Alphabet Soup

By James Shackell



He was shorter than I’d expected. A runt of a man, all skinny and hunched over. His hair looked like he’d never had it cut. Straggly tendrils hung beside his face and made it all the way down to his loincloth, which was all he wore. His skin was dark, as if ingrained with dirt. He sat there peacefully, meditating.


I’d been told not to upset him. That was the most important thing, they’d said, you can ask him questions but be polite. Don’t look down on him. I brushed a speck of mud off my shirt and opened my mouth to speak. He held up a hand.


“Wait just a moment please, my friend,” he said, without opening his eyes. “I am communing with the infinite. This takes longer than you might think.”


“Oh, take as much time as you need.”


He nodded and breathed deeply. He was sitting cross-legged on a straw mat opposite me. I had a mat too, but an old rugby injury prevented me from crossing my legs the way he did. I slouched uncomfortably and looked around the hut. It was a mess. Old jars lined the walls, most caked in grime. You couldn’t tell what was in them. Bits of bone and feathers were scattered over the dirt floor, perhaps part of some cosmic pattern.


What really caught my eye were the hundreds of stained pieces of paper hanging from string above our heads. Clipped their like dead fish. They looked tea-stained, as if they’d been dunked in water at some point and then left out to dry. Every one of them was covered in spidery writing, which I couldn’t make out. These were what I’d come for, or ones of my own at least. They’d been the whole object of this adventure.


The voodoo man’s eyes snapped open. One was green and one was blue. They seemed to be walking off in opposite directions.


“First,” he said, “there is the matter of payment.”


Like I’d been told, I handed the coins over with my left hand. They quickly disappeared into the noisome recesses of his loincloth. He smiled then, and the tension lifted.


“Quite a business that, communing with the infinite,” he said.


“I, ah, can imagine,” I said. He stared at me. The silence lengthened. “It, er, must be very…big?” I ventured.


“What, the infinite?” he said. “Oh yes, pretty big yes.” He clapped his hands together. “Right,” he said. “Do you know, what kind of story you’d like to write?”


I’d given this a lot of thought. The journey to India had taken months and I’d spent the whole time planning for this moment. “Something political,” I said. “Something dark and dangerous. Something that will scare people, that sends them a message.”


“Ah, a message,” he said. “Very popular these days, messages. Let’s see what we can do.”


He unfolded his spindly limbs and stood up, gesturing for me to do the same. I rose uncertainly and followed him through a forest of stained paper to the far corner of the hut. There was an old black metal cauldron there, with a small fire under it. A rich, brown stew bubbled quietly in the pot, lumps of unidentifiable matter rising up and then being swallowed again by the oily mass. The voodoo man capered happily over to it. He picked up a large spoon, fully 3 feet long and thick as a cane, and began stirring the mixture.


“Nice and hot,” he said. “Good, good. Coming along nicely.”


“Is that, ah, the piece already?” I asked.


He winked at me. “Not yet,” he said, “Not yet, my boy, but it will be. This is what I call the stock. It’s the basis for any really good story. Here, have a taste.”


He scooped a small spoonful out and held it in front of me. It smelled faintly of beef stew. I took a sip.


“It’s nice,” I said, “but a bit bland.”


“You’re a sharp one you are,” he said, winking again. “Haven’t added the ingredients yet, have I?” He cackled like an old hermit and turned to the wall. That‘s when I noticed the jars. I thought there had been a lot of them on the other side of the hut, but they were dwarfed by this collection. From floor to ceiling the wall was covered in shelves. These were crammed full of jars, all dark glass or covered in grime. Small ones and big ones, skinny tubes and flatter containers. There must have been hundreds. A few of them rattled gently, but there was no breeze in there.


The voodoo man grabbed a couple in his hands and turned back to me. He put one on the floor and twisted the lid of the other, prizing it gently open, like it was something very valuable.


“Got to start with the basics, right?” he said. “Every good story begins and ends with letters. It’s what they’re made of after all. I bet even you know that.” As he spoke he reached down into the jar and withdrew a handful of tiny wooden objects. They looked like cereal. He sprinkled them onto the gumbo. I looked closer. They were letters; tiny wooden letters. He fished around in the jar again.


“Needs more vowels,” he said, and threw in another small handful. Then he picked up the spoon and stirred the contents again. A faint aroma rose from the pot now. It was velvety and dark, a delicate smell. The cauldron hissed and spluttered. “Smells beautiful doesn‘t it?,” said the voodoo man.


