We understood each other. Her inverted waistline a permanent bulge from so many pregnancies, her brown eyes deep enough to swallow the cries of children and my inner unvoiced screams. I had been willingly and surprisingly reduced to “mother”. I hadn’t slept in 8 years. My husband and I hadn’t had a date night in years either. But Marge and I, we had everyday rituals, the sort that would lead to a feeling of looking forward to getting out of bed. Routines away from the always undone tasks locked inside the house. Rhythms of her morning braying calling me outside, where I’d feed her and her son Tug a few flakes of hay and then some sweet feed. It felt good to give her “sweetfeed” as I didn’t eat sugar. It made me sneezy and not well. I could be momentarily happy watching her enjoy the sweetness of life that seemed to elude me. Her son would nurse and prod her belly and she stood strong and still chewing her grass as he drained her. She never looked as drained as I felt. I would grab a long strand of grass and chew the end of it with her at times.
My infant’s first language was donkey. He would bray with her. Marge and I had delivered at home our last born -- sons. Her baby was born in the dark of night during a massive flooding Texas thunderstorm, mine months earlier in my tub at dawn on the first day of Spring. We drove through the mud to see her swaggering newborn before they came to live with us a week later. My purchase of her from the breeder, who was through with her loins, promised her no more babies to bear. Out to pasture. I’d never make it there.
Having visited three ranches of these miniature donkeys, I could not imagine life without Marge’s comforting presence, something so grounded about her. I was disappearing into mist and I knew if I could anchor myself to this earth I would survive the challenges of parenting in isolation in the country. I had lost so many identities.
I drove over 200 metal "T" posts into this rocky hill country terrain with a baby in a backpack and my 8 year old watching the 6 and 3 year old in the house. My biceps, large from carrying small humans around for 8 years, were equal to the task. I’d pound with all my might with the piercing crush of metal on metal as the baby behind me miraculously fell asleep. Then I would stop and go lay him down in the house under the expert care of my oldest daughter who never played with dolls because she had a baby sibling always around. I’d rush with the relief of his lost weight and go double time forcing my way around cactus and cedars until my 6 year old son would run for me that his little brother (whom he had prayed for to come) is awake and needing nursing again. Hop in the shower for five minutes, nurse for twenty, drink water, and then out again to the growing fence. My husband said if you can build a pen you can have the donkeys. He was shocked to come home and see the first 20 fenceposts in solidly. So he bought me more. I was under an anvil, driven. Driving myself into the earth with each post, determined to not evaporate.
Our homes were pens and I couldn’t keep us in the fence all the time. Had to let her roam the land, eat my tall grasses so the snakes could be seen better, and therefore be eaten better, and not hang so close to the house. My dad worried about that. Soon she figured out how to go down the cliffs to the creek and would wander upstream to a neighbor. I learned after desperate hunts for her to walk down there and call “Home pen!”. She would lead her son home walking behind me without a lead. “Homepen” I repeated to lead her back to the open gate.
My heels were so hard, dry and cracked and as resilient and hardy as her hoofs that never needed shoes. I respected her protective powers that could run down a mountain lion if necessary. I understood her. How her breasts ran as she watched her young son rushed away to the vet driven by my newest addition, my darling 14 year old recovering nephew, while I held the baby donkey in the back of my dreamcar, my gold toned, new conversion van. The Texas heat had caused an unending diarrhea, “the scours”. I can still hear her anguish and cries for him as I had to express her milk so she wouldn’t get engorged before he came home in a few days. She never stopped pacing those two days without him. That was a hell he never really recovered from even though Marge did immediately after he returned. He became an unruly adolescent like my own son 7 years later.
She was like a shepherd that didn't jump up. When her head was pressed into me, we’d lean on each other, never too much to set the other off balance. We’d meet in the middle of the pressure. She would absorb the velocity of my inner world racing counter to the outer quiet pastoral homeland. I like to think I gave her some kind of relief in those connecting moments, but I doubt it. I could breathe fully her scent, a mix of hay and musk and the ashes that she like to roll in where we had once burned a pile of trees cleared for her little barn. I remember thinking the ashes kept the flies down. I wouldn’t mind the gray handprints I found after the kids and I pet her. Ash washes off easily from walls and doors edges too low for a toddler to reach a handle. It was often I watched the sink drain for too long as the ashes made a little bank around the drain that needed a few splashes to get them moving on down. Lightweight but persistent.
Ashes don’t really have weight. The day I spread some of my husband’s ashes on the paths where we all had walked-- the donkeys, my friends, my children, myself and my husband—even where he had sung to me on our wedding day, that day I could feel nothing. Marge called to me and I pet her, mixing her ashy coat with indiscernible specks of his remains remaining in the cracks of my hand. Could she carry that weight? Could I be relieved of this unimaginable calamity? She understood me. She knew me.
When my husband died two years after we got her, I had to sell Marge as I couldn’t afford to feed her or my own children. The five hundred dollars I made from her sale could never match the loss upon loss I had to live through. “At least she went to a good home” I would comfort myself with as I iced down my fire. By myself. I iced down my fried nerves and tried to be like Marge for these last eight years. She was better at it than I was though, and I hear she is still around now at 20 years old, and still looking pregnant.