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?

Conversations about Rabbits

The smell of stifado alone warmed me up that winter evening. The onions that were stewing released an earthy tone reminiscent of the harvest smell in the plains. This was sweetened by the cinnamon and wine. The slow bubbling of the pot on top of the wood burning stove made the kitchen so inviting, warm beyond the invitation.

Kortsouli is a hill nearby the ancient ruins of Mantinea, in the plains of Tripolis. We always referred to the farm that Old Man Simbonis had there as just that, Kortsouli. When we were children my brother would spend time in the ruins before they were excavated and find arrow heads and other items from the war against the Athenians.

The building on the farm was medieval. Some of the ancient blocks of the walls of Mantinea were incorporated into the mud wall that formed the outer wall of sheds, stables and a simple summer home, when the old man would stay at Kortsouli if there was a harvest or birthing. The heavy wooden double doors, big enough to allow a horse cart through, faced Mantinea. On the right of the door was a pigeon loft, and next to that the rabbit hutch.

The rabbits faced the courtyard through old chicken mesh, with a handmade wooden frame hinged to allow entry.  One day a litter had been born, and somehow all three of us and some children from the village ended up at Kortsouli. Often one or two of us were there with the old man. Originally it would involve a donkey ride from the village house, but later he got a Zundapp motorcycle and we would ride pillion. My father used to walk there, and I still do not understand how we were allowed on the motorcycle when in South Africa we were not even allowed to look at them. My brother even had an accident once when the old man rode into the furrow along the narrow tarred road. My father trusted his life, and his children’s, with his best friend, George Simbonis.

I do not remember the day we played with the rabbits. I remember my favourite captain’s hat, but do not remember donning the rabbit as a prince would for some wedding. I think we adopted a rabbit each, and were allowed to play with them each time we were at Kortsouli. I remember the soft fur, the warm wet nuzzle against my palm. The heat and dust of the courtyard, reprieved by the shade of a mulberry tree just outside the gates, and another at the other corner, shading the well with cold dark water.

Many years later I remember eating the winter kitchen stifado and crying inside. Because the main ingredient of stifado is rabbit.