MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
What I’m going to tell you about took place on our farm in Fentress, Texas, in the early spring of 1901. Now, if you don’t live on a farm, you might not know that spring is the season when most of the animals have their babies, and places like ours were overrun with lambs and calves and piglets and kittens. Most of these babies were born without any trouble, but sometimes things would go wrong. That’s when you’d call Dr. Pritzker for help.
Dr. Pritzker was our town’s animal doctor. (The fancy word for this is veterinarian.) Even though I was only thirteen, Dr. Pritzker and I became friends, and sometimes he’d let me help in his office making labels for the medicines he used. Sometimes—even better—he’d let me read his books, and I learned about the various diseases of livestock. And other times—best of all—he’d let me watch when he doctored the animals. Mother didn’t like this. She thought it wasn’t ladylike or proper, and for some reason she was dead set on me being ladylike and proper. I don’t know why; it didn’t look like much fun to me. So I didn’t usually tell her about it. To be truthful, I almost never told her about it. I figured I was doing her a kindness by sparing her from things that made her unhappy, right?
Our farmhouse was really big, which was a good thing since it was filled to bursting with Mother and Father and Granddaddy and me and a total of six brothers. Yep, six. And when you’re the only girl, six brothers is far too many. About five too many. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Life is just not fair sometimes.
Out of all my too-many brothers, I was closest to Travis, who was only a year younger. Travis, with his soft heart and sunny smile, was crazy about animals. All animals. He raised rabbits as pets in the dark corner of the barn, and he was so tender, he got upset whenever we killed a turkey at Thanksgiving or even a chicken for Sunday dinner. Honestly, that boy needed to toughen up. Like me.
I was spending the morning looking for black-spotted newts in the shallows of the San Marcos River near our house and making a fine muddy job of it. Newts are shy creatures, and I was having no luck. I’d always wanted to raise one because they live part of their lives in the water like tadpoles, then lose their gills, grow legs, and walk about on the land. A pretty good trick, if you ask me.
Way off in the distance, I heard our cook, Viola, ringing the bell to signal lunch. Uh-oh. I’d wandered farther than I meant to, and now I’d be late to the table. This was considered very bad manners in our house and much frowned upon. I took off running.
By the time I made it to the back door, the family was seated in the dining room and Viola was ferrying plates through the swinging door to the table. I took a quick look at myself in the kitchen mirror. The mirror reflected a red face streaked with dirt and hair damp with sweat.
Viola, dishing up the potatoes, said, “You look like a boiled beet.”
I splashed my face under the kitchen pump to cool down.
“Not much of an improvement,” she said. “Now you look like a drowned rat.”
“Ha. So funny.”
“Don’t forget to wash those filthy paws.”
I scrubbed my hands with the rough kitchen soap. “Is she mad?”
She meaning Mother, of course.
“What d’you think?” Viola picked up a clean dish towel. “Here. Come here.” She daubed at my face. “That’s better. Go.” She flapped the towel at me.
I slid into the dining room, torn between standing tall to maintain my dignity or slinking in like a wet, smelly dog. But either way, it didn’t matter. There was no dignity; there was no hiding. Mother stared at me coldly, and the room fell silent. I slipped into my chair next to Travis.
“Well, Calpurnia,” said Mother, “what is the meaning of this?”
“Sorry, Mother,” I whispered.
“You look like you’ve been digging in the mud. Why is that?”
“Because I’ve been digging in the mud, of course.”
Oops. What I said was true, but the way I had said it turned out to be not so smart.
“Take your plate to the kitchen, young lady,” said Mother. “You may join us at dinner, if you are clean by then and have learned some manners.”
My older brother Lamar snickered. I shot him a dirty look and carried my plate out.
Viola and I sat across from each other at the kitchen table, which was okay with me. She could be good company when she wasn’t in one of her moods. And the smell of her fried chicken filled the kitchen. I considered it the best smell in the whole world.
“You mouth off again?” she said.
There was no need to reply. The answer was sitting in front of her. I attacked my chicken with both hands, one of the benefits of eating in the kitchen. Eating in the dining room meant you had to wrestle your chicken from your plate to your mouth with a knife and fork, always a tricky exercise.
“Mmm, Viola,” I said, through a big bite, “this is the best chicken ever.”
“Thank you kindly. And don’t talk with your mouth full. I don’t wanna see that.”
