Once there was a beautiful woman not much bigger than a flea. She was so small that she made her gowns of forget-me-not petals and the bright scales of butterfly wings stitched together with cobweb. When she ate and drank, she took whatever crumbs and drops she could find, and a crumb was more than enough to fill her for an entire day.
Since she was so small, she moved through the village without attracting much notice, and this meant that she heard all manner of secrets and saw many terrible things. This knowledge made her despair, and so one day she stripped off her brightly colored gown and clung tightly to the fur of a villager’s hound as it ran off into the forest to hunt.
In the forest, she made her home in a mushroom that grew in stacks like oyster shells up the side of a tall tree. It was like a little palace for her. Every few days, a new room grew and an old one fell away, so that she was always discovering new parts of her home, and always losing parts of it to all but her memory.
Although she was small as a flea, her memory was large as an elephant’s, and even though she was far away from the village, she carried its terrible secrets, and her heart and soul grew heavy with them.
One day, a mushroom gatherer found her home and began to break off whole rooms of it to put into his basket.
“STOP!” cried the little woman, and though she was small, her voice was as loud as any full-grown person’s. The mushroom gatherer paused and looked around for the source of this command.
“Here, down here,” called the little woman, and the mushroom gatherer reached into his cloak and pulled out a magnifying glass. He bent to look at her as she stood at the edge of her new parlor floor. Since the autumn air had made the mornings crisp, she was dressed in a woolly cocoon that a green moth had left behind.
When the little woman saw the mushroom gatherer’s eye—already huge to her—at ten times its size on the other side of the magnifying glass, she cringed and shuddered. It was full of crinkles and curls, and in the middle was nothing but deep black space.
“Why, what a lovely little woman you are,” exclaimed the mushroom gatherer. He broke the fungal floor she was standing on and held it up high. She knelt and grasped at it, fearing for her life if she fell.
Before she knew it, he had thrust the floor, and her with it, into a tightly-woven purse that he kept knotted at his waist. He said, “I shall take you home and make you my wife.”
When the dark purse opened at last, the little woman crawled out on to the man’s table and sobbed. “My home is gone and my heart is heavy,” she said. “You are enormous and I am tiny. How can I be your wife?”
“My hands are large indeed, and they can provide for you or they can crush you,” the mushroom gatherer said. “I know you are too small to cook or keep house for me, but you shall be my wife all the same. Now sing a wedding song for me, my pretty flea wife, and I shall give you tasty crumbs for your supper.”
Seeing that she had no choice, the little woman sang an ancient tune about rings and mirrors and mockingbirds, and the mushroom gatherer smiled and set crumbs for her at the edge of his plate, and used his fingertip to give her a drop of sweet wine, for even a thimble was too large for her to manage.
As the light grew dim outside the mushroom gatherer’s hut, the little woman began to think that she might sneak away in the night. But instead, the mushroom gatherer plucked her up by her hair and set her in a small leaded glass casket whose bottom was lined with red velvet. “This is the nicest thing I own, and it shall be your bed,” he told her. Closing the casket, he set it on top of the mantel.
The little flea wife hit her fists against the glass and tried to lift the lid, but the glass was much too strong and the lid was much too heavy. Finally, she curled up in a corner of the casket, watched as the mushroom gatherer’s bedside candle guttered and sputtered, and finally she fell into a fitful sleep.
The next day, the mushroom gatherer did not go out to gather. Instead, he dressed in his finest cloak, picked up the little glass casket where his flea wife still slept, and walked toward the village square. “Wake up, my little flea wife,” he told her. “Today, we shall become rich.” He told her of his plans.
The little flea wife sighed deeply. She had no use for gold or jewels, which were as cold and heavy as the secrets in her heart. Still, she saw nothing else to do except what the mushroom gatherer wanted.
In the village square, the mushroom gatherer set up his little cart with its baskets of edible fungus of all sorts, fragrant and pale like little moons, nearly glowing in the shade of his scarlet umbrella. On top, he gently placed the little glass casket with his flea wife inside it. “Come one, come all,” he called out, “and see the wonder of my little flea wife! For a very small price, you will hear her dulcet voice!”
Before long, a small crowd had gathered around the cart. “I can’t see a thing in there,” some complained, jostling one another to get a better look at the glass casket and the tiny woman inside it.
“She’s in there, she’s in there,” the mushroom gatherer told them, his large hands spread out in the air. “Now quiet down and listen!” He clapped his hands together, and the crowd obeyed, waiting.
Into that quiet space came a voice that was sweeter than any had heard in a long while, singing with such beauty and sadness that tears poured down many faces. At the end of the song, the villagers wiped their eyes, applauded, and filled the mushroom gatherer’s cap with so many silver coins that he could not possibly put it back on his head. “What did I tell you, flea wife?” he said, lifting her casket to his lips to kiss it. “Our fortune shall soon be made!”
