I never really thought about turkeys too much, not until one almost killed me. Before that, I liked eating turkey fine, but Thanksgiving was just another family holiday, a chance to hang with my relatives and eat too much pie. And that’s probably all it would be today, if not for the day that changed everything, the day we met the King Turkey and Thanksgiving became what it is today: a Day of Vengeance.
It was the Sunday before finals week and my best friend Ali and I just had to get off campus. We were juniors at Grinnell College, this tiny school in the middle of rural Iowa, and we were walking that fine line between studious and psychotic. So we gathered up all our books and papers-in-progress, our laptops and our asprin, and headed for the nearest Perkins restaurant, twenty miles away.
About six miles out of Grinnell, a tall figure jumped out of the woods and ran straight for the car. Instead of calmly saying, “Hey Ali, you might want to gently but firmly apply the brakes now,” I screamed like the girl who’s about to get killed in a horror movie and covered my face with my hands. Ali did what any normal driver would when confronted with a screaming passenger and a monster in the road before her: she screamed too, and stomped on the brakes. We started fish-tailing and swerving all over the place, but we were still going pretty fast, maybe sixty, and we hit it, hard.
It was a turkey.
Now you have to understand, this wasn’t an adorable Thanksgiving turkey. This wasn’t a smiling handprint with a thumb for a face and fingers for wings. This was a wild turkey, direct descendant of the velociraptor. It was the size of a third-grader. It stood in the middle of the empty Iowa highway and laughed at us.
And we hit it. We pulled a Tonya Harding on that thing, knee-capped it with the bumper so it flew up and landed smack in the middle of the windshield, demolishing it. When the car finally came to a stop, Ali and I were both covered in glass and feathers. Feathers! The back seat was full of them. I kept asking Ali, “Is it gone? Is it gone?” I half-expected it to be in the car with us, lying in wait to attack us a second time.
But it was gone. I took my hands away from my face and asked, “Well, where is it?”
“I’m not sure,” Ali said. “Maybe it landed on the road behind us.”
We got out of the car, brushing the glass and feathers off our arms and faces, expecting to see the turkey lying in the road behind the car, at least as mangled as the poor rooftop-carrier. The turkey had hit the car so hard that the roof of the car had a huge indentation in it, and the metal bike-rack on the roof of the car was ripped off entirely and twisted up into a pretzel.
But the turkey wasn’t there. Not in the road behind the car, not in the grass alongside the road, not anywhere. Ali and I looked at one another with amazement. “It didn’t die,” I whispered.
“Could it have run off into the woods?”
“Are you kidding me? Look at your car! Do you think it just bounced off and went skipping away into the woods?”
But apparently that’s exactly what it did.
We decided it must have been the King of the Turkeys. I thought of a story I read in eighth grade, where this kid is an avid moth collector until one day he makes the mistake of catching the King of the Moths and pinning it to a board in his collection. That night, hundreds of moths carry the kid deep into the middle of the swamp and pin him to a tree. Before I could let my imagination lay out the implications of hitting the King of the Turkeys, Ali directed my attention to her car.
We couldn’t drive it. The windshield was hanging together like a spider-web in the rain, sagging in and practically touching the steering wheel. The roof itself was smashed up too, twisting the windshield’s frame. We decided to hitch a ride back into town with a nice farmer.
Supposedly, Iowa’s best quality is how nice and friendly everyone is, but at least fifty cars flew past us as we stood by the mangled Mazda, covered in glass and pathetically holding our thumbs out. Finally, a middle-aged man in a mini-van stopped on the other side of the highway. He surveyed the damage to the car as we ran across the road to his van. With a low whistle, he said, “Must have been a pretty good sized deer you gals hit.” He eased the mini-van back onto the highway.
Ali shook her head. “It was a turkey.”
The man took his eyes off the road to look at her in disbelief, thought for a moment, and then said decisively, “You are shitting me.”
“A turkey. Well what do you know. A turkey.”
He dropped us off a few blocks from campus, and instead of walking back to the dorms where we lived, we decided to go to this house where a bunch of our friends lived. It was several blocks closer, and we’d need to borrow someone’s car to get back out to Ali’s car once we called a tow truck. As we walked, we talked about practical things like where the nearest Triple A-approved towing place would be, and how much it might cost to bang out the structural damage and replace the windshield.
When we reached our friends’ house, we found about thirty people in the backyard playing a drinking game called beer-pong. (I’m still unclear on the rules of this game — the problem with drinking games is that you almost always learn the rules when you’re already drunk). Suffice to say that beer-pong involved beer, a ping-pong table, and massive binge-drinking. It couldn’t have been later than 2:00 in the afternoon, on the Sunday before finals, and yet every single person in the yard was falling-down drunk. We walked into the yard expecting our friends to be sympathetic that we were just in this car accident, but instead they all just started yelling at us to come drink with them.
