MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
ARMAND VERSUS DILLY
One evening, when we were about ten miles from the Bay of San Blas, vast numbers of butterflies, in bands or flocks of countless myriads, extended as far as the eye could range. Even by the aid of a telescope it was not possible to see a space free from butterflies. The seamen cried out "it was snowing butterflies," and such in fact was the appearance.
-Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
TO MY GREAT ASTONISHMENT, I saw my first snowfall on New Year's Day of 1900. Now, you might not think much of this, but it is an exceedingly rare event in central Texas. Why, only the night before, I'd made the resolution to set eyes on snow just once before I died, doubting it would ever happen. My improbable wish had been granted within the space of hours, the snow transforming our ordinary town into a landscape of pristine beauty. I had run through the hushed woods at dawn clad only in my robe and slippers, marveling at the delicate mantle of snow, the pewter sky, and the trees laced with silver, before the cold drove me back to our house. And what with all the fuss and fizz and pomp of the great event, I figured I was poised on the brink of a splendid future in the new century, and that my thirteenth year would be magical.
But now here we were in spring, and somehow the months had slipped away from me, devolving into the usual humdrum round of schoolwork, housework, and piano lessons, the monotony punctuated by my six brothers (!) taking it in turn to drive me, the only girl (!), right around the bend. The New Year had duped me, sure enough.
My real name is Calpurnia Virginia Tate, but back in those days people mostly called me Callie Vee, except for Mother, when she was expressing disapproval, and Granddaddy, who would have no truck with nicknames.
The only solace came from my nature studies with Granddaddy, Captain Walter Tate, a man whom many in our town of Fentress mistook for a crotchety, unsociable old loon. He'd made his money in cotton and cattle, and fought for the Confederate States in the War before deciding to dedicate the last part of his life to the study of Nature and Science. I, his companion in this endeavor, lived for the few precious hours I could eke out in his company, trailing behind him with the butterfly net, a leather satchel, my Scientific Notebook, and a sharp pencil at hand to record our observations.
In inclement weather, we studied our specimens in the laboratory (really just an old shed that had once been part of the slave quarters) or read together in the library, where I slowly picked my way under his tutelage through Mr. Darwin's book The Origin of Species. In fine weather, we tramped across the fields to the San Marcos River, pushing our way through the scrub along one of the many deer trails. Our world might not have appeared all that exciting to the untrained eye but there was teeming life everywhere if you only knew where to look. And how to look, something Granddaddy taught me. Together we had discovered a brand-new species of hairy vetch now known to the world as Vicia tateii. (I confess I'd rather have discovered an unknown species of animal, animals being more interesting and all, but how many people of my age-or any age-had their name permanently attached to a living thing? Beat that if you can.)
I dreamed of following in Granddaddy's footsteps and becoming a Scientist. Mother, however, had other plans for me; namely, learning the domestic arts and coming out as a debutante at age eighteen, when it was hoped I'd be presentable enough to snag the eye of a prosperous young man of good family. (This was dubious for many reasons, including the fact that I loathed cooking and sewing, and could not exactly be described as the eye-snagging type.)
So here we were in spring, a season of celebration and some trepidation in our household on account of my softhearted brother Travis, one year younger than I. You see, spring is the season of burgeoning life, of fledgling birds, raccoon kits, fox cubs, baby squirrels, and many of those babies ended up orphaned or maimed or abandoned. And the more hopeless the case, the bleaker its prospects, the more impossible its future, the more likely was Travis to adopt the creature and lug it home to live with us. I found the parade of unlikely pets quite entertaining but our parents did not. There were stern talks from Mother, there were threatened punishments from Father, but everything went out the window when Travis stumbled across an animal in need. Some thrived and some failed miserably, but all found space in his susceptible heart.
On this particular morning in March, I got up very early and unexpectedly ran into Travis in the hall.
"Are you going to the river?" he said. "Can I come too?"
I generally preferred to go alone because it's so much easier to spy on unsuspecting wildlife that way. But of all my brothers, Travis came closest to sharing my interest in Nature. I let him come along, saying, "Only if you're quiet. I'm going to make my observations."
