Ramón Chao’s contribution to the canon of literary donkeys. This extract from his novel Because Cuba is You introduces Culitrenzado (plaited-arse), a Galician donkey.
Old man Graciano has returned to his native Galicia following a life lived in Cuba and he has fallen love with young Loliña. He has set up a shop – The Chao Grocery Store – from which he sells exotic wares imported from Cuba. But when the people stop coming to the shop and the goods start to rot, Graciano decides to take his wares to the people. And for this, he needs a donkey to pull the cart. Enter Culitrenzado…
WHEN THE NOVELTY wore off and the visitors’ amazement palled, nobody gave the Chao Grocery Store another glance; its decline began almost as soon as it opened.
‘You’ll see,’ insisted Graciano. ‘These country bumpkins are used to shrunken apples and rachitic pears from San Juan, they’re not going to suddenly eat guava and mango. We have to get them used to these novelties.’
While she lay listlessly amongst the vegetables, he bankrupted himself importing exotic wares. The well was overflowing with merchandise that came all the way from Cuba only to be attacked by worms in the back of the shop. Even the animals turned up their snouts, and most of most of them were pigs.
A brilliant idea occurred to Graciano, however, after a short period of bickering and an immediate new outbreak of love.
‘If those yokels don’t come to the shop, we’ll take it to their villages.’
No sooner saddled up, than off on the trail. An inner spring propelled him into the stable of Culitrenzado, an ass of lean flanks and broad nostrils, tamed by distant gypsies who had sheared his haunches in arabesque patterns and platted his tail. He had two saddlebags, one for barley, and one for chorizo for his fellow travellers. Phantom soliped, invisible shadow of improbable donkey as light of body as of movement, he stood on his four legs by a pure miracle of levitation and weighed so little that he left no trace on the ground. He appeared and disappeared like the clouds and the spirits of the Santa Compaña: an ascetic, a dream become bones; a fakir who lived by fasting, his only food served up by providence.
Despite his noisy tuberculosis and his evanescent decrepitude, he was used to pulling carriages and flew along like straw in the wind, spurred on by a flick of the whip.
In a corner of the shed stood the rusting passenger vehicle, green with red stripes, that Graciano got out for baptisms, weddings and funerals. That very same day, he dusted it off, greased the axles, and oiled the harnesses.
In those early days, the shadows that clouded the splendour of my feelings did not worry me. Graciano was an affectionate companion, and our love was consolidated in the intimacy of our walks, hand in hand under the vines. A pity that sometimes nerves do not easily submit to the forces of reason!
WHAT A CARNIVAL THE VILLAGERS put on at the sight of their very first cavalcade! A crowd from all over the county gathered in the main square, attracted by this magnificent and unusual spectacle. Young people came dressed in luxurious multicoloured clothes and wearing their grandmothers’ jewellery, which knowledgeable souls valued at several measures of bran, and even then they thought they had underestimated.
The procession set off. Leading it, were two bands. Barely stopping for breath, they blew out their cheeks as they tried to get the music right on their metal mouthpieces. In front of the donkey walked twelve children dressed as slaves, in two rows of three, one on the right and one on the left. Two held the ribbons attached to the caparison. The rest brought up the rear. Following them, came groups of villagers, and also some outsiders, all in typical local dress.
Culitrenzado dropped his ears a little to look at himself in the puddles. He advanced along the riverbank moving his head from side to side with aplomb, with no fear of mistaking the way. He would take his time, because slow is the pace of a donkey often led down bad paths (after all, what abbess or clergyman ever mounted a donkey?). Now and then, a mule would come up to him, attracted by the smell of the quadruped. But he, whom all the young colts of the Sancobad hills had not persuaded to take a wrong turning, received them with bared teeth and bridle, without altering his pace.
At first I got up in the driver’s seat under the awning. I was astonished to see a beast of burden so intuitive and sure of itself. I told Graciano to use the reins and he laughed in a Cuban sort of way: ‘Don’t be silly, Loliña. Culitrenzado doesn’t need anyone to tell him where to head for!’
THE REAR PART OF THE WAGON sported shelves stacked with bunches of herbs and drawers full of spices. On the counter, covered with a cloth, stood medicinal plants – celandine, euphorbia, marshmallow, hollyhock and the seven herbs of Umbanda to combat envy – and lots of bottles containing all sorts of ointments and elixirs. To cap it all, Graciano put an astrolabe on the counter and dressed up like an oriental fortune teller.
Seeing the splendiferous carriage and the elegant donkey make their entrance was quite a sight. The whole village rushed to admire the graceful Loliña and the novel merchandise. As they flocked to the elaborate stall, Culitrenzado began braying to the four winds and the echo attracted a multitude of local farm workers. Although the sound might not have been to the taste of music lovers, avid as they are for harmony, it was appreciated in certain quarters. Despite its dissonance, farmers recognised Culitrenzado’s way of expressing his amorous longings; he was hungry for love after his long journey, and that hunger inspired respect. And like any good male, his cry was much more plaintive than the female of the species. The men of the county tried borrowing his braying for their own amorous declarations, as had been the case in the past: from some of Pliny’s writings we can see that in Roman amphitheatres men were hired to imitate braying. While they may have been the first to discover the art of braying, others would perfect it as Apuleius recounts in the Golden Ass and Cervantes in his Don Quixote.