by Robert J. Howe
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
In the dawn, Donkey’s gray, fleshy nose presses me awake.
“We should be leaving,” he says when I open my eyes.
It takes me a few minutes to disentangle wakefulness from my dreams, in which Donkey not only spoke, but flew. He stands patiently, looking at me with his soft brown eyes while I sort myself out.
As I’m shaking straw from the cross and strings, Donkey says, “Are you going to drag that all the way to Mormanno?”
“What else shall I do with it?”
He nods his big head. “Okay, open the barn door.”
It is still before dawn, though the birds are beginning to wake in the olive grove across the road. At Donkey’s direction I close the barn door before mounting him.
“My master stays abed late,” he says. “Let’s not give the neighbor a reason to wake him.”
Donkey’s pace is even and slow, but soon the farmhouse is far behind us. It takes no effort to stay on his back, and through one dusty turn after another, I allow my thoughts to wander.
I worry about what I will say to Il Magistrato, and whether my father is looking for me right now. Thinking of him is painful, and yet I can’t stop. I wonder whether things would be different between us, had I been a real boy.
Unbidden and unwelcome, Donkey’s question about the cross and strings keeps coming back to mind. Each time I push it away, the question comes back with renewed force.
Am I going to carry the cross and strings all the way to see Il Magistrato? And to what purpose? I cannot remember a time without them, and since I have been attending school, it has been an irritant to have to manage them and my books while walking to and from the schoolhouse.
“How far are we from Mormanno?” I ask Donkey, as much to stop thinking about the strings and cross as to know.
“Huh, I thought you were asleep,” he says over his shoulder. “At this pace we would arrive late into the night, but I cannot walk all day.”
“What will we do?”
“I know this road,” Donkey says. “Not too far ahead is an old farmstead. No one lives there anymore. We will rest in its shade during the heat of the day. Past that we will start to see other travelers on the road — it is best to do so in the late afternoon, when they are thinking of getting home to their suppers, and not about a solitary boy on a donkey.”
All that remains of the farmhouse is a stone foundation and an orchard gone to seed surrounding it. It is cool under the trees, and the smell of dropped fruit is heavy. It sits at a quiet spot off the road, and the only sounds are from birds coming and going through the branches.
Donkey noses through the fallen fruit for a time, eating only the pears. After he sucks water noisily from the spring, he finds a deep patch of shade and is soon dozing peacefully.
Despite the setting and the quiet, I find myself restless. I explore the old farmstead. Spiders hunt among its cool, moss-slicked stones, and I periodically have to brush them from my strings, which they seem to consider a novel kind of web.
At one end of the foundation is a deep bed of ash where the hearth once sat. Buried in the fluffy, gray bed is a rusty blade, the handle long since burned away. I pick it up and use it to idly stir the ashes.
The abandoned hearth makes me think of my own, and the snug little cottage where my father and I live. The stone foundation seems suddenly chill and dreary to me. I put the cross up under one arm, and with the knife in the other hand, I scramble up out of the pit.
I settle in a sunny patch in the leaves and take another look at the knife. Despite the rust, it still seems sharp. Almost without thinking, I test its rust-pitted edge against the string that exits the back of my left hand.
I am surprised when the string parts. I drop the knife and try to reattach the string by knotting it to the stub end, but it’s too short to accomplish, even if I could use both hands.
What have I done?
As the realization sinks in, I try more and more frantically to fix it, until my hands are shaking.
At that moment I hear the shuffle of a hoof on dry leaves and realize Donkey is peering down at me.
“What are you looking at?” I shout.
Donkey blinks slowly. “You cut the string.”
“It was an accident!”
“I can’t fix it,” I say.
“I need both hands, and the end of the string is too short!”
“Why fix it?” Donkey says.
“Shut up!” I say, suddenly furious at him.
“I only ask,” he says. “What you do is up to you.”
“Go away and leave me alone.”
“We should be on the road soon,” Donkey says, making no move to let me be.
I have a peculiar and unpleasant sensation in my middle. I am scared, I want to tell Donkey, but the words will not come, making me even more furious.
I hurl a clod of leaves and dirt which bursts harmlessly against his gray chest. He nods his great head up and down, but neither turns away nor says anything to me.
“Why won’t you go away?”
“You are not angry at me,” he says.
“Yes I am!”
The words are barely out when to my mortification and fury I feel my nose begin to stretch.
I have a strange, pricking feeling in my eyes, and when I speak, my voice is strange in my ears. “I don’t know what I think.”
“Maybe things will seem clearer once we are on the road again,” Donkey said. His braying voice is incapable of softness, but this comes out almost gently.
Lacking a better idea, I get to my feet and brush the leaves from the seat of my short trousers. I scramble onto his back again, holding the knife in one hand while using the other to pull myself up. Under the other arm rests the cross, one string hanging loose, a broken-winged bird.
Donkey is right. The road is empty now, and his slow, steady tread eats up the miles. Once I settle into the rhythm of the road, my mind begins to wander backward. I wonder whether my father is looking for me, or if he sits in his chair, worried at my disappearance. Several times I want to tell Donkey to stop, to turn back, but two things keep me from saying so: the man with the hammer, and the memory of the cold sound of my father’s amusement at Gioppolo’s jests.
But what if Il Magistrato refuses to hear me out? What if he has already gotten word about the runaway boy. I miss my safe bed of wood shavings, if not the sear of the chisel, and I am afraid I will be punished for defying my elders.
Regret chases worry until I am worn into numbness. At some point, the gentle sway of Donkey’s back sends me down into a slumber. When I wake, the stars are coming out. The air is cool and bears a tang of woodsmoke, and of the wild basil that grows in little shrubby clusters at the roadside.
