A Crow and a Pumpkin Pie
The other day I was in my garden, looking at the small footprints of a critter who had meandered through one of my garden beds. I was reminded of two stories. The first one is about a crow and a pumpkin pie.
My Dad loved pie. It didn’t matter what kind he would eat any and all types of pie. He loved pie so much that he commissioned a pie plate, an extra-extra-large pie plate, from a local potter. This is extraordinary because my Dad made everything, by hand. Everything. But he wasn’t a potter. So, my stepmother came up with the idea to have a local artisan make him a special plate. And this pie plate was the largest pie plate I’ve ever seen.
On the night that I’m thinking about, I was visiting, as a young adult, sometime in my 20s. As soon as I walked into the house, I could smell the pie. It was pervasive, touching every nook and cranny and making the place smell like home. Immediately I went over to take a closer look, to see if any pieces had fallen off and needed to be, well, tested. For quality sake. A job I took upon myself whenever I could be of service.
I also wanted to know exactly what kind of pie it was. When you have such a large pie plate you kind of have to make up the filling with your own proportions. I wanted to look at the pie to make sure I wouldn’t be disappointed in my anticipation because eating it was still a number of hours away.
And, this time, my nose was not deceiving me. The pie was sitting on the counter, and it was perfect. The top was browned perfectly, and the hand pinched crust was browned perfectly, and it smelled perfect. To get such a perfect pie out of a wood stove means my stepmother had to watch it closely and turn the edges away from the fire box many, many times before it was done.
Cooking on a wood stove and getting such a perfect pie out of the oven involved a lot of factors. It really turns into a religious practice and experience. And, every now and then, no matter how much you believe, you have to offer something up to the wood stove gods. Sometimes it’s the pie, sometimes its biscuits or part of a roast. The fire will take it in a moment of inattention, charring it beyond appetite. But, on this day, that was not the case. This pie was perfect, which means the cooking gods and my stepmother must have been well aligned and working together for such a beautiful outcome.
But then, as I looked at the details of the pie, I noticed it. There was something unusual. There was a pattern in the crust, on one side. This perfect pie had something that looked like bird tracks across the surface. I could see them distinctly, on top of the pie. Each footprint had three toes, like a bird, and that bird had taken three steps across the side of the pie. I blinked a couple time. What was I seeing?
I turned to my Dad, who was hovering nearby, then I looked back at the pie. “What happened?” I asked.
He didn’t hesitate one bit, not even a second before he started with his story. A story that he, in hindsight, was perhaps a little too eager to tell, but one I was certainly ready to hear.
“It was the funniest thing.” He said, pausing to make sure I was following him.
“Uh, huh,” I said wondering where this was going.
“The pie was by the window, you know, to cool off after it came out of the oven.” He moved his hands to where it was, earlier in the day, showing me the orientation and how it was displayed close to the window. “She just placed it here, like this.” He looked at me to make sure I was paying attention. Then he continued.
“I didn’t think much of it, I was in the other room, sitting on the couch reading.”
“And, then, all of the sudden I heard a scuffle in the kitchen. I didn’t know what it was, but it was a very strange sound, like feathers and claws.”
“What was that noise? I thought. I quickly and quietly got up out of my chair to come take a look.”
“And, just as I came around the corner, into the kitchen, I looked up and saw it.” He said.
“Saw what?” I asked.
“A crow. I saw a crow.”
“What?” I asked? “Where?”
“It came in through the open window and walked across the pie. Then, it turned its head, saw me and went right back out the window.”
He wasn’t smiling.
I didn’t believe him.
Except I did.
My mind started racing. Whaat???? Could this be true?
Before I reacted, I needed to think. Was my father pulling my leg?
I jumped into logic overdrive. My brain started calculating and processing data with rapid fire questions and other thought that I then answered in split second decisions, one right after the other.
This was highly unusual. This story was both surprising and magical. I wanted to believe it was true. I wanted to trust it was true. I wanted to think this story was true. But I was skeptical. Could this have possibly happened? Did it happen?
As my father watched me, I paused. I was thinking, my mouth wide open, my eyes darting all over the kitchen to where he told me the pie was, to where the crow came in through the window, to where it was now and where I was standing. Did the story add up?
I quickly went through the things I knew to be true. I put together a split-second pros/cons list in my head and calculated up the total. We were, after all, on a farm, surrounded by wild animals. Birds were everywhere and did really curious things like poking holes in the eve of the house to make a nest. The Robins dropped the shells of their hatched eggs in our yard, so the predators wouldn’t find their babies. I’ve had birds try to get nectar from the pattern on a brightly colored shirt that I happened to wear outside at just the right time.
There were baby birds in the woodshed, a pileated woodpecker lived in a box down by the pond, night hawks signaled the beginning of spring with their mating dance in the field where we snuck up and laid on our backs and watched them overhead. And it wasn’t just birds, there was a raccoon living under the shop, deer got into the garden, the dogs would get into skunks and porcupines. And, sometimes, when we had lunch outside, bees came to eat the honey off our sandwiches. There was so much wildlife around us that we really did live in their world.
Okay, I knew all of this to be true, but a crow coming in the house? Walking across the pie? Did that really happen? My eyes narrowed as I continued to think.
