Excerpt: 'Evolution of Calpurnia Tate'

Read an excerpt from "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate."

July 1, 2009— -- Twelve-year-old Callie is more into exploring the river, watching animals and all things outdoors than needlework, which disappoints her mother. The story of a preteen growing up in rural Texas in 1899, "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" explores how Callie's interest in nature creates a bond with her previously distant grandfather and fosters her desire to become a scientist.

Read an excerpt from "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" by Jacqueline Kelly below.


—Darwin, The Origin of Species

By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. The heat was a misery for all of us, but it was a special ordeal for Mother in her many petticoats and corset. I was still a few years too young for this singular form of feminine torture. That summer she temporarily gave up her hairpieces, the crimped false fringe and the rolled horsehair rat, platforms on which she daily constructed an elaborate mountain of her own hair. Next she took to sticking her head under the kitchen pump and letting Viola, our quadroon cook, pump away until she was soaked through. We were forbidden by sharp orders to laugh at this unprecedented and astonishing entertainment. As Mother gradually surrendered her dignity to the heat, we discovered (as did Father) that it was best to keep out of her way.

Yes, the heat was a misery, but it also brought me freedom. From noon until three, while the rest of the family lay down in the dim, high-ceilinged rooms of our shuttered house, I headed for the river and enjoyed three whole hours every day of no school, no pestiferous brothers, and no Mother.

My name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but most everyone called me Callie Vee. That summer I was eleven years old, the only girl out of seven children. Can you imagine a worse situation? I was spliced midway between three older brothers, Harry, Sam Houston, and Lamar, and three younger brothers, Travis, Sul Ross, and the baby, Jim Bowie whom we called J.B. The younger boys did manage to sleep at midday, sometimes piled atop one another like damp steaming puppies. My Father doused himself with a bucket of tepid well water on the sleeping porch and fell onto his rope bed as if pole-axed. Mother loosened her stays and sprinkled her sheets with cologne but this was only refreshing for a minute or two.

While everyone else tossed and dozed, I made my way down to the banks of the San Marcos River. I got away with this because I had my own room at the far end of the hall from my parents. My brothers all had to share rooms. As far as I could tell, this was the one advantage to being the only girl.

Our house was separated from the river by five acres of wild uncleared growth. It would have been an ordeal to push my way through it except that the other regular river patrons–dogs, deer, brothers–kept a narrow path beaten down through the treacherous sticker-burrs that rose as high as my head, snatching at my hair and pinafore as I folded myself narrow to slide by. Then I spent part of my daily freedom stripped down to my chemise, floating on my back with my shimmy billowing around me in the mild currents, luxuriating in the coolness of the water flowing around me. I looked up at the filmy homes of the webworms high above me in the lush canopy of oaks bending over the river. The webworms seemed to mirror me, floating in their own balloons of gauze in the pale turquoise sky. I was a river cloud, turning gently in the eddies; the webworms were low-lying clouds caught in the trees.

That summer, all the men except for my grandfather Walter Tate cut their hair close and shaved off their thick beards and mustaches. They looked as naked as blind salamanders for the week or so it took to get over the shock of their pale weak chins. Strangely, Grandfather felt no distress from the heat, even with his full white beard tumbling down his chest. He claimed it was because he was a man of regular and moderate habits who never took whiskey before noon. His smelly old swallow-tail coat was hopelessly outdated by then but he wouldn't hear of parting with it. Despite regular spongings with benzene at the hands of our maid SanJuanna, the coat always kept its musty smell and the strange color that was neither black nor green.

Grandfather lived under the same roof with us but was something of a shadowy figure. He had long since turned over the running of the family business to his only son, my father Alfred Tate, and spent his days engaged in "experiments" in his "laboratory" out back. The laboratory was just an old shed that had once been part of the slave quarters. When he wasn't in the laboratory, he was either out hunting specimens or holed up with his moldering books in a dim corner of the library where no one dared disturb him.

I asked Mother if I could cut off my hair, which hung in a dense swelter all the way down my back. She said no, she wouldn't have me running about like a shorn savage. I found this manifestly unfair, to say nothing of hot. So I devised a plan: every week I would cut off an inch of hair–just one stealthy inch–so that Mother wouldn't notice. She wouldn't notice because I would camouflage myself with good manners. When I took on the disguise of a polite young lady, I could often escape her closer scrutiny. She was usually swamped by the constant demands of the household and the ceaseless uproar of my brothers. You wouldn't believe the amount of chaos and commotion six brothers could create. Plus the heat aggravated her crippling sick headaches and she had to resort to a big spoonful of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, known to be the Best Blood Purifier for Women.

