Of Soup, Strangers, and Stories
Mine is a life of brown. I see the bustling life all around me that is Neopia, and I see the vibrance, the happiness, the desires and goals and songs and dances. I see them through a lens of color, and the Neopets running hurry hurry hurry through the Neopian Bazaar are red, yellow, green, blue. The sun is pale turquoise and the flowers by the side of the red brick road are yellow and pink.
Inside my small, cramped, and ragged soup kitchen, it's different. It's a world of muffled laughter, the cries of young Neopets, the mumbled unrefined words. It's the pungent smell of thick, brown, chunky liquid in a clay cauldron, and the color of my stirring spoon I've used for as far as I can remember. It's the taste of mushrooms and meat, watered down into a flavorful stew. It's tattered clothes and worn-out eyes and the hungry expression on everyone's face. It is the stories of all the Neopets who will never tell them, who no one will ever know.
They tell me this is not beautiful, and I disagree.
Brown is my favorite color.
They tell me mine is a lonely life. I do nothing day after day after day but feed hungry, smelly Neopets, in the poorest part of Neopia Central. They tell me that I could come up to Faerieland, that I could have a life up in the clouds, that I wouldn't have to work so hard.
And I laugh.
They say I should have more friends. That I shouldn't only spend time with the hungry of Neopia. That I should hang out with expensively painted Neopets, grant them Battledome abilities or send them on quests. They say I don't know anyone by name. They say that even though I see hundreds of Neopets daily, I've never actually known one by name. I've never actually had a friend.
My customers don't talk to me. They're ashamed to accept charity. They come and eat of my soup, sometimes mutter their gratitude, and shuffle off. I've never actually had a long conversation with one. I don't, as they say, know their names, know their lives, know their stories.
All I really know of them is that they're hungry, they don't have money for food, and that if I do not give them of my soup they will starve.
All I really have is my imagination, and so I pretend. I make their stories for them, stories no one will ever know.
A beaten-down green Scorchio comes up to my pot.
"Would you like some soup?" I ask.
I say nothing. I gesture to the cauldron and smile.
"Sure, thank you!" he responds, giving me an answering smile.
He shuffles forward. I can't see his face. They don't like to meet my eyes.
He sits next to me on a crooked wooden bench as he enjoys his soup. I can tell he is hungry, but he still compliments me on the flavor. "This is the best food I've had in a while," he confides. The he laughs. "Well, the only food I've had in a while, but still."
He slurps up his food with the desperate speed of the starving. He doesn't say anything. The Neopets who come to my Soup Kitchen never do.
"Would you like to know my story?" he asks, once he is finished.
Sometimes I wish. Just wish, once, that they would talk to me.
All around me the bustle seems to fade away, as the Scorchio begins his tale.
Ricci has never had an owner. No one to take care of him. He's not really sure who was his owner back when he was born, but it is so far back that he doesn't mind. They have ceased to exist, as if they had never been in the first place.
He has lived out his entire life in Tyrannia. His home is near the Giant Omelette, a small indent in the rock where he can huddle under the boulder and be shielded from the scorching sun. His food, his life, is the Omelette.
Every day he goes out, he climbs the journey to the Giant Omelette, and takes a bite. Sometimes the omelette is plain, sometimes carrot or broccoli flavored, sometimes rotten. When it is, he eats it anyway. It makes his stomach squirm and his insides feel sick, but he has no choice. He needs food.
Each omelette is a day's meal. He eats one bite for breakfast, one for lunch, one as the sun is setting, for a late dinner. It never fully satisfies him.
He knows other Neopets have this feeling, called fullness, or bloatedness. He cannot imagine this feeling. He is so used to the gnawing hunger that is ever present, even after he has eaten, that is it part of his life. Part of himself.
One time he went to a concert. He begged a ticket from strangers hanging around the Money Tree, and, heart thrilling with excitement, with novelty, went to watch the Jub Zambra concert. He sat in a seat near the middle, not too near the front, not too near the back or the sides. All around him he heard Neopets chattering with their friends, with their family.
And they were happy, and so different.
But he does not complain, even on days that the Giant Omelette is not there. On those days he tightens his belt and pretends he has already eaten.
