Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Donkey's Funeral

by Michael Dymmoch

When, after twenty years of service as pet and consumer of left-over vegetables, the donkey laid himself out in the barn­yard in a patch of attenuated sunlight, his demise was not unexpected (although he chose a particularly raw Good Saturday--Easter being early that year--to make his quietus). He had been retired for some years and was arthritic, and his coat had grayed like weathered oak. And toward the end, even his voice faded, until, finally, it was no more than a sigh. The donkey's departure was discovered by the daughter of the family, to whom his care had fallen in later years. He had been passed down from older child to younger, like sturdy shoes that are too ugly to wear out.

It was unthinkable for them to leave the donkey unburied. When the mother of the family heard the news, she said that she wanted him to remain on the property. She was a strong woman, having survived the deaths of a husband and child, but she spoke with tears, so her two sons took themselves out with their shovels to choose a gravesite. The younger son wanted to plant their old friend in full sunlight, in a scenic location. The elder, who had dug more holes in his lifetime and was more inclined to practicality, favored siting the grave nearer to the corpse. When a compromise had been reached, they began to dig, pausing to observe that although the donkey had kicked and bitten, and pushed adults into fences, he had never harmed a child. (Except once, when he'd tasted the curly blond hair of a toddler--perhaps he had mistaken it for oatmeal.) The two men worked with moderate urgency, keeping their eyes on the darkening clouds and on the approaching sunset. After a bit, the daughter joined her brothers, and as they took turns digging, they told each other donkey tales:

"Remember the time he ran away with Ma--dragged her halfway down the block and the telephone lineman nearly fell off his pole, he was laughing so hard?
Or "Remember the last time he got outside his fence and one of the neighbors came to say, 'Your donkey's loose'? I had the worst hangover of my life that day, and he made me chase him four blocks? He would wait until I got almost close enough to grab him, and then he’d take off again, But when he got tired of the game he came right home, as docile as an old dog on a leash."

Or "Remember the time he bit the gold button off the neighbor lady's coat and chewed it flat and spat it out, and instead of being angry, she was as delighted as a child and thereafter referred to the incident as her donkey story?"

The three siblings laughed and joked and Alas-poor-Yorick-ed as they worked, for the donkey had lived a long life and did not burden them by his death with any guilt or regret as their father had. The clay at the heart of the grave resisted their efforts, sticking to their shovels and boots and to the cuffs of their jeans almost as if to prevent them from completing their task. When they judged the hole deep enough, they threw in arms-full of straw to cushion themselves from the cold fact. Then they took the donkey by the feet and dragged him to the edge and tipped him in. Even in death he was uncooperative. He planted his legs in obstinate angles and had to be coaxed inside.

As they wrestled him back into a fetal position, they recalled his legendary stubbornness: how he had refused entry into the horse-truck, though three Shetland ponies were led in and out to show him it was safe, and how he had accepted six Dairy-Queen cones as bribes and had not moved when they tried to chase him in with a stick, and how three men together couldn't pull him into the truck though they had broken the rope trying. He had never followed behind a car either--he would plant one hoof up on the ramp but had started kicking his feet and toss his head until the rope snapped--although he followed people even without a lead.

When they had the donkey arranged decently, the mother brought his favorite sandwich, PB&J, and a bouquet of carrots to put beside him in the ground. The daughter got down in the grave and presented the grave goods and patted the donkey a final time. She was more overtly sentimental than the sons, and she cried unashamedly.

They covered the donkey with straw and with earth as darkness settled over the land. And they all remembered how the donkey would bray when he was tangled in his tether-rope, or if he was hungry or thirsty or lonely, or when he was just bored, and six blocks away, friends would hear the strange sound and smile. They remembered, and they laughed.

Months later, the mother announced wistfully that she missed the donkey. The sons reminisced about how their lives had been in the days when the donkey was with them. And the daughter planted a black locust tree on the grave for a remembrance because, she said, it's such a hardy, stubborn tree with such a lovely flower.


Blind Camel said...

Really nice! Loved the feel of it, its timelessness and earnestness. Reminds me a bit of a guy named Tim Gautreaux, one of the only unapologetically "Southern" writers who works for me. (James Lee Burke is another.) Very, very nice.

JD Rhoades said...

Michael: I am pleased to announce you are now qualified to be a Southern writer. As many have observed,
"If it has a dead mule, it's Southern Literature"

Okay, it's a donkey, but allowances can be made.

Blind Camel said...

Now that's comedy!

Jude Hardin said...

Love it!

And I can relate.

My ass is getting old and gray too. :)

Maryann Mercer said...

blind camel, you mentioned my favorite 'Southern writer" Tim Gautreaux and gave me a smile on this nasty winter morning. I got hooked with Next Step in the Dance and love his short stories.

Great story...I hope I'm as reluctant to go and as fondly remembered :o)

Anonymous said...

We live down the road from an animal rescue farm and pet cemetery. Last fall, the neighbor who had been helping the family bury its large animals retired (at 92), and my husband was asked to take his place. So we now bury llamas, donkeys, goats, and horses -- all of which were initially abandoned or abused, but ended their lives in the care of people who loved and respected them.

The logistics of burying large animals in the company of people you're only just starting to get to know is strange but moving.

Michael's story captures a lot of the facts and feelings of the experience.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

When I was in Nam in 1967-68 we had a mule as a mascot for my company. While I was there he was shipped back to the States. He died a few years ago at Fort Riley, a fact I learned only last month. Mules and donkeys are great animals.