That night I took a pair of embroidery scissors and, with great exhilaration and a pounding heart, cut off the first inch. I looked at the soft haystack of hair cupped in my palm. I was striding forth to greet my future in the shiny New Century, a few short months away. It seemed to me a great moment indeed. I slept poorly that night in fear of the morning.

The next day I held my breath coming down the stairs to breakfast. The pecan flapjacks tasted like cardboard. And do you know what happened? Absolutely nothing. No one noticed in the slightest. I was mightily relieved but also thought, well isn't that just like this family. In fact, no one noticed anything until four weeks and four inches went by and our cook Viola gave me a hard look one morning. But she didn't say a word.

By late June it was so hot that for the first time in history Mother left the candles of the chandelier unlit at dinner time. She even let Harry and me skip our piano lessons for two weeks. Which was just as well. Harry sweated on the keys so that they turned hazy along the pattern of the Minuet in G. Nothing Mother or SanJuanna tried could bring the sheen back to the ivory. Besides, our music teacher Miss Brown was ancient and her decrepit horse Juniper had to pull her gig six miles from Prairie Lea. They would both likely collapse on the trip and have to be put down. On consideration, not such a bad idea.

Father, on learning that we would miss our lessons, said, "A good thing, too. A boy needs piano like a snake needs a hoop skirt."

Mother didn't want to hear it. She wanted seventeen-year-old Harry, her oldest, to become a gentleman. She had plans to send him off to the university in Austin fifty miles away when he turned eighteen. According to the newspaper, there were five hundred students at the university, seventeen of them well-chaperoned young ladies in the School of Liberal Arts (with a choice of music, English, or Latin). Father's plan was different; he wanted Harry to be a businessman and one day take over the cotton gin and the pecan orchards and join the Freemasons, as he had. Father apparently didn't think piano lessons were a bad idea for me though, if he considered the matter at all.

In late June, the Fentress Indicator reported that the temperature was 106 degrees in the middle of the street outside the newspaper office. The paper did not mention the temperature in the shade. I wondered why not, as no one in his right mind spent more than a second in the sun except to make smartly for the next patch of shadow, whether it be cast by tree or barn or plow horse. It seemed to me that the temperature in the shade would be a lot more useful to the citizens of our town. I labored over A Letter To The Editor pointing this out, and to my great amazement, the paper published my letter the following week. To my family's greater amazement, it began to publish the temperature in the shade as well. Reading that it was only 95 in the shade somehow made us all feel a bit cooler.

There was a sudden surge in insect activity both inside the house and out. Grasshoppers rose in flocks beneath the horses' hooves. The fireflies came out in such great numbers that no one could remember a summer with a more spectacular show. Every evening my brothers and I gathered on the front porch and held a contest to see who could spot the first flicker. There was considerable excitement and honor in winning, especially after Mother took a scrap of blue silk from her sewing basket and cut out a fine medallion, complete with long streamers. In between headaches she embroidered 'Fentress Firefly Prize' on it in gold floss. It was an elegant and much-coveted prize. The winner wore it until the following night.

Ants invaded the kitchen as never before and tortured our cook Viola. They marched in military formation through minute cracks around the baseboards and windows and headed straight for the sink. Viola took up arms against them to no avail. They were desperate for water and would not be stopped. We deemed the fireflies a bounty and the ants a plague, but it occurred to me for the first time to question why there should be such a distinction. They were all just creatures trying to survive the drought, as we were. I thought Viola should give up and leave them alone, but I reconsidered after discovering that the black pepper in the egg salad was not pepper at all.

While certain insects overran us, some of the other normal inhabitants of our property, such as earthworms, disappeared. My brothers complained about the lack of worms for fishing and the difficulty of digging for them in the hard, parched ground. Perhaps you've wondered, can earthworms be trained? I'm here to tell you that they can. The solution seemed obvious enough to me: the worms always came when it rained, and it was easy enough to make some rain for them. I carried a tin bucket of water to a shaded area in the five acres of scrub and dumped it on the ground in the same place a couple of times a day. After five days, I only had to show up with my bucket, and the worms, drawn by my footsteps and the promise of water, crawled to the surface. I scooped them up and sold them to Lamar for a penny a dozen. Lamar nagged me to tell him where I'd found them but I wouldn't. However, I did confess my method to my oldest brother Harry, my favorite, from whom I could keep nothing. (Well, almost nothing.)

