Twilight over Tioga Lake

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Methinks the Turkey Doth Protest Too Much

A while ago I posted a story called "Faultless Angel."  I am hoping it will be a chapter in a memoir I am slowly writing about my child and teenage-hood experiences at a horse stable.  In honor of the holidays, I thought I would put up this one.  It is mainly about turkeys--living with them, loving them, and eating them.  Hope you enjoy it, and enjoy the holidays.

“So I have some news, everybody.”
Terri strolled into the aisle.  Andi, Steph, and I paused with our pitchforks.
“We are getting some new Ashberry Hillians.”  Ooh, this was exciting.
“A new horse?” I wondered.  
“Ha ha.  No, thank god.”
“Doggie?”  chirped Steph.
“Uh, more children to use as slave labor?” suggested Andi.
“I’ll give you a hint.  We can eventually eat them.”
Now Terri had said things in the past that hinted that she was not entirely opposed to the concept of eating people.  If we have to right to eat animals, why not each other?  We three girls looked at each other and then Terri with slightly fearful wondering.
A three way “What?!”
“The farrier shoes for a guy that has a bunch of turkey chicks and is giving some away.  We are going to raise them and then eat them.  As true free-range turkeys!”
The concept of free range was fairly new back then, and I wasn’t quite sure of the meaning.  We were all curious about the pet then food creatures that were about become part of our semi-functional family, and thus the topic for the day’s tack room talk was provided.
“So what does free range mean anyway?” I asked, foaming up the scrubby sponge with glycerin.  I pictured a gang of turkeys cruising the hills in ATVs.
“It means the turkeys or chickens are free to walk around and not be stuffed into cages smaller than themselves with their beaks cut off.”
Steph looked up from her furtive scrubbing.  “Is that what happens?”
“Oh yeah, you didn’t know that?”  Terri responded calmly, wrapping up Court’s bridle.  “That along with pumping them full of chemicals and antibiotics.  “The free range ones are free of that too.”
I looked at my lunch bag that had a turkey sandwich in it and frowned.  Suddenly I wasn’t in such a hurry to finish my tack and eat.
“Are there free range cows too?”  Andi wondered.
“Well, believe it or not, beef cows don’t have that bad of a life,” Terri answered as she started on the short black dressage girth.  “They get to wander around a bit.  It’s the milk cows that have the living hell.  They’re impregnated again and again, and are forced to stand still all day.  Then of course their babies are killed for veal.  So yes, you can buy cruelty free milk these days.”
“GOD, Terri, are you trying to make me VOMIT!”  Steph exclaimed, foam flying from the sponge in her emphatically gesturing hands.
“How do you know this is all true anyway?”  I asked.  I always assume Terri is right, but why should I?  Even though she almost always is.
Terri smiled that annoying half smile when she knows she is correct.  “Jenny told me, and I’ve read about it in magazines.  Think about it.  Meat is processed in mass quantities for the public.  What other way could it be done?”
We were contemplating and silent for a moment.  Then Steph tosses her hair back and proclaims, “Well, I’m becoming a vegetarian!  Right now!”
“Don’t do that!”  Terri said.  “You have to help eat our new pets!”
I cracked up.  “Terri!” chided Andi.  
Tack finished, we opened our lunches.  Steph contemplated her ham sandwich, and decided to become a vegetarian tomorrow.

