When the Turkeys Came by Kristin Griffin

It was November when the turkeys came to Ridge Hill Road. Before that, there was nothing remarkable about it—just a few shingled houses that squiggled through the scrub oaks like a dropped thread. All of the properties were landlocked and none particularly appealing in that quaint New England way so the summer rental business happened elsewhere. And that was the way the residents liked it. Most lived on the island year round with the exception of Jonathan and Linda Haar who summered there. Their house sat neglected in the off-season and this agitated their neighbors, especially the Greeleys next door. Many were quick to point out that it was the Haar’s woods the turkeys came from that cold November day, the day they roosted and preened on the Greeleys’ back porch just as Roger Greeley pulled his Thanksgiving turkey from the oven.

After setting the bird on the stovetop to rest, he opened the window above the sink a crack and let the cool draft blow against his face and neck. There was movement in the woods that surrounded the house and then a pair of dusty brown turkeys emerged from the shrub line. Roger glanced at his own, skin still bubbling with hot fat, footless legs tied together with string. Three more appeared after that, and then another. The male came last, white tipped tail feathers fanned behind him, brilliant red wattle swinging from side to side as he watched his women peck at the ground and each other. Nine turkeys on the lawn, making prints in the snow dust.

The irony was not lost on Roger, who laughed a little. He’d seen wild turkeys on the island before and was used to their big breasts and ugliness, was sure they would run back into the woods as soon as they heard his voice like they always did. But they didn’t. They came closer. Closer. The group strode across his porch as if they owned it, hopped right up onto the railings and curled their scaly toes around them for balance, puffed their feathers and purred. “Scat,” Roger yelled through the window.

His wife, Lara, and their two young daughters giggled upstairs. He looked from dead to live bird. This would be hard to explain to the girls. Within minutes he had drawn all the curtains on the first floor, moving through the rooms in the house he built with his own two hands. He’d grown a gut since. Lara called it his Bosu, the name of the exercise ball she used to flatten her own belly after the kids were born.
“Why is it so dark down here?” Lara said. “I nearly killed myself coming down the stairs.”

The girls hopped onto the bar stools that lined one side of the kitchen island and plunged their little hands into the mashed potatoes. At three and four they were beginning to have personalities of their own, something that came to Roger as a great relief. Lara spooned a bit of mashed potatoes into a plastic bowl and set it on the kitchen floor.

“Here,” she said. “Hands out of the good stuff.”

The girls tumbled to the ground and poked at the butter colored mush, amused by the way it held the shape.

“I feel a headache coming,” Roger said.

Lara came to him and slid an arm under his and kissed his shoulder and believed him. “Poor baby,” she said, dipping a finger into the mashed potatoes. He liked where this was going, the innate eroticism of it, and opened his mouth expectantly. “Poor baby,” Lara cooed, and smeared the stuff on his cheek.

Only Roger heard the turkey gobble. It sounded like laughter to him.

Thanksgiving used to be Jonathan Haar’s favorite holiday but, at fifty-seven, one of the things he realized besides the joy of a beard and a volatile ambivalence towards his wife was that he hated it. This was because he realized, too, that he was tormented by regret—the regret of being childless, the deep embarrassment of being the one who was unable. As he watched grand nieces and nephews crawl beneath the tables and trip on the carpets of his sister’s house in Cambridge—a few miles from his own—he remembered being grateful for his condition and that Linda was, too. No more pills or intra-uterine devices or pulling out. “You’re enough for me,” Linda had said, and Jonathan remembered feeling a love for her at that moment that made him at peace with death.

He didn’t have to see her to know where she was—in the kitchen with his sister Sarah, helping her with the pie she always almost ruined. Linda could fix most any kitchen mishap, or any mishap, really. She was just so competent. Jonathan imagined her tasting the fruit filling with a teaspoon, sprinkling little bits of spices Sarah kept but never used into it, adding discs of nectarine she sliced without looking at the cutting board. She would be elegant and graceful, which is what he thinks becomes of all women who were once sexy and reckless and young. He does not consider the ways he has aged or what became of his body, once broad shouldered and toned from daily swims in the University pool.

