Grass country. I'll get my picture in Life magazine. I'll be famous."

  Thinking of all these things, she stepped to the blackboard and wrote catastrophe.

  "O.K., Louis, let's see you write that!"

  Louis picked up a fresh piece of chalk in his bill. He was scared. He took a good look at the word. "A long word," he thought, "is really no harder than a short one. I'll just copy one letter at a time, and pretty soon it will be finished. Besides, my life is a catastrophe. It's a catastrophe to be without a voice." Then he began writing. catastrophe, he wrote, making each letter very neatly. When he got to the last letter, the pupils clapped and stamped their feet and banged on their desks, and one boy quickly made a paper airplane and zoomed it into the air. Mrs. Hammerbotham rapped for order.

  "Very good, Louis," she said. "Sam, it's time you went to your own classroom--you shouldn't be in my room. Go and join the fifth grade. I'll take care of your friend the swan."

  Back in his own room, Sam sat down at his desk, feeling very happy about the way things had turned out. The fifth-graders were having a lesson in arithmetic, and their teacher, Miss Annie Snug, greeted Sam with a question. Miss Snug was young and pretty.

  "Sam, if a man can walk three miles in one hour, how many miles can he walk in four hours?"

  "It would depend on how tired he got after the first hour," replied Sam.

  The other pupils roared. Miss Snug rapped for order.

  "Sam is quite right," she said. "I never looked at the problem that way before. I always supposed that man could walk twelve miles in four hours, but Sam may be right: that man may not feel so spunky after the first hour. He may drag his feet. He may slow up."

  Albert Bigelow raised his hand. "My father knew a man who tried to walk twelve miles, and he died of heart failure," said Albert.

  "Goodness!" said the teacher. "I suppose that could happen, too."

  "Anything can happen in four hours," said Sam. "A man might develop a blister on his heel. Or he might find some berries growing along the road and stop to pick them. That would slow him up even if he wasn't tired or didn't have a blister."

  "It would indeed," agreed the teacher. "Well, children, I think we have all learned a great deal about arithmetic this morning, thanks to Sam Beaver. And now, here is a problem for one of the girls in the room. If you are feeding a baby from a bottle, and you give the baby eight ounces of milk in one feeding, how many ounces of milk would the baby drink in two feedings?"

  Linda Staples raised her hand.

  "About fifteen ounces," she said.

  "Why is that?" asked Miss Snug. "Why wouldn't the baby drink sixteen ounces?"

  "Because he spills a little each time," said Linda. "It runs out of the corners of his mouth and gets on his mother's apron."

  By this time the class was howling so loudly the arithmetic lesson had to be abandoned. But everyone had learned how careful you have to be when dealing with figures.



  When Louis's father and mother discovered that Louis was missing, they felt awful. No other young swan had disappeared from the lakes--only Louis.

  "The question now arises," said the cob to his wife, "whether or not I should go and look for our son. I am disinclined to leave these attractive lakes now, in the fall of the year, with winter coming on. I have, in fact, been looking forward to this time of serenity and peace and the society of other waterfowl. I like the life here."

  "There's another little matter to consider besides your personal comfort," said his wife. "Has it occurred to you that we have no idea which direction Louis went when he left? You don't know where he went any more than I do. If you were to start out looking for him, which way would you fly?"

  "Well," replied the cob, "in the last analysis, I believe I would go south."

  "What do you mean, 'in the last analysis'?" said the swan impatiently. "You haven't analyzed anything. Why do you say 'in the last analysis'? And why do you pick south as the way to go looking for Louis? There are other directions. There's north, and east, and west. There's northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest."

  "True," replied the cob. "And there are all those in-between directions: north-northeast, east-southeast, west-southwest. There's north by east, and east by north. There's south-southeast a half east, and there's west by north a half north. The directions a young swan could start off in are almost too numerous to think about."

  So it was decided that no search would be made. "We'll just wait here and see what happens," said the cob. "I feel sure Louis will return in the fullness of time."

  Months went by. Winter came to the Red Rock Lakes. The nights were long and dark and cold. The days we
re short and bright and cold. Sometimes the wind blew. But the swans and geese and ducks were safe and happy. The warm springs that fed the lakes kept the ice from covering them--there were always open places. There was plenty of food. Sometimes a man would arrive with a bag of grain and spread the grain where the birds could get it.

  Spring followed winter; summer followed spring. A year went by, and it was springtime again. Still no sign of Louis. Then one morning when Louis's grown-up brothers were playing a game of water polo, one of them looked up and saw a swan approaching in the sky.

  "Ko-hoh!" cried the cygnet. He rushed to his father and mother. "Look! Look! Look!"

  All the waterfowl on the lake turned and gazed up at the approaching swan. The swan circled in the sky.

  "It's Louis!" said the cob. "But what is that peculiar little object hanging around his neck by a string? What is that?"

  "Wait and see," said his wife. "Maybe it's a gift."

  Louis looked down from the sky and spotted what looked like his family. When he was sure, he glided down and skidded to a stop. His mother rushed up and embraced him. His father arched his neck gracefully and raised his wings in greeting. Everyone shouted "Ko-hoh!" and "Welcome back, Louis!" His family was overjoyed. He had been gone for a year and a half--almost eighteen months. He looked older and handsomer. His feathers were pure white now, instead of a dirty gray. Hanging by a cord around his neck was a small slate. Attached to the slate by a piece of string was a white chalk pencil.

  When the family greetings were over, Louis seized the chalk in his bill and wrote "Hi, there!" on the slate. He held the slate out eagerly for all to see.

  The cob stared at it. The mother swan stared at it. The cygnets stared at it. They just stared and stared. Words on a slate meant nothing to them. They couldn't read. None of the members of his family had ever seen a slate before, or a piece of chalk. Louis's attempt to greet his family was a failure. He felt as though he had wasted a year and a half by going to school and learning to write. He felt keenly disappointed. And, of course, he was unable to speak. The words on the slate were all he could offer by way of greeting.

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