Plum Pie

We had made a small fire, and nine of us were huddled around it. Overhead, the branches of old trees, long dead, were arranged in a sort of lean-to pattern that served as our roof and walls. Two narrowleaf cottonwood trunks, whose forked branches held secure the pitched walls of our lodge, stood like sentinels in our midst. Underneath, thousands of golden brown leaves made a soft, but noisome carpet. It was a cold morning. The wind was ferocious, and a mix of rain and snow had been predicted. When we arrived, we quickly set about the task of building our little shelter as we watched a wall of gray clouds move in. Late fall was moving towards winter.

 

By this point, some of the children were bedded down on the crunchy layer of leaves, blankets and scarves improvised from anything at hand - hammocks, ponchos, extra clothes. Advah, who had recently been sick, was so thoroughly wrapped in a cocoon of leaves and blankets that her head, with its thick curly hair and wide, dark eyes, appeared as if sprouting up directly from the earth. Two of the children had carried a sizeable carpet of moss from the hillside, and some were simply splayed one way or another. Silke had three children in her lap.

 

I was encumbered only with the task of storytelling, and feeding the fire. We had just had lunch, roasting homemade bread over the fire with melted butter, and now it was time to rest. My hands worked constantly to keep the fire alive as I told the story. Our fire was small, and when the flame died down, smoke enveloped our little shelter, stinging our eyes and lungs. The children would shout, “White rabbit! White rabbit!” a folk remedy improvised by Silke to ward off the smoke and reduce the sting. The movement of my fingers, as I snapped twigs and arranged the fire, lent a certain aid to the story. “Tell us the one about the baker and the elf,” Griffin had shouted, to general approval. Just yesterday, I had told this story, and the children were in agreement that I should tell it again.

 

There was once an old baker who lived in a village. He was a very good baker, and all the people in the village loved his wonderful breads and muffins and cakes. Every morning he would bake bread, and you could smell it all over the neighborhood. It was one of the first things you noticed when you woke up. People would come in and buy the loaves of bread in the morning, and if children came on their way to school, he would often give them a roll or something to take with them. In the afternoon, he baked pies and cakes, and whenever people had a special occasion they would ask him to make something special for them. They would bring in fruit or nuts and honey, and they trusted him to make something of it.

 

“Is this the one about the elf?” asked Griffin, “Tell us the one about the elf.”

 

“Yes, this is the one about the elf,” I answered, snapping a twig into thirds and placing them on the fire. “But you’ll have to listen.”

 

So, one day, an old woman came to the baker with a large basket of plums from her tree. It was an old tree, and the plums were a dark purple and very sweet. “We are having a party,” said the old woman, “to celebrate our neighborhood. Please bake us a pie and I will pick it up tomorrow morning.” She knew that the baker would know what spices and things to add to make the pie delicious. The baker looked at the plums, which he could tell right away were sweet and delicious, and said, “Yes, I will bake you a pie. Come back in the morning and I will have it ready for you.” The woman said thank you, and left.

 

The baker took the basket of plums, which was quite large, and set it on the counter. He cut the plums up, took out their stones, and mixed them with just the right amount of spices to make them delicious. Then he added some walnuts. He put another piece of firewood in his oven, and went to his cupboard to get flour for the dough. He mixed the flour with butter, water and salt, and put the dough into a large pie dish. It was a very large dish, as it was a very large basket of plums. It was so large, that when he put the plum filling into the pie and placed another layer of dough on top, he could barely lift it. It was as wide as a man’s arms spread out, like this, but the baker was a strong man, because he kneaded dough and lifted bread in and out of the oven every day, so he could lift it. He put the pie in the oven, and then cleaned up his little shop and prepared things for the next morning.

 

“And then the elf ate it.”

 

“Not yet. The elf hadn’t gotten there yet.”

