When a young naturalist commences the study of a group of organisms
quite unknown to him, he is at first much perplexed to determine what
differences to consider . . . for he knows nothing of the amount and
kind of variation to which the group is subject. . . .
BY 1899, WE HAD LEARNED to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat. We
arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smudge
of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still
pure pitch. We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the
dark like our own tiny wavering suns. There was a full day’s work
to be done before noon, when the deadly heat drove everyone back into
our big shuttered house and we lay down in the dim high-ceilinged rooms
like sweating victims. Mother’s usual summer remedy of sprinkling
the sheets with refreshing cologne lasted only a minute. At three
o’clock in the afternoon, when it was time to get up again, the
temperature was still killing.
The heat was a misery for all of us in Fentress, but it was the women
who suffered the most in their corsets and petticoats. (I was still a
few years too young for this uniquely feminine form of torture.) They
loosened their stays and sighed the hours away and cursed the heat and
their husbands, too, for dragging them to Caldwell County to plant
cotton and acres of pecan trees. Mother temporarily gave up her
hairpieces, a crimped false fringe and a rolled horsehair rat, platforms
on which she daily constructed an elaborate mountain of her own hair. On
those days when we had no company, she even 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 astounding 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.
My name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but back then everybody called me
Callie Vee. That summer, I was eleven years old and 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 little boys actually managed to
sleep at midday, sometimes even piled atop one another like damp,
steaming puppies. The men who came in from the fields and my father,
back from his office at the cotton gin, slept too, first dousing
themselves with tin buckets of tepid well water on the sleeping porch
before falling down on their rope beds as if poleaxed.
Yes, the heat was a misery, but it also brought me my freedom. While the
rest of the family tossed and dozed, I secretly made my way to the San
Marcos River bank and enjoyed a daily interlude of no school, no
pestiferous brothers, and no Mother. I didn’t have permission to
do this, exactly, but no one said I couldn’t. I got away with it
because I had my own room at the far end of the hall, whereas my
brothers all had to share, and they would have tattled in a red-hot
second. As far as I could tell, this was the sole decent thing about
being the only girl.
Our house was separated from the river by a crescentshaped parcel of
five acres of wild, uncleared growth. It would have been an ordeal to
push my way through it except that the regular river patrons—dogs,
deer, brothers—kept a narrow path beaten down through the
treacherous sticker burrs that rose as high as my head and snatched at
my hair and pinafore as I folded myself narrow to slide by. When I
reached the river, I stripped down to my chemise, floating on my back
with my shimmy gently billowing around me in the mild currents,
luxuriating in the coolness of the water flowing around me. I was a
river cloud, turning gently in the eddies. I looked up at the filmy bags
of 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.
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 few days 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 swallowtail 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 strange color, which
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 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.
It was so hot that for the first time in history Mother left the candles
of the chandelier unlit at dinnertime. 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 had to pull her gig three 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 hoopskirt."
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 wellchaperoned 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
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 98 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 kept it until the
Ants invaded the kitchen as never before. They marched in military
formation through minute cracks around the baseboards and windows and
headed straight for the sink. They were desperate for water and would
not be stopped. Viola took up arms against them to no avail. 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
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 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 four 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 Harry, my favorite, from whom I could keep nothing. (Well,
"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
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
what you saw around you, I could do that. Besides, now that I had my own
place to write 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 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 her with my finger. A lump of
gray-brown matter dangled from her pale-apricot beak. It looked like a
tiny baby mouse, thimble-sized, dead or dying.
Excerpted from The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.
Copyright © 2009 by Jacqueline Kelly.
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
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material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" by Jacqueline Kelly. Copyright © 0 by Jacqueline Kelly. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.