Little and Clever
(A blending of Thumbling and The Robber Bridegroom from Grimm)
Once, really long ago, a farmer and his wife wanted to have a child. But no matter how they tried they remained childless. “A child, any child, no matter how small,” the farmer would say to everyone. But they lived by themselves on their farm at the base of Sturm Mountain.
And then, one morning, on the bed in between the man and his mate, mewling softly, was a tiny baby girl, not much bigger than his thumb. The farmer was astonished, but tiny as she was, the girl seemed alert and well featured. “What shall we call her?’ the farmer asked. “Why, Thumbling of course,” replied the wife.
Thumbling never grew all that much bigger, but after two years could talk better and more clearly than them both. The farmer’s wife had an idea. “Thumbling my dear little thing, let me teach you how to read.” And she did.
A year later Thumbling went up to her father. “I want to help out on the farm.”
He smiled. “Thumbling, you’re half as tall as my boot, how can you help me?”
“I can’t pitch hay or shovel manure, but I can lead the animals around.”
His smile widened. “You’d be stepped on the first day.”
“No, I won’t dear father. Just put me behind that horse’s ear and see what I can do.”
He decided to humor her, gently picked her up and set her just aft of the horse’s ear.
Then, with a clear voice she said “Into the stable with you.” And the horse, with no fussing, turned and entered the stable. And from inside the farmer heard. “Now go back outside again.” And the horse did.
“This is a wonderful thing,” the farmer said, and for some while Thumbling herded all the animals. She also, in the evenings, would ask the wife to open their bible on the table, and, pacing back and forth in front of the pages would read stories to her parents.
The farmer began bringing Thumbling with him to market so she could control the livestock while he haggled for sales. One day, a robber named Roberto and two of his gang came to the market and heard Thumbling’s soprano voice, but couldn’t see where it was coming from.
When the farmer brought them close to the horse’s ear and showed them Thumbling they were amazed. And the robber had an idea.
“Look,” he said to the farmer, “hire your daughter out to us for a month. I’ll pay well, in advance. We can put her on display at summer carnivals and she will earn us all lots of money.” But the robber lied, for he wanted her to steal things for him.
Thumbling knew how poor her mother and father were. “Please father. Let me do it. The money will let you buy grain for the animals and food for yourselves.”
The farmer was worried about letting her leave, but in the end, she persuaded him. That next morning she left with the robber and his men, riding atop the robber’s hat. For several leagues she enjoyed the view, and then a harsh gust of wind blew her off the hat and over a roadside cliff.
She screamed, but was carried off by a fast rushing river, and though the robber looked all through the ravine he couldn’t find her. Finally, she caught a rootlet and pulled herself ashore. At dusk, alone and afraid, she found a large snail shell, dug a little hole and slept in the hole under the shell. The next morning, cold and hungry, she found a cart path and began walking. But her legs took steps in inches, and what would be for a full-grown woman thirty minutes took her all day.
Late that afternoon she came upon a barn and, exhausted, crawled into a pile of hay and fell asleep. That next morning a farmhand took a pitchfork and, scooping up hay and Thumbling, tossed her to the cows. A hungry cow swallowed a hay-wrapped Thumbling and before she knew it she was in the cow’s first stomach. She did what everyone would do. She screamed.
Screamed so loudly that the farmhand heard it. He ran to the owner who listened, then declared that the cow was bewitched and had it slaughtered. The cow’s stomach, Thumbling and all, was tossed into a dung heap. Before she could work her way out of all the yards of intestines a wolf found the stomach, bolted it down and snuck off.
Thumbling decided that screaming wasn’t a good idea. So she talked to the wolf in her lilting voice.
“A cow stomach is poor eating for a predator like you. If you take me back to the farm at the bottom of Sturm Mountain I’ll have them give you a choice leg of lamb.” She pleaded and she begged and she annoyed the wolf so much that he did trot several miles over to the farm.
Once there Thumbling had the wolf howl at the door until her father came out, holding a butcher knife to threaten the wolf with. “Father, father, don’t hurt the wolf,” Thumbling yelled. We have an agreement. Just reach your hand down into the wolf’s throat and pull out the cow stomach inside it.”
The farmer wanted no part of a wolf’s teeth, but Thumbling begged until he had to agree. He yanked out the stomach and when he carefully squeezed down its length, out popped Thumbling, all covered in stomach goo and chewed up grass and hay.
As soon as she could speak again she asked her father to give the wolf a leg of lamb as reward. Which he did, and the wolf loped off.
While all this was happening, the robber was wondering what to do about losing Thumbling. If she’s anywhere still alive, he thought, she might go back home. So he and his two henchmen rode to the farm at Sturm Mountain.
When he saw the farmer, the robber pretended to weep. “Oh my darling Thumbling blew off my hat, I know not to where, and I’m desperate to find her.”
