The World’s Smallest Woman

By Samme Chittum

The Diary of Lucia Zarate (1864-1890)

January 12, 1890

My toes tingle, and I wonder, is it the cold, or the angel of death come to tickle me with her feathered wing tip? Fat clusters of snowflakes hurtle against the glass and slide downward, collecting on the outer sill, and I force myself to gaze outward at the unfolding storm. A gust of wind strikes the side of the train that shudders as it rolls across another yawning gorge. Beneath us, the wooden trestle sways like a drunken dancer. I spy my own reflection. My small brown face pinched and worried, eyes like black marbles. I feel the tug of gravity through the soles of my feet and pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Protect me, Virgin, protector of the powerless, and return me safely home.

January 13, 1890

The tracks have vanished, like a magician’s trick. Buried in snow drifts edged with blue. The engine has stopped, its stack still spewing clouds of steam that form crystals in the frozen air. My fellow passengers hum like bees whose hive has been disturbed, while the crew scurries about in a state of alarm. Various solutions are tried before everyone settles down to await a break in the weather that will allow the men to clear the tracks. Coal is being used to melt snow for drinking water. Most of the passengers have some food, but not much. I have a few stale empanadas, but I am not hungry. The dim light will soon give way to night and I can barely see to write. Good night as I await an uncertain dawn.

January 14, 1890

A few of the passengers gone beyond grumbling to cursing, but most are simply morose. I pass the time by writing, or singing to myself.  I try various positions, slipping my hands in my sleeves and tucking my feet under my legs, but it is no use. Sometimes I stand up to stamp my feet, but I if I were to walk down the aisle, it would cause a stir. As it is, everyone that walks by casts sideways glances at me. Yesterday a rude boy came to gape at me until his mother took him away. I am so cold. Colder than I have ever been. And I think it is quite possible that I may not live to see my 27th birthday. And so I am writing these entries as my last will and testament. My name is Lucia Garcia Zarate, also known as “The World’s Smallest Woman” and “The Marvelous Mexican Midget.” Today, fully grown, I weigh only five pounds. Not an ounce more! For the last fourteen years, people have paid to stare at me, and whisper about me – as if I cared what they had to say! Yet how many ever truly saw me? My gift is that I am able to see myself.

My house in Los Angeles I leave to Chun Hua so that she may live there with Pacheco. My hacienda in Sonora I leave to my family. It should be no problem to place my body in a leather valise, to be claimed by Barnum & Bailey. Next to me sits Maria, my attendant, who cannot read. If she thinks I am asleep, she steals away and drinks out of a small flask. Poor Maria. She does everything she has been instructed to do to help me survive in a world that is ridiculously larger than me.  Yet there is no warmth in her. Whatever fire once burned within has left no coals.

As for me, I am as always a strange case. My most loving companion is not human, but a Capuchin monkey named Pacheco. More than ever I am glad that he is safely at home in California, where he is looked after by Chun Hua, who pampers him like a child, feeding him bits of fruit and cooing to him in her native Mandarin. Pacheco was one of the monkeys trained by Jekes, the primate handler for P.T. Barnum. Every Saturday night he drank heavily and dosed Pacheco with homemade brew until he was wild. When Jekes teased him, Pacheco bit his hand.  A doctor was called. And before the last stitch was in, Jekes was bellowing and stumbling between the trailers, threatening to break Pacheco’s neck.

But it was too late. I had hidden my little black and white friend in a trunk. Then I refused to go on stage until I was allowed to keep him. He never again bit anyone, although he would bare his teeth and chatter if anyone raised their voice in my presence. All the men joked that he was my protector, but I gave them the evil eye and cursed them in two languages. Now, sitting here on the train alone while Maria plays cards with other passengers, I am very glad that Pacheco is not here, yet missing the way he sits next to me and clasps my hand in his while he makes a crooning sound that I can almost hear if I close my eyes.

