The Flea, a short story from The Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile

Funny and scary, romantic and gruesome, and featuring kings and queens, dragons and seduction, The Tale of Tales is a fairy-tale treasure that prefigures Game of Thrones and other touchstones of worldwide fantasy literature

The Tale of Tales

                                                     The Flea

'The king of High Mountain was once bitten by a flea, and when he had picked it off with great dexterity and saw how beautiful and solidly built it was, it seemed a shame to him to execute it on the block of his fingernail. And so he placed it in a carafe and, feeding it daily with blood from his own arm, it grew so quickly that at the end of seven months, when he had to change its quarters, it was bigger than a lamb. On seeing this, the king had it skinned, and when the skin had been dressed he issued a proclamation: whoever was able to recognize to which animal the hide belonged would be given his daughter in marriage. After the notice was made public, flocks of people came running, arriving from the asshole of the earth to be present at this exam and try their luck. There was one who said it was a monster cat, another a lynx, one a crocodile, one some animal and another a different one; but they were all a hundred miles off and not one was on the mark.

'Finally, an ogre presented himself at this anatomy exam, an ogre who was the most horrible thing in the world and the mere sight of whom brought tremors, diarrhea, worms, and chills to the boldest young man in the world. Now as soon as he arrived the ogre started buzzing around the skin and sniffing at it, and he hit the bull’s-eye straight on when he said, "This hide belongs to the ringleader of all fleas."

The king saw that the ogre had grafted onto the right tree and summoned his daughter Porziella, who looked like she was made of nothing but milk and blood. Oh, my dear! She was a little spindle, so beautiful that you coddled her with your eyes. The king said to her, "Daughter, you know the proclamation I issued and you know who I am. All things considered, I can’t go back on my promise: either you’re a king or you’re poplar bark; I gave my word and now I have to keep it, even if it breaks my heart. Who could ever have imagined that an ogre would win this lottery? But since a leaf can’t fall unless it’s the will of the heavens, we have to believe that this marriage was arranged first of all up there and then down here. So be patient, and if you’re a blessed daughter don’t talk back to your daddy, for my heart tells me that you’re going to be happy; a plain stone jar often houses treasures."

'When Porziella heard this bitter decision her eyes grew dark, her face became yellow, her lips drooped, her legs trembled, and she was on the verge of sending the falcon of her soul off to pursue the quail of her suffering. Finally, breaking out in tears and raising her voice, she said to her father, "Just what kind of bad service have I performed in this house to receive such punishment? What sort of bad manners have I used with you to be delivered into the hands of this bogeyman? O miserable Porziella! Here you are, about to go into the throat of this toad of your own will, like a weasel; here you are, an unfortunate sheep about to be stolen away by a werewolf! Is this the affection you have for your own blood? Is this the love you show toward she whom you called the pupil of your soul? In this way you rip from your heart she who shares your own blood? In this way you remove from your sight she who is the apple of your eye? O father, cruel father, you could not possibly have been born of human flesh! Orcas gave you your blood, wild cats your milk! But why do I speak of sea and land animals? Every animal loves its offspring; you alone treat your own seed with a contrary heart and nausea, you alone cannot stomach your own daughter! Oh, better if my mother had suffocated me, if my cradle had been my deathbed, my wet nurse’s tit a bladder of poison, my swaddling clothes nooses, and the little whistle they tied round my neck a millstone, considering that this calamity was to befall me and that I was to find this accursed creature sitting right next to me and to feel myself caressed by a harpy’s hand, embraced by two bear’s shins, and kissed by two pig’s tusks!"

'She was intending to say more, when the king, sending off smoke in every direction, said to her, "Enough with the anger; sugar is expensive! Slow down there; your shields are made of poplar! Plug your mouth; it’s spewing filth! Shut up, not a peep; you’re a sharptongued, spiteful bigmouth! Whatever I do is done well! Don’t try to teach a father how to have daughters! Cut it out; stick that tongue back in and take care the mustard doesn’t reach my nose, since if I get my paws on you I won’t leave a hair on your head, and I’ll sow this earth with your teeth! Just look at this stink of my own ass who wants to play the man and lay down the law for her father! Since when does a girl whose mouth still reeks of milk have the right to question my will? Hurry up, give him your hand, and get off to his house this instant; I don’t want to see your impudent and presumptuous face in front of my eyes for even another quarter of an hour."

'Finding herself in these straits, poor Porziella had the face of one condemned to die, the eyes of one possessed by spirits, the mouth of one who has taken the Domini Agustini laxative, and the heart of one whose head is between the blade and the stone. She took the ogre’s hand and was dragged by him, without company, into a wood in which no one ever entered unless he had lost his way. In this place, dark as a clogged chimney and frightening as the façade of hell, stood the ogre’s house, decorated and plastered all over with the bones of men he had eaten.'

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more