Title: The Donkey and His Boy
Disclaimer: I do not own the Chronicles of Narnia, etc.
Note: The answer to challenge 25: Compassion. Compassion actually is one of my favorite words because I love the etymology. Broken down to its original Late Latin roots: 'com-' meaning 'together' and 'pati' (in the pluperfect: 'passus') meaning 'to suffer'. Therefore 'compassion' actually means 'to suffer together'. I then connected this to an often-forgotten character in "The Horse and His Boy" - the donkey Shasta left behind in Calormen.
Talking Animals are not often found in the land of Calormen beneath the desert, but every so often one will wander too far south or a Calormene will wander too far north, with the end result that a native Narnian ends up living in a land not meant for them. One of these Narnians was a talking Donkey that a Calormene fisherman had bought as a colt. Esek, as he was called by the fisherman Arsheesh, did not actually talk, despite his status as a Talking Animal. He did not remember much of his life in Narnia, but he did remember his mother whispering at him not to say a word as they were separated by slavers, so he never did. After all, his mother was more clever than he, and so she must have known best.
So Esek, with his Narnian name long forgotten, labored as a dumb beast in the heat of the Calormene sun, pulling Arsheesh's cart of fish to market and back, often receiving a sharp snap of the whip for his work. He did not think much about his lot in life; there was not much he could do to change it anyway. Esek worked, he ate, he slept, and sometimes he dreamed of green fields and hop clover, the tasty, golden flower from a faint memory of years long past.
Many long years of monotonous servitude was broken up one moonlit night, when Esek, secure in his little thatched stable, watched Arsheesh walk down to the sea and come back with a bundle not of fish, but something with a cry as loud as one of Esek's brays. He had heard that cry before, in the market place, and came to the logical conclusion that Arsheesh had found a human baby. Wondering how one finds a human baby by the ocean, Esek, for the first time in so many years, decided to leave his little stable and investigate.
Though a dumb donkey would have had considerable trouble freeing himself from his prison, a Talking Donkey, even one as uneducated and un-clever as Esek, would find it rather easy. Soon Esek found himself trotting quietly down to the water's edge. There was a little boat that the tide had run aground, with something in it. Peeking over the side, Esek was surprised to see a man lying in the boat. Maybe this was where the baby had come from!
Esek nudged the man with his nose, but he did not move. Thinking perhaps the man was thirsty, as Esek knew Arsheesh always complained about thirst, he trotted over to the small creek that passed by the fisherman's house to the ocean. As best he could, Esek filled a nearby water jug and carefully brought it back to the boat, balancing the handle between his teeth. Reaching his destination, Esek dribbled a bit of the water into the man's slightly opened mouth. Nothing happened at first, but then the mouth closed and Esek saw the man swallow even as his eyelids began to flutter.
Pouring more water, Esek then set the jug down and began nudging the man again. He would not disobey his mother's last words and speak, but the nudging seemed to do the trick. The man's eyes opened, widening only slightly at the sight of the great shaggy head above him. "Are…are you…" the man croaked out, his lips cracked and his voice weak, "real?" Esek nodded and the man's eyes widened further. "Narnian?"
Esek nodded again, then reached his head down to pick up the jug and give more water to the man. The man tried to smile his thanks. "The babe…where…is he safe?"
Again, Esek nodded, happy to see that his response pleased the man. "Take…take care of him, friend. Protect…the fair prince…in Aslan's name."
At the name 'Aslan', Esek shivered, feeling as if he were rolling in a bed of hop clover that was just waiting to be eaten. He nodded yet again, determined now to protect Fairprince, though he did not really know why he should feel so. The man sighed, his eyes staring past Esek and dulling by the minute. "Send me…to Aslan, friend. Give me…to the sea. Please," the last coming out in a whisper before the man went completely still. Esek was quite confused about why the man wanted to be set adrift, it could not be very comfortable in that boat, but he pushed the little craft into the water and watched it float away. Trotting back to his stable, Esek settled down for the night. Tomorrow he would begin protecting Fairprince.
Initially Esek did not see much of Fairprince, whom Arsheesh named Shasta. The baby stayed either with Arsheesh or the local wetnurse. However, Esek managed to sneak glances at the rapidly growing child, making sure he was alive and well (or at least as well as a donkey can tell of a human baby). Soon, though, Shasta grew big enough, in the fisherman's opinion, to do chores and work around the house. One of these chores was feeding Esek.
