Day 3, Gaptooth Breach: Some claim that she doesn’t exist. That she’s an urban legend. A myth. A scheme cooked up by a couple of frat boys to buy Corona with Google AdSense revenue. Yet like a prospector who, hell-bent on getting rich, returns to a ghost town after the gold rush and shifts through the rubble, I know that the donkey-woman is real. She’s out there, somewhere, nibbling on desert sage, or a cactus, waiting for me. I mount my steed and giddy-up, inspecting each prancing doe and wild horse I come across with a suspicious eye. Nada. Slightly irritated, I shoot my pistol into the sky and blaze a trail across the dusty plain. It’s time for lunch, and I need to save.
The hunt began four days earlier, while I had been surfing the internet, when I came across Red Dead Redemption’s infamous donkey-woman—a glitch in the game that causes a woman and a donkey to be combined into a single personage. A glitch is a flaw in the system: a dreamlike moment when a game gets confused and does something crazy. So, naturally, the first placed I looked was The Sims. But it turns out that The Sims’ glitches—which include people drowning in puddles of their own pee, and characters who look like they suffer from elephantiasis—are kind of disturbing. This holds true even when they are accompanied by some lame-ass ska punk song and tagged with “LOL” or “XD.” Granted, donkey-woman is disturbing too. But when the choice is between her and a disfigured alien baby, she starts seeming like Tina Fey.
Later on, as I ride across Red Dead’s grisly Western frontier, the scene replays in my mind. In a video titled The Incredible Donkey-Lady!, which has been viewed nearly two million times on YouTube, two young men are bothering a female character who looks and acts a heck of a lot like a donkey. John Marston, the game’s main character, climbs onto her back, and she begins to trot down the road. At one point, she bucks and throws him from her back. She even brays.
Like a desert mirage, the scene fades out to the backdrop of the old West, as mesas and boulders and prairie houses stream by. Two bumbling law officers have lost a prisoner and are chasing after him, like something you’d see in a silent-era comedy. They plead for my help, but I ride on. I have business to attend to. I will find you. I will.
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Day 11, Armadillo: With few leads to go on, I decide to check in with the townsfolk. They immediately get the wrong impression. “You want a good time? It’s right here,” a soiled dove says. “Are ya lonely?” “Is there anything of yours you’d like to stick into something of mine?” “You can brand me like a steer anytime!” “Well, I never—!” “If that’s true, I’m the Queen of England.” “Do you want to make a lady … very happy?”
Lesson learned: Asking around Armadillo about the donkey-woman is a bad idea; about as ill-advised as asking around Tijuana about the donkey show. I need to get out of town. I haven’t so much as seen a donkey—much less a donkey-woman. Is the video even real? I am beginning to have my doubts.
Come to think of it, it all seems very suspect. The video has the classic signs of faking it. For one, it is seemingly the sole piece of evidence. Why does every mention of the donkey-woman on the entire internet link back to the same source? Two, the footage is dark and out of focus. You get the feeling that you are watching a grainy film clip that supposedly proves the existence of UFOs, but in fact only proves that there were three bright lights in the sky.
It’s totally conceivable that a whole society of donkey-women and buffalo-men and cat-dogs and whatever else there is is hiding in the shadows.
The donkey-woman may merely be emergent American folklore, soon to join the ranks of jackalopes and Sasquatch. There is a real-life ghost story about a donkey-woman who haunts a bridge in San Antonio, Texas. But how do you explain away YouTube videos of Red Dead’s other crossbreeds, such as the cougar-man—a dangerous adversary who is obviously possessed by a cougar, and looks like he belongs in a Matthew Barney film?
It’s not like glitches don’t happen in Red Dead Redemption either. They’re all over the place. Pay attention and you’ll see cowboy hats magically appear on top of people’s heads. Once, I shot a coyote, and his mate died too. The last thing you ever want to do is turn your back, even for a second, on someone who is hogtied, or else he will vanish without a trace. And my horse is prone to falling over dead for no good reason. It’s totally conceivable that a whole society of donkey-women and buffalo-men and cat-dogs and whatever else there is is hiding in the shadows. The only question is where.
I pull out my map. Where would a donkey go? The canyons. No. I’ve been through there a hundred times. Then, it hits me. They would go to Mexico.
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Day 27, Chuparosa: I have taken up residence in Chuparosa, a small Mexican village just on the other side of the Rio. I’m hot on the heels of the donkey-woman. Thanks to a tip on the internet, I know that she has been spotted on the outskirts of town. I sleep most of the day, and shoot tequila and play poker (probably not the smartest combination) until nightfall. There is a lovely Spanish girl dancing in the plaza, but the only woman I’m interested in swats flies with her tail. When night comes, I mount up.
Searching for the donkey-woman has given me a lot of time to think. It’s a lot of vacant riding. One thing that’s been on my mind is what to call this article. Some titles that didn’t make the cut: M. Donkey, Two Marstons for Sister Mule, Donkey Express, and The Uncloven. I originally had my heart set on La Leyenda de la Señora Burro, but Spanish sounds far too romantic for the subject. After all, we are talking about a woman who has a muzzle sticking out from her bonnet. At least, it might be a bonnet. You can’t really tell from the video. It may be her long brown ears twisting around her neck like a Twi’lek’s tentacles. She would be at home in counsel among Jedi, or in a 1930s circus sideshow, or out for a night on the town with the guys from ZZ Top.
The only woman I’m interested in swats flies with her tail.
But, no. Her home is here, under the stars, among the wild animals, in a lawless country that has been written in programming language, and burned onto a DVD. So far, my efforts have been fruitless. I’ve seen nothing but rabbits and packs of wolves that aren’t afraid of gunfire. And for good reason. It takes three shots at point-blank range to bring one down. The past few nights, I’ve been heading east along the railroad and going down into the valley, following winding dirt paths through the foothills until dawn. Tonight, I just pick a direction and go.
I come to a road that looks an awful lot like the place in the video. “This is it,” I say under my breath. “This is where she lives.” I hear a whistle, and the music of trumpets swelling, and maybe the noodling of a guitar from far away. Then, in the dead of night, I hear the cry of a donkey. I look around, but don’t see anything. I gallop up and down the road several times—my heart fluttering, and my eyes flitting to and fro. Nothing. I let out a sigh as my horse slows to a standstill. Is it her? Was she here?
Illustration by Daniel Purvis