Four and Twenty

Photo: A Murder of Crows by Jesse Weinstein (Creative Commons)

The crows were in the trees again, crowding the branches with ruffled feathers. Mara watched them watching her. She plucked a blueberry from the unfinished pie filling in front of her and popped the berry in her mouth, then sucked the purple juice from her fingers.

After wiping her hands on her apron, she dusted flour over the rolling pin and cutting board and slammed a fresh ball of pie dough down. It flattened under her rolling pin, bit by bit. When became sticky and clung to the rolling pin, she breathed slowly and dusted the pin with more flour just as her mother had taught her. It had taken her twenty-four tries roll out the bottom layer of crust alone and fit it neatly into the pan. She thought if she screwed this one up, she might scream.

“The trick is in the crust,” Mara’s mother used to say. “Pie filling is great, but the crust is where the magic is.”

Her mother loved to bake and owned her own bakery. She always had wisps of flour in her hair and blips of chocolate or jam dotted around the frame of her face. When her mother whisked eggs or whipped sugar into cream, she filled with an inner glow in the same way a house filled with the warmth of an oven’s heat. Her mother’s joy had been clear in every bite of apple crumble or decadent chocolate cake.

But for Mara, baking was a trial, and brutal verbal battles had broken out every time her mother tried to teach her the chemistry of the mixing bowl or the art of the oven.

To this day, the act of baking was a form of punishment and contrition.

Mixing together the flour, eggs, and butter in preparation the night before, Mara had kneaded her anger like venom into every layer of the dough, creating batch of crust after batch of crust, more than she would ever need, working and working until her finger ached with the frustration and effort. So what if her skin split and cracked with her effort; blood was the best source of vitriol.

This morning, the dough for the top crust smoothed out into a perfect layer before her after only the sixth attempt. Slicing the dough into strips and criss-crossing it across the top of the pie caused her to break into a sweat, but she managed. The pattern was imperfect, but passable, proving that it was homemade. Heat washed over her as she opened the oven and shoved the pie in. She pressed her palms into her lower back and sighed with relief.

Outside the crows started up a chorus of croaks. More of them filled the trees. A black curtain blotting out the sky.

Even though she set a timer, she kept an obsessive eye on the oven to ensure the pie wouldn’t burn. It felt like a miracle when she finally pulled it out, crust golden brown with the blueberry filling bubbling underneath. She set it on the counter to cool and changed into her best dress.

Mara wrapped the blueberry pie in a clean ivory kitchen towel and carried it down the road, the hem of her navy blue dress swinging about her knees. Around her the crows keep pace, flapping from tree to tree, calling out, taunting. They know, she thinks. But since they do not approach her, she ignores them.

Pies had been her mother’s specialty. She could bake any kind of pie imaginable — cherry, pecan, rhubarb, pumpkin, key lime, mince meat, lemon meringue. From sweet pies to savory meat pies, her mother loved them all. Though the humble blueberry pie was her mother’s favorite.

It was two miles into town. Mara wanted to feel the weight of the pie, which she held in both hands, out in front of her like a prayer. The weight tired her arms, made her muscles ache. As with her anger, she wills this burden also into the pie.

Mr. James Bradshaw’s house was tall and gleaming white with carefully manicured flowers surrounded by a picket fence. It was a respectable house for a respectable man. Mara assembled her face into a smile and strolled through the gate.

She was unsurprised when Bradshaw open the door himself. The maids have Sundays off.

His smile rounds his cheeks like red apples. His voice is sweet, dripping and sticky as honey. “Well, hi, there, Mara.”

Everyone in town calls Bradshaw a charmer, a good ol’ boy. Everyone in towns trusts him. Just as Mara’s mother did, he mother blaming herself even as he was repossessing the bakery. He had stood then with the same smile, explaining that it was interest rates, not him, that were crushing her mother’s joy into dusty crumbs. And oh, how her mother had withered.

Everyone said good ol’ Bradshaw had done the best he could, even though they also knew he could have covered the costs of her mother’s loan for one more month. Everyone forgave him. Everyone, but Mara.

“Hello, Mr. Bradshaw. It’s a lovely day isn’t it.” She made her voice light, matching his smile and tone.

“It is. It is indeed,” he said, glancing at the pie in her hands. “What have you got there?”

“I’ve been baking like mad this weekend with my cousin coming into town and ended up with an extra pie.” She held out the offering, arms trembling.

A flurry behind her, caws and shuffling. She could feel the mutitude growing behind her. Bradshaw lifted his eyes to the crows, smile faltering, then brought his gaze back to her. His uncertainty was clear in his expression, as he weighed her. There were rumors about Mara, that she had her own recipes, old recipes woven from myth and tales, taken out of ancient tomes.

But her hair was combed and curled, her blue dress freshly pressed, eyes carefully lined just enough to bring out the warmth of her brown eyes. She wore the costume of respectability and her eyes said, We really are friends. Her smile said, I bear no grudge.

Still not taking the pie from her tired hands, Bradshaw bent down toward the pie and sniffed. “Smells divine, Mara.”

“My mom’s recipe. The magic is in the crust,” she said, unable to help herself. Before his smile could slip, she came conspiratorially close and added, “The secret ingredient is butter.”

Her laugh rang out like a litany of bells. He chuckled in turn, visibly relaxing. At last, he took the pie from her and she stepped back, waving.

“You have a lovely day, Mr. Bradshaw.”

“You, as well, Mara.”

Her smile collapsed in on itself as she passed out through the gate and back down the road.

It wasn’t until she was nearly at her own door that she realized the crows had not followed her home. She shrugged. They were carrion birds, after all.


Footnote: This story was inspired in part by the prompt “begin with your mother’s blueberry pie” on Live to Write – Write to Live and in part by the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence“.