THE GREAT TURKEY CAPER

He’s not wearing a babushka—The green washcloth over Tom’s eyes helps to keep him calm.

He filled my arms like a 50-pound sack of snakes, squirming and terribly strong. “Carter, I don’t know if I can lift him up,” I gasped, winded from the effort of containing him. “God, he’s so darn strong!”

“Watch out for his beak. And his spurs. His feet are huge,” my husband cautioned. I had never been so close to a wild turkey, and certainly never expected to find myself in the dark, wrestling with one.

Hours earlier, Carter and I had been on our way to an early evening matinee when we found ourselves in a line of stopped cars, three lanes wide. “There’s something in the road up there,” Carter said, craning his neck to see around the cars ahead. “It’s a…dog? No…a turkey! It’s a wild turkey on the ground, and there’s another one circling around it.”

Before he even finished talking, I was bolting out of the car, pulling off my fleece jacket, and trotting between the idling cars. No one else moved. No one honked. No one did anything. It was as though all the drivers were made of wax, or frozen. When I reached the injured turkey, he made no effort to move. He sat on the asphalt as though he were sitting on a nest, his heavy legs tucked beneath his massive breast. There was no blood, no scattered cloud of torn feathers. Just this huge, motionless bird, watching me while his mate circled anxiously…

I didn’t know where to start. My jacket was flimsy and small, and would in no way cover the bulk of that back. But hesitating in such situations usually makes things worse. Better to move swiftly and decisively. I stepped toward the tom, preparing to quickly drop my jacket over his back and secure his wings against his body. With a body that big, I reasoned, his wings must be equally impressive—if they still worked. But the tom would have none of that. He pulled his head back and began flopping away, using his wings like paddling oars.

Turkey tail

Holding up my jacket like a matador’s cape, I slowly steered him toward the curb. The hen, meanwhile, trotted off down the sidewalk and I didn’t see her again. At the curb, the tom hesitated. He could not negotiate the six-inch rise and I used that brief pause to make my move. Dropping quickly with the jacket in my hands, I wrapped my arms around him, pinning his wings at his side. Somehow, I hauled him off the road and found a spot just off the street where a tangle of ivy and fallen leaves piled up against an old bay tree. I crawled there with the tom pressed against my chest. He was far too heavy for me to lift. I could not believe the strength of him. I creeped along and gasped as he worked the muscles of his wings, very nearly breaking out of my grasp. Finally, we were out of traffic, and the cars moved on as though nothing had happened. Carter pulled over to the curb. As gently as my strained arm muscles would allow, I set the tom down in the bushes and pulled away my jacket. He sat quietly, looking into my face with unexpectedly dark, calm eyes. Slowly, I backed away. If you didn’t know a turkey was sitting three feet away from your face, you would never have seen him, so complete was his camouflage.

Everything about me was unsteady as I walked back to the car: my breath, my knees, my hands, my thoughts. “He’s out of the way,” I said, climbing into our car and pulling on my seatbelt. “I don’t know what else to do right now. Let’s go to the movie.”

My mind has not been working clearly lately. It never does even in the best of circumstances, and these were not the best of circumstances. Carter and I had been away from home for nearly a month visiting a friend in California, while back home, Carter’s son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter were settled in our house, trying to craft their new life in Washington. It’s not easy to fit four adults, a baby, two dogs, and a cat into a thousand feet of living space, so we took some time away for a twofold purpose—visit a friend, and give the kids some room. Then, while we were gone, my stepson’s best friend had moved into the house as well, also looking to make a new life out west.

An armful of gratitude

Carter and I have been living a very quiet, near monastic life for the past five years. But our little blue house had, by necessity, become a circus for while. Any sort of a change always gets me thinking and pondering, and I’d had many revelations about myself during our time away from home. Most importantly—and most humbling—I realized how poorly I cope when I’m out of my familiar environment. Home to me is an emotional anchor. It keeps me grounded and calm. Take me out of my well-tended nest, and I become a very nervous bird.

When I am traveling, I can keep my cool pretty well, but there is also a nagging background anxiety that keeps me just a bit on edge, just a bit lost, just a bit uncertain about who I am and what I’m doing.

