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nail soup 2

Here is “Nail Soup”, a story about hospitality, about generosity, about accepting our circumstances. It’s also about the nature of story itself in that each of us in our own retelling of a story adds a new ingredient. We can also all add something to our community, no matter what we think we lack. This retelling is largely from this source (Source: Gabriel Djurklou, Fairy Tales from the Swedish, translated by H. L. Brækstad (London: William Heinemann, 1901), pp. 33-41.) , but with some amendments from me based on my own recollections of first hearing the story and some of my own twists to give it a slightly more – disciple of Jesusy taste. Hope you enjoy.

There was once a Friar, who travelled far to bring hope and good news to all children of Men. At the end of one particularly exhausting journey he entered a forest, one he knew of old and knew there was a village at the other side. Times must have been hard since his last visit however, as once he reached the village it had shrunk to a few meagre houses, where every door was shut in his face.

He continued through the forest, hoping to find a welcoming inn or house. All of a sudden he saw some lights between the trees. He then discovered a cottage, where there was a fire burning on the hearth. “How nice it would be to warm myself before that fire, and to get a bite of something,” he thought; and so he dragged himself towards the cottage.

He knocked softly on the door and an old woman answered.

“Good evening, and well met!” said the friar.

“Good evening,” said the woman. “Where do you come from?”

“South of the sun, and east of the moon,” said the friar.

“You must be a great traveler, then,” said the woman. “What may be your business here?”

“I need a shelter for the night,” he said cautiously.

“I thought as much,” said the woman; “but you may as well get away from here at once, for my husband is not at home. My house is not an inn and the Sherrif has not long taken his tax. We are poor and have little to spare, even for such as you. Leave and find a church” she said.

“My good woman,” said the tramp, “you have no course to be so cross and cold, I ask only for a place to lay my head, and I can offer you something in return.”

As soon as the woman heard that she would not be giving something for nothing, she was more open to the idea of letting the friar stay in her house. After all, it would be only for one night. So she welcomed him in, and even offered a spare pillow to lay his head.

That was very kind, he thought, and he thanked her for it.

“Better on the floor without sleep, than suffer cold in the forest deep,” he said.

When he came into the room he could see that the woman was not so badly off as she had pretended. But her husband had been a controlling man, who taught her the fear of losing ‘things’ and kept her from sharing herself with her friends (for he wanted her all to himself) and so had lost all her childhood friends. This had made her heart cold and indifferent and turned her into a greedy and stingy woman. But the Friar, being a servant of God, knew the truth of her heart, that there was a jot of light at its very core, he just had to find a way to ignite it and soften her heart.

And so he made himself very agreeable and asked her in his most gentle manner for something to eat.

“Where am I to get it from?” said the woman. “I haven’t tasted a morsel myself the whole day.”

But this is where the Friar’s wisdom and graciousness along with his natural cunning began to play their part. “Poor old granny, you must be starving,” he said, “Well, well, I suppose I shall have to ask you to have something with me, I did after all offer you something in return for allowing me into your home.”

“Have something with you!” said the woman. “What have you got to offer I should like to know?”

“I have travelled far and wide and learned many things from the cooks and chefs of Dukes, Earls and Kings. I have even stayed in the Emperor’s house and his cook gave me a most wonderful gift.” said the friar. “Lend me a pot, granny!”

The old woman now became very inquisitive, as you may guess, and so she let him have a pot. He filled it with water and put it on the fire, and then he blew with all his might till the fire was burning fiercely all round it Then he took a four-inch nail from his pocket, turned it three times in his hand and put it into the pot.

The woman stared with all her might. “What’s this going to be?” she asked.

“Nail soup,” said the friar.

The old woman had seen and heard a good deal in her time, but that anybody could have made soup with a nail she had never heard the like before.

“That’s something poor people should know,” she said, “and I would like to learn how to make it.”

But if she wanted to learn how to make it she had only to watch him, he said, and went on stirring the soup. The old woman squatted on the ground, her hands clasping her knees, and her eyes following his hand as he stirred the broth.

“This generally makes good soup,” he said, “but this time it will very likely be rather thin, for I have been making soup the whole week with the same nail. If I only had a handful of sifted oatmeal to put in, that would make it all right,” he said.

“But what we have to do without is no use thinking more about,” and he continued to stir the soup.

“Well, I think I have a scrap of oatmeal somewhere,” said the old woman, and went out to fetch some, and it was both good and fine. The friar began putting the oatmeal into the broth, and went on stirring, while the woman sat staring now at him and then at the pot until her eyes nearly burst their sockets.

“This broth would be good enough for the Sherriff,” he said, putting in one handful of flour after another. “If I had only a bit of salted beef and a few potatoes to put in, ” he said.

“But what we have to do without is no use thinking more about,” and he continued to stir the soup.

When the old woman really began to think it over, she thought she had some potatoes, and a bit of beef as well, and these she gave the friar, who went on stirring, while she sat and stared as hard as ever.

“This will be grand enough for the best in the land,” he said.

“Well, I never!” said the woman, “and just fancy — all with a nail!”

“If one had only a carrot or two and a drop of milk, we could ask the king himself to have some of it,” he said.

“Dear me! Ask the king to have some! Well, I never!” exclaimed the woman, slapping her knees.

“But what we have to do without is no use thinking more about,” and he continued to stir the soup.

And then she remembered she had a small pot with carrots; and as for milk, well, she wasn’t quite out of that, she said, for her best cow had just calved. And then she went to fetch both the one and the other.

The friar went on stirring, and the woman sat staring, one moment at him and the next at the pot.

Then all at once the friar took out the nail. “Now it’s ready, and now we’ll have a real good feast,” he said. “But with this kind of soup the king and the queen always take a dram or two, and one sandwich at least. And then they always have a cloth on the table when they eat,” he said. “But what we have to do without is no use thinking more about.”

But by this time the old woman herself had begun to feel quite grand and fine, and her heart was much warmed by the presence of the companionable friar. Thinking to herself – if that was all that was wanted to make it just as the king had it, she thought it would be nice to have it just the same way for once, and play at being king and queen with the friar. She went straight to a cupboard and brought out the brandy bottle, dram glasses, butter, cheese and veal, until at last the table was decked out with the spirit of generosity.

Never in her life had the old woman had such a grand feast, and never had she tasted such soup, and just fancy, made only with a nail! She was in such a good  humour at having learned such an economical way of making soup that she opened herself up to the friar and let him speak to her of Peace, Grace and Joy. So they ate and drank and talked, and talked and drank and ate, until they become both tired and sleepy.

Without so much as a word from the friar, the old woman lead him to her bed, her hospitality and concern for others now fully stoked. She snoozed in her own chair, watching over the friar who had taught her such precious things.

And next morning when he woke there was porridge for breakfast with honey, and a jar of crab apple jelly to take on his travels. When he was going, the old woman embraced him without discomfort and He blessed her in return

“And thanks, many thanks, for what you have taught me,” she said. “Now I shall live in comfort, since I have learnt how to make soup with a nail.”

“Well it isn’t very difficult, as long as you have something good to add to it,” said the friar as he went on his way.


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