For once, we aren’t late. The kids keep asking me if we are, but I am able to assure them, we are fine, we’re right on time. I know this place. We just need to park in the big lot by the playground, follow a concrete path over a small footbridge, and walk up the hill past the white fenced pastures and gates. I’ve been here before. When I was a child, I took pony lessons here. I stroked the cows, sheep, and goats. I coveted the horses and wondered at the donkey with his long, brown ears. I loved this place.
We’re here for a birthday party. The birthday girl, Erin, I’ve never met. As we slip under the heavy metal gate, we see a group of kids running with a handful of parents. We climb the hill and I take in the historic white barns and impeccably kept concrete aprons. Erin’s mom introduces herself; she is well put-together with freshly highlighted hair and furry winter boots. Another mom, a large woman with a ruddy face and a bright turquoise sweatshirt stretched over her midsection introduces herself as Ava’s mom. The children connect with squeals and start running back and forth.
In the party room, long card tables are set with cheap plastic decorations. The standard birthday fare is here – Capri suns, veggie platters, chips. The smell of this room takes me back to my childhood. Old concrete floors and raw wood walls, finger-paint and real sheep’s wool.
When all the kids arrive, we start our tour. We’re led by the young farm guide up the north hill to a paddock with small Shetland ponies. The kids line up against the fence, waiting for their turn to touch one. The guide explains that you can only pet the pony on his neck, under the mane. She calls the birthday girl forward first. The others try to wait patiently but there is much chatter and fidgeting. The kids are required to use hand sanitizer after touching the pony.
I feel a bit claustrophobic, standing inside a group of parents who don’t know each other and make small talk, as they pretend to be excited about their child’s opportunity to touch a geriatric pony. For god’s sake, these are eight year olds, I think to myself – they’ve surely touched a pony before. I turn and walk up the hill, leaving my children, and see more ponies surrounded by visitors who hoist toddlers and gawk. That’s when I see it, and I remember.
A flat, bronze gravestone sits under a scraggly rhododendron, surrounded by the earliest spring buds poking out of the wet ground. It is Pasado’s gravestone.
Beloved donkey and friend.
September 1976 – April 1992
He would be about my age, I notice. He died the year I started high school. It was all over the news.
The group exits the pony pen and the kids bound after the tour guide. The adults hang back. We slowly follow the children’s path over a playground and behind the first barn, where there are several pigs in small pens waiting for us. I think of the purpose these animals play: a break from city life, an exposure to the pastoral for our children. Innocent victims of the experience we crave. As the hogs lie fat yet hungry in their pens, we will cow over them and feed them treats as we learn a few facts about their mundane, captive lives. I try to suppress my negative mood as we approach.
The night that Pasado died, there were three boys, and one was old enough to be tried as an adult. Our peaceful, affluent suburb was outraged, and rumors were rampant. I was a freshman in high school and I remember talk of satanic rituals, brands and horns. The donkey was murdered, maybe tortured first. Who could do that, and where are they now, I wonder to myself.
We approach a huge sow with nipples exposed, leaning against a wire fence, her stench wafting toward us with every breath. Her flesh is mottled, her hair in short, fine bristles. Her snout looks wet. The kids are enraptured. A few of them poke their fingers through the fence. “Pigs bite fingers,” our guide admonishes, “they might even mistake your finger for food.”
This old pig looks like she’s too large to stand. Her eyes have a bit of a smile though. I hold that peacefulness in my mind as we are guided around the corner to the next pen. We pass a rope hanging against a shed, slack on its hook.
The boys brought a rope; they had already tied it into a noose. This fact emerged during police interviews, and prosecutors used it to prove premeditation. The boys only wanted to ride the donkey; they weren’t looking to hurt it. Things got out of hand, they said. The rope was around Pasado’s neck and the donkey was terrified. He tried to run away but they dragged him back. It was dark, desolate, his pasture lit only by the April half moon.
We’re approaching the chickens. Children ooh and ahh, looking at the different colors and shapes of them. There is the fat Barred Rock Hen, her black and white feathers like a miniature chess board. Beside her, a proud Bantam with downy fluff around his long legs, an avian Clydesdale. The tour guide begins explaining about eggs. Why they are different colors. How often we can expect them. Length of days, spring, fertilization, possibility. This part of the farm is a labyrinth of small animal habitats: caged birds, a drooping peacock, a row of rabbits. As I follow the group, I almost trip over a pitchfork.
The boys used a pitchfork, that I know for sure. They used it to prod and chase Pasado, to torment him. How did things get so out of hand? Did they find the pitchfork in the barn? They used it to hit him. A donkey, most innocent of creatures. The peaceful animal of a nativity scene. A hard worker, and gentle. One of the boys was the police major’s son. This is sociopathic behavior, one news outlet reported when the story broke.
Ava’s mom walks faithfully beside the group, holding the hand sanitizer. When the tour guide asked “who wants to be in charge of this?” cheerfully holding a squeeze bottle of Purell, I wasn’t surprised when this woman volunteered. She seems that type: someone who volunteers for PTA events, plans graduation parties, overextends herself. As we walk, she’s telling me about her illnesses this last winter, pausing for warmth in the sun-breaks. She shares details of double ear infections and being home in bed, missing work. She says, luckily Ava didn’t get it, Ava was fine. These kids are amazing right? It takes us out but they shake it off like nothing. Ava had a fever for a day and I could barely keep her down.
Pasado was down when the farm workers found him the next morning. Tied by the noose to a tree and beaten to death. The autopsy reported death by strangulation, multiple blows to the head, and a half-inch gash where the noose strangled him. The attack lasted 45 minutes, police estimated. The boys brought the rope and a steel bar. They found the pitchfork and the tree. They improvised. Was it teenage-boy mischief, or something else, the community wondered. Were drugs involved?
We’re invited to pet the rabbits. The farm guide pulls one gentle bunny out of the cage and places him in a white plastic tub. She asks the children to line up in an orderly fashion. She tells each child to only pet the rabbit twice: right on top of the head and ears. Don’t pet his back, it could scare him. Keep your hands in this area, she gestures. My daughter’s turn is second, right after the birthday girl. She pets the brown rabbit three times, a sly smile on her face, and manages to touch his back.
They only wanted to ride him, said one article. They just wanted to pull an innocent prank. Sneak in at night and grab the donkey. Ride him in turns. When he tried to run, things got out of hand. The boys shook it off like a rowdy party or a harmless joyride.
There is only one pen left, and I think I know what it will hold. Something soft and innocent, acquiescent. The farm no longer has a donkey; Pasado was their one and only. We are led to a sunny field and I know it must be his field. There is a lone tree in the middle, and the pasture has a slight slope. He wound himself around that tree, trying to escape. He ran for his life but had nowhere to go. Standing now, beside his gate, we are approached by two smiling, woolly sheep. Their eyes are blank as they search our hands for treats. We lure them near with the promise of food, and a gentle hand.