All of this was having its effect on my relationship with my husband. We were not at ease with each other. Of course, I thought I knew all the reasons for that, along with exactly what needed to be done to correct the situation. It is never as simple as that, is it? We never know all the reasons for anything. But we blunder ahead anyway. Over the course of too-many weeks, Carter and I had found and lost each other several times, dancing toward each other, then turning away, then dancing back.

On the evening of The Great Turkey Caper we had survived a day of difficult conversation that had left us standing at the threshold of an emotional truce. After such a day, after all the words are done and you find yourself feeling drained and wrung out to dry, it is hard to know how best to navigate that fallow time that comes between the truce and the comfort of true reconciliation. The transition from compassionate thought to full inner peace comes in its own time, and if you think you can wrestle it into being by the sheer strength of your will, you are naive.

I figured that maybe going out and seeing a movie might be a harmless, helpful way for us to begin finding our way back to each other’s heart. And then came the turkey.

And so I sat through nearly three hours of Cloud Atlas with turkey on the brain. Somewhere near the middle of the film, the fog in my head began clearing and I leaned over and whispered to Carter, “On the way home, if we can find the place we stopped, can we go and check the turkey? If he had massive internal injuries, he’ll be dead by then and there’s nothing we could have done. But if he’s still there and still alive, I’d like to try and take him home to Debbie’s house. Maybe he could spend the night in the bathtub, and I can find some rehab center who can take him in.”

“Of course,” whispered my husband.

“Shuuuush,” hissed the person sitting behind us.

And that is how I found myself in the dark, wrestling with a winged giant, wondering how I was ever going to make my sixty-year-old knees work well enough to push me to my feet. Carter rescued me. I sandwiched the turkey against my chest while my husband grabbed the back of my belt and hauled me to my feet.

Thankfully, the tom never once attempted to use his feet or his beak against me. He sat quietly in my lap for the duration of the ride, allowing me to gently stroke his long red waddles and his bald, soft-as-peach-fuzz head. My hens had always loved that—having their faces and cheeks rubbed. I guess turkeys like that, too.

At Debbie’s house, the rest of the evening fell together beautifully. One call led to another, and within an hour we had a rehab center lined up to take the turkey in the morning. Whether they could help the tom was another story, but at least I knew he would either survive, or pass peacefully and with dignity. No dog or wandering raccoon would rip him to pieces. Nor would he starve slowly and painfully. We out-of-towners had done pretty good in a pretty bad situation.

Debbie brought me a thick old comforter to fill up the tub. Carter grabbed my belt again and held me steady while I leaned over the tub and placed the tom down gently, covering him with a light towel. Then, Debbie and Carter left me to my musings. I turned the lights down as they left and closed the door. Quietly, I opened the bathroom window and let in the night sounds. To a suburban turkey, the sounds of far-off traffic and distant conversation were probably soothing.

From the incomplete physical I had been able to conduct on the tom, I felt that the only problem facing the turkey was a broken knee. His wings were fine. He had no swelling on his body. His face and eyes were clear and cool. Everything but that one leg moved easily. There was no bleeding anywhere but for a few scrapes on his legs and—of course—on that bad knee.

But that knee was a terrible problem. The rehabber had told me that leg injuries were hard to repair on such heavy birds. And so I sat on the cold tile floor in the darkened bathroom in hope and fear, and took a long, long look at what was most likely the only wild turkey I would ever see up close and personal. Already, my hands had taken him in and I could feel him in memory: the slender neck, the satin feathering of his back and breast, those scaled legs, the hard toenails and beak, that glorious stiff tail spread fanlike from one side of the tub to the other. In the dim light, I let my eyes absorb the glory of him. From a distance, a wild turkey looks black or brown. Up close, the tom was a kaleidoscope of light, not as brilliantly colored as a hummingbird, but just as shimmering. His eyes, as I’ve said, were large for his face. There was an intelligence in that face, too, and a quiet composure. In that tub, in that strange house, he was more at ease in his skin than I was in mine.

I was humbled by his presence and his circumstances, and by the mystery of time and place that had caused our paths to cross. He stretched out a wing and readjusted his seat. And I remembered then that turkeys are a symbol of gratitude and thanksgiving. At native American dances, I had seen many dancers carrying the familiar feather striping of turkey wing fans. At my first Sundance, I, too, carried such a fan.

