Zacc Dukowitz “Ernesto and the Mule”

From Val's postcard collection.

A mule can be a very dangerous animal. You might not think so if you saw one munching hay in a barn, staring stupidly at the wall, its tail swishing lazily back and forth. You might not think a mule dangerous, or worth thinking about at all.

But you would be wrong, because a mule can kick the shit out of you.

This is what happened to Rinaldo. He’s ten years old, out taxiing people in a mule-drawn cart with his older brother Ernesto. Ernesto is thirteen, and he won’t stop picking at Rinaldo. “Why are you such a girl?” Ernesto asks his little brother. “Why don’t you stop wearing dress-es?”

It’s hot all afternoon. They sweat in the old cart, wiping it away with their T-shirts. “Did you know you were adopted?” Ernesto asks Rinaldo. “Did you know mom and dad bought you at the fish market?”

Rinaldo is a quiet boy but after a morning of this he’s had enough. Something comes over him and he lets loose, punches his brother across the mouth. Hard. Ernesto can’t believe it. It’s the first time his brother’s ever done something like that. Blood drips out of his nose, down his neck, onto his blue T-shirt. He wipes at it, wincing at the pain, trying to figure out what to do. After bleeding for a few more blocks he guides the mule to the side of the alameda, under a banyan tree, and sits glaring at Rinaldo.

“Puta!” he says.

Rinaldo glares back, but he is not so certain as he looks.

Ernesto gets out of the cart.

“Rinaldo,” he calls. “I want to show you something.”

Rinaldo’s feet are unsteady as he steps down onto the pavement. The sun is an anvil on his shoulders. He walks to his brother, who is taking the mule off its harness.

“Over here,” Ernesto says. “Right here.”

As if in a dream Rinaldo moves to where Ernesto is pointing. He stands there.

Crack! comes something—a clap of Ernesto’s hands, Rinaldo will know later, when he has lain in bed for days with the pain of broken ribs, with the tortured breathing of bloody lungs. A clap that scares the mule.

Crack! again, this second one not out in the world, but inside himself. It is the mule kick-ing him with its powerful legs, kicking Rinaldo’s small body up into the air so that he is flying for a moment, and then falling down, down and hitting hard on the street like a soggy bag of grain.

Ernesto stands over Rinaldo, eyes wide. He looks around. What to do? Blood is coming out of his brother’s mouth, he’s hardly moving. It was just an idea a moment before, something that could never actually happen.

But now—

Ernesto picks Rinaldo up in his skinny arms and begins to carry him to their family’s apartment, only a few blocks away. Rinaldo moans steadily, his breath sharp and quick, HU-hu, HU-hu. Every time Ernesto stumbles his brother shakes with pain.

It’s not far, but it’s like a nightmare walking uphill in the heat with the weight of his brother in his arms, his heart pounding out accusations. You killed, Your brother, You killed, Your brother.

The mule, meanwhile, is still unharnessed on the alameda. Having done the one thing that makes him dangerous, and feeling perhaps a little tough, he begins to saunter down the street. Out of the shadows of the banyan tree steps an old man. He takes the mule’s harness in hand, mounts him, and kicks him into a canter. The mule does not seem upset about losing his new freedom. He is a stoic, apparently—he expects such twists of fortune.

As he rides the mule the old man wonders whether the boy will live. It is not easy to be alive, he thinks. Life is very long, and there are so many choices. So many things that can go wrong. Over time the old man has renamed many things so that he can better address the differ-ences of the world. Life he calls a game. The island where he lives, a sad place. The name he calls himself is the philosopher, if he is feeling wry, or, if not, just Señor Cespedes.

Today, perhaps because of the mule, he is the philosopher.

As he rides the mule the phi-losopher inserts a large hand-rolled cigarette into the stringy black hair that hangs around his face, holds up a lit match and sucks on the cigarette, making the red tip smolder. The mule set-tles into a walk.

There was a time when he owned the cigar factory he now approaches on top of a stolen mule. He might have missed that, a long time ago, but that time is gone. Life is like this, he tells himself. Things come and go. That is why I am a philosopher. It was such another life, the life of the business he once owned, that he can smile now at the loss. Look at me, he thinks, look at me smiling as I ride past my lost grandeur.

