|Publisher:||New World Library|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
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The Great White Beast
THE WHITE DONKEY LOOMED over the fence, blocking out the sun. He appeared to be nearly seven feet tall.
"Oh my God. He's huge!"
I stepped back and collided with Brenda, the donkey's owner. I shouldn't have been so surprised. She had sent me a series of photos, including several where he towered over her. Had I assumed that she was a midget? "Are you sure this is the same donkey you sent pictures of?"
"Of course he is." Brenda laughed as she guided me closer to the fence. "This is Caleb."
The ad in The Brayer had stated that her four-and-a-half-year-old saddle donkey was 13.2 hands, or four and a half feet tall. At least on paper I understood that Caleb stood over a foot taller than a standard donkey — definitely tall enough for me to ride without my legs dangling beneath his belly. What I'd forgotten was that, as with horses, the official height is measured at the shoulder, which excludes the neck, head, and ears. In this donkey's case the ears alone were nearly a foot long. Altogether Caleb indeed blocked out almost seven feet of sunlight.
I was embarrassed to admit that I had been imagining a cuddlier creature, like the one I'd seen in the Sears catalog of my youth. Or perhaps like one of the smaller, hardworking creatures I had encountered in the Dominican Republic.
Meanwhile, Caleb pranced back and forth behind the six-foot fence, eyeing me. I leaned against the gate to get a better look at him. He loped right up and thrust his massive head over the top bar and into my chest, knocking me backward. My instincts should have told me to forget this powerful animal and back off. Instead, I stayed rooted to the spot. I was drawn to his oversize ears, his Mohawk- style mane, and, especially, his lively brown eyes. His whole stance projected curiosity and friendliness. I reached out to stroke the donkey's shaggy forehead and continued downward to the gray-and-pink freckled skin of his velvety muzzle. Beneath his chin, three-inch spikes of white whiskers tickled my hand.
I looked into his large dark eyes, thinking how much more inviting and mysterious they seemed compared with a horse's. I tried to figure out why. Was it because they were set so deeply beneath his bony brows? Or was it because his long white lashes partly veiled them? As if embarrassed by my scrutiny, Caleb lowered his head and looked away and halfway back. The lively gleam had been replaced by a soft gaze; now he appeared sad and wise.
Suddenly the donkey broke away and loped to the far side of the paddock. He stopped and looked back at me over his shoulder, his eyes sparkling with mischief. Catch me if you can! I was enchanted.
At the same time, cold reality pushed its way to the forefront of my thoughts: What made me think I would be able to handle such a huge, powerful animal? Now he was back at the gate, poking his muzzle through the horizontal bars. I stood there frozen, unsure what to do next.
Brenda must have sensed my indecision. "Let's go inside and have some coffee."
When I had first turned into the driveway of Brenda's small farm near Lake Erie, I had felt reassured by its tidy appearance. A new barn stood in back of a freshly painted bungalow. Inside her house, Brenda led me into a small side room where she kept a wooden loom. Skeins of rough yarn in muted, heathery shades hung in neat rows on the wall. "As I mentioned in my emails, I weave wool from my sheep and goats." She stepped over to a shelf and retrieved a small shoebox. She opened the lid and said, "Touch this. Isn't it soft?"
I stroked the grayish balls of fluffy fiber. "Is it baby alpaca?"
"No. It's Caleb's baby hair." She slowly lowered the lid and placed the box back on the shelf.
She obviously loves this donkey. So, why is she selling him? I wondered how I could ask her.
We settled down at the kitchen table with mugs of coffee. We exchanged pleasantries about family and interests. When I told her that my husband, Joe, had been raised nearby, she relaxed and answered my unspoken question.
"Right now Caleb is a guard donkey for my sheep and goats. He chases the coyotes away and herds the flock to and from the barn. Does a real good job, too." She gazed out the window for a long time before continuing: "But I want him to have more of a life." She suddenly stood and grabbed her jacket. "Let's go back out so you can get to know him."
As soon as we stepped outside again, the donkey raced toward us from the far side of the paddock. From where I stood it looked as if he might launch himself in a full frontal assault at the gate. At the last second, he planted his hooves and skidded to a halt. He grabbed the latch with his teeth and jiggled it, his eyes fixed on me the whole time.
Brenda leaned against the gate and opened the latch. I suddenly panicked at the thought of getting up close to this large beast.
"Wait! Why don't you leave him in the paddock?" Brenda turned and stared at me, puzzled. I continued in what I hoped was a firm professorial voice: "Let me walk around the outside of the fence first. Watch how he moves. You know — look at his legs?" This last part came out as a squeak. Brenda heaved her shoulder against the gate right as the donkey lunged at it. She secured the latch just in time.
Before my visit, I had crammed as much information about judging a donkey's physical characteristics, or "conformation," as would fit on several index cards. While pretending to scrutinize the donkey's hooves, I fished the cards from my pocket. Truth be told, I hadn't digested much more than making sure that all four legs reached the ground. I scanned the first card: "Watch the donkey move. Rule out sluggishness, lameness, or asymmetry."
