What Kind of Animal Do You Want to be Today?: A Carding Chronicle

SH-Monarch on zinnia

Is it just me or is there something in the air? All across the web, there are folks urging us all to be more creative and imaginative. You can take art classes of all sorts, write with others that you never meet in person, take yoga lessons…the list (thankfully) goes on and on.

But Tupelo Handy is way ahead of us. In Carding, Vermont, I think everyone would agree this little girl travels freely in her imagination. It worries her grandfather, the ever-practical Amos, but not her mother.

Come join us for an exercise of the imagination led by Tupelo Handy.

Come closer. Look me in the eye.
Tell me what kind
of animal you want to be today.
—from “Picnic, Lightning” by Billy Collins

Most people, if they thought of Tupelo Handy at all, regarded her as a “rather strange girl.”

Her third-grade teacher, Miss Somerville, could tell you that Tupelo was happier wrapped in her imagination than any place else. She despaired that the girl would ever learn her times tables or that the name of the big river that divided Vermont from New Hampshire was Connecticut or that blue and yellow paint mixed together make green.

Nevertheless, Miss Somerville did admire the girl’s clever eye when it came to identifying flowers and bugs or the small differences between maple and box elder leaves.

Tupelo’s Uncle Amos, a rather eccentric fixture in Carding prone to wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts even in the deepest part of winter, took Miss Somerville’s concerns seriously. He was a building sort of man, one who could fix a dripping faucet or stop a door from squeaking or create a whimsical sculpture from discarded gardening tools and lawn furniture. 

Amos relied on math in order to fit floor boards together properly or to calculate the correct pitch for a shed roof so he told Miss Somerville that he would take it upon himself to school his young niece in the world of numbers. 

Tupelo’s mother, on the other hand, thought that her most important motherly duty was protecting her daughter’s imagination. Cassie had had her imagination cut off when she was too young to understand how much it mattered.

So Cassie wanted her little girl to have all the time in the world to laugh and explore and climb trees and raise rabbits and chickens or any other creature she saw fit to adopt.

Cassie fed her daughter’s creative impulses with stories, many of them made up on the spot about whatever was at hand—a white rock or a black-and-orange caterpillar or an early-morning icicle dangling from a twig.

Amos enjoyed the stories too, when he heard them, but he often wondered if Tupelo recognized the border between the land of myth and the land of numbers where two-plus-two always equaled four.

Of all the critters in Tupelo’s world, birds were far and away her favorites. She’d developed a language of noises and coos that allowed her to communicate with the small flock of chickens they kept in a pen close to the house.

She convinced a pair of chickadees to eat sunflower seeds from her hand. Hummingbirds landed on her shoulders for brief respites as they fed on the red bee balm that grew wild in a nearby field.

And she hardly ever left the house without being accompanied by a crow quartet who functioned as heralds as she walked through the woods.

But now it was cold weather time, and the activities of summer were put away for the moment. 

At this point in the year, Amos spent more of his time tending to activities at the Swap Shed located at Carding’s transfer station than he did at home. The Swap Shed was principally for books, and there were always a lot to sort.

But in addition to books, folks liked to offload all sorts of non-book stuff at the Swap Shed, things such as kid’s board games, dishes, cooking utensils, and whatnots. If Amos didn’t keep a close eye on what came in the door, the Swap Shed quickly became impossible to navigate.

He’d learned the hard way that you had to be selective.

His due diligence occasionally turned up treasures for “his girls,” as he called Cassie and Tupelo, which is how Andy found a chunk of rock covered with amethyst crystals for his niece’s “cool rocks” collection.

He placed it just so on their eating table so the girl would find it at breakfast, and her eyes grew wide with delight as soon as she spotted it.

“It looks like a purple porcupine,” she whispered as she picked it up. “What is it?”

“A wishing stone,” her mother said before Amos could swallow his mouth full of oatmeal. 

“How does it work?”

“You look closely at it,” Cassie said. “And you tell it what kind of animal you wish to be today.”

The girl wrapped her fingers around her new treasure, and raced to the window so she could hold it in the light. What animal did she want to be? Her list was so long. A chickadee perhaps, flitting from the bird feeder to the trees and back. Or the garter snake who left his skin behind in the wood pile last summer. Or a monarch butterfly flitting from one bright flower to the next in summer.

But as all these wishes sped through her heart, Tupelo caught sight of her reflection in the window’s glass, a girl with big eyes, sleep-tousled hair, and a magic purple stone. 

Somehow, Andy sensed the child’s delicate balancing act as she assessed all of the possibilities that stretched out in front of her. He wanted to tell her that she could have story and numbers at the same time but he knew it was her lesson to learn.

On her own.

Tupelo brought the amethyst rock closer to her mouth, her eyes riveted on the yard and woods beyond the window.

“What’s your choice?” Cassie asked.

Tupelo took a breath. “Girl,” she whispered.

Sonja Hakala lives on a river in Vermont and is the author of the Carding, Vermont novels and an upcoming mystery, The Education of Miss Ruby Royce.

The Carding, Vermont novels, in order of appearance:

The Road Unsalted

Thieves of Fire

The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life

Light in Water, Dancing

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