The Turkey

by Bill Stauffer Issue: Spring/Summer 2021

An old man boards in front of us. He leans on a cane, lifts his right leg up too high and drops it down clumsily with each step. I choose not to hurry around him, not because we’re supposed to stand six feet back, only because I no longer see the point of rushing. My daughter – the one still alive – and I shuffle slowly behind. Her head is down, her thick black hair hangs forward, over her eyes. I don’t know what to say to her. 

The ferry is nearly empty, and we are the only ones getting off at our stop – the smallest and most remote of these islands, the only island that has no year-round residents. From the bluff, the bare canopy of trees  – oak, maple, and birch  – give a gentle wave. I have missed this air, laden with composting leaves and wetland swale. With so few pines the island lacks the sweet scent of the other islands.

My wife and two daughters loved coming here every summer. I don’t know if the two of us should have come back so soon. I no longer know what is right.

The ferry slows, drifts toward the dock, bumps the pilings before the engines thrust into reverse. My daughter doesn’t flinch; doesn’t watch the ferry worker lasso the piling with his thick yellow line. March snow covers the dock, etched in wave-like patterns, like sand on a beach. When the deckhands lower the ramp, it crunches into the icy snow.

My daughter walks ahead of me down the length of the dock, shouldering a bag and carrying a small cooler. The diesel engine engages, the bow thruster strains, and the ferry accelerates away from the dock.  In a few minutes the boat will fade, and the island sounds will return.

In this early spring the dock is too cold to bake off its sunny creosote smell. I imagine both my girls standing on top of a piling, tan toes curled over the splintery edge. One, two, three, until their screams disappear under water. Over and over again until they smell like salt and seaweed and sun. There must be a way to get to the other side of that picture, to where it will make me smile, to where it will erase the image of the accident and the coroner’s caution.

It takes a few quick, long strides to catch up to my daughter. I wonder if summer will ever bring her the same happiness. I feel it is my job to make sure that it will. 

“You can take off your mask,” I say, and she does. The dirt path is muddy and exposed where the sun reaches. Our boots sink and leave detailed prints that will fill, then disappear with the next rain. Wild turkeys gobble from the interior, and I yearn to remind her of last fall’s surprise powder, the two of them, snowshoes strapped tight, clomping forward, following tracks. But my daughter looks the other way, out toward the ferry escaping between the trees.

We sidestep areas of grass covered with goose droppings, searching for signs of ramps. My daughter squats at the edge of the path, brushes away a patch of snow. Her fingers press into a layer of damp leaves, revealing slivers of green sprouts. 

“Soon, before the trees bloom,” I say, and we keep walking.

The bare forest makes the island look larger and more expansive. I know that at night the lights from the city will glitter as if from another world.

Our cabin sits on a hill and it’s colder inside than out. A pile of seasoned wood is stacked next to the woodstove, but there is no kindling. I ask my daughter to go outside and collect some. Every year winter storms litter our small clearing with twigs and boughs. It has always been our daughters’ job to pick up these sticks on our first spring trip.

When I separate and crumple pieces of newspaper I glance at last fall’s headlines. My daughter sets the dry sticks on the stone hearth.

With the fire hot I turn on the breakers and listen to the well pump and fridge come to life. Together we unload the coolers, and I inspect some of the food that we left in protective bins over the winter: cans of tuna, pasta, and a bag of marshmallows. A jar of olive oil, whitish and solidified, will return to its former self once the cabin warms. 

I recall the countless hours plugging holes against winter mice, and it seems to have worked. Or maybe the mice have left us alone. My daughter takes her bag and climbs the stairs to her room that she shares with her sister. Shared.

Outside it feels warm if I move into the sun and let the house shield me from the westerly breeze. However, I need to check on the stairs to the beach so I zip my coat as high as it will go and pull my hat over my ears. Blackberry and huckleberry bushes spill over the boardwalk leading to the stairs. 

Several of the bottom steps are missing, and the riser is bowed out slightly. The damage looks violent and callous. But I know winter ice doesn’t work like this, it moves slowly and patiently, wrapping and freezing itself around the old wood, waiting for February or early March, pulling the steps along, as it retreats back into the sea. Last spring, my wife found several planks washed up on the shore. She saved them for me, knowing I will always find a use. One of them had the etched markings of a marina I had never heard of. 

Years ago, when I first constructed the stairs, I purposely set them a bit away from the ledge instead of laying them right against the banking. My hope was that this would prevent erosion, allowing the huckleberry bushes to grow under and connect on either side of the stairs. It didn’t work. 

On my return to the cabin I load my arms with more firewood and set it on the porch. I return for another, then freeze at a rustling in the clearing. 

