The Little Animals

The Little Animals

by Sarah Tolmie


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Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, a quiet linen draper in Delft, has discovered a new world: the world of the little animals, or animalcules, that he sees through his simple microscopes. These tiny creatures are everywhere, even inside us. But who will believe him? Not his wife, not his neighbors, not his fellow merchants — only his friend Reinier De Graaf, a medical doctor. Then he meets an itinerant goose girl at the market who lives surrounded by tiny, invisible voices. Are these the animalcules also? Leeuwenhoek and the girl form a curious alliance, and gradually the lives of the little animals infiltrate everything around them: Leeuwenhoek’s cloth business, the art of his friend Johannes Vermeer, the nascent sex trade, and people’s religious certainties. But Leeuwenhoek also needs to cement his reputation as a natural philosopher, and for that he needs the Royal Society of London—a daunting challenge, indeed, for a Dutch draper who can't communicate in Latin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619761612
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Publication date: 05/01/2019
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sarah Tolmie, the author of The Stone Boatmen, Two Travelers, and NoFood, is an Associate Professor in the English Department of the University of Waterloo. She received her PhD at Cambridge. Her work with virtual reality and dance explores links between movement and proprioception — the body's sense of itself and its limits in space — and narrative and poetic structures and pathways.

Read an Excerpt


The Goose Girl

It is Pentecost. Pinksteren. Tomorrow a girl crowned with flowers will parade across the square in front of the Nieuwe Kerk, the bride of spring, followed by a heckling crowd of off-work apprentices. Couples will start courting. Pastors will give thanks for the gift of tongues.

Today geese and their babble occupy the square. Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek is at the market, bargaining. He is a man of middle height, middling complexion, and sober gray eyes, just beginning to get stout, with an itchy dark wig slightly askew. An ordinary man, though this is not his ordinary occupation. He ought to be opening his draper's shop this minute. The housemaid ought to be doing the shopping. But Leeuwenhoek is a most particular man. He prefers to do things himself. So here he is, choosing geese for quills. It is a hateful task, but he is desperate. He has arrived early to beat the tide of arrow- fledgers, down-pullers, scribes, and gluttons. His task outranks all these, did they but know it. Natural philosophy!

The smell of the tarred feet of the huge flock on the air is overpowering. Drovers' dogs guard the laneways. The sounds of hissing and honking are deafening. Some of the green geese are strung on lines, string protruding from the asshole of one into the throat of the next. Herders have fed them fat pork that they will eat and re-eat. Geese are revolting. The drovers are not much better. This is idiots' work. Many are drunk, or slack-faced, or crazy. Getting enough sense out of them to make a deal is a chore. It is the same thing every year.

Suddenly through the gaggle of halfwits and yelling birds the blonde head of a child appears, a girl leading a troop of a dozen geese in a perfect line, like soldiers on parade. She is not much bigger than they are and has no dog, nor even a staff. Her geese are celestially white and twice as big as the others, like harvest birds. They are silent. Their flat feet are bare, except for the first one, which appears to be wearing little red leather boots. They pace past like visiting noblemen. Leeuwenhoek is stunned. Children rarely take animals on the roads, and certainly not girls. It is not like herding them at home. A pasture is one thing, the open road quite another. What can her parents, or her employers, possibly be thinking? A wash of quietness spreads out from the girl and her geese as they cut diagonally through the square, the raucous birds calming, the drovers and householders turning to watch in amazement. He thinks feverishly, Look at the size of them! Think of the feathers! A dozen birds that size, at this season — seventy-two premium quills. Enough for a year, even with all the writing he does. He begins jostling through the crowd in her wake, as the others are still gaping, determined to reach her before some housewife or arbalester's apprentice gets there first. He will buy the lot.

Toiling across the square, trying to avoid bites from enraged geese, he meets precisely the person he had hoped would not be here. Johannes. Now, struggling through the throng, he must struggle with his conscience as well. The man is improvident, infuriating, and disorderly, but he is a great painter. He is a friend. He is even a client, though this is not the moment at which to wonder whether the camera will ever be paid for. He swats away the head of an importuning goose.

