It’s Thanksgiving Day in Canada and I’m supposed to be thankful.
I say “supposed to” because I’m trying hard to focus on what is good in my life. Yesterday’s funk about spirituality, career, money, etc, is duly recorded in my journal but is not fitting to this day.
And I am doing better. In large part because I’ve taken the time to re-read “The Turkey”, a story by one of America’s greatest short story authors, Flannery O’Connor.
Establishing what God thinks of us based on how we understand what happens to us – bad or good – is a fraught exercise. Brennan Manning, in his book Abba’s Child, sums up “The Turkey” by making the connection to Blaise Pascal’s comment that “God created Man in his own image, and man returned the compliment.”
Below is the complete text of Flannery O’Connor’s tale. I urge you to read it and consider. (The first paragraph is possibly confusing if you have never been an 11-year-old boy playing “guns”, but you’ll pick up the story soon enough.)
In everything, give thanks.
Flannery O’Connor (1947)
His guns glinted sun steel in the ribs of the tree and, half aloud through a crack in his mouth, he growled, “All right, Mason, this is as far as you go. The jig’s up.” The six-shooters in Mason’s belt stuck out like waiting rattlers but he flipped them into the air and, when they fell at his feet, kicked them behind him like so many dried steer skulls. “You varmit,” he muttered, drawing his rope tight around the captured man’s ankles, “this is the last rustlin’ you’ll do.” He took three steps backward and leveled one gun to his eye. “Okay,” he said with cold, slow precision, “this is…. ” And then he saw it, just moving slightly through the bushes farther over, a touch of bronze and a rustle and then, through another gap in the leaves, the eye, set in red folds that covered the head and hung down along the neck, trembling slightly. He stood perfectly still and the turkey took another step, then stopped, with one foot lifted, and listened.
If he only had a gun, if he only had a gun! He could level aim and shoot it right where it was. In a second, it would slide through the bushes and be up in a tree before he could tell which direction it had gone in. Without moving his head, he strained his eyes to the ground to see if there were a stone near, but the ground looked as if it might just have been swept. The turkey moved again. The foot that had been poised half way up went down and the wing dropped over it, spreading so that Ruller could see the long single feathers, pointed at the end. He wondered if he dived into the bush on top of it …. It moved again and the wing came up again and it went down.
It’s limping, he thought quickly. He moved a little nearer, trying to make his motion imperceptible. Suddenly its head pierced out of the bush – he was about ten feet from it – and drew back and then abruptly back into the bush. He began edging nearer with his arms rigid and his fingers ready to clutch. It was lame, he could tell. It might not be able to fly. It shot its head out once more and saw him and shuttled back into the bushes and out again on the other side. Its motion was half lopsided and the left wing was dragging. He was going to get it. He was going to get it if he had to chase it out of the county. He crawled through the brush and saw it about twenty feet away, watching him warily, moving its neck up and down. It stooped and tried to spread its wings and stooped again and went a little way to the side and stooped again, trying to make itself go up; but, he could tell, it couldn’t fly. He was going to have it. He was going to have it if he had to run it out of the state. He saw himself going in the front door with it slung over his shoulder, and them all screaming, “Look at Ruller with that wild turkey! Ruller! where did you get that wild turkey?”
Oh, he had caught it in the woods; he had thought they might like to have him catch them one.
