Anton looked at his disheveled, bloody plumage: “What a mess,” he wistfully thought, “What a stinking, itching, feather-ripping mess.” His mate Joe, who couldn’t handle the narrowness of their confines, had just attacked him with his broken beak, drawing blood. Then he had collapsed, sobbing, wailing, apologizing.
These attacks happened twice a week, sometimes more often. Anton had heard Joe’s apologies so many times that he could recite them in his sleep. And yet he continued to listen, comforting his mate while tending to his own blood-caked feathers.
A mere four months old, he couldn’t help but care. That’s because several generations of selective breeding had left him with an enlarged heart. It did a poor job at pumping his blood and often forced Anton to pant for lack of oxygen. But on the upside, it rendered him compassionate where most of his mates would have gone on the offensive. What’s more, his big heart enabled Anton to sense worlds that he had never actually encountered.
Hardwood forests, eons ago
When Joe calmed down, Anton settled into a comfortable seated position and looked into the distance. Around him were thousands of disheveled birds, all with broken beaks and legs too weak to carry their bodies. He relaxed his eye muscles until the birds shifted out of focus. Then he turned inward.
His heart conjured up images of turkeys that had roamed the coastal hardwood forests eons ago. There was a male turkey, smaller than Anton but far better proportioned. His gait was strong and upright, allowing the animal to strut for miles without stumbling. The bird’s sky-blue face was crowned with pink-and-white caruncles, small fleshy protrusions that extended from head to neck. Towards the chest they transitioned into a beautiful, crimson-red wattle. It told the world that this male had the prowess to father dozens of healthy chicks.
In Anton’s vision mating season was in full swing, and the gobbler eyed the young hens in his flock. Once he realized they were paying attention, he expanded his tail feathers into a magnificent fan. Then he ruffled the remainder of his lush plumes, extending his wing feathers until they touched the ground. Majestically, he strutted past the females.
Pong! Harry fell against Anton’s ribs, exactly where Joe’s beak had inflicted a bruise. It took Anton several minutes to breathe through the searing pain.
Once it diminished to a mild throbbing, he revisited the vision his heart had produced and compared himself with the wild gobbler. They did not have much in common. Anton’s wattle was of a sickly pink; his legs gave way after two or three steps; his feathers had no luster. But worse than that, his breasts were so outsized that no hen would ever pay attention to him. He was unmanly. The thought depressed him.
Anton shares his visions
Every now and then Anton described life in the wild to his mates. “It is so different from what we know,” he told them. “In the wild you don’t eat corn or soy from a metal feeder but search for your food. It’s a bit more work, but you find crickets, lizards, bugs, pine nuts, acorns and so many other edible things that you never get bored. Can you imagine anything more fulfilling? And instead of losing your claws to a sharp blade, you use them to scratch the soil or to sit on the lowest branch of a tree. Yes, there are predators you fear – snakes, eagles, coyotes, humans on the hunt -, but remember that you yourselves are predators. That’s how the Giant Scale of Justice balances everything out. With a bit of luck, you get to live three or four years, and if a coyote catches you sooner, it’s okay, too, because you’ve led a good life.“
The trapped turkeys had difficulty imagining the trees and brooks of which Anton spoke. But they tried their hardest, because their life of incarceration had filled them with a deep, unfathomable longing. Each of them felt the impulse to pick through the dirt. But since their living conditions were so crammed, none of them knew whether the dirt under their feet was black, white, or pink. So they ended up picking one another. Anton’s stories of forests and wild turkeys offered a respite from their struggle, and they drank these tales up as if their sanity depended on it.
Anton shared many of his visions with his mates, but one remained his secret. It was of a room in a human home. A credenza hugged the east wall; a glass display cabinet was nestled against the west wall. Between them rested a massive wooden table that was decked in a festive tablecloth. On the table stood a large arrangement of cut flowers, a stack of dinner plates with silverware, and an array of dishes, most of them hot. The center of the table was conspicuously empty, with a trivet acting as placeholder for the dish that would be the pride of the party. Five hungry children snuck into the room in hopes of fetching an early bite, but their elders quickly followed and gently counseled patience.