I led us along one of the deer trails to the river as dawn slowly warmed the eastern sky. Travis, ignoring my instructions, chattered the whole way. "Say, Callie, did you hear that Mrs. Holloway's rat terrier Maisie just had puppies? Do you think Mother and Father would let me have one?"
"I doubt it. Mother's always complaining about the fact that we have four dogs already. She thinks that's three too many."
"But there's nothing better in the world than a puppy! The first thing I'd do is teach it to fetch sticks. That's part of the trouble with Bunny. I love him, but he won't play fetch." Bunny was Travis's huge, fluffy, white prizewinning rabbit. My brother doted on him, feeding and brushing and playing with him every day. But training was a new development.
"Wait," I said, "you're ... you're trying to teach Bunny to retrieve?"
"Yep. I try and try, but he just won't do it. I even tried him with a carrot stick, but he just ate it."
"Uh ... Travis?"
"No rabbit in the history of the world has ever fetched a stick. So don't bother."
"Well, Bunny's awful smart."
"He may be smart for a rabbit, but that's not saying much."
"I think he just needs more practice."
"Sure, and then you can start piano lessons for the pig."
"Maybe Bunny would catch on faster if you helped us."
"Not so, Travis. It's a hopeless dream."
We continued our debate until we had nearly reached the river, when we suddenly spied some creature snuffling in the leaf mold at the base of a hollowed-out tree. It turned out to be a young Dasypus novemcinctus, a nine-banded armadillo, about the size of a small loaf of bread. Although they were becoming more common in Texas, I'd never seen one up close before. Anatomically speaking, it resembled the unhappy melding of an anteater (the face), a mule (the ears), and a tortoise (the carapace). I thought it overall an unlucky creature in the looks department, but Granddaddy once said that to apply a human definition of beauty to an animal that had managed to thrive for millions of years was both unscientific and foolish.
Travis crouched down and whispered, "What's it doing?"
"I think it's looking for breakfast," I said. "According to Granddaddy, they eat worms and grubs and such."
Travis said, "He's awfully cute, don't you think?"
"No, I don't."
But there was no use telling him that. The heedless armadillo then did the one surefire thing guaranteed to earn itself a new home with us: It wandered over to my brother and sniffed at his socks.
Uh-oh. We'd have to get out of there before Travis could say-
"Let's take it home."
Too late! "It's a wild animal, Travis. I don't think we should."
Ignoring me, he said, "I think I'll call him Armand, Armand the Armadillo. Or if it's a girl, I could call her Dilly. How d'you like the name? Dilly the Armadillo."
Drat, now it really was too late. Granddaddy always warned me not to name the objects of scientific study because then one could never be objective, or bring oneself to dissect them, or to stuff them and mount them, or dispatch them to the slaughterhouse, or set them free-whatever the particulars of the case called for.
Travis went on, "Is it a boy or a girl, do you reckon?"
"I don't know." I pulled my Scientific Notebook from my pinafore pocket and wrote, Question: How do you tell an Armand from a Dilly?
Travis scooped up the armadillo and hugged it to his chest. Armand (I had decided to refer to it as Armand for now) showed no sign of fear and proceeded to inspect Travis's collar with an avidly twitching snout. Travis smiled in delight. I sighed in aggravation. He crooned to his new friend while I rooted around with a stick to find it some food. I dug up an immense night crawler and gingerly presented it to Armand, who snatched it from me with his impressive claws and gobbled it down in two seconds flat, spraying messy bits of worm about. Not a pretty sight. No, not at all. Who knew armadillos had the world's worst table manners? But here I was doing it again, applying human sensibilities where they didn't belong.
Even Travis looked taken aback. "Eww," he said. I almost said the same thing, but unlike my brother, I had been annealed in the furnace of Scientific Thought. Scientists do not say such things aloud (although we may thinkthem from time to time).
Armand licked shreds of worm off Travis's shirt. My brother said, "He's hungry, that's all. Boy, he doesn't smell so good."