"Vermeer!" he shouts over the head of a cross-eyed drover, "go home! You cannot afford those prize geese! I am buying them!" One of the painter's many off-putting habits is haggling for things he cannot buy.

"Antoni!" returns the painter, a smallish dark man, likewise making his way across the square, although much more slowly, ceremoniously standing aside for passing drovers, stopping to let the more determined geese go by. He is not making much headway, and Leeuwenhoek passes him by like a meteor, cutting a swathe through the milling necks. He looks back to see Vermeer standing, doffing his cap, whether to a goose or a person he cannot see, a dark blot in the midst of a rippling, cacophonous, white canvas.

By the time the harried artist has made his way across the square, Leeuwenhoek has bought the geese. At least, he thinks he has. He accomplished this by glaring down several affronted women already waiting there, then trying vainly to speak to the goose girl over the din — could she be deaf? — before spinning her around by the shoulder and thrusting all the money he has into her hands. She is still staring at him, grimy and confused, seemingly unable to speak, as Vermeer straggles out of the crowd.

"Johannes, I have bought them," he says warningly, before the painter can speak. He looks at the girl for some sign of assent. She appears uncomprehending. Leeuwenhoek makes a gesture toward the geese, gathering them to himself, and then pats her tiny, dirty hands holding the money. It is a reasonable sum for twelve geese in prime condition, though perhaps not enough for her extraordinary birds. She finally appears to understand what has happened, looking at the coins for the first time. She is suddenly delighted and does a little, wriggling dance. Leeuwenhoek nods firmly, as though they have just shaken hands on the deal. The wonderful geese are his.

Vermeer sighs. "Will you at least sell me a few quills?" he asks. "I need new pencils in the worst way."

Leeuwenhoek looks at him severely, trying to muster up his better judgment. It eludes him. "Fine, fine! Of course!" he replies.

Vermeer, looking hopeful, continues, "And some of those fine metal clamps you made for the ends? To hold the brush hairs?"

"Yes," he says, shortly.

He turns back to the goose girl. He has no idea how to part her from her geese, still strangely silent and attentive, like a group of nuns. He has no idea how to herd geese. He asks the girl, carefully looking into her face, speaking slowly, Can you bring them to my house? She nods solemnly. Leeuwenhoek turns abruptly, relieved, and begins to walk away, toward home. The girl follows him, silently. The geese follow her, silently, in a perfect line. He feels like a bishop. Vermeer wanders along beside them, looking at the goose girl.

What marvelous hair you have, he says to her after a while, conversationally. The girl's hair is filthy and partially covered with a kerchief, but it is indeed splendid and copious. She looks over at him and smiles brightly.

"Have you ever cut it?" he continues.

She shakes her head.


She shakes her head once more.

"Good God," Vermeer mutters to himself, squinting at her. Leeuwenhoek glances back at him speculatively. "Virgin hair, Antoni! Look at it! Perfect! Better than sable!"

"Johannes, you have a house full of children with hair for paintbrushes," says Leeuwenhoek.

"They are all born bald and their mother has coarse hair! It's not my fault!" replies the painter in piteous tones. Leeuwenhoek laughs. The girl ignores their conversation, marching straight ahead.

Leeuwenhoek's house is close by, near the fish market. The geese follow the girl obediently into the rear courtyard. There is no gate, as he keeps no other fowl or domestic animals, except cats. He is a townsman. He has no use for country nuisances. The addition of twelve live geese is going to be a bit of a surprise for his wife. Soon enough, though, they will all be hanging somewhere and he will be preparing quills. The larder is Barbara's domain. Meanwhile, he will just have to block the entrance with something so they do not escape. He looks around for some suitable object. The girl stands still in the middle of his courtyard, surrounded by flowerpots, the geese standing around her in a precise semi-circle, like a choir waiting for its cue.

"You appear to have bought her, too," says Vermeer bemusedly, pausing briefly at the entrance. "Mind you keep her well. That hair is priceless." He continues on his way.

