Origin of Donkey Species, Ghosts, Funeral Dirges, and Flivver

Donald Shephard

"Donkeys never die," asserted my dear, old uncle, Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. one day as we watched his bedraggled donkey, Threnody, walk over to our shelter in the hedge and join us. She was a lovely, soft white color except for the reddish-gray of the cross along her back and down her shoulders. She also had feint reddish-gray bands around her forelegs. She was the sweetest, most docile animal I have ever known. Threnody stood parallel to the hedge to make the most of its shelter. Her head was well into the hawthorns with us, but the rest of the ass, the ass end, as it were, was out in the wind and rain.

"How can that be true?" I asked, knowing as I did, that Plinge, like George Washington, was incapable of telling a lie.

"Have you ever seen a dead donkey?" he asked.

"No," I said, thinking hard for a moment.

"Do you know anybody who has seen a dead donkey?" he continued. "No. Nobody has ever told me that they have seen a dead donkey." Now, I had never seen a dead elephant either but I had read of the shooting of an elephant. I hand never heard of the shooting, hanging, stabbing or even poisoning of a donkey.

"Nor has anyone else," said Plinge, rubbing Threnody's nose as she lowered her eyelids at him.

"Why is that then?" I asked him.

Plinge explained to me patiently that the way to understand the immortality of donkeys was to understand their origin. Clearly he had made a study of the subject. Actually, he had been loitering in the library, waiting for Gertrude to get off work, when he had come across a book on the origin of horses and related animals. Since he was the proud owner of Threnody, he read the chapter on donkeys avidly.

Africa, Plinge told me, has produced only two domestic animals, the cat and the donkey. The donkey was depicted in Egyptian art around 2500 B.C. Roman mosaics show asses with strongly marked, long shoulder stripes and with bars on the legs. Other species originated in Somalia and Nubia. In these desert areas the food is sparse. This accounts for three key characteristics of the donkey. The long ears and loud voices are necessary to communicate with other members of the herd over large distances, allowing them to disperse to feed. They are very far sighted in order to locate their family spread out across the arid countryside. That is why Thren jumped over the yellow line down the middle of the road every time she had to cross it. That is why she walked around any shadow she might have seen in the road, she could not tell how deep it was. The gestation period with most animals is longer with larger size, shorter with smaller size, but the donkey has a longer gestation period that the horse because the donkey has adapted to a sparse food supply. The Jenny takes a year to have a foal.

It was after this outpouring of information about donkeys that I received my first lesson in genetics. The rain shower was slowly passing overhead and Fred was in no hurry to move, besides his little jenny seemed intrigued. He had spoken of crossbreeds and I wanted to know about hybrids. All species of the horse family will interbreed including zebras, onagers, horses, donkeys, and something called hemiones. Viable offspring are produced but they are rarely fertile. Fred told me about chromosomes carrying genes which are the basis for heredity. They are microscopic thread-like bodies found in identical pairs in the nuclei of the cells of animals and plants. There is usually a constant number of chromosomes in each species. Plinge told me that the horse has sixty four chromosomes while the donkey has sixty two.

Then we got into hybrid vigor, where the offspring are superior to either parent. I wondered, in my youthful ignorance, if my Scottish mother and English father had produced superior children. Fred quietly explained that the two nationalities were two varieties of the same race not different species but, no doubt, we were superior for other reasons. The mule, went on Fred after the interruption, is a perfect example of hybrid vigor. They have more stamina and endurance, can carry heavier loads, and are more sure-footed than either the horse or the donkey. Well, I wanted to know if this very Threnody, pushing into our sheltering hedge, could be the mother of a good mule. No, he explained, the mule is the cross between the jack and the mare. If a stallion were to be bred to a jenny, the offspring would be a hinny.

I wanted to know about the dark cross which lay across her back and shoulders. Fred told me that people believed that mark was the reward for the donkey carrying Jesus into Jerusalem.

"The Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 21, verse 5," quoted Plinge, " 'Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.' " He went on to tell me that in those days the donkey was viewed as a mode of transportation fit for priests alone.