“You crazy bird,” he muttered, “you can’t fly. I’ve already got you.” He was walking in a wide circle, trying to get behind it. For a second, he almost thought he could go pick it up. It had dropped down and one foot was sprawled, but when he got near enough to pounce, it shot off in a heavy speed that made him start. He tore after it, straight out in the open for a half acre of dead cotton; then it went under a fence and into some woods again and he had to get on his hands and knees to get under the fence but still keep his eye on the turkey but not tear his shirt; and then dash after it again with his head a little dizzy, but faster to catch up with it. If he lost it in the woods, it would be lost for good; it was going for the bushes on the other side. It would go on out in the road. He was going to have it. He saw it dart through a thicket and he headed for the thicket and when he got there it darted out again and in a second disappeared under a hedge. He went through the hedge fast and heard his shirt rip and felt cool streaks on his arms where they were getting scratched. He stopped a second and looked down at his torn shirt sleeves but the turkey was only a little ahead of him and he could see it go over the edge of the hill and down again into an open space and he darted on. If he came in with the turkey, they wouldn’t pay any attention to his shirt. Hane hadn’t ever got a turkey. Hane hadn’t ever caught anything. He guessed they’d be knocked out when they saw him; he guessed they’d talk about it in bed. That’s what they did about him and Hane. Hane didn’t know; he never woke up. Ruller woke up every night exactly at the time they started talking. He and Hane slept in one room and their mother and father in the next and the door was left open between and every night Ruller listened. His father would say finally, “How are the boys doing?” and their mother would say, Lord, they were wearing her to a frazzle, Lord, she guessed she shouldn’t worry but how could she help worrying about Hane, the way he was now? Hane had always been an unusual boy, she said. She said he would grow up to be an unusual man too; and their father said yes, if he didn’t get put in the penitentiary first, and their mother said how could he talk that way? and they argued just like Ruller and Hane and sometimes Ruller couldn’t get back to sleep for thinking. He always felt tired when he got through listening but he woke up every night and listened just the same, and whenever they started talking about him, he sat up in bed so he could hear better. Once his father asked why Ruller played by himself so much and his mother said how was she to know? if he wanted to play by himself, she didn’t see any reason he shouldn’t; and his father said that worried him and she said well, if that was all he had to worry about, he’d do well to stop; someone told her, she said, that they had seen Hane at the Ever-Ready; hadn’t they told him he couldn’t go there?
His father asked Ruller the next day what he had been doing lately and Ruller said, “playing by himself,” and walked off sort of like he had a limp. He guessed his father had looked pretty worried. He guessed he’d think it was something when he came home with the turkey slung over his shoulder. The turkey was heading out into a road and for a gutter along the side of it. It ran along the gutter and Ruller was gaining on it all the time until he fell over a root sticking up and spilled the things out of his pockets and had to snatch them up. When he got up, it was out of sight.
“Bill, you take a posse and go down South Canyon; Joe, you cut around by the gorge and head him off,” he shouted to his men. “I’ll follow him this way.” And he dashed off again along the ditch.
The turkey was in the ditch, not thirty feet from him, lying almost on its neck panting, and he was nearly a yard from it before it darted off again. He chased it straight until the ditch ended and then it went out in the road and slid under a hedge on the other side. He had to stop at the hedge and catch his breath and he could see the turkey on the other side through the leaves, lying on its neck, its whole body moving up and down with the panting. He could see the tip of its tongue going up and down in its opened bill. If he could stick his arm through, he might could get it while it was still too tired to move. He pushed up closer to the hedge and eased his hand through and then gripped it quickly around the turkey’s tail. There was no movement from the other side. Maybe the turkey had dropped dead. He put his face close to the leaves to look through. He pushed the twigs aside with one hand but they would not stay. He let go the turkey and pulled his other hand through to hold them. Through the hole he had made, he saw the bird wobbling off drunkenly. He ran back to where the hedge began and got on the other side. He’d get it yet. It needn’t think it was so smart, he muttered.
It zigged across the middle of the field and toward the woods again. It couldn’t go into the woods! He’d never get it! He dashed behind it, keeping his eyes sharp on it until suddenly something hit his chest and knocked the breath black out of him. He fell back on the ground and forgot the turkey for the cutting in his chest. He lay there for a while with things rocking on either side of him. Finally he sat up. He was facing the tree he had run into. He rubbed his hands over his face and arms and the long scratches began to sting.
He would have taken it in slung over his shoulder and they would have jumped up and yelled, “Good Lord look at Ruller! Ruller! Where did you get that wild turkey?” and his father would have said, “Man! That’s a bird if I ever saw one!” He kicked a stone away from his foot. He’d never see the turkey now. He wondered why he had seen it in the first place if he wasn’t going to be able to get it.
It was like somebody had played a dirty trick on him.
All that running for nothing. He sat there looking sullenly at his white ankles sticking out of his trouser legs and into his shoes. “Nuts,” he muttered. He turned over on his stomach and let his cheek rest right on the ground, dirty or not. He had torn his shirt and scratched his arms and got a knot on his forehead – he could feel it rising just a little, it was going to be a big one all right – all for nothing. The ground was cool to his face, but the grit bruised it and he had to turn over.
Oh hell, he thought. “Oh hell,” he said cautiously. Then in a minute he said just, “Hell.”
Then he said it like Hane said it, pulling the e-ull out and trying to get the look in his eye that Hane got. Once Hane said, “God!” and his mother stomped after him and said, “I don’t want to hear you say that again. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, Thy God, in vain. Do you hear me?” and he guessed that shut Hane up. He guessed she dressed him off that time.