 

The pie took a long time to cook. By the time it was done, it was time for the baker to go to bed, and so he took it out of the oven, holding it tightly with both hands, and put it on the counter to cool. The smell of the pie filled the little shop. He took a deep sniff. “Mm,” said the baker, and he knew that it was a very special pie. “If only I could have a piece of that pie right now, mmh, I would… But no,” said the baker, “I won’t. It belongs to the old woman.” And with that, he walked up the stairs and went to bed.

 

Well, later that night a little elf came into the shop. He would often come when the baker was sleeping and eat the little crumbs and bits of things that were left over. The baker had never noticed, because the elf was, after all, so small, and he ate so little. And at that, he only ate the crumbs and leftover bits that no one wanted anyway. Well, the elf came in and immediately, sniff, mmh! He smelled the plum pie and it smelled so good he wanted to find out what it was. He looked on the table, and in the cupboard, and even walked inside the oven, which had cooled down by that point. Finally, he climbed up to the counter and found the pie.

 

Mmh! It smelled so good. “Gosh,” he thought, “maybe I could have just one tiny piece. After all, I’m so small and probably no one would notice. And it smells so good.” Now, normally, he would never eat something that was whole and fresh like this. He only ate the bits and crumbs that were leftover. But the pie smelled so good, and he could feel that it was still warm, and, well, he couldn’t help himself. “Just one tiny piece,” he thought. He grabbed hold of a piece of crust and yanked it out, and indeed it was quite small. But even still, it had soaked in a bit of the plum filling and when the elf took a bite it was so good. It was the best pie he had ever tasted. It was so good, in fact, that he thought, “Hm. Maybe just one more piece. After all, I’m so small, and the pie is so large. Probably no one will ever notice.” Well, after that piece, the elf had another piece. And then another. And then he had one more, and then a little bit more, and a bit more. Finally, after many little pieces, the elf was stuffed. He could not eat another bite.

 

“White rabbit! White rabbit!”

 

I had let the fire die down. The smoke was drifting into Advah’s eyes.

 

“White rabbit! White rabbit!” shouted Esperanza. The wind changed direction constantly.

 

I placed a few more twigs in the fire, and stirred the coals a little bit. I blew on the embers, smoke stinging my eyes. A small flame perked up, and then more. I placed a few more twigs on top, and suddenly the air was clear.

 

Okay, so the little elf was sitting there, his belly was round and he was sort of lazy from eating all that pie. Well, he looked at the pie and he could see there was a hole. It wasn’t very large, but still it was a hole. It looked like a mouse had been nibbling at it. Well, the elf felt a little bad about that, and now he was worried, because the baker would come down in the morning and notice the little hole and, the elf thought, the baker would be angry. Then, he had an idea.

 

He got a little bowl and went to the baker’s cupboard. He got a little flour and mixed it with water and butter and went to the oven. Even though the oven had cooled, so that the elf could walk inside without getting hurt, there were still some embers at the bottom, and he stirred them together and blew on them a little. Just like we’re doing here. He formed a little cap out of the dough, and set it there to bake. Then he went to get a sip of water, because his belly was so full of pie he needed something to drink.

 

Finally, the little cap was done. The elf took it from the oven and walked back to the counter where the pie was. He had to shape the cap to fit, knocking a bit off here and there, and finally got it to roughly the right size. But it stuck out a little. It wasn’t exactly the same shape as the hole, and it was a little different color. He held the little cap in his hands, thinking, when suddenly he heard, “thump, thump, thump.” He looked around, and then he heard it again, “thump, thump, thump.” He looked out the window, and he could see that it was just beginning to be daylight. “Thump, thump, thump.” The elf realized it was the baker coming down the stairs. “Thump, thump, thump.” He looked, and there was the baker’s foot. There were only two more stairs left. “Thump, thump.”

 

The baker stood in the room. The little elf didn’t know what to do. He was still holding the cap. He looked left. He looked right. He looked out the window, and down at the hole in the pie. Without thinking, he held the little cap over his head and jumped into the pie, fitting the little cap in place and leaving just enough room to breathe.

