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Saturday, 18 January 2014

Saturday story - 'All my life'


 by Nik Morton

‘Oh! My dear companion and friend,’ said Sancho to his ass,

‘how ill have I requited thy faithful services!’

- Don Quixote, Cervantes
Open-clipart, public domain

In the high sierras I lived in a small hamlet, the name of which is not important. All my life was wrapped up in my smallholding, the two sheep, a goat, a scrawny dog, and a donkey. My fifteen-year-old daughter Dulcinea attended to the domestic needs.

            As the master I wasn’t malicious, it was just the way of things. If my donkey didn’t do what I wanted when I wanted, then I thought nothing of whipping him. Give him a good hiding, show him who is master. Sometimes Dulcinea pleaded with me to spare him, but I simply reminded her she was not above being chastised also. Perhaps because he had a hard hide prompted such punishment, to test its hardness. Or maybe I was a bully, like Dulcinea said once; I chastised her for that comment.

Dulcinea came into the world when my wife left it; I did not blame the child, but it did mean that I was not destined to be blessed with a son, which was a bitter blow to bear. When my black moods fell upon me I had to take out my frustration over life’s unfairness on someone, so Dulcinea served. Indeed, on my last journey away from my home, I was in a dreadful mood and my countenance must have seemed woeful to anyone who saw me.

The last of our sacks of wine was finished and I was on my way over the mountains to the bodega in the town to get more. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey as it took a good five hours on the back of my reluctant beast of burden.

            Anxious to return home and taste the wine, I set out on the way at once. The damnable beast seemed reluctant to go, bowed by the weight of the four sacks and other provisions, but I persuaded him in the usual fashion. On our way back I added to the load by calling in at the mill and buying two sacks of flour. Dulcinea could bake me some bread.

            Just as I was about to leave, I’d been too busy chatting to Senor Mambrino, the miller, and the rotating windmill sails hit me on the head, knocking me to the ground. My pride seemed more hurt than my bruised skull and shoulder. To save face, I cursed and kicked the donkey then set out for home.

            Unfortunately – and typical for the mountains – the weather abruptly turned bad. Wind and rain battered us both, the donkey and me, but he struggled gamely under my considerable weight and that of all the sacks. We rode along a narrow rough path cut into the mountainside, sheer rock above and below. Mercifully, I couldn’t see too far up or down because of the driving rain.

            The sharp drop in temperature, combined with the after-effects from the blow to my head, thrust me into dark moments of oblivion, when I must have swayed precariously from one side to another upon the beast’s back. With a start, I’d shake myself conscious and each time I felt my head pounding and my heart hammering.

During one of these blackouts I must have fallen off my donkey and landed on the narrow ledge. The harsh contact with the ground brought me to my senses, but everything was hazy. The blurred mountain peaks appeared like threatening giants and the storm howled like wild beasts. All my life – my pitiful miserable uninteresting life – passed before my eyes. Ahead I made out the shape of my laden donkey, its rear facing me. I groaned, pleading for my donkey not to leave me behind, but I feared that my very words were whipped away before they could reach the animal’s ears.

            Wiping rain off my face and eyes, I saw my donkey lean against the rock wall and repeatedly push until the wine and flour sacks on that side burst. Then, moving dangerously close to the edge, he turned round and did the same again on the other side. He stood looking at me with his big black eyes, breathing heavily amidst a slush of bubbling pink, a mixture of flour and wine. I cursed him for spoiling everything. Slowly, he walked back towards me and gently stepped round me with only inches to spare. A few small stones tumbled away. He must have turned again because he came back and stood next to the rock face and, head bowed against the pummelling rain, he knelt down beside me.

            Dazed, angry, hurt, I suddenly realised he wanted me to climb onto his back.

Shivering and cold and half-delirious, I grabbed the shreds of sacking and hauled myself up onto the beast’s back.

            I don’t know how long it took to return to my home. My donkey knew the way and was exhausted and, braying loudly, he collapsed at the door.

Dulcinea rushed out, shock in her face. She hurried to help me as I lay sprawled in the mud and rain.

            I pushed away her solicitous hands and cried out, “Never mind me, see to the animal!”

            Over the next few days, Dulcinea and I took turns to nurse and tend to the sick donkey in the warmth and shelter of the barn but, sadly, he never fully recovered; in the early hours he passed away. Kneeling there with the dead beast’s large head on my lap, I gave a start and found my daughter standing over me, staring. She was looking at my eyes; they felt wet. I wiped the moisture away as it reminded me of that terrible rainy night.

Over the years I had shouted at my donkey, cursed him and hit him, inflicting pain, and he docilely accepted it, because I was his master. And yet he saved my life, my pitiful life. I reflected that all my life I had been hoarding money to no good end. All my days since my wife died I’d been annoyed with my life and everyone in it – even my blameless daughter. All my life.

            I remember asking Dulcinea to forgive me, and she did, with surprising grace. I knew that it would never be enough, but I paid for a statue to be erected in the town’s plaza. A statue of brave Jote, the donkey. Donkey Jote.
Previously published in 2008 in Siesta Time magazine. Copyright Nik Morton, 2013. Yes, it's a play on Don Quixote - Donkey ho-tay...

Short stories set in Spain -
22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, half-English, half-Spanish - Spanish Eye:

Spanish Eye (Crooked Cat Publishing)