Conversations about Donkeys

The narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will:
Starve, scourge, deride me–I am dumb–
I keep my secret still.
Fools! for I also had my hour,
One far, fierce hour and sweet
There was a shout about my ears
And palms before my feet.

A Poem by G.K. Chesterton

I remember this poem from school, when in the sprawling suburbia of Johannesburg I was one of the few children to have ridden a donkey. In those days, the seventies, donkeys outnumbered cars in Kakouri. The drive into the village in the late afternoon invariably paralleled a donkey’s trip back from the fields. Often, in the cool shadows of the avenue of plane trees one would pass a beast of burden carrying an old man and some thick woollen bags of fruit or vegetables, perhaps a bottle of wine. The old man would be tired; having toiled in the summer heat, using a hoe to channel water to the various trees and fields so that the plants could grow, his body ached. Most times the donkey rider would lift his hand in a slow wave, and if he recognised us would smile widely, eyes suddenly alight and alive.

The next morning, even before the sheep were led out of the village, a chorus of donkey braying would wake you, like a stuck water pump squawking into life. It took me a few days as a child, novice to these beasts, to realise that they did in fact make this noise and not “eeh haw” as in the nursery rhymes I learnt in suburbia.

As children we were all treated to a ride on a donkey. The most awkward thing was not the animal itself, soft silky ears and beautiful brown olive eyes gazing into the ancient distance. The most awkward thing was the ancient style wooden saddle. My idea of a saddle was a John Wayne leather beauty complete with lasso rope, not something that looked like an upside down disused rowing boat that belonged to a midget. The wooden frame made the saddle so wide that the extra girth almost dislocated your hips, which is why most people rode their beast’s side saddle, even the men.

Before the motorbikes arrived as cheap and easy transport to the fields for the farmers, we would sometimes ride the donkeys part of the way to the fields. On the way back the beasts would usually carry produce, and we would walk alongside or lead. I remember leading once eating fresh pistachios, popping them into my mouth from the branch, and feeding a few to my friend the donkey.

I can still see the old men riding the donkey back onto the village when we drove down that narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri. What always intrigued me was the old lady that was leading the donkey, while the old man rode on top. Chauvinism is definitely alive in Greece. Or was the woman hoping to crucify her man later?

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