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The trumpet of the swan, p.3
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       The Trumpet of the Swan, p.3

           E. B. White
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  One evening a few weeks later, when the cygnets were asleep, the swan said to the cob, "Have you noticed anything different about one of our children, the one we call Louis?"

  "Different?" replied the cob. "In what way is Louis different from his brothers and sisters? Louis looks all right to me. He is growing well; he swims and dives beautifully. He eats well. He will soon have his flight feathers."

  "Oh, he looks all right," said the swan. "And heaven knows he eats enough. He's healthy and bright and a great swimmer. But have you ever heard Louis make any sound, as the others do? Have you ever heard him use his voice or say anything? Have you ever heard him utter a single beep or a single burble?"

  "Come to think of it, I never have," replied the cob, who was beginning to look worried.

  "Have you ever heard Louis say good night to us, as the others do? Have you ever heard him say good morning, as the others do in their charming little way, burbling and beeping?"

  "Now that you mention it, I never have," said the cob. "Goodness! What are you getting at? Do you wish me to believe that I have a son who is defective in any way? Such a revelation would distress me greatly. I want everything to go smoothly in my family life so that I can glide gracefully and serenely, now in the prime of my life, without being haunted by worry or disappointment. Fatherhood is quite a burden, at best. I do not want the added strain of having a defective child, a child that has something the matter with him."

  "Well," said the wife, "I've been watching Louis lately. It is my opinion the little fellow can't talk. I've never heard him make one sound. I think he came into the world lacking a voice. If he had a voice, he'd use it, same as the others do."

  "Why, this is terrible!" said the cob. "This is distressing beyond words. This is a very serious matter."

  His wife looked at him in amusement. "It's not too serious now," she said. "But it will be serious two or three years from now when Louis falls in love, as he will surely do. A young male swan will be greatly handicapped in finding a mate if he is unable to say ko-hoh, ko-hoh, or if he can't utter the usual endearments to the young female of his choice."

  "Are you sure?" asked the cob.

  "Certainly I'm sure," she replied. "I can remember perfectly well the springtime, years ago, when you fell in love with me and began chasing after me. What a sight you were, and what a lot of noise you made! It was in Montana, remember?"

  "Of course I remember," said the cob.

  "Well, the thing that attracted me most to you was your voice--your wonderful voice."

  "It was?" said the cob.

  "Yes. You had the finest, most powerful, most resonant voice of any of the young male swans in the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana."

  "I did?" said the cob.

  "Yes, indeed. Every time I heard you say something in that deep voice of yours, I was ready to go anywhere with you."

  "You were?" said the cob. He was obviously delighted with his wife's praise. It tickled his vanity and made him feel great. He had always fancied himself as having a fine voice, and now to hear it from his wife's own lips was a real thrill. In the pleasure of the moment, he forgot all about Louis and thought entirely of himself. And, of course, he did remember that enchanted springtime on the lake in Montana when he had fallen in love. He remembered how pretty the swan had been, how young and innocent she seemed, how attractive, how desirable. Now he realized fully that he would never have been able to woo her and win her if he had been unable to say anything.

  "We'll not worry about Louis for the time being," said the swan. "He's still very young. But we must watch him next winter when we are in Montana for the season. We must stay together as a family until we see how Louis makes out."

  She walked over to where her sleeping cygnets were and settled down next to them. The night was chill. Carefully, she lifted one wing and covered the cygnets with it. They stirred in their sleep and drew close to her.

  The cob stood quietly, thinking about what his wife had just told him. He was a brave, noble bird, and already he was beginning to work out a plan for his little son Louis.

  "If it's really true that Louis has no voice," said the cob to himself, "then I shall provide him with a device of some sort, to enable him to make a lot of noise. There must be some way out of this difficulty. After all, my son is a Trumpeter Swan; he should have a voice like a trumpet. But first I will test him to make certain that what his mother says is true."

  The cob was unable to sleep that night. He stood on one leg, quietly, but sleep never came. Next morning, after everyone had enjoyed a good breakfast, he led Louis apart from the others.

