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Mortonimus the Pilgrim

                 Raelyn hung up the phone. “That was Donna.”

                Her husband Bert was next to her in bed, shirtless with shoulder-length black hair and reading a book about an insane tyrant, possibly non-fiction. “Which Donna? Donna our daughter?”

                “Yes,” said Raelyn, setting her phone down on the nightstand. “Donna our daughter. She said she’s coming to Thanksgiving.”

                “Which Thanksgiving?” asked Bert. “This Thanksgiving?”

                “Yes,” said Raelyn. “This Thanksgiving. She’s got some kind of sophisticated boyfriend and she’s bringing him along and they’re both going to be here for Thanksgiving, Bert.” Bert’s name was actually “Wilbert,” and when Raelyn had first met him, she’d tried to call him “Will” instead of “Bert,” but she met him too late in life. He’d been going by “Bert” for two and a half decades and he was too accustomed to it to change.

                “Well, Finley will be happy,” said Bert. Finley was Raelyn and Bert’s other daughter, a compliant fifth grader who actually liked being cared for and provided for by a pair of loving parents.

                “But will Finley be happy?” asked Raelyn. “Will she be happy when Donna comes sweeping in here and starts sneering at our home and our food and our fun holiday traditions? Finley loves Thanksgiving, Bert, and I’m just afraid Donna might ruin it for her. And remember, Finley’s in fifth grade. That means she goes to middle school next year.”

                “That’s true,” said Bert. “Middle school.” Bert had either forgotten the impact that going to middle school would have on Finley’s love of Thanksgiving or else he was dozing with his eyes open, which was a thing that he sometimes did that he claimed to hate about himself.

                “It’s all going to change,” said Raelyn. “You know what those middle school teachers are like. They can’t wait to tell the kids how everything they thought they knew about Thanksgiving is wrong. They despise the Pilgrims.”

                “Well, I don’t know,” said Bert. “Maybe the facts are on their side. I don’t know.”

                “I don’t know either,” said Raelyn. “But Finley loves Mortonimus, she always has, and I’m afraid this is the last year she’ll be able to look at him without thinking about some kind of atrocity perpetrated by Pilgrims.”

                “Like what?” asked Bert.

                “I don’t know,” said Raelyn. “I don’t want to speculate about Pilgrim atrocities, that’s gross. I’m just saying, if this is the last year that Finley will be able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a pure, innocent way, then I don’t want Donna and this sophisticated boyfriend to ruin it. I can just see them walking in and taking one look at Mortonimus and making sour faces and saying something like, ‘What is he doing here? Don’t you know what the Pilgrims did?’”

                “Well, Donna never liked Mortonimus,” said Bert, setting his possibly non-fiction book down on the nightstand on his side of the bed and sliding farther down under the covers, his hair fanning out on his yellow pillow.

                “Donna never liked anything,” said Raelyn. “Donna never liked Mortonimus or anything about Thanksgiving or anything else. And look where it got her. Look where it got the rest of us too. The only good thing that came out of all of that is that Finley took over for her, but now Donna’s coming back to spoil that too.”

                “Maybe she’s changed,” said Bert, reaching out to turn off the lamp on his nightstand. “The very fact that she wants to be here must mean something about her has changed.”

                “I’m skeptical,” said Raelyn, turning off the lamp on her nightstand. “Forgive me for being skeptical, but I am.” She settled down under the covers too, resting her head on her off-white pillow and closing her eyes. And from the back yard came the tapping sound of someone – a cousin or niece or uncle or some other relative – nailing raw turkey gizzards to the outside of the shed.


                Finley had thought that Mortonimus the Pilgrim was as well-known of a holiday figure as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny until she started kindergarten and realized that none of her classmates, nor even her teacher, had ever heard of him. At first, she had tried to tell the other kids about Mortonimus, had tried to express her love for Mortonimus to them, the excitement she felt each year when she came downstairs in the morning and found that Mortonimus had taken up his position on the mantel sometime during the night, his buckled black hat tilted back on his head, his long yellow hair curling out from under its brim, his eyes delicately closed, his right leg bent slightly at the knee as he leaned forward, his curving, golden horn held to his pursed lips as if he were mere seconds from sounding a long, melodious, triumphantly festive note. But Finley’s classmates had not been impressed, especially when she admitted that Mortonimus did not deliver gifts or candy. And Finley’s kindergarten teacher, Mr. Kipman, had told her that “Mortonimus” didn’t sound like a Pilgrim name because most Pilgrims had names like “John” and “William.”

