by Kama Shockey
The donkey only had six hours left to live but because he was a stupid animal, he did not know. He lived behind the market where meat was sold and because of this he never felt at ease. He was not treated well, but he was not beaten excessively either. He was the man’s only work animal and so he was always fed on time. It was all he knew and he did not wish for more than this life because he did not know anything as whimsical as a wish.
“Kher,” the man said to him one day, patting him between the ears. It was a gesture unfamiliar to the donkey, and he felt his belly warm. If he were not an animal, and a dumb one at that, he might have smiled and realized the name for the heat in his belly was affection.
“Kher, I can keep you no longer. A dowry is needed for my lewr. Today brother Atash will come for you. I wish you a long and happy life.” The man left the donkey by the road, his leading rope under a rock. The donkey would not leave even though the rock was small and he could simply give a brief pull on the lead and walk on down the road unseen. He would not do this because he did not know it was a possibility. Had he known he would die in a few short hours, he might have at least tried. But where would he have gone?
The sun was hot and beat down upon him with a ferocity that made the skin underneath his matted fur singe. It was warmer today than it had been in recent weeks and the donkey realized this spot by the road and the rock was different than his home behind the market. Shade is what he would have realized he was missing if he thought much about that home at all. He didn’t though, and so he sat uncomfortably in the heat for some time until an unpleasant smell filled his nostrils and he raised his head away from the malodor.
His snout hit a protruding sack of flesh that stunk. He brayed and no sooner than the noise left his throat did his head reel from a blow to his temple that knocked the donkey to his front knees. He stood, trembling. The man was holding a wooden stick, thicker at the top than where his fat fingers wrapped around the base.
“Jer, soon, it is time for you to play a part in this country’s history. You will be silent. Understood?” the man in front of him asked. The donkey did not understand and so he whimpered. Again, a forceful blow knocked the donkey’s head. He whined with shame and pain, and yet another blow was struck. Finally, he was silent. The man nodded, pleased with himself, but the donkey could not understand why. He was a strong animal, capable of work. The man surely should know this; why did he need to strike the donkey so?
The man led the donkey through the village, and the donkey sunk his head low as he left the only village he had ever known for the last time.
After many minutes of walking under the threat of the further damage the sun could do, the man and donkey came across a pond. The donkey lunged forward with all the strength he had left, but he was tired and his head did not reach the water’s edge. The man pulled at the donkey’s rope and hit him again with the club, this time across his ribs. The donkey could go no further and sat, but did not let escape so much as a ragged breath for fear of the club again.
“Khaow ray da ookhra, you stupid beast. May the earth swallow you whole.” The man released the donkey, who stood and wobbled to the water’s edge. Never had thirst consumed him so fiercely, and he drank without abandon or care for the man or his club.
“Let’s go, you lazy animal. We are late.”
The donkey did not understand late, but he did understand fear, and so he stopped drinking and hung his head low once more as the man led him further from the village.
Soon they came to a dilapidated gray building that was missing a roof and door. The man ushered the donkey through a large hole in the side of the building and the animal stopped in the dirt, trembling. In front of him were men in black robes, with black masks covering all but their eyes. The donkey felt the same uneasiness as he did living behind the meat market, but much larger, more all-encompassing.
“Is this him?” a man in front asked brother Atash.
“Ao. Yes,” Atash said, bowing his head. This made the donkey tremble with fear, seeing the cruel man who had led him from home bowing before another man.
“You are late, get him ready.”
“Ao. Of course. My apologies.”
All of the men left the room, except for Atash, who lost the soft voice he had with the other men and began muttering curses at the donkey. The donkey did not understand any of them, but did understand that the man was upset. He kept his head low, determined not to do anything that would warrant another beating.
Atash placed a set of yellow saddlebags across the donkey’s back. The donkey immediately relaxed. He carried full bags just like these every day from the poppy fields into the town where his old master sold the contents and they returned home, ready to be filled again the next morning. This particular memory the donkey would never forget. His new owner was not kind, but he meant to work the donkey like he was used to, and this made the donkey as happy as a donkey could expect to be.
