A Turkey Tail Tale
Once upon a time, oh, maybe five hundred years ago, there lived a little girl and her brother in a small village at the foot of a high, flat hill, on the crown of which stood the palace of the Prince and Princess and the large city that surrounded the palace. The two children were practically orphans. This was because their ethereally beautiful mother had died as the result of the misapprehension of an impetuous unicorn, and their father, who was a printer, had to frequently leave their little cottage and climb the hill. This was because no one in the village knew that printing had recently been invented, so, slinging his incunabula and foul copies across his back, the printer had to leave his sub-urban village and climb the hill to the city and the palace to secure printing work. Fortunately, the Prince employed a highly literate and prolific dwarf who was always composing epic tales that just called out to be printed and preserved in folio editions with highly decorated covers. The printer’s two children were thus neglected and often hungry; they would, in fact, have starved if not for the generous neighbor women who took pity on them and fed and washed them and patched their clothes at least once every seven days.
When the printer came down from the city one day at the beginning of summer, he was accompanied by a large, loud woman and her two young, loud daughters. “Children,” he said, “this is your new stepmother. And your new stepsisters.” The woman and her daughters took one look at the grubby children and the grubbier hovel (not to mention the cluttered printing room next to it) and raised their noses into the air. This printer, said the woman to herself, promised me a nice cottage! I got the distinct impression that he was rich! Or at least well-off and able to provide good dowries for my daughters. And just look at this! I don’t think my daughters and myself will be able to bear such wretched surroundings. But all she said out loud was, “Well, well, well. Two children. How nice.” But her two daughters pointed at the children and laughed at them. “Why are you even here?” they shouted. “You belong in a cave in the woods with the other filthy wild animals!”
Days went by. Weeks went by. Things did not get any better for the printer’s children. Their stepmother treated them like servants, and, encouraged and indulged by their mother, the two stepdaughters did every mean and mischievous thing they could think of to them. They kicked and pinched them, they spied and tattled, they stole and hid their shoes, they called them cruel names, they blamed them for every little thing. Finally, as the weather was getting cooler and everyone knew that winter was coming on, the stepmother turned to the printer and said, “Husband, I’m afraid this cottage is just too small and too poor to accommodate four children. My daughters are obviously more delicate and sensitive than the children left behind by your careless wife. When my daughters marry, they will connect us to good families. Husband, I’m afraid we must take your foolish wife’s children out into the woods and deliver them into the hands of the wild animals—I mean, the kindly spirits of the woods.”
The printer, who was very busy setting the pages for a quarto edition of the dwarf’s newest epic (which was about a foolish old king who handed his kingdom over to his two selfish daughters, after which everything came to a bad end), hardly heard what his wife was saying. “Yes, my dear,” he mumbled as he carefully set another line of type, “Whatever you say, my pet.”
The stepmother smiled her narrow smile and turned to her daughters, who were busy practicing a gavotte in preparation for the holiday ball to be held up at the palace. “My dears,” she said, “we will soon be rid of those pesky children!” And the very next day, she led the children out the door, past the overgrown garden, and toward the woods.
“But, Stepmother,” said the printer’s daughter, “where are we going? Don’t you want us to harvest the potatoes and beans and squashes for the holiday feast?” She and her brother had worked hard in the garden all summer and were proud of their crops. Was the garden to be abandoned?
“Oh, my darling dears,” the stepmother replied, “you’ve been invited to a special feast to be held by the Old Woman Who Lives in the Forest. The invitation arrived just now.” She waved a folded piece of paper in the air. “Follow this path.” She waved one beringed hand toward the tree line, where no path could be discerned. “Just follow the path and you’re sure to find…whatever you may find. Your father and I will come to fetch you after the holidays.” But in her mind, the woman was thinking, Ha! They’ll be dead and rotted away by the time the holidays are over! Good riddance to them! There’ll be more for my precious daughters now.
