One September, in the 1970s, my parents went away for a whole week, and old friends came to stay with my twin sister and me. Back then, my parents were deep into their homesteading phase. Our friends David and Sally Synder, with their two boys, had most recently been living in a luxurious gated community in Panama. But they were delighted to spend a week in the New England countryside with the two of us, our two dogs, a hostile cat, two pigs (Statler and Waldorf), a dozen chickens, four turkeys, and four sheep (Paul, John, George and Ringo).
My sister and I were excited to have the Snyders stay with us. They made food we had never even heard of, like tacos and burritos, and they played salsa music on the stereo. They had no idea what time we were supposed to go to bed, and let us watch as much TV as we wanted. At that time, our favorite thing to do was make fairy houses in the woods—with Mom and Dad away, we were now free to do that for hours on end, until it got dark in the short fall days—it was bliss.
The first three days of the visit were peaceful. My sister and I would play the woods after school, then head back up to the house to find tacos on the table, the boys doing their homework, and David and Sally having a cocktail and watching the news. But on the fourth day—on our way back from the very large tree deep in the woods where we were constructing an entire mouse-sized apartment building with sticks and moss—we came across a scene of hideous carnage: Louis, our English setter, had somehow gotten into the pasture and killed the turkeys.
Hulking black bodies were scattered around the pasture. Heads hung limp or were torn off, and feathers carpeted the ground. Louis was dashing from carcass to carcass, his tail wagging frantically, beside himself with joy. My sister and I screamed and cried at him, pulling him off the birds by his collar, and calling him what Dad would have no doubt called him at that moment—”Louis, you goddamn sonofabitch dog!”
After dragging Louis out of the pasture and closing the gate, my sister and I ran screaming to the house. Sally came running to the door in a panic—had we been hit by a car? Bitten by a rattlesnake? Shot by poachers? I threw open the sliding glass door, sobbing, “Louis got the turkeys!” The entire Snyder family—the two boys taking a moment out of pummeling each other for the remote control—froze in disbelief. David and Sally—who were really city people—stared at each other in mute horror. They had expected to take care of our house in the country and the livestock—but now there had been a massacre!
We all went down to the pasture—David, running first, with a grim look on his face and probably thinking back to his time in the Peace Corps; the boys, shoving each other in an attempt to get there first; and finally, Sally, with her arms around my sister and me, trying to comfort us and telling us Louis couldn’t help it—he was, born and bred, a bird dog. David first checked on the sheep: Ringo seemed a little freaked out, but they were all fine, huddled together in the farthest corner of the pasture. Then we all stood in the pasture, looking down at the dead birds—body parts, claws, feathers, and blood. Even the boys were reverently silent. Then David said, “Wait—weren’t there four? There are only three here!”
He was right. There was one missing. A survivor! And then, Sally saw her: perched precariously in a huge pine tree over the pigpen, tilted sideways on the branch, her feathers disheveled, was one shell-shocked but surviving turkey.
My sister said, “Let’s name her Agatha.”
The next day, Agatha came down from the tree and began staggering around on the ground. When we got home from school, we rushed straight down to the pasture to see her. It had been a close call for Agatha: her rear end was now partly bald and she was missing all her beautiful tail feathers. Never, as a turkey, had she possessed the most intelligent of facial expressions, but now Agatha looked like she had been hit over the head with a brick. Her head stayed tipped sideways. She made confused croaking noises and seemed unable to walk in a straight line. David and Sally watched her lurch and stumble around with their hands pressed over their mouths in horror. David—father of boys—suggested that maybe he should put her out of her misery, but the horrified gasps from my sister and me ended that discussion.
My sister and I decided we would spend every spare second with Agatha until she recovered from her trauma. We ran back to the house and loaded up with supplies: a selection of crackers (we weren’t sure what Agatha liked—I thought Cheez-Its, my sister thought Wheat Thins), a tub of Port wine cheese, two bottles of ginger ale, canoe cushions to sit on, and several different Trixie Belden mysteries. (We chose ones that made frequent mention of Trixie’s chickens.)
Ignoring the stares of complete disbelief from the Snyder boys (“You’re going to read books to the turkey?”), we headed down to the pasture where we found Agatha wandering in the corner behind the raspberry patch. We set out canoe cushions on either side of her, carefully placed the crackers within her reach, and settled down to read to her. She seemed to like it—she stayed pretty close to us (maybe it was the crackers). When she ambled too far away we would get up and move our cushions, until it was dinner time, and we had to bid her farewell for the night.
When our parents got back from their trip, David and Sally—who had been sitting silently in our living room for hours in a state of suspended dread—greeted them at the door with such somber faces that my mom thought for a moment that one of us must have died. When Sally tearfully told them that Louis had gotten in the pasture and killed most of the turkeys, my mom started laughing, “Oh, Jesus Christ, Sally—the turkeys? You scared me half to death!” Our dad was a little more distressed, but since the culprits were his beloved hunting dog and his closest friends, all he could do was mutter about the boys leaving the gate open (which was patently unfair, as the boys had never been in the pasture). But my sister and I had no problem letting them take the blame—which probably didn’t do a lot for our relationship.
My sister and I continued our daily visits with Agatha for months, until it got too cold and dark to be outside after school. Then Dad announced that Agatha would have to go live with someone who had a barn. After what she had been through, he did not have the heart to send her to the butcher—she now had a name, cracker preferences, and a favorite Trixie Belden adventure (Book #3-The Gatehouse Mystery). We offered her to a friend who lived down the road on a farm. Agatha lived through the winter in the barn, but sometime the following summer, our friend told us she had disappeared. We took it well—Dad reminded us that Agatha would have been Thanksgiving dinner had it not been for the massacre.
A few years after that, an article appeared in our local paper: “Mystery Bird Alarms Neighborhood.” The article described how some hikers on local conservation land been completely astonished to come across a hulking, bald-headed, bare-butted bird wandering in the woods. One person was quoted as saying, “It was the size of a golden retriever!” Someone else wondered if the strange bird was rabid, because of the way it walked in circles. Another person in the group thought it was some kind of rare vulture out of its normal habitat. Calls were made to the Audubon Society, and volunteers were searching the woods for the strange bird. At that time, there were no wild turkeys in New England—it was a few years before they were re-introduced and made the epic comeback that now finds them around every corner.
My dad re-read the article and realized the bird had been spotted in between our house and our friend’s house. He laughed so hard he nearly fell off his chair.
“Oh my heavens, girls,” he gasped. “It’s Agatha!”
Agatha was alive! Possibly, she was headed back to our house to find some more Port wine cheese, or to find out how The Gatehouse Mystery ended. But we never saw her again. Perhaps, Agatha, the survivor, is out there still.