That’s right. I chose a five-dollar word for saying what 50-cent “forgotten” says, for I come to exalt that legendary offspring of a female horse and donkey. The left-behind mule helped build the South and did so quietly without polluting the air. Then the combustion engine came along, and abandonment became the mule’s fate. It had already been condemned to death in many a story for it’s been said no Southern story is complete without a dead mule. And I would write that no Southerner’s childhood is complete lest mules plowed through it.
Down in Double Branches, that community of my people close by the Georgia-South Carolina border, I rode a mule on Granddad’s farm. I rode it a lot, no saddle. My reward for riding that mule sans saddle was pain. That scrawny mule’s sharp, bony vertebrae chewed into me and left soreness that lasted the rest of the day. Surely that mule had a name. I’ll name it “Stalwart” for it deserves a name proper.
Aside from me, Stalwart had two burdens. It had a large, festering abscess on a knee where waxy white rivulets ran from a god-awful red clump of raw flesh as if raw hamburger spewed from its leg. The second burden? Granddad had fastened a heavy chain to it. At the end of the chain was an old tire Stalwart dragged everywhere. My guess is it was to keep it from jumping fences, for we know bad things happen when a mule gets into another farmer’s pasture. Across the water in Edgefield in the 1940s a mule kicked a calf in the head, killing it, and that led to murder for hire and eight people dead. Here’s a taste of that story.
“In 1941 roads were unpaved and in many areas electrification had yet to arrive. Men farmed with mules. Times were tough; people were rough. It must have been an upsetting thing to lose a calf. Yes to lose a calf was to lose an investment. When a mule wandered from one Edgefield County farm into an adjacent farm and kicked a calf, killing it, someone had to pay for it.
That someone was the granddad of the fellow standing beside me. ‘Yep, my granddad was shot in the back for $500. Right in there,’ he said pointing at the store’s old wooden siding.”
That is my mule contribution to Southern stories, but I assure you a distinguished list of writers ride upon the ghosts of dead mules. Here come Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Richard Wright, Doris Betts, Reynolds Price, Clyde Edgerton, Larry Brown, and Cormac McCarthy. So many writers have killed off mules that partly as parody and partly as scholarly research, Jerry Leath Mills, a University of North Carolina professor, deceased like the mules he studied, developed a litmus test for what makes Southern literature Southern. “It has a dead mule in it.”
Writers write that Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian makes him the king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine mules die in his book. Men shoot them, roast them, drown them, stab them, and mules die for want of water. In one scene, he does in fifty out of a conducta of 122 mules. They’re packing in quicksilver for mining when an ambush runs them off a cliff. “The animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites … Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment.”
In Blood Meridian’s alkali flats dying of thirst becomes mules’ fate where “black and desiccated shapes of horses and mules … parched beasts had died with their necks stretched in agony in the sand.”
Mules and books don’t always pull together. A long time ago photographer Robert Clark and I put a barefoot farmer in a book and it cost us. Our straw hat-clad farmer shunned tractors. He preferred to plow with a mule. Fender was his name. He had cut large holes in his hat so the mule could wear it, too. A bureaucrat considered buying many cases of our book to recruit northern companies to South Carolina until he saw that barefoot farmer leaning against an old Ford V-8 pickup. “It depicts South Carolina as backwards,” this visionary civil servant declared. Never mind that mules provided power before gasoline-drinking tractors and other modern equipment came along. In that more primitive time, mules built roads, bridges, and railroads and cleared many a field. I’d like to have a dime for every mule that snaked logs out of woods.
Somehow mules came to represent the Southern redneck. Rodney Dangerfield should have said, “I tell you, mules don’t get no respect.” We seize upon mule similes and other figures of speech to insult others. Dumb as a mule. Stubborn as a mule. They got beat like a rented mule. We even brand illegal drug couriers as “mules.”
I repeat, “They got beat like a rented mule.” Animal activists? Where were you when mules were the engines of work? Who speaks for our unremembered beast of burden? A legend, that’s who, (even if it is in fiction).
We have to go way out West to see a man defend a mule, well, Italy, actually. In his spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood, “Joe,” watches his mule panic and run off when banditos fire bullets around its hooves. Eastwood, clad in a serape, confronts the men to take up for his mule.
“You see, I understand you men were just playin’ around, but the mule, he just doesn’t get it. Course, if you were to all apologize … [the men laugh]. I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin.’ You see, my mule don’t like people laughin.’ Gets the crazy idea you’re laughin’ at him. Now if you apologize like I know you’re going to, I might convince him that you really didn’t mean it.”
The laughing stops. When Joe throws back his serape, it’s ominous. Doom crosses four bandidos’ face and out come their guns. Eastwood sends the foursome to eternity, and Joe’s mule gets the last laugh.
As for Stalwart, my guess is Granddad had gotten it back during WWII, long before I began exploring his farm in the 1950s. Mules can live well over 20 years, you know. The farm mule left farms about the same time draft mules left the Army. The gasoline engine replaced them. Then World War II introduced gas rationing into farmers’ lives, and again they turned to their old reliable friend for the war’s duration. After some war years of pulling a plow, Stalwart became a retiree enjoying life on the farm, except for that chain and tire. Granddad had to have heard about the infamous mule kick over in Edgefield. My conjecture holds that he didn’t want that mule getting into another man’s pasture. Thus did he lash a chain and tire to it. And thus did that mule suffer that hideous sore on its back leg. I guess it was necessary but it sure seems cruel looking back with a bit of enlightenment under my belt.
I have no idea what became of the mule I rode. I guess Granddad’s mule lies in an unmarked grave lest the vultures picked it clean somewhere in a far-flung pasture. As you know, I travel the back roads. I see many a dead and dying farm. I see donkeys and horses but no mules. None. Gone, gone, gone from the Southern landscape.
Now and then, in some restaurant that tries to honor rural times I see plowshares on the wall and maybe a long, wooden-handled plow standing forlornly in a corner. Back on the road, when I gaze across pastures and fields, I see old tractors overtaken by weeds and vines rusting and ever so slowly rotting. No graves, nothing marks the spots where mules ended up. They’re just gone. ’Bout the only place they roam nowadays is books. You’ll find ’em there plowing the pages for eternity and doing what they do best.