It was true. As if his atrocious manners weren't enough, up close Armand emitted an unpleasant musky smell.
I said, "I think this is a bad idea. What's Mother going to say?"
"She doesn't have to know."
"She always knows." Exactly how she always knew was a matter of considerable interest to all seven of her children, who'd never been able to figure it out.
"I could keep him in the barn," Travis said. "She hardly ever goes out there."
I could see this was both a losing battle and not really mine to fight. We put Armand into my satchel, where he proceeded to scratch at the bag's interior all the way home. To my annoyance, I found several deep gouges in the leather when we finally unloaded him in an old rabbit hutch next to Bunny in the farthest corner of the barn. But first we weighed him on the scale used for rabbits and poultry (five pounds) and measured him from stem to stern (eleven inches, not including the tail). We debated for a minute whether to include the tail but decided that leaving it out was a better representation of his true dimensions.
Armand didn't seem to dislike this attention; on the other hand, he didn't seem to like it much either. He investigated the confines of his new home and then started scrabbling at the bottom of the hutch, ignoring us completely.
We didn't know it then, but this was going to be the extent of our relationship: scrabbling and ignoring, followed by more scrabbling and more ignoring. We watched him scrabbling and ignoring us until our maid, SanJuanna, rang the bell on the back porch to signal breakfast. We bolted into the kitchen and were met with the delightful fragrance of frying bacon and fresh cinnamon rolls.
"Warsh," commanded our cook, Viola, from the stove.
Travis and I took turns operating the pump and scrubbing our hands at the sink. A few slimy strings of Armand's breakfast still clung to my brother's shirt. I signaled to him and handed him a damp dish towel but he only smeared the stuff around and made things worse.
Viola looked up and said, "What's that smell?"
I said hastily, "Those rolls sure look good."
Travis said, "What smell?"
"That smell I smell on you, mister."
"It's just, uh, one of my rabbits. You know Bunny? The big white one? He needs a bath, that's all."
This surprised me. Travis was a notoriously bad liar on his feet, but here he was, making a pretty good job of it. In addition to my nature studies, I was making a project of building my vocabulary, and the word facile popped into my mind. I'd had no opportunity to use it before, but it certainly applied here: Travis, the facile fibber.
"Huh," said Viola. "Never heard of no rabbit needing a bath before."
"Oh, he's filthy," I chimed in. "You should see him."
"Huh," she said again. "I'll just bet."
She loaded a platter high with crispy bacon and then carried it through the swinging door into the dining room. We followed behind and took our assigned places at the table with my other brothers: Harry (the oldest, my favorite), Sam Houston (the quietest), Lamar (a real pill), Sul Ross (the second quietest), and Jim Bowie (at age five, the youngest and the loudest).
I should say here that Harry was quickly sinking in his rating as Favorite Brother due to his stepping out with Fern Spitty. Even though he was eighteen and I'd finally resigned myself to his marrying one day, his courtship meant that he spent more and more time away from the house. Fern was pretty and sweet-tempered and fairly sensible in that she didn't recoil all that much when I walked through the house with some blobby specimen sloshing around in a jar. And even though I generally approved of her, the sad truth was that she would likely break up our family one day.
Father and Granddaddy came in and sat down, nodding to us all and solemnly proclaiming, "Good morning."
Granddaddy gave me a good morning of my own, and I smiled at him, warmed by the knowledge that I was hisfavorite.
Father said, "Your mother is having one of her sick headaches. She won't be joining us this morning."
This was something of a relief, as Mother could have spotted a wormy shirt at thirty paces. And if she rather than Viola had interrogated Travis, there was a good chance he'd have buckled and confessed all. I, on the other hand, had adopted the tactic of stout denial, no matter what. I had become so good, so facile at denial-even in the face of incontrovertible evidence-that Mother often didn't bother interrogating me at all. (So you see, being considered unreliable does have some use, although I don't encourage it in others.)