"Callie Vee," he said, "I've got something for you." He went to his bureau and took out a pocket-sized red leather notebook with 'Souvenir of Austin' stamped on the front.

"Look here, " he said. "I've never used it. You can use it to write down your scientific observations. You're a regular naturalist in the making."

What, exactly, was a naturalist? I wasn't sure, but I decided to spend the rest of my summer being one. If all it meant was writing about the things you saw around you, I could do that. Besides, now that I had my own place to note things down, I saw things I'd never noticed before.

My first recorded notes were of the dogs. Due to the heat, they lay so still in the dirt as to look dead. Even when my younger brothers chivvied them with sticks out of boredom, they wouldn't even bother to raise their heads. They got up long enough to slurp at the water trough, and then flopped down again, raising puffs of dust in their shallow hollows. You couldn't have rousted Ajax, Father's prize bird-dog, with a shotgun let off a foot in front of his muzzle. He lay with his mouth lolling open and let me count his teeth. In this way I discovered that the roof of a dog's mouth is deeply ridged in a backwards direction down his gullet, in order no doubt to encourage the passage of struggling prey in one direction only, namely that of dinner. I wrote this in my Notebook.

I observed that the expressions of a dog's face are mainly manifested by the movement of its eyebrows. I wrote: Why do dogs have eyebrows? Why do dogs need eyebrows?

I asked Harry but he didn't know. He said, "Go ask Grandfather. He knows that sort of thing."

But I wouldn't. The old man had fierce tufty eyebrows of his own rather like a dragon's, and he was altogether too imposing a figure for me to have clambered on as an infant. He had never spoken to me directly that I remembered and I wasn't entirely convinced he knew my name.

Next I turned my attention to the birds. For some reason we had a great number of cardinals about the place that year. Harry tickled me when he said we had a fine crop of them, as if we had something to do with their number, as if we had labored to harvest their bright, cheerful bodies and place them in the trees along our gravel drive like Christmas ornaments. But because there were so many, and the drought had cut down on their normal diet of seeds and berries, the males squabbled furiously over possession of each hackberry tree. I found a mutilated dead male in the brush, a startling and sad sight. Then one morning a female came to perch on the back of the wicker chair next to me on the porch. I froze. I could have reached out and touched it with my finger. A lump of gray-brown matter dangled from its pale apricot beak. It looked like a tiny baby mouse, thimble-sized, dead or dying.

When I related this at dinner, Father said, "Calpurnia, cardinals do not eat mice. They live on vegetation. Sam Houston, please pass the potatoes."

"Yes, well, I'm just telling you, sir," I said lamely, and then felt furious with myself for not defending what I'd seen with my own eyes. The thought of the cardinals driven to such unnatural behavior repelled me. The next step would be cannibalism. Before I went to bed that night I took a can full of oats from the stable and dribbled them along the drive. I wrote in the Notebook: How many cardinals will we have next year, with not enough to eat? Remember to count. I next wrote in my Notebook that we had two very different kinds of grasshoppers that summer. We had the usual quick little emerald ones decorated all over with black speckles. And then there were huge bright yellow ones, twice as big, and torpid, so waxy and fat that they bowed down the grasses when they landed. I had never seen these before. I polled everyone in the house (excepting Grandfather) to find out where these odd yellow specimens had come from but nobody could tell me. None of them were the slightest bit interested.

As a last resort, I rounded up my courage and went out to my grandfather's laboratory. I pushed back the burlap flap that served as a door and stood quaking on the threshold. He looked up in surprise from the counter where he was pouring a foul-looking brown liquid into various beakers and retorts. He didn't invite me in. I stumbled through my grasshopper conundrum while he stared at me as if he was having trouble placing me. "Oh," he said mildly, "I suspect that a smart young whip like you can figure it out. Come back and tell me when you have." He turned away from me and began to write in his ledger.

So, that was that. My audience with the dragon. I counted it a wash. On the one hand he hadn't breathed fire at me, but on the other, he'd been no help at all. Maybe he was peeved that I'd interrupted his work, although he had spoken to me in polite tones. Perhaps if I'd made Harry go with me, Grandfather would have accorded me more attention. I knew what he was working on. For some reason, he had got it in his head to figure out a way to distill pecans into whiskey. He apparently reasoned that if you could make fine spirits from common corn and the lowly potato, why not the princely pecan? And Lord knows we were drowning in pecans, sixty acres of them.

