Stone Soup: A Cautionary Tale
by Michael Rodman, 3.49am May 10th 2022

One day, in the bleak, bleached-out demi-season between winter and spring, a man showed up in Bear Creek with an enormous cast iron pot. It was one of those huge jobbies from a maple sugaring scene by Grandma Moses, only more realistic and three-dimensional; sixty, seventy gallons, easily. He set it down in the middle of the town square, which was actually more of an irregular trapezoid, and started to build a fire. A few people gathered nearby to watch, wondering what the hell he was doing, and whether he had a permit. He began to fill the pot with snow. Soon the fire, which had grown considerably in the span of three sentences, was roaring, then yowling, then clearing its throat and hawking a loogie into a nearby snowbank before taking tea with honey. The snow in the pot melted and came to a rolling boil, having passed from the solid state into liquid and finally into gas, per science. With a critical eye, the man surveyed the stones that dotted the ground around him. Hefting one in his hand and examining it closely, as though to judge its quality, he finally tossed it into the pot. He continued his search intently, discarding some stones as unworthy, lobbing others into the hot liquid.

Finally, Clem Partridge, a clichéd old New England transplant who clutched a burlap sack of Yankee ingenuity in one hand and a covered bridge in the other, stepped forward.

“What’re you doing there, fella?” he asked in a drawl heavily accented with thrift and cheese curds.

“I’m making soup from stones,” the man said.

“Do you have a permit?” asked Lou Lawry, the town clerk, who was hated by all for his notorious permit-pushing ways.

“Right here,” the man said, pulling from his pocket the permit Lawry had issued to him minutes earlier.

The plain-dressing, pun-prone Ann Drogeny, of the Boston Drogenys, spoke up. “So, this rock soup. Is this the thing from the infomercial? Is it the fat-burning stuff?”

“No,” the man said. "It’s stone soup. Just stones and water. Delicious. Best soup you ever had. But what would really make it great is a carrot or two.”

Abner Holt, the town’s world-renowned carrot historian, as seen on Good Morning America, made his way to the front. “Just so happens I have some carrots right here” he said, opening his plaid flannel jacket to reveal a lining of carrot-shaped pockets, each bearing a carrot.

“Wonderful,” the man said, selecting a few and tossing them into the pot. “Mmm . . . smell that carroty goodness. But you know what would really make it exceptional? Some potatoes. Thicken it up, make it nice and hearty.” Right at that moment, in an astounding coincidence, a panel truck full of hard-hatted men, just ending their shift at the potato mine, drove by. Each held in his hands his day’s pay: two potatoes and a baggie of weed. As stoners, they lacked the ambition to organize and strike for a decent wage, in actual currency, but several of the workers tossed their potatoes into the pot, free-throw style. One accidentally threw in his weed and, retrieving it, received third-degree burns and a bummer.

The soup stranger was delighted. “You’re very fortunate to have stones, and stoners, of such quality here in Bear Creek,” he said, barely containing his enthusiasm as the crowd swelled. “This is going to be some delicious soup. But I could make it absolutely perfect with just a few other ingredients.” Joseph Tortelli, aka Joey Icepick, aka Joey the Canary, aka Joey Turnips, a witness-protection-program enrollee and turnip farmer who, by pure happenstance, also ran the town’s waste disposal operation, stepped forward. He dumped in a bushel basket of turnips, all the while entertaining those standing nearby with his trademark homespun wisdom, delivered in the thick Jersey accent he had somehow developed during his boyhood in “coastal Maine.” When a human finger, ring still intact, tumbled into the pot with the turnips, Joey, in a characteristic gesture of thoughtfulness, carefully fished it out.

Others made their own contributions as the trapezoid continued to fill with people to an extent that could only be measured by multiplying the sum of the bases by the height and dividing by two. A contingent of locavores, who made a big show of the fact that they were locavores, showed up with armloads of locally grown non-GMO corn that had been planted, cultivated, grown, picked, and transported within walking distance by people who had grown up in Bear Creek and had never set foot outside its boundaries, not even to proselytize to nearby communities about the moral and ethical responsibility to buy locally. Newlyweds Denny and Carol McMaster, fresh from the altar, made a detour past the pot as they got into their honeymoon limo, so that handfuls of rice flew into the bubbling soup. Louise Patterson was mugged for the stalk of celery in her hand, which the mugger then expertly chopped into half-inch dices and slid into the simmering mass. The Baxter boy volunteered a leftover Brussels sprout from his Brussels sprout route. Identical twins Dina and Dana Nolan together hefted a pod with two peas in their mittened hands, carefully dividing the weight between them equally. Joan and Brent Parsley brought great handfuls of basil. Toni Basil, who happened to be passing through town en route to a 1980s nostalgia convention, threw in a large bunch of parsley, then quickly retreated into her rented Toyota, ruing her decision to wear a cheerleading costume on such a bitterly cold day.

