by Carol Knight Watson
(LuAnn Perone sent this story to Amberwood Sanctuary in 1999.)Once upon a Christmas time, many miles and years from here, there lived a small donkey. He was 14 unhappy years old, and he had worked hard and long for at least twice 14 masters. He was battered and scarred, and his tail was like a piece of limp rope, unraveled down at the end. One of his ears stood straight up like a cactus plant, while the other ear hung down like a wilted cabbage leaf. Yes, and his off hind leg had a decided limp. His name was Small One. His present master was a woodcutter, who also owned four younger and, therefore, stronger donkeys.
The woodcutter’s son cared for Small One. He saw to it that Small One always had dry straw for his bed and that the load of wood to be carried to town wasn’t too heavy for Small One’s aging back. The boy and the donkey were very close friends.
Well, early one morning, in that season of the year when even the sun itself seems loath to rise and thrust a shivering beam into the cold of the valleys, the woodcutter called his son to him and said, “Son, I wish you to take the old donkey, the one you call Small One, to a shop just inside the town gates. They will give you one piece of silver in exchange for the animal.”
“You mean...?” There was sudden alarm and fear in the boy’s face. “You don’t mean you’re going to sell Small One?”
“He can no longer do his share of the work. Why, even when carrying half the load of other donkeys, his worn-out legs tremble and his sides heave like a bellows! An old donkey is of no use to anyone! One day soon he might drop dead on us up in the hills—a total loss. It’s better to take the piece of silver now and say good riddance to the beast. You will start at once.”
The boy, striving to hold back the hot tears, nodded his head.
The father went on, trying to speak lightly as if it were a matter of little consequence, “The shop where you will take the donkey is the second shop on the left as you pass through the town gates.”
“The second on the left?” The sudden realization of the fate in store for Small One turned the boy’s grief into horror. “But... but that’s the tanner’s!”
The father spoke gruffly to cover his own discomfort. “The beast’s hide is old, but it will make good leather.”
“But he’s been faithful! He’s worked hard! He’s done his best!” The boy’s face was convulsed with misery and despair. “You can’t sell him to the tanner to be killed!”
“Come now, I’ll have no tears!” The father hardened his heart and made his voice stern. “Shame on you, crying over a miserable donkey! Now, hurry, be off with you! If you start at once, you can be home before nightfall. And remember, take good care not to lose that piece of silver or you’ll do without supper and be punished besides!”
The boy picked up the old strap that was Small One’s single earthly possession and placed it around the little donkey’s neck. Following the wood path to the road, the small boy and the small donkey began their sorrowful journey to the town. People along the way wondered why the small boy was crying. They couldn’t know that he was listening to Small One’s hooves on the road—and the hooves seemed to beat out the words: “Going to tanner’s... Going to tanner’s... Going to tanner’s.” And all along the miles, the boy tried to think of some way to save his friend.
It was late morning when the small boy and the small donkey went through the great town gates. It was market day and suddenly he remembered there was a horse market on the square! Yes, and if he could sell Small One to some new and kind master, the little donkey wouldn’t be killed and yet his father would still receive his piece of silver! There was no doubt at all in his mind that it would be easy to find an eager buyer for such a superior animal as Small One. Only one piece of silver? Why Small One was worth 50, yes, a hundred pieces of silver!
The boy and his donkey were swallowed up by the crowd that moved in a steady stream, under the watchful, unsmiling eyes of the guards of the gates, toward the shops and markets of the town. It was high noon when the boy and Small One came to the horse market, a place filled with the shouts and loud voices of men and the acrid-sweet smell of leather and horse sweat. Tied to a long rail were all the animals to be sold: 20 sleek, beautiful mares and stallions, long of mane and tail, rubbed and brushed and combed until their coats glistened and shone in the sunlight like burnished copper or polished ebony.
Holding tightly to Small One’s rope, and with his face streaked with dust and tears, the boy pushed his way to the platform of the shouting auctioneer.
“And what am I offered for this fine animal, my friends? A mare whose sire was so famous that naught but princes ever sat his back! Strong of limb! Sound of wind! Who’ll start the bid at 50?”
“Fifty!” The bidder’s voice rose shrill over the din of the market place.
“Fifty it is! Who’ll make it 55? Do I hear 55? Come, come, my friends, are you going to let such a fine animal go for such a paltry sum? Fifty is the bid; will someone make it 55 before the owner cuts my throat?”
The auctioneer sliced at his neck with a thick finger and cried to see his imaginary head rolling in the dust. The crowd laughed at this pantomime, and the boy, taking advantage of this interruption, led Small One toward a man near the auctioneer’s platform.
“Please, sir...” his voice quavered and the words seemed to stick crosswise in his throat. “Please, sir, would you like to buy a fine donkey?”
