STORY OF THE SAINT JOSEPH'S ASS
BY GIOVANNI VERGA
They had bought him at the fair at Buccheri when he was quite a
foal, when as soon as he saw a she-ass he went up to her to find
her teats; for which he got a good many bangs on the head and
showers of blows upon the buttocks, and caused a great shouting
of "Gee back!" neighbor Neli, seeing him lively and stubborn as
he was, a young creature that licked his nose after it had been
hit, giving his ears a shake, said, "This is the chap for me!"
And he went straight to the owner, holding in his pocket his
hand which clasped the thirty-five shillings.
"It's a fine foal," said the owner, "and it's worth more than
five-and-thirty shillings. Never mind if he's got that black
and white skin, like a magpie. I'll just show you his mother,
whom we keep there in the bough-shelter because the foal has
always got his nose at the teats. You'll see a fine black beast
there; she works for me better than a mule, and has brought me
more young ones than she has hairs on her back. Upon my soul, I
don't know where that magpie jacket has come from, on the foal.
But he's sound in the bone, I tell you! And you don't value
men according to their faces. Look what a chest, and legs like
pillars! Look how he holds his ears! An ass that keeps his
ears straight up like that, you can put him in a cart or in
the plow as you like, and make him carry ten quarters of
buckwheat better than a mule, as true as this holy day today!
Feel this tail, if you and all your family couldn't hang on
Neighbor Neli knew it better than he; but he wasn't such a
fool as to agree, and stood on his own, with his hand in his
pocket, shrugging his shoulders and curling his nose, while
the owner led the colt round in front of him.
"Hm!" muttered neighbor Neli, "with that hide on him, he's
like Saint Joseph's ass. Those colored animals are all Jonahs,
and when you ride through the village on their backs everybody
laughs at you. What do you want me to make you a present of,
for Saint Joseph's ass?"
Then the owner turned his back on him in a rage, shouting that
if he didn't know anything about animals, or if he hadn't got
the money to pay with, he'd better not come to the fair and
make Christians waste their time, on the blessed day that it
Neighbor Neli let him swear, and went off with his brother,
who was pulling him by his jacket-sleeve, and saying that if
he was going to throw away his money on that ugly beast, he
deserved to be kicked.
However, on the sly they kept their eye on the Saint Joseph's ass,
and on its owner who was pretending to shell some broad-beans,
with the halter-rope between his legs, while neighbor Neli went
wandering round among the groups of mules and horses, and stopping
to look, and bargaining for first one and then the other of the
best beasts, without ever opening the fist which he kept in his
pocket with the thirty-five shillings, as if he'd got the money
to buy half the fair. But his brother said in his ear, motioning
toward the ass of Saint Joseph: "That's the chap for us!"
The wife of the owner of the ass from time to time ran to look
what had happened, and finding her husband with the halter in
his hand, she said to him: "Isn't the Madonna going to send us
anybody today to buy the foal?"
And her husband answered every time: "Not so far! There came
one man to try for him, and he liked him. But he drew back when
he had to pay for him, and has gone off with his money. See him,
that one there, in the white stocking-cap, behind the flock of
sheep. But he's not bought anything up to now, which means he'll
The woman would have liked to sit down on a couple of stones,
just close to her ass, to see if he would be sold. But her
husband said to her:
"You clear out! If they see we're waiting, they'll never come to
Meanwhile the foal kept nuzzling with his nose between the legs
of the she-asses that passed by, chiefly because he was hungry,
and his master, the moment the young thing opened his mouth to
bray, fetched him a bang and made him be quiet, because the
buyers wouldn't want him if they heard him.
"It's still there," said neighbor Neli in his brother's ear,
pretending to come past again to look for the man who was
selling broiled chickpeas. "If we wait till Ave Maria we can
get him for five shillings less than the price we offered."
The sun of May was hot, so that from time to time, in the midst
of the shouting and swarming of the fair, there fell a great
silence over all the fairground, as if there was nobody there,
and then the mistress of the ass came back to say to her husband:
"Don't you hold out for five shillings more or less, because
there's no money to buy anything in with, this evening; and
then you know the foal will eat five shillings' worth in a month,
if he's left on our hands."
"If you're not going," replied her husband, "I'll fetch you a
kick you won't forget!"
