Asses can lead revolutions. Though Candlewick wondered whether any revolutionary dwelt on failed rebellions as much as he did. Failure was more than a possibility. As he lay still and stiff-legged in the hay, failure seemed inevitable. A whip cracked. The overhead fluorescents went black. Vesuvius, the head whipmaster, lovingly wound his whip into a black coil.
“Butcher can’t tell horse from donkey.” The catchphrase, a favorite of the sweaty Italian, echoed from the cinderblock walls – a graphic reminder of failure. Then he shouted, “Lolly, make the rounds.”
And the plan was in motion. Candlewick snorted and wheezed. Donkey laughter. The only thing sillier than calling this coup, this non-specific rebellion, a plan is calling it what Redmane insisted. A revolution.
It was the fourth Friday of the month. Shipment arrival day for T-LOT. Crates of liquors and tobacco had arrived to resupply the stocks. Enough to corrupt an army. On these monthly occasions, Coachman encouraged his company to revel. To lubricate the mystique of T-LOT. When the children arrive, fueled by hype, driven by circumstances to smiles and backslaps and neon warmth, Coachman’s men will be waiting with their skinning knives. It’s quick work, fitting lost children into donkey hides. Candlewick heard Lolly scritch-scratch across the concrete to Velvet’s stall. What will fresh air do to Lolly, formerly the most loyal of Coachman’s beasts? If the uprising is a success, does a German Shepard become a pretty girl? She scampered between the stalls, tromped through the hay and gave Redmane a good luck sniff. To Burrow, then Zonkey, Lolly made the rounds. And Candlewick wondered whether his comrades felt death ticking ever closer. So quiet. Quiet would do them no good. Screams are better. They expected screams, trained for screams. Scritch-scratch, Lolly moved closer. He could hear her coming and still, enveloped in quiet, Candlewick prayed her throat hadn’t been cut. A snout through the bars, sniffing, sniffing, and Lolly yipped, “It’s time. Are you ready?”
Lolly will be a pretty girl, Candlewick decided. As sure as the donkeys in T-Lot had arrived wearing sneakers and baseball caps. Now hers, and all their fates, were his pack to carry. Candlewick took a breath and the hay stirred around his muzzle. A donkey reply. Yes, he snorted, I’m ready.
“After tonight,” Lolly said, her fangs gleaming inside a zealot’s snarl, “no more children will be taken. Coachman’s slave trade will end.”
A whip cracked, and through the dark the sound of black leather sliding into a coil. “Lolly,” Vesuvius shouted. “Here. Now.”
No more children taken. An end to the suffering. Or, they will be horsemeat. The exit door hissed open from Vesuvius’s broad hand, and screams filled the donkey bay. The door, slow and reluctant, opened wider and the screams grew louder. Children, a drove of them. Coachman made a haul tonight.
Lolly nosed the latch. “Go, brother,” she barked. “To freedom.” And the stall gate swung open.
Vesuvius gazed down the donkey bay, eyes narrowed and searching the dark. “Lolly?” Darkness, swimming darkness, and through the black, a donkey emerged. He pulled his whip. “Back to your stall.”
Candlewick broke into a trot.
The whip cracked. “Back to your stall.”
Candlewick ran. Momentum can make a donkey forget they’re dead. The whip struck his nose, sliced the soft flesh open. Blood warmed his muzzle. The whip slapped his body. He felt no pain. He heard nothing but the children through the door. He brayed.
“BACK.” Vesuvius tossed the whip aside and raised his fists. The Italian worked the whip just fine, and could command with fury, but his fists were soft. Candlewick rammed him, and the heavy man toppled heavily aside.
“GO.” Lolly barked as she nosed the latches of Zonkey’s pen, then Velvet’s, Burrow’s, Redmane’s. “GO. GO. GO. GO.”’
