Of Crickets and Turkeys: Part I

A few miles north of Route I-95, Houghton’s Pond expands close to the sandy bank and runs deep and blue. The late-October air is chilly from the northern winds blowing down into Massachusetts. Squirrels roam the frozen ground searching for one last acorn, before finally scurrying up the trunks of the bare oak trees.

Evening of a cold day nudged the sun to dip below the horizon. The squirrels have retreated back into their wooded homes among the treetops. A silent man packed up his tackle box and fishing pole and trudged away into the darkness. For a moment the place was lifeless, and then two turkeys emerged from the brush and came onto the beach by the pond.

They had walked in single file down the path, and even in the open one stayed behind the other. The first turkey was scrawny and lean, with dull feathers. He was scrappy; a survivor. Behind him walked his opposite, a gigantic bird, with a shiny dark coat, expansive tail feathers; he strutted heavily, the way a heavyset woman huffs to a counter at Friendly’s in order to “speak to the manager.”

The first turkey strode across the sand, stepping around the carcass of a dead lizard. His huge companion flung himself to the ground and pecked at the frozen remnants of the reptile; stabbed violently with his beak, his body heaving with each breath. The small bird stepped nervously beside him.

“Lennie!” he squawked. “For God’ sakes don’t eat so much.” Lennie continued. “Lennie. You gonna be sick like you was last night.”

Lennie stuffed his face into the innards of the lizard, and then staggered backwards a bit. “That’s good,” he said. “You eat some, George. You take a good big bite.” He smiled, sort of, if turkeys can smile.

George took a quick nibble. “Tastes all right,” he admitted. “Didn’t kill it, though. You never oughta eat a lizard when you ain’t killed it yourself, Lennie,” he said hopelessly. “You’d eat a lizard buzzing with flies if you was hungry.” He walked over to the water and submerged his head. Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly. Then he twisted his head backwards into his back-feathers.

George looked sharply at him. “What’d you take outa your feathers?”

“Ain’t a thing in my feathers,” Lennie said cleverly.

“I know there ain’t. You got it in your beak. What you got in your beak- hidin’ it?”

“I ain’ go’ nothin’, Geor’. ‘Onest.” His voice was muffled from what he got in his beak.

“Come on, give it here.”

Lennie turned his head away from George. “It’s on’y a crick’, Geor’.”

“A cricket? A live cricket?”

Lennie put the crumpled insect on the ground. “Uh-uh. Jus’ a dead cricket, George. I didn’t kill it. Honest! I found it. I found it dead.”

“You wasn’t hungry? What you want of a dead cricket, anyways?”

“I could rub it with my head sometime,” said Lennie.

“Lennie, you a real idiot.” George swallowed the cricket whole. “It don’t even feel nice to rub! It’s a bug, goddammit! It don’t even got fur!”

Lennie put his head in the sand. “Sorry, George.”

George turned back away from the pond. The crickets were chirping from the woods, and the water was lapping softly against the shore. Lennie unburied his head. He looked off at the dark trees on the opposite bank. “George, you want I should go away and leave you alone?”

“Where the hell could you go?”

“Well, I could. I could go off in the trees there. Be a tree bird.”

“Yeah? How’d you eat? You ain’t got sense enough to find nothing to eat.”

“I’d find things, George. I seen lots of dead lizards in these parts. An’ if I foun’ a cricket, I could keep it. Nobody’d take it away from me.”

George looked quickly and searchingly at him. “I been mean, ain’t I?”

“If you don’ want me I can go off in the trees an’ be a tree bird. I can go away any time.”

“No- look! I was jus’ foolin’, Lennie. ’Cause I want you to stay with me. Jesus Christ, you’d be gobbled up by a coyote if you was by yourself. No, you stay with me.”

Lennie spoke craftily, “Tell me- like you done before.”

“Tell you what?”

“About the squirrels.”

George snapped. “You ain’t gonna put nothing over on me.”

Lennie scratched at the ground with his foot. “Come on, George. Tell me. Please, George. Like you done before.”

“You get a kick outa that, don’t you? Awright, I’ll tell you…”

George’s voice became deeper. He closed his eyes, and bobbed his head to the polyphonic melodies of the night: the trees, the water, the crickets. “Turkeys like us, that roam around looking for work, are the loneliest birds in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a hiking reservation an’ work up a stake and then they go into the nearest birdseed store and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail feathers on some other reservation. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.”

Lennie was delighted. “That’s it- that’s it. Now tell how it is with us.”

George went on. “With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebird to talk to that gives a damn about us. If them other turkeys gets eaten for Thanksgiving they can get roasted and basted for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.”

Lennie broke in. “But not us! An’ why? Because… because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.” He gobbled delightedly. “Go on now, George!”

“You got it by heart. You can do it yourself.”

“No, you. I forget some a’ the things. Tell about how it’s gonna be.”

George spoke softer as he nestled in the sand. “Okay. Someday- we’re gonna get the cash together and we’re gonna have a little house and a wide field of grass and-”

“An’ have squirrels,” Lennie shouted. “Go on, George. Tell about the little house for the squirrels and about how we’ll have nuts as big as our heads. Tell about that, George.”

“Why’n’t you do it yourself? You know all of it.”

“No… you tell it. It ain’t the same if I tell it. Go on… George. How I get to tend the squirrels.”

“Well,” said George, barely speaking in a whisper “we’ll have a squirrel hutch and a room fulla nuts as far as the eye can see with acorns as big as our — ” He yawned. “I ain’t got time for no more.”

Despite Lennie’s pleading, George did not budge. They made their beds on the sand. The stars shone on the still pond, and millions of fireflies lit up across the water. From the darkness Lennie called, “George- you asleep?”

“No. Whatta you want?”

“Let’s have different color squirrels, George.”

“Sure we will,” George said sleepily. “Red and blue and green squirrels, Lennie. Millions of ‘em.”

“Black ones, George, like I seen at Wesleyan and Haverford.”

“Sure, black ones.”

“But we gotta keep them separate from the gray ones, George. Those black squirrels don’t like the gray ones very much.”

“Sure thing, Lennie.”

“Once I seen a black squirrel scratch a gray squirrel’s eye out, George. Then the grey squirrel’s friends gone and beat up that black squirrel. They hate each other real bad.”

“That’s nice,” said George. “Shut up now.”

The fireflies drifted about. Across the pond a coyote yammered, and another answered from the wilderness behind them. The tall branches creaked in a little night breeze.

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