“So is that all it takes?” I asked. “Is the story written in there now?”


“Not so hasty, my friend,” he said, reaching for the second pot. “We’ve given it shape, now we have to give it mood.” He unscrewed the lid and reached in. Something clinked against the glass. When he pulled his hand out it was full of what looked like nuts and bolts.


“Metal,” he said. “This story will be cold, like metal. Metal walls and metal ceilings.”


He threw them into the soup where they bubbled and sank. The stew took on a darker, shimmering colour, like a vat of treacle streaked with silver. Vapours rose off it, swirling and spiralling, creating odd patterns in the air.


He turned back to the shelves, reaching for more glasses.


“Have you ever seen a beehive, my friend?” he said, turning back.




“They’re the most organized creatures in the world, bees. Amazing creatures.” He popped the top off another jar and pulled out a small wedge of honeycomb, perfectly formed. “Structure,” he said. “This will give us structure. All the best stories have it.”


He began stirring again, long rhythmic strokes, faster and faster. “First clockwise,” he said, “then back again.” And he reversed the spoon, twisting back the other way, so that the liquid swirled and bubbled around the handle, thrashing and twisting as it cooked. The spoon was withdrawn and he took a small sip.


“Interesting,” he said.


“How so?” I ventured.


“This is a good one. Bold…dangerous and very dry. I like it. It’s got character.” He capered up and down on the spot. “You will love it, my friend,” he said. “Everyone will love it. People will be reading this one for years to come!.”


“That’s great!” I said. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. A few coins and I had a bestseller. Months of travel had paid off. I started counting royalties in my head.


“A little seasoning and it’ll be good enough to eat,” he said, sprinkling some parsley over the bubbling goo. “Perfect.” Then he reached down and pulled out a stack of plain white paper, about an inch thick. It was blank.          


“What happens now?” I asked.


His green eye darted crazily. “Now,” he said, “we write.”


The paper dropped into the cauldron, where it sank quietly below the surface. The voodoo man stirred again, chanting as he moved.


Mix the words that people read,

Add the phrases that they need,

Boil and stir it nice and slow,

They believe in what they know.

Simmer it gently, broil and cook,

Makes an extra tasty book!



I stood against the wall of the hut, staring at this bizarre ritual. The man was obviously insane. He kicked and jumped as he chanted, cackling between the verses. If I hadn’t been warned about this I would have made a run for it.


Eventually he stopped. “It is ready,” he said, and pulled out one dripping piece of paper. “The title page, my friend. Come and have a look.”


I walked over and he held it out to me. It was covered in that same spidery writing I had seen on the pages before. I read the title.


“But what happens in 1984?” I said.


He grinned madly at me. “Terrible things.”



As I walked from the hut, clutching my prized wad of yellowed pages, I motioned for the next man to enter. There was a queue of people outside. The line stretched back into the steamy jungle surrounding the clearing. Writers from all over the world were gathered there. Many had brought offerings, rare gifts from their native lands. The conversation died down as they saw me emerge. The jungle was hot and oppressive and I could feel the sweat curling down my spine.


The man at the front of the queue got up and moved towards the door. He grabbed my arm as I passed.


“What did you get?” he asked.


“A good one,” I said, grinning. The man swore.


“All the good ones will be gone by now.”


I patted him on the shoulder, “I don’t think that’s how it works.”


He shook his head and moved past me, into the steam of the hut. 



The voodoo man clipped up the last page and shook his head. A story about a writer coming to him for a bestseller? It was a delicious thought really, to be paid for his craft. ‘Communing with the Infinite’ had been a cheap shot, though. He smiled. The gumbo had been coming up with all sorts of strange ideas these days. Mostly in first person. It must be the sassafras, he thought.


In the corner, the cauldron bubbled and spluttered unnoticed, while the unwritten stories, the ones no-one would ever read or see or taste, simmered and swirled around a sweet potato.



James Shackell is a 21 year-old university drop-out who spends most of his time writing or preparing for the day computers take over the world. If he’s not writing then he’s probably procrastinating about it. He could lie and say he’s writing for the love of the craft, but really he’s after fame and money. Lots of money. One day, if computers don’t take over, he might return to his law degree and write about what it’s like to sue people. But hopefully not.
Past publications include The Battered Suitcase and Drabblecast.


Published on January 3, 2009 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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