"Ladies and gentlemen, presenting for the first time: Tiny Tasha, the world's smallest woman!"
"I'm scared," the little girl in the blue jumper protests. "I'M SCARED."
She digs her pink-and-white sneakers into the ground, but it does no good.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," the little girl's godmother says, yanking her into the booth. "Don't be silly."
The child gives up the struggle and begins walking under her own power. But she's intent on keeping her distance. She forces herself around the corner of the exhibit, but stays close to the back wall, as far from the attraction as she can manage in this tight space.
Finally, she lifts her eyes.
"Hello, how are you?" Tasha says in a sing-song voice, rewarding the child with a warm smile.
The little girl can't manage a reply. She also can't stand to be here any longer. She scoots away, fleeing into the open air.
Tasha's face melts back into passivity. She stares into the blankness of the back wall and waits for the next customer to round the corner.
"Tiny Tasha is so small you can actually pick her up and carry her in your arms as you would a small child!"
The booth is in a prime location, not far from the entrance gates of the Maryland State Fair. Painted in tropical colors above the doorway is a comely young woman - Caribbean from the looks of her - kneeling contentedly in the palm of a hand.
"World's Smallest Woman," the sign says. "Alive. You talk to her, she talks to you!"
A taped come-on plays on a continuous loop in the background:"Bring Mom. Bring Dad. Bring the children. This is an exhibit for the whole family."
Tiny Tasha is one of the few remaining so-called "human oddities" still in circulation these days, one of the last vestiges of what was known as the freak show. Bearded ladies, fat men, giants, Siamese twins - once they were a staple of the midway. Nowadays, many fairs aren't willing to carry that kind of entertainment anymore.
The operators of the Maryland State Fair feel justified in including Tiny Tasha as one of their attractions. "It's the lady's choice to be here," says Max Mosner, general manager of the fair. "This is how she chooses to make her living and is quite happy to do so."
Sitting slump-shouldered at a counter underneath the entrance to Tiny Tasha's booth is a glum-looking man who collects the money: $1 a head for adults, 50 cents for kids. Business is steady.
A blond, middle-aged woman and a 20-year-old man hand over their money and go inside. Half a minute later, they emerge all smiles.
"I didn't know what I expected," says Laurie Bova, "but shewas the smallest woman I've ever seen." On reflection, she adds, "I feel she's a little exploited, but that's what carnivals are for."
Eric Wirts is not conflicted. "You go in, you feel like laughing," he says. "I know that sounds bad, but she does look comical." When his girlfriend [Bova's daughter] joins them, he tells her, "You gotta go in." She pulls a dollar from her bag and heads for Tiny Tasha's booth.
Two boys of about 10 burst from the exhibit. "She was up to here on me," Jeffrey Cox marvels, drawing his finger across his belly.
His smaller and slighter friend, Harrison Seward, hasn't yet sorted out his thoughts. "When I went in, I thought it would be a doll," the boy says. "I don't think it's appropriate. It's just mean, having people come in and stare at her and make fun of her."
"Tiny Tasha, smaller than a 3-year-old child! Her hands are only two inches wide! She wears size two shoes, and she speaks, breathes and sees just like everyone else!"
Tiny Tasha spends her 10-hour workdays on a metal platform that stands a foot and a half above the floor. She sits as if on a throne in a legless wooden chair. A multi-colored afghan covers the seat and a checkered pad cushions the back. Sometimes she braces an elbow on an arm of the chair and holds her head up with her hand.
Her skin is the color of coffee, her face unlined. She wears her lacquered dark hair in a tight bun. Gold earrings embedded with red stones dangle from her ears, and two fingers of her left hand are adorned with rings. Her short-sleeved blouse is the color of oyster shells and her skirt a muslin fabric.
Her sandaled feet are splayed on the floor and remain motionless. "They are dead," she says in a heavy accent. A wheelchair leans against the back wall of her booth.
She speaks almost no English but is well-practiced in answering the questions most frequently asked by those who come to look.
"I am from Haiti."
"Fifty-five years old."
It is hot in here, but Tiny Tasha assures anyone who asks that she is comfortable, pointing to the fan that blows on her. Her real name is Fernande Desravines and her native language is French-Creole. Sometimes she misinterprets what is asked of her. When a man in a baseball cap wants to know where she appeared before Maryland, she replies, "Is first time here."
With adult spectators, she directs their attention to a low table with a stack of postcards bearing her photograph. "You want to buy one?" she asks. "One dollar." Invariably, they drop a bill into the basket. Some don't bother to take the postcard.
Little Tasha confirms she is content doing this work, and has been at it for at least 30 years. The Florida company that employs her, Four C Productions, says her cut from the gate has enabled her to buy a home in her impoverished Haiti and to support her large family of brothers and sisters. She was married once, but not anymore. She appears in fairs like this one from May to October and then returns home for the winter.
Little Tasha is just one of Four C's sideshow attractions. The company's lineup also includes a miniature horse show, a giant rodent show, a gorilla illusion, a headless illusion, a snake illusion, and an "oddities" museum. There are also Little Lena, Little Linda and Little Gloria. Like Tiny Tasha, each is billed as the "World's Smallest Woman."
"Step up! Get your tickets! She's here, she's real, she's alive!"
Surrounded by her five girls, a mother hands out money, and off they go to Tiny Tasha's booth. One of the girls trails behind the others. Kristin Burley is on crutches, her legs in braces.
After seeing the exhibit, Kristin, who is 15 but the size of a much younger girl, says she feels sorry for Tiny Tasha. Kristin has spina bifada. Her mother, Melanie Burley, says people often stare at Kristin. They are staring at her here today. Yet, Melanie does not object to the Tiny Tasha exhibit.
"You know what? She's choosing to do it. It's not like anyone's making her do it."
Two teen-age girls in pony-tails feel differently. Clinging to each other, they screw up their courage and veer toward the entrance of the booth. "Exploiting people is evil," they chant in unison before making their getaway.
"Tiny Tasha, the world's smallest woman! We promise, you will remember this little lady for a long, long time to come! Tiny Tasha, the world's smallest woman!"
Inside the booth, the customers stream past Tiny Tasha. The children usually stare at her in mute silence. Sometimes the adults do the same, their eyes gobbling her up.
If you look closely, you see the surprise in their faces, a widening of the eyes, a self-conscious smile, a shake of the head. It is, after all, not your typical human interaction, meeting someone for the sole purpose of taking in her appearance.
The people all seem nice enough. No one intentionally says anything cruel to Tiny Tasha. They wonder if anyone else in her family is small like her. (No.)
They want to know if she has kids. (No.)
A few reach out to shake her hand. Tiny Tasha is pleased to comply.
One woman in a sundress can't contain herself . "Oh, isn't she precious!" Rosetta Long cries out. "I could take you home with me!"
Tiny Tasha nods and smiles that warm smile until the woman is out of sight. The smile slips away.