“What?” The man looked down at the frightened face. “What did you say, boy?”
“This donkey. He’s for sale. Strong and very willing. And the price is very cheap! But one piece of silver!”
“No!” The man turned away. “No, I have no use for a donkey.”
The boy moved off, holding fast to the strap around Small One’s neck. The voice of the auctioneer rose again over the sounds of the horse market. “Fifty-five is the bid! Thank you, my friend, for you are a friend, I assure you! Now, could I hear 60? Sixty would be music to my ears! Won’t someone say 60? Has anyone got 60? Come on. Turn out your purses and let’s count it together! Who’s got 60 pieces of silver?”
The crowd laughed again. The boy, leading his small donkey, approached a bearded farmer, who sat on a box of fat geese. “Please—this donkey—he’s for sale. Would you like to buy him?”
“What?” The farmer turned around and frowned down at him. “What is it you want, boy?”
“This fine donkey! He can be bought for only one piece of silver!” The boy was desperately eager. “Isn’t that a great bargain?”
“Go away!” The farmer scowled and spat into the dust. “Go away and don’t bother me.”
“But they’ve already bid 55 for the mare, and I know she can’t do half the work of Small One! See, he’s very strong!”
“Go on!” The farmer swung his ox whip. “Go on or I’ll lay this across both your backs!”
The boy and the donkey hid themselves in the crowd, and they were pushed and shoved until they were close by the auctioneer’s platform.
“Sixty pieces of silver! Sixty is the bid. Do I hear more? Will anyone say 62? Won’t anyone say 61? Very well, then. Sixty, once! Sixty, twice! Sold to that lucky buyer over there for 60 pieces of silver. Now, who has the next animal to be offered for sale?”
The boy, surprised at his own courage, lifted his hand and tugged on the auctioneer’s robe. “Please, sir, this small donkey’s for sale!”
“Eh? Go away, boy, go away!”
“But he’s a very fine donkey! He’s not nearly so old as he looks. And this ear, the one that doesn’t stand up straight as a donkey’s should, that was the fault of a careless master! He’s very strong and he eats very little!”
“This is a horse market, boy!” The auctioneer tried to shake off the hand that held tight to his robe. “I haven’t time to waste on a miserable donkey!”
“But, please, please, wouldn’t a small donkey take such a small amount of time?”
The auctioneer burst into a mountainous roar of laughter that shook the platform. “All right! All right, my boy, since you insist!” Then, lifting his voice, he addressed the crowd, “Gentlemen, your attention, please! This is, indeed, a day of days, for I have a wonderful bargain to offer you! Just feast your eyes on this strange object in front of my platform. What is it, do you ask? Well, the owner assures me that it is a donkey, but to my poor old eyes it has the appearance of an animated pile of shaking bones!”
The auctioneer paused while the crowd laughed its approval of his statement. “Look closely, my friends, and you will observe how the moths have been at his hide! And the tail! Is it a tail? I believe it’s only the stub of an old broom, worn out from sweeping the courtyard!”
The market place echoed with shouts, howls, and guffaws of the men. “A true and rare museum piece, my friends, moldy with age and loose in the joints!”
“He’s not!” The boy’s outraged voice rose over the din. “He’s not like that at all!”
“Ah!” The auctioneer struck a pose of mock humility. “But it is not seemly to laugh, my friends, because—so his proud owner assures me—because this ancient ruin is distinguished enough to share a stall with the king’s horses!”
“Don’t say those things about him. They’re not true!” The boy’s voice was almost drowned out by the rolling waves of laughter. “Maybe he isn’t so handsome as all your animals, but he’s better!” He hugged the little donkey’s head close to his breast, and his angry tears fell on the rough, brown hairs of Small One’s nose. “Yes, and he is fine enough to be in a king’s stable—and maybe someday that’s where you’ll find him!”
“All right, all right, my boy!” The auctioneer was anxious to get on with the bidding while the crowd was in a good mood. “Take your precious donkey and move along. We’ve used up enough good time on you! Go on, hurry up!” Then, lifting his voice, “Now, gentlemen, now that we’ve had our fun and disposed of the king’s donkey, I wish to call your attention to those fine Arab stallions! Suppose we start the bid at 200 pieces of silver. Do I hear 200? Will someone say 200?”
And so, with the auctioneer’s fading voice in their ears, the boy and his donkey left the market place. The hours were slipping swiftly by, and before long he must start for home; and when he arrived there, he must have the piece of silver for his father.
Two small weary legs and four old ones began a dogged, despairing journey through the town. A frantic childish voice called to people as they hurried by on the streets. A trembling whisper spoke of a tremendous bargain at doors that were angrily closed with a shouted, “Be off with you!” No one in all the town desired to buy an old, tired donkey.
