When I got back from the hardware store this morning, I planned to write a column explaining why somebody from New Jersey who'd never seen a donkey in the first half-century of his life now owned three.
As I was heading back from town, the cell phone warbled. My friend Anthony, working at the farm, was calling to say that there was a baby donkey in the pasture. Knowing this had to be a joke, since I had no male donkeys and, to my knowledge, no pregnant ones either, I laughed, fired off some obscene macho banter, and hung up.
When I pulled into the driveway next to the big barn, though, I nearly drove into a fence post. There was a tiny new donkey, soaking wet from amniotic fluid, hugging close to Jeannette, my most recently acquired Sicilian donkey. The afterbirth was close by and fresh. And Jeannette was snorting like a bull and glowering at any interlopers.
No way, I thought.
Way. Obviously, donkeys have a very long gestation period. Jeannette must have been knocked up just before she arrived last spring. I phoned an SOS to the Granville Large Animal Veterinary Practice and ran into the house for some towels.
Jeannette and I are close, thanks to my daily offerings of carrots, apples, and oat cookies. She let me pick up her newborn—I named her Emma, after my own daughter—towel her off, and make sure her throat and eyes were clear. When I scratched her fuzzy little nose, she closed her eyes and went to sleep in my arms. I gave Jeannette some cookies, checked to see that she had milk in her teats—she did, a lot of it—and brushed her down a bit to calm her.
I knelt in front of her and she put her head on my shoulder. "Congratulations," I said. "Who is the father? You can tell me." But she just went over to Emma and nosed her.
There aren't many donkeys born these days, so people from nearby farms began showing up, alerted by the mysterious rural news network by which everyone instantly knows everything. In an hour or so, the vet showed up, gave the donkeys their appropriate shots, said they were fine, and departed. He told me that Emma was, oops, a male. So, Emma became Jesus (using the Spanish pronunciation), thanks to the mysteriously virginal circumstances of his birth.
I felt guilty about the way I'd been mocking Jeanette for her expanding girth and hearty appetite, never guessing that she was eating for two. Jeannette had fortunately chosen an unusually warm day to give birth. A bitter cold wave was approaching in 48 hours, though, so we scurried to find the heat lamps and make a cozy space for Jeannette and Jesus in the barn.
All this made me think even more about why I own donkeys at all. Once, donkeys were the tractors and ATVs of country life, performing agricultural and mercantile tasks that were integral to farming and commerce. Now, they are useless. Local farmers call them "hay-suckers."