Down on the Ass Farm by Samuel Ligon
Remember how we’d handle snakes, diamondbacks and cottonmouths, praying we’d be okay someday and away from this place? We’d quote from scripture, glowing with the words we whispered: And they will take up snakes, and if they should drink lethal poison, it will not harm them, and they will place their hands on the sick. But we didn’t place our hands on the sick. And we didn’t drink lethal poison. We drank Father Tim’s whiskey and placed our hands on each other, saying yes to darkness and drink and the pleasures of the flesh. Do you remember?
You’d whisper to me from the Song of Solomon, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, and I’d whisper back, Your breasts are like twin fawns of a gazelle, and we’d kiss with hot whiskey breath places never kissed before, sealing our damnation. The glory of casting ourselves out, casting ourselves into each other! I wanted to run, to torch the place, but you said, “What would become of Baby Iris if we burned down her home?” and I said, “This isn’t a home,” and you said, “This is a home,” and we laid hands on each other—but did I really compare your breasts to twin fawns of a gazelle? Or was that just the whiskey talking. Or the bible. Or the goats growing inside us.
Remember Brother Farvel chaining us to the gear wheel outside the millhouse, making us walk circles to turn the wheel that milled the grain that Father Tim distilled?
Remember how we’d milk the donkeys, those sad, bellowing donkeys, feeding the farm’s production of ass-milk cheese, which none of the children wanted, though we ate it night and day, day and night, with snake eggs and donkey milk biscuits?
One thing I can’t remember is how we ended up part of such a donkey-breeding, snake-handling hippie cult in the first place, or who we were before we arrived. Brother and sister? Cousins? Did we know each other at all before we were abducted and fell in love? Did we even exist? We must have, but I can’t remember a time before you.
Remember the guard donkeys along the compound’s periphery, protecting the sheep and ducks from the wolves and wild men roaming the countryside? Butch and his lover Priscilla were our favorites, because they would not stop braying and bellowing, would not guard anything, if separated. Remember the thrashings we’d endure at the hands of the humans, how I’d whisper to you from Edward Field’s donkey poem late at night when we were finally alone: “They are not silent like work-horses/who are happy or indifferent about the plow and wagon/Donkey’s don’t submit like that….”
And you’d whisper, “Laugh if you will when they hee-haw/But know that they are crying.”
“Donkeys know what life should be,” I’d say, still quoting Field. “But alas, they do not own their bodies.”
We’d lay hands on each other then, kissing and braying like Butch and Priscilla, who did own their bodies at night. As did we. At night. No one can say we didn’t own our bodies at night.
Remember the mud harvests? The bile mines?
Remember the potluck dinners, everyone wrapped in donkey hair blankets? All that fellowship and suffering. Everything we had to join and reject.
It’s hard for me to remember anymore exactly what’s true. I can’t tell my memories from dreams now, my dreams from desires.
I do remember this, though. The smell of your skin and the lies we told to find each other. The necklace the river witch gave Mother Melanie to cure you of your forked tongue, a shimmering necklace that hung between your baby gazelle breasts, one bead of which would disappear for every lie you told. There must’ve been a thousand beads on that necklace, a wealth of lies we could not imagine spending.
This much is true, right? That there were guard donkeys out back, Butch and Priscilla, donkey lovers, because a lone donkey is a lonely donkey. That we fell in love on a cult compound where we served as bonded labor, beasts of burden. That there was a necklace around your neck, a collar waiting to choke you on our lies, and when the necklace grew tight, one disappearing bead away from asphyxiating you, you ran from the ass farm without telling me, knowing I would have run with you. I was young then. It never occurred to me that if you didn’t leave, that if we were allowed to see each other from then on out forever, the lie that would one day kill you would be telling me we were still in love.
Remember the snakes in the spring house, testing the air with their tongues? Remember Priscilla kicking that dog to death, an old golden who wandered too close to the lamb pens? Remember kissing and shaking in the spring night, how we never got snake bit or donkey kicked? When they brought your blue body home, they left me alone for two days to roll in the mud and wail. But they didn’t shoot me in the head, like they shot Butch when Priscilla had her stroke. He honked and hee-hawed for two days straight, never once leaving her dead donkey body, until Lance dropped him with a shot from his Browning T-Bolt. The silence that followed!
I like to think the lie that killed you was one you told yourself—that you’d be just fine without me. That’s how small my love’s become. I like to think we would have been as good and true as those donkeys had we stayed together. Remember how they honked and moaned the one time they were forced apart? They stomped and kicked and wheezed and wailed and would not do any work for those awful humans. Do you remember? How we handled snakes? How we’d drink whiskey and quote scripture and lay hands on each other? I need you to remember something, here. Anything. I can’t tell what’s true. All I remember is waiting for you and the sound of those donkeys howling.
Samuel Ligon is the author of two novels—Among the Dead and Dreaming and Safe in Heavenn Dead—and two collections of stories, Wonderland, illustrated by Stephen Knezovich, and Drift and Swerve. His stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The New England Review, Post Road, Okey-Panky, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review and elsewhere. His essay appear in The Inlander. He’s the editor of Willow Springs and the artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Washington University in Spokane.