So the hours of the fair rolled by, but none of those who passed before
the ass of Saint Joseph stopped to look at him; for, sure enough, his
master had chosen the most humble position, next to the low-price
cattle, so as not to make him show up too badly beside the beautiful
bay mules and the glossy horses! It took a fellow like neighbor Neli
to go and bargain for Saint Joseph's ass, which set everybody in the
fair laughing the moment they saw it. With having waited so long in the
sun the foal let his head and his ears drop, and his owner had seated
himself gloomily on the stones, with his hands also dangling between
his knees, and the halter in his hands, watching here and there the
long shadows, which began to form in the plain as the sun went down,
from the legs of all the beasts which had not found a buyer. Then
neighbor Neli and his brother, and another friend whom they had picked
up for the occasion, came walking that way, looking into the air, so
that the owner of the ass also twisted his head away to show he wasn't
sitting there waiting for them; and the friend of neighbor Neli said
like this, looking vacant, as if the idea had just come to him:
"Oh, look at the ass of Saint Joseph! Why don't you buy him, neighbor
"I asked the price of him this morning; he's too dear. Then I should
have everybody laughing at me with that black and white donkey. You
can see that nobody would have him, so far."
"That's a fact, but the color doesn't matter, if a thing is any use
And he asked of the owner:
"How much do you expect us to make you a present of, for that Saint
The wife of the owner of the ass of Saint Joseph, seeing that the
bargaining had started again, came edging softly up to them, with her
hands clasped under her short cloak.
"Don't mention such a thing!" neighbor Neli began to shout, running
away across the plain. "Don't mention such a thing to me; I won't hear
a word of it."
"If he doesn't want it, let him go without it," answered the owner. "If
he doesn't take it, somebody else will. It's a sad man who has nothing
left to sell, after the fair!"
"But I mean him to listen to me, by the blessed devil I do!" squealed
the friend. "Can't I say my own fool's say like anybody else?"
And he ran to seize neighbor Neli by the jacket; then he came back to
speak a word in the ear of the ass's owner, who now wanted at any cost to
go home with his little donkey; so the friend threw his arms round his
neck, whispering: "Listen! five shillings more or less, if you don't
sell it today, you won't find another softy like my pal here to buy
your beast, which isn't worth a cigar."
And he embraced the ass's mistress also, talking in her ear, to get her
on his side. But she shrugged her shoulders and replied with a sullen
"It's my man's business. It's nothing to do with me. But if he lets you
have it for less than forty shillings he's a simpleton, in all
conscience! It cost us more!"
"I was a lunatic to offer thirty-five shillings this morning," put
in neighbor Neli. "You see now whether you've found anybody else to
buy it at that price. There's nothing left in all the fair but three
or four scabby sheep and the ass of Saint Joseph. Thirty shillings
now, if you like."
"Take it," suggested the ass's mistress to her husband, with tears in
her eyes. "We haven't a penny to buy anything in tonight, and Turiddu
has got the fever on him again; he needs some sulphate."
"All the devils!" bawled her husband. "If you don't get out, I'll give
you a taste of the halter!"
"Thirty-two-and-six, there!" cried the friend at last, shaking him
hard by the jacket collar. "Neither you nor me! This time you've got
to take my word, by all the saints in paradise! And I don't ask as
much as a glass of wine. You can see the sun's gone down. Then what
are you waiting for, the pair of you?"
And he snatched the halter from the owner's hand, while neighbor Neli,
swearing, drew out of his pocket the fist with the thirty-five shillings,
and gave them him without looking at them, as if he was tearing out
his own liver. The friend drew aside with the mistress of the ass, to
count the money on a stone, while the owner of the ass rushed through
the fair like a young colt, swearing and punching himself on the head.
But then he permitted himself to go back to his wife, who was very
slowly and carefully counting over again the money in the handkerchief,
and he asked:
"Is it right?"
"Yes, it's quite right; Saint Gaetano be praised! Now I'll go to the
"I've fooled them! I'd have given it him for twenty shillings, if
I'd had to; those colored donkeys are all Jonahs."
And neighbor Neli, leading the little donkey behind him down the slope,
"As true as God's above I've stolen his foal from him! The color
doesn't matter. Look what legs, like pillars, neighbor. He's worth
forty shillings with your eyes shut."