“God,” he said.
He looked studiedly at the ground, making circles in the dust with his finger. “God!” he repeated.
“God dammit,” he said softly. He could feel his face getting hot and his chest thumping all of a sudden inside. ”God dammit to hell,” he said almost inaudibly. He looked over his shoulder but no one was there.
“God dammit to hell, good Lord from Jerusalem,” he said. His uncle said “Good Lord from Jerusalem.”
“Good Father, good God, sweep the chickens out the yard,” he said and began to giggle. His face was very red. He sat up and looked at his white ankles sticking out of his pants legs into his shoes. They looked like they didn’t belong to him. He gripped a hand around each ankle and bent his knees up and rested his chin on a knee. “Our Father Who art in heaven, shoot ‘em six and roll ‘em seven,” he said, giggling again. Boy, she’d smack his head in if she could hear him. God dammit, she’d smack his goddam head in. He rolled over in a fit of laughter. God dammit, she’d dress him off and wring his goddam neck like a goddam chicken. The laughing cut his side and he tried to hold it in, but every time he thought of his goddam neck, he shook again. He lay back on the ground, red and weak with laughter, not able not to think of her smacking his goddam head in. He said the words over and over to himself and after a while he stopped laughing. He said them again but the laughing had gone out. He said them again but it wouldn’t start back up. All that chasing for nothing, he thought again. He might as well go home. What did he want to be sitting around here for? He felt suddenly like he would if people had been laughing at him. Aw, go to hell, he told them. He got up and kicked his foot sharply into somebody’s leg and said, “Take that, sucker,” and turned into the woods to take the short trail home.
And as soon as he got in the door, they would holler, “How did you tear your clothes and where did you get that knot on your forehead?” He was going to say he fell in a hole. What difference would it make? Yeah, God, what difference would it make?
He almost stopped. He had never heard himself think that tone before. He wondered should he take the thought back. He guessed it was pretty bad; but heck, it was the way he felt. He couldn’t help feeling that way. Heck … hell, it was the way he felt. He guessed he couldn’t help that. He walked on a little way, thinking, thinking about it. He wondered suddenly if he were going “bad.” That’s what Hane had done. Hane played pool and smoked cigarettes and sneaked in at twelve-thirty and boy he thought he was something. ”There’s nothing you can do about,” their grandmother had told their father, “he’s at that age.” What age? Ruller wondered. I’m eleven, he thought. That’s pretty young. Hane hadn’t started until he was fifteen. I guess it’s worse in me, he thought. He wondered would he fight it. Their grandmother had talked to Hane and told him the only way to conquer the devil was to fight him – if he didn’t, he couldn’t be her boy any more – Ruller sat down on a stump – and she said she’d give him one more chance, did he want it? and he yelled at her, no! and would she leave him alone? and she told him, well, she loved him even if he didn’t love her and he was her boy anyway and so was Ruller. Oh no, I ain’t, Ruller thought quickly. Oh no. She’s not pinning any of that stuff on me.
Boy, he could shock the pants off her. He could make her teeth fall in her soup. He started giggling. The next time she asked him if he wanted to play a game of parcheesi, he’d say, hell no, goddammit, didn’t she know any good games? Get out her goddam cards and he’d show her a few. He rolled over on the ground, choking with laughter. “Let’s have some booze, kid,” he’d say. “Let’s get stinky.” Boy, he’d knock her out of her socks! He sat on the ground, red and grinning to himself, bursting every now and then into a fresh spasm of giggles. He remembered the minister had said young men were going to the devil by the dozens this day and age; forsaking gentle ways; walking in the tracks of Satan. They would rue the day, he said. There would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ”Weeping,” Ruller muttered. Men didn’t weep.
How do you gnash your teeth? he wondered. He grated his jaws together and made an ugly face. He did it several times.
He bet he could steal.
He thought about chasing the turkey for nothing. It was a dirty trick. He bet he could be a jewel thief. They were smart. He bet he could have all Scotland Yard on his tail. Hell.
He got up. God could go around sticking things in your face and making you chase them all afternoon for nothing.
You shouldn’t think that way about God, though.
But that was the way he felt. If that was the way he felt, could he help it? He looked around quickly as if someone might be hiding in the bushes; then suddenly he started.