                When Finley had told her parents how everyone at school had reacted to what she’d told them about Mortonimus, she was surprised at how unsurprised they were. “Most people don’t know about Mortonimus,” her mom had told her. “He’s special to our family. He’s one of our family traditions.”

                And so, as Finley realized that the rest of the world was ignorant of the Thanksgiving-time delights of Mortonimus the Pilgrim, he became even more special to her. Santa, for example, had to be shared with millions of other children, but Finley only had to share Mortonimus with her immediate family, and, to a lesser extent, her extended family, although they only got to seem him on Thanksgiving day, whereas Finley got to live with him for weeks. And, of course, Finley’s relationship with Mortonimus had deepened significantly when Donna got fed up with the family and moved away on the same day she’d turned 18. Donna had never liked Mortonimus anyway, not like Finley did. Finley relished the opportunity to try to impress Mortonimus every Thanksgiving whereas Donna had always seemed to resent it. Finley could still vividly recall the way Donna would glare at Mortonimus from her usual spot on the couch while the rest of the family watched TV.

                But now, at age 11, as the oldest and only child in the house and with Thanksgiving drawing near, the responsibility to impress Mortonimus was all on Finley and she embraced the challenge with pride and confidence. And she could tell by the way her parents and her extended family looked at her that they felt proud and confident too. And, of course, the number of turkey gizzards nailed to the shed each night was concrete evidence of that confidence.

                Finley sat half-reclined on her bed and worked on a poem she had to write for school. Everyone else was doing free verse, but her poem was going to rhyme. There was a knock on her bedroom door. “Come in,” said Finley, not looking up from her notebook.

                Her mom came into the room. “Hey, Finley,” said Raelyn. “How’s your homework coming?”

                “I don’t know,” said Finley. “That’s for my teacher to decide.”

                “So I wanted to tell you something,” said Raelyn. “Donna’s coming home for Thanksgiving this year.”

                Finley looked up, her face breaking into a smile. “She is? Are you serious? How long is she staying?”

                “I don’t know how long she’s staying, but she said she’ll be here on Wednesday afternoon. And she’s bringing some kind of educated, interesting boyfriend, I guess.”

                “This is awesome,” said Finley. “I’m so excited to see her! Do you think she’ll be different?”

                “Well,” said Raelyn. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

                Finley was worried. Her mom’s tone made her afraid that something bad had happened to her sister. “Is Donna sick? Is she hurt? Is she in trouble?”

                “No, no,” said Raelyn. “Well, I don’t know, maybe, but I don’t know. But I just want to warn you, Finley, because I know how much you love Donna and I know how much you love Mortonimus, so I wanted to tell you not to be shocked if Donna has some negative things to say about Mortonimus. I just think she may try to convince you to not love Mortonimus, but I want you to know that you don’t have to listen to her, but that doesn’t mean you have to choose between her and Mortonimus. You can love both Donna and Mortonimus no matter what Donna says about him, OK?”

                “Oh, yeah,” said Finley. “I know Donna doesn’t like Mortonimus. She used to say he’s ‘smug,’ but I don’t agree, that’s fine.”

                “Well, yes, Finley, but I’m talking about something different. I’m telling you that I think Donna might try to tell you about, like, bad things Mortonimus may have done in the past, maybe even terrible things.”

                “But what terrible things could Mortonimus have done?” asked Finley.

                “Maybe not him exactly,” said Raelyn. “But maybe people like him.”

                Finley was confused. “People like him? Other Pilgrims? What could they have done? Pilgrims were good people.” Her mom looked like she was about to cry.

                “I don’t know, I don’t know,” said Raelyn. “Forget I said anything. Well, don’t forget I said anything, but just remember that you don’t have to listen to what Donna says about Mortonimus, if she says anything, OK? Can I get you a snack? Do you want a milkshake? I’m sure your teacher will love your poem, Finley. Just let me know if you want a milkshake or anything else. I love you, Finley!” She stood and hurried out of Finley’s bedroom without closing the door behind her.

                After a few moments, Finley got up from her bed and went downstairs to the living room. She walked over to the mantel and gave Mortonimus a long, appraising look. Was he hiding something? His face, which had always seemed open to Finley, now seemed inscrutable. “What have you done?” whispered Finley, and Mortonimus, for many reasons, some of them obvious, did not answer.


