The Man Who Raised Turkeys

The boys wondered about this one farmer down the road who did nothing on his little farm but raise turkeys. He said if you really cared about one thing, that should be enough for everybody. He said he knew more about turkeys than any other person in the whole wide world.

Just look at them, he'd say. They know I'm their best friend. You ever see such happy turkeys?

The boys looked hard at the turkeys. They did look happy, eating away at the little cup-shaped troughs the man had built for them. The turkeys even gobbled in a happy way, sounding like grown-ups bragging to each other about how nice their kids' projects looked at the 4-H fair.

But as Thanksgiving Day got closer, the boys found the turkey man harder and harder to figure out. He was out there with his turkeys all the time, feeding them from his hand and talking as if to the dearest creatures alive. Didn't he care that Thanksgiving was the end of the line?

Look, he said. Look how eager they're getting. They can tell it's almost Thanksgiving.

He reached down and stroked the shiny white wing feathers of the biggest bird. You know, don't you? my clever little friend.

Clever little friend? said one of the boys.

They knew better than to call turkeys clever. Friendly, maybe. Maybe even obedient. But clever? Hardly. The boys knew turkeys didn't have enough sense to put their heads down in a rainstorm to keep rain from filling the nostrils that sat on top of their beaks like little rain gauges. Turkey nostrils would fill up and they'd drown if it rained more than an inch an hour. Turkeys were too stupid to get out of the rain. Maybe they and the turkey man were meant for each other.

The week before Thanksgiving, the boys went back for one last look at how things were going to go during the turkeys' last days some place other than people's dinner platters.

The man was still there, feeding and petting them. Then one of the boys just out and said, If those turkeys had a brain in their heads, they'd peck your hand off.

This didn't bother the turkey man at all. Oh, no, he said. My turkeys know what's coming. They know what they're on earth for. It's almost their special day, and they're ready. Watch this.

He had brought the chopping block into the turkey pen. His ax sat right next to it. Watch this, he said.

He took one of the turkeys and laid it on the chopping block. He held it down with one hand, and with the other raised the ax.

I'm not going to do it now, he said, but watch.

As the man raised the ax, the turkey bent its neck back, like a man lifting his chin to make it easier to shave his neck.

Look, he said, see how this big tom leans his neck back for the ax. He's ready for Thanksgiving.

The boys left. Nonsense never came any thicker than that. At least now they knew the turkey man was just as stupid as the turkeys.

One boy said, I bet he really believes it, that the turkey put his head back like that to make it easier to kill him.

Yeah, said another. The dummy.

They didn't have to say any more. They knew about animals. They knew what rabbits meant when they put their ears down and froze in place. They knew what a dog was doing when it lay on its back and opened its legs to its attacker. That turkey wasn't giving anybody permission for anything. That turkey was begging for mercy. The boys weren't going to go back and visit the turkey farm again before Thanksgiving, they knew that. But what to think of the turkey man and all his stupid turkeys? Maybe they did deserve each other. That's the best the boys could say for them.

The New York Times, op ed, Nov. 25, 1993