For dessert there was chocolate pecan pie with fresh cream. Viola cut me a slice that was a tiny bit bigger than the others and gave me an extra splash of cream. Another good thing about eating in the kitchen. When I tried to thank her, she pretended to have no idea what I was talking about.
After lunch I changed into a clean pinafore and went in search of Granddaddy. I found him in the library packing up the collecting jars and field guides in his satchel.
“Where are we going today?” I said.
“We’ll cross the bridge and follow the trail through the pecan grove. Are
you allowed to come with me? I thought perhaps your mother might have banished you to your room.”
“She probably meant to,” I admitted, “but I think she just forgot.” This seemed to be the only good thing about all these brothers: There were so many of us that Mother couldn’t always keep track of who was misbehaving and in what way.
“No need to remind her,” I said.
“No need at all.” He gathered up his bag and walking stick, I grabbed my butterfly net, and off we went.
Not everybody in town knew it, but my grandfather was a Scientist and the smartest man in maybe all of Texas. I could ask him anything about anything; he always knew the answer, but he wouldn’t always tell me. He had this habit of making me figure things out for myself. But that’s all right; he didn’t do it to be annoying. He was just trying to make me smarter (which clearly was working since I was the smartest kid around, although my teacher, Miss Harbottle, might have disagreed).
We crossed the bridge and turned onto a mule deer trail on the far side of the river. They were called mule deer because of their huge ears. If we were very lucky, we might see a mother deer with her new fawn. But such sights were rare. You could be standing right next to a mule deer and never know it unless it flicked an ear or twitched its tail. And Nature painted the fawn with spots that turned it invisible in the undergrowth, protecting it from predators.
We didn’t come across a fawn, but we did find a porcupine, or rather the back half of a porcupine. It had heard us coming and tried to burrow into a hole in the riverbank, but the hole was too shallow and its hind end stuck out. Still, it was safe. No animal in its right mind would go near those quills, even if they were only half the usual number.
“Ah,” said Granddaddy, “Erethizon dorsatum, meaning the animal with the irritating back.”
I knew this was the Scientific name. It sounded a whole lot fancier than what some folks called them, namely prickle pig and quill pig and thorny hog. And as for “irritating”? Ha! That was an understatement.
Granddaddy went on, “The quills are actually a form of modified hairs.”
“Is it true that they can shoot them at you?”
“Sometimes when the animal shakes itself, the loose quills will fly off, giving rise to the folktale that it can actually aim and fire at will. That is nonsense. If one of those quills hits you, it is by sheer chance. One must normally touch the animal for the quill to embed itself in the flesh. But once embedded, the barbed end will work itself deeper and deeper with every twitch of the unhappy victim. If it pierces a vital area, the victim may die. They live on vegetation and the bark of trees and are very good climbers.”
The porcupine lashed its tail as a warning. Even though it couldn’t aim at me, I stood well back.
Granddaddy went on, “You don’t normally see them during the day, because they are nocturnal. The young are called porcupettes. They are born with soft quills that harden into service within an hour of birth.”
Porcupettes. Travis would like that; I’d have to remember to tell him. Or maybe not. He’d probably want to bring one home. Just what we needed, another disastrous pet.
We wisely left the porcupine alone and wandered along the trail, stopping to look at beetles and butterflies along the way.
I examined a leaf that had three tiny pale green globs the size of pinheads attached to it. “Look, Grand-daddy, what are these?”
“What do you think they are?”
I sighed. “You could just tell me about it, you know, like the porcupine. Instead here you are doing it again.”
“Doing what again?”
“Making me think for myself.”
“Why, yes. Is that a complaint?”
“Oh no no no no no.” I studied the shiny little globs. “Maybe it’s some kind of disease on the leaf. No, I think they look more like eggs of some sort, insect eggs. They’re too small for anything else.”
A bright orange butterfly with black-and-white patches flitted past. A Painted Lady. Not a rare butterfly but a pretty one. Maybe these were her very own eggs.
“I hope they’re butterfly eggs. I’m going to raise them and see what they turn into.”
I gently put the leaf into a collecting jar. (“Collecting jar” makes it sound grander than it really was, which is to say a Ball canning jar I’d filched from Viola and then punched some holes in the lid with a nail.)
Text copyright © 2017 by Jacqueline Kelly
Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Jennifer L. Meyer