                Denver’s mission was to be supportive, and it really was that vague. Donna had given him very little specific guidance. All he knew was that he was supposed to be unequivocally on Donna’s side. Which was fine, he had asked her if he could help, he’d volunteered for this mission. He just wished he knew a little bit more about what he was walking into. Donna had told Denver that she resented her parents, that they had been key contributors to the unhappiness of her childhood and teenage years, but that they had never been abusive, they’d just made her feel inadequate in a variety of subtle ways and restricted her personal development with silly rules and dispiriting lectures about how she was failing herself and the family. Denver would have preferred a less stressful Thanksgiving option, but Donna was fixated on confronting her family issues during Thanksgiving specifically. But Donna had told Denver that he wouldn’t have to participate in any arguments that sprang up, that just having him present in the room would help her feel less alone and ganged up on. So that was his plan: to be in the room and to somehow maintain a calm and calming demeanor. He hoped he wouldn’t cry if things got too emotional. He was much more of a crier than Donna was.

                Donna’s family’s house looked pretty much as Denver had expected: modest, two stories tall, a few big trees in the front yard, a nice porch with a swing, cream-colored siding. And he’d seen pictures of her parents and her sister, and they looked like their pictures, so that wasn’t a surprise either, although Finley had grown up a little since whenever the picture Denver had seen of her had been taken. And the living room actually reminded Denver a little of his family’s living room from when he was growing up, the arrangement of the furniture was very similar. And all the introductions were cordial, Donna’s family seemed sincerely happy to meet Denver and even happier to see Donna again, everything was going great, and then, during the slightest of conversational lulls, Donna said, “I see Mortonimus is still in his place of prominence,” and everything fell apart.

                Later, Denver and Donna took a long, slow walk around her parents’ neighborhood while wearing identical jackets. The jackets were even the same size.

                “Why didn’t you back me up about Pilgrims being awful?” asked Donna.

                “I did,” said Denver. “I said that I agreed that I’ve heard bad things about them.”

                 “But you didn’t know any specifics,” said Donna. “I thought you’d be able to say a specific bad thing they’d done. You’ve gone to so much school, I thought you’d remember something specific.”

                “Sorry,” said Denver. “I don’t really know any specifics about that. Not off the top of my head. But, I mean, if they were bad, then they were bad, the specifics don’t really matter.”

                “I guess that’s true,” said Donna. “I just think some specific examples would have made our argument against Mortonimus more impactful.”

                “Well, if I had known we were going to have that argument, I could have done some research beforehand,” said Denver.

                Donna was quiet for a while. Denver’s cold hand held her cold hand. It wasn’t very late, but it was very dark, the streetlights seemed few and far between and feeble to Denver. He was used to towns with lots of powerful streetlights, he preferred towns like that.

                “But it seemed like Finley was interested,” said Donna. “Right?”

                “What do you mean?” asked Denver.

                “Like, it seemed like she was interested in what we were saying about Pilgrims being bad, it seemed like she was thinking about it and processing it.”

                “Yeah, I think so,” said Denver. “But can I be honest? I sort of thought that the discussion was going to be more about your issues with your parents and less about how they shouldn’t have a Pilgrim figurine on their mantel.”

                “But Mortonimus is a big part of the problem,” said Donna. “He’s never gonna blow that horn, no matter what I do or Finley does or anyone else does. No one can live up to those standards, you always feel inadequate. Mortonimus is where it all started with me and I don’t want Finley to have the same awful experience.”

                Denver did not understand what Donna was telling him.

                “Here’s the house again,” said Donna. The house was dark. “Looks like everyone went to bed.”

                “Wow, they go to bed early,” said Denver. “It’s barely 9.”

                “They always go to bed really early the night before Thanksgiving,” said Donna. “My parents have to get up early to start cooking and Finley especially needs to be well-rested. We’ll have to go in through the back door, I don’t have a key but I know where the key is hidden on the patio.”

                But it turned out Donna didn’t remember where the key was hidden. Denver stood with his hands in his jacket pockets and watched as Donna’s silhouette searched around the grill, the patio furniture, and among the decorative rocks for the key.

                Denver was about to suggest that they just knock and that he would take the blame for keeping her out out too late when he heard a noise at the gate. He and Donna both froze, their eyes fixed on the gate as it swung open and a dark figure stepped into the back yard.

