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Story Time With Hank | The God of Thanksgiving

parade turkey
Hank Henry

Hello, readers fair and not. I hope your every dream is coming true, unless you’re some kind of sick sonofabitch. Today’s Story Time, as with everything this time of year, is a very special Thanksgiving edition. Enjoy.

***

I played Squanto in a school play. Or class play, I guess. Regardless, I was Squanto, which you could tell from the construction-paper headdress I wore, with its badly creased blue and green and purple feathers all stapled together.

Squanto was the best role. He was the only person in the play who knew what was up. While everyone else was sick and starving and lost in a fog of excess religious fervor, Squanto planted corn and killed a turkey and then everything was fine.

That was the whole play. I don’t remember if it had dialogue even, or if it was just a montage of food-prep that ended with the first Thanksgiving. But I remember that turkey, also made of construction paper, at the center of a crowd of hungry little Pilgrims and Indians. Our parents were there—the ones who could get off from work at, like, one in the afternoon—taking pictures and laughing—probably at us rather than with us, but laughing, just the same—and they took us home after and twenty-four hours later we were all of us sitting around our own tables in our own houses, eating turkey for real.

***

FACT: As a young lad, William Strickland served as navigator under noted explorer of the New World, Sebastian Cabot. He grew fond of some local fowl there, and brought it back to Mother England. As reward, he was granted, in the mid-1500s, with a coat of arms featuring a “turkey-cock in its pride proper.” He was elected to Parliament in 1558, where he served as a champion of Puritanism.

From 1630 to 1640 roughly 20,000 Puritans migrated to New England. Shortly after arriving, they began eating turkeys.

***

I was camping, sort of, in November of last year. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I had a long drive to my parents’ house and I’d left late after work, so, as had been the plan, I’d gone about half way before pulling into a campground way up in the mountains to decompress and get some shuteye.

It was a nice night, not a cloud anywhere, just a moon like the flashlight of some unsubtle peeping tom hanging in the sky and stars like dandruff on his dark sweater. Leaves gone dry on their branches murmured hurtful things about the wind as it passed. It was cold, but I like the cold.

The campsite was deserted apart from myself, autumn weeknights evidently being unpopular with the casual outdoorsmen in those parts. I pitched a tent in a designated tent area, built a fire in a designated fire area, and sat in a folding chair with a beer and a book.

***

FACT: Benjamin Franklin was a promising boy who grew into a capable man. Invented swim fins at nine years old, purchased a newspaper at twenty-three, founded the first American lending library at twenty-five. Named High Priest of Keekutagogol at twenty-six.

***

I read and I drank and I enjoyed the fire—nothing beats a fire in the forest in the fall. An hour passed, maybe two. I should have been sleeping, resting up for an early start and the drive ahead, but I felt good. I opened another beer and read on. I guess I got absorbed.

After a little while I heard, faintly over the rustling leaves and the crackling fire, a sound like someone clearing their throat, politely. I didn’t think much of it.

Then it happened again. I looked up from my book and saw the black silhouette of a man standing across the fire from me, right on the edge of the flickering, orange circle of light that it cast.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but if you have a moment, perhaps we could talk.”

He ran towards me, three, four steps, and I flinched back, but he stopped on a dime with a crunching of leaves and stamped his feet up and down rapidly, toes never quite leaving the ground.

He was nearer to the fire now, and I could see him more clearly. I could see, for example, the long, pointy ears protruding from just over his temples and the wet, black nose on the end of his snout.

***

FACT: But Benjamin Franklin wasn’t just promising and capable, he was also mercurial, distracted by whatever shiny, new bauble happened to be rolling by. Fire companies, freemasons, postal systems, electricity, democracy all pulled at his attention and his time. So he was removed from the church, no harm, no foul. Except Benjamin Franklin wasn’t just promising, capable, and mercurial, he also held a grudge. In 1784, from the safety of France, he campaigned to name the turkey America’s national bird, with all the protections that implies. He failed, but that’s hardly the point. For a while, the freemasons kept him safe-ish, and for a while the acolytes of Keekutagogol were content to let him squirm through his days and toss and turn away his nights, but in 1790 they grew tired of the game and killed him in the middle of the night.

***

“I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “I mean you no harm.”

I wasn’t startled so much as scared out of my mind, but I nodded anyway. He advanced again, more slowly this time, and took a seat on the other side of the fire.

He had the head of some kind of canine, but everything from his shoulders south seemed normal enough. And reasonably well-off, all swathed in upper-mid-to-lower-high-end, seasonally appropriate outdoor attire. I’ll be honest, though, it was the head my eyes kept falling on.

“So, yes, obviously I’m a weredog,” he said. “Let’s leave that aside for now, shall we?” He noticed an as yet unopened beer in the cooler between us and cocked his head. “Do you mind if I…?”

“Not at all. Sorry. Go ahead.” I felt rude for not having offered him one to begin with, then felt like an idiot for feeling rude. Then felt rude again.

He cracked open a can and tipped it back towards his slavering mouth. Poured amber foam all down his front.

“Thanks for the beer. Let me tell you a story.”

