Once upon a time there was a schoolmaster in a village near Bremen. He was a well-read man, conversant with the arts and sciences, and his life would have been entirely pleasant except that he lived next door to a certain old woman who sold fish in the street. She stank and her apron was smeared with fish guts; her diction was coarse, her opinions grotesque. She was mean-spirited, too, and could often be heard crying that this or that person would be lashed to the bone in the town square if she had her way. Her stall was right by the schoolmaster’s door, so whenever he went in or out he had to endure her presence.
Everything about the fishmonger offended the schoolmaster, but what most enraged him was her practice of intercepting students on their way to his rooms for instruction in natural philosophy. She would block the door at the bottom of his stair with her dirty bulk and regale the children with the most astonishing lies. Once, he heard her claiming that the Sun is a ball of burning wax carried on a dwarf’s back; another time, that the mice have a language of their own and a King and a parliament behind the wall; and so on.
One day, two of the schoolmaster’s students were late for their lessons. Wondering why, he went down into the street. There was the fishmonger, brandishing a dead fish in the air as she shouted at his amazed students that women are got with child by eating herring.
“You fool!” he laughed, and the people in the street laughed too.
The fishmonger turned on him. “Laugh, wiseacre,” she hissed. “Laugh! But God will pay you for that word.”
He laughed again and called his students up into his office. What nobody noticed was that both times the schoolmaster laughed, he shrank slightly—just a hair’s width, but so it was. And as he shrank, so she grew.
After this incident the schoolmaster began to make a point of jeering at the fishmonger every time he went in or out. Sometimes, burning with the thought of her grossness and lying folly, he would even leave his book and go downstairs for the sole purpose of jeering at her before the crowd. But every time he laughed, he shrank and she grew.
Soon he was the smallest, shrillest man in the village and she was the biggest, boldest woman. And still he laughed and still she scolded, and still he shrank and still she grew.
Eventually the schoolmaster was no bigger than your thumb and had difficulty even reading his books. It took all his strength to open one, and he could only read a page by running back and forth along the lines of print. One day at the time appointed for receiving students, he heard the fishmonger’s voice outside his window again, bellowing like an ox, “Two and two make five! The Earth is flat!”
In a rage, the schoolmaster hopped down from his reading desk, scampered to the door, squeezed under it, and jumped down the steps one by one. Finally he stood on the street before the fishmonger and her audience of gaping children.
He shook his tiny fist and squeaked his rage up at the mountain of filthy, ignorant fat above him. The fishmonger looked down with a greasy grin of triumph.
“Who’s the fool now?” she shrieked. “Who will take your students? And who will stand behind your desk to teach them? And who will replace you on the town council and cast a vote with the burghers? I will!” And she raised one great foot above the schoolmaster to smash him flat.
He fled for a little hole in the wall as the fishmonger stomped after him in hot pursuit, her every step shaking the ground, and dodged into it just as her heel crashed down on the cobbles outside.
He stood gasping and shaking for a minute in the darkness between the walls. When his eyes had learned to see, he saw around him the glinting of a thousand bright eyes like stars.
“The King, the King!” cried many high voices. “He has come at last!”
The mice carried him off to their parliament and set him up on a throne of dirty toothpicks. They put a bottle cap on his head for a crown and a burnt-out match in his hand for a scepter and made him give them orders. “Do this, do that,” he would say, sick to his soul of the meaningless game, but they would not feed him otherwise. And joyfully they obeyed him—any command at all but to set him free.
There behind the wall he lived out his life, and never laughed again.
As for the fishmonger, she was as good as her word. She took the schoolmaster’s former students and taught them her folly from behind his very desk, and she took his seat on the town council and cast a vote with the burghers and became a power in the land. And Folly, they say, rules that country to this day.