Before I was a donkey, I was a boy.
I’ve been in this same field for a while now. It might be years. I’m old, I suppose. It’s not that I can’t measure time; it’s just that I don’t care enough to.
So here I am, dying.
I lie down to make it easier, flat on my side with my neck pressed against the ground. This is how calves and foals sleep—artlessly and abandoned to their rest. I wheeze into the dust. There are footsteps coming towards me and I wonder if my master is going to attempt to whip me back to health, or worse still, shorten my dying. Let my death be my own, at least.
My memories of how it began are all tied up with him, even though he wasn’t the cause of any of it. Probably it started long before that, when Toyland was built, or when a spell was cast in the woods, or with something that I don’t know about at all. He was strange, enchanted—a wooden toy that had come to some semblance of life. I was a boy, then, leaning on a street corner, and he made my skin prickle when I saw him. His face was smooth and polished, a varnished expression painted in place. His eyes were flat. His voice was not. He talked fast and desperately. He was an uncanny thing, asking for directions home like any other lucky fool with one to go to.
But then, I’d seen my fair share of strangeness and took it to be a curse or a spell or even some spirit caught in clockwork. He was an innocent thing. Or stupid. I think I called him stupid at the time.
‘What’re you?’ I’d said, all rough and ready. I spat.
‘Me, I’m a puppet I am, made by a man, my father, and I’m alive, I don’t look it but I am—’
Babble, babble. He’d do that if you weren’t quick to cut him off.
‘Alright, whisht now.’ I took to him. He reminded me of somebody I used to know. There was an air to him—a sort of hunger so fierce it grabbed and grappled at you. But not like the other hollowed-out young ones and old ones I’d grown up around; this one wasn’t starving for food. ‘Ye seem grand,’ I said. ‘A grand lad.’
His head tilted to one side. ‘Yes, like a boy, you know I want to be a boy, the fairy told me I’d be one tomorrow, a real one—’
‘Ye’d like it where I’m going,’ I said. ‘Only the real lads—the real boys—get to go there.’
‘Where’s this, where’s that you’re going?’ he said, all eager.
‘Toyland!’ I said. His face was blank. Well, it always looked blank, but when he didn’t talk straight away I guessed he was baffled. ‘You never heard of Toyland? It’s a grand time.’ Rumours had been growing, creeping through the streets, flourishing in the tenements and blooming in the alleys. ‘They feed you there. Boys don’t do enthing but play all day. No work or school or nothing.’
‘I have to go to school, the fairy told me, it’s what good boys do and I have to be good—’
‘Ah, the piseogs’ll always lead you astray.’ I’m sure I would have spat again at this point. I may have even farted for emphasis. The puppet was silent for a while. Perhaps he was impressed by my physical flourishes.
‘And who made this place, how are you going there, when?’
‘If you come along you can see for yourself. Bet you’ll learn more than in a week of school.’
‘And the real boys, they go there?’
‘Oh yes, indeed they do! Indeed we do, amn’t I right?’
That had him. He swallowed it up like a duck eating bread. Real boys, that’s all he wanted to hear about, that’s all he desired to be. Could’ve told him real boys wore aprons and had babies and he’d be in labour, cooking dinner before you could finish a sentence. I did call him stupid, I remember now.
A donkey’s head is far heavier than a boy’s. My nose is low to the ground. It’s best to keep eyes down, anyway. I am kept alive, just. The collar around my neck rubs me raw. Donkeys don’t need a metal bit but the taste of metal in my mouth is not unfamiliar to me.
They put a jenny in the field with me once. They wanted me to sire more donkeys, create some stock, something to sell. I turned from her snuffly nose and wagging ears. She was a donkey, and I was a boy who had been made one. We were not the same.
But in the end I fucked her anyway.
The puppet and I made an unlikely pair. I was big and dirty and hungry enough that I avoided being a target. The puppet, though, he was a victim just begging to be abused. He attracted tricksters and liars and scoundrels. It was like wasps at a picnic.
