THE GOLDEN BEETLE OF NEW CALEDONIA, 1914
When Margery was ten, she fell in love with a beetle.
It was a bright summer's day, and all the windows of the rectory were open. She had an idea about sailing her wooden animals across the floor, two by two, but the set had belonged to her brothers once, and most of them were either colored in or broken. Some were even missing altogether. She was wondering if, under the circumstances, you could pair a three-legged camel and a bird with spots when her father came out of his study.
"Do you have a moment, old girl?" he said. "There's something I want to show you."
So she put down the camel and the bird, and she followed him. She would have stood on her head if he'd asked.
Her father went to his desk. He sat there, nodding and smiling. She could tell he didn't have a proper reason for calling her: he just wanted her to be with him for a while. Since her four brothers had left for war, he often called her. Or she'd find him loitering at the foot of the stairs, searching for something without seeming to know what it was. His eyes were the kindest in the world, and the bald top of his head gave him a naked look.
"I think I have something that might interest you, old girl," he said. "Nothing much, but maybe you will like it."
At this point he would normally produce something he'd found in the garden, but instead he opened a book called Incredible Creatures. It looked important, like the Bible or an encyclopedia, and there was a general smell of old things, but that could well have been him. Margery stood at his side, trying hard not to fidget.
The first page was a painted illustration of a man. He had a normal face and normal arms but, where his legs should have been, a green mermaid tail. She was amazed. The next picture was just as strange. A squirrel like one in the garden, but this had wings. And it went on, page after page, one incredible creature after another.
"Well, well, look," her father kept saying. "Well, now, goodness me. Look at this chap, Margery."
"Are they real?"
"They might be."
"Are they in a zoo?"
"Oh, no, dear heart. If these creatures live, they've not been found. There are people who believe they exist, but they haven't caught them yet so they can't prove it."
She had no idea what he was talking about. Until that moment she'd assumed everything in the world was already found. It had never occurred to her things might happen in reverse. That you could see a picture of something in a book—that you could as good as imagine it—and then go off and look.
Her father showed her the Himalayan yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, the Patagonian giant sloth. There was the Irish elk with antlers as big as wings. The South African quagga, which started as a zebra until it ran out of stripes and became a horse. The great auk, the lion-tailed monkey, the Queensland tiger. So many incredible extra creatures in the world, and nobody had found a single one of them.
"Do you think they're real?" she said.
Her father nodded. "I have begun to feel comforted," he said, "by the thought of all we do not know, which is nearly everything." With that upside-down piece of wisdom, he turned another page. "Ah!"
He pointed at a speck. A beetle.
Well, how nothing this was. How small and ordinary. She couldn't see what it was doing in a book of Incredible Creatures, never mind whether it was not yet found. It was the sort of thing she would tread on and not notice.
He told her the head of a beetle was called the head, the middle was the thorax, and the bottom half was the abdomen. Beetles had two pairs of wings—did she know that? One delicate set that did the actual flying, and another hardened pair to protect the first. There were more kinds of beetle on God's Earth than any other species, and they were each unique in remarkable ways.
"It looks a bit plain," she said. Margery had heard her aunts call her plain. Not her brothers, though. They were as handsome as horses. "Ah! But look!"
He turned to the next page, and her insides gave a lurch.