A version of this story was first published in The Big Issue in May 2017.
I am standing in a field in Normandy trying to attract the attention of a donkey called Dara.
Every other morning he has trotted towards me without hesitation, knowing I am the bearer of his morning carrot. There he is in the distance, head down, engrossed. I arm myself with the carrot and a spray bottle of water as a deterrent. I get close enough to see the beautiful dead red fox he is gently patting with a front hoof.
It is early on a warm summer’s morning and the buzzing of flies is already audible above the birdsong. Despite the heat, I don’t attempt to remove the corpse before it becomes flyblown. I retreat to the gate, not wishing to share the fox’s fate. Since my arrival in France six months ago, I have learned that donkeys are not all sweetness and light. Any living creature foolhardy enough to stray into a donkey’s field will need to be rescued before it is cornered and stomped to death.
I wait until Dara has lost interest in his trophy.
Clutching a heavy duty garbage bag, I pick my way through the long grass to the corpse – the size of a small dog – and heave it into the bag. I manage to keep Dara’s renewed curiosity at bay with the spray bottle. Crossing the field back to the gate, I place the bag in a tightly-sealed bin along the side wall of the stone cottage that has been my home for the past fortnight. I reflect briefly on the etiquette of dead foxes and whether or not I should be keeping its tail as a trophy for my hosts. I am a long way from home and the latté-sipping Melbourne girl I was just half a year ago.
Only six months before, at the age of fifty-something, I had found myself single and semi-solvent.
I was the driver of my own destiny, my longstanding long-distance love affair with France about to be consummated. Due to a small windfall and a website called mindmyhouse, I was given the opportunity to travel where the wind took me—to the Loire, the south of France and now Normandy—to look after a range of domestic and farm animals.
Over the past six months I have learned that, in spite of his murderous tendencies, a donkey craves company; that life in a hen house is a soap opera and that the sight of a full complement of chook bums lined up on a perch at the end of the day is the best view in the world.
In that short space of time I have had to keep refining my definition of a successful housesit. I have come up with this simple equation: initial head count equals final head count. I have almost perpetrated a number of near-disasters on an unsuspecting French countryside. Miraculously, however, the figures on each side of the ledger have remained equal. Until now…
The afternoon prior to my gruesome discovery in Dara’s field I had made another equally gruesome discovery.
Returning from a trip to the local market I had been unable to find Jaz the cockerel. A quick search revealed what the fox had left of him: a handful of glorious copper and black feathers and a beak. My stomach churned at the loss. I sent my hosts an email, hoping their intermittent wifi access would postpone the bad news for a day or two.
My final housesit in this bucolic Normandy idyll was about to end in tears.
And they were not just for the negative impact on the head count ledger. My animal charges had often been my only companions for days at a time. I had not factored the strength of my attachment to them into the equation.
Dara in particular has worked his way into my suburban heart. His great friendship with Pepe the goat had been hard-won. It had taken his owners six months to assimilate the two animals into the same field without Pepe suffering the same fate as the hapless fox. The resulting change in Dara’s temperament from my first housesit two month earlier was significant. He was not just more even-tempered but imbued with a sense of fun. When the mood took the two friends, they loved a frolic.
Jaz too had been an important part of the animal household, with his flame-coloured feathers and his harem of chattering Miss Prissies.
And here I am disposing of the battered remains of the perpetrator of his untimely end. I am glad that the surviving chickens are safe from harm. But I am devastated at the prospect of discussing my failure with my hosts once they have read my email.
My phone rings. It seems I am not just forgiven for the loss of Jaz on my watch. I am elevated to legendary status on the coat tails of my donkey friend. In the space of a few short hours, Dara’s act of revenge has attracted more likes on my hosts’ Facebook page than I have managed in all the months I’ve been here. The final count for my gap half year:
Initial head count – 20
Final head count – 19
Donkey – 1
Fox – 0
Likes – 89 and counting.
Read more of DIY Woman’s solo travels in France here.