When the bags were secured, the man left the room the same way the others had gone and the donkey was alone. It was quiet here, not at all like the village the donkey had come from. Whispered murmurings came from a room he could not see, but as usual, he could not hear much of what was said, or comprehend what the words meant anyway.
The donkey felt something touch him on his hindquarters and turned his head to see a boy, young, petting him, smiling and showing his teeth to the donkey. The donkey would have smiled if he were able. This was the happiest he had been all day. He was going to work again, and he was being shown affection by a boy who meant him no harm.
“Feda. I did not hear you come in.” Atash was back with the other men and the donkey’s happiness fled his body like a chill in this summer heat.
“Brother Atash, Imam.” The boy bowed his head to the two men and continued to pet the donkey.
“Do not get too close to him, Feda. You know his purpose.”
“I do. But he gets a stupid grin on his face when I do this. Look, Imam.” The boy pet the donkey with fervor and the men laughed.
“Such a stupid beast. Fitting he will be the end of the infidels.” The men laughed again, the warmth gone from their voices this time.
“Feda, go now, wait outside. We will call you when it is your time.” The boy left and the donkey lowered his gaze again, depleted of all happiness he had felt for the briefest of moments. The men opened a large box that sat on the table and the sun coming in from the roofless building glinted off the metal inside. The men gingerly lifted the metal from the box and placed it in the yellow saddlebags. It was heavy and some of the pieces were sharp, piercing the donkey’s skin through the bag. He knew better than to voice his complaints though, and he bit down hard, gritting his teeth.
When the men were done, the sun was directly overhead and the donkey was tired. He wanted to lie down, but it was time to work. He could tell by the way the men hurried around him, cleaning the building, moving everything out of sight. He was ready to do something. Sitting here made his back bow under the weight of the metal and he thought walking might help the burden shift.
The Imam came up to the donkey and muttered something in his ear. The donkey neither heard nor cared what the man had to say, but he shook as the Imam kissed his head.
“Feda. It is time. Come.” The boy returned and the Imam whispered something to him. He kissed the boy and handed him the rope for the donkey. The boy called Feda led the donkey out of the building and into the sunlit desert.
As they walked down the dirt road, the boy talked to the animal, though the donkey did not know what words meant.
“You are going to do something brave today, kher. You are part of the great war with the American infidels. I am too. My uncle Atash asked for my help many months ago. Mama said no, but Uncle told her how important this is to our fight. We must be brave together, kher. Today is a great day.”
All the while he talked, the boy held his right arm behind his back and led the donkey with his left. The weight on the donkey’s back did not shift and the donkey remained uncomfortable under the sacks of metal shavings and scraps. Pieces still cut into his fur but the donkey remained silent. He had brayed his last bray.
Finally, the boy and the donkey came to a bridge. Across the small river were men in strange hats and clothes, nothing like the donkey had ever seen. They yelled at the boy to stop, to show his right hand. Still the boy led the donkey, who pulled back so slightly the boy did not seem to notice. The donkey felt the unease creep back into his belly, making him cold under the powerful sun.
“Wodariga! Stop!” the men called. The boy did not listen.
He pulled his right hand out from behind his back and in it was the club that the man had beaten the donkey with earlier that day.
The boy whispered, “Khuday pa amaan, kher. May God be with you, Donkey.” He swung the club, hitting the donkey on the backside, sending him running forward over the bridge and towards the strange-looking men.
The boy pulled a phone out of a satchel and dialed a number as the donkey took his last breaths. Across the bridge, the bag blew up, and the donkey, stupid animal that he was, did not know his life was over until it was.
Kama Shockey is an MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University and is the current Editor-In-Chief of Thin Air, the masters program’s literary magazine. She has had her fiction published in Bird’s Thumb, a monthly column, two additional pieces (including a cover story) in Military Spouse Magazine, and other work published as a guest blogger. Currently she is working on a linked collection of short stories regarding the after-effects of one traumatic wartime experience on the men and their families.