Catherine Sutthoff Slaton, 3/30/2020
Current Occupation: writer, small-scale (very) farmer, beekeeper
Former Occupation: office manager/marketer for manufacturer of positioning/locating electronics, youth fencing (saber) instructor
Contact Information: I live in a small rural community on Washington's Olympic Peninsula – the town every time I drove through prompted me to say, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to live here?" So I traded in my REI rain coat for a longer raincoat and my Doc Martens for a pair of ultrahigh Bogs. It's good to shake things up every now and again.
My poems have been published in Soundings Review (Pushcart nominee), Switched-On Gutenberg, Till, Hummingbird Press, Raven Chronicles, Tupelo, and King County Metro Transit’s Poetry on Buses Series. My first essay is in Inkwell, March 2020. I also have an essay appearing in The Rumpus, fall 2020.
Letter to Liam
Dear Liam –
Today is the day we, mistress and turkey, learn to get along. How can I convince you your fears are unfounded? That we are not in competition. I come in peace. This morning I bear gifts: a bowl of half-thawed blackberries picked last summer as we sauntered along the jumble of vines that lined the meadow’s edge, chunks of fresh mozzarella in basil and tomato slices left from last night’s dinner, ground sunflower seeds. I carry myself in a relaxed manner – to make you more at ease – and offer it all to you.
Perhaps my smile, flashing teeth look more like a predator’s than a compadre or flock-mate, rather rafter-mate, for that is what I learned today a group of turkeys is called. And here you are Liam, fully feathered as some kind of Las Vegas showgirl, with no doubt left that you are a tom – not a hen the feed store clerk assured me that you were. You snatch berries from the bowl, your beak snapping back after each theft as if the bowl’s rim were a chopping block. Berries gone, you are emboldened and break into full strut. Your warning comes in a thrumming that I feel more than hear. You circle me; I rotate to stay face-front to you, learning early to never turn my back on a tom. You hurl yourself at me; your breast meets the sole of my boot.
Do you remember when I brought you home, Liam? The young man at the grange said, we DO have a turkey, and pointed to you. He teased: You know what happens if we can’t find her a home, and gave me a wink. Placed there in an older pullets’ pen the night before, by that afternoon you were garnered to the floor’s corner, the lowest dwelling place in the pecking order. You’ll be a friend for my four week old turkey-ling, Claudia, who, out of loneliness, peeps a woeful peep even with three pullets – her ladies in waiting.
I cooed to you as we walked the mile home from the feed store. You fumbled about in the cardboard box trying to find balance. I imagined you and Claudia grown: two grand dames in our soon to be home in the country – you, a Spanish Black and Claudia, a Narrangassett. In your dark plumage you two would look stunning ambling across a field of snow. At home in the cobbled-together pen of dog crates and feeding bowls, you were safe, and Claudia, finally calm.
You and Claudia talked more than the young pullets that shared your crate; there was a melody to your vocals. Your faces more expressive. You trilled when I brought you treats, you spoke to each other with an extensive vocabulary. You and Claudia like opera singers compared to the chicken sounds as monotonous as foghorns. Your faces far more expressive than chickens as if you had eyebrows to raise in surprise and eyebrows to knit in worry.
Claudia cooed in my arms as I studied her eyes: well defined in shades of brown: pupil, iris, sclera. You, Liam, struggled to free yourself whenever I picked you up. You, Lydia, that is what we called you then after the Beetle Juice character, the brooding teenage girl with a predilection for black garb and Belafonte, your eyes were large as a space alien’s and black as tar. I wonder. If a turkey’s eyes could be the window to a turkey’s soul, the ink of your eyes, Liam, was too thick to ponder.