Seeing that the rain was determined to continue, I suggested that there could be no donkey ghosts if donkeys did not die. My uncle was pleased with this deduction and pondered the question for a long moment. Then he told me how it was that he met Threnody. He did not say that he came to possess her, only that they met, as equals as it were.

One winters day my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. took a couple of sacks of acorns to be used as pig feed by the publican of the Kettle, a public house at High Hornbeam. One pint led to another and it was well passed closing time when Fred was still in the Kettle. The publican was trying to get back every penny that he had given Fred for the acorns while Fred was determined to get his moneys worth for the little time it took him to gather the acorns. At that late stage of the evening neither of them were too sure of the arithmetic involved. This small pub had no room for lodgers and it so happened that the young publican had been promised certain marital pleasures. That is why he was so eager to get rid of Fred once he had recovered the money he had given him for the bag of nuts. My uncle was eventually willing to leave for he had work to do the next morning, but his legs failed him. Where there is a will there is a way, however, and the publican, thinking of his promised prize no doubt, had the bright idea of sending Fred off on the back of the donkey he had inherited with the pub.

This inappropriate use of brewery property, as his superiors later noted, cost him his job. You will be glad to know, I am sure, that he was hired by a competing brewery which, I suppose, made him a republican. Perhaps I digress again. Where was I? Oh! Yes.

Lifting Plinge onto the donkey's back was no more effort than moving a barrel of beer in the cellar for the burly publican, who then slapped the donkey on the rump and they were off. For a while Fred may well have tried to steer her. As they plodded on through Epping Forest the owls and nature called to Plinge. He slipped off her back and, while still hanging onto her he turned away to pee. Threnody, being a well brought up lady, also turned away. It was this mutual gentility which caused the whole problem for when Fred climbed back on she was facing east and not west, a small technicality which failed to register in Fred's befuddled mind. As the donkey trudged on through the forest, Fred dozed off.

There are certain things that gentlemen just do not talk about. Most notable among these subjects are the age of women and naturally one does not kiss and tell. We have therefore to pass gracefully over these matters as they pertain to Threnody. Perhaps, if we cannot mention her age, we can delicately give an indication by looking, with sympathy, at her health. She had had some arthritis for the past ten years. While we cannot say just how many times she had been with a jack we can note that she had mothered ten offspring and, if donkeys have the sin of pride, she would have been proud of all of them.

So carrying my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. home was not an easy task for her even though she was walking on willingly. She had trouble with shadows let alone darkness, her stifles were distinctly painful, and she could barely remember the last time she had been the object of desire of a jack. Threnody was enjoying this outing from the confines of her paddock but her legs were giving out. Sometime past two in the morning it began to rain. The exposed London clay turned into a slick mess in very little time but she plodded on valiantly. At about three o'clock discretion overtook valor in Threnody's mind. She was, truth be told, and you know it always is told here, not entirely sure where she was going or even if she had passed this way before. We cannot blame the donkey. It was not she who drank copious amounts of beer. We cannot blame Fred, he was not even awake. We must therefore, with great diplomacy, lay the responsibility at the feet of the Cupid who caused the publican to act so injudiciously.

The old, white donkey dumped Fred, unceremoniously but gently under the sheltering branches of a large, old royal oak tree. She found herself a nice patch of soft moss at a discreet distance and lay down to rest until the light of day came. Long before dawn, Fred awoke from his troubled sleep, cold wet and lacking any knowledge of time or place. He could not remember how he got where he was nor even why he left in the first place.

You cannot fool a woodsman for very long, even at night, not even with a few of his faculties malfunctioning. The moss under his feet was the clue. This was only found in the area of the forest called Monkswood where the good brothers had walked from Waltham Abbey in the Lea Valley, over to another abbey long since destroyed by Henry VIII. Gradually, Fred became aware of his whereabouts. He did not see his companion. There was no memory of her at all. She lay placidly watching him.