"If it hadn't been for me," replied the friend, "you wouldn't have done
a thing. Here, I've still got two-and-six of yours. And if you like,
we'll go and drink your donkey's health with it."
And now the colt stood in need of all his health to earn back the
thirty-two-and-six he had cost, and the straw he ate. Meanwhile he
took upon himself to keep gamboling behind neighbor Neli, trying to
bite his jacket in fun, as if he knew it was the jacket of his new
master, and he didn't care a rap about leaving forever the stable
where he had lived in the warmth, near his mother, rubbing his muzzle
on the edge of the manger, or butting and capering with the ram, or
going to rouse up the pig in its corner. And his mistress, who was once
more counting the money in the handkerchief in front of the druggist's
counter, she didn't either once think of how she had seen the foal born,
all black and white with his skin as glossy as silk, and he couldn't
stand on his legs yet, but lay nestling in the sun in the yard, and all
the grass which he had eaten to get so big and stout had passed through
her hands. The only one who remembered her foal was the she-ass, who
stretched out her neck, braying toward the stable door; but when she
no longer had her teats swollen with milk, she too forgot about the
"Now this creature," said neighbor Neli, "you'll see he'll carry me
ten quarters of buckwheat better than a mule. And at harvest I'll
set him threshing."
At the threshing the colt, tied in a string with the other beasts,
old mules and broken-down horses, trotted round over the sheaves from
morning till night, till he was so tired he didn't even want to open
his mouth to bite at the heap of straw when they had put him to rest
in the shade, now that a little wind had sprung up, so that the
peasants could toss up the grain into the air with broad wooden forks,
to winnow it, crying, "Viva Maria!"
Then he let his muzzle and his ears hang down, like a grown-up ass,
his eye spent, as if he was tired of looking out over the vast
white campagna which fumed here and there with the dust from the
threshing-floors, and it seemed as if he was made for nothing else
but to be let die of thirst and made to trot around on the sheaves.
At evening he went back to the village with full saddlebags, and the
master's lad went behind him pricking him between the legs, along
the hedges of the byway that seemed alive with the twittering of the
tits and the scent of cat-mint and of rosemary, and the donkey would
have liked to snatch a mouthful, if they hadn't made him trot all the
time, till the blood ran down his legs, and they had to take him to
the vet; but his master didn't care, because the harvest had been a
good one, and the colt had earned his thirty-two-and-six. His master
said: "Now he's done his work, and if I sell him for twenty shillings,
I've still made money by him."
The only one who was fond of the foal was the lad who made him
trot along the little road, when they were coming home from the
threshing-floor, and he cried while the farrier was burning the
creature's legs with a red-hot iron, so that the colt twisted himself
up, with his tail in the air and his ears as erect as when he had
roved round the fairground, and he tried to get free from the twisted
rope which pressed his lips, and he rolled his eyes with pain almost
as if he had human understanding, when the farrier's lad came to
change the red hot irons, and his skin smoked and frizzled like fish
in a frying-pan. But neighbor Neli shouted at his son: "Silly fool!
What are you crying for? He's done his work now, and seeing that the
harvest has gone well, we'll sell him and buy a mule, which will be
better for us."
Some things children don't understand; and after they had sold the
colt to Farmer Cirino from Licodia, neighbor Neli's son used to go
to visit it in the stable, to stroke its nose and its neck, and the
ass would turn to snuff at him as if its heart were still bound to him,
whereas donkeys are made to be tied up where their master wishes, and
they change their fate as they change their stable. Farmer Cirino from
Licodia had bought the Saint Joseph's ass cheap, because it still had
the wound in the pastern; and the wife of neighbor Neli, when she saw
the ass going by with its new master, said: "There goes our luck; that
black and white hide brings a jolly threshing floor; and now times go
from bad to worse, so that we've even sold the mule again."
Farmer Cirino had yoked the ass to the plow, with the old horse that
went like a jewel, drawing out his own brave furrow all day long, for
miles and miles, from the time when the larks began to trill in the
dawn-white sky, till when the robins ran to huddle behind the bare twigs
that quivered in the cold, with their short flight and their melancholy
chirping, in the mist which rose like a sea. Only, seeing that the
ass was smaller than the horse, they had put him a pad of straw on the
saddle, under the yoke, and he went at it harder than ever, breaking
the frozen sod, pulling with all his might from the shoulder. "This
creature saves my horse for me, because he's getting old," said Farmer
Cirino. "He's got a heart as big as the plain of Catania, has that ass
of Saint Joseph! And you'd never think it."
