Once upon a time, there was an old donkey who lived on a farm.
To the farmer, he was Ol’ Billy, but the donkey didn’t know that. To himself, and the other farm animals, he was Old Bent-Ear, for the simple reason that his left ear always flopped over whenever he moved.
Old Bent-Ear had lived on the farm ever since he was a small colt, helping pull the farmer’s plough in the springtime, carrying loads of ripe grain in the fall, and carrying around the small children who sometimes visited the farm.
He loved doing that. The visiting children sometimes seemed frightened at first, hiding behind their parents’ legs like scared colts or making sounds like alarmed whinnying. But Old Bent-Ear would just look at them, cocking his head to one side so that his bent ear fell in his eyes, and soon enough they would be laughing and petting his coat and feeding him carrots and riding him around the small fenced-off yard.
The farmer’s daughter was in charge when the children visited, watching the donkey walk the children around and around the yard, usually sitting with one leg dangling off the fencepost as she’d done ever since she was a much smaller child. The farmer called her Sally, but Old Bent-Ear didn’t know that either. He called her Dangle-Foot.
Dangle-foot always had an extra carrot for him, or even the occasional sugar cube, and liked to pet him and talk to him in those strange brays humans used to talk to each other. She was Old Bent-Ear’s favorite human.
It was a good life for an old donkey.
But as the seasons went on, from planting to harvest and back again, the donkey grew weaker. It was harder for him to pull the plough when it was time for the next plating, and harder still to carry all the grain the harvest after that. Still, Old Bent-Ear tried his best, because he wanted to help his humans with all their work.
Eventually, though, the farmer got a new donkey, White-Knee, to do most of the work. White-Knee was young and strong and perhaps a bit too arrogant for his own good, but he was good at his work. “You stay back with the human foals,” he told Old Bent-Ear. “I’ll handle all the real work around here.”
Old Bent-Ear hung his head. “All right,” he said, “if they can’t find anything else for me to do…”
But the next spring, Dangle-Foot pulled out his old harness, patted him on the back and spoke some human-brays to him, and led him out to the garden. Happily, Old Bent-Ear ploughed the whole thing for her, glad to have something helpful to do, even if he couldn’t handle the grain-fields anymore.
Old Bent-Ear spent the summer helping out in little ways, always playing with the visiting children, and hoping he’d be able to help with the garden harvest.
But before the harvest could get underway, he had the misfortune of hurting his hoof.
He was carrying one of the human foals when it happened, and he only just kept himself from falling and dropping the poor child in the sand. Instead, he splayed his three good legs and brayed until Dangle-Foot jumped down to see what was wrong. She lifted the child off his back and sent her off to her mother, and looked around. She found the stray stone he’d tripped on and tossed it away, and then made comforting brays and found something to wrap around his hoof.
When he tested it, he could walk a little, but until it got better, there wasn’t going to be much he could do. He couldn’t even risk carrying any more children like this.
He dropped his head and cried in his donkey-way, making snuffing sounds and shaking his head. Dangle-Foot petted him comfortingly, but when the children came next, she got White-Knee to come and carry them around.
“Don’t you worry, Old Bent-Ear,” said White Knee. “I’ve got this too. You just relax and don’t worry about anything.”
Old Bent-Ear didn’t answer, but just hung his head and walked away slowly, not wanting to look back at White-Knee taking over the last thing he’d been good at.
What was the use? He was old and useless and worthless. They didn’t need him around here anymore—they had White-Knee now. Maybe he should just wander away and not come back.
With his head hung, Old Bent-Ear wandered off to an old, unused corner of the farm. In fact, his head was hung so low that he didn’t even notice the opening to farm’s old, dry well until he was right on top of it.
The well had been covered with a board when it dried up, but the wood was old and rotten, and when Old Bent-Ear stepped on it, it crumbled.
With a loud donkey-scream, Old Bent-Ear went tumbling straight down to the bottom of the pit.
