Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2008 Results




Pin Some Tales on the Donkey

Copyright © Dean Briggs 2008


In 2006, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, branded George ‘Dubbya’ Bush ‘a donkey’. He did not intend the comment as a compliment; from the context of the outburst, it was clear he thought the leader of the free world was plodding, stubborn, insensitive and many other derogatory adjectives.

Wayyyyy back in 1969 I developed a reluctant affinity with the much-maligned creature (the animal not the politician) because from the moment my high school chemistry teacher and I crossed pipettes he had me pegged as an ‘Equus asinus’. He rode my quixotic vagueness like Sancho Panza and sledged away at the lack of scientific method in my attitude towards homework.

“Have you done those equations I set yesterday Mr. Lorndale?”

“No sir.”

“Why not?

“I don’t know sir.”

“You, son, are a donkey!”

Just as many before him had done, he slapped on the asinine label to imply that I was slow-witted and intractable. The long running bad joke persisted for two years until I clopped dumbly out of his classroom for the last time; delighted and relieved.

Since that time, much water has flowed under the Macleay River Bridge and my HSC years have been suitably diluted and duly flushed down the Cistern of Life. The years have flooded by since and life has taken many littoral and figurative meanders as I collected a family, a career of sorts and a small farm on the central tablelands. On our holding we assembled the usual menagerie… among them was a long eared, four-legged nincompoop.

One December in the mid nineties I was visiting a neighbour (Fred), bestowing on him some cheery greetings and sharing in a glass of his specially fermented ‘goodwill to all men’, when we spied a young fellow wandering down the driveway of Lorndale manor.

“Wonder what that young coot’s up ta. Snoopin’ around… I don’t like the fucken look of ‘im. Up to no good I reckon,” Fred muttered between slurps. It was the season to be jolly but he was a fully paid up, life member of the all year round, ‘miserable old prick’ club.

The visitor piqued our interest but hobbled by our dulled reflexes, we did no more than study him with curious detachment. After moseying up and down our front yard, the young man rejoined his utility and drove across towards us.

He hopped out and stood behind a cheery grin.

“Is Frank Lorndale about the place?” he asked.

“That’s me actually.” I searched his expression for some hint of familiarity.

“I’ve come to do Amanda.”

Fred uttered a soft derisory chortle as he heard the name and I cantered over to the gate.

“Oh shit… the donkey… sorry. I meant to bring her up into the front paddock for you but I was sidetracked by a rather astringent old shiraz.” I motioned over my shoulder in Fred’s general direction. “…I’ll get her now.”

“No worries.”

“See you later mate!” I called to my Fred as I galloped home and he fired off a haughty snort at my departing back.

The farrier and I dallied at the front gate.

“Is she quiet?” the young chap asked.

“Who?”

“The lady with the sore feet.”

“Oh… Yeah.”

“Let’s do ‘er down the paddock then.”

He had slipped into a long leather apron and carried a large file, a pair of pincers and a sharp knife, which clanged together as we dodged between the spiky yellow tufts of grass. Our progress was tinder dry and crunchy under foot.

Amanda made a feeble attempt at a startle, and her front legs quivered.

“Come on darlin’… there we are… take it easy,” the farrier crooned as he sidled up and grabbed her front fetlock. He had the same magic efficacious air that NRMA roadside mechanics exude around petrol engines and she was instantly compliant.

He beavered away, paring and rasping and my fingernails twitched sympathetically as flakes and slivers dropped into the baked soil...

“Do donkeys’ hooves grow faster than horses’?”

“Couldn’t really say, she’s only the second one I’ve ever done.”

“Oh! Don’t you like them much?”

“Well, to be honest, the first and only one was a real brute of a thing. He ended up kickin’ me in the side of the head. But I don’t think this dear old stick‘ll do that… She’s too quiet an’ easy goin’. ”

Just on the off chance that the farrier did sustain another blow to the skull, I stood by Amanda with a reassuring hand on her withers and rubbed her back. I continued moving my clawed fingers in circles and sticky handfuls of coarse hair, matted with grey clayey soil, drifted down onto the blanched straw mulch.

