Our Royal Palm turkey tom and his hen were intended for the Thanksgiving table. Each afternoon as they were released with the chickens to free-range and eat bugs and weed seeds, they didn’t miss an opportunity to display their magnificent crisp formal white plumage tipped in fretted inky black. The tom jumped up on a bench to be at eye level with me. He pointed out that at best he would only reach 12 pounds at maturity. “If you’re going to feed a houseful you’ll need one of those center-fold bronze broad-breast turkeys!” he gobbled. I saw his point. I felt very presidential as I pardoned them on the grounds of their esthetic contribution to the holiday season. I’ve bought cars for less than their organic, church-going, hand-fed replacement cost. Sixteen souls joined us for turkey with cornbread stuffing, corn and oyster casserole, yeast rolls and … I was reminded of a Thanksgiving morning long ago.
Jimmy took the Winchester pump .22 from the tiny room we called the library. The gun had an octagonal barrel and looked like the rifle in every cowboy show you ever saw. Jimmy knew how to shoot it.
The early morning shadows made charcoal silhouettes of the bare pecan trees. I followed my brother through two bob-wire fences and across a rustling sea of dead Johnson grass. The honeyed light made me think of a song I’d heard on the radio. I began to sing. “Oh what a beautiful morning…” Jimmy shushed me before I got to the line about the little brown maverick winking its eye.
The short grass prairie rose toward a small limestone hill. The first of several black-tailed jack rabbits exploded into a crazy zigzag lope—dodging mesquite bushes and clearing 4-foot clumps of prickly pear cactus in graceful arcs.
Jimmy raised the rifle and steadily followed the fleeing form. He fired, and I watched the rabbit cartwheel and come up wobbly but still running. The rifle cracked again and the rabbit skidded to a stop. Like an eager dog, I feinted at bull nettle and fresh cowpies—my bare feet lifted high to retrieve the game. The 2-foot body was hot and the black stippled fur was sticky with blood. When my arms were full Jimmy turned toward home.
The woodstove glowed as we stepped into the kitchen. Mama bent forward and peered into the firebox, one hand gathered her loose skirts as the other poked at the fire with a metal rod. An oval granite roaster filled with pinto beans roiled in a red boil on the front burner. A pan of purple turnips and their dark greens from her garden simmered on the back of the stove. In the oven two black cast-iron skillets of cornbread sent up little wisps of steam. The meal had been ground from our own corn on the stone grist mill that Daddy powered from the PTO of the tractor.
Jimmy brought in the quartered rabbit pieces and Mama washed them, salt, peppered and dusted them with flour. She began to fry rabbit in a big skillet until a platter was piled high with browned pieces. She sprinkled flour from her hand into the skillet and then poured milk. She hummed as she stirred the gravy.
Old Rowdy was barking his “people” bark in the front yard. I looked out to see Aunt Dela and Uncle J E pull up in their station wagon. Odela was Daddy’s baby sister. J E managed a typewriter supply company and they lived pretty well off on a little ranch nearby. She had no children but a Chihuahua she called Baby. The dog had a chair with a cushion at the table and she would fry chicken livers for it.
“Alice I had an extra turkey so I brought it over for you and the family,” Aunt Dela said. She told my brother Tommy to get the turkey from the back of the station wagon. “There’s dressing and some rolls and a pecan pie too,” she said. At the table I looked from golden turkey to fried rabbit and sighed.
At the end of the day I don’t remember if there was any rabbit left on the platter. I do remember that Mama had fried the hell out of the meat. I’m still grateful for the bounty of our red-clay garden—and all the fresh meat my brother Jimmy provided for the table when I was growing up. And I’m thankful for Aunt Dela’s surprise turkey.