“We were in a car accident, you guys.”
The drunk people all began to shout. “Well, where’s the car? Let’s go see it! Is it totaled? Where’s the car?”
“It’s out on Highway 6. Can we use your phone?”
A slightly-less drunk person asked, “Wait, what happened?”
Ali and I were kind of embarrassed. “Uh, we hit a turkey.”
The crowd loved this. “A TUR-key?? You hit a TUR-key? Where’s the turkey? I want to see the turkey! You hit a turkey??”
“It ran into the woods. Can we use your phone?”
This conversation went on for a long time. We were still all covered in glass and kind of freaked out and they kept asking, “Where’s the car? Where’s the turkey?” I must have explained about it running into the woods a hundred times. Finally we managed to get it through someone’s head that we needed the phone. A half hour later, we left the drunks and headed back out to Highway 6 in a borrowed jeep.
The car was still there, buried in feathers. Ali and I parked behind it and sat together on the hood of the jeep to wait for the tow truck. Occasionally a feather would drift lightly across the gap between the car and the jeep, brushing our hands or faces. To cheer her up, I said, “Troubles at home. Family problems,” which is how our friend Jimmy had consoled us when we’d hit a raccoon the year before. (When I told my mother about the turkey, she asked, “What’s wrong with you girls? Is Ali’s car like the Wildlife Suicide Machine?”)
So there we were, sitting on the jeep, waiting for the tow truck, feeling pretty bad about ourselves. Hitting wild animals with your car just reminds you of all the ways you’re awful: as a member of humanity, you’re forever encroaching on their homes, driving giant pollution-spewing machines too fast through their footpaths, basically making the world a bad place – no wonder all these wild animals are suicidally depressed.
Suddenly a white Blazer came out of nowhere and screeched to a halt right in front of Ali’s car. Several of the beer-pong guys piled out. “Aw, you didn’t have to come check on us,” we said. “We’re fine.”
They ignored us, ignored the smashed-up car, and yelled, “WHAY-RE’S THE TUR-KEY?”
We explained once again that it had run off into the woods.
The leader of this strange little mission punched his arm into the air like a crazed general. “INTO THE WOODS!” He took off across the highway, headed for the woods, and the rest of his crew followed.
I yelled after them, “You’re not going to find it!”
Ali shook her head. “What are they planning to do if they do find it? Club it to death?”
Apparently so. The next thing we know, these drunken idiots are half-running, half-stumbling out of the woods, carrying the turkey by the neck so it looks like it’s flying straight toward us. We freaked out, but the boys hardly glanced at us, just threw the turkey into the backseat of the Blazer, pulled a crazy U-turn, and sped back toward town.
Ali and I sat back on the hood of the Jeep, and I said, “Okay let’s recap. First we hit a turkey that totaled your car but didn’t die. Then we hitchhiked into town, called a tow truck, and came back out here to wait for it. At which point some of our drunk-ass friends drove out here, and without bothering to talk to us ran into the woods, managed to find the turkey, clubbed it to death, threw it in their car, and drove away. Right?’”
We marveled at the weirdness of it all. It was the Sunday before finals week. We didn’t want drama. We didn’t ask for this. We just wanted to write our papers and study for our tests. Another feather floated from the car.
A few minutes later, the tow truck arrived. The driver hopped out, looked around, and drawled, “Wull, whay-re’s the tur-key?”
Ali and I laughed. “Funny you should ask….” We explained about the drunk guys coming out and getting it.
The tow truck driver said, “Wull, that’s a bum deal. Here you ladies have to deal with the car, and by the time you get back, the feast will be over!”
THE FEAST? We were totally astonished. We hadn’t even considered the possibility that the drunk boys were going to take it back and eat it! Who does that?
But sure enough, when we finally made it back to campus that night, we heard that the boys had plucked and roasted the turkey in their backyard. What’s more, they had donned its feathers, painted their faces with its blood, and gone running around campus in some insane Lord of the Flies re-enactment. We actually ran into the tallest and drunkest of the blood-painted crew, who was methodically making his way through the library with the turkey’s head in a plastic sandwich bag, telling bewildered students that if they touched the turkey’s head they’d have good luck on finals.
Those feathers were still floating around campus the next year – we even found some in the house we moved into our senior year. Ali claims that the last bits of glass from the windshield didn’t come out of her skin until the end of senior year, and until we graduated we were still meeting people who would say, “Oh, you’re the turkey girls. I heard about you!”
I eat a lot more turkey sandwiches these days, and I savor the thought of Thanksgiving. I think of it as payback. But sometimes, late at night, I close my eyes and see feathers and glass, and I know it’s just a matter of time before the turkeys of the world show up to set things right. The glass is still there, under my skin, and a feather floats across the moon. And one day soon they’ll come to pull me from my room, drag me deep into the middle of the Iowa woods, and roast me over a spit to avenge the death of their King.