A couple days later our new fowl friends arrived.  You would have thought a celebrity was coming.  “The turkeys are coming, the turkeys are coming!” Steph was exuberantly shouting all day.  Andi and I shook our heads and laughed, not exactly sharing her enthusiasm.  I loved all animals, even slimies and scalies.  But I was never really into birds.  They made annoying noise, you couldn’t really pet them, and they got feathers everywhere.  But the turkeys would be a diversion. 
“Here comes Thanksgiving dinner!”  Junior strolled down the driveway, carrying five turkey chicks in a grate.  We had prepared the old rabbit hutch for them.  Everyone put down their pitchforks and hoses to greet the newcomers.  I must say, they were halfway cute.  They were certainly much bigger than chicken chicks, and covered in gray downy feathers.  
“Oh, I LOVE them!”  squealed Steph.   “Are we really going to eat them?”
“Wait ‘till they get bigger,” laughed Junior.  “They won’t be so cute, and these suckers can be mean!  You may change your mind.”
  We barely heard him over our cooing.  
“Ok, men,” Terri commanded.  “Time for Operation Move the Turkeys.”  We tried just opening the crate door and holding it up to the hutch, but they wouldn’t go in.  Not a good start in terms of proving their intelligence.  We ended up having to reach in and manually put them in.  I was scared they would peck me, so opted to watch.  It was all Steph could do to keep from kissing them.
Our turkeys grew quite fast.  Shortly, they were “teenagers,” and we were able to distinguish them from each other.  We had two females and three males.  The males’ pulpy wattles were starting to show, the downy feathers were replaced with silky dark ones, and their talons more dangerous looking.  Despite the “don’t name an animal you’re going to eat” credo, we wanted to.  
Terri, Steph, Andi, Pam, and I peered into the hutch.  
“That one guy is really big,” noted Andi.
Pam and I were currently studying English literature in school, and had a certain playwright on the brain.  “How about…Shakespeare?”  I suggested.  The others nodded thoughtfully.
“Well then, naturally the others should be Shakespeare characters,” said Pam.
“Macbeth!” I yelled, my favorite Shakespeare play.
“Hamlet was from Shakespeare, right?” asked Terri.
“Indeed,” said Andi.  “And they both die horrible bloody deaths.  It’s fitting.”
So there were our tragic male turkeys.  Steph seemed to have a bond with the two females, so we left the naming of them to her.  We let the turkeys walk around loose during the day, and Steph could often be patting and speaking lovingly to them.  
The next day I was cleaning out the shed row when I heard Steph’s unmistakable undulating voice.  I walked around the corner and saw her kneeling near the two females, who were pecking the ground without any notice of Steph.
“Oh Thoughtful, you’re so beautiful and so nice!  Curiosity, did you find some food?  Oh yum yum!  You are such WONderful turkeys!” 
I really tried to hold it in, but an explosion of laughter burst from me.  “Thoughtful?  Curiosity?  Ahem.”
Steph stood up, completely unbothered by my outburst. “Hi Lissa!  Yes, meet the two loveliest turkeys in the world, Thoughtful and Curiosity.”
By now Terri and Andi had approached, smiling widely.  “And how did you bestow such names upon them, dear Steph?”  Andi asked.
“Well, Thoughtful is just that--very thoughtful and nice.  She likes to be patted, and she genuinely enjoys the company of people.  And Curiosity isn’t quite as affectionate, but she just loves to explore!  Aren’t they WONderful?”
We had trouble hearing the end of her description as we were doubled over laughing.  
“Oh Steph!” gasped Terri.  “You are amazing.”
But Steph truly was amazing.  No one else would take the time to examine the personality traits of these seemingly simple creatures.  We may have laughed, but Steph was to be admired.

Shakespeare and company continued to grow.  Their size and stature became quite impressive, particularly the males.  We all remember making turkeys using our hands in kindergarten, and then using different colors for the feathers.  At first glance turkey feathers look black.  But when the light hits them, they take on a beautiful iridescent quality.  Shades of green, orange, and burgundy appear.  Their wattles were red pulpy lumps of a plasticky looking substance.  One weird wattle hung over the large curved beak, and they could bring it in or let it hang down. Pretty gross.  What I found most intriguing about the turkeys were their talons.  They were huge, with flesh colored scales and monstrous nails.  Jurassic Park had come out recently, and every time I looked at the turkey feet all I could picture were the raptors' killer claws.  Take one look at turkey legs and tell me birds aren’t descended from dinosaurs.  
One day I noticed we were down a bird.  I knew the answer, but I asked Terri what happened to Macbeth.  
“He’s in the fridge.  Want to try him?  He‘s quite tasty!”
I cringed inwardly, but only for a second.  “Yeah, why not?  It will be my first free range turkey!”
  We went into the house and Terri pulled a half eaten carcass out of the fridge.  It was a little strange to think this was once Macbeth, but I got over it.  He was tasty, leaner and healthier seeming than most turkeys you eat.  And hell, he had a good life.  Better than most poultry. 
Junior hunted, so the idea of raising animals for food was nothing bothersome to them.  The first time I went into Terri’s house I started at the sight of a giant buck head bolted to the wall.  “Oh that’s Rudolph,” Junior joked.  “He missed the roof and ended up crashing through the wall!”  I laughed weakly, not quite used to the idea of hunting yet.
Terri often talked about the hypocrisy she and Junior faced when people brought up hunting. (Hunting for sport and food as opposed to trophy hunting or illegal poaching, which of course we were all against.)  “How can kill such a beautiful animal?”  Terri would mock about people referring to deer hunting.  “Yeah, enjoy your prime rib and fur jacket!”  Terri wanted to yell back.  I used to be one of “those people“, but Terri did get me thinking about it.  It was one thing to decry hunting if you were a strict vegan, but most people against hunting are not.  After the horrid stories were heard about the poultry and dairy farms, a hunted deer, duck, or rabbit’s life and death didn’t seem so bad.  You have a normal peaceful life, and then you are killed instantly (hopefully) and that’s it.  It’s quite different than being stuffed in a containing device, force fed and injected with antibiotics, and unwillingly made to watch your companions die.  Terri also said conscientious, responsible hunters like Junior and his friends knew more about nature than most and made regular contributions to wildlife associations.  Indeed, the majority of us wrapped up in our happy hypocrisy do more damage to animal life that many hunters do.   

