A World of Speculation

If Flannery O’Conner were to write a fairy tale about a boy who got everything he wished for and it all turned to dirt on him, it would look a lot like her story “The Turkey.”

Ruller is a boy of about twelve who spots a turkey limping through the underbrush and wishes he had a gun so he could take it home to his family.

When he discovers that the bird is injured and can’t fly, he thinks all he has to do is catch it. The bird proves to be a wily quarry, despite its injury, and Ruller has time to think about his family’s reaction to his arrival with the bird.

Ruller’s older brother, Hane, shares his bedroom. Late at night, after the boys are supposed to be asleep, Ruller has overheard his mother talking about Hane:

“Lord, she guessed she shouldn’t worry but how could she help worrying about Hane, the way he was now? Hane had always been an unusual boy, she said. She said he would grow up to be an unusual man too; and their father said yes, if he didn’t get put in the penitentiary first.”

Ruller doesn’t rate the same level of worry.

“Once his father asked why Ruller played by himself so much and his mother said how was she to know? if he wanted to play by himself, she didn’t see any reason he shouldn’t; and his father said that worried him and she said well, if that was all he had to worry about, he’d do well to stop; someone told her, she said, that they had seen Hane at the Ever-Ready; hadn’t they told him he couldn’t go there?”

But now Ruller guesses his father would “think it was something when he came home with the turkey slung over his shoulder.”

Ruller chases the turkey until it’s panting and dying. He gets a grip on its tail but can’t fit it through the underbrush. It gets away again, and in chasing it, Rullerr runs smack into a tree. He’s torn his shirt and scratched up his arm in the chase and now he has nothing to show for it.

Frustrated and disappointed, he lets out an “Oh hell.”

“Then he said it just like Hane said it, pulling the e-ull out and trying to get the look in his eye that Hane got.” His mother told Hane not to take the Lord’s name in vain, and his grandmother threatened to withhold her love from Hane if he didn’t shape up. He responded with even more hostility and aggression, and the grandmother relented, affirming her love again.

That comes to Ruller’s mind as he goes on taking the Lord’s name in vain, more and more outrageously and laughing at the results. “Our Father Who art in heaven, shoot ’em six and roll ’em seven.”

“Boy, she’d smack his head in if she could hear him. God dammit, she’d smack his goddam head in.”

He gets up to go home, wondering if he’s going bad like Hane. “Hane played pool and smoked cigarettes and sneaked in at twelve-thirty and boy he thought he was something.”

Along the way, he finds the turkey again, now dead by the side of the trail. He picks it up and begins daydreaming of his triumphal return with the turkey. “It came down on him in an instant: he was . . . an . . . unusual . . . child. He reckoned he was more unusual than Hane.”

“He guessed he was one of the most unusual children ever. Maybe that was why the turkey was there. . . . It was to keep him from going bad. Maybe God wanted to keep him from that.”

Realizing that God has saved him from the bad life he was heading for, he thanks God. “We certainly are much obliged to You, he said to God. This turkey weighs ten pounds. You were very generous.”

Instead of going home the short way, he goes through town, so that he can display God’s generosity to the town of Milford and also give generously to someone who needed it. He had a dime in his pocket, and no likelihood of getting another in the near future, but he would give that dime, maybe to someone playing the accordion on the sidewalk.

Walking through town, he received some gratifying praise for capturing the turkey and found a few country boys following him. He didn’t find any accordion players to receive his dime. He begged the Lord to send him a beggar, and believed He would do that against all the odds.

Ruller slowed down to let the country boys and the beggar to catch up with him. “One will come, he told himself. God was interested in him because he was a very unsual child.” He begged again for a beggar, “Please! one right now”—“and the minute he said it—the minute—Hetty Gilman turned around the corner before him, heading straight to where he was.”

Hetty Gilman was a scary old woman who sneaked into people’s houses and sat until they give her something. If they didn’t, she cursed them. But Ruller chased her down and gave her the dime. Despite her obvious lack of gratitude, he was so filled with joy at giving that “he felt as if the ground did not need to be under him any longer.”

The country boys are close by now, and Ruller offers to let them see the turkey. One of the country boys takes the turkey away from him, and they disappear around the block before Ruller can even react.

He turns toward home as darkness falls, “certain that Something Awful was tearing behind him with its arms rigid and its fingers ready to clutch.”

Besides the sense of being in a tale of the old woman who kept making more and more extravagant wishes until she destroyed the world, Ruller’s story holds some psychological truths. He envies the attention his “bad” brother Hane gets. The family worry about Hane, trying both threats and praise to get him onto a better path. Ruller is alone and finds companionship in imaginary friends and foes.

In his book Face to Face: Knowing God beyond Our Shame, Father Stephen Freeman describes shame as a rupture in communion. Healthy shame, he says, “gives signals of vulnerability, nakedness, a desire to hide or protect oneself, or a sense of not-belonging and exposure.” Toxic shame, though, “is the result of shame as an identity. . . . Toxic shame is generally a result of trauma and abuse.”

“The bullied child can become a bully, or a perfectionist, or . . . a sycophant, easily agreeing with his bullies, wanting approval and acceptance.”

Later, he says, “False pride, in which the self becomes grandiose and inflated, is another strategy to avoid shame.”

In this story, Ruller’s dreams of maneuvering into a position of honor in the family veer from hero to villain to saint to, at the end, the prey of Something Awful. As so often in O’Connor’s stories, the obnoxious and pitiable meet in one tragic-comic character.


  • Photo by George Karelitsky on Unsplash
  • Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
  • Fr. Stephen Freeman, Face to Face: Knowing God beyond Our Shame. Chesterton, Ind.: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2023.