I had taken my husband off to see a movie, consciously searching for a way for us to relax back into each other. The tom reminded me of another way: Gratitude. Gratitude as a healer and mender of hearts and attitudes. I sat with my back against the bathtub, bringing to mind all that I had to be thankful for in my marriage: a husband who truly loved me, who I could trust, who I could speak to even when the speaking and the words were hard and painful. I thought of all the good we had been to each other, and of the peace that so often graced our hours together.

And I understood, then, that gratitude and thankfulness are tender qualities that can anyone can call upon to facilitate a journey from a negotiated peace, to a felt peace.

In the darkened room, I felt a sense of ease begin to soften muscles in my back and shoulders that had been too tense for weeks. The tom had brought me a powerful healing, but suddenly, I was grateful, too, for being placed by spirit in the right time and place to be a vehicle of help and hope for the turkey. No one had stepped forward to help the fallen bird. I wonder how long he would have sat in traffic as cars milled thoughtlessly around him. The heavens had placed the bird in my care, and I was thankful and humbled all at the same time that such an amazing creature had been entrusted to me.

I wanted to sit there all night, helping the turkey in whatever small ways I could, but that was a dumb I idea and I knew it. I may have felt a deep need for the turkey’s company, but he certainly would feel no such need for mine. I knew he wouldn’t really relax until I had the good manners to get up and get out, which I did, after just one last, long look.

I am in Northern California now, visiting with my mom. I have no way of tracking what became of that magnificent bundle of feathers and muscle after I handed him off to the rehabilitation center in Sacramento. Carter is back home in Washington, having helped send his kids off to their new townhouse, one town over from ours. I’ve begun a new meditation for my morning practice, offering thanks and gratitude for everything in my life.

I’ll be returning home in just a few days to a quiet house where Carter and I will begin nestling in for winter. I’ll be bringing home two beautiful turkey tail feathers the tom generously left for me in the bottom of the bathtub where he slept. Thanksgiving will be an especially meaningful holiday for me this year.

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11 Responses to THE GREAT TURKEY CAPER

  1. Gratitude is indeed the road that slowly but surely, becomes the Way.
    Thank you so much for sharing so much of your Heart!

  2. You are a wonderful person.

  3. Sandy Taylor says:

    You are awesome.

  4. kathey says:

    Thank you, Susan, for this very sweet and amazing story of rescue and love. I hope to dream of turkeys while I sleep tonight.

  5. Carter says:

    You have to believe.

    Susan did the right thing for that turkey that night. He left a place of danger for a short stay in an ivy bed. Later he was gently placed in tub full of comforter where he was tended and had a night of rest before being left in the care of volunteers who give their time and energy to helping the helpless.

    I don’t know what happened to that magnificent animal. But, I hearken back to a conversation between Juan Matus and Carlos Castaneda under similar circumstances. Castaneda was concerned a cat that ran away. Matus said “Do not concern yourself with the unknown. You have to believe.”

    No matter what happened to Tom, he is better now than if he were left in the middle of the road, I
    believe

  6. aletheia mystea says:

    Susan this is the most exquisite story and thanks so much for writing…I’ve been wondering where and how you are…are we done with the new moon circles?

    Anyway, I’ve always felt such a kin ship with you and your general sensibilities in life…I really resonate with what you and Carter experienced in this tale. As I wander thru my first year without Desi and wondering how am I ever going to carry on….maybe It would be good for me to re read some of your books….thats a thought…

    Bless you, Carter and family this Tday and I give huge thanks for YOU!!!! ALetheia

    • Susan McElroy says:

      You know, so many of those I love will be celebrating “firsts” this year with the holidays: first in a new home, first after the loss of a spouse, first after loss of a beloved animal family member, first after the loss of a job, a home, a dream. And first following the gift of new job, new home, new relationship, and new dream!

  7. Thank you, Susan, for sharing this moving and very personal story. It seems that you and “Tom” met exactly when you needed each other. Spirit certainly places some wondrous things in our laps for us to wrestle with!

  8. Cindy says:

    Thank you Susan for such a lovely and personal story! We are always where we need to be in life, relationships, and whatever the path is we find ourselves on. Spirit guides us…

  9. Suzi Ryan says:

    Susan
    Once again you reflect what a lot of us are feeling transforming into the darker hours of Winter.
    during the day the fall colors and flocks of wondering birds bring an awesome feeling.
    may we all react to any beast or human in distress, plants too with the insight and dedication your turkey story unfolds. may all creatures be well and “happy”
    yule comes with gratitude for this world, our home

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