My rational brain went into the characteristics of this animal. What did I know about crows? I knew they are incredibly intelligent and curious animals. I knew they used tools, taking sticks and poking them in holes to skewer insects so they can eat them. I knew that crows were exceptional creatures, superior creatures really, even within the bird family.
This calculation, in my head, happened so quickly I wasn’t even aware of all of the elements. And in my judgement, I came up with this; it isn’t COMPLETELY out of the question that a crow COULD have POSSIBLY come in through the window and, well, walked across the pie. It’s plausible, right?
Except there was no way. My mind went to logistics. Where did the crow land when it first came in the window? Did it fly directly in? Was the window open wide enough for it to fly through? Would it fly directly into a house? I knew that would be very unusual for a crow. They are smart, but they aren’t reckless, and this seemed reckless, you know, if I had to think like a crow.
My Dad didn’t have sills on the outside of his house, just the metal, sliding windows. So, where did the crow land? I couldn’t find an answer, and this went into the “cons” list.
And if the crow actually came through the window, however it got there, for the sole purpose that is was interested in the pie, why didn’t the crow take a bite out of the pie? Seriously, it didn’t bite the pie, how is that possible? The crow would be looking for food. It would bite the pie to see if it was food, wouldn’t it? There wouldn’t be another reason for the crow to come in through the window besides to bite the pie. So, why didn’t it bite the pie?
Crows are curious, but they are curious about food more than anything else. Crows use tools to get food, they fly around to get food, they walk on things to get to food, most of what they do in a day is get food. Why didn’t the crow bite the pie?
And then my mind when to physics. Could that pie, a pumpkin pie, right in front of me, hold the weight of a crow? How much does a crow weigh? Two pounds? Five pounds? How much surface tension does a pumpkin pie have? A crow is pretty heavy compared to a pie, isn’t it? Wouldn’t the footprints have gone deeper into the pie? All of the weight of the crow would have been on one foot as it stepped, and so the footprints should be deeper if they were indeed a crow, right?
Or maybe the crow walked quickly across the pie, like someone would walk across coals or across a log that’s floating in the river, is that possible? The crow walked so quickly over the pie it didn’t sink in.
And how come the footprints were perfect? If the crow was looking for food and trying to eventually eat the pie, why are the footprints recognizable as bird prints? Wouldn’t it have been in a lot more hurry and pecked at the thing a couple times while nervously looking around? Without walking over the pie. How come I could see the distinct footprints? The footprints on the surface of the pie weren’t very deep, but they were unmistakable. They were definitely there.
But then, how else did the footprints get there?
I side-eyed my Dad, who was sticking to his story and watching me, seeing what I would do. And in that moment, I knew I was being tested. Tested not only about the knowledge I had about wild animals, logistics, physics, instinctual drive, hunger and crows, but tested on the loyalty to my Dad. And because of this last test, I was beginning to believe him. It was plausible, but, really? So, looking at my Dad, I decided to fully embrace it just like I embraced him when I walked in the door, for no other reason than he wanted me to believe. And so, I did. Yup – it was a magical experience and, well, it did happen. And it was very special.
But then, my naivety was challenged, in a highly embarrassing experience, later that evening.
A handsome and single neighbor stopped by and was invited for dessert. He lived alone, just moved to the area, was a handful of years older than me and he was sitting across the table ready to eat pie. The pie was ceremoniously placed in the middle of the table, and this neighbor, without filter and without hesitation, took one look at it and said, “what happened to it?”
And, boy, was I ready with my answer. I was ready to tell the story. I told him about the crow coming in through the window. I told him about the look in the crow’s eye, about the steps the crow made, how it landed on the windowsill inside the window, how it then walked across the pie. I told the neighbor about how my Dad heard a mysterious sound, decided to investigate, came into the room and was surprised to see a crow in the kitchen. I told the neighbor about how the crow then took flight, back out the window. And I ended it with how it was such a magical experience and wasn’t it cool to live in the woods of Maine?
The neighbor not only didn’t believe me, he didn’t understand how anyone could believe such a story. He said it was a good story but definitely fictional and he wasn’t buying it. I was crestfallen and mortifyingly embarrassed.
But I was not a shrinking-violet and I had one last thing to say. “My father told me, and why would he ever lie to me?” I said looking directly at both of them.
The conversation quickly moved along, as it often does in socially polite situation, and that was the end of that. The end of that conversation, the end of that story, the end of wondering about a friendship with the neighbor. The night went on to other things. The crow and the pumpkin pie never came up again, which is also worth noting.
To look at what’s true we have to look at what’s missing. And, while I’m still wondering, decades later, did the crow actually come through the window? I know a couple of things about myself.
I know that my relationship with my Dad was always complicated. There were good times, but there were also a lot of not-good times. I know that I want to believe the crow did walk across the pie. I want to trust that my Dad was telling me the truth. But I will never know for sure. He took this story, and many, many other things to his grave. So, is it plausible the crow came in the window? Yes, perhaps. Realistic, probably not. Today, I choose to believe both of these things, that it happened and that it didn’t, simultaneously, picking the story in and of itself as the reality.