We bowed our heads while Father said the blessing, then SanJuanna passed the platters of food. Without Mother present, we were relieved of the burden of making the light and pleasant conversation that she required at mealtimes, and we pitched into our breakfast with a right good will. For several minutes there was only the scraping of forks and knives, muffled sounds of appreciation, and the occasional request to please pass the syrup.
* * *
AFTER SCHOOL, Travis and I ran to check on Armand and found him hunched in a corner of his cage, every now and then scrabbling halfheartedly at the wire. He looked sort of, well, depressed, but with an armadillo, how could you tell for sure?
"What's wrong with him?" said Travis. "He doesn't look too happy."
"It's because he's a wild animal and he's not supposed to be here. Maybe we should let him go."
But Travis was not ready to give up on his novel pet. "I'll bet he's hungry. D'you have any worms on you?"
"I'm fresh out." This wasn't exactly true. I had one giant worm left in my room, the biggest one I'd ever seen, but I was saving it for my first dissection. Granddaddy had suggested we start with an annelid and work our way up through the various phyla. I figured, the bigger the worm, the better to see its organs and the easier the dissection.
Nevertheless, I applied myself to the problem of Armand. He was a ground dweller and an omnivore, which meant he would eat all different kinds of animal and vegetable matter. I wasn't in the mood for digging grubs, and it would take forever to trap enough ants to make him a decent meal, so I said, "Let's go see what's in the pantry."
We ran to the back porch and into the kitchen, where Viola sat resting between meals, drinking a cup of coffee, Idabelle the Inside Cat keeping her company in her basket by the stove. Viola paged through one of Mother's ladies' magazines. She couldn't read or write but enjoyed looking at the latest fashionable hats. One of them had what appeared to be a stuffed bird of paradise perched in a nest of tulle, one wing swooping artfully over the wearer's brow. I thought the hat thoroughly ridiculous, along with being a terrible waste of a rare and wonderful specimen.
"What do you want?" Viola said, not looking up.
"Oh, we're just a little hungry," I said. "We thought we'd see what's in the pantry."
"All right, but don't you touch those pies. They're for supper, you hear?"
We grabbed the first thing at hand, a hard-boiled egg, and ran back to the barn.
Armand sniffed at the egg, rolled it around with his claws, and then cracked it open. He ate with messy enthusiasm, grunting all the while. When he'd finished, he retired to the far corner of his cage and resumed his hunched, miserable posture. I stared at him and thought about his environment. He lived in the ground. He was nocturnal. Which meant he liked to sleep in a burrow all day. But here he was in broad daylight without a burrow for protection. No wonder he looked unhappy.
I said, "I think he needs a hole in the ground, a burrow to sleep in."
"We don't have one."
"If you let him go," I said hopefully, "he could make himself one."
"I can't let him go. He's my Armand. We just have to make one for him."
I sighed. We cast about for materials and found a pile of old newspapers and a scrap of blanket used to wipe down the horses after their day's work. We put these items in the cage where Armand did his usual sniffing routine and then started industriously shredding the paper. He hauled it, along with his blanket, to the back corner of the hutch and, within minutes, had built himself a nest of sorts. He pulled the blanket over himself and thrashed this way and that. Then he grew still. Faint snores emanated from the mound.
"There," Travis whispered, "see how happy he is? You're so smart, Callie Vee. You know everything."
Well, of course this puffed me up quite a bit. Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all to keep Armand. (Or Dilly.)
* * *
THAT NIGHT we lined up to receive our weekly allowance from Father. We stood outside his door in order of age, and he called us in one at a time, doling out a dime apiece to the older boys; the younger boys and I each got a nickel. I understood the reasoning behind this-sort of-but looked forward to the day when I reached dime age. The small ceremony concluded with him admonishing us not to spend it all in one place, which most of us did right away at the Fentress General Store on jujubes, taffy, and chocolate. Father's point was to teach us the value of saving money, but what we learned instead was how to calculate complex ratios of the maximum pleasure that could be extracted from each item for the longest time, as in, for example, the value of getting five cinnamon red hots for a penny versus three caramels for two pennies, and which brother would trade licorice for gumdrops, and at what exchange rate. Intricate calculations indeed.