 

“Did the elf eat more pie?”

 

“No, he did not eat more pie, because he was too scared to even think.”

 

The baker walked into the room, and he could smell the delicious plum pie. He sniffed the air vigorously and was pleased with himself. He thought, “Hm. If I could have just one piece of this pie, I would be content, and it would be so delicious… But no. I must leave it for the old woman.” Instead, he washed his hands and stirred up the embers in the oven and put in a load of firewood. As he was walking to his cupboard to get the flour for the day’s bread, there was a knock at the door.

 

It was still very early, so the baker was surprised. When he opened the door, it was the old woman. “I’m sorry for arriving so early,” she said, “but our party is quite early and we have to walk back through the village. I was wondering if you were done with the pie.”

 

“Indeed,” said the baker, “can you not smell it?”

 

“I smell smoke.”

 

“Does it smell like plum pie?”

 

“No.”

 

“Yeah, well…” I added some more twigs and blew on the embers.

 

The woman, sniff, sniff, put her nose to the air and said, “Ahhh… I can smell it, and it must be the most wonderful pie you’ve ever made.”

 

“It just may be,” said the baker. But I’m afraid you can’t take it, as the pie is so large that you will not be able to carry it.

 

“Yes,” said the woman, “that’s why I brought my two sons.” And indeed, there were her two sons directly behind her. The three walked into the baker’s shop and the delicious aroma of the pie was a delight to them all. Their mouths were watering. The pie was so large that it took both of the young men to carry it. They placed it on their shoulders, one on each side, and walked out the door with it. The woman thanked the baker for his work and paid him a generous fee. The baker was happy to take it, but a little sad to see the pie go, because he had not had a chance to taste it. “Oh well,” he thought, and went back to his cupboard to get flour for the morning’s bread.

 

The two sons and the old woman had to walk through the village to get to their neighborhood, and everyone in the streets smelled that wonderful pie and saw how large it was, that it took two grown men to carry it, and the old woman and her sons felt the stare of envious eyes. “Good morning,” the old woman said, “If you would like a piece of this pie, please come to our party and we will all share it.” After a while, quite a crowd was following that pie through the streets.

 

Well, the whole time, the little elf was still inside the pie. He was bouncing and sloshing around as the two brothers carried it on their shoulders. It was all he could do to hold onto the little cap and keep his head above the plum filling. He did not know where he was going, or what he was going to do. He was too frightened to think.

 

Finally, the old woman, her sons, and the crowd, made it to the neighborhood, where there was an even larger crowd gathered. Everyone saw the pie and made way so that it could be set down on the table in the middle of the gathering. It was still warm, and everyone could smell it. It smelled like the most delicious pie they had ever smelled, and they knew that the baker was a good man and made excellent pies, and that the plums were good plums on an old tree, so that everyone was anxious to have a bite.

 

The woman asked people of the neighborhood to bring plates and bowls so that there would be enough for everyone that had gathered. Many men and women went to their homes and brought back a stack of dishes, so that a large pile of dishes of every color and variety stood on the table next to the pie. The woman had a large carving knife, and before she cut the pie she said a little prayer of thanks.

 

“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” the old woman said. “We share this pie in gratitude for our neighborhood and all the people who live here. And for the village that supports us. We give thanks to the plum tree that grew these plums, and to the baker for making them into a pie. Thanks to the sun and the rain, and all the things that make our lives whole.”

 

“Could the elf hear her?”

 

“The elf heard every word, and even smiled.”