Leeuwenhoek stands uncertainly. He shuffles his feet. The goose girl stands among her adoring subjects with her back to him. He walks around to face her, behind the ring of geese. The light is behind her, so her small face is shadowed, while the golden ends of her heavy hair under the kerchief appear molten. A light, clear, toneless voice says: "Do not worry. They will not leave. I am here."

Leeuwenhoek is shocked, as if he had never heard anyone speak before. It is as if one of the geese had spoken. The goose with the red boots looks at him inquiringly. The girl is still.

"Aha, you do, ah, speak," he says, stumbling over his words, which suddenly seem remarkable coming out of his mouth.

"Yes," she says.

"Where did you come from?" he asks. "It can't have been far. Their feet are bare, and none are lame."

"It was far. We came slowly. And the tar does no good.

It makes their feet rot."

"Why is this one wearing boots? Who made them?"

"I made them," she says. "He has tender feet."

"Where did you get the leather?"

"I traded a goose for it, in Kampen. She did not like me."

"But these ones do?"


"They will stay in the yard and not run away?"

"Yes, if I tell them."

"Tell them, then," Leeuwenhoek says and watches her curiously. The girl says nothing, to him or the geese, but makes a brief shrugging gesture, a dismissal, a bit like casting seed. The geese, receiving their congé, disperse and begin to wander, nibbling at the flowers in the pots. The girl stands unmoving like a wound-down clockwork.

"Can you go home now? Will they stay?"

"Home?" asks the girl, as if repeating a foreign word.

She is silent a moment. "Yes, they will stay. Why do you want so many geese?"

"I need pens," says Leeuwenhoek. The girl looks blank.

"Quills. For writing. The long wing feathers."

"Oh!" she replies, seeming relieved, "Then you won't need to kill them."

"I won't?" he says, confused.

"Oh no," says the girl, confidently. "I can pluck them. Two times a year, sometimes three, if you feed them well."

"Truly?" he asks, doubtfully. "Do the feathers grow back so fast? At the same quality?"

"They will," the girl assures him. "The birds will scream and bleed, but I will sing to them and they will forget."

Leeuwenhoek is not keen to become a goose farmer. He has quite enough jobs already, and not all of them make money, as his wife is constantly reminding him. He looks at the enormous, eerily white birds now busy destroying his flowers. One beats the air with perfect, powerful wings, the flight feathers spread out like fingers. He looks at the goose girl.

"What is your name?" he asks finally, as if conceding defeat.

"I do not know," says the girl. "Why do I need one? I can tell you their names, if you like. That is Redboots, and that one is Pansy, that one is Scratch ..."

Having been introduced to all the geese in turn, and still uncertain what to do about the girl, Leeuwenhoek goes inside. He sits down at the table in the great room of his house and stares anxiously at the small vase of cuckoo flowers that sits in its own reflection on the highly polished surface. He blew the glass himself and is proud of it, although he has no intention of telling anyone he is a glassblower. It is a professional secret. The vase sits here in plain view all the time, a private joke. Most townspeople of Delft think he is a solid citizen, a draper, a good man of business; a very few interested in such things know him as a lens-grinder, a maker of fine optical instruments. Nothing so frivolous as a glassblower. Guests coming in to his fine paneled room assume it is a Venetian trinket, one that goes with the paintings on the walls, the display of silver and ceramics on the mantel.

And that is the least of the secrets, he reflects, that this vase holds.

Leeuwenhoek knows that it contains a whole new world, stranger and more populous than the Americas: the world of the animalcule. Inside everything we see, everything we touch, this world opens, vaster than the abyss: there is no need to sail off perilously in ships to find it. He may be the greatest explorer in the Republic, and he has never been further than Maastricht. Not that most of his neighbors in the prosperous merchants' town of Delft will believe it, until this precious world that he has discovered through his microscopes yields up items as valuable as tobacco or potatoes or tulips. He has about as much chance of convincing them about the importance of animalcules as he would have of convincing that poor simple girl outside.

And what is he to do with her? He just set out to buy geese. Geese! Messy, aimless, honking waddlers, yet, perversely, he needs them, or at least their feathers, in order to record the astonishing new world that he is beginning to find, full of lives as strange to us as those of angels.