                “Who’s there?” asked Donna, and the figure jumped and let out a small yelp, dropping a few mysterious lumps in the grass. “Uncle Gordon?”

                “Donna? Is that you?”

                “Yeah, it’s me, Donna, I’m back visiting my family for Thanksgiving. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

                The figure of Uncle Gordon visibly relaxed. “Well, I’m glad you’re back, Donna, we’ve missed you the last few years.”

                “You’re cutting it kind of close, aren’t you Uncle Gordon?”

                “What? Cutting it close? Oh! The gizzards, yes, I know it’s the 11th hour, but you know how our family is, it takes us forever to get anything together.” Uncle Gordon knelt in the yard and began feeling around in the grass for the dropped gizzards.

                “Uncle Gordon,” said Donna. “Do you know where my parents keep the key for the back door these days?”

                “Oh,” said Uncle Gordon. “Your dad lost that key so they just keep it unlocked all the time now.”

                As Donna led Denver through the dark house to the guest room, Denver whispered, “What was your uncle doing here?”

                “He’s not my uncle,” Donna whispered back. “He’s my mom’s uncle. My great uncle.”

                “Well, what was he doing here?”

                “Nailing his family’s turkey gizzards to the shed,” whispered Donna. “Here’s your room. You can sleep in as late as you want tomorrow. Family will start getting here around 10, but dinner won’t be until 1. Good night!”

                And as Denver crawled into the low guest bed, which was soft to the point of being uncomfortable, he heard the sound of nails being hammered through gizzards and into the shed filtering through the exterior and interior walls of Donna’s childhood home.


                Dinner was going well. The house was full of Donna’s relatives, talking and laughing without strife or tension. Even Denver seemed like he was having a good time. Right now, he was deep in conversation with Donna’s second cousin David about probably a video game or something. Donna had heard some mention of a “plasma rifle,” so “video game” seemed like a safe assumption. With everyone distracted by all the food and familial harmony, Donna sneaked out of the house through the front door, went around the house and into the back yard through the gate, and hurried to the shed, opening the door and ducking inside, hoping no one in the house had glanced outside and seen her.

                Inside the shed, everything was exactly as it had been the last time Donna had seen it, and it all brought back a rush of memories, mostly bad. The only difference now was that, unlike back when she’d been living at home, she was not alone in the shed. Finley was there too, seated on her stool by the shed’s small fireplace with a long, silver, two-pronged skewer in her hand. A little fire crackled in the little fireplace and a large, plastic cooler sat open next to the Finley on the rug, filled almost full with turkey gizzards. Just inside the door to the shed was a metal pail with a claw hammer and a pile of slimy nails in it. And there on the mantel over the shed’s little fireplace, in his traditional spot, holding court from his traditional vantage point, was Mortonimus the Pilgrim, his lips so close to the mouthpiece of his horn, and yet impossibly far away.

                “What are you doing here?” asked Finley. She looked alarmed. “Do mom and dad know you’re out here? I’m supposed to be alone, Donna!”

                “Of course mom and dad don’t know I’m out here,” said Donna. “No one does except you.”

                “You’re going to mess up the tradition,” said Finley, but there wasn’t much passion in her voice. She glanced up at Mortonimus.  

                “Am I?” asked Donna. “How many of the gizzards have you eaten so far, Finley?”

                Finley frowned and wouldn’t look at Donna. “Zero.”

                “That’s what I thought,” said Donna. “And we both know why.”

                “Why?” Finley’s voice was sullen.

                “It’s because of him,” said Donna, pointing at Mortonimus. “You’re finally starting to feel what I used to feel in here. Like there’s no way you can ever do enough to impress him. Because you can’t. You really can’t.”

                “But I like Mortonimus,” said Finley. “I feel like he’s rooting for me, not judging me. He wants me to eat enough gizzards so that he can blow the horn and give the family good fortune, he likes our family.”

Donna laughed sympathetically. “Finley, Mortonimus hasn’t blown his horn for decades, not since grandma was younger than you, and he’s never going to blow it again. And just between you and me, I’m not so sure Mortonimus has ever blown his horn.”

Finley gave Donna a strange look, a conflicted look. “But Donna,” she finally said. “Mortonimus has blown his horn since grandma. I mean, he blew it for me. It was the year you left, my first year here in the shed, and I ate so many gizzards that he blew his horn, I heard it.”

                Donna was shocked into silence. She watched as Finley’s eyes searched her face for a reaction. “But,” Donna finally said. “I,” she continued. “What?” she concluded.

