Muleogy

I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.

They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”

So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.

Until.

One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.

Odd.

In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.

The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.

I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.

On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.

I started to cry.

It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?

And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?

I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”

“Why?”

“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”

“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”

“Uh, no . . . .”

“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”

His nonchalance irritated me.

And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!

I drove by several times, rejoicing.

—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.

And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.

But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”

Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.

And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.

I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.

I reach the pasture. I slow down.

Annie’s lying on her side.

I come to a stop.

Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.

Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.

We watch each other for a minute.

I wonder what they think.

I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.

That was yesterday.

Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.

Sisters to the end.

I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.

More so than ever.

I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.

—My muleogy.

Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.

Maybe it’s illogical.

I only know it’s true.

For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

A slice of long ago

My mule neighbors

All my life, I wanted to live in the country.

I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard. 

I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.

To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.

Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.

The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.

I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.

See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul. 

Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.

So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there. 

And, in a way, I was.

In 1937.

*******

He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.

I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.

I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .

All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.

“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.

He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.

Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:

Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.

That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.

“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.

“Bless you.”

******

Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.

That is how my father came into the world.

Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”

Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.

Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.

Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before. 

Living here means that long ago is never far away.

*******

Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”