Each evening I carried you from the outside run to the nighttime safety of the basement. I stroked your dinosaur feet and spoke in a low voice to earn your trust. But each evening you struggled to free your wings contained under my arm as a moonstruck man in a straight-jacket might. By four months of age and living finally on a farm with room to run, you had become a challenge to pick up, recalcitrant as I squatted and wrapped my arms around you as a toddler would wrap her arms around the largest pumpkin in the field. My jaw ached for days after your frantic wing bone collided with it, your wings and feet flapping erratically like a tarp caught in a gale. When did your wings become so strong? When I cannot pick you up I guide you with outstretched arms until they appear to you as wings of a strutting tom, I guide you with a broom into the pen at night as a hockey player might guide a possessed puck. Was it the early bullying by feed store hens – only behaving as hens are apt to behave – defending their coop against a strange bird, that darkened your personality? Never to be bullied again? Or do I assign you human traits as I am apt to do, translating my hens’ running toward me – their fondness for oatmeal and tomatoes – as fondness for me?
You strutted and drummed, you dragged your wings like a king’s cape. I knew jennies could display jake behavior. Were you a hen heavy on the testosterone? Is there a gender spectrum in turkeys as well as people? You picked on Claudia: was this a pecking order being played out? You thrummed noises so low humpback whales and Sumatran tigers might confuse them as their own. You were chameleon-like with pink caruncle, snood, wattle flesh flashing into azure and crimson. A neon sign of a turkey proclaiming: I’m a Tom! I’m a Tom!
I rewrote my bucolic image of two lady turkeys into one lady and one tom in full strut, tail fanned and wing tips to soil strutting about like a London dandy. Time brought more aggression; a broom in hand kept you at a safe distance. Am I predator or prey? Constantly mounting Claudia, I separated you from her and the hens. I learned that the weight of a male turkey can crush a chicken. The spurs of a mature tom can can slice open a jenny during mounting and leave her to bleed out. Claudia retorted to your bullying, reprimanding you for something I was not privy to, my Turk-lish being somewhat weak. The pink flesh of her head flushed hard red, her voice heightened, her chirp turned to a gritty injunction. Your rebuttal was met by her beak, the grasp of your wattle through the fencing until you yanked back hard enough, your head snapping back like a rubber band.
Personality can change in all creatures from egg to adult. My timid jenny has morphed into an aggressive jake. I submit as evidence a sore jaw, the welt on my bruised hand, and the tender swelling and black and blue of my thigh. I do not cull hens who are past laying. To judge an animal’s worth by its food production seems so tactical, so business oriented. I tally the monthly cost of organic feed at double that of conventional feed. My per egg price would be regarded as boutique. Since I am a vegetarian, I won’t eat you and I won’t relinquish you to someone who might.
Liam: I cannot keep you and I cannot give you away. Your only skill is producing very expensive fertilizer. Your body approximates one cubic foot of fertilizer. Estimating an average of $25.00 of feed a month your cost to me as fertilizer comes to $200.00. Tu es un compost très cher! How do I monetize what my birds give me besides eggs and manure? What worth is their therapeutic value? On blood pressure and stress levels? What muscle groups do I work hauling fifty pound bags of feed from car to barn? How does the daily scooping of damp litter contribute to core strength? Surely pilates has had its fifteen minutes. Along with goat yoga, think fowl calisthenics! Perhaps Liam, I can work an ignored muscle group by running backwards while you pursue me.
To keep you from your flock is cruel. You pace behind your gate; you bump the gate against your breast. Feathers break, revealing, a bare patch like a window onto turkey flesh. Liam, I moved to the country for quiet. Constant gobbling breaks the peace. Your neck juts forward like a fanfare trumpet. You blast your rattling tom song like a decree: You won’t be ignored. Wattle, caruncle and snood flap like red rags while the hens graze free across the grass. I can’t quantify your emotional and physical distress; I can understand your compulsion to knock me down a rung. Some turkey brain circuit board that drives you. I understand stubbornness. I can’t quit my own avocation, my battle to convert you. Liam, if you were smart you would stand down.
Where did I first hear the phrase dumb animal? It has only been in recent years that books on animal intelligence increased in publication, scientific research that supported what many keepers already knew – that they could frequently be outsmarted by an animal. Consider the coyote whose keen sense of smell makes it nearly impossible to trap. Consider the jay that remembers not only where she has cached her food, but in which order so that she may retrieve the oldest stores first. Consider the dog who plays upon human weakness – who knows that certain behavior will illicit a desired reaction on her owner’s part. Consider that for years we considered intelligence a human condition. Have I been outsmarted by a turkey? Or merely outgunned?