By this time, the crowd had grown to hundreds. A battery of potters, stationed around the perimeter with their wheels turning at a blur, formed, glazed, and fired bowls at a furious pace. The town’s sixty-three silversmiths hummed with activity as they hammered ingots into spoons, only to have to start over again when Prescott Ames, Bear Creek’s flatware historian, pointed out that they were actually making salad forks.

People lined up eagerly as the man ladled out the fragrant, steaming soup. Wet, hungry slurps filled the air in counterpoint with murmurs of agreement that the soup was the most delectable anyone in Bear Creek had ever tasted, soup without parallel or precedent. “If only there were some way to can it!” Mr. Campbell enthused to Mr. Progresso, whose ring finger was conspicuously absent.

Suddenly, a woman’s cry interrupted the pleasant, convivial spirit. “Ow! What the fuck?!” It was Darlene Sims, the infamously profane substitute teacher. “Fuck!” she reiterated, unnecessarily, for the pure enjoyment of it. “Fuck!” she said yet a third time, because she was also obsessive-compulsive. She spat into her hand and held out her upturned palm. In it was a broken, bloodied tooth and a small rock.

“Son of a bitch!” came another loud, high-pitched exclamation, piercing the chill air. It was Chester Mifflin, a hulking bear of a man whose stature and heavy smoking habit inexplicably endowed his voice with a squeaky, doll-like quality. He, too, spat in his hand and held out the contents for everyone to see. “Gravel?! Are you fucking kidding me?” he tried in vain to bellow, each word seemingly borne on pure helium.

Surprised, angry cries rippled through the steamy air. “Oh, it hurts! It hurts so much!” a sibilant Russ Susskind lisped through the gap where his two front teeth used to be.

“This is just great! Marvelous! And we lost our dental plan at work!” Bess Musselman-Susskind, Russ’ caustic, sarcastic spouse, chimed in, spraying tiny flecks of tooth enamel as she spoke.

“This is worse than Grape Nuts!” Frank Ferebee, the town’s cereal historian, moaned as blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth.

“I think I just swallowed a pebble!” Bea Trumbull agonized. “This can’t be good for my gallstones!”

“You won’t get away with this, soup man!” George Tayback, the town’s historian of shouting, shouted. “Get him!”

The atmosphere quickly turned toxic as the people of Bear Creek advanced on the man, first pelting him with their broken teeth, then the stones they plucked from their bowls of soup, then the baseball-sized rocks that lay scattered around the pot. Stones rained down on the man like very hard rain, no one in their fury bothering to discriminate among igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary, between silicate or non-silicate. A group of fifth graders who had been attentive during Miss Sims’ lecture on the various forms of carbon in science class that very morning flicked their pencil leads at him. The Nolan Twins each aimed half a geode at the man’s knees. One of the locavores flung a locally bootlegged cassette from an old, locally produced “Monsters of Rock” show at the man, retrieved it, flung it at him again, and then placed it in the recycling bin. The Rolling Stones FedExed a letter disavowing any connection to the man or his soup.

The mayhem continued unabated until lawyers from the Shirley Jackson estate showed up and put an end to the whole thing. In lieu of tar and feathers, which hadn’t been seen in Bear Creek since the tar pits moved to Mexico and the feather mines had begun to yield potatoes, the man was covered in double-sided tape and sweepings from the barbershop and run out of town. When the pot had cooled, a group of men directed by Gus Talbot, the town’s kettle and cauldron historian, tipped it over. As a layer of soggy vegetables washed over the side, it became clear that the soup had been at least three-quarters stones, including the Rosetta Stone, which hadn’t even been missed yet by the British Museum. On the spot, the town clerk began to draft an ordinance declaring that henceforth all soup made within town limits had to be stone-free. Several of the locavores proposed that soup including locally sourced stones be allowed, but were quickly shouted down. A sobering silence descended over the soup-saturated, blood-spattered scene.

Someone finally spoke up. “He thought it was a metaphor,” Ike Bailey said in his capacity as Bear Creek’s literary device historian, “but clearly, it was mainly water and rocks.”