And he said to his wife, who was following behind him clutched in her
scanty cloak, parsimoniously scattering the seed:
"If anything should happen to him, think what a loss it would be! We
should be ruined, with all the season's work in hand."
And the woman looked at the work in hand, at the little stony, desolate
field, where the earth was white and cracked, because there had been no
rain for so long, the water coming all in mist, the mist that rots the
seed; so that when the time came to hoe the young corn it was like the
devil's beard, so sparse and yellow, as if you'd burned it with matches.
"In spite of the way we worked that land!" whined Farmer Cirino, tearing
off his jacket. "That donkey put his guts into it like a mule! He's the
ass of misfortune, he is."
His wife had a lump in her throat when she looked at that burned-up
cornfield, and only answered with the big tears that came to her eyes.
"It isn't the donkey's fault. He brought a good year to
neighbor Neli. It's us who are unlucky."
So the ass of Saint Joseph changed masters once more, for Farmer Cirino
went back again with his sickle from the cornfield; there was no need
to reap it that year, in spite of the fact that they'd hung images of
the saints on to the cane hedge, and had spent ninepence having it
blessed by the priest. "The devil is after us!" Farmer Cirino went
swearing through those ears of corn that stood up straight like feathers,
which even the ass wouldn't eat; and he spat into the air at the blue
sky that had not a drop of water in it. Then neighbor Luciano the
carter, meeting Farmer Cirino leading home the ass with empty
saddlebags, asked him: "What do you want me to give you for Saint
"Give me what you like. Curse him and whoever made him," replied
Farmer Cirino. "Now we haven't got bread to eat, nor barley to
give to the beast."
"I'll give you fifteen shillings because you're ruined; but the
ass isn't worth it, he won't last above six months. See what a
poor sight he is!"
"You ought to have asked more," Farmer Cirino's wife began to grumble
after the bargain was concluded. "Neighbor Luciano's mule has died,
and he hasn't the money to buy another. If he hadn't bought the
Saint Joseph's ass he wouldn't know what to do with his cart and
harness; and you'll see that donkey will bring him riches."
The ass then learned to pull the cart, which was too high on the shafts
for him, and weighed so heavily on his shoulders that he wouldn't have
lasted even six months, scrambling his way up the steep, rough roads,
when it took all neighbor Luciano's cudgeling to put a bit of breath
into his body; and when he went downhill it was worse, because all the
load came down on top of him, and pressed on him so much that he had
to hold on with his back curved up in an arch, with those poor legs
that had been burned by fire, so that people seeing him began to laugh,
and when he fell down it took all the angels of paradise to get him
up again. But neighbor Luciano knew that he pulled his ton and a half
of stuff better than a mule, and he got paid two shillings a half-ton.
"Every day the Saint Joseph's ass lives it means six shillings I
earned," he said, "and he costs me less to feed than a mule." Sometimes
people toiling up on foot at a snail's pace behind the cart, seeing
that poor beast digging his hoofs in with no strength left, and arching
his spine, breathing quick, his eye hopeless, suggested: "Put a stone
under the wheel, and let that poor beast get his wind." But neighbor
Luciano replied: "If I let him go his own pace he'll never earn me my
six shillings a day. I've got to mend my own skin with his. When he
can't do another stroke I'll sell him to the lime man, for the creature
is a good one and will do for him; and it's not true a bit that Saint
Joseph's asses are Jonahs. I got him for a crust of bread from Farmer
Cirino, now he's come down and is poor."
