There once was an old hen – older, at least, than most others – who wanted to bake a loaf of bread. In the morning she woke and took her sickle to thresh the wheat. On her way, she passed the piglets playing in the briar patch.
“Do you want to help me harvest wheat so that I can make bread?” asked the old hen.
“Shh. I’m hiding,” replied the piglet.
She went on her way. The pull was good and the work was easy – although it might have gone a bit quicker. With the small bail on her back she returned to her coup. On the way she found the dog (who was sniffing the earth and the trees and the tall grass).
“Do you want to help me make flour so that I can bake bread?”
“Hmm?” replied the dog.
“Do you want to help me make flour for my bread?”
“I’m sorry. Have you seen the cat? I’ve been looking for some time. Well, at least since breakfast,” the dog asked, still distracted.
“I’ll tell the cat if I see her.”
The flour was made, fine and pure. While some had been caught in her feathers, the old hen was content with her work. She readied the yeast and other ingredients when the cat jumped up to her windowsill.
“Hello,” said the old hen kindly, “You might want to know the dog is looking for you.”
“Good,” said the cat, “That means he still hasn’t found me.”
“The old hen smiled, knowing that the cat secretly wanted the dog to find her, “why don’t you stay and help me make dough for bread?”
The cat slinked and stretched and shrugged and said, “Perhaps later. Right now I must torment the mouse.”
The old hen sighed, “very well,” but the cat had already left. She made the dough as her mother had taught her, and even found she had enough for a second – but smaller – loaf. Some time had passed since the cat had left. She opened the cupboard and held out her wing. From behind the saffron and rosemary, came the mouse – where the old hen had helped him hide.
“Is she gone finally?” asked the mouse as he climbed into her wing so she could let him down.
“She left some time ago; I wanted to be sure she had gone.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“Perhaps you could stay and help me knead the dough and ready the pans so I can bake it?”
“I’m sorry, but I need to return to my family,” he said, hopping down from the counter, “It’s getting late and they’re probably already concerned for me.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said the old hen, “Good day.”
The mouse skittered off and she returned to her labor. Quick work was made of the dough and the pans were greased. By the time the oven had heated enough, the rat had wandered up to her windowsill.
“Hello,” he said quietly.
“Hello,” replied the old hen, who really didn’t want his dirty paws in her kitchen.
“What are you making?” asked the rat after a short beat.
“Some bread,” a short amount of time passed again, “I have much to do. If you wash your hands and feet, you may come in and watch the bread rise for me. That way it doesn’t burn.”
The rat nervously looked around, wringing his hands slowly, “Umm… No. No.”
“Then run along, please.”
And so the rat went about his way, leaving the old hen to finish her bread. Although she had no one to watch the bread rise and make sure that it didn’t burn, it still came out fine (because these were certainly not the first loaves of bread she had baked). The smell was full and rich and would travel far. And with the scent came the curious. First were the piglets.
“What’s that smell?”
“Can we have some?”
“But you didn’t help me harvest the wheat,” said the old hen.
One of the little piglets moaned to which she replied, “Go on now.”
After the piglets finally left, came the dog.
“Is that the bread you were making?”
“Yes. It is.”
“Could I have some?”
“But you didn’t help me make the flour.”
“Not this time.”
Shortly after dog had left the cat snuck in. She purred at the smell and snaked along the kitchen counter.
“Smells good. Do you mind if I have some?
“But you didn’t help me make the dough.”
The cat skrinched her nose, “Suppose so.”
Again, the cat had disappeared before the old hen could give reply, leaving her to the remaining work. Little time passed, again, before the mouse skittered into the room.
With a few quick sniffs of the air he said, “My, my. That smells quite good.”
“Do you mind if I take some home for my family?” spoke the mouse as he stood up on his hind legs.
“But you didn’t help me knead the dough.”
“Oh. Of course.”
“Yes. Of course.”
With her chores nearly done, the old hen knew that the bread had set long enough. Not before long, she noticed the rat at her windowsill.
“Yes?” she said directly.
“That bread,” he said timidly, “it smells good.”
“Yes, it does.”
After some time had passed, he asked, “May I have some?”
“But you didn’t help me watch the dough rise.”
The rat rubbed his long chin with his dirty paw, “Oh.”
“Good day to you, then.”
The rat had left and the old hen was finally left to enjoy her bread. It was still warm and soft, and it sliced easily. She knew that the others would not be able to enjoy what she had made. The piglets would continue to play until they’re mother called them home. The dog would chase the cat, and the cat would tease the dog – continuing their secret little tryst. The mouse would return home to his wife and children; and, although his wife would scold him for being late and making her worry, she would welcome him home and feed him mushroom stew. Even the rat found a place, as he became the king of the spiders and the flies.
She was left to enjoy her bread which tasted as she knew it would; and the others would go about their lives without knowing the savor of the bread she had made – that she could have shared with them but didn’t. The bread tasted as she knew it would, but not as sweet as she thought it might.