The cars arrive and are arranged with haphazard impatience along the quiet narrow street. The drivers don’t live here and it doesn’t occur to them to care about those who do. Their journey is not about empathy.
They follow the arrows.
At the corner, atop a small ascent of muddy earth, a misshapen magnolia tree hunches low and slauntwise, branches queerly flexed. At its base, erosion has swept away purchase, exposing a rigor of sustenance arched painfully upward; a snarl of curved rooted passageways anchors the tree. The overall impression is of yearning interruption, as though the tree had been journeying elsewhere but stepped wrong, blundering into immobility short of its destination.
Beneath the tree, amidst its roots, stands a small stone donkey, perhaps a quarter of the size of his real-life counterpart. The stone donkey is stout and sturdy, but the details of his character have been ablated; what might have been stubborn sentinel defiance has been weather-smoothed over the years into a sort of generic attentive blindness. He stares out into the approach of the ever-unknown, his feet firmly planted, his head held high.
In the house the donkey guards once lived a man and a woman. It was the man who placed the donkey beneath the magnolia tree. Many years ago, that was, after a blinding pinprick of a moment in which the future reduced to a single photographic image of undeniable withins. As the world spun to maelstrom, the man turned his attention to the things he could control — he painted the house and fixed the leak in the roof and emptied the garage of accumulated excess. He cleaned the rooms and tended to the garden and emptied the gutters and hung the wind chimes and filled the bird feeders. He went grocery shopping and changed sheets and swept the walkway and prepared meals and visited the library, carrying home armloads of books to be read aloud. He sat on the porch in the early evenings and stared at the single tree in the front yard – a gnarled aged magnolia leaning awkwardly away. It occurred to him he might be able to trim its branches and force the tree into a more pleasing form, but the landscaper he called out to offer advice shook his head. “Mature tree, magnolia, deciduous … anything more than clearing out the dead branches is only going to cause more death.” The landscaper shook his head again, apologetically. “Anyway, no amount of pruning is going to stand that tree upright; best you learn to appreciate the beauty of a life lived ugly.”
Which settled that.
He bought a stone donkey, which he had delivered and placed beneath the tree.
“Why?” she asked as she stared out the window at the donkey’s stone flank.
He wasn’t sure.
A few weeks later, his sister, whose name was Gwen, came to visit, and on the last night of her stay, he stood with her in the small patch of front-yard lawn. Having run out of conversation, he sipped his beer and stared up into the stars, of which there were many, pretending to himself there was meaning to be found in their arrangement. Gwen reached to thump the base of her beer bottle against his chest, and when he looked at her, she swung the bottle messily in the direction of the donkey and said, “Guess cancer’s as good a windmill as any. Tilt away.”
Which confused him, never having read the book, but he didn’t like her tone. Looking back up at the stars, he said softly, almost to himself but intending the words for her as well, “So much comes down to what absorbs the light.” Gwen left early the next morning, and he watched the taillights of her car fade pink into the brightening day.
He went to the library and checked out the book. He sat and read aloud, and when he got to the part about the donkey named Dapple, she laughed quietly and pointed out the window. “Dapple … for the way the filtered sunlight speckles him in shades of light and dark.”
When he finished reading the book, he wanted to punch his sister in the face. He thought about calling her, thought about screaming that Don Quixote, caught in the throes of madness or enchantment, had fought imaginary monsters and giants; that Don Quixote had ridden a horse and not a donkey; that the donkey had been ridden instead by the decidedly realistic and steadfast Sancho Panza, who saw the truth; and that cancer was a monstrous truth and not a windmill. He also wanted to know if there was intention behind the fact the first two syllables of Don Quixote’s name were roughly “donkey,” and if that mattered and if his sister knew something he didn’t know or if she was just an ass which was another word for donkey, and he walked to the refrigerator and got himself a beer and drank it alone, staring into the matte blankness of the living-room walls.
He promised her he would be happy, watched her lips move as she made the request, mouthed his own words without meaning.
Her ashes were delivered to him in a glazed ceramic urn he did not remember ordering, although he did recall a line from a brochure assuring him, “The right urn can help ease the pain of losing a loved one.” If there was any truth to this statement, he had chosen badly, as his pain was unrelenting. The urn sat, foreign and shimmering, on the dining-room table, which seemed as wrong a place as any other he could imagine. Every evening after dinner, he sat out on the front steps and watched the dusk leach the world of color. He stared until the magnolia tree became a twisted sentient tangle of grey-shaded agony, craving oblivion’s release. He stared until the stone donkey stood darkly solid, silhouetted resolute against the remnanted light of the starlit moon. He found himself mesmerized by the contradictory visions, uncertain which telling was his. He lay in the grass and stared up at the stars, looking for guidance, reading nothing there but the needle-pointed stories of the past.
After time measured in spoonfuls enough of quicksand to demand that he stop struggling, he opened the urn and ran some water and made a paste of her. Night after night, then, he smoothed her into the pocks and imperfections of the small stone donkey. In the soft starlit darkness beneath the magnolia, he pressed his hands to shape her into something other than gone. Until she was gone.
As everything must go.
An old woman sits behind a folding table, a makeshift cash register of a fishing-tackle box in front of her. Nameless strangers mill about, walking across the lawn and through the house, passing judgment, assigning value to what remains. One of these strangers gestures toward the magnolia tree. “I’ll give you twenty dollars for the donkey.”