The farmer patted the robber’s shoulder. “There, there. It’s not so bad as all that. She’s come back to us. But I must return your money. My wife and I agree that it is too dangerous for Thumbling to be out in the world.”
Behind his smile, the robber fumed. But he was sneaky devious, and an idea came to him.
“In the brief time I’ve known her I’ve come to admire and even love Thumbling. She will need a safe household to go to as you become older. Please, let me become her betrothed. Then, in a little while, she and I will marry and she will remain protected.”
The farmer said no, he could not part with Thumbling, but the robber continued.
“Please, for her sake. You may keep my payment as earnest money, and I will waive any need for you to pay a dowry.”
Thumbling, who still wanted to go out into the world, had been listening to all this. She had her father pick her up and put her on his shoulder next to his ear.
“Please, father,” she whispered. “He is right. You are already old, and I’ll need a safe haven. Besides, you’ve probably already had to spend the money he gave you.”
The farmer looked to his wife, who begged him to let Thumbling remain with them.
But the farmer, indeed, had spent the money on food and grain. “Thumbling,” he whispered back, “if you’re happy with this arrangement I won’t object.” He shook hands with the robber bridegroom to be, and agreed to a betrothal party two months from that day, and a wedding in a year.
The robber Roberto, still scheming, had no intention of actually marrying Thumbling, but had to get her away from her family. “My dearest,” he smiled. “Now that we’ll be engaged, please come to visit your home to be in the forest. My house is quite nice. Could you do it in perhaps a month’s time?”
“But I don’t know the way.”
“Ah, nothing easier. I’ll have one of my men lay a trail of ash from this farm to my house before you come. Just follow the trail.”
Thumbling was beginning to have doubts, but had already agreed. “Very well, my betrothed, a month from today.”
Three weeks later Thumbling was sitting on a window sill when a robber rode up, his horse loaded down with sacks of ash. His words were polite, but his expression was sinister as he turned to ride back to the robber’s house, leaving a trail of ash.
She had begun to have doubts about her bridegroom. She decided to visit the robber two days earlier than expected and surprise him. Thumbling had her father put her behind the horse’s ear and tie a large sack of peas and lentils to the horse’s neck.
She cautiously followed the trail of ash into the forest, strewing peas and lentils behind her as her own guide to getting back home. The trail, really just an overgrown pathway, wound back and forth, with many splits and turns. Finally she approached a large house almost hidden in a thicket.
Thumbling took the horse’s rein and tied it to a branch. Then she slid slantways down the horse’s neck, along its back and down its tail until she touched the ground. As she crept up on the house a caged bird on the porch noticed her. It called out.
“Turn back, turn back, you tiny bride. Not in this house of death abide.”
But Thumbling had to know the truth about her bridegroom. When an old woman opened the door to throw out slops she crept into the house behind her back. The old woman, having no one to talk to, mumbled to herself as she came back into the house.
“The people-eating robbers will be back soon enough with another bride to dine on. Get ready, get ready.”
Thumbling thought her crazy, but hid behind a cask of wine and waited for the robbers. They returned just before dark, carrying a young woman they called Isabel, all tied up. They butchered her in preparation for dinner. As one of the cleavers chopped, a ring finger flew off, and dropped behind the cask next to Thumbling.
“Get it later,” one of the robbers muttered.
She almost screamed, but covered her mouth. As the robbers cooked and ate, she tugged the wedding ring off the finger and saw the engraved names of Roberto and Isabel.
By midnight, the robbers had drunk themselves into stupors and lay about the dining hall. Thumbling half dragged, half carried the ring out the door, down the steps and over to her horse. She climbed back up the tail, up the back, up the neck and behind the horse’s ear. “Take us home,” she whispered.
The moon was out, but not brightly enough to see the trail of ashes. But it did shine on the peas and lentils, letting her guide the horse through the maze of paths and back to her parents’ farm.
Thumbling told her father what she had seen, and they decided what must be done. The farmer sent a messenger to the robber explaining that Thumbling was ill and could not visit him just then.
Five weeks later the robber bridegroom and his gang came to the farmhouse for the betrothal party, dressed in their most elegant clothes. But Thumbling and her parents were ready. After the gang had dismounted, the sheriff and his deputies came out of hiding and seized and bound them.
“What is this,” the robber sputtered. “Thumbling you little, foolish thing, this is no way to treat your betrothed!”
As the robber bridegroom lay all trussed up on the ground, Thumbling walked up to his ear. “Perhaps little and clever. Let me tell you of a terrible dream I had, my love. I dreamt I was hiding in a house of death and watched a young bride dragged in. But it must have been only a dream, my love. Then the innocent girl was butchered to feed these monsters. But it must have only been a dream, my love. Or was it?”
Thumbling took out the wedding ring. “See, my love, the proof that will trap you.”