Old Widow Scoggins heard a knock at her front door. She forced herself out of her armchair and, leaning over her walking stick, padded across the threadbare carpet, wincing as her joints twinged in protest. She managed to open the door to reveal a grubby young man, grinning up at her. His face was dirty, but his smile shone, and his eyes shone, and the old woman couldn’t help smiling back.
A visitor! How long since I have last had a visitor, she wondered? Lately, there was only one visitor she was expecting, and she expected him to be tall and bony and wearing a hood.
“Sorry to bother you,” the young man bowed graciously. “But I was wondering if you could spare a little boiling water for my nail.”
Old Widow Scoggins frowned. The young man produced the object in question. It was a nail, to be sure. About two inches in length and it looked clean enough. Wouldn’t the young man be better off asked for water to bathe in?
Seeming to understand her confusion, the young man laughed. “Have you never heard of nail soup, mother? It is the finest, most delicious dish. Tell you what: if you let me have the water, I shall let you taste a bowlful of the finest fare I know.”
Without waiting to be invited, the young man brushed past the old woman and headed to the stove. He shook his head in disappointment. “Have you no cooking pot larger than these?”
Old Widow Scoggins, intrigued by the prospect of the soup, directed him to a cauldron over the fire. Usually, she used it to boil her linens. “Will that do?” she asked.
The young man let out a cry of delight. He fetched water from the well around the back of the cottage, filled the cauldron and kept the fire well-supplied with wood. Before long, the water was coming to the boil. He held up his nail, gave it one last look, and dropped it into the seething cauldron.
“Now, we wait,” he stepped back.
Old Widow Scoggins nodded. The young man was providing a morning’s entertainment, if nothing else. The silly sausage! Soup from water and a nail! Ridiculous! But I don’t get many callers, so I’ll see this through to the end…
After half an hour, the young man dipped a ladle into the cauldron. He blew on it and took a tentative sip. He pulled a face. “Needs…something…” He cast his eyes around the kitchen.
“Salt?” suggested the widow, offering the cruet.
“Bad for you,” said the young man. “No… something more substantial… Do you have a carrot?”
“I do!” The old woman produced the vegetable. The young man dropped it into the pot as it was. A while later, he took another taste. He wrinkled his nose. “Something else…An onion?”
The old woman provided the onion. He dropped it in without peeling it.
A while later, he took another taste. He shook his head. “Something else…Parsnips?”
The old woman rummaged in her larder. “Parsnips!” she cried in triumph. The young man slung them all into the water.
Two hours passed and still the soup was not ready. The smell was delicious and the old woman’s stomach rumbled in anticipation. Perhaps there was something to this nail soup nonsense after all.
“One last thing…” the young man decided. “Kindly hand me your largest knife.”
Old Woman Scoggins fetched him her carving knife. She even managed to dip into a curtsey as she handed it to him, handle first. He laughed and accepted the knife with a bow.
“What’s the last ingredient?” she asked, eager to taste the soup at last.
“Meat,” said the young man, and there was a trace of sadness in his smile as he slashed the old woman’s throat.
At the bottom of the garden path, a tall, bony figure stood watching the cottage. He was due to visit the widow that day but, he reflected as he leant on his scythe, it looked like someone had beaten him to it.