“Hi, Turkey Babies,” I yell in my high pitched call as I make my way around the house towards the chicken coop. Immediately, a charade of clucking and gobbling greets me like a gathering of friends. I make some weird tongue noise that I imagine resembles the gobble of other turkeys, and my turkey friend clucks out her own response eagerly. From the corner of my eye I catch my husband, standing with his turkey caller in hand, and staring with disgust in my direction.
“The turkey won’t respond to the turkey caller, but she will respond to your turkey talk – that sounds nothing like a turkey!” He shakes his head laughing as I shrug him off, slightly irritated that he so bluntly insults my own turkey talk. Who’s he to say I don’t sound like a turkey?
Just like every other weather-permitting evening, I open the gate and tell my turkey friend and two miniature bantee chickens (one hen and one rooster) that it is time for our walk. When we adopted the turkey, the bantees were part of a package deal. They were all young, and the two chickens were convinced the turkey was their mother, and vice versa. The three have been inseparable since day one. Unlatching the gate the three follow me out of the pen. Today, we will walk down along the cornfield to the woods where I know the blackberries are ripening. This will be a light snack for me and a bedtime snack for my friends. Their bedtime is much too early for my own taste, but then I’m not up at the crack of dawn, either.
“Come on, Turkey Babies, this way,” I call as I work my way down the back yard, taking in the heady scent of summer evenings in Lancaster County. Consisting of corn fields, manure, fresh earth, and smells of cut grass swirling about, evening is my favorite time of the day. The light sound of buzzing comes from the myriad of bugs and pollinators at work in the hedgerows,, birds flutter and sing around the feeders and in the trees, a mourning dove calls out for his lover, and somewhere in the distance a woodpecker is still hard at work.
As we approach the woods I hear the scattering of squirrels and rabbits. My little black 4.5 lb chihuahua, Coco, blazes ahead of our parade in demonstrable bravery and with a mission to protect. I follow, the turkey follows me, the bantee rooster and then the hen follows her, Rick meanders behind, and finally the caboose, our dog Carrie, brings up the rear. Carrie is 15 this year and while at one time she would have enjoyed those bantees like a kid with chicken nuggets, she has retired her hunting badge and thus resigned herself to trophy bird-watcher. The whole scene seems directly plucked from a children’s story.
Arriving at the edge of the woods, I realize the blackberries are a bit odd this year, not quite as big as other years where their plump and juicy berries will guarantee steep competition with wild birds. This year are a bit dry, hard, and even bitter. I take a few in my mouth and pucker my lips in a sour face. “These aren’t the best, but enjoy,” bending over the edge of the woods I toss some over my shoulder and peek back as my comrades lunge forward like children scatting for candy at the county parade.
After awhile I stretch and turn, “Alright, Turkey Babies, it’s time.” Slowly, I work my way in the general direction of the chicken coop. No one follows at first, but when Rick takes a few steps forward the turkey suddenly panics, bringing her head straight up and turning it in severe angles to utilize her side vision to find me. I make some turkey talk to help her find me, and she takes off running towards me with her head and neck swinging wildly to balance her like some sort of primitive ‘osaurus. Within seconds the chickens make their own dash across the yard to regain status in the procession. We make our way back up the hill to the gate of the pen where I lift a crutch to guide them gently inside and I leave them with more turkey talk which clearly communicates promises of future walks.
Rick shakes his head in disbelief at this scene, plucked almost directly out of a cartoon. “You know, taking the turkey for a walk isn’t the best thing for producing tender meat,” he explains. I listen to him, but my minds drifts back to another turkey story from the past…
My dad was always keen on making sure that us four girls experienced the fullness of life in the country, life on a farm, and life full of adventure. He brought a turkey home one summer afternoon, and put it in the smaller horse barn christening it, The Turkey Pen until Thanksgiving. He gave us some food, “Take care of her, feed and water her, and we’ll have a good Thanksgiving dinner. Just like colonial times.” It sounded so fun!
We were compliant, and as the months bore on the turkey got larger. At about 10 and 6 years old (I was the eldest), my sister and I watched as the little turkey morphed into what seemed like an ostrich-sized giant. We did our duties, throwing feed into the trough and racing out as quickly as we could, pushing each other and swearing it was every man for himself. In my own case, it was more a skip and a hop, my fake leg lagging behind and sometimes getting shut in the door before being yanked out like a tail.