A wild turkey moves along the grass. His dark feathers are zippered tight around its back. The turkey stops, swivels its neck. His wisp of beard nearly reaches to the ground. I look for the rest of his flock, but he is alone. I take a careful step forward to see his colors. 

He stops, raises his head. His snood is red and engorged, but otherwise he looks so dark, small. I move closer, though fearful he might attack. Instead, the turkey struts forward, fans open his tail feathers and moves along the clearing. My heart beats quickly. I lean forward to appreciate his open plume. He tenses, perhaps reconsidering our acquaintance, folds his feathers back into place, and walks back into the woods. 

I’m not ready to go inside and check on my daughter. Instead, I pull the tarp off one of our vegetable beds and check my compost of seaweed and leaves. The soil smells damp and musty. The dirt feels light and airy, looks rich and dark, like expensive coffee. From the shed I gather supplies into a wheelbarrow: metal rake, spade shovel, repurposed coat hangers, and hoop fabric. I turn and till the soil, lay an irregular frame using the hangers, and then drape and tuck the fabric over this, hoping to warm the soil. In a few days we will try a small crop of spinach, kale, and broccoli.

We eat cold cucumber and cheese sandwiches for dinner. I tell her about the turkey, and she looks up from under her bangs and nods. We both know that my conversation is like wasted breath. 

She helps me wash the dishes in the slate sink, careful not to let the dishes chip against the stone. Then, she asks if it’s okay to watch something on her phone in her room. I want to reach inside her chest and pull out the sorrow and hurt that is packed hard and tight. 

“Okay. Don’t stay up too late,” I say.

The moon is high and nearly full when I decide I can’t sleep. I dress quietly, add another log to the stove. I consider reading, but no story interests me now, just the one I am trying to live through. I grab a beer, put on my jacket, hat, and gloves, and go outside. I hear the ocean, then see it, a jagged line of silver traced by the moon. 

An owl hoots, and I am surprised I can track his call so easily, perched atop one of the large red oaks. The dampness of the forest mixes with the sweet smell of our fire exhausting from the stovepipe. I turn at a scratching through the darkness of the woods and then back to where the owl swivels its head, its coloring white and grey, imperfect, like the color of the moon. 

The sounds from the woods grow louder, a bird scream, then a low hummed throat gurgle. I don’t know if it is one or two animals, but it doesn’t sound nocturnal. I follow the noise, barely hearing my own boots crunch through the icy snow. 

A turkey  – the turkey  – sits on the ground like a hen laying eggs. The bird yelps and clucks, and it feels like I can hear his little heart beating, fearing me as much as whatever did this to him. I crouch low, close enough to see dark spots melting through the snow. I can’t tell where it’s injured or how badly. Disturbing him might make things worse. It’s too dark. I don’t exactly fear whatever attacked him, as much as I fear intruding on the cycle of things. It shouldn’t be my business. I stand and nod to the owl, turn, and crunch back toward the house, hating myself.

My daughter stands at the edge of the clearing wrapped in her parka, her thick dark hair tossing in the wind. 

“One of the turkeys. It’s been hurt.” I watch her dark eyes. My little vegetarian. I can’t make light of this, can’t joke that animals don’t eat veggie burgers and kale chips. 

She shrugs, stands frozen, hands deep inside her pockets. I can’t move around her without ducking under tree branches. “Get a few beach towels from the house,” I say, and she turns and sprints up the porch steps.

I reverse the wheelbarrow out of the shed. My daughter lays the towels in the well of the barrow, fluffing and patting them into a bed. She runs ahead of me to the turkey. I pick up my pace, momentarily fearing the turkey might attack her, and the owl, too. But the owl perches patiently on the low branch, and the turkey hasn’t moved.

My daughter crouches and waits for me, perhaps remembering my stories of growing up on a farm. But these days I am more familiar with dead and plucked turkeys than living ones. I tell her to back up a bit, worried the turkey might try to peck at the both of us. From behind, I reach around the bird, careful to avoid his spurs, and lift it from the snow. 

Its entire body pulses. I set it into the wheelbarrow, and blood drips onto the towels. I hope my daughter doesn’t see this, but she does and asks me if the turkey will live.

“I don’t know,” I say. My daughter walks beside the wheelbarrow, gripping its metal edge. We close the shed door to keep the bird safe for the night. It’s probably in shock, I tell her.

In the morning, I wake on the couch, staring at a cold wood stove, waiting for heartbreak’s painful grip on my chest before remembering the turkey. 

The towels look damp with blood, and his neck and head rest against the side of the wheelbarrow. In the light I can better see a small penetration in the turkey’s neck. What a waste, I think, to deny a predator this bird. I leave it there and return to the house.

