The Ass of Otranto

Was this a kneeling holy day, like the Friday that’s Good, good for those who can loaf, though it’s a bad time for sheep when fasting stops at Easter? The long fast makes men eager for midnight when the Big Lamb wakes and they slaughter the little ones.

Enzo decorated me with ashes under the wisteria vines by the fire pit. He filled both hands with ashes from the cold fire and rubbed them all over me, darkened even my face, and striped my legs with his dirty hands. I smelled like smoke. He wore a hat. I rubbed my face against his shirt.  He rubbed my chin. “Let’s go,” he said.

We went to a stripped field where an old oak leaned against air into nothing. The day felt like winter though it was not. Even the birds had fled. A tuft of hair like thistle down remained from a hawk’s last meal. It’s always dangerous when people meet and there is only one ass in the neighborhood. If anything has to be carried, dragged or pulled, it’s the animal who’s tagged for it, especially when you’ve been specially decorated for the occasion.

The man who was married to Santa Maria from the Christmas pageant came, keeping his hands folded up inside the sleeve. He sat on a gnarled tree root. I can bear a heavy weight if it is balanced, but that fat pumpkin leaned this way and that way. My right foreleg on the step, she fell back to the left. Left hind leg went up, she lurched to the right. My back swung like a rope bridge crossed by an army. Why didn’t she set her feet down and give her weight to the stones? My heart beat faster than cricket legs. I could have carried her, I know, if she sat in time with the sway my steps put in her back. When I fell, my knees became walnuts cracking on the steps of the duomo. Santa Maria crashed to the ground like the tomatoes the boys throw at my feet.

Stephania came, with her runtlings. Some monks, more than four, and some men from the village. Paolo was there, too, newly washed, with clothes that smelled of the rocks in the river. I wondered if he would beat me or twist my lip as he always did, but all he did was talk.

Paolo said to the monks, “The criminal is now here.”

I looked around for the culprit, but saw no stranger there.

Enzo sat on a rock, and folded his hands.

“Let the trial begin,” Father Malaterra said. “The charge is murder. Murder of Father Antipater.”

The monk with his arm around one of Stephania’s runtlings spoke. “Father Antipater was beloved of us. He gave us the sacrament for many years. His hair was white but his beard was not. He gave himself penance at night. He never knew a woman. Now he has been murdered. His murderer must pay. An eye for an eye. Lex talionis.”

My ears turned like sails toward the runtling. Did he think I forgot? At the end of a day when Enzo hired me out to Stephania to carry wood to market, her runtling gave me a bite of an apple and threw the rest in the water trough. Water flooded my nostrils and eyes when I plunged into the trough after it. “You can drown an ass in a water trough!” The boy thought this was a great joke.

One man said, “It’s not right, not right that he died, not right at all.”

Another said, “No. It’s not.” The man next to him looked at my master for help.

This man was our neighbor. I never saw him up close before, but he stole cabbages from our field at night. Was this the murderer, bony as a war horse? Was I supposed to carry him to the gallows? That’s the good thing about war, it made everyone around here skinny. It would be hard to hang a thin man. Light as laundry, he might blow away on the wind. For sure, they would have to pull down on his ankles.

My skin twitched. Dust baths are good, and I wanted one. These ashes clogged up my nostrils. If I opened my mouth, my spit would drop out and take some of the ashes on my chin with it.

“Who will speak for him?” Father Malaterra asked.

The champion was my master, old Enzo. No colt kick in his legs.

“Sometimes, accidents happen. Even to good men. It was an accident.”

Father Malaterra’s nostrils flared. “Accidents?” he asked, his voice shrill. “Not a sparrow falls but God knows it. God allows no accidents. Everything is his will.”

“I am a simple man,” Enzo said. “Maybe it was his will that our dear beloved Father Antipater should come to heaven. The ass is only an animal. He cannot make decisions. He reacted to the priest.”

“He was a priest,” Paolo said. “Who attacks a priest? Only evil attacks good.”

