Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: DULL (05/12/17)
TITLE: Mac and the Mule
By Ann Grover
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I don’t know what I expected when I signed up. A hasty end to a minor skirmish, sending each Hun running home to his mama’s strudel, perhaps. But the war goes on and on. Day after week after month of mud and slaughter and destruction, hazed over with a pall of smoke and fear and the tang of blood.
The mule’s hooves makes sucking sounds as he trudges behind me. I’d grown up driving my dad’s team on the farm, earning me the privilege of moving supplies with the mule.
The mule has two speeds. Stock still, from which no amount of pleading will budge him. And a ponderous plodding. The other pack mules outpace us every day, and we arrive at the field camp late, soaked, and cold.
It’s a better fate than the poor sods who don’t return to camp at all.
The mules stops.
“Come on, you feeble-minded bag of bones.” He looks at me with vapid eyes.
I beg, cajole, encourage him with hopeful clucks, but he remains steadfastly rooted in the mud. The others move out of sight.
Then as suddenly and unexplainably as he stopped, he steps forward.
Later, whilst choking down cold stew, I complain to the others about the mule.
“Mules ain’t like horses,” says Eddie. “They’s smarter, by a long shot.”
“Not this one,” I say. “Dense as a stick. Maybe more so.”
“You know, Mac, mules are a reflection of their handlers. You’re stupid, he’s stupid.” Eddie’s laughter echoes in the dark. A mule brays.
“See?” I says. “I bet my boots that’s my mule.”
“They’re awfully sensitive. Make him your pal, and he’ll be loyal forever. You ever talk to him?”
“Well, sure, I do. ‘Get a move on, mule. Hurry up, mule.”
“Well, see, there’s your problem. Me, I talk to Chester. Ain’t nobody knows what Chester knows ‘bout me. Be kind, Mac, and he’ll work his heart out for you.” Eddie rolls over and is soon snoring.
Another leaden dawn, the air dank. My feet squelch in my boots.
“Mule, we need to get along together, so how ‘bout I tell you my story?” So I yammer on about Mother, Dad, Susan, David. And Maggie, my love, who’s waiting for me. The mule’s ears flick forward.
Each day, we carry the heavy packs, loaded with ammunition, to the front, hock-deep in mire. The carnage around us testifies to the danger: bloated horses already half-buried, the lifeless bodies of my comrades, damaged artillery.
I talk to the mule, recounting the same things over and over, until even I’m tired of listening to myself. I scrape the mud from his hide each night, easing the clots of dried clay from his muzzle and ears. His coat is matted and rough and he grows thin. Already the saddler has punched new holes in the cinches on the pack saddles. One morning, I discover the mule has gnawed on the wheel of a wagon near the picket line.
“Aw, mule.” I vow to save him a biscuit from my rations that night.
We work our way through eye-smarting smoke, exploding shells falling all around. Suddenly, the mule stops.
“Not now, mule, not now.” I swish the lead, but he’s rigid. “I need to go home to Maggie. Remember Maggie?”
Wonder of wonders, the mule moves, and spritely, too, dragging me into a thicket of naked trees, broken spires barely visible in the fading light and drifting smoke. Under the sparse cover, he looks dolefully at me, then lowers his head. There’s a lull in the shelling, making me think we can leave the copse, but the mule is unyielding, immovable. And then he lies down, in the churned-up turf and splintered branches.
I’ve no choice but to huddle beside him, drawing from his warmth as darkness shrouds us. And then shouting and torchlight pierce the night. I cover the mule’s eyes and close my own. I feel the torchlight lingering on us, and I daren’t breathe. More shouting, so close, so close. “Schlamm und steine. ” Mud and stones. “ Ich sehe nichts!” I see nothing.
When all is quiet, the mule rises, groaning softly, and presses his muzzle into my chest. I inhale the sweet, warm scent of him and stroke his lusterless, lifesaving coat.
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