The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Susan Little: Donkeys in Paradise (memoir)


Southern Legitimacy Statement: “I was born in Memphis for the sole reason that it had the hospital closest to Earle, Arkansas. My daddy was informed of my birth via telegram, as he had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during WWII. As soon as she was able, Mother took me home to Earle and I began my 12-year journey into the idyllic world of a pampered child in a very small Southern town. Then we moved to Memphis, center of the known world–or so I thought.”

Donkeys in Paradise

 “And so, through the donkey…my melancholy passed completely.”  Dostoevsky

Renée stole along a path she had cut surreptitiously onto the neighbors’ property up to the fence. Debris covered by the previous night’s snow crunched under her rubber barn boots even as she tried to make her steps soundless. She had already rescued a herd: three horses, two abandoned mini donkeys, and an ancient standard stallion donkey destined for a slaughter house.

What is it that attunes a person to the needs of animals? That drives her to relieve their suffering at the cost of trespassing upon someone’s property. That keeps her working in an office to pay their medical bills long after her own simple retirement needs are met. This is my friend, Renée. This is why I love her.

As I pulled into her driveway, Renée emerged from the barn—stocky and strong in the way she must be in order to accomplish what she has taken on. She shifted her shoulders inside a fleece-lined parka that was lavender-blue when she bought it but has faded to grey. Her baseball cap was pulled on tight over light red hair, cropped straight, and lightened further by the increasing white that comes with age and the load she carries. At my car door we hugged and laughed like the girls we once were.

“Come, I’ll introduce you to Little Willy,” she said.

When her Oregon City neighbors acquired a six-month-old mini donkey—hardly more than baby—they turned him out into their back pasture all alone. Without socialization, this little one was untamed and miserable. Mr. Lonely—for that is what she called him—cried in vain for attention, braying incessantly with that grating screech unique to donkeys.

The first winter was agonizing for Renée, especially at night when the donkey didn’t sleep and neither did she. Every morning, after her own animals had been fed, Renée took hold of a four-inch-wide handful of hay—called a “flake”—and broke it off from a bale. She trudged across her pasture to the property line and beyond. In a stand of trees just past the fence, Renée spied the object of her affection: a miniature donkey, seven hands high. A sweet boy whose giant head and short skinny legs gave him his comical looks. In his drollness he was adorable, even by mini donk standards. He was unspotted grey with a tail like a cow’s, short hair leading down to a long-haired switch at the end. His mane was spare: a snaggletoothed comb that stuck up at all angles. Even from a distance she loved his ears. Cream-colored inside, outlined in black. His muzzle, too, was creamy, not so light as his ears, but definitive nonetheless.

His owners did not feed him. He lived off the land and had depleted almost everything in his pasture. In the dead of winter he was reduced to eating broken fir branches which lay on the ground. He was very thin, no belly at all. His feet were beginning to turn up at the toes for lack of trimming. Renée paused to watch. His four legs, open and apart, formed twin upside-down Vs—like a sawhorse left standing in the snow. His big-eared head was low to the ground. He was just about to bare his teeth to nibble, but, before his lips pulled back and tongue came out, before he snorted into the snow, he touched it with just his mouth. It looked exactly like a kiss.

Maybe it was the sound of her breathing, or maybe it was the force of her compassion pulsing through the icy air that alerted him to her presence. He lifted his head and turned to her. He did not move. He did not bray. They were immediately in cahoots. Renée followed the path to his fence, with her flake of good grass hay in hand, and tossed it over. Still he made no sound, keeping their secret. Renée saw his bucket in the distance. It was his only water supply and it was frozen. Renée couldn’t bear to think of his being thirsty. At least he had snow to eat. His owners seemed to care nothing for his needs. He was there to keep the pasture mowed, not to be coddled.

Day and night Mr. Lonely cried and brayed his eeyore, eeyore. For all that year and more, Renée fed him twice a day and left unanswered notes offering to buy him. The owner’s wife finally grew tired of the little donkey’s screaming and demanded his removal from their property. At eighteen months old, Mr. Lonely, now called Little Willy, joined the high-spirits herd next door.

On the crisp autumn day of my visit, Renée introduced me to Willy. She stood close to him, his back waist-high on her. She put her arm around his neck and bent down to speak into his ear, “Are these boys being nice to you?” Then to the other donkeys, “You better behave.” And to me, “He’s the new kid, and small. They like to prove they outrank him. He follows them around like, ‘Hey, guys can I play?’”

I noticed a baby monitor mounted on the barn wall. “What’s that for?”

“Oh. Well, that lets me know if there’s a donkey fight at night.”

My respect for Renée surged, trying to imagine myself separating donkeys that were kicking and biting each other in a barn stall.

Walking past the tack room, Renée paused and closed her eyes for a moment, intoxicated by the sudden fragrance of sweet hay. “There’s the Susan Little Commemorative Hay Loft,” she announced, pointing overhead to a loft she built with some cash I once gave her to help out. A year’s worth of hay was stored there. Bulk-buying means a moderate reduction in overall costs.

The three minis accompanied us on a pasture tour. Darby, the inquisitive all-black, followed us closely. Ricky stuck near Darby while Little Willy circled at a distance, unsure of both his brother donkeys and of the new arrival—me. I reached out a hand toward Darby’s mane to pet him. He bolted. The others bolted. Renée laughed. Safely out of reach, Ricky threw himself upside down in the grass and wiggled on his back like an ecstatic dog. It was then that I saw his belly, bright white against his otherwise dark grey coat. Soon he stood up and glanced my way as if to say, “You’ve seen enough for today.”

Renée is satisfied with the complicated food, medicine and exercise routines her animals require to treat Cushing’s disease, laminitis and old age because she loves them. Her satisfaction costs dearly in money, time, and self-sacrifice. But she manages to take care of everything. Her motivation is exactly as May Sarton wrote in Joanna and Ulysses: “And in a world where one has had to witness too much suffering about which nothing could be done, there was the comfort of bringing back to life this one suffering beast….”

Our time together passed quickly, as effortless days do between friends. The barn chores finished, the stalls full and closed, Renée and I bundled up in blankets and stood outside under a clear nighttime sky sipping Jack Daniels from thick glass tumblers.

“People think I’m crazy, but, if need be, I will always keep a day job rather than give up what I am doing. The only thing that concerns me is the future.”

She knows that the stallion donkey and the horses will die before she does. But those young, sturdy, little donkeys…

“They can live forty years or more, you know?” The uncrackable caregiver cracked, just a little. She buried her face in her tumbler and drank deeply. “Donkeys don’t do well alone,” she whispered. “They just don’t do well at all.” Her biggest fear is splitting them up. “Who will keep them together when I’m gone?”

“You know, Renée, Dionysus wanted that for his donkeys, too,” I said, pointing to the stars.

For their loyalty, the god placed them close by one another where we see them still: Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis, “Northern Donkey” and “Southern Donkey,” sparkling above us—together, forever, in the shimmering night.