The Flea and the Donkey
Believe nothing of what you hear
and only half of what you see.
A flea, who was travelling around the world, came to the right ear of a donkey. She nestled comfortably between two smooth, soft folds of his skin and dived in for a snack. When she was quite full and bloated, she sprawled under a tree (one of the wiry hairs in the donkey’s ear) and took a long look at her tasty host. After such a fine meal, she now wanted to have a bit of fun with him, too, like dinner and a show.
The donkey was trudging to and fro, wild-eyed and in a foamy sweat, drawing an enormous millstone along behind him. As he went, the stone finely crushed the grains of wheat that had been scattered on the ground by the farmer. The donkey worked like a horse, which the flea thought was ludicrous, for she considered herself sophisticated and worldly.
“What a fool,” she muttered to herself, “working his ass off like that!” She stifled a contemptuous snigger, but the arrogant flea was just dying to show the donkey her cunning by revealing his own stupidity. Finally she whispered, “Hey, donkey.” The feeble sound of the flea’s tiny voice was merely a fleabite to the four-footed animal. He shook his head and went on walking without interrupting his work.
The flea didn’t like to be brushed off like that, as she had a very high opinion of herself, so she repeated in a firm voice, “Hey, donkey.” To this, the donkey bobbed his head a time or two and cried out a bray, but he stubbornly went right on walking.
The flea was beginning to get annoyed now, but she also thought perhaps the animal was a bit deaf. She looked him squarely in the face, scanned him from head to foot, and decided at last that the donkey was both hard of hearing and slow on the uptake! So she drew a deep breath and shouted at the top of her lungs, “Hey, donkey! What about putting a stop to that thing there?!”
The donkey heard this time. He stopped and turned his head to right and left, but as he could see no one around, he brayed, “Who’s there? Who is it?”
“It’s me,” answered the flea.
“Me, the flea.”
“And who is Mia D. Flee?”
The small insect shivered at the outrageous ignorance of the donkey. She couldn’t decide if the donkey was an ass or merely a jackass. At last she concluded the donkey was indeed an ass plus a bit of a jackass, also hard of hearing and slow on the uptake!
She flung herself onto the donkey’s muzzle with a tremendous leap. “Here I am,” said the flea, strutting along. “It’s me, the flea herself, tiny but very wise.”
The donkey struggled to focus his eyes on the little thing scampering around his muzzle, but she was so incredibly small and was pacing to and fro so fretfully, it happened that the poor animal suddenly roared with a sneeze. The flea was catapulted into the air and, after completing a couple of expert summersaults, landed in the right nostril of the donkey, which was, alas, thoroughly wet with snot.
She scrambled to her feet again and tried to compose herself. With as much dignity as a snotty flea could muster under the circumstances, she said, “Here I am, kid.”
“You are Mia D. Flee?” the donkey asked incredulously.
“Who else?” answered the small insect, nearly at her breaking point.
“Pleased to meet you,” said the donkey innocently.
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“What brings you to these parts?”
“I’m travelling the world over, but I have a question for you. Where are you going with a beastly load like that?”
“Well, it’s my job,” the simple donkey answered simply.
“God preserve you!” exclaimed the flea.
“Because only fools work, you fool!”
The donkey hiccupped, “Really?”
“Really! I know all about it. Jobs are for fools, life is for the wise!”
“The wise, yeah! The clever people.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, ‘What do you mean’?”
“I mean, who are these clever people?”
“You know, clever people, the ones who have brains.”
“Brains? Is that something to eat?” the donkey asked, licking his chops.
“My dear fellow!” the flea exclaimed haughtily. “Brains is what makes you live.”
“Oh, I see,” the donkey said. “Well, I suppose it’s a mercy to have some.”
“It certainly is!”
“Golly! If that’s how it is, I just might like to have a bit for myself. Tell me, my friend, have you got any?”
“Are you kidding? I have just about enough for a million years!”
“Wow. So maybe you could give me some, then?” the donkey asked self-consciously.
“Well, sure, my dear! I can give you as much as you want!” the flea boasted cheekily.
“Great! But you’re so little, where do you keep it?”
“Here,” said the flea pointing to her tiny noggin, “in my head.”
“In your head? Oh, my goodness!” exclaimed the donkey, half amused, half astounded. And he shook his own heavy head in wonder at the strange fellows one meets living in the world.
“Where did you think I’d keep it?” the flea resumed.
“Oh, I don’t know. The farmer keeps things in his pocket. But if you have it in your head, how can you give it to me?”
“I can give it to you by words.”
“Oh, my God!” exclaimed the donkey, goggling his eyes in disbelief.
“Yes, that’s right! I’ll tell you just what’s what, and you’ll see. In no time at all you’ll become wise like me.”
The donkey could hardly believe his ears, and he wriggled like an earthworm in excitement. Then he whispered breathlessly, “Well, my friend, if it’s so, give me some words and make me wise!”
“You simply have to take life as it comes.”
“And how does it come?” asked the donkey.
“Er … it comes the way it comes,” answered the flea.
“You mean . . . ?”
“I mean, I mean … I mean the way it comes!”
“But how?” the stubborn donkey insisted.