Despite this, I had managed to save the sum of twenty-two cents, which I kept in a cigar box under my bed. A mouse, apparently finding the box attractive, had nibbled on the corners. Time for a new box from Granddaddy. I knocked on the door of his library, and he called out, "Enter if you must." I found him squinting at something through a magnifying glass, his long silver beard a pale lemon color in the faint wash of the lamplight.
"Calpurnia, fetch another lamp, won't you? This appears to be Erythrodiplax berenice, or the seaside dragonlet. It is the only true saltwater dragonfly we know of. But what is it doing here?"
"I don't know, Granddaddy."
"Ah, of course not. That is what we call a rhetorical question; no answer is actually expected."
I almost said, "Then why ask it?" But that would have been impertinent, and I would never be impertinent with my grandfather.
"Strange," he said. "You don't normally see them this far from the salt marsh."
I brought him another lamp and leaned over his shoulder. I loved spending time with him in this room, piled high as it was with all sorts of intriguing things: the microscope and telescope, dried insects, bottled beasts, desiccated lizards, the old globe, an ostrich egg, a camel saddle the size of a hassock, a black bearskin rug with a gaping maw the perfect size for catching the foot of a visiting granddaughter. And let's not forget the books, great stacks of them, dense scholarly texts bound in worn morocco with gilt lettering. And in pride of place on a special shelf, a thick jar containing the Sepia officinalis, a cuttlefish that had been sent to my grandfather years ago by the great man himself, Mr. Charles Darwin, whom Granddaddy revered. The ink on the cardboard tag was faded but still legible. My grandfather prized it above all things.
He raised his head, sniffed the air, and said, "Why do you smell like an armadillo?"
There was no putting anything past him, at least not anything having to do with Nature.
"Uh," I said, "it's probably better that you don't know."
This amused him. He said, "The name in Spanish means 'little armored one.' The early German settlers referred to it as the Panzerschwein, or 'armored pig.' The flesh is pale and resembles pork in taste and texture when properly prepared. My troops and I occasionally made a grateful meal of one when we could find it. During the War, they were not so common, having only recently migrated to our part of the world from South America. Darwin was quite taken with them and called them 'nice little animals,' but then he never tried to raise one. Although they rarely bite, they make terrible pets. They live alone as adults with no social tendencies, which might explain why they do not value human company in the slightest."
Granddaddy would occasionally mention the War Between the States, but not often. Probably best, as several Confederate veterans lived on in our town, and the War-or at least its outcome-still rankled with many of them. I also thought it best not to mention to Travis that his own grandfather had dined on Armand's ancestors and found them good eating.
"Granddaddy," I said, "I would like a new cigar box, please, if you can spare one, and I need to borrow a book. So I can read about the armadillo we don't have."
He smiled and produced a box for me, and then pointed to Godwin's Guide to Texas Mammals. He said, "There are certain animals that apparently cannot be domesticated, for reasons that are not well understood. It isn't only the armadillo. Consider the beaver, the zebra, and the hippopotamus, to name a few others. Many people have tried to domesticate them and all have failed miserably, often in a spectacular and sometimes deadly fashion."
I could just imagine Mother's reaction to Travis coming home with a baby hippopotamus on the end of a string, and I thanked my lucky stars we lived in a hippo-free county. I opened my reference text, and Granddaddy and I worked together in contented silence.
Right before bed, Travis and I checked on Armand. (We had agreed to call him Armand, even though we still couldn't rule out Dilly.) He rooted and scrabbled and ignored us, so we left him to it.
The next morning, Travis gave him another boiled egg. He ate it, ignored us, and retired to his burrow.
Travis said, "I wish he'd be my friend. I bet if I keep feeding him, he'll be my friend."
"That's only 'larder love.' Do you really want a pet that's only glad to see you because you bring it food?"
I told him what I'd learned about the species from Granddaddy, but he shrugged it off. I figured he'd have to find out for himself. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way.
Copyright © 2015 by Jacqueline Kelly