A battalion now, they ran. Through the door, the donkey bay opened into a mall with even higher ceilings and broad porcelain paths. Staircases led to higher floors. Indoor roads wound into cavernous worlds beyond where any child or donkey were allowed. On a neon washed podium, Coachman’s wagon sat above the head of the tallest child. All of T-LOT could hear his message blaring from the very air here, from the ceiling, from the fountain tub filled with bottles and potato chips and alfalfa, over the children’s screams.
‘HAVE YOU TRIED THE NEWEST TOYS’
Burrow stopped at the exit door. Two hooves on the tile of T-LOT, two still on prison concrete, he stood over the fallen whipmaster, baring his yellow teeth.
“Come on,” Candlewick called, turning back to his comrade. “We must go forward.”
Burrow began to prance. Prancing, he tossed his mane. “GO FOR THE THROAT,” he screamed. “THEY’LL KILL US IF WE DON’T.”
‘HAVE YOU TRIED THE NEWEST TOYS’
“Cover your ears,” Candlewick brayed. “Don’t listen. It’s lies, don’t you see? Everything here is lies.”
Again and again, Burrow screamed, “GO FOR THE THROAT. OR THEY’LL KILL US.”
A group of boys slowed by the exit door, staring at Burrow, fascinated by the red slick on his hooves. One of them lifted a toy from sawdust and broken glass. Black, gleaming, and freshly oiled, the toy fit naturally in the boy’s hand. “Coachman isn’t lying,” he said, wiping a travel worn eye with the back of his wrist. “There’s toys right here. All around, actually.”
Burrow stomped. “FOR THE THROAT.”
‘HAVE YOU TRIED THE NEWEST TOYS’
“He’s mad,” shouted the boy. And he loaded his toy.
For a moment Burrow stomping blood from the lifeless Vesuvius and the boy screaming with confused exhilaration matched the revelry inside T-LOT. For a moment, revelry mimed revolution.
Running, Candlewick turned to his comrades. “We’re almost there. That’s the door just ahead.”
Zonkey slowed to a trot. “Can’t you remember how it felt? Before the stalls. The fun of it all. The freedom.” Children reached for her and she fell to a walk. They stroked her forehead, her neck. Zonkey’s coat, striped and boldly segmented, was unlike any furs in T-LOT. According to many, there was no donkey more beautiful. “Don’t you remember?” Children stroked her silky mane – the longest and the softest in T-LOT. A little girl began to weave a braid.
“Zonkey,” Candlewick screamed, but Velvet shoved him ahead. Zonkey, washed in neon, shook her head from beneath the Coachman’s wagon podium. A donkey goodbye.
Velvet brayed to Candlewick, “Redmane fell behind.”
Running, they turned to witness Redmane leashed by the deputy whipmaster now slated for promotion. “Come, Candlewick,” Redmane called, his eyes wide and rolling. “This is the way.” His lips peeled up and inward. He clapped his teeth, loudly over the chaos. Donkey laugher. “We’ve never gone this far into T-LOT. This is the way to freedom.”
A way out – that had always been the plan. Freedom… what’s this about freedom? The whipmaster pulled and Redmane fought the rope until they reached the white road. Then together, donkey and master walked into the cavernous world beyond porcelain tile.
Velvet reached the doors first. These were iron doors, heavy bolts and rusted hinges. A thousand pounds, each one. “Come on, Candlewick,” she whinnied. “You can’t turn back.”
Can’t I? Breaking through a fortress seems less likely.
“Look at the sun, Candlewick,” she said. “Isn’t it beautiful.”
The sun? Through solid iron?
Candlewick closed his eyes, inhaled sulfur. “What if,” he asked her, “when we leave, we stay donkeys?”
Candlewick looked down at his hooves and the ten fingers attached. They were trembling. Asses can lead revolutions. Or start them, at least.
Velvet screamed, “Candlewick, come on. This is our chance. This is freedom.”
But Candlewick heard only war around him. War or battle? The door, so light for Velvet, swung open and she was gone. But children remained. He remained. It’s different for everyone, isn’t it? Redmane and Zonkey will live on in the glow. Burrow died in T-LOT. The kids will continue to come. Many will come.
How can a donkey open a door?