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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Child of the 70's: Agatha

One September  when my sister and I were maybe nine years old, my parents, for the first time ever, went away together for a whole week, and our friends the Snyders came to stay with us.   The Snyders, David and Sally, had two boys, Todd and Tris, with whom we got along with tolerably well, considering the fact that they were boys, and were older than us, and we really had nothing in common. (They liked sports, especially football and running, and anything involving speed, like waterskiing; and we liked playing Boggle, eating cheese and crackers, and lying around reading books.)

At the time, my parents were deep into their homesteading phase. David and Sally--who had most recently been living in a luxurious gated community in Panama--were now handed responsibility for not only the dogs, Louie and April,  and our psychotic cat, Alice, but also two pigs (Statler and Waldorf), a dozen chickens, four turkeys, and four sheep (Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha, and Frida).

Manth and I were  delighted  to have the Snyders stay with us  for a whole week.   They made awesome food we had never even heard of in Massachusetts in 1979, like tacos, they played salsa music on the stereo, they had no idea what time we were supposed to go to bed,  and they let us watch as much TV as we wanted.  Compared to Todd and Tris---who frequently got in bloody punching matches over things like who got out of the car first--Samantha and I were probably a piece of cake (although we did occasionally get in our own bloody punching matches about things like who left Barbie's dress where the dog could get it!)

At that time, our absolute favorite thing to do was make tiny tree-houses, complete with furniture,  for our vast collection of little rabbit- fur  mouse dolls dressed in various professional outfits (I remember the nurse and the policeman) in trees in the woods. With Mom and Dad away, we were now free to do that for hours on end, uninterrupted by chores such as folding laundry, cleaning our rooms, or completing homework on time. It was bliss.

The first three days of the visit were peaceful. When Manth and I were done playing in the woods after school, we would 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.  Then, one day, on our way back from the very large tree deep in the woods where were constructing an entire mouse-sized apartment building with sticks and moss, we came across a scene of hideous carnage. Louie, our mentally challenged and hyper but very beautiful English setter, had somehow gotten into the pasture and  killed the turkeys. 

Hulking black bodies were scattered around. Heads hung limp or were torn off, and feathers carpeted the ground. Louie was dashing from carcass to carcass,  his tail wagging frantically,  absolutely beside himself with joy.  Manth and I  yelled at him, pulling him off the birds by his collar, and calling him what Dad would have no doubt called him at that minute ("Louie you goddamn sonofabitch dog!")

After dragging Louie out of the pasture and closing the gate, Manth 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, "Louie got the turkeys!" The entire Snyder family--the 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 abject horror. It was enough coping with our house in the country and the livestock--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 Manth and I, trying to comfort us and telling us Louie couldn't help it--he was, born and bred, a bird dog. First David went and checked on the sheep. (Bjorn 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 it: 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. 

Mantha said, "Let's name her Agatha."

At some point the next day, Agatha came down from the tree and began staggering around on the ground. When Manth and I got home from school, we rushed straight to the pasture to see her. (I don't know what David did with the bodies. Possibly he had to take a day off of work to bury our dead turkeys?) Louie had done a number on Agatha's tail---her rear end was now partly bald and she was missing all her beautiful tail feathers.   Never,  as a turkey, having possessed the most intelligent of facial expressions, she now 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 around with their hands pressed over their mouths in disbelief.

Manth and I immediately 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 she liked-I thought Cheez-Its, Mantha thought Wheat Thins;) a tub of Port Wine Cheese, two bottles of ginger ale, canoe cushions, and several different Trixie Belden mysteries. (We chose ones that made frequent mention of Trixie's chickens).

Then--ignoring the stares of complete, stunned disbelief from Todd and Tris (Todd:"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 down on either side of her, carefully placed the crackers within her reach, and settled down to read. 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 Mom and Dad 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 was sure for a moment that one of us must have died. When Sally tearfully told them that Louie had gotten in the pasture and killed most of the turkeys, my mom started laughing, "Oh, Jesus Christ, the damn turkeys! You scared me half to death!" Dad was a little more distressed, but since the culprits were his beloved 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 never went in the pasture, but Manth and I had no problem letting them take the blame--which probably didn't do a lot for our relationship. ) The the Snyders departed, the friendship still intact, the boys probably pondering the unfathomable weirdness of girls.

Manth 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 --especially as she now had a name,  cracker preferences, and a favorite Trixie Belden adventure ("#3-The Gatehouse Mystery!). We offered her to our friend Nancy, who lived down the road on a farm. Agatha lived through the winter in Nancy's barn, but sometime in the following summer, Nancy 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 Audobon, and volunteers were searching the woods for the strange bird (this was many years before wild turkeys made a comeback in New England.)

My dad re-read the article and realized the bird had been spotted in between our house and Nancy'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 find out how The Gatehouse Mystery ended--but we never saw her again.  She might be out there still. 





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