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Original Issue


We were after turkey that November day in Arkansas and headed not for the nearest supermarket but for the woods across the river. We left the 1952 Ford pickup at the river's edge. My grandfather gave the Ford's worn, pitted black hood an emphatic thump. He was forever thumping things—the Ford, his wood-fueled brooder, handmade ax, stone fence, my grandmother—anything, anyone, that had stuck with him through the years and had given him good service without grumbling.

The morning was cold, and we headed toward the river through moist white clouds of our own breath. The old man had dressed against the weather, in baggy overalls, heavy black boots, a wool coat and a hunter's cap pulled down evenly over his gray eyes. He carried an ancient 410 shotgun and two shells, a pillow case and a pint of 86.8-proof Austin Nichols Wild Turkey whiskey. He placed the bottle carefully in the left pocket of his jacket, thumping it regularly and assuring me that if we didn't come on a turkey by nightfall it wouldn't much matter—we would have something for solace. I wore Army fatigues, thermal underwear, two pairs of socks and heavy canvas sneakers, and carried a blanket, flashlight, compass, an updated will, two days' supply of beef jerky and Milky Ways, a single-barrel shotgun and 40 rounds of ammunition. The shotgun was a precaution against the possibility that instead of flushing regular wild turkeys we'd wander into a roost of crazed ones.

Morning gave way to afternoon but the day's chill hung on, setting in the bones like a double-bent fishhook. Near Hofenham's farm was a decaying wooden cross fashioned from a piece of black oak. According to local legend, the cross marked the hallowed spot where Hofenham winged an accountant from Newark who disturbed his turkey calling by jogging through the woods yodeling, "Here tur-key, tur-key, turkey." An hour's march from Hofenham's, the old man and I came to a small clearing a few hundred feet above a bend in the river. The ground bore scratch marks and was littered with half-eaten acorns, chestnuts and stalks of grass. I imagined the place a hideout for a band of renegade chickens that had escaped the drudgery of the barnyard and had gone wild. "I don't suppose we could simply do the civilized thing and invite this turkey to supper," I quipped nervously to the old man.

He clicked his tongue, thumped the precious bulge in his left coat pocket and studied the claw prints in the clearing. Finally he proclaimed the mossy forest floor and surrounding knot of hardwoods an undisturbed turkey roost. We had lunch by the river, downwind of the clearing. The old man told me turkeys turned unsociable in the autumn, when the woods were flooded with hunters, gunners, taxidermists, artists, environmentalists, poets and the like. Wild turkeys, he assured me, may be gullible birds but they aren't stupid. They know an ominous, deadly wind when they hear one, and when such a wind begins howling in November they keep close to home.

The old man exhausted the afternoon eating hard-boiled eggs, nursing the pint of Austin Nichols and telling jokes, his shoulders trembling with laughter, the shotgun shells in his shirt pocket rattling noisily.

It occurred to me that turkeys seemed to live a life like his own—one filled with uncertainty, edginess and ambivalence—facing all with steadfast resolution. What other bird came so willingly, so eagerly when called, all but showing up wearing a bull's-eye pinned to his breast and carrying a simmering pot of cornbread dressing?

As the shadows lengthened, the old man slid a shell into the squeaky shotgun. We walked back toward the clearing, stopping in some tall grass and brush in a stand of pine. From his shirt pocket he took a hoary, dun-white turkey wingbone, cupped it between his hands like a harmonica and blew into a small crease between his calloused palms. The sound was more yelp than gobble. The old man wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve and put the wingbone away. I asked if one call was enough. He clicked his tongue: One call was enough. Turkeys are easily annoyed and don't like to be called twice, no matter what the urgency. Fill the woods with too many calls, he told me, and the turkey instinctively hides out, sure there's a human being about with one of his relative's wingbones looking to get him into a roasting pan.

A bird that looked like an inflated bagpipe suddenly sidled out of the scrub directly in front of us and stood nonchalantly in the day's last thin shafts of cold white light. He had a head as white as a winter moon, an enormous fleshy orange wart between his eyes, wattles drooping from his beak, a beard, spurs, sad eyes and a cavalier disposition. He made a skin-wrinkling noise, like the blast of a flügelhorn. It was the first time I had ever encountered a prospective meal eye-to-eye. He swaggered straight toward us for a dozen yards before it finally struck him that none of his family wore overalls or carried a shotgun. Instantly, he was a roan blur against the evening sky. I let loose with the shotgun, wounding a pine knot. The old man, his face expressionless as a board fence, punctured the moment's tension, killed the big bird in midair. He was a fine torn, weighing maybe 10 pounds, with a foot-long beard and 1½-inch spurs. The old man bent down and cut the bird's throat.

My first time out this year, alone and deep in the woods across the river, turkey wingbone cupped in my hands, I called but brought only a curious raccoon and hours of silence. It looks as if I might have to bag this year's bird in the frozen-food section. Still, every morning I walk to the river's edge hoping to hear a yelp carried on the wind. If I hear it, I'll oil up the 410, buy a bag of Milky Ways, wrap up a pint of Austin Nichols and cross the river thumping my left coat pocket vigorously.