When the dust settled, Old Bent-Ear cautiously opened his eyes and got himself to his good feet. Amazingly, he hadn’t hurt himself any more, but as he looked up at the all-too-small circle of daylight above him, he almost wished he had.
He shook his head sharply and brayed loudly, throwing himself up on his back hooves and pawing at the side of the well with his good front hoof. He had to find a way out of here!
There was a sound from up above, and Old Bent-Ear looked up to see the farm’s Golden Retriever looking down at him.
“Flame-Coat!” called Old Bent-Ear. “Help! I can’t get out!”
Flame-Coat shook his fur. “I don’t know how,” he said, “but I can try to get the humans.”
“Get Dangle-Foot,” said Old Bent-Ear. “She’ll listen.”
Flame-Coat gave a sharp bark of affirmation and darted off.
A few minutes later, Old Bent-Ear heard barking again, and then Flame-Coat’s head appeared at the mouth of the well, followed in short order by Dangle-Foot’s.
The human gave a cry of dismay, and looked around wildly. Not finding whatever she was looking for, she called something down to Old Bent-Ear and went away again.
“Where is she going?” cried Old Bent-Ear.
“How should I know?” said Flame-Coat. “Humans need to learn to bark properly.”
By the time Dangle-Foot returned, followed by a rather large number of other humans, several of the other farm animals had gathered.
“Well that’s quite a pickle,” purred Coal-Nose, licking her paw and projecting that air of arrogant unconcern that only a cat could manage, while Tall-Beak the goose thrust her beak in the air and honked, “How are you going to get out?”
Old Bent-Ear hung his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think they know either.”
“I don’t think they do!” cried Splay-Hoof the goat kid, dancing around. “They’re making lots of human-bleats at each other and pointing and gesturing and I don’t think they know what they’re doing! The humans don’t know what they’re doing! The humans always know what they’re doing!”
Splay-Hoof’s adoptive mother, and old ewe named Moon-Eye, laughed at him. “Child, you have no idea,” she said, and then turned back to Old Bent-Ear. “But they do often manage to figure something out. You of all of us should know that—you were already pulling carts here when I was a lamb.”
Old Bent-Ear only hung his head further. “That’s just it,” he said. “I’m old. I’m old and useless, and now I can’t even help with the human foals. Why would the humans even want me around anymore?”
Several of the gathered animals made various sounds of sympathy, but Coal-Nose stopped licking her paw and jumped down into the well.
“Oh, get over yourself,” she said, walking between his hooves and wrapping her tail around his ankle in a gesture that was less a matter of comfort than a simple ability to do whatever she wanted. “So you hurt your paw. Do you have any idea how many lives I’ve gone through around here?” She hopped easily back up to the well. “Too many,” she said, without waiting for a guess. “And you know what? The humans still have me around. Not that they’d be able to get rid of me, but still.”
Old Bent-Ear shook his head morosely. “I’m a donkey,” he said. “We have to work for our keep.”
Coal-Nose flattened her ears. “Have you seen how many mice I catch?”
“You’d do that anyway,” pointed out Flame-Coat.
Coal-Nose flicked an ear. “That’s beside the point.”
Moon-Eye shook her head. “The point is that the humans usually think of something. They’re not going to leave you like this.”
“They’re coming! They’re coming!” bleated Splay-Hoof. “They thought of something!”
The farm animals parted to let Dangle-Foot through, and she knelt on the edge of the well and called down to Old Bent-Ear. She sounded apologetic, but try as he might, Old Bent-Ear couldn’t pull any meaning from her strange human braying.
She disappeared again, and he brayed after her. “Does anyone understand?” he asked, but none of the animals could tell him anything.
The farmer appeared at the mouth of the well, along with one of his friends—Long-Legs, that human had been as a boy, but now his own son held that name, while he had long since become Set-Shoulder.
The farmer called something, whether to Old Bent-Ear or to another human, he wasn’t sure, and then both humans lifted tools—shovels, the donkey noted with some apprehension—and started shoveling dirt into the well.
Old Bent-Ear shook the dirt off of himself and brayed with alarm.