Today he came to try the Soup Kitchen. He had heard of it, but it was so far away. The homemade soup is delicious, much better than the Rotten Omelette he sometimes gets. It fills his stomach and his nostrils with the smell of home and someone caring for him.
He will always live near the Omelette. He will always depend on it. He knows he will never break free.
But somehow, here with all these other Neopets with their own problems gulping down the hot soup as if it were the only sustenance in the world, he feels everything is okay.
I sit, watching, as the line extends out of my meager, ratty soup kitchen and out into the bustling streets of Neopia Central. The shopkeepers out there must be offended, I think bitterly. To have such dirt and filth cluttering up what is beautiful, perfect.
My hands are dirty. They are stained with ochre-brown soup, and scratched and callused from my energetic cutting of vegetables and meat. These are my people.
So often I stare out, hear the mumbled undertone that is always there in my crowded, stuffy room. Yet I cannot distinguish distinct words.
I watch as the Scorchio leaves, without expressing a single word. I do not know if the story I made around him is true, and it probably is not. And so yet another person enters and leaves my life.
They tell me that these people are strangers, that I have no reason to care for them. Because they do not care for me.
And I suppose they are right. Once the Neopet leaves my kitchen, I will never see them again. And all I have left to remember them of is their face and the story I make up for them.
I stir my soup and imagine.
Arwen the brown Acara is nothing special. She's one of many. She doesn't have a tragic, virtuous story behind her. No, she is a perfectly normal, perfectly happy young Acara.
She has a home and an owner. So she should be grateful, she knows.
She is grateful.
She sits, curled up, on her couch. Her stomach grumbles. Her heart groans. Her mind presses in on itself because she is completely alone.
"Arwen, I'm home," she longs to hear. "How are you?"
"I bought you a toy, Arwen." Or, "a snack." Or, "some new clothes."
"Want to go shopping with me, Arwen?" "Want to go play a game?"
Little Arwen is left at home while trophies are earned and Neopoints are made. Little Arwen could turn from her boring brown to a depressed blue and her owner wouldn't even notice.
Arwen isn't important. Why should she be?
She cries and no one hears.
Her owner hasn't been to visit her in three days. Her stomach growls. She munches on a stale half-eaten lime jelly to calm it.
"Arwen, want to hop over to Kelp? I've made some extra Neopoints and we can splurge on gourmet! It's expensive but you're worth it!"
The little Acara complains and whines, begging for her favorite food. Her owner ignores the random event and stuffs her with omelette.
Her stomach squirms. "Shut up," she tells it.
"I want chocolate and freshly-picked vegetables and ice pops from Terror Mountain. I want to try exotic foods from Shenkuu and hot dogs from Hubert's," her stomach answers.
She wanders over to Neopia Central. She has no money. Neopoints are much better spent on galleries and rare items.
"I played games all day so I could spend money to make you look pretty, Arwen!"
She watches as much-loved Neopets munch on snacks, walking along the green-lined path with their owners, Petpets frolicking behind.
"Let's go for a walk. Let's go explore, you and me."
She knows this will never be her.
Eventually she makes her way to the Soup Kitchen; the place where her feet always take her. Or her stomach, more like. She can't survive on jelly and omelette. She can't.
"What are you doing, going to the Soup Kitchen? That's for cheap people. I have plenty of money; here, I'll go buy you lunch."
She slips into the noisy place. Here are Neopets without owners, with their raggedy clothes drooping off their dirty bodies, hunger and fear stark in their eyes. Here she is in her neat dress and just the brown Acara no one cares about.
She gets in line.
She eats of the soup, and it fills her stomach. It makes her warm. It muffles the grumbles of her stomach.
It almost muffles the grumbles of her mind, the "I wish" words she wishes she could hear.
"Arwen! Want some soup? I made it myself!"
She sips the soup and lets the hot taste burn her tongue.
I meet the eyes of the brown Acara briefly before she ducks her head shyly and moves on.
They are deep and brown, soulfully sad.
How I wish I could tell the world of the story of the hungry.
Autumn runs through the forest on hard, brown Uni hooves, pounding down in front of her again and again and again. What is she running to? Nothing. There is nothing in her future, nothing in her past. She simply runs to run and go nowhere at all.
