It was autumn, and we knew any day could be the day Bessie laid her first egg by the way she was acting. She would no longer be a pullet. She would be a hen. I planned to give everyone their first taste of pumpkin whenever Bessie’s big day arrived.
As soon as everyone heard her loud “Kö-qÅq-öK!” from inside the nesting boxes, we knew it was time to celebrate and everyone was excited. Pumpkins are bigger than watermelons and have to be even better than watermelons, or that is what everyone imagined.
We had selected the biggest pumpkin as an evening treat for this special occasion. It had one pale flattened side from how it had grown in the garden, so that seemed like the best way to get to the pumpkin seeds inside. After all, we weren’t going to turn it into a jack-o’-lantern.
When I held out a handful of seeds, the chickens looked at the seeds. They looked at me. They looked back at the seeds.
No one said anything. There was no need. The expressions on their faces told me, “These seeds are too big, and we are hungry!”
Bessie’s shoulders slumped down with disappointment. This was something she had been looking forward to all day.
“Come on, Sweetheart. Come, follow me,” I said, and reluctantly she did. She watched as I secured both of their gate latches to make sure everyone would be safe while we were away.
She was hesitant partly because it was so close to bedtime, and having a good spot on the roosting boards in the coop was always very important. Mostly it was because it was the first time she would have ever been away from Gracie.
We looked back before going inside, and Gracie was staring at us through the fencing.
“Don’t worry, Gracie. We will be back before you know it. Both of us.”
Bessie had not been inside the house since she was a young chick. Even then, she had only been in the sunroom where I had kept their brooder box.
I put the pumpkin on some newspaper sheets in the center of the sunroom, and Bessie began looking around as she felt more comfortable with being back inside. A few familiar things began to spark memories for her.
“This spot, right here, is where Gracie and I would leap and dance across the sunroom floor. Do you remember?”
“I don’t ever want to forget,” I said. “I want to always remember the day you helped her find the courage to tell me she loved to dance.”
Bessie looked around. Things that had seemed so high before didn’t seem quite so high any more. She pointed to the telephone table.
“I remember that spot. Lefty flew up there the time he got out when you were cleaning the brooder box. You were flapping like a little chick yourself when you were trying to catch him!”
Then she pointed to a corner.
“And there is where you had the television set that kept us awake past our bedtime. That was when you didn’t understand why we were peeping so loudly during all of your favorite shows. We just wanted to go to sleep!”
Bessie and I both chuckled. I had known so very little about chickens then, but there was still so much more for me to learn. I finished scooping out the rest of the seeds and put them into a bowl. Bessie watched intently and inspected the seeds carefully.
“You do know they are still too big,” she said.
”I know. That’s why I need your help. We are going to roast them in the oven. Come on. Let’s go into the kitchen.”
She had been very chatty as all chickens can be when they are excited, but she became silent as she stood on the threshold between the sunroom and the kitchen.
For me, it was just a kitchen, the room where I prepare food for myself and my chickens. For Bessie, it was an entire world filled with more endlessly clever gadgets and wonders than she could ever imagine. She wanted to see and know and do everything all at once.
I took out a baking sheet and turned on the oven. Bessie peered through the oven’s glass window.
“Is this a television too, like the one you used to have in the sunroom?”
“Not exactly.” I turned the light on and off. “See it has light like the television but no sound. And it’s going to get hot, so we need to be very careful.”
She nodded knowingly as if she had been baking things in kitchens all of her life. Then she flapped her wings happily, and flew up to the counter beside the baking sheet and bowl of pumpkin seeds.
“What are we going to do now?” she asked.
“We are going to be chefs and roast these sunflower seeds. It is supposed to make them smaller and tastier, but I need your help to spread them out and then to tell me when you think they are done.”
So we did our best to separate the seeds from the strands of pumpkin flesh. I used my fingers, and Bessie used her beak. They were slippery and messy, and the results were not at all perfect. But it didn’t matter. We were both eager to see how this recipe would turn out.
I slid the baking sheet into the oven, made sure the light was on, and sat down on the floor. Bessie hopped down and stood on one of my knees. Together we watched through the oven window to see what was going on inside as the seeds slowly roasted.
“This is much more fun than watching a noisy old television, don’t you think?” Bessie asked.
“This is the best fun,” I said.
She settled down into my lap as we waited.
“What makes a great chef?” she asked.
“I heard a very famous chef named Julia answer that very same question once on television.”
“Julia would be a very good name for a chicken.”
“And here is what she said…”
“Was this Julia a chicken?”
“Unfortunately she wasn’t.”
“That’s too bad.”
“…What makes a great chef? Well, training and technique, of course, plus a great love of food, a generous personality, and the ability to invent…”
Bessie thought about every word.
A concerned look came over her face, and she hesitantly asked, “Do I…have those things? Maybe a chicken can only be a chicken.”
“You definitely have those things,” I said. “We just need to work a little on the training and technique part since this was your first time visiting a real kitchen.
“Everyone knows what a generous personality you have and how everything you do is from your heart. What matters more than anything is your generous heart. That’s true for being a chef or just about anything else. When a hen like you lays an egg, that’s just about the most generous thing there is in the whole world.”
“And what about the invent part?”
“Well, if you could invent something that was fun for chickens and for people, what would that be?”
“But I don’t have hands to invent it with.”
“Bessie, you don’t invent with just your hands. You invent mostly with your mind, and you have a very good mind.”
“Then I would invent a television without any sound so it wouldn’t keep anyone from getting to sleep. But it would still be fun to watch for chickens and people. Best of all, the chickens could eat it after the show was over!”
“That would be a truly great invention. And you thought that up all by yourself, didn’t you?”
She nodded happily.
We were beginning to smell the fragrance of the roasted pumpkin seeds.
“They smell almost done now,” she said.
She stood on my knee again and stretched out her neck to get a closer look, but not too close because she could feel the heat from the oven.
“And they look almost done now,” she said.
“Good. You get back up on the counter, and I’ll take them out. But we both have to be very careful. Everything will be really hot, just like the oven was.”
She examined the entire baking sheet from one end to the other and finally declared, “Perfect!”
“Bessie, it’s past our bedtime. We need to let these cool down before you can eat them. But tomorrow evening everyone will enjoy them, and I just may have another special surprise for all of you too.”
I picked her up and took her back to the coop because by then it was too dark for her to see well enough to follow me. There was Gracie, still by the fence, still waiting for Bessie to come back while Blanche and Pearl had already gone up for the night.
After Bessie and Gracie were tucked in for the night, I heard her whispering breathlessly to the others, “You just won’t believe it all. You just will not believe it all.”
Back inside, I set to work. I trimmed up the ragged hole I had cut in the pumpkin to get to the seeds. I used a hand drill to make one hole in the bottom of the pumpkin and another hole in the top near the stem. Those would be important.
Then I gathered together some scraps of wood and metal and thin cord and started working on what I hoped would be a truly special surprise for the next night’s celebration. It would be a chance for everyone to see how a pumpkin can be more than a pumpkin and maybe, just maybe, how a chicken can be an inventor.