A Pilgrimage of Donkeys
A creation story
Things get surreal in this spiralling series of experimental prose-poems about a group of interdimensional donkeys who accidently create a universe
Starlight poured into every crevice of existence
Primordial chaos is just a seed taking root
Is this the end or just another beginning?
in the beginning, there was a single flower and a caravan of donkeys. and the first donkey said to the last donkey, when will there be straw? and the last donkey said, do not be afraid, brother donkey, you just need to concentrate. and straw fell from the sky and the donkeys put their hooves together and trampled it into a magic carpet. and they flew to a graveyard and laid the flower with their blessings on the stones of the dead. only then did they realise they had invented the universe. and all the nine dreamers of the nine realms awoke with confusion in their hearts, for there was much work to be done to bring this matter to the swirling of the light. nothing plays with nothing until something is born. the burden is heavy and the road is long. the donkeys, whose number is infinite, were already separated from one other, for to give birth is also to let go. they sent their blessings from the five corners of the universe across immense darkness and said in one loud voice, you just need to concentrate, brother, sister, amigo. and to aid the confused, they sent the spirit tortoise, and the spirit tortoise said, if you have to go, go slow. billions of stars surged into life and were scattered across the universe like particles of dust in wind that cannot cease, and each of the stars received a donkey as guardian. the donkeys had only wanted to fly on a magic carpet and lay a cherished flower on the tombstones of their forebears. in none of the two hundred testaments written in the mud by the alien beetles of a distant galaxy is there any mention of intention: they speak only of a pilgrimage.
what are those fears, the ones that slip through the backdoor of the mind, occupying the house without permission? they become so comfortable among the chairs and the convoluted galleries and the china plates and the tables that it is easy to forget them. why are you running backwards in circles? someone asks. because the fears told me to, you reply. only these words are never spoken. the fears have also been known to form an association with the past. it is not uncommon to return home and find them both sprawling on the sofas, drunk on cheap vodka, having defecated in the kitchen sink. ahem, you say, but quickly withdraw your indignation. it’s just the fears and the past playing up. perhaps they’ll be better behaved tomorrow.
the spring leaves are the lightest shade of green: it is the colour associated with the intricate mourning rites. the stars before whom the donkeys present the dark lilies of their grief have been known to transform into forests, budding orchards, dawn meadows in whose pearly drops of dew the whole universe is reflected.
they say the philosopher’s stone, sought so ardently by so many, is nothing more than the mind. a tranquil mind, aware of its empty and blissful nature, turns everything it perceives into the spiritual gold of a luminous awareness. the superficial distinction between subject and object diminishes.
the donkeys are often accused of negligence, or worse, an infinite cruelty. the amphibious inhabitants of one galaxy even went so far as to burn all their religious books and replace them with just four words, etched into the malignant remnants of a sulphurous quarry: how can this be? the donkeys usually respond to such complaints with the story of the crusher. the story begins with a termite colony (there are infinite variations). once a termite colony was repeatedly crushed by the staff of a great wizard. the wizard was crushed by misfortune, by lies, by slander; those who spread the lies were crushed by sickness and death. death was crushed by new life, by fragrant blossom in the wind, birdsong after a long sleep, lovers discovering love for the first time. the crushing was relentless. even in times of peace, the clouds crushed the horizon, as the weight of the earth crushed its interior into molten fire, and fire crushed itself into breath. tragedy was knowing only the crushing and not the unfolding of consciousness. the donkeys usually conclude their tale with the following observation: the earth is not just a slaughterhouse but a blue-green oasis hidden in the desert of space. the way is long and the burden heavy and there is much work to be done to bring this matter to the swirling of the light. you just need to concentrate, brother, sister, amigo.
when an abyss opened beneath the town, none of the citizens knew what to do, until a small team of government officials turned up and explained, in relatively simple terms, the most favourable course of action. firstly, the citizens should avoid meeting or moving around after dark. the abyss had opened on a road that featured a night club and a cinema; the authorities were concerned that nocturnal activities might anger the abyss. then the government ordered small businesses to close. the theory went that big capital appeased the abyss but small capital caused only offence. free health care was immediately cancelled. it seemed the abyss didn’t think highly of public pension plans either. these were abolished in favour of private arrangements, the profits of which were set aside for abyss maintenance. it soon became clear that the abyss was not a temporary thing but here to stay. one by one, the inhabitants of the town, scarcely aware of what they were doing, packed up their belongings and moved into the abyss. their old homes were demolished to make room for the abyss to grow.
