By Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, from The Turnip Princess, published last month by Penguin Classics. In the 1850s, Schönwerth traveled through Bavaria, his homeland, to record its tales. Much of his work, including this story, was lost until 2009, when it was discovered in a municipal archive. Translated from the German by Maria Tatar.
A couple living in the country longed to have a child. One day, they cried out in desperation: “We want a child, even if it’s no bigger than a thumb!” And a son was born to them. He was exactly the size of a thumb, and he never grew any bigger. He was named Nicholas but called Thumbnickel.
The farmer carried his son around on the brim of his hat. When he plowed the fields, he would put the little rascal into the ear of one of the oxen, where the boy could sing and dance to his heart’s content.
One day, a merchant drove by and watched Thumbnickel in the ear of the ox. He turned and asked if he could buy the boy. The farmer was not interested in a deal, but the little boy whispered in his ear, urging him to accept. The merchant climbed back into his carriage with the little fellow. The farmer started running behind. While the merchant was dozing off, the little guy climbed through a keyhole into a chest filled with money. He opened the chest and started tossing coins out to his father.
The merchant turned in for the night at an inn. When he was about to pay the bill, he discovered that all his money was gone. He took out a whip and ran after Thumbnickel, but the rascal had already crawled into a barrel of salt, escaping punishment.
The maid at the inn reached into the barrel, grabbed Thumbnickel along with some salt, and threw him into the cows’ feeding trough. One of the cows swallowed Thumbnickel. The next day, Thumbnickel emerged in a heap of dung. The innkeeper took a pitchfork and heaved the dung over a nest of mice. One of the mice sniffed dinner and sped over to Thumbnickel, mouth wide-open. Behind the mouse was a fox. Poor Thumbnickel was trembling with fear. But the mouse had picked up the scent of the fox, and the fox had picked up the scent of the mouse, so the two did not move.
Thumbnickel’s father happened to be plowing next to the nest, and he ended up tossing Thumbnickel up into the air. The father caught him as he was flying through the air, and before long, Thumbnickel was back in the ox’s ear, dancing and singing, with his father happily plowing the field.