A pinwheel of pain whirled in Eli’s skull, and fire scorched his shoulders as the hoe handle struck him again.
“What took you so long? Wearin’ down my mule, workin’ him into the evenin’ like that.”
Eli looked at the mule, ancient and grey-muzzled, and thought the father’s words were like jutting, rusty nails, places to suspend accusations and excuses. He reached to unbuckle the harness, and once again, sparks ignited in his head.
“Don’t turn from me, boy. Show some respect.”
“Yes, sir.” Eli straightened, but kept his eyes on the dust at his feet. A beetle scuttled through the fine soil, distracting Eli, giving rise to envy, even covetousness in his simple heart, as he watched the insect scurry about and disappear in the dry weeds.
“You’ve no sense at all. Sent you out thinkin’ you was finally fit fer a man’s job, but yer no better’n a nursin’ babe. I was a fool.” The father shook his head despondently. “The good Lord knows I’ve tried my best, and this is my reward. Unruliness, laziness. Anything to say?”
“I figured as much. No remorse or repentance.”
The beetle had reappeared, and Eli strained to watch in the gathering gloom.
“No supper tonight. Sleep in the barn. Think on yer attitude.”
Eli - trapped midway to manhood - watched the father stride to the house where a single light glowed. Seizing the mule’s bridle, he led the creature into the barn and finished the unharnessing and got on with feeding. Twin trails twisted down each grimy cheek and, leaning against the warm mule, he smothered a sob.
Beneath the eaves in the loft, Eli burrowed into the loose hay, making a nest for himself. Warmed by his coverlet of dried grass and exhausted by his work and weeping, he slept.
Wakened early by the pale dawn and the irate shaking of the father, Eli harnessed the mule again.
“Do you hear, boy? Get a move on. Time waits fer no man, nor boy, fer that’s all you are.”
The mule’s head hung halfway to the ground, and dust swirled around each hoof as the beast plodded wearily beside Eli.
“Move.” The whip cracked over the mule’s rump. “Yer next, boy. Get the field finished today. I’m tired of tellin’ you.”
One step, two steps, ten thousand. Sweat ran in fiery streams down the centre of Eli’s back, and grit stung his eyes. The sun was an inferno, and then it fell, a luminous eye of heaven, staring, watching. Dragging the pitiful mule, Eli staggered home, the burden of congealed sweat heavy on his half-formed frame, the odour of fatigue tightening his nostrils. Yet, it was a soothing smell, fusing clay and cloying perspiration, warm and humble and upright.
The father was waiting.
“Yer late comin’ again. Look at my mule. Near dead.” The whip snapped rhythmically, tauntingly, in the father’s hands as Eli began to relieve the mule of the harness. “Hear me?”
“Yes, sir.” Eli sighed, a mere gossamer sigh, but heard by the father.
The pain was electric, white. Eli fell to his knees.
“I’ve had enough! Yer attitude, yer rebellious ways.”
“No use, boy. You’ve always been trouble and will always be trouble. Worthless. Ne’er-do-well. Sometimes, I rue the day you was born.”
Long ago, Eli’s mother had had a porcelain ornament that had fallen from the mantle and splintered into a hundred shards. Eli couldn’t remember what it had been. A cat? A ballerina? Now, he felt his spirit fracture in the same way. What had Eli been a moment ago? He couldn’t remember.
Despair swelled in Eli’s chest, expanding, pressing against his ribs until he couldn’t breath, then bursting out, like a bird taking flight. Lightning quick, Eli captured the whip from the father’s hand, held it aloft like a banner, and brought it down. A crimson thread appeared on the father’s cheek, then a fine rivulet. Again, Eli brought down the whip, on the father’s shoulders, his back. The father fell in the dust, shielding his face.
Eli stopped. Tears muddied his face. He dropped the whip.
“I’m sorry, Father. I’m not worthless. I’m leaving, and I’ll take this miserable mule with me.”
The mule turned baleful eyes on the boy as Eli tugged lightly on the halter. They walked down the lane, following the pace of the aged mule.
The father stood. “Boy?” Eli and the mule were barely discernible in the fading rays of the watching eye. “Son?”
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