Introducing the Skunk Cabbage
"Winsome Bluebird's on the way:
He is due here any day."
O LD Mother West Wind's children, the Merry Little Breezes, sang this softly as they danced over the Green Meadows and around the Old Briar-patch. Peter Rabbit pricked up his long ears.
"How do you know? Who told you so?" he demanded.
"Nobody told us so; we just feel it, Peter," cried the Merry Little Breezes, and kept on singing as they danced.
"Huh!" exclaimed Peter. "Feeling isn't knowing. Perhaps Winsome is on his way and perhaps he isn't. I hope he is, for that would mean that Mistress Spring is on her way too, and she can't get here too soon to suit me. But I would feel a lot more sure of it if I could see some signs."
"Use your eyes, Peter! Use your eyes! There are flowers in bloom already, for we've seen them. What better sign that Mistress Spring is coming do you want?" chanted the Merry Little Breezes.
Peter jumped a foot off the ground. "Say, are you crazy?" he cried. "Look at this snow all over the Green Meadows! Do you expect me to believe any such story as that?"
"We don't care whether you believe it or not, it is so!" cried the Merry Little Breezes, dancing around Peter and throwing snow in his face.
"Welcome Robin's on the wing;
Very soon you'll hear him sing."
With this the Merry Little Breezes danced away across the Green Meadows towards the Green Forest, leaving Peter to stare after them as if quite sure that they really were as crazy as they seemed.
"Of course, it isn't true," muttered Peter. "The very idea of saying that they have seen flowers in bloom when the ground is still frozen and there is snow everywhere! I don't believe a word of it."
Nevertheless Peter couldn't get it out of his mind that the Merry Little Breezes had seen something that he hadn't. Thoughts of the glad springtime began to chase each other through his funny little head. Presently he began to have a queer feeling—which little by little he recognized as the very feeling the Merry Little Breezes had spoken of,—the feeling that Mistress Spring really and truly was on her way.
"Huh!" exclaimed Peter just as before, and shook himself. But he couldn't shake off that feeling. Then he thought again of what the Merry Little Breezes had said about signs and about using his eyes. "Huh!" said he again. "I guess if there is anything to see I would see it! There's nothing the matter with my eyes, and I haven't seen any signs of spring yet. Flowers in bloom! The very idea!"
Now, of course, Peter didn't really believe that the Merry Little Breezes had told an untruth. No, indeed! He thought that they were either just trying to tease him, or that they had been mistaken. But he couldn't get rid of the thought that perhaps they had seen something which he hadn't seen; and nothing upsets Peter more than the thought that others may know more than he does about what is going on in the Green Forest and on the Green Meadows.
"If there are any signs of spring which they have seen, I'd like to know where they are," muttered Peter, as he hopped all through the dear Old Briar-patch, looking sharply at all the bushes and little trees and brambles to see if any of the sleeping buds showed any signs of waking. But they didn't, and Peter felt satisfied that there were no signs of spring in the Old Briar-patch. Certainly there were none on the Green Meadows, for these were still covered with snow.
Then Peter made up his mind to visit the Green Forest just to make sure that he had missed nothing there. Nowhere could he see the least sign of the coming of Mistress Spring. Snow was everywhere. An idea popped into his head. "If they saw any flowers, it must be that they saw them through a window of Farmer Brown's house. I've seen them there myself," thought he. "But flowers up there are no sign of spring."
A few minutes later Peter came to that part of the Green Forest where in places it was swampy. You know a swampy space is where the ground is always very wet. This was the warmest place in all the Green Forest. The snow had disappeared in spots and in one of these a tiny stream of water was coming from a place where it bubbled out of the ground. It was a spring, and the tiny stream was the beginning of the Laughing Brook. Peter stopped on the edge of it. Just then along came the Merry Little Breezes and one of them tickled his nose with a queer smell. Peter sniffed.
"It smells to me as if Jimmy Skunk had left a little of that scent of his around here, but I haven't seen Jimmy's tracks anywhere," thought Peter. Again he sniffed. This time it seemed as if that smell came right out of the water in front of him. He stared at it a minute and for the first time noticed several queer brown-and-green things, like pointed hoods, standing in the water. Peter leaned forward to look at one a little closer, and right then he made a discovery. That smell, like Jimmy Skunk's perfume, came from that queer little hood! Peter hopped a step nearer that he might see better. On one side of that queer hood was an opening, a narrow opening. He was all curiosity now. He held his nose while he peeped in that narrow opening. You see, he didn't like that smell, and so close to that little hood it was very strong.
At first he saw nothing. But a moment later he discovered, down at the bottom of that little hood, a sort of thick stem all covered with something yellow. Peter's eyes seemed to pop right out as he looked harder than ever. Then he saw that the thick stem was covered with very, very tiny flowers, all yellow with the dust-like gold which most flowers have, and which is called pollen.
Peter jumped a foot straight up in the air. "Why, the Merry Little Breezes did tell the truth!" he exclaimed.
"Of course, we did!" cried the Merry Little Breezes, who had been watching him. "We always tell the truth. These are the first flowers of the year, the flowers of the Skunk Cabbage, and the sure sign that Mistress Spring is on her way."
Peter remembered the big broad leaves he had so often seen growing here and in other swampy, places in the summer. He looked all about, but he didn't see even one. He wrinkled his brows in a puzzled way. "I thought the Skunk Cabbage was a big green plant," said he.
"So it is," laughed one of the Merry Little Breezes. "These are its flowers. They bloom before the leaves show at all. Queer, isn't it?"
"I should say so!" replied Peter. "I didn't know it had any flowers. I've seen these things early in the spring many times, but I didn't know what they were. I never thought anything about them."
"That comes of not using your eyes, Peter," cried a Merry Little Breeze. "There are many wonderful things all about you every day which you never see at all."
"What is there wonderful about these?" demanded Peter a little sharply, for he felt a little put out that any one should think he didn't see all there was to be seen.
"Isn't it wonderful that these little flowers can come up and be brave enough and strong enough to bloom when Jack Frost is still making everybody shiver?" asked the Merry Little Breeze.
Peter nodded. "That's so," he said slowly. "I didn't think of that. It is wonderful. I don't see how they do it." He looked at the tiny flowers with new interest. He saw how thick was the little brown-and-green hood inside of which they were blooming, and how warm and cozy it was in there with only a narrow opening for the light and air to enter. Then he began to understand how Old Mother Nature was protecting them.
"It is wonderful," he repeated. "I certainly have learned something to-day. I've always watched for the coming of Winsome Bluebird as the first sure sign of sweet Mistress Spring and never once have thought that there might be other signs. Do you know, I rather like this smell now. It is—why, it is a sort of promise that winter will soon be over. Now I must hurry to tell Mrs. Peter the splendid news that the first flowers of the year are in bloom."