Free to be

Sunlight bounced off a sizzling zinc roof to blind me momentarily then there he was, running towards me with a with a lasso on his neck. One end of the rope had tangled around his shin to bend it back and hold it off the ground.  He hobbled right up to me, and I grabbed the rope, then walked my donkey friend over a grassy ridge separating the citybound and outbound lanes. 

Waves of heat rose from the asphalt.  Orange flowers shone gloriously, people and palm trees wilted.  I was glad of a cotton shawl over my head and shoulders.  A Bajaj pulled in. A thin bench, a roof, and driver’s seat: a flimsy metal frame, all welded around a three-wheeled motorbike.  Two children disembarked from the taxi.  The boy carried a bulging sack as big as his body.  An older girl took it and hoisted it onto her shoulders.  Her pelvis tipped forward slightly, so she lowered her head to compensate for the weight then braced herself.  Women carrying enormous loads were everywhere here, and I wondered if this girl was yet another construction labourer.  The Bajaj moved off, its two-stroke engine sounding like a giant bumble bee, farting putrid fumes.

I squatted down to free the leg of my fellow traveller.  Calm, almond shaped eyes followed every move.  His hooves were neatly trimmed, and I half expected to see a man running down the road asking if anyone had seen his ahiya (‘donkey’ in Amharic).  Nobody came.  A few people flip-flopped along wearing hats, others held fans up to their faces.  The city was quiet.  Most folks were probably down by the river trying to keep cool like the hippos.

 “Someone could depend on you” I thought, rubbing the donkey’s coat. There was a veterinary university here, but where?  Was this placid creature destined to carry heavy loads on his back?  Who was he was running from? I rubbed behind his ears, suddenly reminded of childhood Summers in Tipperary.  Grandad had kept a gentle mule named Jonny. 

After picking up the end of the rope I wrapped it around the donkey’s neck then tucked it under a few times, hoping the ‘necklace’ would not unravel.  It was my last evening in Ethiopia.  Missing the flight was not an option: I had to go. Suddenly he yanked his head, looked towards the hills, then turned back again to look at me.  A breeze picked up, carrying a scented cocktail of spices, incense, coffee, and eucalyptus.  At the base of the hill, from a cluster of houses on either side of a dirt road, music emerged; Teddy Afro was singing his heart out, backed by joyful traditional East African rhythms.  My whole body tingled, and it felt as if a decision had been made for me.

Freedom is the privilege to experience life with all senses alert, untethered. I pulled the whole coil up along the donkey’s neck, carefully flattened his long ears, lifted it over his head and let it fall to the ground.  The rope landed like a limp snake.  My four-legged friend locked eyes with me for a split second then turned and ran uphill. Grinning and full of joy, I watched him.

This short piece was originally published in ‘The Pollen Pages‘, which is available here:

Kathryn Crowley lives and writes in Kerry, Ireland.

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