I went back to my room and contemplated the grasshopper puzzle. I had one of the small green grasshoppers in a jar on my vanity and I stared at it for inspiration. I had been unable to catch one of the big yellow ones, even though they were much slower. "Why are you different?" I asked it, but it refused to answer.

The next morning I awoke as usual to the scuffling of a possum in the wall next to my bed, returning to his lair at his normal time. Shortly after this, I heard the slap and slam of sash weights as our maid SanJuanna threw open the parlor windows beneath my room. I sat up in my high brass bed and suddenly it came to me that the fat yellow grasshoppers had to be an entirely new species, separate and apart from the green ones, and that I–Calpurnia Virginia Tate–had discovered them. And didn't the discoverer of a brand new species get to put her name on it? I was going to be famous! My name would be heralded far and wide; the governor would shake my hand; the University would grant me a diploma.

But what did I do now? How did I stake my claim on the natural world? I had a vague idea that I had to write to someone to register my find, some official in Washington. I had heard debates at the dinner table between my Grandfather and our minister Mr. Barker concerning Mr. Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species, and the dinosaurs they were unearthing in Colorado, and what this meant to the Book of Genesis. Our schoolteacher, Miss Harbottle, had glossed over Mr. Darwin, looking discomfitted as she did so. Surely such a book addressing the origin of the species would tell me what to do. But how on earth could I get my hands on it when controversy still raged about such matters in our corner of the world? There was even an active chapter of the Flat Earth Society in San Antonio.

Then I remembered that Harry was due to take the long-bed wagon into Lockhart for supplies. Lockhart was the seat of Caldwell County. The county library was there. Books were there. All I had to do was beg a ride from Harry, the one brother who could deny me nothing.

* * * * *

In Lockhart, after conducting our business, Harry loitered on the corner so he could admire the figures of the ladies strolling by, exhibiting the latest finery from the local milliner. I mumbled excuses and slipped across the courthouse square to the library. The library was cool and dark. I walked up to the counter where the elderly lady librarian was handing some books to a fat man in a white linen suit. Then it was my turn. But just at that moment, a young mother with a little boy came up. It was Mrs. Ogletree and her six-year-old, Georgie. Georgie and I shared the same piano teacher and his mother knew my mother.

Oh, no. The last thing I wanted was a witness.

"Good afternoon, Callie," she said. "Is your mother here today?"

"She's at home, Mrs. Ogletree. Hello, Georgie."

"Hi, Callie," he said, "What are you doing here?"

"Um . . . just looking at books. Here, you've got yours, you go ahead of me. Please."

I stepped back and grandly waved them forward.

"Why, thank you, Callie," she said. "Such lovely manners. I shall have to mention it to your mother next time I see her."

After an eternity, they left. I kept glancing around to see if anyone else was about to come up. The librarian frowned at me. I stepped up to the counter and whispered, "Please, ma'am, do you have a copy of Mr. Darwin's book?"

She leaned over the counter and said, "What was that?"

"Mr. Darwin's book. You know, The Origin of Species."

She frowned and cupped a hand behind her ear. "You have to speak up."

I spoke up in a shaking voice. "Mr. Darwin's book. That one. Please."

She pinioned me with a sour look and said, "I most certainly do not. I wouldn't keep such a thing in my library. They keep a copy at the Austin library but I would have to order it by post. That's fifty cents. Do you have fifty cents?"

"No, ma'am." I could feel myself turning pink. I'd never had fifty cents in my life. "And," she added, "I would need a letter from your mother permitting you to read that particular book. Do you have such a letter?"

"No, ma'am," I said, mortified. My neck was starting to itch, the tell-tale precursor to an outbreak of hives. She sniffed, "I thought not. Now I have books to be shelved."

I wanted to weep with rage and humiliation but I refused to cry in front of the old bat. I left the library in a purple froth and found Harry lounging in front of the general store. He looked at me with concern.

I scratched the welts that had popped up on my neck and yelled, "What is the point of a library if they won't give you a book?"

Harry glanced around and said, "What are you talking about?"

"Some people aren't fit to be librarians," I said. "I want to go home now."