 

With that, the woman took up the carving knife and began to cut from the center of the pie. The elf was more frightened than ever. But he was surrounded by a crowd of people and didn’t know what to do. As the knife drew near, suddenly, he sang:

 

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

I’m alive…

 

Everyone looked around. They had heard this beautiful song, but they didn’t know who sang it, or where it had come from. They stared at each other with blank faces. No one knew. Finally, the old woman shrugged her shoulders and began to cut the pie again. And again, the little elf sang out:

 

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

I’m alive…

 

Again, the old woman stopped. And this time, as everyone was looking around in confusion, one of the sons noticed the little cap in the pie. It looked a little out of place, and was sort of a different color. He thought maybe he had seen it moving while the song was being sung. He placed his fingers on the little cap and pulled. Out came the elf, dangling in the air, holding onto the cap from underneath.

 

Everyone was surprised, for they had never seen an elf before, and now he was dangling from the pie crust, covered in sticky pie filling.

 

“Hello,” said the little elf. “I’m very sorry to have crashed your party. I visited the baker’s shop last night, just for some crumbs, but I couldn’t stop myself from eating a little bit of the pie. It smelled like the best pie I’d ever smelled. And I was so hungry. Please forgive me. I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, but…”

 

Everyone looked around, astonished. But they understood. It did smell like the best pie they had ever smelled, and didn’t they also want a piece? And, after all, it was only a small nibble the elf had made. Then the old woman said, “We will forgive you, if you would be so kind as to teach us your song. It is such a lovely song and we would like to know it.”

 

“Certainly,” said the elf, happy to be safe. The son who was holding the elf placed him on the table, and as he sang everyone listened.

 

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

Lai la la lai - la la lai - la lai lai - I am alive…

I’m alive…

And who…is this aliveness I am?

And who…is this aliveness I am?

And who…is this aliveness I am?

Is it not the holy blessed one?

 

Everyone enjoyed the song very much, and some of the people began to sing it quietly to themselves so as to remember it. “And now,” said the old woman, who had begun cutting the pie again and handing out pieces, “we will share a piece of pie with you, but perhaps you had better wash up first.” For the elf was still covered in sticky plum filling. “There is a water basin over there,” said the woman. The elf washed up, as pie was handed out to everyone who had gathered from the neighborhood and the village. And when the elf came back, he was given a piece even larger than he had eaten the night before.

 

“And that is the end of the story, for now…”

 

“Awww, tell another one.”

 

“No…” I answered, smiling patiently. It was time to start cleaning up to head back home. “Well, okay,” I said, “I’ll tell you one more thing the elf did. They asked him to do one more thing.”

 

The old woman had put a large slice of the pie into a bowl and asked the elf to carry it back to the baker’s, so that he too could have a piece. “I would,” said the elf, but I cannot carry it. It is too large.” There was an old man in the crowd, who was a sort of tinkerer, and he said he would help the elf. He had taken an old shoe and fashioned a small wheel at the front with two sturdy branches to make a wheelbarrow for his grandson to play with. But his grandson had grown up and no longer played with it. He ran home to get it and set the little wheelbarrow down in front of the elf. It fit perfectly in his hands. The old woman placed the slice of pie inside, and everyone waved goodbye as he set off down the road back to the baker’s.

 

“And that’s the end of the story, for real.”

 

“Aw, come on. One more story. Please! Please!”

 

“Okay children,” said Silke, “it’s time to start gathering our things and cleaning up. We need to head back home.”

 

“Aww…”

 

We could hear the crunch of leaves as our legs and bodies shifted. “Thank you Papa Joe for sharing your story,” Silke said, “And thank you, children, for resting and listening.” Crouching and climbing out of our little lodge, we were immediately set to new tasks. Silke asked some of the children to gather the hammocks and blankets, others ran off to play on the rope swing. The clouds, which had been thick and gray when we entered the lodge, had broken, and there were patches of bright blue sky overhead. By the time I walked to the creek to fill up a jar of water to douse on the fire, the whole mood had changed. Children were running and laughing. The expediency of chores was at hand. Autumn, invited to wake up Little Bear, was laughing conspiratorially. Griffin, stuffing a hammock into its sack, was singing softly, "Lai la la lai..."