Once upon a time a beggar wandered into a poor village in the mountains of Portugal. It was a cold, raw, cloudy day late in the year. He was hungry. He had no food with him. He had not eaten in days. He could not remember when he had eaten last. Wandering the countryside is hungry work, he thought.
The village was little more than a collection of low stone… well, huts, really. Lichen covered granite blocks chinked with scraps of fieldstone piled together into scraggly walls. Moss-covered clay roof-tiles sheltered a low doorway. A manger for animals – in good years. Sagging chestnut beams supported by smooth, worn posts. Each holding its beam in the open palm of an abbreviated crook.
Sheltered together, huddled in each others lee, each home shared sidewalls with its neighbors. It looked as though they leaned on each other. Each had its own muddy little dooryard. A bedding of broom fronds beaten down into the mud, turned brown and smelling sour. Low stone walls surrounded each enclosure. Broken by a low gate of weathered timber.
The village dogs howled off in the distance. How long until they find me and harry me on my way?
Crossing the yard of the first house he came to, knocking at the door, he asked a peasant woman, careworn and suspicious, “Do you have any food to spare?”
“No! We are poor! I barely have anything to give my family tonight! Go! Get on with you!”
He thanked her for her trouble, saddened by the stark fear he saw behind her hard look. He went on to the next house, and then the next. Always with the same result. Not only were they brusque with a lonesome stranger; they clearly felt the pinch of bad times themselves. They fear that soon they might not be any better off than I am, a poor, bedraggled beggar. He muttered under his breath, “The last thing they want to see is a reminder of their own fate!” Closed off in their own misery, Afraid to open their hearts or hearths to a stranger.
He sat down in the little square pondering his situation. Be getting dark soon. If I do not find something to eat, I will pass another hungry and miserable night dodging dogs, desperate to keep warm.
An idea came to him.
He set himself to preparing.
“Why not!” He said aloud – to himself – as his eye’s lit on an abandoned fire-circle beyond the village tap. A rusty, worn-out cooking-pot peeped out at him from under a pile of rubbish. He filled it with cold, clear water trickling from out of the heart of the mountain. He propped the pot inside the fire-ring. It wobbled on its two remaining legs. He set a cracked cobblestone under its broken foot to hold it steady.
He strode back the way he’d come and set himself to collecting sticks along the road-side. He laid a fire. Once the smoke settled and the flames grew stronger he pulled a smooth, round, dark stone from his otherwise empty knapsack. He had spied it lying along the track as he had bent down to gather twigs. It spoke to him, “Take me!”
“Yes. You’ll do!” He had said as he slipped it into his bag unseen, surreptitiously. They’ve been watching me. Glancing around from under the brim of his hat he could see village women watching from behind narrow panes, peeking from shadowy doorways.
He smiled to himself. He settled down to watch the pot come to a boil.
Swirls of steam began to rise in the damp evening air. He pulled a beat-up, worn-out wooden-spoon from his ragged coat pocket and thoughtfully stirred the hot water.
He dipped his spoon in the simmering water and with conspicuous blowing and puffing to cool the liquid, he took a long, loud, smacking slurp!
He smiled broadly, beaming with satisfaction! As he sat back down, he realized he was no longer alone. The first woman he had encountered that day was sidling up to him. Her curiosity plain on her face. She demanded, “What are you doing?”
“I’m making soup!”
“What’s in it?” She asked, suspicious. Yet intent on the swirling steam. She peered into the pot’s mysterious recesses, as if expecting to hear an answer from its depths.
“It’s stone soup.” He said this matter-of-factly, pretending to be busy, rummaging through his empty knapsack as if he was looking for something only he knew was not there.
“Stone Soup?” She repeated, rushing on to say, “I’ve never heard of such a thing! How can you make soup from a stone?”
“Well,” he said, slowly turning his attention to her. “It’s a magic stone. Makes a wonderful soup! Say! If you’re willing to wait a little bit… why don’t you have some with me!”
He gave the pot another stir. They sat down together by the fire. She couldn’t take her eyes off the pot. She sniffed about, trying to detect an aroma of soup in the smoky, damp, cold air.
He began talking again after a bit, “It’s a wonderful soup, but…,” He hesitated before going on, gathering his words in a growing conviction, “It would be so much better if we had a potato…” His voice trailed off wistfully.
The woman rushed to proclaim, “I have a potato!” Before he could respond she ran off towards her house. In a few moments she returned holding a knobbly little potato out before her as if it were a treasure.
The beggar saw that they were no longer alone.
Three women had been drawn out of their houses. Eager to see what they were up to. He smiled to himself and turned his back on their dark forms. Heavy, black wool shawls draped over layered sweaters and skirts bulked out their forms, covering their thin and bony selves in thick black wool that stiffened all their movements. They stood perennially hunched over.
He ceremoniously dropped the potato in the water and went back to stirring the pot.
His new ally, so excited at the prospect of Stone Soup, proudly told them all of its wonders. In her zeal she went far beyond the barest suggestions the beggar had hinted at. She put her heart into describing their stone soup. In her imagination it was an amalgam of all the best dishes she’d ever eaten. In her mind’s eye it was everything their meager rations failed to provide in this lean Autumn .
The beggar smiled to himself again, but said nothing. He continued to stir the pot. His new visitors were soon in deep conversation with each other. Whispering and poking, and shoving. The boldest of the three pushed the others aside and stepped forward to confront him, “Stone Soup! Well! We’d like some too!”
The beggar broke in, “Of course! Where are my manners!” Waving his arm in an inclusive gesture of embrace, “You can all have some.”
With a welcoming smile he said, “Bring your families!”
His smile froze. He drooped a little. Paused in thought and went on to say, “It wouldn’t be fair to my friend here,” turning to his companion and prompting her for her name. “Delfina!” She said, “Delfina da Guerra Mendes Faria!” She recited her full name proudly, looking about at the small crowd of her neighbors filling in around her and her new friend.
“Yes!” He went on, “It wouldn’t be fair to Dona Delfina if I invited you all without asking her! After all, she has contributed half the ingredients…”
Before he could finish, the second woman, burst in, “Well! I’ve got something to add!” She reached into her apron and pulled out half a cabbage.
Another woman shoved her aside and said, “And I have these!” Thrusting out her gnarly hands to show three paper-skinned onions.
Another one burst in, “Carrots!”
From the back of the group, a new comer, just then hearing the story from Dona Delfina pushed through the milling crowd and announced, “Wait a minute! I’ve got a ham-bone in my pantry! I’ll be right back!”
A cheer went up! The rest turned and rushed to their respective homes. Eager to raid their sparse larders to see what they could contribute.
Suddenly alone, the beggar found himself at the point of tears. I never imagined anything like this! Hungry, destitute, arriving at this demoralized poor village, desperate lonely people barricaded behind their fears and now, here I stand at the heart of a gathering feast!