He took a sip from his mug of mulled wine, a drink he had always loved, and pulled it quickly from his mouth. Even that—his one small, alcoholic pleasure of the day—was off. It felt like drinking hot syrup and tasted as sweet. He sat on a folding chair in the living room and watched his expanding family laugh and gossip and exhaust one another. It would be hours before the resurrected pie, months before the end of the academic year and their annual pilgrimage to Martha’s Vineyard. Things would be different then, he told himself. The cold sea and rock walls and endless repairs on his house would set him straight.

He heard Linda calling from the kitchen. A little hand tugged on his flannel shirtsleeve.

“Uncle Jon,” the girl said. “Aunt Linda needs you.”

He looked in her face and saw no resemblance at all. “Tell her I’ll be there in a minute,” he said.

As she scampered to the kitchen, Jonathan went to the back door and slipped outside. The winter air burned in his throat and he took one step and then many and then he was home and hungry.

The turkeys claimed the Haars; front porch just in time. The residents of Ridge Hill road were tired of shooing them off of their lawns and the rooftops of their cars. Once, an elderly woman had to call the police. She was trapped inside of her Volvo, a female turkey sunning herself on the hood, wings spread. A little scare and a few laughs—that was the worst of it.

By April, though, all of that changed.

The earth thawed, perennials broke ground, and the turkeys took to marching into the road in front of the Haars’ house, waddling across the gravel in a sloppy line. Sometimes they went as far as the main road, the male out in front and proud, then they returned to the porch to roost for the night. The male’s gobbles grew louder, more insistent, and lasted all day. Some said you could hear him from the general store down the road, nearly four miles from the Haars’ front door.

Roger Greely had had enough. That gobbling and purring, the low rolled warning calls and cheep cheeps, felt like they were inside of him and boring out. Sleep was light and fitful. Sex was never. Even at work, backhoes scraping and drills whirring in his hand, the turkey noises followed him.

“I feel like I’m in a goddamn nature show,” he said, pulling a steel-toed boot over one foot and then the other. It was a Monday morning and he was on his way to work at the construction site, a new mega mansion in East Chop with a mystery builder.

Lara leaned against the mudroom’s doorframe and laughed. She wore a lightweight robe tied loosely at the waist and stood on the tips of her bare feet. Anne and Chloe played with each other’s wispy baby hair strands on the carpet behind her. “I think it’s kind of sexy,” she said.

Roger stopped tying his shoe and looked at his wife, who had let the robe slip open. He felt nothing, had felt nothing with her since the gobbling grew loud and constant. They hadn’t talked about it—not yet—but Lara was trying in her own way. He watched her twirl the flimsy ends of the belt. “Have you lost your mind?” he said, a little sorry for her. She didn’t answer him, only lost her easy smile and pulled the robe closed.

Outside, the turkeys cackled.

What happened next was fast and strange and yet there was something natural about the way Roger slid the old baseball bat from the box of sporting equipment they kept by the back door, how he swung it this way and that in his hands, grinning. He’d been a star athlete once, the region’s best shot for the major leagues.

Lara raised an eyebrow. “Careful, Rog,” she said.

Roger puffed his cheeks and blew air through his mouth, gripped the bat tighter with his builder hands. He wouldn’t remember opening the door or the stillness of the lawn he kept mowed to the half inch. It was the tiger lilies that struck him, how overnight they’d turned whole swathes clementine. He nearly squinted at the sight of them.

The turkeys were scattered along the edge of the Haars’ house, digging and pecking at the lily bed that wrapped around its circumference. The orange blossoms glowed against the white siding and fat bumblebees swarmed to them, took long drinks of their new nectar. From a hundred feet away, Roger thought the house looked like it might blast off. He approached with purpose and as he neared the first turkey, a brown bodied, gray-wattled female, the cackling ceased. The turkeys raised their necks and regarded him with what Roger swore was skepticism.

That was all it took for him to swing.