January 15, 1590

For two days and nights, we have huddled in whatever coats and lap blankets we had.   Maria has wrapped me in her shawl, but it is not enough. How I wish my sisters were here to hold me. When I close my eyes, I find myself once again in my home village of San Carlos. In the distance, instead of the soaring Sierra Nevada, I see the familiar volcanic peaks that loom over the bay where the fishermen toss scraps to the pelicans who perch on the sides of the blue and white boats. Outside my mother is baking tortillas in a brick oven. But it strangely cold in the shade.

I give permission for my skeleton to be kept in the Barnum Bailey museum devoted to the lives of sideshow freaks. All I ask is that the version of my life recorded here be the one that is read by visitors. Perhaps the greatest mistake I made was to let others tell my story, which became the property of a handful of anonymous biographers assigned to fill an entry in an encyclopedia or book on sideshow freaks.

All recorded my vital statistics as an adult: weight 5 pounds; height 20 inches. Most then provided brief descriptions of my personality. In some versions I am intelligent, lively and animated; in others I am only capable of the most rudimentary conversation. All agree on this: I was billed as the “Mexican Lilliputian.” I traveled to Europe where royalty feted me. Museums drew record crowds when I was placed on display. On tour, I was paid $20 an hour and accumulated enough wealth to buy my own ranch in Sonora. All this is accurate. Yet why is it that no two biographers could agree on whether I was intelligent or an imbecile?

When I was born on a warm April day in 1864, I weighed eight ounces. A wooden ruler held next to me proved me to be seven inches long. Before she went into labor, my mother was singing La Paloma Negra, the Black Pigeon. She called me her Little Bird and liked to recite in hushed tones the events leading up to the marvel of my birth.  “No other mother in all of Mexico is as fortunate as I, to have a daughter so perfect, so marvelous,” she would remind me when I fretted about my size. “Everyone who sees you is struck with wonder.”

Like a kitten licked by a mother cat, I thrived and took my place as the third child in a family of six. My father, Juan Garcia Zarate, made for me tiny hand-carved wooden chair, with my name inscribed on the center slat. My father had sad eyes that turned down at the corners. He used to sit on a wooden crate in our dirt yard until the inverted bowl of the universe became an impenetrable backdrop for ponderous, dowager planets and ageless, sprite-like stars that quavered with a cold, insistent fire. The tip of his cigarettes glowed faintly when he inhaled. “A man should find consolation in his own company,” he once told me. He made all the furniture for our adobe house, which was simple and sparingly furnished. It served me and the rest of my family, the tallest of whom, my brother, Manual, was 5 feet 2 inches. I slept for many years alongside my mother before I moved to the bed of my older sister, Juanita, where I remained until I left home at age 12.

Dignitaries from other villages liked to call upon our family. We served them dark, sweet coffee, while they brought food and small gifts of cloth or candles. Before their visits, my mother sat me on her bed and to comb my hair and dress me in gaily-colored skirts and blouses she had embroidered. On these occasions, she removed from a place of safe-keeping the silver chain and cross that had been worn by my maternal grandmother and hang it upon my neck, where it fell past my waist.

Over time the novelty wore off, and I became simply Lucia. My sisters and brother protected me from the rough hands of thoughtless boys and the unwanted attention of curious girls. One who took a special interest in me was Sister Isabelle, a Carmelite nun, who traveled once a month in good weather to visit me. She recited the Catechism as I sat next to her, and taught me to read. “There is no such thing as a small mind,” she would say, “unless it is a mind that refuses to accept knowledge.” I became the only literate member of my family, an accomplishment that gave me great status.

When I was 10, my father died of a strange malady that left him weak and short of breath. He could no longer work making bricks in the hot sun and my older brothers and sisters found odd jobs that brought in money for food, but there was never quite enough. The nights, cooled by mountain air, were spent sleeping beside my sisters, listening to barking of dogs, breathing in time with the rising and falling drone of cicadas. We woke early, in that moment when the night holds its breath before day intrudes and sets in motion the ceaseless industry of man. My mother made tender corn tortillas, which baked in an open air brick oven. I waited nearby for her to select and cool a single tortilla for me pull apart and eat. I have no memory of ever being cold or alone.