“Listen, my friend, I want to tell you a secret.” The donkey stepped forward as if to approach the insect, forgetting that she was on his own snout. “Think for a moment. Why toil day in and day out when you can live in idleness and fun?”
The donkey shrugged his shoulders.
“Look at me, for example,” added the flea, stroking her antennas to make herself look important. “I don’t work to earn my living at all! I go around the world and I live it up. When I feel like eating … ta da! … I sink my teeth in wherever I happen to be. I don’t live like an ass at all! I am a freeloader, a noble freeloader, and just like the most renowned scions of my stock, I live off the backs of fools like you!”
The donkey, rather insulted by that last bit, was growing restless, so the flea quickly went on. “And then, if it’s true – as it really is true – that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, it’s nevertheless also true that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, for to trust is good but not to trust is better. In fact, you have to know that when the cat’s away the mice will play, just as an early bird catches the worm and an old hen makes good broth. Ergo, if a live dog is better than a dead lion, you can’t expect that dog eats dog or a leopard can change his spots. Curiosity,” the flea added importantly, “killed the cat, you know; therefore ….”
“Therefore?” urged the eager donkey, hanging on the flea’s every word.
“Therefore, nothing is more hateful than to look a gift horse in the mouth while Muhammad is going to the mountain!”
“Muhammad? Who’s that?” spluttered the donkey, thoroughly confused now.
“The wolf well knows him, especially when he is in sheep’s clothing. On the other hand,” the flea concluded, “even if all cats are grey in the dark, the devil is never so black as he is painted!”
The donkey stood gaping at the flea, marvelling at how so much learning and experience could fit into a thing so tiny. Yet, as a donkey is as stubborn as a mule, he wanted to make perfectly sure he understood all that he had just heard. So he said, “My dear friend, what you’ve just said is clearly flawless. I know that. But, I … you know … I … you … up to now you spoke of birds, cats and dogs, you spoke of lions, worms, and hens, you spoke of a leopard and a Muhammad, but are you really sure that’s the size of it for a poor donkey like me?”
“Sure? Why, I’m absolutely certain of it!” the flea encouraged. “Haven’t you ever heard that the ass must be tied where the master will have it, especially when he talks the hind leg off a donkey?”
The donkey nodded thoughtfully at the fast-talking flea with a dreamy look in his eyes, as if he was having a roll in the hay.
“Now,” continued the flea, “even supposing that there’s a limit to everything, we must say that bad company brings bad habits. That’s why the Gods send nuts to those who have no teeth and the pitcher that goes too often to the well is broken at last! In conclusion, my dear lad, wise up and once and for all convince yourself that there’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip!”
At this point, the donkey utterly surrendered before so much learning. “Well,” he stammered, “what should I do?”
“It’s not for me to tell you what you’ve got to do,” the flea answered. “I can only tell you what I would do.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I were you, I’d drop everything here. I’d have a good feed and then I’d go have a nice nap.”
“And if the master comes?”
“The master? Why, he should do the job! And if that doesn’t suit him, let him go to hell!”
“Golly! You really think so? Let it be so, then!” and the gullible donkey threw off his halter and headed to the stable. There he stuffed himself with hay and, full as a goose, went sound to sleep. As for the flea, she crawled back into the donkey’s ear, thoroughly pleased with her performance, and fell asleep as well.
Now, do you think that things could go on like that? A stuffed shirt sooner or later is deflated. When the farmer entered the stable and found the donkey sleeping, he shouted, “Hey, you! Shouldn’t you be in the yard turning the millstone?”
The donkey awoke at this commotion and stated confidently, “The fact is I don’t like living a life of misery like that! I’m the devil who catches the worm and, just like a noble freeloader, I go around the world and I live it up! And since the ass must be tied where Muhammad can talk the hind leg off a donkey, it’s good to trust but not to trust is better!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” the farmer blurted out.
But the donkey was really on a roll now. “And then, if it’s true that bad company brings the pitcher to the well, it’s also true that the Gods send nuts to the wolf in the bush. And now,” the donkey continued, stamping his hoof on the ground, “even supposing that all cats are grey in the mountain, you know, I’m really fed up with this job! And even if there’s a dog ’twixt cup and good broth, I’ll do my own thing from now on, and I’ll have lunch no matter where!”
“Not in my stable, you silly idiot!” the farmer screamed in disbelief, and he began punching and kicking the poor animal, who was left half dead on the ground.
The flea, meanwhile, had been rudely awakened by all the racket just in time to hear the farmer yell, “You deserve to be sent away with a flea in your ear!” At which point, she took three great leaps and in the wink of an eye was away. No one saw hide nor hair of her again.
“And remember,” the farmer added, walking away, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t!”
We can imagine how the story panned out. The donkey, recovered at last from the beating, went back to work pulling the millstone, and the flea, continuing on her grand tour, ran into some other poor wretch. Like every self-respecting freeloader, she will find new blood every day, sink her teeth in, suck her fill, and disappear without a trace.
As for the farmer, he couldn’t sleep a wink all night. “There are already so many freeloaders in the courts and churches,” he mumbled, “that it’s the donkey we needed!” And he wasn’t entirely wrong, for the world is full of fleas!