From outside the fence, I called out, "Come on, Caleb!" His ears immediately tuned in to my voice like antennae. He matched my pace step for step. We walked and trotted all the way to the end of the paddock and back. When the late- afternoon sun was behind him, his silhouette was surrounded by an aura of shining white hair. He looked magnificent, if a trifle silly with those king-size ears. At each turn, he tossed his head up and down and kicked his back hooves in the air with a flourish.
"Good boy! Now, whoa, Caleb." He slid to a stop directly in front of me. How smart and eager to please he is! I had already begun to imagine riding this donkey through the woods near my house. He will be a perfect trail companion, I thought.
Ten minutes later, I left Caleb rattling the gate with his nose and retreated into the house again with Brenda. It was time to discuss business. "He likes you; I can tell," she said.
While we talked, Brenda's husband walked in and said hello. Before we had a chance to introduce ourselves, he had already crossed the room to answer the ringing phone. I heard him say in a hearty voice, "No. I think it's a done deal."
My big-city skepticism reared its suspicious head. Great. A nicely timed call from another would-be purchaser to add a little pressure to the transaction.
Despite my attempts to appear objective and businesslike, I was ready to write a check on the spot. And we three knew it. Outside, Caleb patrolled the high fence and stopped directly opposite the kitchen window. Even with the windows closed, we could hear his snuffles and grunts as he tossed his head and stared at us. When he was sure he had our attention, the grunts grew in pitch and volume to climax with a foghorn-loud, deep-throated "Hee-haw!"
Make that four who could tell I was hooked.
Before I wrote that check, though, I knew that I had to try riding the big donkey. There was one problem: I was a nervous rider, a very nervous rider. Only six months before meeting Caleb, I had broken a thirty-year hiatus and signed up for weekly riding lessons at Silver Rock Farm, a stable near my home. I had been horse-crazy as a child and started riding lessons at age nine. However, a horse had run away with me at age twenty and then stopped short, throwing me over his head. I was lucky to walk away from it with a concussion and a cracked neck vertebra, although headaches and neck pain persisted for years. As a consequence I developed an almost visceral fear of sitting atop a powerful animal, though I loved to watch horses from afar. Once I became fascinated by donkeys, pleasant memories of long-ago trail rides on horseback flooded back. An initial interest in miniature donkeys, the darlings of petting zoos, was soon replaced by research into saddle donkeys. I knew then that I'd have to overcome my fears.
Would Brenda's frisky young donkey run away with me? There was only one way to find out. "Since I want to ride him, I'd better tack him up and take him for a spin, don't you think?"
She smiled at the naive car analogy and led me back outside. I followed her as she led Caleb into the barn and tied him up. There, I touched the donkey's muscular shoulder for the first time. He felt warm and smelled of fresh hay and autumn leaves. I slowly reached up and riffled his comical, stand-up mane and was surprised by how soft it was. I had expected bristles. As I gently stroked his neck, he dropped his head and sighed.
"That means he's contented."
Me, too. "Good boy, Caleb." Brenda handed me a brush, and I mirrored her strokes as she groomed his back and sides, belly and legs. When finished with her side, she redid my feeble efforts. She then motioned for me to help her lift a massive Western saddle. We staggered across the room with it, and together we hoisted it up onto the donkey's wide back. The saddle looked ridiculous, perched as it was like a Spanish galleon on the high seas. Brenda connected the cinch around his big belly. "This is a Heiser saddle, an antique," she said. "It's worth at least $1,500. You can have it along with Caleb and all his other tack, too, for $2,000 total."
The deal kept getting sweeter and sweeter, and I wasn't even bargaining. According to Brenda, the saddle alone was worth more than the original price of the donkey. I couldn't believe my luck.
Next, she slipped the bridle over his head. Caleb pinned his ears flat and bared his big yellow teeth in a cadaverous grin. She somehow managed to pry open the big jaws and insert the bit. The maneuver looked dangerous. With his headgear buckled, Brenda led the donkey into the paddock and over to a tree stump. I mounted him, and he walked around the perimeter of the paddock, following a trajectory of his own choosing. My commands to walk, trot, turn, and stop were made after the fact. "Good boy!" I said, no matter what he did. To tell the truth, I was afraid to exercise any control in case he acted up. What if he ran away with me or collided with a tree? Two opposing thoughts battled inside my head: fear of injury and fear of revealing my incompetence in front of Caleb's owner.
On the way back to the barn, Caleb managed to wedge his enormous head between us, nudging each of us in turn with his nose. His gesture brought to mind buddies ambling home, regaling each other with their adventures. After his saddle and bridle had been removed, Brenda released him into his paddock.
Inside Brenda's sunny kitchen once more, she said, "You know you're the fifth person to look at Caleb."
"What happened to the others?"
"Oh, I rejected the previous ones because they insulted him or me," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "Or Caleb showed dislike or fear of them."
"How did he show his dislike?" I asked. An image of trampled body parts sprang to mind.
"Oh, he 'turtled.'"
She noticed my puzzlement and explained, "He tucked his head and tail and glued himself to the spot." Her hands closed into fists. "One potential buyer kicked him. Said he was stupid."
"No!" I pictured Caleb standing there, helpless to escape the assault.