It was my mother, Evangelina Garcia Zarate, who was 4 feet 4 inches tall, who taught me the importance of dignity. She would not allow people to put me in their lap without my permission. She taught me how to carry myself with a polite reserve. I was 12 when the men from the P.T. Barnum drove into San Carlos in two black and gold carriages with gold coins and papers to sign. The first photograph of me was taken by a newspaper photographer from Mexico City, who arrived carrying a heavy metal camera. A curious crowd gathered nearby to study the photographer, a bald man who wore a faded suit and string tie, who set about his task with great seriousness of purpose. Thus it was that this first photograph found me, formally dressed, unsmiling and standing on a chair between my parents, who are looking past the camera with a steady gaze, as if introducing themselves to unborn descendants.

I was called a ‘human curiosity,’ ‘perfect in both form and feature,’ and a ‘Mexican Pigmy.’ The plain truth makes it strange enough. You must see hear and feel, and even then you will leave wondering. This according to one of the first bills enticing people to pay to see this human oddity. That I will concede, yet to call me a pigmy was inaccurate. I am a primordial dwarf, as testified to by three doctors brought in to examine me. I was said to be ‘suffering’ from dwarfism, yet for me there was no pain until I was told that I was afflicted with a condition that set me apart from all others.

For many years, I traveled through Europe with my American friend Joseph Flynn, the famous ‘General Mite.’ When I was 20, and Joey was 21, we sailed the Atlantic on a great ship to tour London and see Queen Victoria. I was so excited. They dressed us in our very best outfits, he in a tux and I in a lace-trimmed silk dress, my hair done up in tight curls that hurt my heard. A carriage drawn by four white ponies took us clattering along cobblestone streets to Buckingham Palace to be meet the Queen and her family. We were made to stand upon an enormous table covered with a blue velvet cloth. Joey was instructed to bow and I to curtsey, a silly custom, but I thought I did it rather well.

As for the Queen, she gawped at us the same as any commoner. And was rude enough to whisper to a man standing next to her that I was “perfectly hideous” with “a dark face like an Azetc.” Someone should have given the Queen a hand mirror, for she was then rather fat and pale. I have not seen Joey for many years since he married Millie Edwards, and began touring with her as The Royal American Midgets. Millie was a dwarf also, and the less said of her, the better. They were thought a perfect match, since they were both white. I never saw him again, although I still have the postcard he sent me from Madrid. “Dearest Lucia, my brown pigeon, How are you? Gracias for teaching me a few words of Spanish. I miss you.”

If you read this, do not pity me. Yes, I was sold to the circus to be an exhibit, yet I never let go of the innermost me. I did not grow taller, as I hoped I would. Yet over time I became more whole, more at peace with myself. For it was not just the audience who was studying me, but I who was studying them. All of them were searching for what it means to be human. Their repulsion or attraction was merely the measure of what they felt about themselves. Those who saw me as aberrant sought refuge in the deception that they were themselves entirely normal, for which I cannot blame them.

There is not much more to tell, except to explain what you must be wondering about how I felt while so many people stared at me. Of course, it was clear from the moment I left home that my earnings would support my entire family. This comforted me. If I have a regret, it is this. Through it all, I was too passive. I let others describe my path through life. They told me where to sleep, what to wear, how to stand and whom to love. My only act of defiance was to save Pacheco. If you do not care for the ending in which I freeze to death on a train, write another that suits you. A happy one perhaps in which I marry Joey, who makes me laugh at the silly stories he conjures for my amusement. Or another in which I return to Sonora to live on my hacienda, surrounded by the children of my sisters and brothers. Or perhaps you would rather see me live long enough to retire a rich woman in Mexico City, where I revel in the seclusion of a Spanish-style courtyard with an ornamental fountain in the center. High stone walls exclude all but the tiny green hummingbirds who come to visit and sip nectar from red hibiscus flowers as I drink sweet dark coffee in porcelain cups from China.

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Samme Chittum is currently writing a novel of historical fiction as a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Albany and has published many articles while working as a newspaper journalist and freelance writer.

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