Melvin has been strutting up and down the hallway since dawn, hoisting his enormous body across the 20 step stretch from the kitchen to the front door where he lingers, swaying unsteadily from side to side like a tower of mismatched dishes, gazing expectantly into the driveway, trilling sweet things at it, puffing his chest, arching his wings, looking for something, waiting, stirring, shimmering, shuffling his feet... After a while, he turns around slowly, laboriously, toilsomely, and drags himself back to the kitchen, heaving, and wheezing and staggering on gouty legs, then embarks again on the arduous, 20 step trek to the front door, parading in full celebration gear, big as a carnival float and as jubilantly bedecked as one.
It's Sunday. At least that's what our calendars say – Sunday, the cusp of a new week – but, to Melvin, in Melvin's sense of time, it's something else, something brighter and luckier.
He was rescued from a local flesh farm and brought to Peaceful Prairie with his five brothers when they were all very young, barely four months old, still soft in their feathers and tender in their voices – 6 newborn planets wobbling in their axes, orbiting the grasslands and the ferns with a buoyancy in their round, befeathered selves that almost felt like laughter – and, for a brief time after their arrival at the sanctuary, that first Spring, Summer and Fall of freedom, they were grounded so firmly in the hope of things, the wings of things, the rapture of things, the giddy promise of things, the endless summer of things, that they seemed inextinguishable – 6 new suns, shining the warmth of their attention towards everything in their world with such constancy, such enthusiasm, such intensity, that it felt like love.
Everything they could see, smell, touch, taste, hear was embraced as nothing less than an earthly delight: the salty-mossy-fruity-fenny-bitter-acrid-sweet scents of grasses, the hedgerows, and the grasslands, and the bogs, the ravishing rain, the mud-luscious puddles, the iridescent hues of feathers and of snow, the sap-oozing milkweeds, the languidly stretched fields, the knotted thickets of bramble, the sweet, sapid, scintillating sights, scents, sounds of life all around them, the very dirt under their feet, and everyone walking on it. But almost as soon as they entered this welcoming world, it started to ebb away from them. Imperceptibly at first, but then faster and faster, harder and harder, punishing them where it had rewarded, pummeling them where it had caressed.
As Melvin, George, Stanley, Alfred, Elmer and Archie became progressively crippled, their genetically manipulated bodies growing around them like tumors, engulfing them in their grip, crushing themselves under their own weight, suffocating, choking, destroying themselves in the name of our "turkey dinners", their ability to participate in life diminished and, with it, so did their openness to its gifts. Their daily cavalcades into the open fields became slower and slower, shorter and shorter, fewer and fewer, and then, eventually, not at all: George, Stanley, Alfred, Elmer and Archie died one by one, and, with each of them, a whole world of consciousness, memories, yearnings, everything each of them knew and remembered ceased to exist with him, the face of each, the scent of his body, his enthusiasm, his intelligence was gone with him.
After each loss, Melvin's own light dimmed, as if disconnected from a power source. And, as the burden of sorrows, ailments and age accumulated, it took him longer and longer to return to bold, brilliant, demanding life.
But he always did. He lifted himself from sadnesses that grew deeper and deeper with each new loss, and he embarked again on his long, burning journeys all the way from his barn to the trailer, where the visitors were, and resumed the bruising, exhilarating toil of following them around, wheezing and coughing, his lungs and heart barely keeping up with his giant body, his legs deformed under its weight. He dragged himself back to the world he loved – improbable and sublime, like a house on legs, like a ship on dry sand – and savored each of its dwindling gifts: straw-scented shade, sweet grass and cracked corn, Shylo's friendship, Chris' voice, Michele's presence, visitors he had charmed, and visitors he had yet to enchant. And he loved life with all her faults, and forgave her many trespasses.
Then, one day, he did not. When Shylo, his last remaining friend died, he isolated himself in the back of the barn and refused to leave. Morning after morning, the gates would fling open and everyone would rush out to greet the day, but Melvin did not. He remained rooted in the same dark spot and refused to leave. He did not move, he did not turn, he did not look away from the wall.
Day after day, we'd find him in the same secluded nook, alone, listless, expecting nothing, demanding nothing, taking everything without joy, interest or protest, as though it was all happening to someone else. And nothing, not the promise of treats, nor the presence of visitors, nor any of the things he had so relished, could make him want to leave his self-imposed exile. If we hadn't physically carried him outside, he would have remained in exactly the same spot, staring at the wall in front of him from morning till night, his back turned to the world he had so loved.
He shut the world out with such finality that he seemed more crushingly, more irrevocably gone than Shylo himself. That mysterious something that had resurrected him before, that obscure and irrepressible something that had restored his great broken heart so many times before, seemed irretrievable now. His body slumped, his eyes drained of light, his spirit wilted. He stopped preening, he stopped communicating, he stopped showering the world with his rapt attention, he stood there silent and still, anchored in place by a sort of strange devotion, as if waiting for something, an end or a return. When the weather turned cold, we brought him inside the house. And that's where he still is today, sharing his shriveled world with the shut-ins, the frail, the old, the ill, the crippled who are there for a while or for the rest of their lives. Not much has changed. Despite the constant care and attention, he is still withdrawn, still solitary, still uncommunicative, still reluctant to move.
Except on Sundays.
On Sundays, he stirs before everyone else, aflutter with his old excitement, anticipating something good, and already singing to this good thing, strutting for it, trilling turkey tunes to it – a big, crippled bird, dancing for joy when he can barely walk, trumpeting for joy when he can barely breathe. Acting as if the lost world of green fields, endless summers, thriving tribe of turkey toms was there again, swaggering about the room with laughter about him, displaying his plumage in a magnificent show of glistening feathers, hoisting his aching body across the room, dragging himself on swollen joints, covering the 20 long, painful steps from the kitchen to the front door, waiting, stirring, shimmering, shuffling his feet, atwitter with expectation, until he finally hears the sound he's been waiting for: Ruth's car pulling into the driveway.
Then he kicks the door with his left foot and demands something he vehemently rejects the rest of the time: to go out. We open the door and he swaggers out in the yard in full parade gear, his wattle quickened scarlet, his tail fanned out like a triumphal chariot wheel, his neck arched like a rainbow, his wings stretched all the way to the ground and held taut with robust, muscular grace. Ruth is here! And he acts as though the miraculous, spellbinding, rapturous days of his youth are back again, alive and present with the rich, red pulse of life – not remembered like a story, but felt, known, believed like a scent, like bread baking. Ruth is here! And he follows her around, quivering and shaking on gouty legs, and issuing forth a most astonishing array of flowing sounds punctuated by percussive feather pops in the tips of his wings, his burdened heart all aglow, his lungs filled not with mere oxygen but with something else, something imperious, something invincible, a force, not a substance – a shot of livingness straight into the throbbing heart with all its folly, wisdom, ache and yearning to be nothing but loved.
By evening, Ruth, has come and gone for another week and Melvin is still abuzz, ablaze, abloom with the swarm of the day, and relives it well into the night. Of all the people he sees every day, of all the souls he shares the house with, of all the volunteers gracing the sanctuary every week, only Ruth sweetens his heart till it remembers life's most beautiful song – is! is! is!
© 2008 Joanna Lucas
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.