"Caleb liked you right away," Brenda said. "He's never brayed at or chased after a potential buyer before."
Okay, so maybe she was laying it on thick, but I felt pleased and even a little proud, as if I had passed some exam for worthiness. I wrote the check.
The negotiations — or lack of them — progressed smoothly. My husband, Joe, was on a research ship somewhere off the coast of Brazil, so I was free of any second-guessing on his part. He knew, of course, that I was looking for a donkey, but there was one detail I had omitted. He assumed I was still looking for a miniature donkey. I had kept the latest development in my quest — that I wanted a donkey big enough to ride — rather vague. As fate would have it, Joe had departed for his three-month "shift" at sea right before Brenda posted her ad.
Brenda wrote out a receipt and said she would hold the check pending a vet exam. And just like that, I leaped into this new relationship based on pure instinct.
Outside, my new donkey trotted back and forth head-butting the gate, his ears posed like a victory sign. I fished an apple from the car and passed it through the bars of the gate. Caleb snapped off a big chunk a half inch from my thumb. I dropped the apple and snatched my hand back. He chased the rolling apple and gobbled it up. "Goodbye, Caleb," I said. "See you soon!"
Brenda stepped up to the car window and said in a tentative voice, "One more thing: I have no right to ask, but I hope you won't change his name. Donkeys should keep their names, and we've had him since he was five months old."
"Absolutely!" I said, even though during the drive upstate I had considered renaming him "Brighty" after the brave donkey in Marguerite Henry's Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Caleb it would always be.
The euphoria I felt from the moment I met Caleb drained away before I reached the thruway ramp. I was flooded with doubts. As a fifty-year-old geology professor with a heavy teaching schedule, not to mention a bad back and a long-distance marriage, why had I just purchased a massive farm animal? An invisible noose tightened around my neck as I fought to catch my breath. I pulled over to the side of the road and practiced deep breathing until the panting subsided. A panic attack. I hadn't had one in years, and this was a doozy. I decided I needed to call an expert. Why hadn't I thought of this before I wrote the check?
Bridgman Stables, the only place in New York state that trained donkeys and mules, was only thirty miles from Brenda's. Earlier that summer, I had read their ad for donkey and mule training in an issue of The Brayer and had talked to Mary Lou on the phone. She had been patient with my endless questions about what she referred to with rough affection as "longears" and agreed that if I found a donkey for sale, I could send him to her for training. Brenda had told me that Caleb received a few weeks of basic training at their stable when he was three years old. Perhaps they remembered him.
A gravel-filled voice answered, "Bridgman's." I reminded Mary Lou who I was and told her that I had just purchased a donkey from Brenda Boyle. "Do you recall training a large white donkey named Caleb a year and a half ago?"
"Oh, sure, we remember Caleb very well." Mary Lou started coughing.
"Do you remember what he was like then?" I held my breath and waited. Here it comes.
Mary Lou said, "As I recall, he was loving and trusting."
"Oh, I am so glad to hear that." I sighed with relief. Before hanging up, I arranged for Caleb to be shipped to Bridgman Stables for training as soon as he passed his vet check.
Satisfied that I had made a responsible decision, I headed toward home. Despite this donkey's daunting size, I assured myself that I was accustomed to uphill battles. After all, I had taught myself to navigate boats through the uncharted regions of the Strait of Magellan, in Chile, and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and had even backpacked across the Patagonian Andes on foot. I felt quite confident that after six weeks with donkey-and-mule specialists, Caleb would be trained and ready for his new life as my trail buddy.CHAPTER 2
The Donkey Whisperers
ONE MONTH LATER, the events of September 11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center, only twenty-five miles away from our home, all but eclipsed any thoughts about my new donkey. While I attempted to process my own shock and fear, I'd had to reschedule several post-9/11 geology lectures at City College — not to mention attend memorial gatherings and funerals for two neighbors. How did a donkey fit into this overwhelming atmosphere of insecurity? I decided to keep my bizarre purchase to myself.
When Thanksgiving approached, I seized my first opportunity to see Caleb again. Brenda notified me that after passing his vet check, Caleb had been shipped to Bridgman Stables for training. A day or so later, Mary Lou Bridgman had left a phone message to say that he had arrived and had "settled in nicely." Her Dale Evans voice — that is, if Dale had chain-smoked — reassured me. I hadn't heard anything since.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Smart Ass"
Copyright © 2018 Margaret Winslow.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Great White Beast
2 The Donkey Whisperers
4 A Donkey for Christmas
5 Ice Ride
8 The Donkey Ambassador
9 Lead Line
10 Back in the Saddle
11 Lessons with Laura
12 Is This Donkey Love?
13 Caleb Meets the Farrier
14 Donkey Dressage
15 Donkey Gaits: Slow, Slower, and…Hold On!
16 Whispering to Donkeys (Or Not!)
17 What Does a Donkey Want?
18 Road Warriors
19 Off to the Races
20 Mayhem in Bethlehem
21 The Ends of Our Tethers
22 Tough Love
23 A Donkey Speaks Up
24 A Reckoning
25 Our True Natures
26 An L-Back-Through into a Tight Corner
27 No Chickening Out