Janet, her mother and her sister, Norma, were visiting her Uncle Ernie’s turkey farm. Uncle Ernie’s wife had gone to the hospital for another baby. They already have seven, Janet marvelled. Why do they need another one?
Two days had passed since her mother had received a phone call from Uncle Ernie asking her to look after his children while his wife was at the hospital. Mommy had packed enough clothes for several days, then driven the ‘53 Chevy from North Burnaby to Surrey. Mommy said that the turkey farm was near King George Highway and 90th Avenue. Janet could not imagine where that was, she knew only that it took what-seemed to-be-forever to reach it.
Mommy drove along Willingdon to Grandview Highway, then up the big hill to Imperial Street. Near the top of the hill, she steered the car into a gas station. When she paid the man inside for the gas, she bought each of them a chocolate ice cream cone. The cone had twin tops, made to hold two side-by-side scoops.
“This will be your Easter treat,” Mommy said, “since we won’t be home to hunt for Easter eggs this weekend.” She smiled at the little girls, born almost two years apart. While similar in many ways, including their long blonde hair drawn up into pony tails and their identical sailor-trimmed outfits, they were different in personality. Janet was reserved and thoughtful. Norma seemed to have a sense of adventure.
“Three cones,” the ice cream man had said, “Thirty cents, please.”
Mommy led the two young girls to a bench under a huge oak tree. When they were seated on the bench, she handed them each a cone, then sat beside them. They ate their ice cream with enthusiasm.
“Can we play with the ducks and the geese and the bunnies,” Norma asked.
“Uh huh,” Mommy said, licking her ice cream.
“Do they have baby cows?” Janet asked.
“I think they have one,” Mommy replied. Then she said something about veal, but Janet had no idea what that word meant either.
Soon, they were back in the car, passing through New Westminster, over an old bridge that Mommy called the “Patula” and up another big hill. On King George Highway, Mommy told the girls to watch for the big sign that advertised the sale of fresh turkeys. When they drove into the large carpark in front of the farmhouse, Mommy reminded them to stay out of trouble.
Before they could step clear of the car, Uncle Ernie and his children had it surrounded. He thanked Mommy again and again for coming to his rescue, while the older children tried to convince Janet and Norma to “come and play”, and the younger ones, held firm by their father, nattered to be free of his restrictions. As soon as Uncle Ernie was satisfied that Mommy had things under control, he hopped into his own car and drove off to the hospital to see what kind of a baby his wife planned to bring home.
Uncle Ernie returned the next day and announced that his children had another sister. “Six boys and two girls!” he had boasted.
Janet was amazed that he had so many children, and that Mommy had only two. Her thoughts on that matter were interrupted, however, when Uncle Ernie said that his wife would be in the hospital for a few more days. Excited at the prospect, Janet began to imagine the things that remained unexplored on the turkey farm.
On the first day after their arrival, Uncle Ernie’s son Chris had taken the two sisters to the rabbit pen. Chris was tall and slender with dark brown hair. He looks like Uncle Ernie, Janet thought, except for the bald head. Chris was older than Janet, he had bragged, then added that he was almost seven.
He had lifted from the pen a pale brown bunny with soft, down-like hair and long floppy ears, and set it at their feet in the unmown grass. It had hopped once, then began chewing on the green grass stems. The girls had watched, then pulled some limp lettuce leaves from a basket and fed the cuddly animal.
A while later, Chris had returned the rabbit to its pen and led the girls to a small stream that ran through the property at the back of their big house. They had thrown seeds and grains on the bank of a stream and watched the frenzy that erupted when the ducks and geese greedily started fighting over the unexpected feeding.
The following day, Janet followed Chris around the farm, helping him with chores that happily included the feeding of milk and bread to a baby cow that Mommy had called “the fatted calf” when she handed Chris a bucket of warm milk a short while before.
Norma had decided not to accompany Chris and Janet. Instead, she announced at the breakfast table that she preferred to help Jens, the hired man, feed the turkeys.
“Alright,” Jens had agreed, “but you must wear gum boots and hold on tight to the railing. The bridge over the turkey muck can be tricky. Just ask your sister.” He peered at Janet, who sat quietly munching on a slice of toast and peanut butter. “Do you remember what happened last year?”
Janet frowned and nodded that she remembered. I sure do, she thought, recalling the day clearly. The last time her family had visited the farm, she had insisted on accompanying Daddy when Uncle Ernie suggested a tour of the turkey barn.
The barn turned out to be a curious arrangement: a small wooden hut in which the turkey eggs were kept warm so they would hatch into turkey chicks, and large, detached cages made of chicken wire on five sides, including the floor, with a make-shift roof on top. The chicken wire cages were suspended several feet above the ground, on wooden stilts. Along the length of the cages, parallel to their floor, ran the bridge to which Jens had referred. As Uncle Ernie had described it a year ago, the bridge was made of two rows of two-by-four beams – one for each foot – and a third that was mounted to the bridge, supposedly for use as a railing.
As she had examined the bridge, Janet recalled, a chill had run down her back bone.
“Easy to assemble,” Uncle Ernie had said. “Easy to dismantle, if we have to move the cages.”
Daddy had taken Janet’s hand and led her up two wooden steps to the bridge. The steps were uncomfortably high for Janet and she had tightened her grip, so Daddy could pull her up.
“Why is it smelly, Daddy?” Janet had asked, interrupting the ongoing discussion above her head.
“That’s just the turkey muck,” Uncle Ernie had explained. “That’s why we keep them in wire cages. They poop a lot. It’s easier to let the poop fall through open wire than to have to clean floors all the time.” He had stopped and gazed at Janet. “Keep a tight hold of your daddy’s hand. There’s at least six feet of muck down there. If you fall in, you’ll disappear!”