in the beginning of the middle, the donkeys rarely tired of their playground. they trotted about the space-time continuum marvelling at the way starlight poured into every crevice of existence. many of them bore children. those children bore stars. as older stars extinguished, nurseries for solar systems were formed. no-one spent much time dwelling on the shadows or the ice giants with black holes in their bellies round which the stars revolved. that the centre of each galaxy was a supermassive black hole did not concern the donkeys, who considered swirls of light leaking through these infinitely dense points in the space-time continuum as just another way of laying an infinite flower on the stones of their forebears. before their civilisation collapsed, a species of alien invertebrates, whose planet orbited twenty-seven stars, decided to worship the black hole at the centre of their galaxy. they named it ‘mister dark’ and conferred on it other titles such as ‘the hungry one’ or ‘the mighty drinker of stars’. their annual religious festival was nothing less than a swallowing contest. the insect that ate the most was dressed in sacrificial robes and fired into the centre of the black hole. such a fate was considered the highest of honours among these civilised beings, who believed in neither life nor death, but the continuation of a certain state of consciousness across multiple, fragmenting dreams. the insect king, as the sacrifice was known, was encouraged to sing a pop song as he or she shot towards the black hole. the performance was broadcast on live television. riotous feasting and revelry followed. those insects who refused to participate were castrated.
beside the entrance to the oasis, there is an old battered sign: drinking these waters will make you forget. the wayfarers, who are parched with thirst after a long trek through the desert, mostly ignore these warnings. they drink the water and the water quenches their thirst. and then they forget how hard their journey has been and head back out into the desert.
in a mellow region of the interminable desert, there are numberless stairways, each of which lead to a slightly different version of reality. stairway a, for example, composed of alabaster steps and gilt banisters, concludes with a city in the clouds whose inhabitants have no memory of the past. their sole joy is the pursuit of present satisfaction. as there is no memory of the past, so there is no understanding of cause and effect. all actions are equally inconsequential. stairway b, on the other hand, leads to a city without any conception of the future, whose inhabitants wallow eternally in the laments of their maudlin muses, obsessed with the disappointments of attachments that may or may not have been real. an invisible donkey sits at the bottom of the staircases. only those who have lost themselves in many of these alternative realities begin to perceive the donkey. when asked where the staircases lead, the donkey shrugs and grins.
the lovers hang their confusion out to dry on a washing line. the sun applauds them. for a brief moment, the answer is obvious. being an exile means disrobing in sunlit canyons where no pyramids can be built. in the afternoon, speech returns to them. with the rounded hammers of their vowels and the pickaxes of their consonants they mine the ore of old disaster. by evening, confusion is dry, and ready to be put on again.
in the high mountains, among the ancient beech trees, there are many paths. a large path may bifurcate into two smaller paths, those smaller paths into even smaller paths. or perhaps many paths inexplicably, miraculously, converge into One. the traveller soon realises there is no destination, or rather each step is a destination. the feeling of needing to be somewhere is secondary to the act of walking. views come and go, emotions rise and fall, objectives arise and dissipate but the act of walking is constant. every step is a dream that glides into another dream: a sacrifice, a resurrection.
and one donkey said: if a serpent climbs the mountain, it may become a flower, and almost medicinal. and another donkey said: the dry path is a dangerous path. and a third donkey said: primordial chaos is just a seed taking root. and a fourth donkey said: the cure and the disease are part of the same elixir. and a fifth donkey said: the virgin earth beneath your feet is a supreme philosopher. and a sixth donkey said: the serpent that eats itself to live is also an opener of portals. and a seventh donkey said: the juncture points of fate are an illusion; when the many are whole, the many are One, and the forking paths dissolve into the aether. and an eighth donkey said: the matrix of all earthly phenomena unfolds as a network of fractions, differentials, complex numbers, codes, and riddles. and a ninth donkey said: only disharmony brings forth a world of diversity. and a tenth donkey said: the hands of darkness weave threads of incomparable light. and an eleventh donkey said: where there is conflict, there is also melody, you just need to find a tune, brother, sister, amigo. and a twelfth donkey said: when you dwell in the sediment of creation, expect to find dark things dwelling there too. and a thirteenth donkey said: fire is in conflict with earth, earth with air, air with water, water with fire, and so on. and a fourteenth donkey said: the warriors are only children searching for a master. and a fifteenth donkey said: earthly elements condition perception and consciousness; death occurs when this is no longer the case. and a sixteenth donkey said: the swan replaces the peacock, the raven the swan, the phoenix the raven, the peacock the phoenix; in each of these exchanges there is flight. etc. etc. until the last donkey said to the first donkey: is this the end or just another beginning?
What’s so good about this?
The donkey as astral traveller and beast of burden feels appropriate for a universe that is both notoriously complicated and based on principles of motion. Thomas Helm’s surreal-absurd cosmogony was inspired by mythology, science-fiction, astral travel, and his own doodles. It is neither strange nor solipsistic to suppose a universe created by donkeys came into existence the moment thoughts achieved union with the paper.
You just need to concentrate, brother, sister, amigo.
Meet the writer
Thomas Helm is a writer who delights in the surreal, the absurd, and the philosophical. Originally from England, he has lived and worked in many countries, including Turkey, India, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and France. He has two poetry collections: A Pilgrimage of Donkeys and The Mountain Where Nothing Happens, and other works scattered across various online and print journals. The magazine he edits, Mercurius, aspires to make literature and the arts vital, transformative, and relevant. He loves good company, animals, woodlands, and mountains, though not necessarily all at the same time.