He’d had some adventures, some capturings and escapings, and he told me all about them in that too-fast, tripping-up way of his. It took me a while to realise why he spoke like that: he had no lungs, of course. Silly me. I listened to him because there was nothing better to do. I did become interested, in the end, if only because I was trying to figure out if all this had really happened to him or if he was mad, or infested with woodworm.
It was no bother finding a way to Toyland.
‘Get on board, boys,’ said the sinister coachman, opening the door for us.
Did I waver? If I did, it was only for the length of time it took me to spot the bread and meat and bottles set out on the seats. We got in and the coachman leered and merrily whipped his donkeys onwards to Toyland.
The puppet became less strange the longer I was around him. He told me his father and maker had wanted a son. I wanted to ask him what had stopped the man from taking in one of the ragged barefoot children that roamed the town, or from getting some slut pregnant. Someone had unearthed a lump of talking bogwood while cutting turf, and had taken it to the puppet’s maker, and the result was sitting across from me in that dusty, chilly coach.
My thoughts move slowly as a donkey. I have caught myself not thinking for days on end, days and days in which I have just been a donkey. Those times are not bad. I am not happy to remember that I can think otherwise; I am never pleased at my return to consciousness. It’s easier to be without it.
Toyland, when we got there, was no grand amusement park. It was more like a slum of shabby houses and filthy pubs. I didn’t even know where it was but I assumed the midlands. It had a claggy sort of feel to it. By the look of the other boys I could tell our stories would be similarly grim, backgrounds of hunger and beatings and nights in doorways.
The puppet drew attention, alright. Took hardly any time for a gang to approach us with matches in one hand and cruelty in the other.
‘Back off, ya bastards!’ I shouted valiantly.
‘What, are you his brother or something? Yer ma must’ve needed some real wood after she had you.’ It may have been the funniest thing this particular boy had said, ever.
‘I don’t have a brother,’ I said. ‘Or a ma, neither.’
‘We just wanna see if he feels pain,’ said another. He must have had a scientific mind. I saw a tattered cat skulking in a corner and grabbed it.
‘Play with this instead.’ I shoved the cat at them.
‘Ah, we know cats feel pain,’ the scientist said.
I’d already dragged the puppet away. We ducked into a pub.
‘The cat!’ The puppet was twisting his twiggy limbs under my hand, giving me splinters.
‘Why did you, why did you give it to them?’
‘Shut up,’ I said to him, and pulled the door closed behind me so that we wouldn’t hear the shrieks of the cat as it was set on fire.
I’ve been bought and sold several times. It’s a nerve-wracking time, being brought to the mart. The sellers trot us out and prospective buyers wedge our jaws open to look at our teeth. Between my own inspections, I would look at the other donkeys and wonder which ones I would buy, if I were a boy again. I’ve decided now that I wouldn’t buy a donkey at all; I would much prefer a horse.
I always tried to look good for the men who seemed a bit gentler. Pushed my nose to their hands and hoped I’d get a good master. Snapped at the men I didn’t like. I’ve daydreamed about being bought by a girl, one who would take me home to a stable and brush me down and rub my ears with her soft little hands. But a girl like that would never visit the grubby small town markets that things like me are sold at.
And in the end one master is much the same as any other.
Toyland was a fine old time. We were carefree boys, with no rules or responsibilities, coming into the prime of our teenage years. It was, as a result, a violent and volatile place. There were brawls, and gangs that were quick to form and even quicker to dissolve.
The majority of our time we spent in the run-down pubs. There were never any barmen, just a seemingly endless supply of watery stout. There was tobacco too, and cheap cigars. I partook in all of it, though the puppet didn’t. He generally just kept me company while I drank myself to the lively point of vomit and unconsciousness. When I awoke he would still be there and we would carry on.
We rarely saw any grown-ups, though they must have been around to restock and supply our vices. One day we came upon a gang of boys who had found some opium and I passed some hours in a haze of vertigo and nightmares. None of us missed an adult presence; we were doing just grand on our own.
The puppet might have missed his father. He talked about him often enough. He never said he wanted to leave, though. He just kept asking me if he was a real boy yet.
‘Yer certainly getting closer,’ I would slur. ‘This is wha’ real boys do.’
