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A Fable
The boy and the father walked beside the donkey.
The road was gray, and dust rose to its vanishing point;
gray dust choked the leaves of the few
asthmatic cottonwoods along the dry creekbeds.
The sky was hot to the touch.
“Why not ride the donkey, as it’s so hot?”
passers-by on the road suggested.
The boy and the father whispered to each other.
(They were more like brothers
than they were like son and father.)
The father got up on the donkey.
Other passers-by, or maybe the same ones
doubling back—the only leisure-time activity
in that part of the world involved
walking up and down the dusty road—
said, “Selfish, selfish old man! Think of your boy,
whose legs can’t bear the insult
of this road, let alone the heat’s.”
They went on a ways the way they were,
because they didn’t want what scrutinized them
with such detachment to think they were slaves
to public opinion. Then they traded places.
A mile later, an old woman on a porch, rocking
and shading her eyes from a sun that seemed
not to dwindle but instead hammered
the sky to a thinness irreconcilable
with the laws of nature, shouted out,
“Worthless! Letting your old father walk!”
So the father climbed up behind the boy,
and they both rode the donkey.
This incited an animal lover,
wearing a hat like the ones you see
in the woodblock prints of the Japanese,
to screaming flights of invective
for burdening the donkey with two bodies. So,
abashed, they got down, and they carried the donkey.
The donkey howled and evacuated in terror,
but they carried him anyway, over the undulating road
and across the boulder-studded arroyos.
They came to a town and lived there for a while,
and then moved to a larger town, and then
to the fabled city, suspended
on a plain between two mountain ranges.
They lived in a room in a house in a suburb
known for its featurelessness,
the two of them, with the donkey.
The father couldn’t work anymore—
the business with the donkey had broken him forever—
so the son went out alone in the world.
He was the one who buried the donkey,
in the dead of night, when no one was looking.
Later, he buried his father, too,
but this time in daylight, in a decent graveyard.
He didn’t care about his place in the world,
but he married a woman who did, and had children
and prospered, in a manner of speaking.
The tally of the generations begins with him
and extends down the centuries
and across the hemispheres
and numbers C.P.A.s and bookies,
coopers and wheelwrights,
neurologists, embezzlers, claims adjusters,
and linemen for the county.
And, though diverse and ignorant
of one another, though pressed like grapes
through the bewildering human genotypes,
each of them has this one thing in common—
each knows, obscurely, unconsciously,
without knowing how he knows, that
only the complicated, ambiguous victories
are worth having, those that take place
under the sun, above
the boulder-studded arroyo,
with the dust, grayer than bone, rising on the road.