* * *

Three weeks later Leeuwenhoek knows the names of all of the geese, but not the girl. She is indifferent. He has changed the name of Redboots to Caligula. He is indifferent. The girl is cleaner but still strange and silent.

"She's an odd one," says Barbara. "It's not that I mind keeping her. Now that she's washed, at least. I can't imagine how she's lived so far, poor creature. It's like she's a goose herself. She can tell me nothing about where she came from."

The girl sleeps in the pantry, cares for the geese in the yard, and herds them back and forth at intervals from a pasture he has rented outside of town. He has ordered her, and even pleaded with her, not to keep them over night in the fields, but she pays no attention. She does not understand his fears. She looks at him stolidly, silently, and then does exactly as she pleases. Mostly she brings them back at night, but not always. She claims that they like to graze at dawn, and that the morning dew is good for them.

Barbara has tried a few names for her — Hannah, Bieke, Anna, Grietje — but none of them have stuck. She responds if addressed directly, but that is all.

"The names just slide off her, somehow," says his wife, mystified. "I can't keep track of the one I've just called her. She doesn't care at all. She's just the girl, the goose girl."

"Think of it like a title," Leeuwenhoek suggests.

"She does have a certain majesty," Barbara replies.

"But I'll call her Grietje if the neighbors ask."

"Why would they?"

"People are naturally curious, Antoni," says Barbara, tartly, "about other people. It's only you who are exclusively concerned with bugs."

"Bugs! What? No! They're not bugs, these little animals I see through the microscopes, as I'm always telling you, Barbara —"

"Bugs. Plants. Bits of wood. Scraps of cloth. Dirt. Water droplets."

"Natural philosophy!"

"The crebbemeester has already been to see me about the goose droppings. He knows we've taken in the girl. If she leaves our service he'll alert the orphanage. She's our responsibility now."

"It's very good of you to do this, Barbara," says Leeuwenhoek, humbly. "Geese. Strange children. It's a lot to take on. And all for a few quills. It's just —"

"I know, Antoni. I know. Natural philosophy! If this passion spreads there will be a shortage of quills across the Seven Provinces! You might as well be a scrivener!" She wags her finger at him in mock severity and then continues more seriously, "We seem to have gotten beyond quills, though, haven't we? Now it's about that girl, the poor child."

"We could just slaughter the geese and keep her anyway, as a kitchen maid, I suppose."

"Could we? What would she do? She has no skills in the house. I don't think she's lived in one for years. She can barely talk. If we killed those geese I think she would go mad. Or madder than she is already. They are her family. Her flock."

"She might be a companion for Marieke."

"She shuns Marieke. I think she is afraid of her, afraid of other children."

"So we leave it as it is?"

"Yes," says Barbara. "Of course, it is all quite crazy." She has a good heart.

* * *

Leeuwenhoek is in possession of twelve new quills, the longest wing feathers of Redboots-now-Caligula and the goose called Scratch. They are drying on a reed rack in his study. In his eagerness, he has even dried one over the fire — a fussy business, holding the shaft with clamps and rotating it over the flames like a tiny roast. When he sharpened it, the shaft was so hard it felt like porcelain. He had to whet his knives to trim it properly.

The rest he will point as he goes: it is better that they dry naturally. The birds had screamed horribly, the way women yell in labor, in deep, vibrating, gasping grunts, as the girl pulled out the feathers. He had been watching from the kitchen window. She had laid them across her lap and doubled up their necks under her arm, and, flexing one wing at a time, yanked out the three main feathers on each side. All the time her mouth had been moving in some soundless song. Afterward, they had tumbled off her lap, trembling and tottering, and rejoined the rest of the flock, which had been standing in a frozen silence, clustered against the furthest wall. Soon enough they had all been drifting and browsing together. The girl had brought him the handful of feathers matter-of-factly. Their tips were bloody.


Excerpted from "The Little Animals"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Tolmie.
Excerpted by permission of Aqueduct Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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