“What did I tell you,” he called to the other animals. “They don’t want me anymore!”
Coal-Nose jumped into a tree above his head. “Maybe, maybe not,” she said, and started licking her paw again.
“Oh dead, oh dear,” said Moon-Eye. “I was so sure they’d think of something…”
“Try to climb out!” barked Flame-Coat. “It’s not too late! You can still make it!”
“Climb out, climb out,” honked Tall-Beak.
“I can’t!” said Old Bent-Ear. “It’s too deep!” With another bray, he shook another load of dirt off his back and kicked it into the ground below his feet.
“So it is,” observed Coal-Nose, inspecting her paw for any spots that were insufficiently licked.
Dangle-Foot reappeared at the mouth of the well and called down to Old-Bent-Ear again.
“She’s come to say goodbye,” cried Old Bent-Ear sadly. “Goodbye, Dangle-Foot. You were the best human I ever met.”
“Oh, please,” said Coal-Nose, and hopped down to the edge of the well. “Do you still not get it?”
Old Bent-Ear tilted his head quizzically at her, and his ear flopped in his eyes.
Coal-Nose sighed elaborately as the other animals turned their attention to her, but she did nothing at all to discourage the attention.
“Come on, Old Bent-Ear. Why are you stuck down there?”
“Because it’s too deep for me to get out!” cried Old Bent-Nose, shaking off another load of shoveled dirt.
“And?” said Coal-Nose.
Splay-Hoof skittered up to the entrance and looked down.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” he cried. “It’s not as deep as it was!”
There was a beat, and then several more heads appeared at the top of the well.
“It’s not, it’s not,” confirmed Tall-Beak, while Flame-Coat yipped in approval.
“…what?” said Old Bent-Ear, standing stock-still in surprise as more dirt piled on his back and around his ankles.
“Shake it off, you imbecile!” said Coal-Nose.
“Yes!” said Moon-Eye. “Shake it off and stamp it down!”
Old Bent-Ear looked up at them and blinked for another moment. Then he gave a mighty shake and started stamping down in earnest.
Dangle-Foot laughed and called down to him encouragingly to him.
“I’m coming, Dangle-Foot!” said Old Bent-Ear, and before long, he could reach the top of the well with his good hoof.
“You’re almost out!” barked Flame-Coat, but when Old Bent-Ear tried to jump out, Dangle-Foot hopped in and held him back, tamping down the dirt with him until he could step out without hurting his ankle.
When he finally did, it was to a great noise of braying and barking and bleating and cheering and even a suppressed purr.
Dangle-Foot threw her arms around his neck, and Old Bent-Ear nuzzled her ear until she giggled and pulled back.
“I don’t know how I could have doubted you,” he said, and for once he was glad that all she would hear was the same sort of braying her heard from her.
“Glad to see you out again,” said another voice, and Old Bent-Ear looked up to see White-Knee, harnessed to a cart still half-full of the dirt that some of the humans were still shoveling into the treacherous pit.
“Are you?” he said, surprised.
White-Knee shook his mane in surprise. “Of course I am,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I thought you’d be happy to have me gone,” said Old-Bent Ear. “I thought you’d be happy to have my place on the farm.”
White-Knee snorted. “I never had your place,” he said. “I’m just the new help around here—you’re family.”
Old Bent-Ear looked aside not sure what to say.
“And besides,” said White-Knee, rather sheepishly, “I don’t know how you deal with the human foals. They wouldn’t even come to me. I think I scared them away.”
Old Bent-Ear looked up, and then he laughed his donkey-laugh. “You just have to be gentle with them,” he said. “I can show you, if you like.”
“Please,” said White-Knee, looking relieved. “But I still can’t wait until you’re back on that job.”
Old Bent-Ear shook his mane and reared up on his back legs, feeling like a colt again. “I’ll be back on it before you know it,” he promised.
White-Knee gave a braying laugh. “You’d better, Old Shake-Well,” he said, and from that day on, none of the animals ever called him anything else.