Otis gets the blues, a true tale of love and loss
The following is a Thanksgiving tale, a factual account of an unexpected relationship with the late Otis, who made a deep impression on everyone and everything he touched.
I called him Otis because his slow deliberate strut and ultra-cool demeanor reminded me of certain Delta Blues musicians I’d long idolized – Otis Blackwell, Otis Redding, Otis Williams, Otis Spann - and with his bald pate and his penchant for terrorizing the other yardbirds with a hostile glance from his bright and beady eye, he invoked the spirit of the Oakland Raiders’ indomitable Otis Sistrunk.
He was a majestic Tom, bronze & irridescent green in the dappled afternoon light and even as domestic turkeys go, Otis was a bruiser weighing just south of 50 lbs.
I raised him from a day-old poult, weighing him daily, along with his brother and sisters, on a triple-beam balance scale I bought from a retired entrepreneur at a local flea market. He grew much more rapidly than his siblings and early-on effected a dominant demeanor. His posturing as a scraggly-feathered teenager was awkward and comical, but I could see even then that the other birds were beginning to take Otis seriously. In fact, I believe O’Reilly would have killed him if he’d had the chance.
O’Reilly, Ace of Ducks was a big Muscovy, stinky as swampwater, tough and aggressive, and very sweet on Mrs. O’Reilly whom he protected jealously with great vigilance. Not that any of us – including O’Reilly himself – ever believed Otis lusted after his missus. But there was a time, thanks to our adventurous free-ranging hens, that we provided a home for 26 roosters led by our homebird, Groucho (hatched one stormy night in our bedroom), and the ruthless Barred Rock banty, I’m-A-Good-Boy. When they weren’t eating or lusting after hens the roosters spent their time jockeying for status, establishing rank, and trying to avoid the foxes, raccoons and skunks that prowled the forest around us. To a rooster with a fat ego and a couple of wins under his belt, anything is fair game.
Otis grew quickly, developing an adolescent wattle that embarrassed him because he sensed it wasn’t flashy enough to carry any serious weight in real turkey circles. Hanging from his chest was the beginnings of a scruffy “beard”, which made him look like a teenager trying to improve on his stringy goatee. He’d waggle his beard and rattle his wattle hopefully in the direction of Juanita and Pearl, but the two hen turkeys spent more time eyeballing the thoughtful Calvin, our White Holland Tom.
As Otis matured, he developed another incredible trait which dazzled all who were witness to it. Like a giant, feathered chameleon, as his mood changed, so did the color of his knobby head. The little caruncles, or bumps, that covered it would go from pale blue to violet to purple rose to scarlet, and then turn a ghostly white.
Along with this rainbow display Otis had a second mood-barometer which was equally dramatic. Growing out of his forehead was a wormy protuberance called a snood. Hanging limply most of the time, it would come to life when Otis got excited. The engorged snood would raise up, snap to to attention, and then point at you like a shaky, accusing finger. It had tiny hairs near its tip (they were really feathers), and they would bristle like wires. Through all of this flushing and blanching and erecting of snood, Otis’ Jack Nicholson stare remained constant.
We had a sizable deck out back where we occasionally took our meals and Otis would strut about picking up stray tidbits. One day Gloria (my wife) was eating an apricot which Otis wanted for himself. He loved ‘cots but didn’t know where to find any on his own, so he just hung around hoping he’d get lucky. He’d gotten intimately close to Gloria, eyes riveted on the fruit, when she put the last bite in her mouth. I don’t think Otis understood the concept of human mastication – all he saw was his apricot was disappearing – so he went for it.
He massive bill shot out like the strike of a viper and clamped around the last of the apricot and a small part of Gloria’s upper lip which looked, at that point, like it might be good to eat, too! (I hardly disagree…) Of course having her lip seized in Otis’ pincer-like grip caused Gloria’s head to snap back in shock and dismay. Instantly, Otis measured Gloria’s moment of fear and he registered a change in our barnyard heirarchy. It was Advantage Otis from that moment on, and he never forgot it.
The next day Gloria descended the porch steps on her way to water the roses and had taken a dozen steps when she heard a fast drumming coming up behind her, quickly growing louder. Before she could turn to investigate, Otis screeched to a dusty halt inches from her, looking monstrous and invincible with his metallic feathers puffed up to the max. Staring at her sternly with one great talon threateningly extended, he became a velociraptor about to tear her belly open. All the while, the great head pulsed from soft violet to pale blue to deathly white. Gloria, while fascinated by the display, confessed that she indeed felt threatened. Otis didn’t actually carry through with his attack – we’d both read about irritated gorillas and annoyed elephants charging with great bluster, and then stopping short of annihilating adversaries, and now we knew Tom turkeys did it too. But now Otis was the aggressor and knew he had the upper wing.
Big Otis had fun while it lasted. He took to rushing out after unsuspecting visitors and nearly caused a few coronaries. No one dared challenge this huge beastie with a terrible attitude. He’d scare the hell out of you and then give you his you-talkin’-to-me? scowl strutting slowly around, while his anthracite eye burned holes in you.
