The Turkey That Wasn’t

By Charles Bryant O’Dooley

Print Share

    It all started when my sister Grace and I were spending the day with Uncle Harry and Aunt Jane on their farm. Aunt Jane was a terrific cook, and I always looked forward to eating my fill of her good cooking.

    My sister and I would do small chores around the place, and on that particular day we were helping Aunt Jane clean out the turkey coop. She and Uncle Harry usually raised about sixty turkeys each year for the market.

    I was only five, and Grace seven, so we naturally had a lot of questions about how turkeys were raised. Aunt Jane was patient with our questions, and she showed us a turkey egg and explained that the mother turkey sat on the eggs for about twenty-five days before the baby turkeys hatched.

    When we got ready to go home that evening, with full stomachs and smiling faces, Aunt Jane gave us two turkey eggs. She told us that if we put them under a setting hen, we would soon have two little turkeys of our own to raise.

    Papa put the eggs under an old setting hen when we got home, and we sat back, hoping that the baby turkeys would soon appear. Twenty-five days seemed like a lifetime to us, and every morning we’d lift the old hen to see if our baby turkeys were there. By the end of three weeks we were sure that the eggs had gotten cold and weren’t going to hatch.

    On the morning of the twenty-sixth day, as we entered the chicken coop, the old mother hen was down on the floor, scratching in the straw. Right behind her were two balls of fluff, chirping and looking bewildered! As the days passed and the young birds lost their fuzz and started sprouting feathers, I noticed the mother hen looking at them quizzically, as if to say, “I never had any babies that looked like you two before.”

    The baby turkeys were hatched in mid-April, and by the end of May, you could tell that one was a tom and the other a hen. We named them Tom and Alice.

    We had an old doghouse that wasn’t being used, so Grace and I cleaned it out, placed fresh straw on the floor, and moved the old hen and two poults into it. Tom grew rapidly, but Alice hardly grew at all. Papa told us that turkeys were hard to raise and caught many diseases and that they were the dumbest birds there were. He’d heard it said that sometimes they’d tip their heads back in a rainstorm, open their mouths, and drown themselves. I don’t know if that’s what happened to Alice or not, but one morning after a hard rain we found her dead in the mud.

    When Tom was about three months old, he chased the old hen out of the doghouse and took it over for himself. He wouldn’t associate with our flock of chickens, but went off by himself to feed. He liked to ramble in the woods and scratch around the rotted logs for grubs. There were still some chestnuts that the blight had missed that year, and Tom ate his fill of them. He grew into a magnificent bird with a long wattle, and he strutted around importantly.

    Papa kept telling us that we would have Tom for Thanksgiving dinner, but we never fully realized just what he meant until the first of November, when Mom told Papa to pen Tom up and feed him nothing but corn so that he’d be nice and plump for butchering the day before Thanksgiving. This really upset my sister and me, and we went around with long sad faces, thinking of Tom’s fate. Papa explained to us that turkeys were raised for people to eat and that next year we would raise a whole bunch of them. But this explanation didn’t make us feel any better.

    One sunny afternoon Grace and I sat under Tom’s favorite chestnut tree, making plans on how to save Tom from the dinner table. Suddenly Grace snapped her fingers and said, “What if Tom wasn’t here the day before Thanksgiving?”

    I said, “What do you mean?”

    Grace replied, “You know that small cave back in the woods that we play in? Why don’t we hide Tom there till after Thanksgiving?”

    So that’s what we did. We prepared for Tom’s abduction by rolling up a piece of chicken wire to put over the mouth of the cave and filling a sack with corn for Tom’s feed. There was a small stream of water running through the cave, so we didn’t have to worry about him getting thirsty. Late the next afternoon, when Tom was feeding in the woods, we herded him to the cave.

    We put an ample supply of corn and some chestnuts in the cave with Tom, then secured the chicken wire across the front and piled brush over it so that anyone passing by would have a hard time even seeing the cave. Nobody missed Tom till the next evening, when Mom asked if anybody had seen him. Finally she and Papa came to the conclusion that Tom must have wandered too far into the woods and that a fox probably got him.

    Every day after that, Grace and I would tell Mom that we were going out to look for Tom; then we’d head for the cave to feed him and talk to him and pet him for a while.

    A couple days before Thanksgiving there was a big snowstorm, and Grace and I worried about how Tom would manage without us feeding him each day. The storm continued, and it was cold and windy into December. On the first warm day, Grace and I hurried to the cave with some corn for Tom. When we got there, we discovered that the brush had blown away, the chicken wire had been pushed aside, and Tom was missing.

    I started to cry. “A mean old fox has found Tom and eaten him.”

    Grace said, “No, he broke out himself. See how the wire is pushed out from the inside?”

    We decided that Tom had become so hungry that he went hunting for food and had probably joined a flock of wild turkeys and was all right. When we returned to the house, Mom told us to wash up for dinner. When we told her that we weren’t hungry, she said, “All right, kids, what’s troubling you so much that you don’t want to eat?”

    Tears started running down our faces, and we told her the whole story.

    Papa laughed and was proud of our ingenuity. He tried to ease our minds by agreeing with us that Tom had, indeed, probably joined a flock of wild turkeys and would probably make it through the winter.

    The cold winter months passed, and we had all but forgotten Tom. Then one day in early April, when everything had turned green once more, Mom was in the yard getting her flower beds ready to plant. As she straightened up to rest her back, she looked out toward the woods. “Come quick!” she called.

    We all ran outside and looked where Mom was pointing. There was Tom! And with him was a fine-looking wild turkey hen. You could tell that Tom had taken her for his bride by the way he was strutting around her and displaying his fan-shaped tail feathers.

    Grace and I yelled, “Tom! Tom! You’ve come home!”

    Tom looked at us, then put his head next to the hen as if he was telling her to follow him and let him do the talking. With the hen behind him, Tom headed straight for his old home in the doghouse. The hen waited outside while Tom went in and scratched out all the old, wet straw. Grace and I quickly ran to the barn and brought back fresh straw for the honeymoon cottage. After we’d spread the straw in the doghouse, Tom stepped aside to let his bride enter first.

    To make a long story short, Tom and his mate raised twelve young turkeys that year, and dozens more in the next five years.

    One day when Tom didn’t come back from the woods, we went looking for him. We found him dead under his favorite chestnut tree. He had died of old age. Grace and I buried him by the side of the cave where we had hidden him so long before.

    Illustrated by Shauna Mooney