My daughter is putting on her boots. She looks up to read my face, quickly finishes tying her laces, and runs toward the shed. I follow slowly. 

Already she is pulling feathers one by one. Both hands working, plucking and plucking, feathers falling, floating, whipsaw to the white cedar floor. Our thirteen-year-old vegetarian. Mine.

“What are you doing?”

She tells me that we can’t let it go to waste.

“But. But it’s a turkey.” I say it as gently as I can. Her older sister was the meat eater, the one who could clear a rib bone until it shone smooth and prehistoric.

Her eyes rest on my face for a moment as if considering the truth of what I said, then she continues. But now she hands the feathers to me instead. I lay the feathers gently next to her pile and return to the house for a knife.

Back in the shed, I grab an old plastic bucket. I still don’t know what she’s planning. I bend down and neaten the feathers into a pile.

The bird changes form and color. Stark pink patches of goose-bumped skin begin to emerge between the thick, black and brown feathers. I wonder if this metamorphosis will frighten her, how grotesque this turkey looks absent its natural coat. But she doesn’t stop.

When the feathers are off I use the knife to scrape the skin where random feather knubs poke out of its pink flesh. It’s not a good sound. I scrape where nothing needs scraping and I realize I am waiting for my daughter to leave, but she keeps her little hands pressed to the bird.

“Why don’t you go inside. Warm up. Get some breakfast,” I say.

She shakes her head.

For the first time since the accident I feel angry at her, that she is not listening to me, that she is exposing herself to something I don’t want her to see.

I set the bird over the bucket and slice into its anus. The smell of shit, guts, and blood is strong. I reach in, feel around the gooey warmth, and pull out its insides. I’m not wearing gloves, and the bird’s intestines are still warm. I think of it dying in the early morning all alone. 

My daughter’s eyes mist over, I hope from the smell.

“Can you get me a pitcher of water?” I ask her.

Watching her sprint to the house feels like love.

While she’s gone, I cut around the knee joint, pull on the scaly leg, careful of his spurs. Then the other one. I want the turkey to resemble what is familiar to her. When she comes back I pour some of the water into the open cavity and clean it out as best I can. I use a spare painter from our dinghy and tie it around the bird’s neck, string it from one of the rafters.

“We don’t want to eat it yet,” I tell her. “Best to age for a few days.”

The turkey hangs eye level to where she stands. She takes a step forward, reaches out, and runs her hand along the pimply, pink skin. The dead bird swivels in its noose, and my daughter uses her other hand to steady it. I want to touch the back of her head, pull her into a cautious embrace. But my hands are caked with turkey shit and guts. 

“Why don’t we get some breakfast? Then you can help me fix the steps.”

I prepare the toast, and she cooks the eggs, over easy. It’s something I taught both my girls. They stood on a step stool wearing safety goggles in case any grease splattered in their eyes when they did the flip. It became a competition, who had the best-looking yolks. I wonder if she thinks about this now, her sister, and how her eggs will always be better.

After breakfast we load tools in a bucket: cordless drill and saw, hammer, pliers, and the boards my wife saved from the ocean. The tide is coming in, which is not ideal. Only a few mounds of rockweed sit above the water line, thick full piles, like mounds of dirt. We will have to hurry.

Stainless screws poke from the bottom of the riser where the bottom stairs used to attach. Some of them come out easy with the drill. Others are stripped and rusted, so I use the hammer to loosen them and the pliers to unscrew them slowly by hand. My daughter senses ahead of time which tool I need. 

The tide moves in fast, and I am still working out the most difficult of the old screws before we can cut and set new stairs into place. One particularly stubborn screw won’t budge, so I try to weaken its tensile strength by bending it back and forth, back and forth. I feel angry at the screw, at everything.

My daughter moves up a step. I clamp with both hands and give a strong tug. But the grip slips, and I fall back into the cold incoming water. The seawater saturates my jeans and the chill moves underneath my boxers. For some reason I manage to hold the pliers above my head. My other hand feels numb under the water. My daughter leans back on her step, her hair falling out of her face. She squints her eyes into the sun, her mouth cracks open, and her teeth shine white and everywhere. She is laughing.

I sit longer than is necessary in the cold March water until my balls start to ache, and I can no longer feel my left hand. Slowly, my daughter’s face returns to where it has rested since last month when I had to sit across from her at the kitchen table and interrupt her homework with the news about her sister.

“I guess we better finish this when the tide goes out,” I say.

We leave the bucket of tools on the boardwalk, and I point out the healthy, deep purple color of the blackberry stalks. Explain that the brown stalks need to be cut back every autumn for a healthier crop. We walk back to the cabin so I can change my clothes.