When Fred got up, stamping his feet and flapping his arms to restore circulation and generate warmth. She also arose. As her new master walked off towards his home, now unfortunately several miles away, she followed at a fair distance, silent and white as a specter. Just before sunrise Fred was at the outer reaches of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding. He trudged home along the lanes in a mindless, weary state. Threnody, being a teetotaller, was in no such state, and with the improving light she started to gain on Fred. She cut through the alley between Mrs. Underthetable's cottage and that of her neighbor Mrs. Overthechair. Finding a lovely patch of grass beside a cottage in a copse, she stopped to nibble.

Fred took a very abbreviated nap before work. The cock had not yet crowed and most of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding slept. A man who wanders home in the wee small hours of the morning is rarely unobserved. It was Mrs. Nellie Nottonyore who was awake and hiccupping away while peeking around the edge of her lace curtain and watching for who knows what, or who knows who. Let us not sully her reputation by mere speculation on the subject. She saw Fred as he entered the village and following behind silently she saw the ghostly shape of a donkey. As she watched the little animal pass the wrought iron palings of Mrs. Underthetable, she was racked by an historic series of hiccups. She realized, in between hiccups, that she could see the pales of the fence through the donkey.

It is one of the less well understood principles of Einstein's wave theory that affected Nellie's optics. It so happened that Threnody's pace was synchronized with the hiccupping of Mrs. Nottonyore. Each time she hiccupped, she blinked and Thren moved forward one railing. You can get the same effect by blinking at a moving object but I recommend that you do not keep up the practice for too long or in the company of delicate people. Nellie shook her head to clear her sight, a common and, I find, ineffective practice. When she looked again at the fence there was no donkey.

Fred continued on down the winding lane in an approximation of its course, but no creature followed. Mrs. Nottonyore concluded that she had seen the ghost of a donkey. Once she had mentioned this incident to her neighbors, while chatting over the fence in question, there was no containing the story. It swept through the village with considerably more speed than accuracy. The various metamorphoses of this gossip took sometime to gel into a full blown anecdote. As soon as a villager heard the same story three times, it became a fact incapable of erasure. Later, Fred was to find the same rule of three to hold for American newspapers. The first reporter having just been transferred from sports to agricultural matters, printed the letters after his name, E.S.P.N., by the time Plinge caught the error it had been repeated twice and was impossible to change in any subsequent story. But I digress, let me bring you gently back to the story of the donkey ghost.

So it was that Fred acquired his lovely donkey, Threnody, although it was a while before she was named. Fred never did know exactly how she got there, but she seemed perfectly content to live in the paddock next to his garden. She grew attuned to his habits and even used the low end of the field across the hedge from the Herbert Plinge Memorial outhouse for her own similar purposes. Donkeys, being intelligent animals, as I am sure you are aware by now, do not mess all over their eating area. I believe the Italians have a suitable saying. I say that Threnody became attuned to his habits because I do not want you to think that she necessarily approved of them. Not that she was judgmental. In fact I believe tolerance in moderation may have been her motto. "Donata repondere laeti" to be precise about it. Learned scholars have argued as to the exact meaning of the Latin words as translated into English and used by a donkey, ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The particular habit which seems to have met with the least of her tolerance was his late night drinking. She made no comment if he walked less than a straight line after a noon session with the Whippet Clan at the Holly Bush. She seemed to tolerate those rare occasions when he left a pub before closing time due, of course, to lack of funds rather than lack of interest. The very first time after her arrival that he staggered home in the wee, small hours of the morning she let him know of her disapproval in a less than subtle way.

Threnody greeted Fred's appearance with the loudest bray of her spectacular braying career. She prolonged the serenade to her new love in gratitude for rescuing her from the boredom of her previous existence. She experimented with heretofore unheard of keys, and let us pray they remain so for evermore. She mimicked those clever Tibetan monk chanters who can sing two chords at once. She created a new form of cacophonous polyphony. Naturally, or perhaps unnaturally is more accurate, the Biddy Clan was clamoring about it the next morning almost as loudly as Thren had the night before.

