Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Terribly Sad but Eventually Joyful Story of the Wind-up Donkey

Poor old Dobbin.
Once upon a time there was a little girl growing up in the 1960s. When she was 10 years old, she accompanied her mother and her grandparents on a trip to Ireland, the beautiful emerald island where her grandparents were born and raised.

Being 10, she was completely and utterly smitten with horses, and had eyes for little else. Cathedrals? Celtic ruins? Ancient monasteries? OK, pretty cool. But show me some horses now, please.

One day, her grandfather and mother took her on a long train trip across Ireland to a lovely landscape dotted with lakes--the famous lakes of Killarney. (You may now hum "Christmas in Killarney" for a bit. We'll wait.)

The little girl, however, would have no memory of the lakes and their wonders, because--oh, joy!--the trip around the lakes would be made in a horse-drawn conveyance called a jaunting cart. What she remembers of this trip is that the horse was a bay, that his name was Bub, and that the driver let her feed Bub sugar-cubes filched from a restaurant.

Fast-forward a few decades, and the little girl is now a middle-aged writer who should know better than to adopt the cloying approach of writing about herself in the third person, so we'll just drop that pretense altogether now, right? Phew. What a relief.

Anyway, I somehow managed to hang on to the souvenir I bought on that trip for 50p: a small gray donkey who, when wound up with a metal key, bobbed his head and twirled his tail with such vigor that he would rattle around on the tabletop in tight circles.

Though small, the donkey was a Percheron-sized steed when he was placed with petite Dawn dolls (mini versions of Barbies), and my Irish cousins and I sent the whole gang off on many adventures during my stay there.

("OK, so where's the sad part? The drama? The pathos?" Hold your horses. It's coming.)

A few years ago, a friend stopped by during Christmastime. She admired the little donkey, who had become a Yuletide mantelpiece addition ever since the Dawn dolls had given up their modeling/equestrian careers and gone on to host morning talk shows or something.

As we stood at the door exchanging farewells, which included my nostalgic musing on the donkey's origins, she marveled at how long I'd had the little fellow and exclaimed, "I can't believe he even still works! That's remarkable!"

No sooner had the exclamation point after "remarkable" left her lips then we heard a dreadful grating, shattering sound and a metallic pop.

Glancing back into the room, we saw this: My husband. A metal key in one hand. The key in the donkey's back. Which was in his other hand. On his face, a look of sheer terror.

His time had come. (The donkey's, that is. My poor husband was just the unfortunate human who chanced to turn the key at the moment that the donkey's ancient metal innards splintered. But the timing was exquisite.) After more than three decades of tail-twirling, and head-bobbing, Donkey's dancing days were at an end.

Grumpy, Pee-Wee, and Dotty.
He still appears at Christmastime, hanging out with three other vintage wind-up animals--a puzzled Dalmatian, an absolutely furious reindeer, and another donkey, one that slightly resembles Pee-Wee Herman after playing a nasty trick.

My Better Half is a still-waters-run-deep sort of person, so I don't know if he dreads the annual reappearance of the donkey, who's usually picked up at some point in the festivities and shaken so he rattles like a metal cup full of rice.

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