It was close to sundown when the boy and Small One returned to the town gates and stood outside the tanner’s door. The boy’s hand fondled the rough brown nose, caressed the drooping ear, and patted the worn coat for the last time. Then, just as he lifted the latch of the tanner’s door, a voice spoke to him from the street.
“Yes?” The boy turned hopefully. “Yes, sir?”
A bearded, poorly dressed man detached himself from the crowd that was moving toward the town gates.
“Tell me, are you the owner of this small donkey?”
“I have a long journey to make and my wife is not well. I have a great need for a strong, gentle animal to carry her safely.”
“Oh, Small One is very strong—and very trustworthy!”
The man looked from the donkey’s old eyes to the two young ones. “Oh, yes, I can believe that. Would you be good enough to sell him to me?”
“Oh, yes, sir!” The boy’s heart sang at the miracle. “The price is but one piece of silver!”
The man was looking at Small One’s drooping ear.
“Is that too much, sir?”
“Too much?” The man smiled down at him. “No, indeed! Why, that’s very reasonable for such a beautiful animal.”
The boy was almost overcome by this unexpected appreciation of Small One. “Well… well, he’s not really very beautiful, but he’s good.”
The man took a worn leather pouch from his belt, a pouch that was so flat that its contents could be only a few coins. “What is it that you call him?”
“Small One.” The boy watched the man’s fingers explore the bottom of the pouch. Suppose the man was only joking like the auctioneer. Suppose he didn’t have the piece of silver.
“Ah, yes, Small One.” The man held out a shining piece of silver and dropped it into the boy’s hand. “There you are, my son, and I promise you I’ll be very kind to him. Come, now, Small One, we have to hurry! It’s near to sundown, and the guards will be closing the town gates!”
The little donkey seemed puzzled at the tug of a strong hand on his strap, and then he started slowly but obediently off at the side of his new master. The boy watched them disappear into the crowd, standing on tiptoe to catch a last glimpse of that one long ear that stood up straight as a donkey’s should. His happiness at having saved Small One’s life was now lost in the dreadful pain of losing him.
Suddenly his legs started to run, carrying him through the crowd in swift pursuit. He overtook Small One and his new owner just a few steps from the great town gates.
“Please, sir…” His breath had been left far behind at the tanner’s door. “Please, may I watch you through the gates? You see, Small One and I…”
“Why, of course!” The man nodded his head in understanding. “You want to say goodbye to your friend. You can do that while I see my wife safely on his back. Easy now, Small One.”
Standing in the shelter of the wall was a woman wrapped in the folds of a heavy traveling robe. There was suffering in the deep shadows of her face. Yet, as the boy’s eyes met hers, it seemed to him that a bright radiance shown about her head. It must have been his imagination or some strange and momentary reflection of the setting sun because this radiance faded away almost immediately.
Then, as the man went to her side and took her arm to guide her slow footsteps, the boy whispered his last goodbye to Small One. “Goodbye, Small One. You must be very faithful, and this isn’t forever, you know. When I grow up and earn many pieces of silver, I’ll buy you back. Then you’ll have a fine stable and nothing to do but eat and sleep. Won’t that be wonderful, Small One?”
“All right, my son.” The man’s hand touched his shoulder. “We’re ready to start.” The old donkey lifted his head at the pull on his strap and moved slowly and carefully toward the gates.
Suddenly the voice of the guard called out a sharp command. “Wait! One moment, traveler!”
“Yes?” The man’s voice was patient. “Yes, soldier?”
“Didn’t you know the gates close at sundown? By all rights I should make you remain here the night! However…” The guard shrugged his shoulders. “Your name?”
“My name is Joseph.”
“And your wife?”
“They call her Mary.”
The man looked toward the hills beyond the gates. “We journey to Bethlehem.”
And so Joseph and Mary and Small One passed through the town gates, and the donkey’s hooves rang sharply on the stones of the road, and the sound was very much like music.
The boy called a last farewell into the gathering dusk. “Goodbye! Goodbye, Small One! Be gentle and sure of foot and carry her safely to Bethlehem.”
And so, Small One traveled the many weary miles to Bethlehem. There, in a stable, he saw a king born, a king of men—of centuries—of life—of death. Yes, and Small One’s tired old eyes saw the Wise Men and the shepherds who came to pay homage to his small master. His dim old ears heard the voices of angels rejoicing, and the notes they sang were the very ones his own small hooves had rung out on the stones of the road.
Then it came to pass that all those who had laughed at his ragged coat, and his limping gait, and his drooping ear, envied Small One, for he had traveled the road to Bethlehem to become a part of a great miracle. Oh, this was a long, long time ago, but even today, all small donkeys stand and dream—especially at Christmas time—dream of Small One, Small One of Bethlehem.
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