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October 03, 2004

Strange Artisan

By JoAnn Szabo

In the pecan bottom along the Brazos River, if you hear noises other than frog and coyote songs at night, you’d better get up to check it out. One night I awoke to banging. Donning my robe and grabbling my flashlight, I jumped out of bed and opened the back door to listen. Bang, bang, there it was again. Cautiously I made my way down the dark trail to the barn toward the noise. The equines were turned out to pasture in the relative cool of the starry mid-summer evening. Had they gotten into the feed room? I was planning an emergency trip to the vet as I stumbled down the path. Bang, bang. It sounded louder now. Gathering courage, I turned on the barn lights. The feed room was securely locked and quiet. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Suddenly, BUMP, BUMP, BANG!

Part of the barn had been converted to a pottery studio. The studio door was closed. It wasn’t usually. BUMP! “Who is there?” I called, feeling scared and silly, remembering nearby prison farms and possible dangerous escapees. BUMP, BANG! I tried to push the door, but it wouldn’t open. Heart pounding, nightgown flowing, I raced around the corner, half-afraid to peer in the open window. The screen was down.

There was curly brown Donkey-O-Tee with his patent leather-like little round front hooves on the sill, considering an impossible squeeze through the tiny space. With a big loud honky-honk-hee-honk or two he said, “I sure am glad to see you. Can you get me out of here?”

“Oh my! What have you done?” The potter’s wheel with its 200 lb flywheel was knocked over and wedged against the only door. The heavy-duty slab press was tumbled against the potter’s wheel. Equipment had been chewed, wet upon, and manured. The air inside reeked. A discouraging hand on the animal’s halter through the window was at best a temporary measure. There had to be a convincing barrier over the window before I could scurry around to try the door again. Donkey was determined to stretch that little window to get his fat body through if I would just stand back right now, please. Fortunately, there was a big steel plate and a pry-bar to prop against it to block the window opening. Through the cracks I could see that the barrier had worked. The little animal stood with his ears at half-mast, pondering like a cartoon figure with a cloud over his head. I couldn’t help but laugh in spite of my heart pounding.

Nightgown flying and flashlight beam bobbing, I ran around to try the studio door again, knowing the window barrier could come down any minute. At last there was a small crack in the door—enough to snake a hand in and turn on the studio light. Inside, the bulky long eared critter tried to turn around to face the door. He stuck mid turn, spilling and crunching stacks of round bats and jars stuffed with pottery tools until he could turn no more. The damage in the studio was even worse than what had appeared under the flashlight--chunks of wood gnawed out of the worktable, glaze chemicals spilled, mashed clay chunks. There definitely was a donkey in the china shop--no doubt about it.

There was a hopeless tangle of steel legs from the slab roller. The concrete flywheel from the potter’s wheel was up against the door. The clock was ticking on legendary long-ear patience, stuck as the little equine was, half turned around and tangled in the mess. I found a big crowbar and began prying and rocking the steel to free the door. Inch by inch the door crack widened. Another big steaming poop plopped from the pretzel-like body entwined in the mess. Little yellow rivers of warm pee began to flow out the widening door opening and under my slippers. The door creaked and groaned under the stress of prying and rocking against the steel and concrete behind it.

Finally the equipment shifted and the door could open just enough for an exit. Fortunately, Donkey was not afraid of the clanging tangle of steel legs and scraping concrete. Nimbly and with a big grunt of effort, he leapt his bulky body sideways over the obstacles and clambered through the door unscathed.

“That was fun. What’s next?” he breathed, a little sweat dampening his curly brown fur.

“I’m so glad you’re ok!” He looked loveable with his jaunty attitude, and got a big hug. My heart sank at the thought of the clean up to come, but I was oh, so happy to have my little buddy back sound and healthy.

In the dark, I had to sleuth the equine escape route checking to see if the other pastured animal was safe. Reluctantly Donkey dragged his brown curly self on his lead behind me as we traversed the fence line in the dark to find the break. He would have liked to try the feed room door just one more time and said so with his roll-y eyes, mobile velvet ears, snorty nose and horrible lead line manners. I would have none of it and marched him up and down the fence searching for holes with the flashlight and a fist full of fence repair tools.

A sigh of relief came as Hanes’ four white horsy sox and big white blaze appeared in the flashlight beam. He was happily munching grass in the lush pasture and barely said “hi”. Donkey tossed his head, wrinkled his nose and waved his ears around in disgust at Hanes.

Suddenly the escape route appeared in the dimming flashlight beam. A heavy Pecan branch had snapped and fallen in the night, depressing the smooth fence wire enough for an easy step-over. A big heave-ho took care of the branch, but the wire didn’t spring back enough to hold an adventuring equine in. The fallen branch had loosened some fence staples.

Hanes looked up from his grazing and saw the hole. “Oh no,” thought I with visions of Hanes escaping, as he had been known to do, at a mad gallop, Donkey pulling free, and the two of them out on the neighborhood cavorting all night. Hanes shook his heavy mane and went back to grazing, ignoring his friend’s bad manners, cranking tail, tap dancing feet, and raucous attitude. I held the lead rope tight as I could and blocked the hole with my body just in case. Hanes kept on eating.

Ignored, Donkey jumped back into to the pasture through the hole nice as you please and began to graze as though nothing had happened. With a quick hammer or two, the fence gap disappeared. I made my way up the path to the house and back to bed. I slept soundly with a smile in my heart. The incredible aftermath would still be in the studio the next day. The neighbors would come help clean and gewgaw about what a mess it was. There would be tales told around the rocking chairs on porches for years to come about a strange artisan trying to make pottery down in the pecan bottom, little brown Donkey-O-Tee who went bump in the night.


JoAnn Szabo along with her husband Richard Waybright are the rangers at the ArtPark of Far East Texas, an eclectic seven acre east Texas art environment, wildscape, and private home with an oriental flare, among other things. We have Donkey-O-Tee, a draft mule Sunshine, and two draft ponies, Hunky and Dory. All the equines ride and drive. All the rangers muck and feed.

Posted by Guest Contributor at October 3, 2004 12:10 PM


I so enjoyed your story, thank you for sharing it. I felt I was there trying to figure out how to help the inquisitive Donkey-O-Tee. You must have barrels of laughs with your crew.

Posted by: Sunny at October 6, 2004 10:36 PM

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