“You ever had horses here?” he asked as he stretched briefly before grabbing another leg.

“No not us, but when we bought this place, at the end of the drought, the owners were running seven or eight of them. There was hardly a blade of grass left and some of the large trees had been given quite a workout. It looked like a giant clay pan and I swore we wouldn’t have them back again. I guess you could say I’m not a big fan of horses, they’re only good for turning good pasture into shit in my estimation.”

“They give me a good livin’.”

“I’m sure they do. Sorry. Don’t take too much notice of me. I forgot to take my fish oil tablets this morning.”

“Right… How come you ended up with this old girl?”

“Circumstances within my control I suppose… A few years ago I saw a program on donkeys and it opened my eyes. I had always lumped them in with their obnoxious cousins but the voice over bloke described them as being more like big dogs than small horses. The owners and breeders kept saying things like: good-natured, well behaved, fond of people etcetera and by the time the show had finished my wife and I were converts.”

“Did you buy her then?” He scratched her hindquarter affectionately. “No offence sweetie, but you are pretty long in the tooth.”

“No, actually. A few months after the show on TV, we were over at a friend's place, visiting them before they moved into town. They were agonizing over what to throw out and what to keep and were in a particular quandary about their beloved old donkey. They’d had her for years and even named her after their daughter. Things had gotten to the stage where they thought it was likely they would have to ring the vet to come out and give her a ‘green dream’. My wife and I volunteered to take her straight away. Everybody was pretty happy with the idea so we wandered down to the side fence with some white high-fibre to introduce ourselves and seal the deal.”

He stopped rasping for a moment, looked up, and nodded. I continued…

“…We didn’t have a horse float so we just walked her over in about two hours, it was only a few miles and the going was fairly level so it wasn’t a big deal.”

“They’re tough little blokes. If you believe the bible, they reckon one of ‘em carted Mary around when she was up the duff.”

“The donkey?”

“No, Mary.” The young fellow gave me disbelieving look.

“Of course. I remember looking it up for a kids’ project. Bethlehem was close to a hundred miles from Nazareth and it would have taken over a week to make the trip, probably longer with a few pregnant pauses. It’s easy to understand why donkeys are synonymous with Christmas.”

“Havin’ no names ya mean?”

“Oh… anonymous… no, I mean they’re an important part of it.”

“Yeah, for sure. Y’ know it was kinda weird getting’ a call about a donkey this time a year… I’ve had donkeys on the brain for the last few days ‘cause I’d just been readin’ about one in the paper as well.”

“A donkey.”

“Yep, well the lack of one actually. You know how they have a big parade every year down Summer Street… The organizers wanted to march a donkey along up the front, but the council said no, because…”

“Let me take a wild guess… ummm… Occupational Health and Safety concerns… or possibly Public Liability issues.”

“It was somethin’ like that. A lot of the councillors were worried about the donkey droppings."

“You are kidding.”

“Fraid not.”

“They’re good for the garden.”

“Councillors?”

“No, droppings.”

We fell into a baffled silence.

He finished the pruning and paring in only half an hour and we ambled back up to the vehicle like a horse and buggy. Once there I lunged off to grab some cash while he stowed his gear.

“So whaddaya think about donkeys now?” I said when I returned.

“They’re not so bad I s’pose.”

“Well, I might see you in a couple of months when she needs another pedicure.”

“Too right. I’ll put my hand up for the job. Catch ya later.”

“Yeah, see ya and thanks.”

I watched the hoof-mobile rattle down the road and decided the farrier was probably more respectful of donkeys but less impressed with equi-phobic hobby farmers. I did a smash and grab raid on the bread bin; I pocketed five multi grain crusts which the kids had sidestepped and trotted them back down the hill.

I spent twenty minutes in the golden sunshine, gasbagging to the dear old girl and giving her coat a thorough rub. She loved every second of it.

Over the next four years we had the farrier (never the young guy again) back out many times to tend Amanda’s horny growths and the vet made a couple of house-paddock calls to check on her general health. Walking had become a problem for her, even with beautifully trimmed hooves, so we monitored her arthritic joints and mobility. She spent a lot of time in the front block, hanging out with our ‘milker’, the chook population and a straggling of geese; most days someone came out for a nuzzle, a pat and to offload some bread remnants.

