The wild ones can fly up to fifty-five miles an hour if they’re so inclined. The domesticated ones are so fat they can’t lift off the ground. The wild ones roost in trees. They don’t see well at night so they sleep in the branches to keep themselves safe. They launch at dawn. Their heads are like mood rings: redbluewhite. All you need to know is the more intense the color, the stronger the emotion. They will attack humans if you stare into their eyes for too long–do not look into the eyes! Male droppings are shaped like a J, female droppings a spiral. The bigger the poop, the older the bird. Forty-six million are slaughtered for Thanksgiving every year. Second grade teachers are expected to know many things: the best picture books (Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, hands down,) how to resist the urge to work through our lunches, how to resolve playground conflict, the names and locations of all fifty states, how much to feed the classroom hamster, how to add not only two numbers together, but three. I am, of course, an expert at turkey handprints. I encourage the children to paint the skin of their palms brown and their fingers yellowredorange–although I love when an experimentalist sneaks in and presents a green bird. I am a jack of all trades, and a master of none–except for being totally exhausted. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a social life. After the long hours and difficult PTA meetings, I still have energy. I’m still young. There’s a stereotype that teachers party to take off the edge, bathing their sorrows in wine. I’m not here to combat that stereotype. Some of my coworkers even start most weekdays blurry-eyed and confused, unsure how to respond to the upturned eyes looking at them. I’m not here to judge, either–teaching is exhausting and very rewarding. I’m just not part of the in-crowd, the group of young pretty teachers who go out on weekends to a bar on the other side of town, who try to ignore the looks they receive from their students’ dads. No, I’m not a part of that. I’m something completely different.
Now, don’t worry. I wouldn’t teach my students about the slaughter of innocent animals. That’s something for older kids. I barely got the lesson approved. There was fear that children would connect the bird on the projector to the bird on their plates. But the administrator just loved hand turkeys and making them with her own kids years ago. She was so busy, anyway; I was such a good teacher that she let it go. I began to research the birds obsessively. This is definitely my downfall as a teacher. It’s true, no matter how much it sounds like a cheesy interview answer: I work too hard. I want to make sure I know everything about a topic before I present information to my kids. I want them to get the best of the best and to have the opportunity to learn everything they can. I read everything I could find about turkeys. To the ancient Maya, turkeys were more than vessels to mark seasonal gratitude. They were vessels of the gods. They were domesticated for religious rituals. The birds operated in the between spaces, like dreams. Like the space between the living and the dead.
The children seemed to enjoy the lesson; they usually do. I receive great feedback from my superiors, my students’ parents, the students themselves. During the painting portion there was a brief battle over a tube of blue tempera as two students worked on psychedelic fowl. But besides that, my class loved learning about nature. They especially liked listening to the recording of the different noises turkeys make: not just the gobble gobble, but the cluck and the purr, the excited yelp! The sounds stilled the kids. Their eyes closed, their faces peaceful, their bodies tensed with focus. I enjoyed the rest of the day–recess was filled with students running and jumping, making turkey calls. I never knew turkeys could fly, Miss! I truly believe that the purpose of life is to keep learning. None of the information I presented the students with was particularly surprising or new to me–we live in the shadow of the Appalachians, half of the men hunt the bird here, and some of the women do, too. But the fact that the ancient Maya worshiped the bird surprised me. The fact that they believed the bird was a messenger to the dead surprised me. The fact that the bird even lived in their region surprised me. My lack of knowledge shouldn’t have surprised me, though–this part of the country isn’t exactly known for uplifting different cultures.