I can’t explain pecking order to you Liam: Me first, you somewhere after me. Instructions on poultry websites list ways to position yourself as number one with the tom: Pick him up frequently, feed him last, both ways I have put roosters in their place, but which have failed with you Liam. I should hold you gently by the neck and guide you around the yard whenever possible. The first two times I tried this tactic, you were surprised and relented. The third time I walked you around the yard, neck in hand, you fought back. Injury concerned me (yours and mine); I let go. With no stick to direct you, you came after me like a junk yard dog. Is it because I serve you? Bring you food and water? Provide shelter? Do you see me as subservient? Am I competition? Are you jealous of my affection for Claudia? Or are you just an ornery tom?
Is all this analysis just a stall tactic? I can discuss the nature of turkeys until you die a natural death, Liam. I’ve googled: How to kill a turkey humanely for the last two weeks and come up with a short list: decapitation (no – I’ve read too much on biohazards), drowning (no – you might take me down with you), pentobarbital (too expensive) or a gun (I don’t own one), electric shock (a good chance of electrocuting myself).
Your size and strength and aggression towards the world (and by world, I mean me) preclude this as an option. My borscht pink canister marked “Party Balloon Helium” holds barely enough gas to kill a bantam. What if I banished you from the henhouse? Death by hawk, mountain lion, coyote, raccoon, opossum? A predator will feast even before prey is dead.
I come one last time to you with blackberries. I come to you with organic scratch – cracked corn, sunflower seeds, raisins, rice, peanuts, millet, amaranth – the kind that comes in home spun brown paper bags, tied with twine and hand-crafted logo in black ink. I come to you with yogurt and grated parmesan and leftover pancakes. One last peace offering even knowing testosterone cannot be cajoled and you Liam, cannot be redeemed.
Call it processing. Call it euthanizing. Call it putting you down. Call it culling and call it killing. I ask you as an executioner would ask the sentenced before their head rests on the block, before their neck is bared: Do you forgive me?
Two caveats are listed on the Department of Agriculture’s website regarding “limited use of unconsciousness caused by blunt force, followed by suffocation: 1. In isolated circumstances, not for large scale use, 2. unconsciousness and suffocation to be carried out in a timely fashion.” What you begin, you must finish. Humanity is key.
Dear Liam, let my aim be true, let me err on the side of caution, let me err on the side of grace. I cross myself in the name of the Father, pick up the two-inch thick doweling to keep you a safe distance, and enter the pen. You held your ground and you bared your wings and you thrummed like a war drum. I thought of thirty years of swinging a baseball bat, my go-to hard drive down the third baseline polished to shoot just out of reach of the third baseman’s mitt. “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” begins in my head – some kind of ironic distraction – what means one’s brain employs to get the job done. I swing hard; once is all it takes. You fall among your small black feathers that are already loose and punctuate the soil like small storm clouds. But because this coup de grâce was not premeditated, because I had only come to the pen one last time for a détente, I had no bucket of water, I had only a wood pole to keep you at bay. Panicked, I dug with my fingers like a dog would dig for a bone, a hole big enough for your head, and panicked, I smothered your head in mud and leaves, and panicked, I held your head down. Humanity is key. I sang one more verse half-tempo of Katie Casey and her love of baseball. Whether I killed you with the first blow or if you succumbed subterraneanly, I will never know. I laid you out. I waited for your black eye to stir, your rib to rise, your dinosaur foot to flex.
I wrapped you in surplus linen and I buried you in a deep hole and I planted a dormant plume poppy on top of you. I placed large stones atop the bare grave to keep coyotes or raccoons or opossum from exhuming you. The next week snows came and covered you, covered the stones, covered the just emerging leaves of the plume poppy.
This is what we share, Liam. When I die there are instructions that I be placed in an unbleached linen shroud, and buried with no coffin. I would like a favorite tree – perhaps dogwood, perhaps my venerated southern Magnolia – planted above me. And there become the tree, be part of something that continues. In the end we are all the same Liam: Food for what lives above us.