It was just a tiny island somewhere in the South Pacific, insignificant enough not to appear on maps and small enough to never have interested the explorers. Sugar-white sand heaped itself along the jagged coastline that framed an azure sea. Nature had graced this lovely atoll with three kinds of swaying palm trees and nearly every type of tropical flower, bird, lizard and fruit. Save the most desperate pirates who occasionally floundered through the surf during a full moon night dragging heavy chests of silver to bury in one of the caves that dotted windward side of the island, except for them no human footprint had ever marred this paradise cove.
But circumstances have a way of changing, and one dark night in late October a Spanish galleon bound for the new world lost sight of the North Star and, blown off course by fog and a fierce windstorm, ran aground on the hidden lava reefs that ringed the cove. The ship went down quickly, all hands 90 hands were lost screaming and thrashing about in an angry sea, calling out to gods that did not hear them. Their precious cargo of Indigo, Saffron, teas and spices sank straight to the bottom. All was lost save one thing -- a string of nine young donkeys being taken their native homeland in Bratislava, Austria to their new owners in America. These prize donkeys had been trained for the circus by a family of Romanian Gypsies famous for animal training. They brought a handsome price, payable on their delivery in Florida to the Greatest Show on Earth.
Now, these donkeys were yearlings, still just colts. Weaned early and trained rigorously to the tune of a sharp whip, each donkey in the string was selected for form, intelligence and temperament. But now, nervous from the unfamiliar sounds and smells, they stood looking anything but majestic. Heads down, shaking legs braced against the rolling of the ship, their eyes rolled white and they tossed their shaggy heads pulling as hard as they could against the leather restraints that tied them to the large metal reeve ring that tied them to the main beam. Beating against the boards with their hooves was useless until the listing ship began to break apart. As it listed left the great mizzen mast snapped ripping the ship’s floorboard open and snapping the reeve ring that held the donkey’s tie leads. The braying donkeys brought their sharp little hooves down on the leather straps again and again until they broke free. metal hook again and again until it shattered, and they were free.
Terrified, the animals used their muscular legs to kick through the side of the ship and one by one, nine little gray donkeys plunged into a vast and churning ocean. Swimming frantically away from the wreckage, the tide helped pull them in to shore. As lightening crashed around them and the terrible sound of screaming men filled the air, the donkeys dragged themselves out of the surf and collapsed on the sugar soft sand. There they fell into an exhausted sleep until the morning sun woke them.
One by one the bedraggled animals woke, tentatively nuzzling each other and sniffing the air for reassurance. One by one, they found their feet and with no humans or ships in sight, they turned their attention to the palm trees on the edge of the forest. Scenting no danger, they stepped into its cool glade of green and feasted on tender Sugar Cane and Cacao leaves, Dewberries and tender Papaya fallen from the trees. Thirsty now, the glade beckoned them deeper and they followed the pink muzzles down to clear lagoon where they splashed and frolicked in the cold spring water bubbling up from through the lava in the side of the old volcano.
Blissful days turned into weeks. Rotted through by saltwater and sun the last of their old leather halters fell away and they rubbed their heads against the trunks of young palm trees. Being young spirited donkeys that had, after all, been trained in the circus arts by a band of clever Gypsies, they grew bored with their idle time. The youngest donkey kicked a fallen coconut onto the sand and instantly the rolling motion of the orb reverted them all to their training. A spontaneous game of Coconut Polo broke out that lasted for hours. Inspired by this, other donkeys retrieved a barrel that drifted on shore from the shipwreck and began a game of the Barrel Toss. A few female donkeys broke away to perform high-stepping routines while marching in circles around the giant Tortoises that roamed the island.
Weeks turned into months and months into peaceful years. The donkeys grew sleek and strong, and one day reached their adolescents. The large dark one emerged as the leader, but this small herd loved one another and there was no competition among them. One day, however, a new challenge arose. The unmistakable scent females in estrus wafted through the steamy lagoon. At first the male donkeys did not know what to make of this, but after a time they got the idea and drifted away from the grazing grounds in search of female affection. Bleats and cries of donkeys mating now filled the cornflower sky, and sometimes the sharp cries of clashes between males when one or another put his ears back and fought. A year later the island welcomed a bounteous crop of new-born donkey foals. Chasing their tails and bucking through the ferns, the herd’s numbers increased exponentially. Each generation passed on the tricks and circus secrets to the young ones, which embellished the routines with tricks of their own.
One night, when the original nine donkeys were old jacks huddled in their grass beds, another storm blew up. Seas raged and churned green, lightening flashed, palm trees bowed down to touch the ground until they snapped, just as the old donkeys had told the young ones it had been when they came to this place. Out in the surf a Chinese junk bound for Germany was floundering in the tempest. On board sat 26,000 pounds of heavy scientific equipment and a load of rare golden monkeys unfortunate enough to have been captured outside Sichuan, China and destined for a medical research laboratory somewhere in Argentina.
Terrified by the storm, the little golden monkeys clung to their cage bars and screamed out their horror, but fortune smiled on them when a doomed but merciful cabin boy unlocked their cages as his last act saying, “Damned this storm and damned this ship, the sea may get me but it won’t get you,” just before a giant wave of water rushed in, drowning him with the key still in his hand but freeing the monkeys. Monkeys are not by nature strong swimmers, but they were so afraid that they leapt onto broken boards floating by and dog paddled for the shore, dragging themselves through the pounding surf with their powerful monkey arms. Fate deposited them all on the same beach where the donkeys slept.
In the morning, twelve golden monkeys awoke dripping and shivering surrounded by a circle of curious pink donkey muzzles sniffing at them and nervously pawing the sand. Monkeys and donkeys are not natural enemies. In fact, under natural circumstances they would probably just ignore each other and go about their day. But these were not normal circumstances, and these were not just any golden monkeys. Selected for high intelligence and the beautiful gold of their fur they had been locked together for so long that they had developed the uncanny ability to communicate with each other and with other species.
And as unlikely as it seems, over time the monkeys taught the donkeys to communicate. Using a series of stomps and shrieks, neighs and gestures they began to exchange ideas. The donkeys taught the monkeys their games, and the monkeys taught the donkeys to climb trees. As far as anyone knows they are still there today, living in harmony with the island and themselves, swimming around the lagoon and playing Coconut Soccer. Of course, this is only a tale I heard from an old pirate I met named Bilge. He swears it is all true, and if you bring him a nautical map, he says he’ll chart you a course that will take you straight to the island. He saw this with his own disbelieving eyes, he says, when he and his fellow pirates went back to Paradise Cove to retrieve their silver by the light of a full moon night. But then, you know how pirates are.