“Oh, he loves you!” say sentimental people about Chico quite often. After 850 miles, I tend to think I’ve just worn him down. We’ve both formed habits of nearly five months’ reiteration, and some of them could be mistaken for that most ephemeral of emotions.
Everything changed for me at just past the halfway mark, back in the border country, when I discovered Chico could walk by himself, his lead rope slung over his pack saddle, and that he chose to follow me. It was a momentous turning point. Suddenly coercion became cooperation of sorts; we became companions. Free donkey will was exercised, and my wrenched shoulders began to heal. We walked together, almost like pals.
These days it’s still the biggest cause of that flutter of joy in my bosom that I consider to be something like love – when the little fellow labours up a hill behind me, looking intent and purposeful and totally committed. Even more fluttery is when he isn’t paying attention and gets waylaid by a patch of extra special verge (these days usually plantain leaves), and I walk out of sight. Then, sometimes, he trots to catch up, and the sight of him jiggling around the corner with the bags bumping against his sides, head up and ears pointing forward, “Where is she? Where is she?”, his big, usually unreadable, dark eyes full of the fear of being alone in the world – well, I melt a little.
Love or fear
But is it love? On his side it is precipitated by fear of being alone. I am the only constant in his ever-changing life. I am the one who feeds him, and I make him feel safe. I can at last calm him down, sometimes, if he gets upset. He’s getting the impression that the world is a big place, and my face, amongst the ever-changing landscapes and admirers, is the sole feature that remains the same. He doesn’t want to lose me, but does he love me? And on my side the flutter comes from being needed, followed, trusted, and being valued above other humans. So he’s frightened and I’m flattered – it’s not exactly the stuff of love songs…
Donkeys don’t do cuddling
People talked about the bond we’d make from long before we even first met, and I looked forward to it, in all its expected nuzzliness. I imagined it being a bit like it would be with a dog – all frantic, cuddly and enthusiastic, but hopefully less spitty – but Chico plays rather more hard-to-get than that. When he does catch up he never trots all the way over – he spots me, slows to a halt, and drifts into the nearest edible clump. The other day he was startled by a tractor and dashed towards me, but he feels quickly comforted by the proximity – 10ft will do, thanks – and doesn’t need to get close enough to be touched.
It took me a long time to read the signs of affection. People began to report that he was keeping an eye out for me if I went into a shop or out of sight, or that his ears twitched if he heard my voice, but it still looked to me like he didn’t want to let on that he liked me. Perhaps this is just a donkey thing, but I suspect it might be a Chico thing – he is a bit of a diva. And if there’s one thing people really love, me included, it’s when the object of their affections is a little aloof. Anything hard-won is more precious.
This might be why people like feeding him so much – having him munch a piece of carrot from an outstretched palm is a satisfactory sort of enthusiasm. It’s a transaction of sweetness – he gets a sweet nibble and the feeder gets a moment of sweet whiskery affection. If they’re really lucky he’ll even go nuzzling for the next munch. It does look like donkey love, but don’t be fooled – the love is for the carrot.
Biological models, says Wikipedia on love, point out that love could be a mammalian response like hunger or thirst, to keep creatures together for reasons of mutual support, defense and saving energy through cooperation. Psychological models focus on the types of bond that make up love – intimacy, commitment and passion. Intimacy is things shared, and perhaps the exclusion of others; commitment is the expectation of longevity; passion can be infatuation as well as romance. Intimacy and commitment without passion is (according to psychologist Robert Sternberg) companionate love.
It’s not a magic thunderbolt phenomenon with Chico and I, it’s a slow-growing companionship. But it is a kind of love, I suppose. I don’t fall for other people’s donkeys in the same way. I’ve got used to the responsibility, mostly, and it doesn’t scare me as much as it once did – believe it or not I am starting to expect that he won’t die, unlike six months ago, here and here and here. It is based on familiarity with his little ways, his wobbly chin, his pretty little hooves, his chatty snorts while we’re walking along.
And there is affection. I give him rubs, and he appreciates the fuss. Yesterday, for the first time, there was a breakthrough – he let me stroke his tail. He’s kept it firmly tucked in until now, so that’s quite exciting. Well, for me it is. That’s what my life has become.
Too much love
Things were going well in our even, equal companionship, but just recently he’s got a bit clingy. He brays when I leave, and in the last week he has learned that he can bash things to pieces to get out of his enclosure; three of my finest corralling efforts have been razed to the ground, as has a garden gate, with much apologising from me. And what does he want? Just to be able to keep me in his sights. It’s sort of sweet, and it’s sort of really annoying. I think I preferred him standoffish. (And the strength of his new passion is going to have to be treated with an electric charge through the corral and a few shocks to the velvet nose – how brutal is love!)
He’s got needy, and I’ve hardened my heart a little, but maybe that’s just how love goes. The ebb and flow of a relationship, of dependence and dependability, in which often one party likes and needs the other more. One leans out into the world and the other runs to catch up, one turns away just as the other craves a moment of sweetness and reassurance; sometimes sweethearts are all out of step with each other.
Maybe his carefully guarded tail was his last line of independence, and now it is breached and he has given himself up completely. Or maybe it’s just one of those ebbs. I’ve left him for a day in a field near Solva with an overgrown miniature pony called Eddie, while I do some human chores. Perhaps when I get back he’ll be braying for Eddie instead. And if so the battle for his inconstant heart will be back on, and my interest will be piqued anew. Ah, tricky, tricksy love – even with a donkey.