The aroma of fresh poultry wafted towards me as I entered the butcher shop on my annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to secure a choice turkey. Holding my nose against this odiferous chore, As I navigated through the crowd towards the service counter, I heard a shrill squawk as I slipped on something squishy buried beneath the sawdust-covered floor, colliding with a strange, dark figure.
Recovering her composure, the elderly patron scowled and pointed a bejeweled, wrinkled finger at me. I shrugged and apologized but barely suppressed a grin. With her beakish nose and trembling, wattled chins, she looked like a tough old turkey in human disguise. Outlandishly clad in a turban-wrapped fez, an iridescent feathered cape over an embroidered vest and paisley knickers, her dignified bearing was mysteriously intimidating. I expected she would berate me for my rude, if accidental move, but instead, looked me up and down with contempt and turned dramatically back towards the counter, muttering to herself with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent.
“How weird was that?” I mumbled sub-vocally, reaching for a double-digit service number. My wait would be longer than I thought since several ‘pilgrims’ were ahead of me, including the ‘turkey lady’. When I took my place in line, I found my artist’s eye drawn to her burgundy velvet fez with it’s gently swinging silk tassel. Idly, wondering whether turkeys might really be from Turkey, I remembered a fanciful notion described by some sixteenth century English naturalists. It seems they imagined a resemblance between the turkey’s red head adornments and the fez, a tasseled cap worn at the time by Turkish men as a national headdress! Stirring the sawdust around with my shoe, I began to recall other bits of turkey trivia.
Actually, turkeys pre-date humanity by about 10 million years, having roamed throughout Africa and most of the Americas. However, history records that an exotic bird with a featherless head and white-speckled feathers on its rounded body was imported from the Guinea coast of Africa into Europe during the Turkish invasion early in the sixteenth century. This creature was later classified as a guinea fowl. Along with other strange products, such as coffee, a chewy confection called ‘loukoum’ and beautifully patterned textiles and carpets, the English dubbed anything that had never before been seen in the west as ‘Turkish’, including the ‘Turkie-bird’.
The line to the service counter finally started to move and the ‘turkey-lady’ waddled up to claim her order. Before depositing her payment on the counter, she opened her package to inspect its contents and immediately began to haggle with the butcher’s assistant. Flustered, he stared at her, then ran off to fetch his boss. The portly, ruddy-faced butcher emerged from the back room, wiping his bloody hands on his apron and glowered at his bizarre customer. “What do you mean, haggling with my prices?!” he roared. “My turkeys are the finest in town and worth every penny I ask! Furthermore,” he continued craftily, “my turkeys are so delicious, your guests will praise you to the heavens, swearing that you got twice the bird you bargained for!” Appearing to consider this, the ‘turkey lady’ suddenly assumed a mask of complete charm and proceeded to defend her point of view. “My dear Mr. Hogg,” she murmured, “I can see that you are very busy today, but if you would be so kind as to hear my little Turkish tale, then perhaps you will understand.” Intrigued, I joined the other customers as they moved closer to listen.
“Once, long ago in Turkey,” she intoned, “a ‘hodja’, or learned man went to the bazaar in his village. Strolling the aisles, he chanced upon a handsome curved scimitar that bore a price tag of three thousand ‘kurush’ . The hodja carefully inspected the scimitar but could not see why it should be so expensive. So he approached a table of patrons at a nearby coffee stand to see if they might offer an opinion. “That is a very special scimitar!” they exclaimed. “ We have heard that if you use it to attack your enemy, why, it grows five times its original length!”
Considering this, the hodja returned to his home, fetched the tongs from his fireplace and carried them back to the bazaar. Gathering a crowd, which included the coffee drinkers, he sang out, “Who will give me three thousand kurush for these fine fire tongs?” Curious, the coffee drinkers approached the hodja and asked to inspect the tongs. “These are rather ordinary tongs,” they frowned collectively. “Whatever has possessed you to ask three thousand kurush for them?”
“Well,” answered the hodja with an ingenuous smile, “when my wife is angry with me and she threatens me with these tongs, why, they seem to stretch to ten times their present length!”
The butcher stood there, a reluctant grin spreading across his broad chin. Shifting his weight from foot to foot in embarrassment, he agreed to accept her modest payment, but on one condition. “And what would that be?” she simpered. The butcher looked at his customers who were obviously fascinated by the ‘turkey lady’. “The condition is that you will return next year with another story.” “OK, she nodded. Then, with a triumphant smirk on her heavily lipsticked mouth. “I will, but only if you will give everyone here a fair price, too!”
Watching the other customers whispering among themselves, I thought, “Wow, that was impressive; could that hodja have been her ancestor?” Without waiting for an answer from Mr. Hogg, the old bird winked at me and secured her feather cape. Then, she gathered up her parcel and swept out of the shop, yellow sawdust rising in her trail.
The Turkey’s Tale was first published in 1993 as the Thanksgiving folktale feature in the Focus Magazine of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It is one of my Visual Fiction stories published in the T-R between 1993-97.