Caught by the River

Suzanne and Gertrude

Jeb Loy Nichols | 14th March 2020

An extract from a new novel by Jeb Loy Nichols, about a human called Suzanne and a donkey called Gertrude.

The donkey wasn’t there and then suddenly, amongst the whited weeds, it was.  She doesn’t see it arrive.  It had come silently, using its own system of navigation; she wonders tentatively about fences and streams and public footways and gates and cattle grids.  How has it managed to migrate from where it was to where it is?  How has it found her?  Why is it standing there that way, staring?  She turns to the dim room; tomorrow it’ll be gone.  These things happen out here, in the hills, in the winter.  Animals, weeds, trees, cars, neighbours, husbands, weather; things appear and then, without warning, vanish. 

The sky, swimming with heavy clouds, is neither grey nor white nor dark nor clear.

Earlier she had stayed in bed an extra hour where it was warm and private, beneath a duvet and two blankets.  In nothing but a t-shirt.  Getting up meant pulling on layer upon layer of clothing, filling the wood basket, starting a fire in the stove, wiping the frost and condensation from the windows.  It meant toast and coffee and an egg.  Getting up meant another day.

Now she sits in her chair, sips her tea and stares at the donkey.  They share a similar blankness; large motionless eyes, heavily lashed and lidded.  The donkey appears to be all over ashen grey, moving only enough to feed itself, bending to the cold grass, chewing, and straightening.  There’s a tuft of white near its nose.  Its tail flickers.

She puts more wood in the stove and wraps a shawl around her shoulders.  Finally, after an hour, the donkey takes seven steps to its left.  Suzanne, sitting in near darkness, asks, is that it?  That all you got?  

Suzanne and Dorothy stand amidst wilted cow parsley and burdock, iced puddles and brittled branches.  The donkey blows out air noisily.   Dorothy gives it a friendly pat on the neck.  Suzanne tentatively strokes its flank.

It’s a she, says Dorothy.  That’s good sign.

Is it?

Almost always.

And she’s used to people, says Dorothy.  Another good sign.

Suzanne isn’t at all sure that being used to people is a good sign.  She gently touches the stiff hair at the base of its mane.

And no spring chicken.  Says Dorothy.  I’d say fifteen years old.

Suzanne nods, and asks, what do I do?

I’ve no idea.

She must belong to someone.

Must she?

Yes.  Says Suzanne.  She must.

Dorothy crouches and examines the donkey’s hooves.  

Everything belongs to someone.  Says Suzanne.

Dorothy looks up over her shoulder and says, do you?

Suzanne doesn’t answer.

She goes into the kitchen, takes a bag of soup from the freezer, transfers it to a pot, turns on the electric cooker, and returns to her chair.  The donkey hasn’t moved.  


Hear Jeb read from the extract below. Signed copies of Suzanne and Gertrude are available here in our shop, priced £10.00.