He was a proper little donkey, with slim athletic legs and small trim hooves. His furry, hide was a sleek dark brown, nearly black, not at all like the indecisive gray of certain discolored donkeys I have known. Only his nose was gray halfway to his eyes, as if he had rummaged in a flour-barrel, and the insides of his lithe legs and all of his round belly, so that he looked like a little rabbit.
I knew that he was light gray around the eyes too, like a black-faced comedian, though I could not see his eyes for the bandage he wore. This he was forced to do, because he was at work, and otherwise would have lacked the willpower to keep at his task. Without his bandage, he would never have consented to walk for hours in a little circle around a stone well, on the Italian Riviera, with the glittering blue Mediterranean on one side, and on the other, high above the gardens and vineyards and tinted pink and yellow houses, the great still mountains of the Apennines. Every time he walked around the stone well, tugging a beam that projected from the center, six more small tin buckets appeared, one after the other, emptied their quota of cool well-water into an irrigation trough, and descended into the well again. The little donkey kept to his work, blind, like Sampson in the mill of the Philistines, not daring even to munch some flowers that brushed him as he passed each time, though he must have caught their fragrance in the cool damp air. Not daring, for was he not doing his duty?
All day long the grapes and tomatoes basked in the sun and felt the breeze of the blue sea and watched the great green mountains towering somnolently above them. When the breeze died fitfully, the sun would grow of a sudden almost uncomfortably warm on their red and purple skins; and then a fresh salty gust would send their juices tingling.
And at the close of each day, when it was safe to wet the red earth without fear of baking it, the little donkey, with his long gray nose and twinkling legs, blinded and unheeding, would trudge solemnly around the stone well, performing his routine duties. Each time he brought his right foreleg forward, he would bring his head up with a little jerk; and his long ears pointed steadily ahead like the groping antennae of a busy insect. He could not see the purple-blue waters of the sea that danced in the crimson sunlight, nor the darkening green mountains. He scarcely even smelt the heavy, odors of the garden and vineyard. His only thought for himself was to switch his tail from side to side to drive the flies from his flanks; and even this he did chiefly because flies destroyed his efficiency.
He had heard that his ancestors, in the old dark days, had no wells nor any duties they might call their own; but raced along the shores of blue seas and up mountain defiles, braying gleefully in their ignorance. But when he thought of this his long ears tingled with shame and he thrashed with his tail intolerantly. These his ancestors were no better, he reflected, than the tomatoes and grapes, that live and grow and die, content, smiling, without duty or devotion. He believed that this was what was meant by the word evolution. He dared to hope that some day he could perform his routine duties without his bandage, with naught but his will-power to defend him against the insidious fragrances of the garden and the blue waters and green mountainsides, darkening deliciously in the twilight. Or if not he, then his children, or children’s children. He felt that if his grandchildren could not dispense with their bandage, then the words evolution and civilization had no significance, and life became a mere mockery, a bray, a thing of colors and smells, without meaning or moral.
But usually he kept his faith in himself and his work, and in the work of all the hundreds of donkeys on the Italian Riviera, who march patiently around their wells, their eyes bandaged against distraction, their tails trimmed decorously into efficient fly-brushes, their noses light gray and rising each time they advance their slender right forelegs. We shall have our reward, he says. Think of the thousands of buckets of water we have raised with machine-like precision. Think of the idle pleasures we have denied ourselves. We shall assuredly have our reward. May our reward be the power, some day, to go head up, eyes unbandaged but unseeing, performing our routine duties. That would be freedom; that would be heaven.
And I laughed at this proper little donkey and his solemn sense of duty. He looked so utterly fatuous and futile, with his eyes blinded to all that incredible beauty of light and color, marching determinedly around his well. But, I said to myself, after all he is only an ignorant little donkey, of a race proverbial for its fatuity and its futility. And I hastened to thank God that we men are not as these poor donkeys are.