Her stomach growls. "Shut up," she screams at it. Her hooves tear into the ground, making deep gouges in the smooth, dirt path. Tall, majestic tree trunks rise up around her, dark and walls rising up to the sky. She knows she will never escape from this one path, this one trail, this one pastime that is her life.
She lives in the Haunted Woods. A place of loneliness, of fear, of one little brown Uni who got lost and doesn't know where to go.
Was it only yesterday that she left her owner behind, turning onto the wrong path while playing, running away? Was it only a few hours that she had ran, faster and faster, as she searched for a way back, growing more frantic as the sky darkened? Was it just last night as she curled up in a dark, cold hole, the first time she had slept away from her Neohome in her entire life?
Autumn runs. She continues to run, completely lost, running because that's the only thing she can do. She continues to hold the idea that somewhere, at the end of the trail, there is something for her. That at the end of the path is an end to the encroaching forest, and there will be her owner, happy and bright, with a nice snack.
Autumn is spoiled. She knows that. She hears the irritated grumble of her stomach and knows she should be able to hold out for a single day without food.
She also knows that she is fooling herself, and she may well be in this forest for a long time.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up," she says to her stomach loudly, commandingly. She feels the twisting pain of scared hunger, and runs faster. Maybe it will go away.
Is it minutes, hours, or days before she finally collapses off the side of the trail, panting, tired and hungry? Time has disappeared and all she feels is fear and hunger.
Eventually she pushes herself up. Her owner isn't going to come looking for her. No one's going to come and hold her hand and lead her out of the Haunted Woods. If she wants to get out, she'll have to do it herself. Her skinny legs shake as she stalks out to the path and continues to run.
Her eyes become accustomed to the darkness. Her legs become used to the constant strain of her muscles, until their weariness fades away and they simply pound against the hard ground like she has become an automaton.
It is another couple hours until she finally makes it out of the forest, as she knows she would. After all, all trails lead somewhere, and if you go in one direction forever, you will always reach somewhere.
Now she is in a field. It is bright out here, and her eyes blink in the sudden light. The sky is blue and the meadow is green and smells nice. Somehow, it does not make her feel any better. She is still far from her owner. She still does not know where she is. She is still hungry. She still has a way to go.
Somewhere in the distance she can see something. She gallops towards it, and it is easier to run on the springy turf, but at the same time harder since she's been running on an empty stomach for so long. Autumn runs and runs and the sun is so hot on her skin.
Every step is a reminder, a jolt of hunger, a revival of the fear that she will never make it home.
As she sees Neopia Central, the friendly shops growing larger in her vision, the fear begins to calm. However, when she enters the street, she still does not know where she is. The Neopets milling around are strangers. She has no idea how to get to her Neohome in the Haunted Woods. She's still hungry. She feels just as lost as she did in the dark woods.
She enters the Soup Kitchen. She eats of the soup, and it is delicious and warms her empty stomach. It dulls the fear of being lost, the fear of being alone, and as she gives back the bowl to the Soup Faerie she wishes she could just fall asleep here.
But she knows she can't. And she knows she still has a way to go. But the soup has warmed her courage and her heart and she knows she can do it.
I don't know why this one, small Uni is happy when almost all of my customers emanate hopelessness. So I make up her story.
And so I pass my day, and my days, thinking up stories for each person I meet. Because each person is real, each person has a story to tell and a past and a future, and each story is interesting and unique and sad and happy.
I'm busy ladling soup. I'm a cook, not a writer. And even if I had time to jot everything down, I probably wouldn't. These imagined stories are in my mind, and somehow they wouldn't seem right on paper. I don't have the right words to put them down on it, anyway.
But you tell me my stories are good. You tell me you think they're good enough to get in the Neopian Times. So, okay. Write down what I tell you. Feel free to submit it; you can have the credit. Maybe then people will know the story, the life of so many Neopets I feed every day.
These stories are made up. They're just something to keep me from boredom after a long day. They're not real, the specific facts, the specific people.
But, as is every good story ever published in our renown Neopian Times, whether fiction or not, it is also profoundly true.