The days went on like this for some time, with more and more people flocking to the mushroom gatherer’s cart in the village square to hear the flea wife’s songs. The mushrooms had wrinkled and withered away in their baskets, for the gatherer had given up on his trips to the forest for new stock. Instead, he bought a fine silk cloth that he spread out over his cart, and on this he would set the little casket so that his flea wife could sing for the waiting crowd.
One day, the village mayor, hearing about this phenomenal performance, came huffing and pushing his way to the front of the gathering. He pulled the embroidered edges of his cloak straight and rubbed his shirt-cuff over his golden badge so that it glittered. Then, he leaned in quite close to the glass casket and gazed for a long while at the little flea wife. “An extraordinary beauty, to be sure,” he told the mushroom gatherer. “You have a lovely wife indeed.”
The mushroom gatherer swelled with pride. “Just wait until you hear her sing!” he said, winking at the mayor.
The tiny woman trembled inside her little casket. Not only had she run out of songs to sing, but also, among the assembled crowd, she recognized faces that she’d be happier forgetting, faces that held secrets she’d be happier not knowing. And so, as she began to sing, her voice wavered with that knowledge.
Her songs began as before, rich with sad beauty, but as they grew from her throat she created new songs, weaving in all the secrets and shame that burdened her soul. As she sang of what she knew, she felt the weight of each secret lift away from her heart like a star rising into the sky.
But as she sang, one by one, the faces of the crowd grew pale with guilt and red with anger. And as her song reached its peak, its melody circling around a man with a golden badge and a cruel dark heart, the mayor’s face grew purple. He snatched up the little glass casket with the flea wife inside it and tucked it into his vest pocket. Then he turned and stomped away through the streets, ignoring the protests of the mushroom gatherer, who would collect no coins that day.
The flea wife was even more frightened than before, for she knew the vile acts the mayor was capable of. And so she sat in silence, and did not sing or speak when he set her casket on a table in the village hall. She wondered and worried what he would do with her.
The mayor had a new casket made for her, one that her voice—if she dared use it—would not penetrate. Its facets were made of magnifying lenses, so that anyone who looked could easily see the flea wife inside, no matter what corner she curled up in. Once she was inside it, the mayor plucked off the cocoon the flea wife wore, leaving her naked for everyone to see.
Day after day, men came to look at the flea wife in her glass prison, hooting and pointing. She was glad she could not hear their voices, for the expressions on their faces clearly declared all their ugly intentions as they spoke of what they’d do to her if she were only big enough.
After a time, the crowd dwindled, and even the mayor tired of the little flea wife. “She’s taken up more than her share of attention,” he declared. “Feed her to the birds.”
As word of this pronouncement passed, the village square filled once more with men and women who were eager to see the spectacle. A large round table was set out, and the flea wife was dumped out of her glass casket right into the middle of it. The crowd began to pelt her with crumbs and seeds, laughing as she ducked and cowered and cursed. “What a filthy mouth she has!” “Yes, how uncivil!” the villagers remarked to one another. “That’s no way for a lady to speak.” “Tells you what she really is.” Then, after a time, “When are the damn birds going to get here? We haven’t got all day.”
Soon, dark shapes began to appear in the sky above the village square. Seven ravens circled, looking down at the table full of tasty tidbits.
“Back away, back away!” the mayor ordered. “Give the birds some room to do their work!” The villagers obeyed, moving back to the edges of the square.
One by one, the ravens landed, their great claws and beaks scratching at the table as they hopped around, pecking at their banquet. Before long, the table was picked clean, and the ravens flew away.
“Was she eaten?” “I don’t know; I couldn’t see a thing,” the villagers buzzed as they pushed their way up to the table again. Sure enough, not even a crumb remained. The mayor declared the afternoon’s entertainment at an end, and in pairs and bunches, the villagers wandered off, already planning their own suppers.
Now, you may think, as the villagers did, that this was the end of the little flea wife. But let me tell you this: in the forest outside the village, there grows a tree where seven ravens roost. And those ravens do not call out with the rough voices you’d expect, but instead they sing songs filled with both beauty and terrible secrets almost unbearable to hear. The villagers never go near that tree, for fear of having their truths sung back to them.
And so if your heart is true, and you are ready to face the good and evil of men, you must go to that tree and learn the songs of the little flea wife. Learn them well, so that you can teach them to your children.
Tria Wood is a writer and educator who helps children and teachers become confident creative writers through the Writers in the Schools program in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Sugar House Review, Literary Mama, and public art installations.