a short-story by Paul D Kennedy
© Paul D Kennedy, 2001
Once upon a time a farmer and his wife lived on a large farm. They were blessed with many fertile fields, herds of animals, faithful servants and sturdy farm workers. But in addition to his wealth, the farmer himself had a very strange gift — he could understand the language of the animals.
On the farm, along with all the other animals, there was an ox and a donkey. They lived in stalls, side by side, in the barn and they were great friends.
The ox was a great big muscular fellow, with a creamy light-brown skin. He was full of breath and strength. But he had a hard life. Everyday he was lead out to the fields by the ploughboy. There he had to walk up and down, from one end of a field to another, in a straight line, hauling a heavy plough, from dawn until dusk, no matter what the weather. He was always covered in dust, mud and dirt, and by the end of the day he was totally exhausted.
The donkey on the other hand led a life of comparative leisure. He seldom had to carry his master or mistress anywhere, and he did not have to pull a cart often at all. Small and dark-brown in colour, he spent most of his day just lounging around, eating and drinking, wandering around the farmyard and passing the odd hour snoozing under a shady tree. Life for the donkey was sweet and easy.
‘I don’t know how you manage it,’ the ox used to moan in the evenings, when he and the donkey were in the barn together with the other animals.
‘Life is really unfair,’ he used to say to his friend.
The donkey felt sorry for the ox. One evening, as the farmer went through the barn checking on his animals, he overheard the donkey giving his friend some advice.
‘What you need to do,’ said the donkey, ‘is make yourself look sick. Don’t eat and pretend you are ill. The next time you’re out in the fields pulling the plough, let yourself fall over and pretend you are too weak to get up. Then struggle to your feet and fall over again. When they get you back here, don’t eat anything. Don’t eat at all, even if they put the best oats in front of you in your manger. Keep it up for a few days and you’ll be on easy street. You’ll see.’
The ox nodded his head. The farmer smiled as he went about tidying up the barn.
The next morning when the ploughboy arrived for the ox at dawn he found him lying flat on his side in his stall. His manger was still full of barley oats and it was obvious that he hadn’t eaten anything at all. The ox moved his head slowly from side to side and groaned. He didn’t flick his tail, even when a fly landed on his side.
The ploughboy ran off to tell his master about the ox. The farmer nodded his head gravely as he listened to the boy.
‘Well,’ said the farmer, ‘the ploughing has to go on, so there is only one thing for it. You will have to use the donkey to pull the plough. We’ve no choice in the matter if we’re to get the ploughing done. The donkey, of course, is much smaller than the ox so you’ll have to drive him hard to get the work done. Make sure you drive that donkey as hard as you can.’
The ploughboy was a bit surprised at his instructions and he thought it was strange that the farmer didn’t seem to be too worried about the ox. But he didn’t know about his boss’ gift. The boy did as he was told and lead the donkey out to the fields where he hitched him to the plough.
All that day long, under the heat of the sun, the donkey pulled the heavy plough up and down the fields. The poor creature was soon covered in dust and mud. Now and then the plough would stick in the earth and the ploughboy would beat him with a long thin stick. The slaps from the stick really stung the donkey but he had to struggle on because, whenever his pace slackened, the ploughboy gave him a few more lashes. The poor donkey felt numb all over from the stick and the strain of pulling the plough.
This went on all day with only a short break in the middle when the ploughboy stopped to eat the lunch the farmer’s wife had given him in the morning. Then the pulling and lashing started again, and went on and on without a let-up until it was almost dark and the ploughboy turned him back towards the farmyard.
‘Oh, what a grand day I’ve had,’ said the ox as his friend came stumbling back into the barn, ‘most agreeable and pleasant. I’m a bit hungry to tell the truth, but I can put up with that. You don’t need much food when you don’t have a lot to do and I’ll be able to start eating again in a few days anyway.' He grunted with satisfaction.
'How did you get on yourself?’ he enquired.
The donkey said nothing. He walked slowly into his stall and slumped down into a corner. He glared at the ox with his exhausted eyes.
What a fool I am, he thought as he sulked in his corner. In future I will keep my bright ideas to myself.
The next morning the ploughboy arrived at the crack of dawn as usual. He saw that the ox was still not well and had not eaten a grain of his barley. He ran off to the farmer and received the same instructions as he had been given the morning before.
Again, all day long, the donkey had to pull the plough up and down the fields, from one end to the other and back again, feeling the strain of the plough on his shoulders and sting of the long thin stick on his behind.
‘I’ve got to do something about this,’ he said to himself, breathing great gulps of air. ‘I’ve got to think up something. This can’t go on.’
At last the day was finally over and, once again, the donkey stumbled into the barn, bruised and hungry, dusty and muddy, and completely exhausted. The ox looked up from where he was reclining on the straw in his stall.
‘Has another day drifted by already?’ he enquired, yawning contentedly. ‘It’s been so dreamy. And how was your day?’
‘My day was just fine,’ the donkey retorted sharply.
He tottered into his stall and sank down onto his bed of straw. He lay there for a while, the tiredness sweeping through him in waves. Then he revived a little and smiled to himself. He looked over at the ox.
‘Listen, we’re old friends, you and I. We’ve always helped each other, always. Now there’s something I must tell you, for your own good. When we were coming back through the yard, the farmer said something to the ploughboy. He said that there was no point in keeping you if you’re going to be too sick to work. He said that if you haven’t recovered in a day or so he’ll have to ask the butcher to come and put you out of your misery.’
The next morning, as dawn broke, the farmer and his wife went to the barn with the ploughboy. The ox’s manger was empty, licked clean, not a grain of barley left. The ox himself was full of vigour and vim, frisking about, flicking his tail and flexing the great big muscles on his shoulders.
The boy harnessed the ox and lead him out of his stall.
‘I thought you said the ox was very ill, dear,’ the farmer’s wife said as the ploughboy led the ox past.
The farmer laughed and a slight blush coloured the creamy cheeks of the ox.
© Paul D Kennedy, 2001