                “I was so sad that you were gone,” said Finley. “But I couldn’t help but be excited to be the one in the shed. I’d always loved Mortonimus, you remember that, and I was so jealous of how, like, connected you were to him. So then, when you left, I had to be the one, and I got up early and pried all the gizzards off of the shed and then I sat in here and I skewered them and held them in the fire and ate them, I ate so many of them, I felt like I would puke, but I just kept cooking and eating and then, I don’t know what time it was, but sometime late in the evening, I don’t know, it just happened, he blew his horn. And I ran inside and I didn’t even have to say anything, the whole family could see it on my face, and there was this big celebration, it was so fun, I’ve never seen everyone so happy at the same time.”

                “But what did it sound like?” asked Donna, her voice hushed and intense.

                “It wasn’t very loud,” said Finley. “But it was clear and piercing, but also low at the same time.”

                “How many did you eat?” asked Donna. “How many did it take to impress him?”

                “I don’t know,” said Finley. “I wasn’t counting.”

                Donna wanted to cry. She could feel the envy boiling up inside of her, threatening to spill out and scald her younger sister. She wanted to believe Finley was lying, but she couldn’t. “That’s amazing,” she finally said.

                “I know,” said Finley. “It was. I never expected to be able to get Mortonimus to blow his horn. I thought that if he hadn’t blown it for you, then he definitely wouldn’t blow it for me. But then he did! And he hasn’t blown it again the last few years, but that was OK, I felt like that one time could carry me forever.” She stopped talking and looked up at Mortonimus and all the joy that had accumulated in her eyes as she recounted the memory of Mortonimus blowing his horn dried up and drifted away.

                “What’s wrong?” asked Donna.

                “I’m just afraid that Mortonimus is bad,” said Finley. “Like, what you and Denver said about the Pilgrims. And the atrocities they did. I just keep trying to imagine what those could be and wondering if Mortonimus is anything like the Pilgrims who did them. Like, even if I eat every single gizzard and he’s so impressed that he blows his horn again, why should we accept good fortune from him when he’s done such awful things to other people?”

                “But it works,” said Donna. “I mean, none of us even know any specifics about bad stuff Pilgrims may or may not have done. But you know you can get Mortonimus to blow his horn, you heard it with your own ears. The family is counting on you, Finley, that’s the most gizzards I’ve ever seen. They believe in you.”

                “Do you know what other families do on Thanksgiving?” asked Finley, rising from her stool. “They don’t try to get good fortune for themselves. They look back on their lives and they just pick out the bits of good fortune they’ve already had and say, ‘Hey, remember that? That was great.’”

                “OK,” said Donna. “I hear what you’re saying. You’ve already done more than your share for the family, Finley, but I’m back now. I can take over again. I think now that I know Mortonimus really might blow his horn, I’ll be so much better at it than I was before, I’ll feel like cooking and eating all those gizzards actually means something.”

                But Finley wasn’t listening. She reached out, took Mortonimus from his place on the mantel, and raised him above her head. And in that moment, Mortonimus either could not or would not do anything to preserve himself, and Finley flung him to the floor where he shattered into hundreds of porcelain shards with the exact sound you’d imagine an impact of that material against that surface with that amount of force to make.


Discussion Questions

  • If, while answering question 6, you choose to not declare an exact number, well, that’s certainly in the spirit of Mortonimus, but you’ll have to understand our frustration with your decision.

  • If you were Mortonimus the Pilgrim, how many gizzards would someone have to pry nails out of, cook over an open flame, and eat before you would deign to blow your horn and grant all those who had nailed gizzards to the shed good fortune for one year?

  • Aside from dispelling myths about Thanksgiving, what are some other things that middle school teachers are good for? Please try to think of at least one sincere answer.

  • What are some ways in which Thanksgiving has made you feel like an inadequate daughter?

  • What is your least culturally sensitive family heirloom? Please use discretion and good taste in how you choose to describe it. Are you brave enough to smash it? (If it’s a tapestry, substitute the word “burn” for “smash” in the question preceding this parenthetical)

  • What is your grossest family tradition? Please use discretion and good taste in how you choose to describe it. Are you brave enough to defy it?

  • If Finley’s kindergarten teacher was correct and “Mortonimus” does not sound like a Pilgrim name, what kind of name does “Mortonimus” sound like? Roman? Russian? Martian? Made-up?