(With apologies to “Stone Soup,” a folk tale where villagers unwittingly contribute what little they have to a shared pot, and then enjoy the delicious soup that results.)
A stranger came to town with a stone and a fanciful tale.
“This stone is magic,” he said to a small circle of villagers, producing a rock from his pocket. “If we boil this stone in water, we can all have great soup.”
A villager fetched a cauldron full of water. The stranger placed the stone in the pot, and they watched as the fire caught beneath it. Everyone watched the stone.
“Now, put in a potato. A potato would definitely make this soup better. Surely someone has just one potato?” the stranger asked.
Times were tough in the village. Prices at the village store were high, and the villagers were carrying a record amount of household debt. The village burghers had just revealed a budget deficit of US$779 billion for the year.
“OK, so, no potatoes. Some celery? A carrot?” the stranger said. “Even an onion or a clove of garlic will surely make this soup better.”
The villagers looked at each other. There were beautiful vegetables outside the village store, but things were so bad, no one could afford to buy them.
The shopkeeper bought a carriage and horses, but the price of vegetables stayed out of reach. The villagers could smell roast pork coming from the shopkeeper’s house.
“Let’s lower the shopkeeper’s taxes. That will bring the prices down,” the stranger said. “Then we can buy cheaper vegetables for the soup.”
So they lowered the shopkeeper’s taxes.
The shopkeeper bought a carriage and horses, but the price of vegetables stayed out of reach. The villagers could smell roast pork coming from the shopkeeper’s house. There were rumours that the shopkeeper had bought a yacht, but no one had ever actually seen it.
“At least the shop’s share value is soaring,” the stranger said. “The market’s booming like never before.”
The villagers didn’t have any shares in anything, but the news certainly sounded good. The water continued to boil.
Then, the stranger’s weaselly henchman spoke up.
“It’s not the shopkeeper’s fault the vegetables are so expensive,” the henchman said. “It’s all of the expensive social programs you have here in the village. With you living high on the hog, how can an honest businessman be expected to make a fair living?”
“Our social programs?” someone asked.
“Yes,” the henchman said.
“High on the hog?” said another. “I only wish I had a hog.”
There was an elderly woman sitting near the fire: “I have a little money I’ve got saved up for my old age.”
“Give that to the shopkeeper,” the stranger said.
Another man at the edge of the fire’s light said, “I have the money that I was supposed to use to see the doctor about my cough.”
“Give that to the shopkeeper.”
“We’ve got the coins we’ve collected to help those even poorer than us,” a woman said, shaking a wooden box.
“Give it to the shopkeeper. He will surely lower the price of vegetables, and we will all have delicious soup!” the stranger said.
The shopkeeper painted his bedroom and finished the trim with gold leaf. Then he sent bailiffs to the fireside to start calling in credit. They arrested the villagers who were most in arrears.
For a long time, the remaining villagers and the strangers sat around the fire, looking at the water as it continued to boil, the stone bouncing gently in among the bubbles.
The stranger dipped a spoon into the water, knocking it against the rock. He lifted the spoon, tasted the hot water. “You know,” he said, “We’re making this soup great again.”
Then, the stranger and his henchman stood up.
“Excuse us,” the stranger said. “Wouldn’t you know it? The shopkeeper has invited us over for dinner. Enjoy your soup.”
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.