There was no contact between bat and bird. Instead, Roger swung and swung into nothing—into air—knocked blossoms from their stalks, sent bumblebees hurling into closed shutters. The closest female scrambled into the woods with surprising speed and the rest followed. And then, as if from the Kung Fu movies he favored, the formidable opponent emerged. He didn’t know where the male came from, only that he stood before him puffed breasted, feathers on end, scarlet wattle quivering with cruel laughter. In the time it took Roger to raise his bat, the turkey rushed forward and ran into him with so much force that he fell backwards onto the cool wet morning grass. He learned that turkeys have spurs and know how to kick. The thought amused him—turkeys kicking—but he was too hurt to laugh, too shocked to think of how he’d ended up where he was.

Somehow, he managed to get to his feet. The turkey backed away, out of the reach of the bat, but close enough to be threatening. Roger, knees bent, bat poised, rocked from side to side on the balls of his feet. They stood this way for some time. In fact, they were standing this way when a police cruiser pulled up and two cops got out of the car. Roger knew them both. The younger one, Jeffrey, with looks so good Roger thought about prototypes, said nothing. Matthew though—the chubby sidekick—was trying to stifle a smile.

The turkey gave one final gobble and backed into the underbrush as though discouraged by his odds.

“You alright, Mr. Greeley?” Jeffrey said.

Roger tucked the bat beneath one arm and wiped the dirt from his pants. “You guys didn’t have to come all the way out here for this,” he said. “They’re just a bunch of dumb birds.”

There was a glorious gobble from the deep woods, some kind of theatrical battle cry, and Matthew laughed. So did Jeffrey.

“We were just doing a drive-by,” Jeffrey said. “You know, checking up on things. This street’s got the most action on the island these days if you can believe it.”

Even though Jeffrey was telling the truth, Roger didn’t believe him. He thought he saw the flutter of a curtain in the living room, remembered Lara and her “Careful, Rog.” His own wife didn’t think he could take a turkey, had called the police for backup. He was sure of it. As he started towards his house, the cruiser stirring up dust on the drive, Jeffrey waving from the open window, Roger felt like a weak foolish fighter.

In the days that followed, Roger became obsessed with learning how to keep the turkeys at bay. He discovered through trial and error that they did not like barking or the sound of a wooden spoon striking a copper pot. One warm afternoon he went after them with his daughter’s squirt gun and found that they did not like to get wet. This came as a revelation, one so joyous he went to Offshore Ale and bought a growler of beer to celebrate and was reminded how much he liked the taste of good beer. He bought every squirt gun they had at the toy store by the fish market downtown and fashioned a holster out of duct tape and an old belt. The Super Soaker sat comfortably in it, as well as a water bottle for quick refills and a dozen rusty spoons he found in the basement that hung from the belt on strings and jangled whenever he moved. Lara called him a walking wind chime. Her laughter became the nervous kind.

He took to escorting his wife and daughters to and from the car. Little Anne and Chloe considered it a fun new game, held on to his pant legs and shuffled beneath him as he walked. Lara, though, resisted his protection, grew quiet and snide, stopped reaching for him in the night altogether. In the evenings, after work and before dinner, he liked to walk around the property. Each time, he made a point to pee on a different corner of the lawn, marking the borders of what had become less of a house to him and more of a kingdom. To everyone who would listen he spoke of his hatred for the birds but kept secret that he watched them from the upstairs bathroom window, studying the way the male herded his women and demanded respect.

Jonathan and Linda Haar arrived on the Vineyard on a sunny Saturday in May. Their station wagon was packed with groceries and boxes of books and the tattered luggage they’d had since their European honeymoon in 1973. Two new kayaks—one red, one blue—were strapped to the roof. Jonathan had bought them as a gift for Linda even though she had never expressed a desire to learn. Their road was unchanged, the little mailboxes that lined the edges strung with the striped buoys and nautical rope they remembered. Their lawn was as overgrown and prehistoric looking as they had come to expect after all these months of neglect. They were not prepared, however, for the deck, crusted and tracked with bird droppings, a baby turkey sitting in the middle of their front doormat, chirping and flapping a badly broken wing.

“Poor thing,” Jonathan said as he set a bunch of bags down on their front walk.

Linda sighed. “What a mess,” she said.