The first meeting between the little boy and the donkey set the course of their relationship for years to come. Arsheesh, anxious to get to his fishing boat, roughly pushed the boy towards the stable and gave him quick instructions on how to clean it before he hurried away, ignoring the raised arms the boy held out to him in a plea for a hug. It was then that Esek realized that he would do whatever it took to keep that heartbroken look off of Shasta's face. Starting right away.
With the determination that donkeys, talking or not, are known for, Esek stretched out his head and began chewing on the straw-like hair on the boy's head. Shasta's face scrunched up in exasperation. "Esek, stop!" The donkey ignored the boy and continued to delicately munch on the hair. It tasted like salt and sand, as almost everything by the sea did, but there was an undertaste of some kind of flower that was new to Esek. It was almost better than hop clover, he decided. Shasta pulled away and Esek gave the boy a pitiful look. A smile twitched at the edges of the child's mouth, so Esek gave him the most innocent, pathetic face he could conjure up. Shasta let out a laugh and gently, if somewhat awkwardly, patted Esek's head, before moving to begin working on his chores. Esek felt like braying with triumph. He could do this. He could help Shasta if only by making him laugh in his misery.
So that is what Esek did from that day forth. When Shasta came to the stable with a sad face, Esek would nibble his hair and act silly – which, honestly, was not hard for the poor donkey, but it was the thought that mattered – and Shasta would smile or laugh, his heart lightened. Esek would nuzzle the crying boy when his attempts to please his father failed, or Arsheesh shouted harshly at him. And the times when fisherman would start taking out his anger for a poor day's work on Shasta, Esek would act up, turning that anger onto himself. Though it usually earned him a painful whipping, the soft pets and soothing words Shasta would comfort him with made it worth every stripe.
The donkey and the pale boy were each others only friends for years and years on end. Esek made Shasta smile through his crying and Shasta tended Esek's lashed sides when Arsheesh was particularly harsh. The two friends shared funny moments, sad tears, and sometimes food when times were hard and Arsheesh could afford to feed only one human. The stable was Shasta's haven, and sometimes his only shelter when his father entertained guests. Esek never begrudged his human friend a spot of hay or a few oats, happy to do without for Shasta's sake.
It was as happy an existence as a poor donkey and a boy who was no more than a slave could live. For a while Esek thought their lot would never change, nor truly even considered that life could be different. Change came, though, in the form of a Tarkhaan and his horse. Stuck in his stable, Esek could only listen as Shasta cared for the great warhorse, speaking to himself about…being sold to the Tarkhaan? Esek shivered at the thought, not wishing to think about being separated from his only friend.
Then the horse spoke to Shasta, declaring himself a Narnian who intended to escape Calormen, and Esek's heart sank. He heard the whole conversation through the thin walls surrounding him, so Esek was not surprised when Shasta entered the stable to steal the Horse's saddle and bridle. The poor donkey felt like crying when Shasta kissed his nose as he had so many times before and whispered "I'm sorry we can't take you." At that moment, Esek was the closest he ever came to talking since he was a foal; he wanted to speak to Shasta, beg his friend to stay, or to take Esek with him on his wild escape to the north.
Then Esek's own heart stopped him. He was an old, small donkey with few years left in him after so brutal a life. If he escaped as well, the Horse would either far outpace him or Esek would end up holding the fugitives back, increasing the risk of recapture. And, Esek thought with his head drooping sadly on Shasta's shoulder as the boy hugged him farewell, I can't ask Shasta to stay. I would still lose him, but to that awful Tarkhaan and he would be too far away for me to help him. So, with a heavy heart, Esek gently ate the tips of Shasta's hair for the last time and let his friend leave without a Donkey's words to hold him back.
After Shasta's escape, Esek's life returned to the harsh monotony it had been before a fair-skinned baby washed up on shore. Arsheesh, incensed at losing not only his worker but also the promised crescents from selling said worker to the Tarkhaan, worked Esek hard, as if blaming the donkey for Shasta's flight. Steadfast Esek continued to labor under the hot sun, his memories of his young friend his only solace. How much time passed, Esek did not know. His days were filled with pulling fish-carts, lashes on his back, and angry curses shouted at him. Each day Esek grew older, and with age and ill-treatment he grew weaker.
Finally, one hot day, Esek's body gave out in the road just outside the fisherman's hut, still attached to the cart filled with unsold fish. Arsheesh, already angry at the day's bad sale, began hitting the exhausting and unresponsive Esek with his switch. Despite the pain caused by the harsh blows, Esek did not move, could not move. His limbs no longer responded to his mind's command, and he felt rather removed from existence and the switch's sting.