I became a teacher because I believe our childhoods shape us for the rest of our lives. Sure, genetics play a part. But have you ever read anything about serial killers? Everything always points to the way their parents treated them. I never met a serial killer as far as I know– but I’ve met people who ended up doing things that they couldn’t take back. When I initially went to college I wanted to become a therapist, but that seemed too close–I didn’t think I could listen to someone talk about suicide. I didn’t think I could witness someone’s self-destruction again. So I decided to intervene even earlier, before the problems really started. I decided to become a teacher, to impart every student with the knowledge that they are worthy and they are loved. I believe this is a form of magic, a talisman my students carry home with them into adulthood. I pray that the magic is strong enough. I know what you’ll think when I first bring it up. Talking to the dead? It’s nothing like those tv shows, though. I know because that’s where I got started. It was the only place people seemed to openly talk about that kind of stuff, except for the occasional late-night conversation after a few drinks. I watched Long Island Medium; despite being impressed by the platinum blonde woman’s accent and perception, I decided to go in a different direction. I took out a credit card so I could spend eight-hundred-fifty dollars on a reading from John Edward. It was more than I paid for one month’s rent. I selected him because his show had been off the air for a while and he had more availability. And I’ll admit it, I thought he had kind eyes. I added myself to his waiting list; it was a lottery system. He randomly selected who he would be reading for. While I waited for an email stating I was the winner, I Googled him and read testimonies claiming he was a fraud. They cited studies. I began to feel unsure. Eight-hundred-fifty dollars was a lot to pay for someone who was a fraud, and why did I need him, anyway? I’m a teacher in America—and I teach in a poor district on top of that. Teachers are known for operating on very little and getting the job done—and getting it done well. My students have never been left wanting. I do whatever it takes to get it done—research, creating decorations when my budget won’t allow for store-bought, making requests on social media for gently used books and other supplies. I didn’t need a big budget to talk to the dead. Not only could I do it, I was confident I could do it well. It started with research. How did people traditionally contact the dead? The research started out like all research does: with Google. My initial search included results about famous mediums, like John Edward, followed closely by Amazon pages advertising books with titles like The Dangers of Talking to the Dead. I didn’t care about the consequences. I would do whatever it took to find him. I crawled through pages of results and took notes on each one. Dreams. Visions. Scents. Talking out loud. Coins. Feathers. I wanted to see him again. It did not matter if it was in a waking vision or a sleeping one. Various websites informed me that there were herbs that could help aid the process. Lavender hit all the important notes: cheap, easily accessible, familiar enough that I felt safe consuming it. It was also well-verified. Several websites reported it could foster my intuition and intensify my dreams. I purchased some lavender tea at Kroger’s. I drank one mug before bed for sixteen days straight. I ran out of tea bags; nothing happened. I was no closer to him. Articles encouraged me to look for coincidences–familiar smells or people that looked like him. The articles advised me to interpret them as communications from him. I had never seen anyone that reminded me of him anywhere, let alone in this small town—that tall, pale boy whose masculine scent was so familiar to me I could find it in any crowd. I tried and I tried: the grocery store, the mall. But I could never locate it. The articles suggested talking out loud to the dead. Before I started this journey I thought of him constantly and sometimes allowed myself to talk to him internally. This small action was a devastating acknowledgement that he was no longer alive. I had never tried speaking to him out loud. I began using my rare free moments to talk to him and to wait for a response or an apparition or even just his scent, oh god, what I would give to smell him again. Nothing. I looked for signs Google asserted are associated with the dead—coins, feathers—but none came. I could have let myself get frustrated and given up, but I am a teacher and that is not what we do. We take the impossible and we make things happen. Not just anything, either-- important things. I don’t say this for any recognition or to act like a martyr. My job is extremely hard and I constantly face the challenges of too little money, too little time, and too little support. What I can say with confidence is that I do my best to fulfill the promise I made to myself, to him, and to my community: I do my best to make sure each of my students knows that they are loved, precious, and valuable. That the world would be worse off without them. And I feel more often than not, I am able to do that. All of that is to say that I’m used to challenging situations. I have even come to enjoy them sometimes. The sense of satisfaction I get when I resolve a difficult situation cannot be paralleled. I didn’t know it was possible to become more motivated to connect with him, but after all of my failed attempts I was. I would overcome all barriers; I would figure this situation out; I would speak to him again. When the above suggestions didn’t work, I turned to the darker side of the Google search. These things came with lots of warnings about how they could be difficult to accomplish, how my soul could be at stake if I chose to move forward. That made me laugh. I was confident I had lost my soul long ago when he departed. I had come to understand that my job, no matter how draining, had given me something