Brian gazed out the window. Father was in the yard; he was trying to get the donkey to work again. He had been trying every day since the donkey had been left to him by his own father on his deathbed. The shadows in the pasture were long, stretching towards the eastern mountains on the shimmering blue horizon. Their snow-covered peaks white as god’s teeth.
“C’mon Ian, be a good lad and pull this plough. It’ll be easy for you. You’re a fine strong donkey to be sure.”
Mother came to them and said, “Frank, you’re wasting your time. That one’s as stubborn as they come. Don’t know what your Da saw in him. A waste of good oats he is.”
“Pops was so very fond of Ian. For the life pf me I can’t figure out why. He’s as useless as a hat on a duck.”
“I say we give him another day, if he can’t help with the farm-work, we’ll take him to market.”
Father sighed. Marta was at her wit’s end, which said a lot because she was the smart one in the family. “Ian’s like a big dog. One that eats six times as much as one. At least Ruby helps with the game.”
Brian had heard this conversation before. He felt sorry for Father because Mother was always right. Brian loved Ian. He was fond of all the animals on the farm. He learned six years ago, at the age of two, not to get too attached to the pigs and dinner fowl. He’d learned the hard way, having Penny the goose that year for Christmas supper. He had wept through dinner and nearly choked to death.
He went outside to his pa and Ian.
In the April mountain air, plumes of white breath dissipated in the air around them. Early spring mist rose from the frozen earth like dancing fairies as it warmed in the sun.
Brian said, “What’s wrong with Ian? Why won’t he pull the plough?” He ran a small hand over the donkey’s soft ears and down his nose to his muzzle. “I don’t want you to sell him. He’s been in our family since I was born.”
“I know son. My father bought him when he was just a wee little burro. He spoiled him I guess, treated him like a family member. Haha, one that eats too much and can’t hunt.”
Brian grabbed the reins and tried coercing Ian to follow him with the plow. Ian raised his front right hoof then stomped it against the hard earth as if to say, “Nope, not today.”
“C’mon Ian, I’ve got a carrot for you…” Brian reached in his woolen overcoat pocket with his free hand, revealing a small, withered orange root vegetable. His mother would be upset if she saw it, they were down to the last of their winter stores.
Father said, “Don’t let yer Ma see that.”
Brian said, “I’ve got to try…”
An orange stripe reflected in the donkey’s large soulful brown eyes and he took a couple of steps.
“That’s it!” cried the boy.
After a couple more steps, Ian plucked the carrot deftly from Brian’s hand with his teeth. But only the donkey’s mouth moved, his feet had stopped.
“Oh, you stubborn thing!” said Brian as he slapped the burro’s flank.
Father said, “unharness him from the plough son, we’ll try again tomorrow. It’s time for supper.”
The next morning, Brian went into the barn with the milk pail. He came to the donkey’s stall and unlatched the door. The barn was the boy’s favorite place. It was a sturdy, well insulated structure. A cozy place, smelling of sweet, dried grass and the pungent scent of natural fertilizer. As Ian walked out of his stall, Brian put his face to his neck and inhaled the musky fur.
He said, “Please be good today Ian. Please stop being so stubborn, we need you.”
The donkey, who was fond of the boy, nodded slightly and walked out the barn door, into the frigid deep blue morning.
Brian milked the cow, he mucked out Ian’s stall and laid out fresh straw. He swept the empty stall where their horse had been last year. Last year was terrible crop year. Too much rain and early snows left the family hungry. They had sold their horse for food supplies, vegetables, oats, and spring seed. They had been counting on the donkey to help with the ploughing.
He would not pull the plough.
The sun was up when Brian came into the frosty pasture, Father was harnessing Ian to the plough once again, talking softly to him the whole time,
“Today’s the day Ian. Be a good donkey and pull this damn thing.”
“Shall I get another carrot?”
“Go ahead and grab an onion. We’ve only those and potatoes left.”
Brian ran off and came back a minute later with a small, shriveled brown onion.
Man and donkey had not moved. Ruby lay on the porch in the sun, watching them. Her soft grey muzzle perched on her outstretched paws.
The boy held out the onion four feet from Ian’s nose. Ian turned his head away, his feet stayed put.
The rest of the morning Brian and his dad urged the donkey to pull the plough. They might as well have had a maple harnessed to it.
As Father unbuckled the harness he said, “I’m at the end of my rope son. Your ma’s right, as much as I hate admitting it. We have to sell this donkey. He’s just no use to us.”
Ruby cocked her head, Brian only nodded. He did not trust his voice. He turned away and raced off with Ruby at his heels.
Brian’s dad left Ian and the cow in the pasture. There were only faint green smudges in the sienna earth, where grass would be growing in the next month. Every day was a little warmer; the early spring warmth was a welcome sign for a good crop this year.