The unusual rapport between Steph and Thoughtful and Curiosity continued for a while, although I believed it was pretty one sided.  I will admit Thoughtful did seem nicer than the other turkeys.  By that I mean she didn’t regularly try to attack you.  Curiosity on the other hand, was a total bitch.  While you were minding your own business cleaning stalls or something, her ugly face suddenly became florid and she started making this eerie “wooo, wooo” noise.  That meant you were in trouble.  She would proceed to the nearest life form and start barbarously pecking at it!  One may find it ridiculous to be scared by a turkey, but it hurt.  And it prevented work from being done.
  One day I was sick of being harassed by Curiosity.  I lamented to Terri about my fear of dismemberment by peck.  Terri simply said, “Show her who’s boss.  You’re bigger than her!”  I interpreted this as do what I feel is necessary, and returned to cleaning the shed row.
Soon enough, I heard it.  The trilly “wooo wooo!”  Curiosity approached, her vulture like countenance and vapid eyes fixated on my calves.  I glanced at the rake in my hand, suddenly no longer a common farm tool but a weapon against the ravages of barn fowl.  I pushed her away with the rake.  Unfazed, she returned.  Pushed again.  Same reaction.  This time, I gently hit her with the flat side.  Didn’t faze her a bit!  If anything, she came back with more bravura.  I hit her not-so-gently this time, and the thing acted as if nothing happened.  Was she a masochist or something?   Basically, I ended up whacking this turkey with the rake a number of times before she finally gave up.  I stood there for a moment, feeling proud that I dominated over this relentless creature.  Then guilt melted over me as I realized I had just committed animal abuse.   I waved it away.  Curiosity was not hurt, and the bitch deserved it.  My calves were safe.     

Steph took her love of the turkeys too far one day.  (Though it was always too far in my opinion.)  We were cleaning the indoor stalls when we heard Steph’s voice rising in  a crescendo: “Oh my God.  OH MY GOD!”  She came running into the aisle.  “Thoughtful…Thoughtful BIT me!!”  I stepped out of the stall, and sure enough there was a red mark on her cheek!  And she looked like her feelings were truly hurt.  Terri’s response was the usual: to start laughing uncontrollably.  
“HA HA HA!  Oh my god Steph!” she gasped, then mimed kissing someone.
Andi was laughing harder than her mellow self.  “Steph, why on Earth would you try to kiss a turkey?”
Steph continued to look betrayed.  “I just thought were had a bond, I…hey!  I wasn’t trying to KISS her!”  Round of laughter again.
I breathed deeply, trying to compose myself.  “Then how did she peck you on the cheek?”
“I was just talking to her!”  Suddenly her expression changed.  “Hmmf!  Junior was right!  Turkeys are evil.  Kill them now!”  
Another explosion of laughter ensued until we were exhausted.  Terri said, “Well, Steph, sounds like Thoughtful is no longer thoughtful.”  
“Yeah,” said Andi.  “A more appropriate name would be…Hateful!”
“Perfect!” agreed Steph, rubbing her hands together and that occasional maniacal look appearing in her eyes.
“And Curiosity can be Furiosity!” shouted Terri.  
Steph steered clear of the newly dubbed birds for the rest of their lives.  Incidentally, Steph did become a vegetarian of sorts for a while.  She continued to turkey--with uninhibited abandon, as if enacting revenge each time.

Hamlet and Macbeth were the only turkeys that met their demise by consumption.  We discovered Furiosity dead in the hutch one day.  She always looked like she was pecked on by the others.  Maybe she met her karmic fate.
Poor Thoughtful/Hateful had a sad ending.  Taking her free range status to the max, she ended up wandering into the woods and coming back every once in a while for food.  Once she was gone for a week, and we thought she had been killed by a coyote or something.  But then she wandered back in, looking as delirious as a turkey possibly can. She smelled terrible, and Terri theorized she had been sitting on rotten eggs.  Terri and Karen tried pouring water down her throat, but she still died.  
Shakespeare ended up living for over a year, and became our mascot of sorts.  He was huge, and a true poster turkey for Thanksgiving paraphernalia.  One could see him proudly strutting around, fanning his feathers and making this funny snorting sound.  Shakespeare was rather amusing, as he would gobble every time I sneezed.  He was fairly cool, and you could touch his weird wrinkly head and silky feathers without him biting.  The only things he tried to attack (and he was too big to move fast) were the blue manure bucket and my blue raincoat.  Somehow blue must have equated with other male turkeys in his little mind.   
Alas, fat turkeys are not meant to have long lives, and eventually his legs gave out.  We kept him around for a little bit and brought food to him, but it seemed an uncomfortable and undignified life.  Eventually one of the vets put him to sleep and we buried him.  Terri and the rest of us didn’t want to eat our mascot.  
As much smack talking as I may have done about the turkeys, there were fun to have around.  And it was a change to see animals usually used for meat getting a chance to live a "normal" life, even if we did eat a couple of them.  Towards the end of the "turkey era," Terri and Karen were seen dancing around them and singing, "We had joy, we had fun, we had good times in the sun..."
Of course, no one experienced the range of emotions a turkey can put one through as much as Steph.



About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."