Because the stepmother was taller and heavier than both children put together, they had no choice but to walk into the woods. They heard the sounds of wild animals as they walked, and it got darker and darker. “I feel like we’re…uh…being watched,” said the girl, and her brother nodded his head. They kept going, though, and after what seemed to be a long, long time, they suddenly spied a house under a huge, dark tree. It was a very fancy house, with a thatched roof and real glass in the windows. As they came closer, they saw the walls were made of slices of cake and good white bread and decorated with what looked like marzipan. And then they saw something truly marvelous. The house stood on four bird’s legs! Even though the children were worn out and scared, they ran toward the house and grabbed at the walls and decorations, stuffing good food into their mouths as if they hadn’t eaten for days. Which they hadn’t.
Suddenly they heard a voice. “Salve, pueri mei!” It sounded like the voice of a vigorous woman. “Greetings, children!” And the front door opened. What did they see standing in the doorway? A tall, round Being. The speaker was a bird! A round, brown bird with a crown and red wattles on her head and a tail like a huge fan. “Exspectata ut domi meae,” she said. “Welcome to my home.” She took a step forward and reached forward with her large wings to caress her visitors. “Gaudeo te. I’m glad to see you.”
Well! The children were speechless for two whole minutes. A large bird speaking Latin? Whoever heard of such a thing? The boy took off his hat, the girl smoothed her apron, and they both bowed to the bird.
“Scio te quis sis,” she said. “Oh my, oh my, yes, yes, yes, I know who you are and why you’re here. Come inside and get warm. Sunt vobis esurientem? Are you hungry? I’ll fix you a snack. Or a whole meal!”
What could the children do? When one is face to face with a great mystery, it’s best to be courteous and obedient. They followed the great bird into the house. Even though it was supported by bird’s legs, the floor was sound and the furniture was comfortable.
After the bird had served the eggs and toast and bacon, she sat with them at her table. “I am called Queen Meleagris Gallopavo Galliformes,” she said in her haughty but kindly voice. “That is my proper name, but you may address me as Queen Meleagris. You are familiar with my people?” When the children, never having encountered a talking turkey before, gave hesitant nods, she added, “My ancestors, who were wizards and warriors, came from a great land far to the southeast, a fabled land that is home to great empires and wondrous architecture. It is named after the sacred blue stone, the turquoise [she pronounced it tour-quwahs], which you surely know protects one during one’s travels.” And with a proud quiver of her wattles, she handed a small egg-shaped specimen of the blue stone to the little girl. “Puella,” she said, “this is for you. You may have need of it as you and your brother make your way through the world of men.” Then she then served them pieces of cake on elegant china plates. The poor children had never eaten so well.
“Children, at this time of the year, we have a magicarum praxi, a magical practice. Just as the famous solar gods are sacrificed by their people and reborn with the solstice, so are some of my people also sacrificed for the good of the children. And to ensure the continued existence of our tribe. With the solar gods, there’s always a lot of theophagy, as the gods are symbolically eaten with great ceremony. But we go them one better! You can really eat the one of us who is sacrificed! Now don’t be alarmed! Before one of us dies and is roasted and eaten, she lays special eggs. The eggs hold our souls and our intelligence, which are passed along to the next generation.” And she reached into a cabinet and brought out a basket with four speckled eggs in it. “The eggs teach us that life goes on. Life is forever a cycle of birth and death and rebirth.”
As Queen Meleagris had much to teach the printer’s children, she invited them to stay with her. She fed them again, and then, seeing that they were bewildered and weary, led them to little beds with quilts of eiderdown.
And so passed seven days, during which the printer asked where his children were, and another seven days, during which the stepmother tried to convince him that his ungrateful children had run off into the woods and good riddance to them, and another seven days, during which the printer’s stepdaughters became so demanding and spoiled that they completely took over the printer’s house. By this time even the neighbors saw that they were unkind and careless and just plain mean. Another seven days passed, making a month, and now the printer finally realized he’d made a huge mistake in bringing this awful woman and her wretched girls into his house. But what could he do? They’d completely taken over his life. The harvest feast and midwinter holidays were fast approaching. “But where are my children?” the printer still wanted to know.
The children were of course still in the house in the woods, the tasty house that stood on bird’s feet. The Queen was still teaching them the great mysteries of life and death and rebirth. In addition, her servants taught the children the principles of poultry management and which birds were to be eaten and which (mostly songbirds) were never to be eaten and how birds migrated across distant lands and oceans. As the harvest feast approached, the Queen announced that this year it was her turn to offer herself to be sacrificed and roasted and eaten. After laying more eggs, she disappeared. The feast was attended by birds and animals and specially-invited people and was a great success.
