In the depths of Equatorial Africa the French explorer Marcel Pretre, hunter and man of the world, came upon a pygmy tribe of surprising smallness. He was all the more surprised, then, when informed that an even smaller people existed beyond forests and distances. So deeper still he plunged.
In the Central Congo he indeed discovered the smallest pygmies in the world. And—like a box within a box, within a box—among the smallest pygmies in the world was the smallest of the smallest pygmies in the world, obeying perhaps the need Nature sometimes has to outdo herself.
Amid mosquitoes and trees warm with moisture, amid the rich leaves of the laziest green, Marcel Pretre came face-to-face with a woman who stood eighteen inches tall, full-grown, black, silent. “Dark as a monkey,” he would inform the press, and that she lived in the top of a tree with her little consort. In the tepid, wild mists, which swell the fruits early and make them taste almost intolerably sweet, she was pregnant.
There she stood, then, the smallest woman in the world. For an instant, in the drone of the heat, it was as if the Frenchman had unexpectedly arrived at the last conclusion. Undoubtedly, it was only because he wasn’t insane, that his soul neither fainted nor lost control. Sensing an immediate need for order, and to give a name to whatever exists, he dubbed her Little Flower. And, in order to classify her among the recognizable realities, he quickly set about collecting data on her.
Her race is gradually being exterminated. Few human examples remain of this species which, if not for the cunning danger of Africa, would be a dispersed people. Aside from disease, infectious vapors from the waters, insufficient food and roving beasts, the greatest risk facing the scant Likoualas are the savage Bantus, a threat that surrounds them in the silent air as on the morning of battle. The Bantus hunt them with nets, as they do monkeys. And eat them. Just like that: they hunt them with nets and Eat them. That tiny race of people, always retreating and retreating, eventually took up residence in the heart of Africa, where the lucky explorer would discover them. For strategic defense, they live in the tallest trees. From which the women descend to cook corn, grind cassava and gather vegetables; the men, to hunt. When a child is born, he is granted his freedom almost immediately. It’s true that often the child won’t enjoy this freedom for very long among wild beasts. But then it’s true that, at the very least, no one will lament that, for so short a life, the labor was long. For even the language the child learns is short and simple, strictly essential. The Likoualas use few names, referring to things with gestures and animal sounds. In terms of spiritual advancement, they have a drum. While they dance to the sound of the drum, a little male stands guard against the Bantus, who will come from no one knows where.
It was, therefore, thus, that the explorer discovered, standing there at his feet, the smallest human thing in existence. His heart beat because no emerald is as rare. Neither are the teachings of the sages of India as rare. Neither has the richest man in the world ever laid eyes on so much strange grace. Right there was a woman the gluttony of the most exquisite dream could never have imagined. That was when the explorer declared, shyly and with a delicacy of feeling of which his wife would never have judged him capable:
“You are Little Flower.”
At that moment Little Flower scratched herself where a person doesn’t scratch. The explorer—as if receiving the highest prize for chastity to which a man, who had always been so idealistic, dared aspire—the explorer, seasoned as he was, averted his eyes.
Little Flower’s photograph was published in the color supplement of the Sunday papers, where she fit life-size. Wrapped in a cloth, with her belly far along. Her nose flat, her face black, eyes sunken, feet splayed. She resembled a dog.
That Sunday, in an apartment, a woman, seeing Little Flower’s picture in the open newspaper, didn’t want to look a second time “because it pains me so.”
In another apartment a lady felt such perverse tenderness for the African woman’s smallness that—prevention being better than cure—no one should ever leave Little Flower alone with the lady’s tenderness. Who knows to what darkness of love affection can lead. The lady was disturbed for a day, one might say seized with longing. Besides it was spring, a dangerous benevolence was in the air.
In another house a five-year-old girl, seeing the picture and hearing the commentary, became alarmed. In that household of adults, this girl had up till now been the smallest of human beings. And, if that was the source of the best caresses, it was also the source of this first fear of love’s tyranny. Little Flower’s existence led the girl to feel—with a vagueness that only years and years later, for very different reasons, would solidify into thought—led her to feel, in a first flash of wisdom, that “misfortune has no limit.”
In another house, amid the rite of spring, the young bride-to-be experienced an ecstasy of compassion:
“Mama, look at her little picture, poor little thing! just look how sad she is!”
“But,” said the mother, firm and defeated and proud, “but it’s the sadness of an animal, not human sadness.”
“Oh! Mama,” said the girl discouraged.
It was in another house that a clever boy had a clever idea:
“Mama, what if I put that little African lady on Paulinho’s bed while he’s sleeping? when he wakes up, he’ll be so scared, right! he’ll scream, when he sees her sitting on the bed! And then we could play so much with her! we could make her our toy, right!”
His mother was at that moment curling her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, and she recalled something a cook had told her about her time at the orphanage. Having no dolls to play with, and maternity already pulsating terribly in the hearts of those orphans, the sly little girls had concealed another girl’s death from the nun. They hid the corpse in a wardrobe until the nun left, and played with the dead girl, giving her baths and little snacks, punishing her just so they could kiss her afterward, consoling her. This is what the mother recalled in the bathroom, and she lowered her pendulous hands, full of hairpins. And considered the cruel necessity of loving. She considered the malignity of our desire to be happy. Considered the ferocity with which we want to play. And how many times we will kill out of love. Then she looked at her clever son as if looking at a dangerous stranger. And she felt horror at her own soul that, more than her body, had engendered that being fit for life and happiness. That is how she looked, with careful attention and an uncomfortable pride, at that boy already missing his two front teeth, evolution, evolution in action, a tooth falling out to make way for one better for biting. “I’m going to buy him a new suit,” she decided looking at him deep in thought. Obstinately she dressed her gap-toothed son in nice clothes, obstinately wanting him to be squeaky clean, as if cleanliness would emphasize a calming superficiality, obstinately perfecting the courteous side of beauty. Obstinately distancing herself, and distancing him, from something that ought to be “dark like a monkey.” Then, looking in the bathroom mirror, the mother made a deliberately refined and polite smile, placing, between that face of hers with its abstract lines and Little Flower’s crude face, the insurmountable distance of millennia. But, after years of practice, she knew this would be one of those Sundays on which she’d have to conceal from herself the anxiety, the dream, and millennia lost.