When I come downstairs she is tearing pieces of bread apart onto a baking sheet. I have only brought one loaf, so I will have to make more. I’m happy to have the additional chore. 

“What are you doing?”

She tells me she is preparing the stuffing. I know she’s never done this before. When I ask if she wants help, she shakes her head, only asks if we have any onions. I tell her to be careful using the knife, ask her to meet me outside when she’s done to help me with the garden.

I have removed the fabric covering from the beds when she joins me. A few pieces of bread stick to her greasy hands. We lay the seed packets on the ground in a fan and begin separating what can be planted now and which need to wait for warmer weather. It’s too early for eggplant, and I wait for her to put those seeds back in the other pile.

We spend the rest of the afternoon cutting narrow rows in the soil, dropping seeds, and watering. When we’re done, we drape the fabric back over the rows. My daughter re-tucks some of my areas, making them tighter and neater. 

Dark soil courses the wrinkles of our hands, looking like a black-and-white photograph from a foreign place, hanging in a gallery. 

We stand next to each other at the kitchen sink, passing a bar of garden soap back and forth. 

***

It’s a little before one and I repeat the previous night: log on the fire, jacket, hat, and a beer. The owl occupies the same branch, and I wonder if it’s curious about the turkey. 

To kill time I walk the island, searching for the rest of his flock, as if it matters. Muddy deer prints lead to a narrow, dark opening between thick strands of wild rose and raspberry bushes. I want to crawl into their thicket, feel the thorns tear at my flesh, succumb to the pull of the cold, wet swale. 

But for her.

I carry more firewood into the cabin, stoke the embers, add another log. Blue light streaks through the blackness of dawn, east and distorted through the single pane windows. All those mornings when I rose before everyone else, to enjoy that quietness. I lie down with a book over my chest.

***

The sound of my daughter moving pots and pans in the kitchen wakes me. The sun is up, so I know I have actually slept, on the couch, in front of the fire.

I expect she is making breakfast. But when I sit up I see the pink skin of the turkey glistening in the roasting pan. I’m not angry that she didn’t wait another day or that she is doing this without me. 

I watch her little hands pat stuffing into the cavity, pushing and packing it tight, as she has seen me do over the years. When I get close, she stops and looks down at the bird. Instantly I see what doesn’t seem right to her. I lean in toward the pan, pause, and wait for her nod. Then I fold the wings over themselves and step away. She looks at her phone, cranks the oven temperature, and leans in, listening for the whoosh of gas. 

I decide not to intervene. Instead I go outside to look at our garden work from the day before. A bit later she joins me and asks if we should finish the steps. She reminds me that the tide is low. Her head bows low before I can see if she smiles as she says this.

For several hours we work on the steps, measuring, cutting, re-cutting, and screwing the new steps into place. My daughter’s phone alarm goes off, and I tell her to go ahead, that I can clean everything up. She sprints up the stairs like it's summer vacation.

Inside, the house smells like melted butter and baked bread. She stands with her back to the oven, mitts swallowing both hands. Steam boils from a pot on the stove, and plates and silverware have been set on the table. I don’t think it’s ready. I tell her I’m going upstairs to shower.

When I return, the turkey, skinny and golden brown, sits on my grandmother’s old kitchen table. A drumstick has been twisted free. Stuffing puffs and spills into the roasting pan. A bowl of green beans sits next to the turkey, and on each of our plates lays a baked potato. She spoons some of the juices over the turkey.

I see her watching me take it all in. I sit at my place and my daughter carves a few slices, allowing the meat to settle into the juices of the roasting pan. I scoop a helping of beans, slick with butter. She sits, and we face each other. Neither of us makes a move for the turkey.

I choke on my words, a gravelly mumble that mixes with stifled crying.

Does she understand what I’m trying to ask?

I take a few slices of turkey, then hold it out to her.

She looks down at her plate, stabs a pile of beans with her fork.

The roasting pan feels heavy.

She presses her eyes closed, then opens them. Heavy tears skim down her face, falling into dark spots on the cotton placemat. Her mouth clenches.

My forearms ache from the weight.

I open my mouth, but still no sound comes. 

I set the turkey back on the table.

Her face relaxes, and I’m not sure if she’s mocking me. Then the corner of her mouth twitches so slightly and curls up, dimpled. My heart skips a beat. Because I know what she is going to tell me.

“I don’t eat meat,” she says.



Bill Stauffer

Bill Stauffer's work has been published in The Sierra Nevada Review, Canopy Review, Stonecoast Review, After Happy Hour Review, Levitate Magazine, and The Portland Press Herald. He earned a BA from Colby College and an MFA from The University of Southern Maine, Stonecoast. Bill lives with his wife and two daughters in Portland, Maine. His published work can be found at bstaufferwritings.com