"Did you ever hear such a noise!" said Mrs. Clara Biddy.

"Never in all my born days," said her sister-in-gossip, Dotty, "Never did I hear such a noise."

"Nor I," said Miss Phelia, although she was thinking of the night her great-grandfather Willows, well known in his family for wind in the Willows, had died of an excess of pork and beans. She decided, nicely, that she would not comment aloud on this whiff of information. The vicar had stopped to chat with Plinge two days later.

"Who or, perhaps I should say, what died the other night?" asked the good man.

"That would have been my donkey, but she did not die," smiled Fred.

"Quite a threnody," said the vicar, knowing full well that my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge E.P.N.S. had an interest in words.

"Threnody?" said Plinge, fascinated by the word, its sound, and the tickle of it on his tongue, "What in the world is that?"

"There are two types of funereal dirges, monodies and threnodies," said the vicar. "A monody is a style of composition in which one melody predominates; homophony as distinguished from polyphony. A threnody, on the other hand, is polyphonic."

"Well," said Fred, "there can be no doubt that it was a threnody!"

"And what a threnody! Will we be hearing more of them? asked the vicar.

"I'll speak to her about her sense of timing, vicar," promised Plinge and, having given his word, he did.

"Listen to me you threnody maker," he began as soon as he reached her side, "we have to be kind to others. We must not go waking the good souls of the village with our singing any more."

The name stuck, from then on he called her Threnody except when he shortened it to "Thren" or "Tren" and except in contests of stubbornness when he called her "You mouse-eared idiot," but that is another story altogether. This was the beginning of Fred's slow road to sobriety if not to actual abstinence. Threnody remained the only means of transportation that Fred owned, other than Shank's pony as we called our legs, until he became mechanized. It became obvious fairly soon after her arrival that her cart or "Coffin" pulling days were numbered. Furthermore she had a weight limit which rapidly diminished with age. She did not buck or lay down under a load she considered to be excessive. She merely declined to walk on. Fred could not replace her, he could not possibly sell her or even give her away. Being a decent man, he did not consider sending her off with an inebriate on her back. He kept her and, in order to avoid any jealousy on her part, he obtained a car.

I use the word "obtained" rather than "purchased" advisedly. I do not suggest to you that the car was stolen, the reverse is more appropriate. It was dumped on Fred. There were certain mechanical deficiencies about this particular vehicle which were built into it at the time of its creation in 1927. Other idiosyncrasies were installed somewhere between then and The War. At about twenty years old it was not recognizable as the Austin Seven it had started out to be. It was facetiously painted British Racing Car Green. At best it could reach forty miles per hour. When Fred found it embedded in his hedge, Threnody licking at the chrome of the radiator housing, it was no longer at its best.

The owner, who lived in a village only five miles away, did not feel it worth his while to retrieve this gem. He sent Plinge the papers and sighed in relief. Fred and I examined this wonder of the mechanical art for several weeks before we could obtain any kind of noise from it. He searched the library for books on the subject and finally concluded that it had been adapted to racing in the late twenties or early thirties. The original body was gone. In its place was an aluminum shell with a canvas hood. There were no doors and only one seat where two people of moderate proportions could sit as long as the driver squeezed in first. The hand brake was on the driver's side outside what would have been the cab if there had been one.

It did have a starter motor but it was wiser not to use it as the six volt battery soon ran down. One defect he never cured was the slow drain on the battery which went on day and night. There was a crank handle to start the thing. There was no ignition key, there was no key at all. There was nothing to lock, no doors and no boot. There was a leather strap to hold down the bonnet. On the dashboard there was a small lever that advanced and retarded the spark; advance to start, retard to go uphill and so on. I think Fred spent more time tinkering with it than driving it. He called this contraption "Flivver".

We made several trips outside the village in Flivver. We generally got back but we could rely on it being unreliable and breaking down. She died eventually in the Appalachian Mountains outside of Bedford, Pennsylvania, which is in fact, indeed, indubitably true because my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. told me so himself.

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