  "Louis," he said, "I wish to speak to you alone. Let's just you and I take a swim by ourselves to the other end of the pond, where we can talk privately without being interrupted."

  Louis was surprised by this. But he nodded his head and followed his father, swimming strongly in his wake. He did not understand why his father wanted to speak to him alone, without his brothers and sisters.

  "Now!" said the cob, when they reached the upper end of the pond. "Here we are, gracefully floating, supremely buoyant, at some distance from the others, in perfect surroundings--a fine morning, with the pond quiet except for the song of the blackbirds, making the air sweet."

  "I wish my father would get to the point," thought Louis.

  "This is an ideal place for our conference," continued the cob. "There is something I feel I should discuss with you very candidly and openly--something that concerns your future. We need not range over the whole spectrum of bird life but just confine our talk to the one essential thing that is before us on this unusual occasion."

  "Oh, I wish my father would get to the point," thought Louis, who by this time was getting very nervous.

  "It has come to my attention, Louis," continued the cob, "that you rarely say anything. In fact, I can't recall ever hearing you utter a sound. I have never heard you speak, or say ko-hoh, or cry out, either in fear or in joy. This is most unusual for a young Trumpeter. It is serious. Louis, let me hear you say beep. Go ahead, say it! Say beep!"

  Poor Louis! While his father watched, he took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and let the air out, hoping it would say beep. But there wasn't a sound.

  "Try again, Louis!" said his father. "Perhaps you're not making enough of an effort."

  Louis tried again. It was no use. No sound came from his throat. He shook his head, sadly.

  "Watch me!" said the cob. He raised his neck to its full height and cried ko-hoh so loud it was heard by every creature for miles around.

  "Now let me hear you go beep!" he commanded. "Say beep, Louis--loud and clear!" Louis tried. He couldn't beep.

  "Let me hear you burble! Go ahead and burble! Like this: burble, burble, burble."

  Louis tried to burble. He couldn't do it. No sound came.

  "Well," said the cob, "I guess it's no use. I guess you are dumb."

  When he heard the word "dumb," Louis felt like crying. The cob saw that he had hurt Louis's feelings. "You misunderstand me, my son," he said in a comforting voice. "You failed to understand my use of the word 'dumb,' which has two meanings. If I had called you a dumb cluck or a dumb bunny, that would have meant that I had a poor opinion of your intelligence. Actually, I think you are perhaps the brightest, smartest, most intelligent of all my cygnets. Words sometimes have two meanings; the word 'dumb' is such a word. A person who can't see is called blind. A person who can't hear is called deaf. A person who can't speak is called dumb. That simply means he can't say anything. Do you understand?"

  Louis nodded his head. He felt better, and he was grateful to his father for explaining that the word had two meanings. He still felt awfully unhappy, though.

  "Do not let an unnatural sadness settle over you, Louis," said the cob. "Swans must be cheerful, not sad; graceful, not awkward; brave, not cowardly. Remember that the world is full of youngsters who have some sort of handicap that they
must overcome. You apparently have a speech defect. I am sure you will overcome it, in time. There may even be some slight advantage, at your age, in not being able to say anything. It compels you to be a good listener. The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking."

  "My father does quite a lot of talking himself," thought Louis.

  "Some people," continued the cob, "go through life chattering and making a lot of noise with their mouth; they never really listen to anything--they are too busy expressing their opinions, which are often unsound or based on bad information. Therefore, my son, be of good cheer! Enjoy life; learn to fly! Eat well; drink well! Use your ears; use your eyes! And I promise that someday I will make it possible for you to use your voice. There are mechanical devices that convert air into beautiful sounds. One such device is called a trumpet. I saw a trumpet once, in my travels. I think you may need a trumpet in order to live a full life. I've never known a Trumpeter Swan to need a trumpet, but your case is different. I intend to get you what you need. I don't know how I will manage this, but in the fullness of time it shall be accomplished. And now that our talk has come to a close, let us return gracefully to the other end of the pond, where your mother and your brothers and sisters await us!"

