"How are ye today, Aran?"
He came forward, his eyes bright and his lips twitching in hopes of another fat carrot.
He decided very quickly that he liked me coming by, and he always looked me in the eye and gave me that funny feeling inside. Even when I wasn't with him, I felt that tickle in my heart every time I thought about him. 'Aran likes me!'
As our friendship grew and Aran got healthy again, with shiny new hair now covering his damaged skin, I started spending more time with him in the fields. I loved watching his every move and how his big fuzzy ears twitched back and forth separately, like tele- vision antennas. I started trying out different donkey sounds to see what he responded to. He seemed to like some more than others, and I kept trying to find the right pitch.
My family thought it was funny, and I enjoyed their laughs and teasing, but I was serious and worked hard to mimic the sounds. I'd never known any other human who could bray exactly like a donkey, but I had plenty of furry teachers to help me hone my new skill. I genuinely wanted to communicate with the donkeys in their own language.
After a while I started hiding and trying out my donkey calls, sneaking around in the dark, peeking around a corner, or hiding in the tack room and watching the donkeys through a hole in the wall to see if I could trick them into thinking I was really a donkey by singing my best donkey song. I loved when it worked and they kicked off, a bunch of them braying in unison like some mad donkey choir.
I also liked to lie down in the grass next to where Aran was grazing and watch his face from ground level so I could see what he saw. I spent hours every day looking at the curly silver whiskers on his soft muzzle, a top lip that could twitch all around and nuzzle my hand, or twist and snatch a piece of apple from my fingers. Every time, I felt that feeling again—like he could see all the way into me, and he liked what he saw.
Aran cared about me and kept an eye on me. I noticed how sensitive he was to his environment and how he signaled his feel- ings through the movement of his ears, which swiveled back and forth or went flat back against his head. I learned to watch his nose, feet, and tail, which all reflected his mood. I knew he watched me too, and when the weather allowed, I was out in the fields with him for most of the day. There was such a lovely feeling about him.
I started riding Aran bareback around the farm and up the hill to the rock. I mastered the art of jumping up onto his back and steadying myself with my left hand on his neck, while giving him a soft smack on the rump with my right hand. My dad couldn't ride him because most donkeys in Ireland are too small for an adult. But they are the perfect size for a kid, and my sisters Debbie, Helen, Eileen, and I would ride—especially Helen. She was my sister with red hair like Dad, and she, too, seemed to have a special way with the donkeys like Mam.
I rode Aran all over the fields with just a rope halter or a bit of twine looped over the top of his head, around his jaw, and over his nose, with a bit of length left over for me to hold on to. His backbone stuck up, forming a sharp ridge, but I learned how to sit comfortably behind the dark gray cross on his neck and shoul- ders. I guided him with a slight shift in my body weight to send him forward, slow him down, or turn him to the left or right. He responded to my cues—when he felt like listening to me, that is.
Whenever I rode Aran and touched the cross on his back, I remembered the Jesus story, which I heard something like this:
A poor farmer near Jerusalem owned a young donkey. One day two men came by, saw the donkey tied to a tree, and asked the farmer if they could have him.
"That animal can't carry much," the farmer said. "Jesus of Nazareth needs it," one of the men said.
The farmer handed them the rope, and when Jesus first saw the donkey, he bent his head down, smiled, and stroked his neck. Then he climbed on the young donkey and rode away to the city of Jerusalem, where the crowds waited with palm branches and welcomed him with shouts of joy.
The donkey loved his gentle master, served him well, and later followed him to Calvary. The day Jesus died, the shadow of the wooden cross where Jesus died fell upon the shoulders and back of the donkey, leaving a permanent mark. To this day, many donkeys bear the imprint of a cross on their backs.1
I loved this story, and I loved riding an animal Jesus had ridden. I felt like my family and I were special because we were the family in Ireland called to care for this sacred animal that carried Jesus. It was so long ago, but I often wondered what that donkey must have felt, and I liked to think about how he had been faithful in carrying out his service. It made me love Aran all the more, because one of his kind had carried the Son of God on his back.
After a few months of good food, grooming, and care from Mam, as well as a safe place to stay warm and sleep, Aran's memories of his cold and lonely life on the island began to fade away. The other donkeys gave him room to just be, and he slowly started to find his place in the herd.
"He's coming around," Mam said. The joy in her voice gave me that same feeling in my heart.
Then something surprising happened—Aran decided to join our family herd too! Even though he was making friends with the other donkeys, I had spoiled him with carrots and the occasional slice of bread and he followed me everywhere, hoping for more treats and back rubs. One day he showed up at the back door, pushed it open, and clip-clopped right into the house.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book THE DO-OVER by Bethany Turner.