It was already dark when the old man arrived. He had not been able to get any work today and his pockets were empty, his feet aching from the long walk. He had gone everywhere, and had spoken to everybody, but nobody had hired him. It had happened before and it wouldn’t be the first time he had gone to sleep with an empty stomach. But this time he was desperate. He had taken these kids off the street and they were now in his care. But today he couldn’t even feed them. His heart hurt and he felt ashamed. Why did he think he could do this? He was already poor without any extra mouths to feed, why did he even attempt to help the children when he could not help himself?
His steps become smaller the closer he got to home. He remembered his childhood, when the very same place was a prairie, open fields full of nature. This was his land, the place where his ancestors had lived for centuries, where he had learnt how to hunt, sow the soil and had grown to become a member of the clan. But it all had changed. The city, those remote lights in the valley, had grown and grown and had now overtaken their land. There was so much that had changed since. The drought had come and with no water he could not plant his crops anymore. His children had left long ago and none of them would visit him. They were too busy, they would say. The place was too dirty they would say. They couldn’t understand why he refused to move to a flat downtown.
He remembered the day when his granddaughter sent for him with a taxi. They had gone out to a fancy restaurant with an “all-you-can-eat” menu. His family ate and ate and ate, one plate after the other, not even finishing the first one before filling a new plate with even more food. It was no surprise they were overweight and ill, he thought to himself. He had tried to speak with them about how they used to live, but they were not listening, absorbed with updates in social media, selfies and putting more food onto their plates. He felt like an outsider, intimidated and ill-equipped. This was his family, but he felt like a stranger. He left the restaurant and walked out of town. He had never heard from them since. When he remembered the piles of plates with leftover food, he couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down his face. What had gone wrong? He was a proud son of the earth, had worked hard all his life and was an honest man. What had he possibly done so wrong that Mother Nature couldn’t even give him a bare living? With all that excess, why couldn’t he even feed those street kids?
The shanty town was quiet. Fires were lit here and there. When the kids saw him coming, they ran towards him and gave him hug. “Tio(*), tio, tio”. the various voices sang joyfully. One of the kids told him with pride; “Tio, we collected wood for a fire. Look. We put some water on to boil. What are we cooking tonight?”
The old man felt all eyes looking to him, excited, trusting, expecting. How could he tell them that he had nothing? He put his hand in his pocket and could feel a stone. It had been given to him this morning by an old woman. He had accepted it reluctantly, a bit out of boredom, a bit out of politeness, a bit out having nothing better to do. So he said to the children, “Look what I have. I brought us a stone.” “But Tio”, the older boy said,” we can’t eat stones, they are hard!” The old man looked the boy deep in the eyes and said “That’s exactly why we need to cook it. Let’s put it in the pot”. The kids looked at each other in disbelief, but gathered around the fire. He hoped they would forget they hadn’t eaten anything and that tomorrow would be a better day.
To distract them he started telling them the stories his parents had told him as a child. He spoke of the wind that would come down the mountains and keep the fire crispy, or the water that would become invisible when boiled and that the sky (when not covered with dust) could be a good maths teacher. The kids were listening attentively, some had fallen asleep. While telling his stories he remembered that his grandparents used to cook with the leaves of a tree which was growing close to the fire. He sent one of the children to collect some and added them to the soup. Soon a neighbour walked past and one of the kids told her, “Tia(*), we are cooking stone soup”. The neighbour looked at the old man and said to the boy. “That is a very special recipe. Here, add these potatoes to the soup and that stone will taste even better”. Sometime later a traveller came by. He was looking for a place to sleep. The old man said to him: ”Come, join our fire, at least it is not cold here.” The young man joined the circle and sat silently for a while. He then opened his bag and said: “This charqui (**) is too hard to eat like this” and added it to the soup.
The fire crackled and the little boy woke up. “Is the stone soup ready?” he asked. “Yes”, said the old man and served the aromatic soup to the children. Once everyone had eaten, the stone emerged from the pot. The old man took it, held it in his hand and put it back in his pocket. Somebody somewhere might need that stone again.
* tio / tia = uncle/ aunty **charqui= dried salty horse meat