It was rolled over at the edge of a thicket-a pile of ruffled bronze with a red head lying limp along the ground. Ruller stared at it, unable to think; then he leaned forward suspiciously. He wasn’t going to touch it. Why was it there now for him to take? He wasn’t going to touch it. It could just lie there. The picture of himself walking in the room with it slung over his shoulder came back to him. Look at Ruller with that turkey! Lord, look at Ruller! He squatted down beside it and looked without touching it. He wondered what had been wrong with its wing. He lifted it up by the tip and looked under. The feathers were blood-soaked. It had been shot. It must weigh ten pounds, he figured.
Lord, Ruller! It’s a huge turkey! He wondered how it would feel slung over his shoulder. Maybe, he considered, he was supposed to take it.
Ruller gets our turkeys for us. Ruller got it in the woods, chased it dead. Yes, he’s a very unusual child.
Ruller wondered suddenly if he were an unusual child. It came down on him in an instant: he was … an … unusual … child. He reckoned he was more unusual than Hane. He had to worry more than Hane because he knew more how things were.
Sometimes when he was listening at night, he heard them arguing like they were going to kill each other; and the next day his father would go out early and his mother would have the blue veins out on her forehead and look like she was expecting a snake to jump from the ceiling any minute. He guessed he was one of the most unusual children ever. Maybe that was why the turkey was there. He rubbed his hand along the neck. Maybe it was to keep him from going bad. Maybe God wanted to keep him from that.
Maybe God had knocked it out right there where he’d see it when he got up.
Maybe God was in the bush now, waiting for him to make up his mind. Ruller blushed. He wondered if God could think he was a very unusual child. He must. He found himself suddenly blushing and grinning and he rubbed his hand over his face quick to make himself stop. If You want me to take it, he said, I’ll be glad to. Maybe finding the turkey was a sign. Maybe God wanted him to be a preacher. He thought of Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy. He might found a place for boys to stay who were going bad. He lifted the turkey up-it was heavy all right-and fitted it over his shoulder. He wished he could see how he looked with it slung over like that. It occurred to him that he might as well go home the long way through town. He had plenty of time. He started off slowly, shifting the turkey until it fit comfortably over his shoulder. He remembered the things he had thought before he found the turkey. They were pretty bad, he guessed.
He guessed God had stopped him before it was too late. He should be very thankful. Thank You, he said.
Come on, boys, he said, we will take this turkey back for our dinner. We certainly are much obliged to You, he said to God. This turkey weighs ten pounds. You were mighty generous.
That’s okay, God said. And listen, we ought to have a talk about these boys. They’re entirely in your hands, see? I’m leaving the job strictly up to you. I have confidence in you, McFarney.
You can trust me, Ruller said. I’ll come through with the goods.
He went into town with the turkey over his shoulder. He wanted to do something for God but he didn’t know what he could do. If anybody was playing the accordion on the street today, he’d give them his dime. He only had one dime, but he’d give it to them. Maybe he could think of something better, though. He had been going to keep the dime for something. He might could get another one from his grandmother. How about a goddam dime, kid? He pulled his mouth piously out of the grin. He wasn’t going to think that way any more. He couldn’t get a dime from her anyway. His mother was going to whip him if he asked his grandmother for money again. Maybe something would turn up that he could do. If God wanted him to do something, He’d turn something up.
He was getting into the business block and through the corner of his eye he noticed people looking at him. There were eight thousand people in Mulrose County and on Saturday everyone of them was in Tilford on the business block. They turned as Ruller passed and looked at him. He glanced at himself reflected in a store window, shifted the turkey slightly, and walked quickly ahead. He heard someone call, but he walked on, pretending he was deaf. It was his mother’s friend, Alice Gilhard, and if she wanted him, let her catch up with him.
“Ruller!” she cried. “My goodness, where did you get that turkey?” She came up behind him fast and put her hand on his shoulder. “That’s some bird,” she said. “You must be a good shot.”
“I didn’t shoot it,” Ruller said coldly. “I captured it. I chased it dead.” “Heavens,” she said. “You wouldn’t capture me one sometime, would you?” “I might if I ever have time,” Ruller said. She thought she was so cute.
Two men came over and whistled at the turkey. They yelled at some other men on the corner to look. Another of his mother’s friends stopped and some country boys who had been sitting on the curb got up and tried to see the turkey without showing they were interested. A man with a hunting suit and gun stopped and looked at Ruller and walked around behind him and looked at the turkey.
“How much do you think it weighs?” a lady asked. “At least ten pounds,” Ruller said. “How long did you chase it?” “About an hour,” Ruller said.