***

FACT: Sarah Josepha Hale was one of them. She wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1830 and consumption of lamb dropped appreciably. In 1837, she was hired as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and wasn’t shy about wielding the influence that gave her. She wrote editorials. Then she wrote letters to presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, all of them ignored her. But in Abraham Lincoln she found a sympathetic spirit, and Hale got her way. In 1863, Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

***

“Keekutagogol.” The weredog looked up at the moon and shook his head. “Turkey-headed god of entropy and limited flight. That’s who we’re up against. That’s the enemy.”

“Whose enemy?” I asked.

Mr. Weredog looked at me like I was stupid.

“Mine. My order’s. Yours, whether you know it or not. Keekutagogol is the quicksand sucking at the ankles of the world. We’re all of us sinking, every minute of every day, too slow for most folks to notice, but sinking all the same. Regressing. We crawl in the mud when we used to walk, when we should, by all rights, be soaring above it.”

“I had no idea things were so bad,” I said

“Well, they are. But some of us aim to do something about it.”

***

FACT: There is a fourth branch of government. A Secret Branch, spliced onto the Tree of America by Abraham Lincoln himself.

***

“Turkeys, all turkeys, are by him and of him,” the weredog said. “If you feed on the flesh of a turkey, you feed on his flesh, and he feeds on yours in turn. He gets stronger with every bite you take, and when you swallow, humanity slides a little farther down the drain.”

“Hah?”

He ignored me.

“In the wild, dogs are the natural predators of turkeys,” the weredog said. “Weredogs are the natural predators of Keekutagogol. And of his human agents.”

“Stands to reason.”

“So the Weredog League of Perpetual Motion does what it can. We strike where and when we can. It’s not as much or as often as we’d like, but we face a powerful enemy and our numbers are few. So we pick our moments.” He poured more beer all over himself. “John Wilkes Booth was one of us—did for Mr. Lincoln but good. Plus Nikola Tesla. Joaquin Phoenix.” He ticked the names off on his fingers. “The list goes on.”

***

FACT: Isidor and Ida Strauss were two great champions of entropy in their day. They served their god well in public and out and did untold harm to the cause of the weredogs. But the weredogs had a champion, too. At 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912, Captain Edward J. Smith steered his luxury liner of righteous murder into an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Smith, the Strausses, and 1,499 innocent souls perished in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Isidor was survived, however, by a brother, Nathan, who now found himself sole owner of some of New York’s largest department stores and the inheritor of his late brother’s divine mission. He consolidated the two responsibilities, and in 1924 the world saw its first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The holiday was further cemented in the American cultural consciousness.

***

“It’s been a rough century for us,” the weredog said. “Wild dogs kill wild turkeys, but none of us—dogs or turkeys, either one—are as wild as we used to be. Let me tell you something: we almost wiped wild turkeys off the face of the planet back in the ’80s. The Secret Branch swooped in and gave the ones that were left federal protection in…1991, I want to say. But here’s the thing: It didn’t matter. The game is changing. Becoming civilized. It’s not played in the woods, anymore. It’s played in boardrooms and commercial farms. We—” He stopped and sniffed the air, nose raised and twitching. His ears were cocked. But it was a false alarm. “We do okay in Hollywood—Name a good Thanksgiving movie that isn’t Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. You can’t. But otherwise?” He shrugged. “We’re not doing so hot.”

***

FACT: In 2011, over 248.5 million turkeys were raised. Over 219 million were eaten by Americans, with the average person consuming 16.1 pounds, versus 8.3 pounds in 1975. Roughly 88% of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving. If you don’t know how to cook a turkey, you can call a toll-free number and they’ll tell you how.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sat down to a meal on the moon, they ate turkey out of a foil pouch.

Keekutagogol sits on a throne in a palace on a mountain that towers over America, and it’s all made of Butterball.

***

“That’s where we are today. We’re losing by a long margin.” The weredog turned and looked me in the eye. “We need help. And I like the smell of you, kid.”

“I’m—thank you, first of all. That’s very nice. But—”

“Listen, pal. Let me spell it out for you. Keekutagogol’s a big, bad, powerful god. But we know not to eat his meat and we turn into dog-men under the light of a full moon. We can bring him down a few pegs—maybe not kill him, but we can loosen his grip on the ball-sack of America, at least—and when we do…kid, let me tell you: Perpetual motion machines for every man, woman and child. No more sucking at the teat of Big Electricity. No more pollution, no more—”

There was a bang and I felt a warm splash against my face and the weredog fell face-first into the fire.

I wiped a hand across my forehead and it came away red.

The weredog’s fur and tasteful plaids began to smolder and the pleasant smells of fall were lost behind the stench of burning hair.

A figure stepped out of the darkness. I should have moved, run, hit the dirt, something, but I couldn’t. I just sat.

He took another step, and I could see his silhouette clearly now, lit by moon and fire, with a dully gleaming rifle in one hand. Everything from his shoulders south seemed normal enough. But he had the long skinny neck and stunted bald head of a turkey.

The rifle moved, and I flinched, but he didn’t aim it, merely lifted it high in a salute. He gobbled. Goosebumps rose on my arms. Then he turned and walked away, back into the darkness.

I found I could move again. I pulled the weredog from the fire, collapsed my tent, and threw it and its contents into the back of my car. I hopped in the driver’s seat and headed to my parents’ house.

The next day, I ate the turkey that was given to me. My mom had worked hard on it.

***

Hank Henry probably should have called the cops or something. You can call him (names or whatever) at [email protected]

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