He looked at his wife, knew she was already making lists in her head of things to be done. She set down her canvas bag, floppy straw hat shading her face and just touching the delicate tops of her shoulders. She looked so fragile standing there, like her gauzy old sundress, nearly worn through. The turkey cheeped and cheeped, flapping itself in frantic circles. It was about the size of a seagull although much less elegant looking. This bird was streamlined for nothing, new brown feathers growing over the tufted baby ones that flew through the air like dirty dandelion fluff.

Linda picked up her bags, unlocked the front door and stepped over the little bird. “You deal with this,” she said and walked inside. “The shit, too.”

He was still not used to her swearing. This, as well as a sex life that was angry and fast or nonexistent, had come to characterize their relationship since he walked out on Thanksgiving. He unloaded the bags from the car and set them on the walk. The baby turkey screeched, head and wing stuck in the porch railing.

Jonathan had never been one to care much for animals but he felt bad for the ugly thing. He tiptoed over to it and held the warm body in his hands. The turkey’s legs flailed. It pecked at his forearms, misshapen wing fluttering against his face. Jonathan was surprised by the stillness he felt in that moment. It was good, he realized, to save something. He set the little bird in the hip high grass and hoped it wouldn’t go far.

Linda was upstairs—making the bed, maybe, or unpacking the clothes she took such care to fold, floppy origami. The little turkey cheeped outside, would continue cheeping until the trees blackened and the lawn darkened and Linda fell into bed, exhausted from putting everything they brought where it belonged. Jonathan was unpacking books in the living room, face lit by a single lamp. From the hall closet he pulled an old sweatshirt and lined the bottom of an empty box with it. He added a pair of mittens, too—an old white fuzzy pair of Linda’s she wore when they used to come down for a winter weekend just because they could. He couldn’t remember when they stopped doing that.

Outside, he felt like he was breathing the ocean. His lawn was rolling in the misty breeze. There was his house, his home, his habitat, his wife snoring upstairs, her hands clenched beneath her chin in little fists, her undecipherable little dribbles of nothing words. The baby turkey was where he had left it, its cries so soft they blended with the crickets in the grass. Abandoned.

The bird put up less of a fight when Jonathan brought it to his chest. He thought if there were such things as signs this must surely be one. Out in the woods somewhere were the deeper gobbles of larger beasts. He knew they would not come back for this broken baby. He decided to raise the little turkey, imagined it sitting in his lap in his blue kayak as he paddled on some new adventure, Linda out in front and laughing at them, at the newness of three.

What had once been a quiet, sleepy road like all the others that cut through the woods of the twenty-mile island had become a kind of sideshow. Six quickly growing turkey babies now trailed after the original flock. The mothers grew more aggressive than the massive male, and Roger Greeley had started a side job for no pay walking residents to and from their cars, spraying down charging birds with his gallon-barreled squirt gun. He discouraged the others from calling animal control, saying everything would go back to the way it was soon enough, thinking he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if it did. With things as they were with Lara, he began to fear life without feathered distractions. It would give him too much time to consider what had changed.

Even though the Haars had only just arrived, many blamed them and particularly Jonathan for what had become of the neighborhood. He was raising a wild turkey, after all. The ugly thing scrabbled after him from mailbox to shed to wherever he went. Who was to say if he was feeding the others, too, giving them reason to tap on warm windows at night and walk in through open doors?

Jonathan decided to call the turkey Fitz, after F. Scott. The turkey gang picked on Fitz, charged and pecked in his direction, sent him running off, misshapen wing flapping towards Jonathan who was always waiting. If anything, Jonathan wished the rest of the brood would take interest in some other road in some other part of town and leave he and Fitz alone. He talked to the bird, read it passages from books he’d taught so many times he didn’t have to look at the page. He could have sworn Fitz listened—grimaced when the first whale spouted blood in Moby Dick, sort of smiled at Huck and Jim on the raft, alone together. Linda was a presence at the periphery.

One night, Fitz locked into the coop Jonathan built, Linda turned to him in bed. She didn’t say anything, but Jonathan sensed that she was searching him for something she understood. She squinted, pulled off the glasses she needed for reading. He knew she would never leave him, that after so many years together it would take something much larger than an unwelcome turkey for her to even consider it although what, exactly, he wasn’t sure. They always slept with the windows open and outside there were wind sounds, tires on gravel a long way off. The bed creaked as she held his face in her hands, kissed him so hard their teeth touched.