In another house, beside a wall, they were engaged in the excited task of measuring Little Flower’s eighteen inches with a ruler. And that was where, delighted, they gasped in shock: she was even smaller than the keenest imagination could conceive. In each family member’s heart arose, nostalgic, the desire to have that tiny and indomitable thing for himself, that thing spared from being eaten, that permanent source of charity. The family’s eager soul wanted to devote itself. And, really, who hasn’t ever wished to possess a human being for one’s very own? Which, to be sure, wouldn’t always be convenient, there are times when you don’t want to have feelings:
“I bet if she lived here, it would lead to fighting,” said the father seated in his armchair, definitively turning the page of his newspaper. “In this house everything leads to fighting.”
“There you go again, José, always pessimistic,” said the mother.
“Mama, have you thought about how tiny her little baby would be?” the eldest daughter, age thirteen, said ardently.
The father stirred behind his newspaper.
“It must be the smallest black baby in the world,” replied the mother, oozing with pleasure. “Just imagine her serving dinner here at home! and with that enormous little belly!”
“Enough of this chatter!” the father growled.
“But you must admit,” said the mother unexpectedly offended, “that we’re talking about a rare thing. You’re the one being insensitive.”
And the rare thing herself?
Meanwhile, in Africa, the rare thing herself held in her heart—who knows, maybe it was black too, since a Nature that’s erred once can no longer be trusted—meanwhile the rare thing herself harbored in her heart something rarer still, like the secret of the secret itself: a tiny child. Methodically the explorer peered closely at the little belly of the smallest full-grown human being. In that instant the explorer, for the first time since he’d met her, instead of feeling curiosity or exaltation or triumph or the scientific spirit, the explorer felt distress.
Because the smallest woman in the world was laughing.
She was laughing, warm, warm. Little Flower was delighting in life. The rare thing herself was having the ineffable sensation of not yet having been eaten. Not having been eaten was something that, at other times, gave her the agile impulse to leap from branch to branch. But, in this moment of tranquility, amidst the dense leaves of the Central Congo, she wasn’t putting that impulse into action—and the impulse had become concentrated entirely in the smallness of the rare thing herself. And so she was laughing. It was a laugh that only one who doesn’t speak, laughs. That laugh, the embarrassed explorer couldn’t manage to classify. And she kept enjoying her own soft laughter, she who wasn’t being devoured. Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings. Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life. So long as she wasn’t being eaten, her bestial laughter was as delicate as joy is delicate. The explorer was confounded.
Second of all, if the rare thing herself was laughing, it was because, within her smallness, a great darkness had sprung into motion.
It was that the rare thing herself felt her breast warmed with what might be called Love. She loved that yellow explorer. If she knew how to speak and told him she loved him, he’d puff up with vanity. Vanity that would shrivel when she added that she also loved the explorer’s ring very much and that she loved the explorer’s boots very much. And when he deflated in disappointment, Little Flower wouldn’t understand why. For, not in the slightest, would her love for the explorer—one might even say her “profound love,” because, having no other resources, she was reduced to profundity—for not in the slightest would her profound love for the explorer be devalued by the fact that she also loved his boots. There’s an old mistake about the word love, and, if many children have been born of this mistake, countless others have missed their only instant of being born merely due to a susceptibility that demands you be mine, mine! that you like me, and not my money. But in the humidity of the forest there are no such cruel refinements, and love is not being eaten, love is thinking a boot is pretty, love is liking that rare color of a man who isn’t black, love is laughing with the love of a ring that sparkles. Little Flower blinked with love, and laughed warm, tiny, pregnant, warm.
The explorer tried to smile back at her, without knowing exactly to what abyss his smile responded, and then got flustered as only a big man gets flustered. He pretended to adjust his explorer helmet, blushing bashfully. He turned a lovely color, his own, a greenish pink, like that of a lime at dawn. He must have been sour.
It was probably while adjusting his symbolic helmet that the explorer pulled himself together, severely regained the discipline of work, and recommenced taking notes. He’d learned some of the few words spoken by the tribe, and how to interpret their signals. He could already ask questions.
Little Flower answered “yes.” That it was very good to have a tree to live in, her own, her very own. For—and this she didn’t say, but her eyes went so dark that they said it—for it is good to possess, good to possess, good to possess. The explorer blinked several times.
Marcel Pretre had several difficult moments with himself. But at least he kept busy by taking lots of notes. Those who didn’t take notes had to deal with themselves as best they could:
“Because look,”—suddenly declared an old woman shutting the newspaper decisively—“because look, all I’ll say is this: God knows what He’s doing.”
“The Smallest Woman in the World,” by Clarice Lispector, from Complete Stories, copyright © 1960 by the Heirs of Clarice Lispector. Translation copyright © 2015 by Katrina Dodson. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.