Paolo, Enzo’s nephew, prays all the time. He prays the Virgin will never appear to him. As a small boy, he trembled in his bed, fearing that she would look in on him by moonlight.

“I will fast for twenty days before Lent,” he told God. “Not even fish. Only onions.”

Entreaties, rosaries, candles, masses, fasting—all this keeps her at bay. No wonder he is so foul tempered: his religion makes him miserable. How could he forget the threat of her? Everywhere you look there is an advertisement for God or his mother or his saints. One day the Virgin Mary will come to him and say, “My son, you spend too much time with whores.”

Father Malaterra, presiding, said, “Augustine has written: animals have no will. But they may be used by Satan because they were instruments. Then it is not wrong to punish Satan in them.”

You think he would be talking about Paolo, but now it was animals. The ashes made my eyes tear up, and I blinked away drops.

Finally I understood. My own master had walked me into the barbecue to grill me like one of the saints.

“Who saw the ass strike Father Antipater?” Enzo asked, looking around, but no one did. They were only idiots, not perjurers.

One monk said, “Flight is the sign of guilt.”

“It is the sign of fear,” Enzo said. “But in battle a man may escape death if his horse flees. This ass has the horse in him.”

“Uncle, he has the devil in him,” Paolo said. “Many a man will die if the horse runs away from the man. I have prayed for all my life to the Santa Maria, the Blessed Virgin mother of God.  She put the desire for prayer in my heart. But your beast keeps her away. I had a dream. Santa Maria said she cannot come when Otranto makes homely a place for Satan.”

Enzo shook his head.

Tell them, I urged my master without words. He knew what Paolo was, but he said nothing for me against his kin. 

“Who saw this?” Enzo asked again.

“We washed the body,” a monk said. “There was a purple mark on his chest.”

Enzo said, “Father Antipater was my soul’s comfort. My living comes from my ass. Before you take my beast, which has served me, and carried wood for Stephania, and carried the Virgin in the pageant, who has no sin except he is small and cannot carry the burdens we pile on him, who falls, like Christ did, under the cross, before you take him, tell me the size of this mark. Tell me where it was.”

“My fist. It was the size of my fist.” The monk touched himself to his chest. “The color was muddy. Red wine and dirt.”

The monk had touched his own heart. Did I remember kicking the priest? Something firm met my hooves in the air. Where were soldiers when you needed them? A knight could testify to a death blow, but no monk here ever mounted a charger. Small flies came to drink water from my eyes, so I locked them shut for a second.

“He’s too small,” Enzo said.

“The devil,” said Paolo.

“I was there,” Enzo said. “I did not see the devil. Everything startles this animal. We have to cover his eyes to walk down the street. You know that.”

“The animal is in us, and Satan is in the animal.”

“Wash your hands, Paolo. Wash your feet. Take your clothes to the river. Wash your shitty ass on the leaves. The stink of the animal is on all of us.”

Paolo said, “Uncle, I am surprised at you. You loved Father Antipater.”

“You all are young. This priest heard your confessions—all of you. He was not murdered. If he was murdered, it was murder by death.”

“The crazy woman—she attacked me. What is this world when the woman strikes the man and the ass kicks the priest?”

Enzo’s shadow shrunk on the ground as the sun came to its point, but still he spoke. “All her children died. Her husband never came back.”

“No,” said the fat madonna from the Christmas pageant. “No. No. My children are dead. Two. I gave them to God, where they rest in his bosom. We all weep for the men we lose on the sea. Or in war. But they serve God. We know this. Am I sad? Do I sit by the gate and curse strangers? I do not. I gave my children to God.”

Many muttered. Did they agree or disagree?—I couldn’t tell. It sounded like the bleating of sheep to me. There was no shade here at all, and only one lousy tree. I don’t know how they were going to hang anything from its rotten branches. After that, no one had anything else to say.

I stretched my back to piss. My dong dropped like a drawbridge. The steaming pool made froth in the dust.

The runtling pointed at me. “Mamma, mamma,” the boy said now. “Look at that.”

Foul runtling, bepiss yourself.