He’d look down his beak, popping and puffing up and shaking his gorgeous plumage violently. He was cinnamon and sienna, cream and gold and in a spectral flux which danced according to the changing light. When he saw his love Pearl, or Mrs. O’Reilly for that matter, he’d gobble savagely. Corrugating the air with his piercing, demanding tremelo, he’d grab our attention and all of us creatures would stop what we were doing and eagerly listen for more. What a shameless showoff was Otis.
One morning our neighbor Angie, who along with her roommate Max owns a bookstore in Petaluma, fired up her red Datsun pickup and roared out of her driveway in reverse, without even warming it up. Angie – always in a rush.
Otis was busily strutting in the faces of Groucho and a couple of other roosters and didn’t even see it coming. He couldn’t have reacted fast enough even if he wasn’t caught mid-gobble. The truck caught him on the leg and snagged one side. In a sneeze, Angie was out of the driveway and down the road, and there lay Otis; a mountain of torn and tangled feathers with a hot-pink head poking up out of it all.
He was still alive, albeit a war-embattled wreck, so Gloria and I piled him into the van and drove over to J.L.’s vet hospital. J.L. calls himself a Holistic Vet.
We laid poor Otis on a metal table and J. cleaned him and washed him gently with warm water. He had broken bones and needed to be stitched back together, and J. suggested surgery. I didn’t know if I could afford to invest $750 (for starters) in this once sweet, now very cocky bird, so I asked J. about alternatives. He told me we could clean Otis up, sew him back together and make him comfortable, but he would be an invalid for the rest of his life.
We had him reconstructed and repaired and brought him home. Gingerly, we carried him into the chicken house (which is where all the poultry roosted at night and occasionally nested), and sat him on a fresh pile of straw. Looking like a tired old day-laborer whose children have stashed him away in a nursing home, Otis glared around in confusion and anger but refused to look us in the eye. A few of the hens cautiously approached him but he paid them little attention. The roosters cackled conspiratorially amongst themselves but left Otis alone. Tired of sitting in one position, he shifted his bulky body and ended up listing heavily to the left.
The next day I was running errands in town and stopped at the Salvation Army store to see if they had anything I couldn’t live without. Turns out they did. It was one of those baby walkers with wheels and a hole in the center where the baby hung out. Adjustable straps attached to springs met in the center where, like a loosely arranged hammock, they supported the baby, preventing it from falling down. If the baby moved one foot in front of the other, the wheeled walker followed. If the baby took a spontaneous nap, the straps supported the nodding body, and kept if from crashing to the ground. The asking price was three dollars.
Otis fit perfectly in the center of the hole where the straps gave him ample support. It wasn’t easy lifting him and his heavy wings struggled to keep his broken body balanced, but he didn’t complain once we got him in there. We’d wheel him under the apricot tree and park him in its shade, and he’d cast upon the other birds his fearful eye, but they knew now that he was harmless. Gone was the haughty strut and the resonant ‘pop’ his feathers made whenever he fluffed them. No more could he hide behind the chicken house and rush up behind Gloria like a Highway Patrol cop on his chattering motorbike. Gloria felt less terrorized. With a tinge of sadness, she said it was a great relief.
We’d wheel Otis home at dusk taking him out of his walker and parking him in a corner of the chicken house on a fresh bed of straw. The corner location helped keep him from keeling over. He lost weight. He couldn’t hunt June bugs or earwigs anymore but he had plenty to eat, including the odd apricot from the tree whose shade sheltered him on warm days. We tried to keep up his spirits with small talk, but it didn’t help. I think he sensed that Gloria hadn’t completely forgiven him his behavior in the Old Days – but of course she had. It was just too painful to see how her once proud and powerful adversary had deteriorated.
We found him one October morning looking much the same as when Angie had run her truck over him, except the perky pink head wasn’t poking up and looking around anymore. We had tried to prepare ourselves but because his was such a huge and vital presence, his demise left an enormous void. We both felt his loss far more than we believed we could.
We thought about burying him on the property near the graves of Gloria’s Sheltie, Taffy, and assorted nameless parakeets and finches, but the ground was rocky and unyielding, so we decided to do something different.
We wrapped him in a blanket and gently placed his no longer substantial body on the Honda’s back seat. Heading down the hill and then north towards the Woods, we turned east on Sweetwater Springs Road. Passing the long-abandoned quicksilver mine, we headed up the steep winding hill, and when we’d gotten to the top of Mt. Jackson, we pulled off at a turnout in the road.
There was a beautiful view of the forest below and the tawny, dry meadow lands were just aching to green up after their first taste of Autumn’s rain. The sky was broad and eggshell blue and already I could see three or four turkey vultures wheeling high above. We carried our shrouded friend a hundred yards into the golden field, lovingly unwrapped him and laid him on the soft, new grass. Almost magically, a small, puffy cloud appeared out of nowhere and momentarily hid the sun.
My thoughts had been filled with images and sounds of Otis, but there really was nothing more to say, so we hurried on back to the Honda and went home to our other birds and dogs, and our goldfish, and just held each other quietly for the rest of the pale afternoon.