Stone Soup

Once upon a time, after the war with Napoleon, three honest soldiers were wending their way home through Europe.  The people who lived in the area through which they were travelling had been plundered and ravaged by armies passing through,  repeatedly advancing and retreating.  And so they were not inclined to be very hospitable to the three soldiers, even though they were honest and peaceful, and had fought on the side of Right.

The soldiers arrived in a small town one evening, and set up a bivouac under a tree in the town square.  They lit a fire to keep them warm.  As people passed they asked if anyone could spare a few morsels of food for three hungry soldiers.  Everyone told them that there was not a scrap of food left in the area, as a result of the war, and the devastation it had caused to their crops, not to mention the constant commandeering and stealing of their livestock and stored foods by passing armies.  The villagers claimed to be hungry too. They said they had nothing even with which to feed themselves and their families, and so could not spare food for three strangers.

“There’s nothing left here to eat ” they said.  “Sleep the night and move on in the morning”.

“It doesn’t matter,” one of the soldiers said. “We can feed you, if things are as you say.  We have with us a magic stone that has sustained us all through the war, and will feed us until we get home.  I shall make some stone soup to share with you all.”

He took a large iron cauldron which two of his companions had carried between them, and placed it over the fire they had lit.  He half filled it with water from the well in the town square.

Then, with a flourish he produced from a pocket of his greatcoat an ordinary-looking black stone, the size of a large potato, oval and slightly flattened and worn smooth by years in a river.  He said, “Magic stone, magic stone, magic stone – nourish us”, and carefully placed it in the pot.

The rumour of magic, and food, spread through the village, and many villagers came to watch.  The soldier stirred his stone consomme, and sniffed the rapidly heating water, licking his lips with anticipation.

“I do love a bowl good stone soup” said one of the other soldiers. “but I have to confess that the same thing every day, even if it is as good as this, makes me long for something just a little different now and then.  I would like to have a different flavour for a change.  If only we had some cabbage to throw in”.

The other soldier said “or a carrot or two perhaps…”

The first soldier nodded, still stirring, and said ” I always think an onion or two always adds a little something to a good soup. Nevertheless, we can be glad we have the stone.  Many don’t even have that”.

Some of the villagers slipped away and returned shortly with a few carrots, a couple of onions and half a cabbage.  The soldier accepted them gratefully and chopped them up with his knife, tossing them in to the stone soup.

One of the soldiers then said “My old grandma used to throw a ham bone into her cabbage soup.  That was always a special treat”.

Soon a villager diffidently offered a ham bone, with a little meat still on it, that he mysteriously produced from somewhere.  Into the pot it went.

And so the story goes.

The villagers were gradually persuaded to produce a few potatoes, some mushrooms, a few beans and so on and so forth, until at last the cauldron was indeed magically filled with a thick, delicious soup. Enough for all to share.  The soldiers slept well with their hunger satisfied, and so did the villagers.

In some versions of the story, the villagers offered a lot of money to buy the stone from the soldier, and he sold it to them, for he could always get another at the next river.  In other versions, being an honest man, he refused, and kindly told them that the stone was not really magic, except it had the property of persuading people to work together, contributing what little they have to help themselves and their neighbours.

Some say this is the true meaning behind the story of the loaves and fishes.  I certainly think so.  Getting people to share and cooperate is indeed a miracle.  One that needs some skill to perform, but does not require any supernatural powers.

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The Selfish Fisherman

From a tale told to me in Solomon Islands.
I do not know the area of Solomon islands from which this story originates.  I am pretty sure it is NOT Roviana.  It was told to me by the skipper of the launch Teriari as we were moored one night during a tour around  Choiseul Island.  I think he was from Guadalcanal. But who knows where he heard the story?

There was a man from a small village who went fishing every day for his family.  Each morning he would ask the spirits to give him a good catch that day.   He was the most successful fisherman in the village, and every day he caught many fish.  He caught many more than he needed to feed his own family.  Day after day he would go fishing and every day he would return with a canoe full of fish. But as he paddled home every evening, the fisherman would stop in the mangroves near the village and hide part of his catch.  Then he would give the rest of the fish he had caught to his own family, but there was always little left to share with the families of the less successful fishermen of the village.

Later, in the dark of night, after everyone was asleep, he would go down to the mangroves and take the extra fish he had hidden, and he cooked and ate them all by himself. Every day was the same, and though the fisherman caught many more fish than any of the others, he did not share with anyone but his own household.   Every night he greedily ate the extra fish he had hidden.

Then one day on his way home huge waves caught his canoe, and capsized it.  The fisherman was afraid he would drown, but suddenly, out of the sea came a huge shark which told the fisherman to hold on to him and he would take him safely to land.  The fisherman held on to the sharks dorsal fin and the shark safely delivered him to the beach near the village.

The man thanked the shark, whom he realised was a spirit.  The shark then rebuked the fisherman for his selfishness, and warned him that if in future he did not share his catch with those who needed it,  he would never again catch even enough fish to feed himself and his own family.

The man apologised sincerely to  the shark, saying that he was very sorry for his greed and selfishness, and promised to be more generous from then on.  As they talked, the waves brought the mans canoe into the bay, and it washed up on the beach beside him.  And so the man thanked the shark once more, calling him Uncle, and swore once more he would always share his catch in future, and never be selfish again.

And so it was.

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I don’t think this tale is from Roviana, but I like the story, because it has a clear moral.

The word for shark in Roviana is Kiso.  Kiso happens to be the totem of my family, of the Saikile clan.

I met Kiso once,  in interesting circumstances.  But that is for another time.

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