Janet had wrinkled her brow with concern and gripped Daddy’s fingers so tight that he had yelped. In that moment, her foot slipped through the six-inch gap between the two wooden beams. She had screeched as she twisted, falling toward the turkey muck, but Daddy’s hand held firmly around her wrist.
“It’s okay. I’ve gotcha,” Daddy had said, as he steadied her feet back onto the beams. “Let’s go slow.”
Together, Janet and Daddy inched their way across the bridge and down the steps on the far side of the turkey pen.
“Okay, I will!” Five-year old Norma’s strident voice penetrated Janet’s thoughts. “I’ll wear the gum boots,” she replied to Jens’ condition. Her smile reached from ear to ear.”
Mommy’s green eyes glanced toward Jens, her auburn eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Are you sure?” she asked him. “Is it safe?”
“These kids,” the portly, middle-aged man said, waving his hand around the table, “have been following me around for years. No harm has come to any of them.”
Janet saw the twinkle in his blue eyes. She set down the piece of toast and peanut butter, feeling as if her tummy was doing summersaults.
Mommy scooped Norma’s long, heavy hair into a pony tail, telling her that it would get in the way if it wasn’t tied up. Then she made Norma don one of Chris’ old, denim jackets, rolling the sleeves up to the girl’s elbows. She found a pair of gum boots that topped her daughter’s knees and stuffed little feet into them.
“Now, you listen to Jens,” she admonished. “Be careful. Those turkeys bite!”
“Yes, Mommy,” Norma said, placing her small hand in Jens’ much larger one.
Sometime later, Mommy ran to the back door in response to loud banging and deep laughter. She opened the top of the Dutch door quickly.
“Jens, what is it?”
Still laughing wildly, Jens looked down at his side. There stood Norma, completely covered in turkey muck, but for her pony tail. Mommy’s mouth gaped and closed repeatedly.
“We were crossing the bridge,” he said, trying to contain his mirth. “I showed her how to walk carefully with one foot on each board. I think the space between the boards may have been a bit too much.” He laughed again. “The railing is pretty high too. And the boots you made her wear…” He looked down at her feet, wet stockings hanging half off, “were a little too big as well. Add it all together and. … well … she fell off the bridge and into the muck. By the time I realized what had happened, she was already going under. The only thing I could grab was her pony tail! The boots are long gone.”
As Jens explained the little girl’s misadventure, he removed a hanky from his pocket, knelt beside her and cleaned the muck from the vital area in the centre of her face.
“Spit, honey,” he said. “Make sure you get that muck out of your mouth.”
When she could finally speak again, Norma looked up at Jens with eyes full of hero-worship. “Thank you for saving me,” she whimpered.
In response, Jens and Mommy burst into laughter. When they finally had control of themselves again, Jens returned to work and Mommy stripped Norma to her underwear.
“Come on,” she said. “You need a bath!”
The following day, Norma stayed close to Janet and Chris and Chris’ younger brother, Ricky. They fed the calf warm milk and bread, and scattered seeds and grain for the ducks and geese. They played cowboys and indians in the trees on either side of the stream, using a small foot bridge to cross so their shoes stayed dry.
“I’m hungry,” Ricky said.
“Me too,” Norma agreed.
“Let’s ask Mommy for some raisins,” Janet suggested.
The four children raced to the back of the big farm house and banged on the door.
“Mommy, can we have some raisins, please?”
“No,” Mommy said, “not now. We’ll be having lunch in an hour. Go play.”
Disappointed, the four children headed for the rabbit pen.
“We can play with the rabbits for a while,” Chris said, “and feed them too.”
An hour later, the children heard Mommy calling them for lunch.
“I’m not so hungry now,” Ricky said, rubbing his tummy.
“Me neither,” Janet and Norma said as one.
Nonetheless, they followed Chris as he led them back to the farm house, where Mommy stood talking to Jens outside the back door. When Mommy noticed the four children approach, she gasped.
“Where have you been?” she demanded.
“Feeding the rabbits,” Chris replied nonchalantly.
“What have you been eating?” Mommy asked. “You three have brown rings around your mouths.” She grasped each chin in turn and twisted the little faces this way and that.
“We found raisins in the rabbit pen, Mommy,” Janet blurted proudly. “They’re not as sweet as yours, but we’re not hungry now.”
Mommy’s wide green eyes locked with Jens’ blue ones for just a moment, then together they burst into laughter.
“What’s so funny, Mommy,” Norma asked, her face turned upward, the brown ring around her mouth marring her sweet countenance.
“Chris …” Mommy said, her voice terse.
“I tried to tell them, Auntie,” Chris interrupted, his tone defensive, “but they wouldn’t believe me when I told them that they were eating rabbit poop!”
Mommy and Jens laughed some more, then Mommy ran inside for a basin of warm water and fresh towels. She and Jens scrubbed the mouths of the three younger children, their efforts interrupted frequently with spurts of giggles.
The following morning, Uncle Ernie returned from the hospital with his wife and new daughter. While the other children fussed over the tiny girl, Mommy brought their suitcases from the bedroom, and Jens put them in the car.
“Thanks so much for looking after the kids,” Uncle Ernie said to Mommy. “We really appreciate it.” He opened the car door for Mommy and watched as she slid into the seat. “Did you girls have a good time?” He peered into the back seat, grinning. “I hear you had some adventures.”
“Yes, Uncle Ernie,” the girls replied in unison.
“We had lots of fun!” Janet replied. “If you go shopping for another baby, we’ll come again. Won’t we, Mommy?” She clambered onto her knees and looked out the open window. “Hey, Chris! Maybe next time we can hunt for chocolate eggs down by the stream!”