“Shut up, you.” Stephania smacked him on the face. “It’s just an animal.”

Father Malaterra said, “The jury will now decide.”

He took an old pot, broke it on a rock and gave a fragment to everyone on the jury. “Make a mark,” he said. “If you think he is guilty, make a mark. If he is innocent, don’t do anything. Make no mark.” 

They did not give a piece to Enzo. It took two hands to write guilty but nothing to say innocent, and it looked like everyone made a mark. They handed their pieces to Father Malaterra when they were done.

Father Malaterra did not read them out one at a time but summed them together.

“It is decided,” he said. “Guilty. He is guilty of murder. The ass is the devil’s instrument. Deo dandum. We will give him to God. We will send a message to hell, saying Satan cannot live in the animals.”

Enzo came to scratch my head.

Before Father Malaterra could take the rope from him, we saw a man in the distance kicking at the sides of a mule. The mule cantered, then trotted and walked, before it trotted again.  It was in no hurry, and who could blame it? Already the day was dry as sin. “Hey, hey!” he shouted. “She’s here, she’s here. She came.”

She’s here?” Father Malaterra said.

She’s here!” Paolo exclaimed, dropping to his knees.

“She’s here!” the two-child dead madonna exclaimed. Her husband squeezed her arm.

“Yes. Finally. The German princess. The mayor made a holiday. Three days! What are you doing?”

Father Malaterra held the last shard in his hand.

“Father Antipater was murdered by the donkey. We are going to hang him. The court has decided it.”

By now the man and his mule were in speaking distance. The mule turned nervously in its own circle. His ears asked, “What’s up?” but I just flicked my tail.

“You can’t do it today or tomorrow or for three days,” the man said. “The mayor has declared a holiday, and les royaux want to eat.”

“But justice cannot wait,” Father Malaterra said. “A murder was committed.”

“Not today,” the man said.

Paolo rose hastily and dusted off his hose.

“Don’t be stupid,” the man said. “Only pigs are murderers. Come into town. There is going to be a feast tonight.”

Already I could see the mule rehearsing the tale he would take into town. You should have seen the murderer they were going to hang. It was the rude pipsqueak. He sure looked relieved when we got there. Five more minutes and it would have been over for the chump. One more after that, and his head would have been posted on the parapet and the poor would be dining out.

You’d think they were going to a funeral for God the way they left for home, disappointed because they had come for a hanging and there was none. Where were they going to do it? Not in this stinking field. 

“You heard him,” Enzo said to his nephew.

“What a day,” was all he said as we walked home.

The way home always seems short, especially when you know at the end of the road is a spring of cool water and some new shoots the goats missed. The rest of the day was spoiled for any work. Enzo drew a pail of water and dumped the whole thing over me. The ashes made a gray slop slipping into the dust, and small flies drank at my fetlocks. He wiped down my back and legs with a clump of leaves. Even though we had walked on a smooth road, he lifted each hoof. It’s me, my head said, butting his shoulder. Maybe he was checking to see if he got the right ass back, came home with the same animal he left with. At the end of a day, he touches his tools to count them. As he wiped down my damp neck I felt his weight against my side. I gave him his weight back again. Hello, fly: my wet tail smacked his pants. He put one arm around me, as if he were going to hang his weight there. His chest felt warm. You took me to the barbecue pit: my tail spoke again. He leaned into me, stretching his chest against the length of my neck. I pushed my shoulder into his chest and gave my weight to that leg, leaning into him. He pressed an instant before he yielded and stepped back. I followed him with my weight. Little by little, we turned a slow circle backward. When he put his hand to my mouth, it smelled like fresh leaves, but I knew there would be nothing in it.


Marilyn Moriarty is the author of Moses Unchained (AWP Prize in creative nonfiction) and the textbook Writing Science through Critical Thinking. Her work has been published in The Antioch Review, The Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction (a 2015 Notable), Nimrod, Quarterly West, River Teeth, and other literary magazines and anthologies. Essays are forthcoming or accepted in The Chattahoochee Review and Raritan. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.

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