Excerpt: 'Evolution of Calpurnia Tate'

Father said, "Stand back." He lit a match and set the thing alight and it filled the room with a mineral stink and a great whoosh of air. My brothers all cheered. I cheered too but for a different reason.

Life in our house got somewhat easier after that. Mother retired at mid-day with her wind machine and all our lives got better, especially Father's, whom she sometimes invited to retire with her.

It took me a week to get up the nerve to visit Grandfather again. He sat in his laboratory on a dilapidated leather armchair, the oozing stuffing mined by mice.

I said, "I know why the big grasshoppers are yellow and why the little ones are green." I told him my discovery and how I'd figured it out. I shifted from foot to foot as he looked at me and listened in silence. After a while he said, "Did you come up with this on your own? With no help?"

Yes, I said, then told him about my humiliating trip to the Lockhart library. He stared at me for a moment with an odd expression on his face–perhaps surprise, perhaps consternation–as if I were a species he'd never seen before. He said, "Come with me." He didn't speak a word as we walked to the house. Oh dear. I had done the unthinkable, not once, but twice, by interrupting him at his work. Was he going to turn me over to Mother for yet another lecture on good manners? He led me into the library where we children were not supposed to go. So he was going to deliver the lecture himself. Perhaps he would berate me for my clumsy theory. Or perhaps he would switch me across the hands. My dread grew. Who was I–Callie Vee Tate of Fentress, Texas–to think I could even contemplate such matters? A nobody from nowhere.

Despite my fear, I took a good look around the room since I knew I'd never have the chance again. The room was dim, even with the heavy bottle-green velvet drapes drawn back from the tall double window. Right by the window sat a huge cracked leather armchair and a spool table holding a lamp for reading. There were books on the floor by the chair and more books stacked in tall wooden shelves made from our failed pecan trees (You couldn't escape the enduring fact of pecans in our lives.) There was a large oak desk covered in intriguing oddities: a blown ostrich egg on a carved wooden stand; a microscope nesting in a shagreen leather case; a carved whale's tooth etched with a bosomy lady not exactly contained by her corset. The family Bible and a huge dictionary with its own magnifying glass lay side by side, next to a red plush album full of cramped formal portraits of my ancestors. So. Would I be getting The Bible Lecture or the Letting-Down-My-Ancestors Lecture? I waited while he made up his mind about which speech I was going to get. I glanced around the walls which were covered with shallow boxes displaying alarming stick insects and bright multi-colored butterflies. Below each gay scrap of color was a scientific name in my grandfather's careful copperplate script. I forgot myself and went over to peer at them.

"Bear," said Grandfather.

Uh? I thought.

"Watch the bear," he said, just as I tripped in the open sneering mouth of a black bear-skin rug, its fangs a trap in the gloom for the unwary.

"Right. Bear. Sir."

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