A few minutes passed, then a grey-haired man entered. Protecting both hands with oven gloves, he carried a large roasting pan. It was so hot that you could hear the sizzle of the dripping oil. In the pan lay a big turkey, the natural softness of its featherless skin morphed into a golden-brown crispiness. The grey-haired man placed the pan on the empty trivet. Then he seized a chef’s knife and an oversized fork, offered the children a glowing smile, and said, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
Anton could not identify the bird in the pan, because it lacked a head, feet, and feathers. But he was convinced that he was sensing his own future. He did not dare tell his mates of this vision, because it would strike fear in their hearts. Bred, born, fattened at the pleasure of their human masters, they had no control over their lives. Why compound their feelings of powerlessness?
These were Anton’s thoughts. Oddly, when he learned what his fate would be, a wave of relief washed over him. His life had been a monotonous routine of eating, sleeping, and defecating, punctuated by bites, punches, and moments of telling his stories. That just did not meet his needs. Knowing that his suffering would soon cease gave him the strength to face what lay ahead, one day at a time.
The Thanksgiving premonition appealed to Anton, because for once in his short existence he would be admired, perhaps even revered. Compared to the joy of attracting the glance of a beautiful hen, being the high point of a Thanksgiving meal was nothing. But compared to sharing a dirty pen with thousands of sickly gobblers, it was everything. Anton really, really wanted this.
A few days later the human keepers came into the pen. They grabbed each of the many thousand fattened birds and roughly tossed them onto a truck. Together with his mates Anton went through the harrowing ordeal of slaughter and defeathering. The workers at the slaughterhouse removed his innards, only to push the heart back into his body cavity. They tucked the legs and wings into his chest, folded shrink-wrap around his body, then shoved him into a deep freezer. A few days later a different set of workers loaded him onto a refrigerated delivery truck headed for the supermarket.
How curious. As his body temperature increased from deep-freezer cold to grocery-store cold, Anton’s frozen heart once again generated visions, even though he was, technically, dead. The Giant Scale of Justice must have noticed how unfair his life had been and was allowing him to be present for his Thanksgiving performance. Anton was overwhelmed with gratitude.
As he lay in the shelf, his frozen heart examined the families that visited the turkey aisle and pictured what it would be like to go home with them. But family after family passed him up, picking another bird instead. Finally, a young man grabbed him. Anton was not sensing “family” from him at all.
There was a good reason for that. The young man, Jake was his name, interned for the production crew of a local television station. He and his colleagues had spent the morning setting up a bowling alley, lining it with twelve-packs of soda pop. Cans of cranberry sauce served as pins. Next to the alley stood a crowd of humans. Some wore outlandish costumes in hopes of being shown on television, and all cheered in unison, “Turkey Bowling, Turkey Bowling!” Anton’s hearing, like that of other turkeys, was very sensitive. The noise terrified him.
Where was the dining room table? Where were the five children? This was not his premonition – something was wrong here. Could the Giant Scale of Justice have …
Anton did not get to finish his thought. A woman picked him up by his plastic wrap, took a swing, then let go, catapulting him down the alley until he hit the cranberry cans. And she was only the first in line. One person after another grabbed and shot him as if he was a projectile, not a turkey.
Was this the meaning of life? Screams and ridicule? Though technically dead, he felt dizzy and betrayed. Another woman grabbed and launched him. Her aim was poor, and he banged from one sidewall to the other before coming to a halt by the cans.
That’s when Anton’s battered frozen corpse exceeded its physical capacities and split in two. The heart rolled out; all sensations ceased. The torment was finally over.
Anton’s visions had vanished just in time to spare him the knowledge of what came next. Jake and another producer rushed to the bowling alley. With trained speed they picked up Anton’s remains. Jake volunteered to carry them to the garbage chute. That took him only a few minutes. Then he rejoined the production crew, another frozen turkey in hand, determined to make this Thanksgiving celebration a great success.
Note: To learn more about turkey bowling, visit Wikipedia.