The next morning, Linda took the car to the local nursery and bought seedlings—Brandywine tomatoes and Poblano peppers and bush peas that turned purple when ripe. There were enough to fill more garden space than they had, enough to feed a whole family. Jonathan didn’t watch her dig, didn’t see how she separated the roots of each seedling with the tips of her fingers and set them in the ground. He didn’t know how the hose gurgled, that she let it run into the bed for whole minutes, until the roots were soaked.

Roger and Jonathan kept a marked distance from one another although they both observed the other from upstairs windows. It was the hands they paid attention to most, how Roger’s rested on daughter shoulders on the way to their shiny van, holster full of silly weapons, how Jonathan held out his just so and the bird hopped on, nuzzling its half naked face against his chest. Each was a joke or an insult to the other depending on mood or time of day. The secret fascination, though, was constant.

Then one summer Sunday, two weeks after the Haars’ arrival, Fitz stepped onto Roger’s property. He had been waiting for this, of course. He tore from the house, dangling spoon belt clanging, water gun cocked. Fitz tilted his head to one side like dogs do when they don’t understand.

“Off,” Roger yelled.

Jonathan, who had been inside mixing an afternoon drink, heard the commotion and rushed outside. He flailed his arms and felt the extra weight he carried since the last time he tried to run anywhere quiver at his waist and below his neck. “That’s my turkey,” he said.

Roger lowered the Super Soaker. He waited for Jonathan to reach him to speak. “Next time,” he said, “I’ll shoot.”

It was remarkable that neither grown man smiled at the remark. Instead they stared at one another, the kind of stare that passes between two rival boys. Jonathan wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “He’s just a baby,” he said.

Roger slid his gun back into its duct tape holster. “Keep your baby off my lawn.”

Lara met Roger at the door. “This has gone on long enough,” she said. Linda met Jonathan at the door and said nothing, just handed him his drink and went back to tending the garden they were never around long enough to harvest.

Roger decided to put up a fence. Everything he needed was strewn across the lawn—spools of wire and stakes, a hammer and shovel, a pile of white pickets. There was his water gun, too, and a bowl full of spoons he found at a garage sale. “Just in case,” he’d told Lara, who frowned.

The sun was hot and close and so he took off his shirt and tucked it into the waistband of his shorts, squinted into the scrub oaks. If the turkeys had any sense they were staying cool in the deep woods and this disappointed Roger. It had been a few days since he’d seen them but he still heard them all the time, clear as day. He’d begun to study Lara and the girls to see if they heard them too, afraid that if he asked outright and it turned out they didn’t he’d look like even more of a lunatic.

Fast sweat slid down his face as he pounded stake after stake into the ground, marking the boundary of his property. Jonathan, who was in the basement modifying his coop, Fitz at his feet, didn’t hear this at first. In fact, Roger was well into the woods by the time he went upstairs for a glass of water and saw what was happening through the kitchen window. Linda was sitting at the breakfast table reading the local newspaper with her gardening gloves still on. She didn’t say anything.

Jonathan set both hands on the kitchen counter and shook his head. “That son of a bitch.”

Linda turned the page. The coupon section slid onto the floor and Fitz, who had struggled to follow Jonathan up the steep basement stairs and had finally made it to the threshold, bolted across the floor and pecked at the image of a watermelon on sale for 32 cents a pound. Jonathan’s face softened until he heard the sound of hammer on metal coming from the woods.

“Not inside,” Linda said from behind the paper, but Jonathan hadn’t heard her. He was rifling through papers in the other room, looking for the deed to the house. “I’m not losing one inch of my land to that idiot,” he called.

Linda folded the newspaper and stood. Fitz stopped pecking and took a step away from her, cheeped softly. Through the window there were finches at the feeder. She knelt on the floor, reached out a gloved hand and brought it back.

When she left through the back door she did not close it behind her. Fitz took one step, two, and then was off and running.