to fill the void left inside me. I was often working, preparing for work, or agonizing over it: I didn’t have to face my own emptiness because of it. There was not much left of me outside of the word teacher and I found I liked it that way. It didn’t give me time to think or to feel. I was not afraid of losing what was left of the shell I had become. Medium. Séance. Ouija. I was surprised with how many results came up when I searched “Ohio mediums.” I scrolled through pages of white, female faces. Most of them seemed to be clustered in Columbus, but that was doable. I just dreaded pouring all of that money into my gas tank and into a reading when I might be able to do it myself. When I searched “Ohio seances” I read about a 19th century ghost story in Athens. There were no contemporary results. The Ouija board approach had been simple enough. I asked around the school. One of the teachers had one. I had all of the girls over a few weeks before Halloween—they reserved that night, of course, for skimpy costumes and rolling around with strange, masked men. No judgment here–I just wish we could have done it on Halloween. The internet suggested it was the perfect night to talk to the dead. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway; a few girls brought bottles of wine, another, White Claw. Ain’t no laws while you’re drinking White Claws! They immediately drank, and drank heavily, to forget the runny noses and sticky fingers of the day. One girl ended up chasing the other with the planchette. Nothing came of that night. That’s when the turkeys came in. I went to Ohio University. The Maya never came up in my education. I knew very little about them. So, I had to do extensive research and read everything I could find. The ancient Maya worshiped the animal and considered it as important as their gods. The bird supposedly had powers in transitional times, like at night, but especially in dreams. Its ability to travel between states allowed it to carry messages to the gods on its wings. They could also carry words to the dead, who they were frequently buried next to. The Maya domesticated the bird so it could play a part in their religious rituals, and it was one of the most common symbols of their time. It was so revered that it was considered a significant symbol of power and prestige. One ruler used it as part of his name; all rulers decorated themselves with turkey feathers. From there, it was easy. It was so very easy. I live in the shadows of the Appalachians. Turkey season starts every April. My dad was more than happy to help–he’s hunted his whole life. He never had a son he could pass his knowledge down to. Dad loved the idea of me giving a lesson about local hunting habits. (Don’t worry–I’d never actually discuss any of this with one of my students. That’s for the older kids.) First, the preparation: camo, weapon, box call. He said some younger kids were using apps to track the birds these days, but they weren’t really necessary–the turkeys roosted in a specific area and had done so for as long as he’d been alive. Predictable, like the seasons. Predicable, like anything else in the natural world. Like life-death- rebirth. I asked him to draw a detailed map. I would share it here, but you probably couldn’t read it–he left the names off most of the streets. When he did label them, he used nicknames you wouldn’t be familiar with. And if you were a local, you’d already know where the birds were, or you’d know someone else who could tell you. It was his idea to lend me the camo–he has never been a big man, not much bigger than me. I took it with gratitude. Teachers never turn away donations. The next steps were simple. I returned to the talk to them method. Except I did my talking on paper torn out of the back of one of his old notebooks. On it, I wrote what I needed to say; I unburdened the words that haunted me, that were always on my mind, that I constantly pushed away while smiling into the face of yet another child, while grading papers. They poured out quickly, in red ink. It had always been his favorite color. I slowly pulled up each camo pant leg, buttoned the garment, and cuffed the ends. I put the jacket on and felt how loose the sleeves were. I didn’t take a knife or the pepper spray my mother gave me when I first moved out on my own. I took the letter; I felt for the wooden box call in my right pocket and the cracked corn from the local supply store in the left one. The wood was smooth, the grain, rough. I walked into the woods and followed the path until I came to the place. I stepped into the brush. I kneeled down in wait. And eventually, they came. Their dark feathers stood as proud haloes as they pushed through the brush. The massive birds paused, as if waiting for something. Their heads delicately poked around, looking for what, I didn’t know. After a few moments, they took a few more steps. Steps, pause, steps, pause, the cycle continued. Despite their size, I could barely hear them–the leaves and twigs on the forest floor hardly registered their presence. Their silence was unusual: they are known for a variety of sounds, from clicks to gobbles. I watched in awe, imagining what the early Maya saw when they took in these crowned behemoths: the snood, a long column of flesh falling over the turkey’s beak and the fleshy wattle, mounds of meat under the beak. The way the light played off the red and blue of their faces, the chocolate of their plumage. It was the first time I had truly seen them. It was the first time I saw god. The tears that fell on the letter were the first I had cried in years. They blurred his name on the envelope. As if I had needed to write it; as if these divine beings did not already know who the message was for and what it contained. Steps, pause, steps, pause. Their blue heads finally landed on me. Their dark eyes barreled into my own. Their heads are like mood rings: blue for excitement, blue for messengers.
-- Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her debut chapbook sing eternal is available through Bottlecap Press.