Six days after the harvest feast, which in the printer’s house had been meager and lonely because not one neighbor had responded to the invitations sent out by the dreadful stepmother and her selfish daughters, the printer happened to be standing outside his cluttered printing room when he saw two children come skipping out of the woods. They were surrounded by a huge flock of birds of all kinds, and the girl was carrying a basket filled with eggs warmed and protected by many soft cloths. The printer could hardly believe his eyes. “My children!” he cried out. “My blessed children, where on earth have you been?”
“In the woods,” said his daughter. “In a house that stands on bird’s feet. We met the Queen of Birds, and she was so nice to us! Not at all like our stepmother and her mean daughters. We learned about history and plane geometry and theology. And we heard stories and always had enough to eat. And now, Father, we understand the truth of the harvest feast and the great midwinter feast.”
As the father hugged his children, the stepmother peeked out the window and the two stepsisters came running out the door to hurl insults and old shoes at the children. And guess what—two great black ravens flew up out of the flock and pecked the girls’ eyes out. Then a tall goose and a buzzard walked forward, nodded to the printer, and went into the house. Within minutes, a great cackling and hissing and screaming were heard and thrusting beaks and beating wings were seen, and soon the stepmother ran out the door. She and her daughters stood by the fence, not knowing what to do except try to wipe the blood away.
The printer was standing there, looking dumbly at his wife, when a man driving a large cart pulled by two beautiful mules suddenly stopped just outside his gate. Without a word, the stepmother climbed up on the straw in the cart and pulled her daughters in after her. Without a backward glance, the muleteer clicked his teeth, the mules started forward, and the stepmother and her daughters were hauled away.
“Children,” the printer said, “I’m glad to see you’ve come home. I think I understand now why you ran away. I’m sorry to have neglected you, but, well, you know, I’m always so busy. I’m the only printer in the land, you know.”
“Father, we didn’t run away. We were led and pushed into the woods. We realize you’ve always tried to do your best—”
“—but I should have been more attentive. Yes, well, I am turning over a new leaf. Opening my book of life to a fresh page.” He sat down and drew his children into his arms. The flock of birds gathered round, the better to see and hear this happy reunion, the better to protect the family, too, if that became necessary. “I didn’t know where you were,” the printer said. “The neighbors told me you’d been captured by an old woman who roasts and eats children who stray near her house in the woods.”
The children laughed. The flock of birds laughed, too. “We met the Queen of Birds,” his daughter repeated. “She was a great turkey whose ancestors came from a land named (of all things) Turkey.” The printer, who had seen maps of the world, nodded. His daughter continued. “She taught us many good and useful things. She was glad you and Mother had already taught us to read and write. Here, let me show you something we learned.” She picked up a clean piece of paper and one of the printer’s quill pens. Laying the paper on a plank of wood, she rested her open hand on the paper and drew around it in thick black ink.
“This outline represents a turkey,” she said. “See? My thumb is the head.” She drew eyes and a beak and added wattles and a crown. “These lines along my wrist are the legs. They’re like the legs under the Queen’s house.” By now the flock had crowded closer, and the printer had to nudge a stork, two owls, and a robin out of the way so he could see. “And my hand is the body,” his daughter said. “See? I’m drawing the wings. Well, the wing on this side.”
She next touched the quill pen to the outlines of her fingers. “These are the most important parts. They’re the turkey’s tail, and they represent four lessons that are useful to birds and humans alike. Maybe to all creatures. First, my pointer finger. Flock and family are of primary importance. We should always cherish them.” The birds nodded and chirped in agreement. “Second, my long finger. As high and as swiftly as birds can fly, so can our minds and imaginations travel. We must never clip our mental wings.” Again the birds all nodded and several of them rose into the air and hovered for a minute. “Third, my ring finger. Plumage and singing are glorious and beautiful, and so are fur and fins and skin. We should cherish beauty in all things.” Again the birds nodded, and many of them spread their tails and raised their crests, and some began warbling and cooing and singing. “And, fourth, my littlest finger. The egg and the shelter of the nest show us that we and the birds and all the other creatures are born and held safe, that we die (and some may be eaten), and that a new generation is always born.”
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.