“The goddam imp,” the man in the hunting suit muttered. “That’s really amazing,” a lady commented. “About that long,” Ruller said. “You must be very tired.”
“No,” Ruller said. “I have to go. I’m in a hurry.” He worked his face to look as if he were thinking something out and hurried down the street until he was out of their view. He felt warm all over and nice as if something very fine were going to be or had been. He looked back once and saw that the country boys were following him. He hoped they would come up and ask to look at the turkey. God must be wonderful, he felt suddenly. He wanted to do something for God. He hadn’t seen anyone playing the accordion, though, or selling pencils and he was past the business block. He might see one before he really got to the streets where people lived at. If he did, he’d give away the dime-even while he knew he couldn’t get another one any time soon. He began to wish he would see somebody begging.
Those country kids were still trailing along behind him. He thought he might stop and ask them did they want to see the turkey; but they might just stare at him. They were tenants’ children and sometimes tenants’ children just stared at you. He might found a home for tenants’ children. He thought about going back through town to see if he had passed a beggar without seeing him, but he decided people might think he was showing off with the turkey.
Lord, send me a beggar, he prayed suddenly. Send me one before I get home. He had never thought before of praying on his own, but it was a good idea. God had put the turkey there. He’d send him a beggar. He knew for a fact God would send him one. He was on Hill Street now and there were nothing but houses on Hill Street. It would be strange to find a beggar here. The sidewalks were empty except for a few children and some tricycles. Ruller looked back; the country boys were still following him. He decided to slow down. It might make them catch up with him and it might give a beggar more time to get to him. If one were coming. He wondered if one were coming. If one came, it would mean God had gone out of His way to get one. It would mean God was really interested. He had a sudden fear one wouldn’t come; it was a whole fear quick.
One will come, he told himself. God was interested in him because he was a very unusual child. He went on. The streets were deserted now. He guessed one wouldn’t come. Maybe God didn’t have confidence in – no, God did. Lord, please send me a beggar! he implored. He squinched his face rigid and strained his muscles in a knot and said, “Please! one right now”; and the minute he said it -the minute – Hetty Gilman turned around the corner before him, heading straight to where he was.
He felt almost like he had when he ran into the tree.
She was walking down the street right toward him. It was just like the turkey lying there. It was just as if she had been hiding behind a house until he came by. She was an old woman whom everybody said had more money than anybody in town because she had been begging for twenty years. She sneaked into people’s houses and sat until they gave her something. If they didn’t, she cursed them. Nevertheless, she was a beggar. Ruller walked faster. He took the dime out of his pocket so it would be ready. His heart was stomping up and down in his chest. He made a noise to see if he could talk. As they neared each other, he stuck out his hand. ”Here!” he shouted. “Here!”
She was a tall, long-faced old woman in an antique black cloak. Her face was the color of a dead chicken’s skin. When she saw him, she looked as if she suddenly smelled something bad. He darted at her and thrust the dime into her hand and dashed on without looking back.
Slowly his heart calmed and he began to feel full of a new feeling-like being happy and embarrassed at the same time. Maybe, he thought, blushing, he would give all his money to her. He felt as if the ground did not need to be under him any longer. He noticed suddenly that the country boys’ feet were shuffling just behind him, and almost without thinking, he turned and asked graciously, “You all wanta see this turkey?”
They stopped where they were and stared at him. One in front spit. Ruller looked down at it quickly. There was real tobacco juice in it! “Wheered you git that turkey?” the spitter asked.
“I found it in the woods,” Ruller said. “I chased it dead. See, it’s been shot under the wing.” He took the turkey off his shoulder and held it down where they could see. “I think it was shot twice,” he went on excitedly, pulling the wing up.
“Lemme see it here,” the spitter said.
Ruller handed him the turkey. “You see down there where the bullet hole is?” he asked. “Well, I think it was shot twice in the same hole, I think it was …. ” The turkey’s head flew in his face as the spitter slung it up in the air and over his own shoulder and turned. The others turned with him and together they sauntered off in the direction they had come, the turkey sticking stiff out on the spitter’s back and its head swinging slowly in a circle as he walked away.
They were in the next block before Ruller moved. Finally, he realized that he could not even see them any longer, they were so far away. He turned toward home, almost creeping. He walked four blocks and then suddenly, noticing that it was dark, he began to run. He ran faster and faster, and as he turned up the road to his house, his heart was running as fast as his legs and he was certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.