In the pasture the donkey walked back and forth, restless. He went to the weak spot in the fence. It was behind the barn, out of view from the kitchen window. He had found a rough patch on a fencepost that was perfect for scratching his rear. After a month or so, the fencepost started wobbling, and he’d had to find a sturdier post to scratch on. Today he went to the wobbly post, turned around, and kicked it with his hind feet. There was a sharp crack as the top rail splintered and a thud as the post toppled outwards. Ian hopped through the broken hole and trotted off into the woods.
The burro came out to a clearing and headed for the stream where he had accompanied the boy while fishing. It was still frozen on the northside that remained in shadows most of the day. He stood on the south bank and drank the crisp glacial water, feeling the sun’s warmth on his neck and back. He lay down for a nap.
He awoke when the breeze regained its chilly breath. There were only a couple of hours of daylight remaining.
“Ah, what a fine animal ye are me friend!”
Startled, Ian looked to the left of him and spied a wee man-thing. He was riding on the back of an alligator, it’s bubbly skin black in the tree shadows overhanging the stream’s bank. Out from the shadows the strange pair came. The alligator grinned like a monster, revealing yellowed teeth pointing in all directions.
Reading his mind, the man-thing said, “Don’t depart! I am your new friend. I like you kid, ye got spunk.”
Although Ian did not understand much of human talk, he understood this creature perfectly well.
The man was about three feet tall, his oatmeal-colored face a roadmap of deep wrinkles. Burried in the folds above his nose were eyes as black as a bottomless pit. The center of each burned with a tiny red flame. Ian tried to look away, looking into those eyes made him dizzy. The troll had a scraggly mouse colored beard that tickled the ground in two bushy braids. An inch from the end of each braid was threaded a tiny bird skull. The donkey was horrified to see the troll’s beard moving, the hairs bristling as thousands of tiny black insects wove through it, foraging for lord knew what. He wore a filthy tunic that may have once been green, and a waistcoat a shade of dirt. His pointed little cap was the cleanest thing about him, it was still red in places.
The gator slid backwards into the water and vanished like a mirage.
The donkey said, “who are you? Where did you come from? Was that an alligator?” He did not know alligators lived in Colorado.
“Aaaaahhhh” sighed the troll. An eyewatering stench from the sulfurous pits of hell escaped his lips “Well donkey. I be your friend. Pop Farmer over yonder is not. He’s selling you tomorrow at Sunday Fair. Do friends sell friends? I think not.”
“They have been good to me. They feed me and shelter me. The boy brings me treats.”
“They try to make a slave of ye! I’d never ask ye to pull a heavy back-breaking plough!” exclaimed the troll. Then, more softly, “My name is Adramalech. Call me Addy. You can trust me. If an alligator trusts me, surely you can too.”
Ian thought he was safe with the ugly little man, after all, he was ten times bigger than him. He couldn’t go back to the farm, he didn’t want to be sold. “Alright,” he said, “I’ll go with you.” With nightfall came the freeze, he needed a warm place to sleep.
“Yer legs are taller than me hat, let me ride ye to me cabin.” Addy said. It was not a question.
Ian crouched to the ground, Addy The Gross grabbed tufts of the donkey’s short mane and climbed aboard. A smell wafted from his grimy little body- it was a terribly pungent unclean smell- it was whisked away in a breeze.
Addy directed the donkey into the woods, following a deer path for half a mile. At full dark there was no noticeable path anymore. “Almost there, “said Addy, sing-songing the words with delight.
Trees bent down towards them, reaching with gnarled giant’s hands. Their clawed fingers snapped shut behind the pair as they trudged farther into a land that time forgot. Blackened leafless bushes parted for them, rustling sharp thorned branches as they filled in again behind them. The ground had become spongey and slick as snail slime. As Ian’s hooves sank into muck deep as his ankles, up poofed more of that sulfurous stink- the smell of Satan’s flatulence.
Finally, an orange light glowed through the bony black branches before them. As they neared, it became a welcoming yellow.
“Here we are! Hell Sweet Hell, hahaha!” the troll laughed, the sound like the cries of a poisoned dog.
Ian felt decidedly uneasy as he walked them into the fenced pen to the side of the little rustic cabin.
As Addy swung off Ian’s back, his stench again assaulted the donkey’s nose. It was rotted meat and cream two weeks expired. It was the maggoty smell of an unknown death, one you do not notice until you’ve put your foot into its putrefying remains. The smell never leaves your shoe leather. Ian gagged.
Before he could turn and flee out the gate, the troll slammed it shut. It clanged loudly in the swampy air and Ian realized it was an iron gate, attached to an iron fence. Addy The Evil picked up a lantern that was hanging from the fence, next to the gate. He waved a yellow-taloned hand over the glass front and bright flaxen light flashed to life. In the lantern light Ian saw that the pen was awfully small, only four or five paces across.