  The cob turned and swam off. Louis followed. It had been an unhappy morning for him. He felt frightened at being different from his brothers and sisters. It scared him to be different. He couldn't understand why he had come into the world without a voice. Everyone else seemed to have a voice. Why didn't he? "Fate is cruel," he thought. "Fate is cruel to me." Then he remembered that his father had promised to help, and he felt better. Soon they joined the others, and everyone started water games, and Louis joined in, dipping and splashing and diving and twisting. Louis could splash water farther than any of the others, but he couldn't shout while he was doing it. To be able to shout while you are splashing water is half the fun.



  At the end of the summer, the cob gathered his family around him and made an announcement.

  "Children," he began, "I have news for you. Summer is drawing to a close. Leaves are turning red, pink, and pale yellow. Soon the leaves will fall. The time has come for us to leave this pond. The time has come for us to go."

  "Go?" cried all the cygnets except Louis.

  "Certainly," replied their father. "You children are old enough to learn the facts of life, and the principal fact of our life right now is this: we can't stay in this marvelous location much longer."

  "Why not?" cried all the cygnets except Louis.

  "Because summer is over," said the cob, "and it is the way of swans to leave their nesting site at summer's end and travel south to a milder place where the food supply is good. I know that you are all fond of this pretty pond, this marvelous marsh, these reedy shores and restful retreats. You have found life pleasant and amusing here. You have learned to dive and swim underwater. You have enjoyed our daily recreational trips when we formed in line, myself in front swimming gracefully, like a locomotive, and your charming mother bringing up the rear, like a caboose. Daylong, you have listened and learned. You have avoided the odious otter and the cruel coyote. You have listened to the little owl that says co-co-co-co. You have heard the partridge say kwit-kwit. At night you have dropped off to sleep to the sound of frogs--the voices of the night. But these pleasures and pastimes, these adventures, these games and frolics, these beloved sights and sounds must come to an end. All things come to an end. It is time for us to go."

  "Where will we go?" cried all the cygnets except Louis. "Where will we go, ko-hoh, ko-hoh? Where will we go, ko-hoh, ko-hoh?"

  "We will fly south to Montana," replied the cob.

  "What is Montana?" asked all the cygnets except Louis. "What is Montana--banana, banana? What is Montana--banana, banana?"

  "Montana," said their father, "is a state of the Union. And there, in a lovely valley surrounded by high mountains, are the Red Rock Lakes, which nature has designed especially for swans. In these lakes you will enjoy warm water, arising from hidden springs. Here, ice never forms, no matter how cold the nights. In the Red Rock Lakes, you will find other Trumpeter Swans, as well as the lesser waterfowl--the geese and the ducks. There are few enemies. No gunners. Plenty of muskrat houses. Free grain. Games every day. What more can a swan ask, in the long, long cold of winter?"

  Louis listened to all this in amazement. He wanted to ask his father how they would learn to fly and how they would find Montana even after they learned to fly. He began to worry about getting lost. But he wasn't able to ask any questions. He just had to listen.

  One of his brothers spoke up.

  "Father," he said, "you said we would fly south. I don't know how to fly. I've never been up in the air."

  "True," replied the cob. "But flying is largely a matter of having the right attitude--plus, of course, good wing feathers. Flying consists of three parts. First, the takeoff, during which there is a lot of fuss and commotion, a lot of splashing and rapid beating of the wings. Second, the ascent, or gaining of altitude--this requires hard work and fast wing action. Third, the leveling-off, the steady elevated flight, high in air, wings beating slower now, beating strongly and regularly, carrying us swiftly and surely from zone to zone as we cry ko-hoh, ko-hoh, with all the earth stretched out far below."

  "It sounds very nice," said the cygnet, "but I'm not sure I can do it. I might get dizzy way up there--if I look down."

  "Don't look down!" said his father. "Look straight ahead. And don't lose your nerve. Besides, swans do not get dizzy--they feel wonderful in the air. They feel exalted."

  "What does 'exalted' mean?" asked the cygnet.

  "It means you will feel strong, glad, firm, high, proud, successful, satisfied, powerful, and elevated--as though you had conquered life and had a high purpose."