Twenty minutes later, Jonathan gave up looking for the deed. All these years had passed; who knows what had become of it. But he was already convinced of what he couldn’t prove: that Roger Greeley was stealing his land. And so he rushed through the back door with fists clenched, made off towards the clanging sounds and naked torso that every so often appeared between tree trunks. It didn’t occur to him that the door was already open or that Fitz wasn’t close behind like always. If he had looked out onto the main road he would have seen him there pecking and scratching at the dirt, would have noticed the turkey gang emerging from the woods.

It’s unclear who threw the first punch. Both of the men had a claim to it. But in a matter of minutes they were rolling around on the ground and groaning. Roger, who had kept his water gun and bowl of spoons close at hand, reached for them but Jonathan elbowed him across the face, splitting his lip. Roger pinned down Jonathan’s arms and tried again, this time getting a grip on a spoon and holding it above Jonathan’s face as if it were a knife. But just as it seemed the victor was decided, Jonathan managed to roll over and scramble to his feet. Not knowing what to do next, he grabbed a fistful of spoons from the bowl and turned to face Roger who was also standing. The two men circled each other and growled, eyes moving from spoon to eye and back again. The silver hadn’t been shined but it glinted in their hands all the same.

Lara ran out of the house and yelled for them to stop. Linda pulled off her gloves and went to her, put an arm around her shoulder and brought her inside. Not long after there was the cry of police sirens getting closer. Roger and Jonathan, who had gotten into a kind of mutual pin on the forest floor, spoons scattered all around them, held their breath. In that moment, head wedged between Roger’s upper arm and chest, mixed up sweat slicking his face, Jonathan realized Fitz was missing. It surprised even himself how quickly he slipped out of the hold and stumbled out of the woods, blood on his shirt.

“Fitz,” he cried. “Fitz-y I’m here.”

Roger followed. “You’re crazy. You know that?” he said, and brought the back of his hand to his mouth. He would need stitches for the lip.

Jonathan paid him no mind. He wandered across the lawn, arms outstretched and breath labored. “Come on Fitz,” he cried. “Fitz-y where are you?”

This is the scene they were about to walk into: a police cruiser stopped in the middle of the road, Jeffrey behind the open driver’s side door, hand on his holster, and Matthew in the passenger seat. Fitz standing fifty feet down, frozen. A pack of turkeys twenty strong just beyond him. Linda and Lara side by side on the Haars’ front porch, mouths open.

Both of the men put up their hands and in their faces was the same look of fear. “Stop,” they yelled in unison. Jonathan ran towards Jeffrey and that was all it took to set the turkeys off. But instead of running away from the humans they ran towards them, Fitz out in front with both wings extended, screeching.

Jeffrey pulled out his gun and fired a warning shot but the birds did not alter their course. He fired once, twice, three times at the birds and then dropped his gun. At least one had been hit, that was for certain, for there was a puff of feathers in the air and a commotion by the roadside, the others scrambling for the cover of the woods. Lara gasped. Jonathan jumped on Jeffrey, throwing loose fists and crying.

Matthew pulled him off of his partner and shoved him against the cruiser. Linda ran to them, was saying something to Matthew, and pulling on the sleeve of his uniform. The Greeleys stood feet apart and stared at the brown-feathered bird body in the road, the blood that pooled around it and sunk quickly into the ground as though sucked up from the other side. There was Fitz, shot in the heart.

It was hours before the truck arrived to collect the body. Because of the nature of the incident—that the police department and Jonathan Haar would countersue—it was considered critical evidence. By that time Jeffrey and Matthew had already left for the station, Jonathan hunched and handcuffed in the backseat. Linda followed them in the Subaru, both kayaks still strapped to the roof. They never bothered to take them down. Only Roger was left with the body in the road. He sat next to it on the ground, touched its scaly foot with one finger and waited. It seemed so small a foe lying in the road like that, not even full-grown. For once it was silent and he didn’t know what to do.

Kristin Griffin holds an MFA in fiction from Purdue University. This fall, she’ll be joining the faculty in the School of Writing, Literature and Film at Oregon State University. She is at work on a novel.

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