Pearl jumped up in a twitch of excitement. And, of course, that made Blanche burp.
“Bessie, what color do you think your eggs will be?” said Pearl. “They might be a splendid color like maybe amber. You do eat a lot of sunflower kernels. The very best color for eggs is amber. No. Lavender. Wait. Periwinkle!”
“Why don’t you simply use all those colors and make your eggs plaid?” suggested Blanche. “No. Striped. Wait. Polka-dotted!”
Bessie almost gave both of them head pecks for being so silly, but then she realized she didn’t know what color chicken eggs were supposed to be. She had never seen a chicken egg except for the one she had hatched from, and that had been so long ago she didn’t remember.
“You are the bravest chicken I know,” Pearl said. “Brave beyond compare is what you are.”
“Why do you say I am the bravest?” said Bessie. “I have not really had to be brave yet.”
“You are going to start laying eggs any day now, aren’t you?”
“Well, there you go! That is brave. None of us have ever done that or even seen another chicken do that. You will be the first of us all. It sounds a little scary to me. I’m glad that you will be able to show us how to be brave.”
Pearl was right. It was a little scary. By the way Bessie had been acting, we knew any day could be the day she would lay her first egg. She would no longer be a pullet. She would be a hen. Even with what the songbirds had told her, this was still something completely new. Bessie wasn’t sure she could show anyone how to be brave.
We were looking forward to celebrating. Our last real celebrating had been during the summer when the watermelons were ripe. That had been right before Lefty and the others had gone off to new homes in the country.
Since it was autumn, the chickens were looking forward to their first taste of pumpkin as a special treat whenever Bessie’s big day arrived.
As soon as everyone heard Bessie’s loud “Kö-qÅq-öK!” from inside the nesting boxes, they scrambled up the chicken ladder to examine Bessie’s egg. It was beautiful. Although Pearl seemed disappointed that Bessie’s first egg was just an ordinary shade of tan, the shortest and least glamorous color name, she didn’t say anything. Bessie had done something none of them had ever done, and that was extraordinary in itself.
Everyone’s attention quickly turned to pumpkins which are bigger than watermelons and must be even better than watermelons. That is what they imagined. We had already selected an oddly-shaped pumpkin for a late afternoon treat. It had one pale flattened side from how it had grown in the garden, and 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. They looked back at me. No one said anything. The expressions on their faces told me, “These seeds are too big, and we are hungry!”
Bessie’s shoulders slowly slumped down with disappointment. This was something she had been anticipating for days.
I picked up the pumpkin and said, “Come on, Bessie. Follow me.” Reluctantly, she did. She watched me secure both of the latches so everyone would be safe while we were away.
Bessie was hesitant because it would soon be evening and then bedtime. Having a good spot on the roosting boards in the coop was always very important. And it was going to be the first time she would be away from Gracie.
We looked back before going inside, and Gracie was standing as close as possible to the fence and staring at us.
“Don’t worry, Gracie. We will be back before you know it. Both of us,” I said.
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 and never in the kitchen.
After I put the pumpkin on some newspaper sheets in the center of the sunroom floor, Bessie began looking around as she felt more comfortable with being back inside. Several familiar things sparked memories for her.
“Right here is where Gracie and I would leap and dance across the sunroom floor when we were little. Do you remember?”
“I don’t ever want to forget the day you helped her find the courage to tell me she loved to dance. Watching the two of you made my heart dance too.”
Bessie looked around. Their first space for dancing didn’t seem as big as it had before. Things that had once seemed so high didn’t seem quite so high anymore. She pointed with her beak 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 while 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. They had all gotten a better night’s rest after I finally moved it out of the sunroom. Everything about chickens had been such a mystery then, and 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.”
Until then, she had been very chatty, just 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. Her beak slowly opened with amazement at all she saw.
For me, it was just the room where I prepare food for myself and my chickens. But for Bessie, it was an entire world filled with more endlessly clanking gadgets and whizzing wonders than she could have ever imagined. She wanted to try them all. It would be difficult to tell her those incredible inventions were made for hands and fingers, not wings and feathers.
I took out a baking sheet and turned on the oven. Bessie peered through the oven’s glass window.
“Is this a television too? It looks 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. It was as if she had been making 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 pumpkin 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.”
Together, 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. 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.
We waited while the kitchen’s black-and-white cat clock with the moving eyes and swinging tail kept track of the time. My aunt had glued little glass jewels onto it before giving it to my grandmother. It looked almost like the more expensive kind. Cats, even plastic ones, make chickens nervous, so Bessie settled into the safety of my lap.
“What makes a great chef?” she asked.
“I once read that a great chef needs to have training, technique, and a great love for food. A great chef also needs to have a generous heart and the ability to invent.”
A concerned look came over Bessie’s face, and she hesitantly asked, “Do I have those things? Maybe a chicken can only be a chicken.”
“Don’t ever think of yourself as only a chicken. You definitely have those things,” I said. “We just need to work a little on training and technique since this was your first time visiting a real kitchen.
“We all know how everything you do is from your generous heart. That’s what matters more than anything. It’s true for being a chef or anything else that’s good to be. When a hen lays an egg like you did today, 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 anything with.”
“People don’t invent with just their hands. They invent mostly with their minds, and you have a very good mind, Bessie. You can invent things too.”
“Then I would invent a television without any sound so it wouldn’t keep anyone from getting to sleep,” she said. “But it would still be fun for chickens and people to watch together like we are watching this oven together. Best of all, the chickens could make the television work, and if the television was a pumpkin, then they 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.
“See? You do have the ability to invent!”
We were beginning to smell the nutty, sweet fragrance of the roasted pumpkin seeds.
“They smell almost done now,” she said and stood on my knee again and stretched out her neck to get a closer look.
Her longest tail feathers quivered with excitement, and I held my breath while waiting for her decision.
“And they look almost done now too,” 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.”
She leaned over and stretched out her neck as far as she could and examined the entire baking sheet from one end to the other. Finally she declared, “Perfect!”
“Bessie, it’s past our bedtimes. We will need to let these cool before you can eat them. But tomorrow you can feast!”
After turning off the oven, I picked her up and took her back to the coop because it was too dark for her to see well enough to follow me. Blanche and Pearl had already gone up for the night, but Gracie was still there, still by the fence, and still waiting for Bessie to come back.
After I helped them settle in for the night, I heard Bessie whispering to the others, “You just won’t believe it all. You just will not believe it all. This has been just about the best day of my life!”
Back inside, I set to work and trimmed up the ragged hole I had made to get to the seeds so it was a little bigger and more like a rounded square. With a hand drill, I made one hole in the bottom of the pumpkin and another in the top near the stem. The holes would be important.
Then I gathered 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 day’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 more than a chicken.