“Please stop,” I say to Donkey.
“You’re awake,” he says. “Good. There’s a little stream ahead that passes under the road in a culvert. It’s close, I can smell it. We’ll stop there and drink.”
The water is shockingly cold on my fingers. When I say so, Donkey nods. “It was snow yesterday,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“The stream, it runs down from the mountains,” he says. “The white snowcaps melt and make little streams.”
I look at a small white peak, barely visible in the settling gloom. There is so much I don’t know about the world.
“You should drink,” Donkey says. “It has been a long day.”
I am drawn to the water, but he doesn’t know I have never drunk. I have seen the other boys drink from the well dipper, and my father many times of course, though usually not water.
I lower my face to the silvery surface. The water feels alive against my lips, and pleasant despite the chill. I take in a long draught and immediately start choking and coughing.
Donkey looks up at me from the far side of the stream. When the fit has passed he says, “You can’t breathe while you drink.”
“What?” I say, my eyes streaming.
“You have to hold your breath while you drink.”
I try again, this time swallowing a mouthful of the sweet, icy water. It is very satisfying and I take two more swallows. I accidentally inhale some of the second swallow and start coughing again.
This drinking will take some getting used to.
Donkey moves a little way from the stream, and I get to my feet.
“Are we going?”
“Not yet,” he says. “I need a rest.”
I am increasingly anxious to have the journey over with. “I don’t want to miss Il Magistrato,” I say.
Donkey brays — a laugh. “Don’t worry, you will not miss him. You slept while I carried you, now I will sleep. We will start again when the moon is up.”
With that he settles into his head-down sleeping position and his soon motionless, except for his flanks which expand in slow rhythm like a gray bellows.
Despite my anxiety at somehow missing Il Magistrato, it is pleasant to lie in the fragrant herbs on the uphill side of the road. In truth, I am not sure I want the journey to end; on the road with Donkey, I realize I am for the first time away from the pull of adults, outside their sway.
The sensation of freedom is at once heady and frightening. I am both glad not to be at someone’s beck and call, and unsure of what to do with myself.
I look at the traversa, worse for the wear of travel. The strings are frayed and its arms have developed a wobble where they join at the center.
It is an ugly thing. It has always been ugly, I realize.
The strings pop as I draw the blade across them, no hesitation this time, knowing exactly what I am doing. For a long time afterwards, I sit with the cross in my lap, contemplating what I have done. It is more final than running away, and thinking about it makes my heart race. It is a prelude to what must happen when I meet Il Magistrato. Because, of course, going against Gioppolo means also to go against my father. There can be no other way.
Donkey looks at the abandoned traversa and cut strings lying by the roadside — along with the abandoned knife — and nods in what I am beginning to understand is a gesture of approval. His years show most in climbing the small cut in the streambank. From his back I feel the muscles and tendons strain. We walk in silence through the small hours of the morning, coming upon Mormanno just as day begins to break.
I expect it to be grander than it is, but it looks much like Orsomarso, another dusty town like every other bit of the Mezzogiorno, though with a few more houses lining the road.
Now that I am here, I have no idea how I will find the house of Il Magistrato, or even what I will say when I do. This early in the morning the streets are empty, though off in the fields we can see some men already tending the olive groves.
Though the morning is warm, Donkey is shivering beneath me. When I climb down he does not turn around.
“Is something wrong?” I ask.
“It has been a long time since I walked so far,” he says. “I am tired and could use some hay.”
It occurs to me that I haven’t seen Donkey have anything to eat since the abandoned orchard. There is grass at the side of the road, but it is sere and brown, and my companion’s worn, old teeth are not up to the task.
Donkey is just standing in the road, as if waiting for directions. His sudden passivity makes me anxious. There are several houses with barns nearby, and I pick the closest.
“Come on, I imagine there’s some sweet hay in that one,” I say. Donkey plods behind me willingly, if silently.
The barn is occupied by a gelding who makes no objection to our entrance, but watches us with a gimlet eye. The other stalls are empty — of animals and hay — and I am trying to decide whether I can risk taking an armful from the gelding’s box, when Donkey says, “Over here.”
He is standing head-down in front of a bin that has some tack piled on its lid. When I remove the harnesses and open the bin, Donkey nods his head with some animation.
“Oats,” he says, and buries his nose in the bin without further ado.
The watering trough sits on the north side of the barn, away from the road. After a long, noisy drink, Donkey is ready to press on. His eyes are bright again.
“Now let’s find your judge,” he says, “before the day becomes too hot.”
“But where?” I say. My relief at Donkey’s improved condition is balanced by the return of all my fears. What will happen to me, once I find Il Magistrato?
An old man is coming down a path from the hills, a shotgun over his shoulder and a freshly shot hare in hand.
“Ask him,” Donkey says.
Nervously, I raise my hand to the old man.
He looks up, seeming to notice Donkey and me for the first time. His chin is covered in gray stubble and he has no teeth, but his eyes are lively enough.
“Yes?” he says.
“Signore, excuse me, but I am looking for the house of Il Magistrato.”
The man gives me a closer inspection. “What for?” he finally says, in the rough way country people have.
I cannot possibly answer that question, though it’s one I have considered all the way to Mormanno. What do I expect Il Magistrato to do?
“My father sent me,” I say without thinking. Half a second later I curse myself as the old man stares incredulously at my freakish nose, grown suddenly longer.
“Please,” I say, before he can ask another question. “I just need to see him.”
The man looks at me suspiciously for a moment longer, then shrugs.
“It’s the house with the gate,” he says with a sideways nod of the head. “On the plaza.”
I thank him and head off, Donkey at my side, in the direction the old peasant indicated. I don’t look back, but I feel his eyes on us until we are on the road again.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert J. Howe