‘But I don’t look any different, do I, or feel any different, I feel the same—’
‘Give it time,’ I said. ‘You won’t feel different straight away. Give it a bit more time.’
Once after saying this, or something like it, I remember getting sick into my glass and throwing it at some other boy’s head. We had a fight and then I kept on drinking.
We were there for about a fortnight before I became a donkey. I remember that very well. I was sitting at a table, scoffing soda bread and sausages with my hands, laughing at something or someone, ha-ha-ha-ing with my mouth full and open. It must have been a good joke, because I was still laughing when the change began. It was not my ears that grew first, but my hooves.
My toes went numb and then it felt as though there was a crust over my feet, hardening and setting like melted wax when you dip a finger into it and let it cool in the air. Then the strangeness was in my hands, and I saw what must have happened to my feet; my fingers stuck together and my nails grew right over them and over the backs of my hands, swelling, darkening, setting themselves into little black hooves.
I screamed and screamed. My backbone stretched and my knees twisted unnaturally until they were the wrong side of my legs. Then my ears grew. They pushed themselves up my skull to the top of my head. Hair burst from everywhere. I shrieked and howled and had broken the table already, smashing food to the floor, sobbing at the faces around me that looked on, blurrily astonished and idiotic.
By then, of course, it was far too late. But I was still screaming.
‘Help, help me! Please, please, please. Help, help, heeeee—heeeeee—’ and as I drew my breath in my vocal cords must have changed too, for I brayed a dreadful, ‘Heeee haaaaaw!’
And then I could speak no more. I cried and cried, frightened by my own unrecognisable noise and by the realisation that donkeys don’t cry tears.
The puppet was flailing his limbs around and shouting his babble, but he was mostly ignored. The same transformation had begun to take hold of some of the other boys in the room, and the rest ran away. A few, high on a cloud of opium, sat in a corner and watched it all, no doubt thinking that this was all just part of the dream.
I shivered out my shock in a little wooden pen that was full of other newly made donkeys. We had been swiftly rounded up with whips and cattle prods. They must have been ready and waiting.
I stared at the planks I was pressed against and saw that there were teeth marks in the wood, and clumps of grey donkey hair, and blood. Some men came in and shouted and jabbed sharp sticks into the sides of the more hysterical donkeys.
‘Ouch, would ya stop!’
I shivered when I realised that one of the donkeys could still speak.
‘Ah here! We’ve got a chatty one!’ said one of the men. They opened the gate and grabbed him.
‘Please!’ the donkey said, all wild and white-eyed. ‘Please—let me go home!’
‘Home?’ One of the men holding the donkey laughed. ‘Like this? You’d give your ma a shock!’
‘My ma!’ The donkey shook beneath the men’s rough hands and cried, ‘Mammy, mammy!’
The men dragged the talking donkey away. I don’t know what they did with him.
I don’t know what happened to the puppet either. He hadn’t turned into a donkey; he already had a spell on him. Wood could only take so much. Most likely he got away. He was so stupid he was probably fine. Stupid people can get on remarkably well in life.
And now as I feel my breath fall out I think the curse is loosening its hold on me. My hooves are pinning and needling me and they are softening, splitting apart to form fingers and toes again. My dusty grey hair falls away. I am shrinking. I am becoming a little thin figure like the other people I see. I fear I may blow away.
There is a figure over me. Not my master. Some boy. He puts a hand on my arm. His skin looks very pale against mine. He’s got a round, stupid face. The puppet, I think. And then, no, it couldn’t be. This boy is too young. He’s not the puppet. Just a boy. Firm flesh and unbroken bones. He stands and looks down at me. Wipes his hand on his trousers. Walks away.
Is he leaving me? I try to raise my head a little. That’s too hard to do, so I rest it back on the ground again. But my voice must have returned to me, like the rest of my human parts. I want him to come back. Give me help, or pity, or mercy. My mouth hangs loose, my tongue moves, trying to cry out but nothing happens. I want to say that I’ve been good, but I’ve forgotten how to speak, that I’m a boy, really, but I don’t know how to say it.