He heard more shouting, from others beside Arsheesh, and the lashing stopped. Opening his eyes, Esek saw two blurs of red and blond knock the fisherman to the ground while the figure of a Calormene lady in strange dress watched on, fire in her eyes. After a moment, the two blurs sharpened into…Despite Esek's weariness, his eyes widened in shock. There, standing above a fallen Arsheesh, were, not one, but two Shastas! Older and taller, with well-trimmed hair falling on his shoulders, but still Esek would recognize his friend anywhere.
One of the Shasta's moved forward and knelt by Esek's side, his hands stroking the Donkey's neck and side. "Oh Esek, I've come back, I had to come back. I couldn't leave you here." Esek stared at Shasta, the Donkey's breathing heavy and harsh. Shasta's eyes shined wet with tears, and Esek desperately wanted to help the boy as he had in the past, but he did not have the strength to lift his head. Shasta hands continued their stroking, and Esek felt them shaking as he continued speaking. "I live in Archenland now, with my father and brother…he's my twin, you know. He and my friend, Aravis, they came with me back to Calormen. I came…I came to bring you back with me. Archenland…it is so beautiful, Esek. Green fields, water everywhere, you'll love it. You will have the best grass, the richest oats, and you will never have to pull a cart ever again."
Esek's heart was beating slower now, thumping softly under Shasta's hand. The pale youth broke into tears and flung his arms around Esek's neck. "You were always there for me, Esek," whispered Shasta near the Donkey's ear. "We shared everything: food, shelter, beatings. You were always with me, my oldest and dearest friend, and I left you. Oh Esek, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." There were no more words as Shasta's tears stole his voice. Esek, anxious to help his friend, gathered what little strength he had left. He was too weak in mind and body to conjure any long-forgotten words…but he could still nibble gently on the ends of Shasta's straw-hair that had blown near Esek's mouth.
Shasta gave a small laugh that was really more of a sob. "Still stubborn about that, eh? Dearest, faithful Esek. I will never forget you, I swear by Aslan." They lay like that, the boy with his arms around his oldest friend and the donkey keeping a firm grip on the boy's hair. Esek's heart slowed more and his breathing shallowed. As his sight dimmed, Esek watched the strangely-dressed Calormene girl and the other Shasta kneel beside him as well, each reaching out a hand to comfort his own Shasta. Esek realized, with a content heart, that the Fairprince would be well looked after. His job was complete. Closing his eyes, Esek heard Shasta whisper, "May Aslan bless your journey," and then he let go.
A bright light pierced through his closed eyelids. Blinking, Esek scrambled to his hooves, jumping out of the small river he seemed to have been lying in. The rather startled Donkey looked around him, his eyes widening at the sight of the large fields that ran far to the horizon, all green and covered with every kind of tasty flower imaginable. With legs more sprightly than he ever remembered, Esek nearly flew across the fields, nibbling at everything he could get his mouth on. Wonderous flavors entangle his senses; never had he ever tasted anything so delicious!
When he had finally eaten his fill – and he only felt contented, not horribly stuffed – Esek took a roll in the grass, enjoying the warm sun on his face. Then, he felt it: a wonderful, terrible presence. Knees shaking, Esek rose and turned around. Before him stood a great Lion, and somehow Esek knew instinctively that this, this was Aslan and Aslan was his master. Not a horrid master like Arsheesh, but the True Master and Esek's first thought, silly as it may seem, was that he would very much like to pull any fish-cart if it would please Him.
Aslan smiled, a warm, welcoming smile that felt like a breeze on a hot night. "Welcome home, My true and faithful servant. You have served Me and My children well in the shadowlands. Now you have come to your rest." Esek desperately wanted to say something, but he rather feared that he had forgotten how to talk at all. Aslan seemed to sense this, and breathed a gentle breath on the Donkey. "Speak, My child, for you are a Talking Animal, not a dumb beast."
"Please sir," said Esek in a voice as strong as if he had used it every day of his life, "I don't understand. What have I done other than pull a cart every day?"
Aslan nuzzled Esek's bowed head. "You were called to care for a young, lost boy and so you did. When he wept, you dried his tears; when he grieved, you made him smile; when he suffered, so you suffered with him. Shasta named you rightly, Faithful Esek."
There was so much love and tenderness in Aslan's eyes that Esek felt he might weep, if that were possible here in the Lion's presence. Another question came to Esek. "Will I see Shasta again? I do hope so – he is my friend, sir."
The great Lion did not answer with words, but his eyes held the answer that Esek hoped to see. Braying with joy, Esek trotted further in, across the field in search of more hop clover. It would hold him over until his friend came home and Esek could once again snatch a bite of Shasta's tasty hair.
And, in the face of eternity, that reunion came in no time at all.