In 1999, changes were afoot. The Lorndale clan decided it was high time to move camp. We had bought five acres just north of Newcastle and suddenly we were in rationalization mode. I issued an underlined edict, in italics and with exclamation marks, for extra emphasis:

‘If you do not need it… chuck it out!. If you might need it one day… chuck it out! If you are not sure… chuck it out!.’

We had to move a heap of gear and the wheelie bin became the preferred storage option. We decided to take the dog and leave the cat but Amanda was a more complicated problem. There were consultations with her previous owners, with the farm’s new owners, all our family members and our trusted veterinarian. She was still up on her feet but limited in movement, her appetite was good and she had a very salubrious accommodation in our large hayshed. Taking her to Newcastle was fraught with problems and leaving her in someone else’s care, in the end, seemed irresponsible. We had to have her put down and it was probably the saddest moment of our extended farewell.

On her last morning, we all said our leavened cheerios but in the days leading up to it, I spent some extra time with her and mulled over the concept of ‘donkiness’ that I carried with me. I considered how I had seen them portrayed during my life.

At Sunday school, versed between choruses of ‘dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping, hear those pennies fall’, Mr.Goodfellow regaled us midgets with parables. A personal favourite was the yarn about the humble burro that underpinned the birth of the whole religion. The story revolved around a sturdy little jack who was struggling with a sore foot whilst lugging an ‘in-uterine’ messiah to his barnyard destiny. The ass made the journey in uncomplaining silence and then unassumingly blended in with the other critters gathered around the fabled, stabled manger. One of God’s reps awarded him a special blessing, unique among animals, acknowledging his humility and generosity of spirit. Consequently, all donkeys bear the mark of the cross on their back in celebration of his noble deed. Pretty cool eh?

During classes at infants’ school, between recitations of multiplication tables, Miss Pell read us many of the classics; one of the most evocative were the adventures of Christopher Robin and his friends in and around the 100 Acre Wood. Among the characters was Eeyore, a mournful, old, blue-grey donkey who drooped about extolling understatement and pessimism. Although he was irrepressibly gloomy, it was impossible not to like him and laugh along with his clever irony; he has remained very popular, despite (or perhaps because of) his struggles with melancholy. A. A. Milne considered him capable, and clever enough to read and write poetry.

Towards the end of primary school, between stints of grammar and modified cursive, we had a subject called social studies. As budding historians, we contemplated the exploits of our ANZAC fighters and learned of their heroism during the Great Wars. A name that still rolls off the tongue is that of stretcher-bearer John Simpson Kirkpatrick, also known as ‘the man with the donkey’. The obliging little quadruped worked tirelessly at the brave man’s side and carried many wounded soldiers out of Gallipoli’s Shrapnel Gully and back to safety. The jack (or jenny) was reputedly surefooted and tireless and appeared unfazed by the chaotic conflict around it.

I know Jesus rode one of the little hairy dudes on Palm Sunday and the Good Samaritan used one as an ambulance for the Jew who had been mugged. They seem to pop up in the workforces of most developing nations and apparently there are still some forty or fifty million gainfully employed around the globe.

It was obvious that these shaggy little workhorses were getting way too much ‘bad press’. I entwined myself in the websites of their owners and breeders to learn more and glean a critical consensus view of the donkey character. The language certainly did not fit with the accepted modern stereotype; all the boffins considered them intelligent, single-minded, cautious, friendly, playful, eager to learn, dependable and calm.

Immediately after disentangling from the Whorled-Wild-Web my first instinct was to track down a certain ex-science teacher and thank him. Tell him he was right on the button and that I was proud to be a card-carrying dee, oh, en, kay, eeh, why. I would also take great pleasure in reporting to the bastard that I passed my exam and in suggesting that he shove Harry Messel’s large text book up his empirical arse and then go and sit in the corner under a dunce cap. I would provide him with a placard, prepared by one of the more poetic members of our genus…

Donkys Hav Big Brayns.