Stone Soup

With apologies to Marcia Brown1 and Ann McGovern.

Now it happened that over the whole land there was a great famine. In a certain village, the people were starving. One day down the dusty road came a stranger, carrying a bulky pack. He stopped in the village square.

“I hear this village is in need of soup,” he called.

The villagers were naturally wary of strangers, even strangers bearing bulky packs and talking of soup. But then the stranger set down his pack and began to pull things from it. The curious villagers gathered round. They were very hungry.

First the stranger took out three long poles and a heavy iron pot. He filled the pot with water from the village pump and hung it on the three poles. Then he took out a shiny copper ladle and placed it in the pot. Finally, he took from the pack a large smooth stone.

He placed the stone in the pot.

“Stone soup,” said the stranger, “is the best soup. All it needs now is a few carrots for flavor.”

The villagers were excited at the prospect of soup. They were so very hungry! Many of the villagers immediately volunteered to take turns stirring the pot, using the stranger’s shiny copper ladle.

“I’ve heard that several of our village’s shopkeepers have some carrots,” piped up an old woman in the crowd. “Somebody should go ask them for their carrots.”

Other villagers brought firewood, and soon there was a roaring fire under the pot.

The water began to bubble and boil.

“I wish we had some rosemary, or maybe some thyme,” said a cook in a tall hat. “Rosemary and thyme can really improve the taste of a soup.” But none of the villagers knew where to get either of those things.

“That’s all right,” said the stranger confidently. “Once we’ve served the soup, each person can add rosemary and thyme to their own personal taste. Honestly, it’s better that way.”

Word of the stranger and his soup was spreading through the village. Some villagers brought bits of string to add to the pot. Another brought a handful of thumbtacks.

The pot had been boiling for quite some time now. The villagers stirred and stirred. New wood was brought for the fire. The sun reached the top of the sky and started down again. But the soup wasn’t finished.

A handful of villagers hung back.

“I don’t want to eat this soup,” said the village baker.

“Why not?” asked the other villagers. “Aren’t you just as hungry as we are?”

“I’m willing to eat this soup,” said the village butcher, “as long as it’s got some carrots in it. Where are those carrots?”

Nobody was quite sure. Besides, except for the specific reference to carrots, the butcher’s argument was the same as the baker’s earlier argument, which had already been refuted.

“This whole thing is merely a distraction from our real work,” said a shoemaker, “which is catching rats to eat. Every person making soup is taking away from our other efforts!”

But the villagers rebuked him. They pointed out that nobody was being forced to help with the soup. They pointed out how good the soup would taste when it was done. Most importantly, they pointed out that talk was cheap. If the shoemaker didn’t like how this soup was being made, why didn’t he go make his own soup?

The sun went down. Some of the villagers went home. Some of them stayed, to keep the fire burning and the copper ladle stirring. When the sun came up, the soup was still cooking.

Some of the villagers thought that the soup — which was still just a pot of water, a large stone, and some bits of string (after some careful consideration, they had fished out the thumbtacks) — should really be called more of a “stew.” Others thought it would be more accurate to call it a “bouillabaisse,” even though nobody was quite sure what the word meant.

The skeptics began to gather again.

“Look,” said the village blacksmith, “this stone soup really doesn’t seem appetizing. But if you really want something like it, you don’t need this stranger with his pot. You just—” and he dumped a few pebbles into his teacup. “Easy peasy,” he said.

Some of the villagers gathered around the pot disputed that the blacksmith’s pebble-tea was really anything like their stone soup. Others thought it was pretty similar, at that. But the stranger’s soup was a communal effort. When it was ready, the whole village could eat it together. You couldn’t solve the famine, they said, with one-off cups of pebble-tea.

“Frankly, I don’t think we should be wasting our time on soup at all,” said the village innkeeper.

“But,” replied the villagers, “don’t you remember how delicious soup can be? Remember being a child, and eating soup. We just want to give that same experience to our children.”

“Maybe we should investigate other forms of food,” said the innkeeper. “For example, I have heard that sandwiches taste all right.”

But sandwiches were not soup, and what was being stirred in the pot was clearly intended to be a soup. Even if the whole group were to change direction and pursue sandwiches instead, you can’t make a sandwich in a pot of water!

The sun reached the top of the sky and started down again.

Even a few of the villagers helping with the soup started to lose faith. Some privately admitted that the soup itself might not be very good, but at least it would provide a great motivation for bread bowls. Everybody in the village was excited by the prospect of bread bowls. They were so very hungry!

“I’m starting to think that nobody will want to eat this soup,” said the village carpenter. “Look. It’s full of dirt.” But everyone knew that somebody wanted to eat the soup, or it wouldn’t be getting stirred. Besides, the carpenter’s argument was just a more generic version of the baker’s argument from yesterday, which had already been refuted. And besides, everybody knew that children liked to eat soup.

“I have heard,” said the village milliner, “that several villages in the next county over have their own soup. I don’t think they started with stones. Maybe we could copy what they did.”

This news alarmed the villagers. If their own village remained soupless for long, people who wanted soup might start leaving. They might go to the next county. They might move away forever! “It is very important that we complete our work on this soup,” the villagers agreed.

“That’s not what I meant,” said the milliner.

The sun went down. Some of the villagers went home. Some of them stayed, to keep the fire burning and the copper ladle stirring. When the sun came up, the soup was still cooking.

Sorry to end this story on a cliffhanger, but I actually have no idea how to wrap it up. How would you like this story to end?

Posted 2018-06-06