Then the Saint Joseph's ass fell into the hands of the lime man, who
had about twenty donkeys, all thin skeletons just ready to drop, but
which managed nevertheless to carry him his little sacks of lime, and
lived on mouthfuls of weeds which they could snatch from the roadside
as they went. The lime man didn't want him because he was all covered
with scars worse than the other beasts, and his legs seared with fire,
and his shoulders worn out with the collar, and his withers gnawed by
the plow-saddle, and his knees broken by his falls, and then that
black and white skin which in his opinion didn't go at all with his
other black animals. "That doesn't matter," replied Luciano, "it'll
help you to know your own asses at a distance." And he took off
another ninepence from the seven shillings which he had asked, to
close the bargain. But even the mistress, who had seen him born,
would no longer have recognized the Saint Joseph's ass, he was so
changed, as he went with his nose to the ground and his ears like
an umbrella, under the little sacks of lime, twisting his behind at
the blows from the boy who was driving the herd. But the mistress
herself had also changed by then, with the bad times there had been,
and the hunger she had felt, and the fevers that they'd all caught
down on the plain, she, her husband and her Turiddu, without any
money to buy sulphate, for one hasn't got a Saint Joseph's ass to
sell every day, not even for thirty-five shillings.
In winter, when work was scarce, and the wood for burning the lime
was rarer and farther to fetch, and the frozen little roads hadn't
a leaf on their hedges, or a mouthful of stubble along the frozen
ditchside, life was harder for those poor beasts; and the owner
knew that the winter would carry off half of them for him; so that
he usually had to buy a good stock of them in spring. At night the
herd lay in the open, near the kiln, and the beasts did the best
for themselves, pressing close up to one another. But those stars
that shone like swords pierced them in their vulnerable parts,
in spite of their thick hides, and all their sores and galls burned
again and trembled in the cold as if they could speak.
However, there are plenty of Christians who are no better off, and
even haven't got that rag of a cloak in which the herd-boy curled
himself up to sleep in front of the furnace. A poor widow lived close
by -- in a hovel even more dilapidated than the lime kiln, so that
the stars pierced through the roof like swords, as if you were
in the open, and the wind made the few rags of coverlets flutter.
She used to do washing, but it was a lean business, because folk
washed their own rags, when they were washed at all, and now that
her boy was grown she lived by going down to the village to sell
wood. But nobody had known her husband, and nobody knew where she
got the wood she sold; though her boy knew, because he went to
glean it here and there, at the risk of being shot at by the
estate-keepers. "If you had a donkey," said the lime man, who
wanted to sell the Saint Joseph's ass because it was no longer any
good to him, "you could carry bigger bundles to the village, now
that your boy is grown."
The poor woman had a shilling or two tied in a corner of a
handkerchief, and she let the lime man get them out of her,
because, as they say: "old stuff goes to die in the house of the
At least the poor Saint Joseph's ass lived his last days a little
better; because the widow cherished him like a treasure, thanks to the
pennies he had cost her, and she went out at nights to get him straw and
hay, and kept him in the hut beside the bed, so that he helped to keep
them all warm, like a little fire, he did, in this world where one
hand washes the other. The woman, driving before her the ass laden with
wood like a mountain, so that you couldn't see his ears, went building
castles in the air; and the boy foraged round the hedges and ventured
into the margins of the wood to get the load together, till both mother
and son imagined themselves growing rich at the trade; till at last
the baron's estate-keeper caught the boy in the act of stealing boughs
and tanned his hide for him thoroughly with a stick. To cure the boy
the doctor swallowed up all the pence in the handkerchief, the stock
of wood, and all there was to sell, which wasn't much; so that one
night when the boy was raving with fever, his inflamed face turned
toward the wall, and there wasn't a mouthful of bread in the house,
the mother went out raving and talking to herself as if she had got
the fever as well; and she went and broke down an almond tree close by,
though it didn't seem possible that she could have managed to do it,
and at dawn she loaded it on the ass to go and sell it. But under the
weight, as he tried to get up the steep path, the donkey kneeled down
really like Saint Joseph's ass before the Infant Jesus, and couldn't
get up again.
"Holy Spirits!" murmured the woman. "Oh, carry that load of wood for
me, you yourselves."
And some passers-by pulled the ass by the rope and hit his ears
to make him get up.
"Don't you see he's dying," said a carter at last, and so the others
left him in peace, since the ass had eyes like a dead fish, and a
cold nose, and shivers running over his skin.
The woman thought of her son in his delirium, with his face red with
fever, and she stammered:
"Now what shall we do? Now what shall we do?"
"If you want to sell him with all the wood I'll give you two shillings
for him," said the carter, who had his wagon empty. And as the woman
looked at him with vacant eyes, he added, "I'm only buying the wood,
because that's all the ass is worth!" And he gave a kick at
the carcass, which sounded like a burst drum.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~