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The terror of turkeys - Daniel Silliman

Turkeys turn ugly, but they don't look that way when they're born.

As chicks, they're chirpy and innocent, fuzzy puffs, all wobbly-legged and wide-eyed. Baby turkeys are like little balls of cuteness, but they get ugly pretty quickly.

Adult turkeys, their heads and necks are hideously naked. Skin hangs from their faces in fleshy globs and a fat noodle of flab swings off their beaks, wrinkled and flaccid. In happy holiday drawings, the skin on a turkey's head is always red, but that's not right. It's pink, discolored, pale, and red in splotches, red like the color of a slapped baby.

Adults, they peck each other's feathers out, smell of musky feces and waddle grossly.

If you watch enough generations of these birds, watch as they grow, as they turn from innocent to repulsive, you get so you see how they were always ridiculously ugly. If you know turkeys, you get so that when you look at an egg, you're not deceived by the innocent symbolism of potential. You see the coat of crusted mud, caked with molted feathers.

I raised turkeys for years. In the back yard, in a little lean-to with a tin roof and some wire strung between posts. I fed them until they got fat enough to eat. My dad called them Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, just to make the point we were raising food, not pets. The names didn't really work, though, because he couldn't tell them apart.

I didn't name them. To me, they were just "the turkeys." I bought them as chicks and I fed them until they were fat.

Then, there was the cold day, and would I kill them. I used a knife. I cut off heads, grabbing ugly skin and shoving the blade between neck joints. I held them, as they spasmed in death, turning from turkey to meat.

This time of year, with the harvest-time holiday centered around a cooked bird, there's a lot of nervousness about the death of turkeys. Directly talking of killing turkeys, like I just did, is unheard of, and maybe comes off very violent. And it is, but it's not more violent because you're thinking of it. Death is violent, meat is dead, and this disturbs us enough that we hide it. We can't look at the terror of turkey deaths. We want our birds to be wrapped in plastic, clean and bleached, and if not innocent, then at least innocuous.

We want to see the president pardon a turkey, because then we think about the one, ignoring the others. The other day, Sarah Palin pardoned a turkey in Alaska. While that was filmed, she stood in front of a bird getting killed. It was considered a gaffe, gross and an example of all the former national candidate's character flaws, though I don't know why.

This shocks us? How is it that, a week before millions come together over dead turkey, the birds' legs up in the air and skin braised beautifully brown, it's appalling to see a bird die? Why are we startled by this turn to ugliness, as if it were, somehow, sudden?

It was always there, behind the cuteness. It wasn't even hiding, this thing, but we were hiding from it. We can't mask it completely, of course, so it comes up, and we act all nervous and guilty.

In all the season's jokes about turkeys in newspaper comic strips, the big birds are shocked to find they're going to die. It is always as if it's a new fact, an abrupt interruption in the turkey's natural life. But that's not how it is. Turkeys are born to die. They wouldn't be hatched, if they weren't meant to be meat. They are predestined to that ugliness, trapped in that violence.

I think that's the disturbing part. We cringe, thinking of turkeys, and I think that, at least for me, I'm trying to avoid noticing the way the turkeys' predestined doom sounds the same as the good old gospel doctrines of original sin, and human condemnation.

It's not just the turkeys that can't escape the ugliness, it's you and me.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.