Gradually, this turkey got so big that when she would hear us coming she would throw her fist-sized head up over the railing in greeting, scaring us half to death, and becoming our greatest enemy this side of the Mississippi. We began introducing the neighbor kids to the barn of horror, bribing them to do our chores for us, it never worked. Eventually fear overpowered novelty and we worked up the courage to protest caring for her altogether. Mom had a little one in the house, and I see now her refusal to help was her own version of pleading the fifth (the right to not self-incriminate). So Dad picked up the slack, as Dad’s do on so many of their children’s adventures.
The night before Thanksgiving, a traditional meal of meager pickings and leftovers to ensure refrigerator space for the next day’s feast, Dad informed us that it was time. It was dark, and we headed out to the barn on his heels afraid of the boogie monster. When he flicked the light on the monstrous head came up over the railing as we yelped and chatteringly appealed to his authority, “SEE! This is what she does to us! She wants to eat us!” Dad guffawed, and led us into the pen with him. He had his axe, a board, and gloves in hand. Not having any sons, I was the eldest daughter and thus obligated to step in on all occasions that a boy would typically serve. I watched as he placed the turkey’s gigantic softball-head on the board, held her body still between his legs and stretched her neck across it saying, “Hold this.”
Not one for noncompliance, I obeyed. I wrapped my small hand around her neck at the base of her head. Her bald turkey-eyes half closed and half open, the red of her neck and the muscles and veins strained and stretched before me, I closed my eyes unsure of what to expect. It was about the exact time that Dad had the axe in the air ready to come down that I realized something: I already have one leg, and he is swinging an axe in the direction of my hand. Self preservation won over compliance, and I let go a second too soon.
The turkey, injured but not killed, flew up from between Dad’s legs with a screech and began desperately circling the pen to get out with flapping wings, white feathers flying everywhere, and hops and jumps with her enormous turkey claws. Without hesitation, my sister and I took off. We ran out of the barn into the dark night, no longer concerned for the boogie man. We stopped only to peer back through the window for a moment at the carnage. There we saw the turkey running around the barn, Dad chasing it with both arms desperately flailing and grasping amid the chaos, white feathers, dust, and screeches in a merciful attempt to finish the job as painlessly as possible. My sister and I looked at each other and knew we were probably in big trouble. Even though she didn’t really do anything wrong, abandonment was the worst of crimes in my family. We silently agreed any punishment was worth the crime, and headed to the house like true criminals. Dad was left to handle the aftermath of killing, plucking, and prepping the main dish of Thanksgiving himself.
We must not have received criminal sentencing, as I do not remember more than being teased for leaving the old man to fend for himself. The turkey itself ended up being over 30 lbs. It was so large that it did not fit in the oven, to which Dad cured innovatively by using a chainsaw to cut it in half. Thanksgiving dinner, always at 1pm, wasn’t until 8pm that year, when the half-sawed massacre came out of the oven. Eyes wide as saucers, it was the only Thanksgiving that my sister and I remember eating so many of the delicious side dishes we were just too full to eat any turkey.
Staring at Rick after the tender-meat comment twenty five years later, I come to the stark realization that my pet will be Thanksgiving dinner. I flinch. I made it clear when we agreed to adopt the turkey that I would not be a part of the killing process this time around, but it seemed so distant at the time, so far removed. Now, I’d inadvertently enjoyed this turkey, appreciated its intelligence, sharp hearing, and good eyesight. I have laughed at its anxiety and shared in many months of turkey talk with her. It’s been a joy and delight, and if I’m honest I’ve probably gained some soothing salve for memories of [clears throat] turkeys past. The breed of turkey we have is bred for meat, and she will soon get too heavy for her legs, and they will break. I know we will have to slaughter her soon. Correction: She will have to be slaughtered soon, no I or we about it.
In resigned submission, I’ve taken a new approach to turkey stuffing. One that I like to call inverse stuffing. I now take out a little bread each day and hand feed her. It is much more pleasant than the traditional stuffing process, I tell myself. But soon, very soon, Rick will call my Dad and he will bring my nephew (nearly 10) and my niece (six) to come and experience the full adventure of farming and country living themselves.This will be the second Thanksgiving where I become so full on delicious side dishes that I will just have no room for turkey.