  Louis listened to all this with great attention. The idea of flying frightened him. "I won't be able to say ko-hoh," he thought. "I wonder whether a swan can fly if he has no voice and can't say ko-hoh."

  "I think," said the cob, "the best plan is for me to demonstrate flying to you. I will make a short exhibition flight while you watch. Observe everything I do! Watch me pump my neck up and down before the takeoff! Watch me test the wind by turning my head this way and that! The takeoff must be into the wind--it's much easier that way. Listen to the noise I make trumpeting! Watch how I raise my great wings! See how I beat them furiously as I rush through the water with my feet going like mad! This frenzy will last for a couple of hundred feet, at which point I will suddenly be airborne, my wings still chopping the air with terrific force but my feet no longer touching the water! Then watch what I do! Watch how I stretch my long white elegant neck out ahead of me until it has reached its full length! Watch how I retract my feet and allow them to stream out behind, full-length, until they extend beyond my tail! Hear my cries as I gain the upper air and start trumpeting! See how strong and steady my wingbeat has become! Then watch me bank and turn, set my wings, and glide down! And just as I reach the pond again, watch how I shoot my feet out in front of me and use them for the splashdown, as though they were a pair of water skis! Having watched all this, then you can join me, and your mother, too, and we will all make a practice flight together, until you get the hang of it. Then tomorrow we will do it again, and instead of returning to the pond, we will head south to Montana. Are you ready for my exhibition flight?"

  "Ready!" cried all the cygnets except Louis.

  "Very well, here I go!" cried the cob.

  As the others watched, he swam downwind to the end of the pond, turned, tested the wind, pumped his neck up and down, trumpeted, and after a rush of two hundred feet, got into the air and began gaining altitude. His long white neck stretched out ahead. His big black feet stretched out behind. His wings had great power. The beat slowed as he settled into sustained flight
. All eyes watched. Louis was more excited than he had ever been. "I wonder if I can really do it?" he thought. "Suppose I fail! Then the others will fly away, and I will be left here all alone on this deserted pond, with winter approaching, with no father, no mother, no sisters, no brothers, and no food to eat when the pond freezes over. I will die of starvation. I'm scared."

  In a few minutes, the cob glided down out of the sky and skidded to a stop on the pond. They all cheered. "Ko-hoh, ko-hoh, beep beep, beep beep!" All but Louis. He had to express his approval simply by beating his wings and splashing water in his father's face.

  "All right," said the cob. "You've seen how it's done. Follow me, and we'll give it a try. Extend yourselves to the utmost, do everything in the proper order, never forget for a minute that you are swans and therefore excellent fliers, and I'm sure all will be well."

  They all swam downwind to the end of the pond. They pumped their necks up and down. Louis pumped his harder than any of the others. They tested the wind by turning their heads this way and that. Suddenly the cob signaled for the start. There was a tremendous commotion--wings beating, feet racing, water churned to a froth. And presently, wonder of wonders, there were seven swans in the air--two pure white ones and five dirty gray ones. The takeoff was accomplished, and they started gaining altitude.

  Louis was the first of the young cygnets to become airborne, ahead of all his brothers and sisters. The minute his feet lifted clear of the water, he knew he could fly. It was a tremendous relief--as well as a splendid sensation.

  "Boy!" he said to himself. "I never knew flying could be such fun. This is great. This is sensational. This is superb. I feel exalted, and I'm not dizzy. I'll be able to get to Montana with the rest of the family. I may be defective, but at least I can fly."

  The seven great birds stayed aloft about half an hour, then returned to the pond, the cob still in the lead. They all had a drink to celebrate the successful flight. Next day they were up early. It was a beautiful fall morning, with mist rising from the pond and the trees shining in all colors. Toward the end of the afternoon, as the sun sank low in the sky, the swans took off from the pond and began their journey to Montana. "This way!" cried the cob. He swung to his left and straightened out on a southerly course. The others followed, trumpeting as they went. As they passed over the camp where Sam Beaver was, Sam heard them and ran out. He stood watching as they grew smaller and smaller in the distance and finally disappeared.

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