On the long, hot, silent trip back in the wagon piled high with goods, Harry looked over at me and said, "What's the matter, my own Pet?"

"Nothing," I snapped. Oh, absolutely nothing, except that I was strangling on bitterness and gall and was in no mood to talk about it. For once I was glad of the privacy of the deep sun bonnet that Mother made me wear to prevent freckling.

"Do you know what's in that crate?" Harry said. "The one right behind you?" I didn't bother to reply. I didn't know and I didn't care. I hated the world.

"It's a wind machine," he said, "for Mother."

If it had been any of my other brothers I would have snarled at him, don't be ridiculous, there's no such thing.

"Really, it is," he said. "You'll see."

When we got home, I couldn't stand the noisy excitement at the unloading of the wagon. I bolted for the river. I ripped off my bonnet and pinafore and dress and threw myself into the water, casting terror into the hearts of the local tadpoles and turtles. Good. That lady librarian had ruined my day and I was determined to ruin someone–or something–else's day. I ducked my head underwater and let out a long loud scream, the sound burbling in my ears. I came up for air and did it again. And one more time, just to be thorough. The cooling water gradually soothed me. After all, what was one book to me? Really, it didn't matter. One day I would have all the books in the world, shelves and shelves of them. I would live my life in a tower of books. I would read all day long and eat peaches. And if any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.

I lay on my back and watched a pair of swallows racing up and down the river, tumbling like acrobats in pursuit of invisible bugs. Despite my hours of freedom, the summer was not proceeding as I'd envisaged. Nobody was interested in the Questions that I wrote in my Notebook. Nobody was interested in helping me figure out the Answers. The heat sapped the life out of everybody and everything. I thought of our beloved, big old house and how sad it looked in the middle of the yellow dried-out lawn. Usually the grass was soft and cool and green, inviting you to take off your boots and run across it barefoot and play Statues, but now it was a scorched bright gold and as menacing to the feet as straw stubble. The yellow grass made it hard to see my brand new species of big yellow grasshopper. You couldn't find them until you practically stepped on them. Then they would zing upwards and fly ponderously on clacking wings for a few feet and settle in the grass again, disappearing. Catching them was difficult, despite their being fat and slow. Funny how the smaller and quicker emerald ones were such a snap to catch. They were just too easy to spot. The birds spent their days gobbling them up while the yellow ones hid nearby and taunted their less fortunate cousins.

And then I understood. There was no new species. They were all one kind of grasshopper. The ones that were born a bit yellower to begin with lived to an old age in the drought; the birds couldn't see them in the parched grass. The greener ones, the ones the birds picked off, didn't last long enough to grow big. Only the yellower ones survived because they were more fit to survive the torrid weather. Mr. Charles Darwin was right. The proof lay in my own front yard.

I lay in shock in the water thinking about this, staring at the sky, looking for some flaw in my thinking, some crack in my conclusion. I could find none. Then I splashed my way to the banks. I hauled myself out by some handy elephant ears, dried off with my pinafore and dressed as fast as I could and ran home.

When I got back to the house I found the whole family clustered around a busted open crate in the hallway. In the middle of the excelsior nest sat a squat black metal machine with four blades on the front and a glass reservoir on the back into which my father poured kerosene. In the middle of the blades, a round brass boss proclaimed in curly script, 'Chicago's Finest Wind Machine.'

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."

Grandfather unthreaded his watch chain to remove a tiny key. He unlocked a tall glass cabinet crammed with more books, preserved birds, bottled beasts, and other curios. I sidled over to get a better look at this irresistible display. A misshapen armadillo caught my eye, warped and buckled and lumpy, obviously stuffed by the most inept amateur. Why did he have that? I could have done better. Next to it was a five-gallon specimen bottle of thick glass containing the strangest beast I had ever seen. A thick blobby form, multiple arms, two big glaring eyes distorted by the glass into huge saucer orbs, the stuff of nightmares. What on earth was it? I drew closer.

Grandfather reached into the stack of books. I saw Dante's Inferno next to The Science of Hot Air Ballooning. There was A Study of Mammalian Reproduction and A Treatise on Drawing the Female Nude. He extracted a book covered in rich green morocco leather handsomely tipped with gold. He polished it with his sleeve, although I could see no dust on it. Ceremoniously, he bowed and offered it to me. I looked at it. The Origin of Species. Here, in my own house. I received it in both my hands. He smiled at me.

Thus began my relationship with Granddaddy.