“I’m so happy to have you for dinner!” the nasty little thing announced. “Carving up dinner at eight, see you then!” He twirled around like a dervish, the lantern briefly illuminating the yard.
Horrified, the donkey saw spiked tips on the tall iron bars. On every second post was mounted a skull. They were large skulls, like his own- horse, cow, elk, and moose perhaps? Or donkey? The cabin door creaked open like a complaining old woman, then screeched another indignant curse as it shut.
The pen was three sided, the 4th side was the wall of the troll’s cabin. Ian walked over to the window in the center of the wall. He peered inside and found himself looking into a surprisingly neat, cozy space. The sink was directly under the window. The stove next to it on the left. On the front burner was a large pot with water just starting to simmer. Ian saw the troll at the far end of the cabin, he was concentrating on sharpening a shiny, silvery- steel butcher’s knife.
Whsssk……whsssk……whssssk whisked the stone over the blade. Icy worms nosed their way through Ian’s stomach. His bladder let loose, scenting the night with acid as hot droplets sprayed his ankles. There were at least two dozen skulls in the house adorning the rough wooden walls like trophies, there were six on the mantel over the fireplace, and three more mounted over the door. These were not animal skulls. The terrible little cannibal had a special place above his sleeping platform. That spot held a particularly small human skull.
“Doomed you are not!” cawed a voice so close to Ian his front feet left the ground for a moment and his heart strained like rusty car pistons up a steep hill.
He said into the dark with a tremor, “Wh-who’s there?”
Then he stepped to one side of the window and illumination washed into the pen. On an iron post next to the gate perched a crow, its inky coal feathers absorbed the light, but its eyes sparkled as it spoke, “I have the key to the gate.” A key’s gold surface shimmered as the crow held it up.
Ian said, “I have no idea where I am, it grew dark when we travelled, the path was treacherous and the trees threatening.” He trembled at the thought of traversing his way back through the woods in pitch blackness.
“I can lead you the way.” Said a deeper voice close to the ground. It was the alligator!
“I thought you were the troll’s friend!”
“He has no friends. He tricks and lies. And kills. My brother was trapped in this filthy pen without food for a month. That evil troll said he’d let him go if I gave him a ride to your stream place.” Said the alligator. “I don’t trust him. I crept up to the pen and my brother was gone. All of him except his head. It’s rotting on a post over there near the back.”
The crow said, “the skulls in his beard are my children’s.” Then she hopped to the center rail on the gate and inserted the key.
Inside the house, the troll was singing a crass little ditty about flaying children alive. The window was completely steamed up. The chimney puffed smoke signals. There was little time left.
As the gate swung open it groaned like an untuned guitar. The three animals flinched, the alligator put his long snout between the gate and the fence to suppress further noise. The offkey crooning stopped.
“C’mon!” Said the gator. He slid along a muddy path, the donkey close behind.
There arose a cacophony behind them- the beating of wings, the screeching of the brave bird, and the cursing of the wicked troll. There arose a last high-pitched scream, it cut off in midflight, leaving only the pounding of the donkey’s hooves and the slithering wetness of the gator’s strides.
They came to a river. They heard branches snapping not far behind them and the glow of a lantern bobbing and flickering on and off.
“Follow the river south, it’ll take you to where we found you. I’m heading north. The river will hide your scent. When you get home, you’ll be safe. He cannot enter your pasture without being invited. Now Go!”
Ian dove into the subzero water, his hooves found the river bed and he half swam, half galloped downstream. When he had gone some distance, he stopped and dared a look behind him. The lantern was an evil moon that followed relentlessly! It flickered off for a second, and he heard scalding cursing.
He got his numb legs working again. A little further down, the river narrowed into a stream and he knew where he was! He leapt onto the rocky bank and into the woods. He did not stop until he was inside the white fenced yard of his pasture. He closed the gate and stood stock still.
All was dark.
All was quiet.
He stared into the ebony abyss across the yard and imagined gnarled, teeth-gnashing giants reaching for him. And a wee black devil in their midst.
The crickets started up their pitchy trilling song and the hallucination receded to nothing.
The next morning Mr. Cock announced the day. The clouds over the mountains in the east were under illuminated softly with pink light. The breeze from the south had lost some of its chill, the last of the frost had melted away. Brian opened the back kitchen door, pail in hand and a yawn making a cave in his pillow creased face. When he saw the donkey, he dropped the pail.
“Mom! Dad!” he shouted back into the house.
“What?!” cried his mother, her momdar gearing into overdrive, “What’s wrong?!”
Both parents crowded into the doorway. Brian said, “nothing’s wrong! Look!” He stepped aside to let them through.
There was the donkey! In his mouth was the plow harness.