And there it is: the cigar factory. It is still an attraction to the tourists who visit the is-land. In there they make many hundreds of cigars every day, and sell them to the tourists. Bah! When I owned the place we made a quality product. Now they are just whores. He takes the cigarette out of his mouth and waves at the factory of whores.

The mule seems hot, or old. It is slowing down.

“What’s wrong?” he asks the mule. He climbs down and takes a bottle of rum from his pocket, stands in the middle of the wide street with the blue ocean just beyond a swale of grass, and sips slowly, petting the mule’s flanks. After a moment he tugs on the reins and they begin to walk.

“Is it guilt?” he asks the mule. “Is that why you stopped? Do you feel bad about kicking the boy?”

The mule does not answer, but instead picks up his pace, as if to say, Not really.

 

The philosopher and the mule walk along the alameda for a time, and then turn off onto a narrow road that leads them steeply uphill. “I will show you to my daughter,” he tells the mule. “She’ll like you.”

They walk in the shade of the buildings, avoiding the heat, the philosopher drinking rum when he thinks of it. He stops and rolls a cigarette.

“Hey,” a shirtless, big-bellied man calls from a street-level window. There is no glass in the window, only a wooden door to open and close it, and vertical steel bars to keep people from climbing inside.

The philosopher looks up.

“Whose mule?”

“Whose do you think?” the philosopher replies.

The fat man shrugs, fanning himself with a bit of old cardboard. “Hot, no?” he says.

“If it weren’t hot, wouldn’t it just be something else?”

The man waves at him in annoyance, and closes the wooden door of his window.

The philosopher winks at the mule. “Questions are the thing to do,” he instructs the mule.

He sits down on the curb with the reins loosely in his hands, and takes a small doll out of his pocket. It is a girl’s doll, with yellow strings for hair, small button eyes, and a pink splotch of fabric for a mouth. “Hey, Jefe,” he says to the doll. “Do you dance?”

He dances the doll around on the sidewalk, making it spread its legs, looking around to see if anyone is watching. “I bet you could pick up a banana,” he tells the doll. “Do you know that trick, Fidel? What you do to pick up the banana is, you put it between your legs, when they’re spread like that, you put the banana right in your—” An old woman appears behind the bars of her street level window, watching him.

The philosopher looks at her. “This is my Jefe doll,” he says. “Do you have a doll of Fidel, like I do? Don’t you think it might help, to have a doll like that?”

He takes the doll and shakes it hopefully behind the mule’s rear, but the mule does not take the bait.

The philosopher holds the tiny doll in both his arms, like a lover. He croons to it.

“Oh, my Jefe, my leetle commandante. Oh my leetle man.” He pokes its coarse cheek, where a dimple would be, and sings more loudly. “You leetle revolucionario. My Jefe, oh my leetle comman-dante.”

“Ssst!” the old woman says from her window. “Shut up. You’ll get yourself killed!”

“No one cares any more. Don’t you know—the Jefe has been replaced. This mule, he is in charge now!”

“You’re crazy,” the old woman says, and slams the window closed. The philosopher drinks more rum, careens toward the old woman’s window, hanging on its bars and sticking the doll between them. “Don’t you want a little Fidel doll?” he asks, his voice quieter. “Don’t you want a little Jefe for your home?”

“Go away!” he hears from inside. He hangs his head against the bars, then stuffs the doll into his pocket.

“Shall we go?” he asks the mule.

 

His daughter is in bed when he arrives home. He smoothes the hair from her feverish, sticky forehead and kisses her. “Hello, my angel,” he says. “How are you?”

“Papa! Where were you?”

“Working.”

She frowns at him playfully. “You don’t work today.”

“Not usually. But today I didn’t go to work. Work came to me.”

She looks confused. This is because she does not know her father is the philosopher. To her, he is only Señor Cespedes, her father, who sometimes says things that don’t make sense. He is getting old, she thinks.

“Come, I have something to show you,” he tells her, and picks her up in his arms. She is very thin these days, and weak. Walking is difficult.

She sniffs him. “You’ve been drinking.”

“Only as much as needed.”

“You promised.”

The smile falls from his face. “Let me just show you something,” he says, carrying her to the window. She begins coughing as they get close to it, shaking in his arms.

“Look!” he says. Beneath them on the street the mule is tethered to a lamppost.

“What—the mule?” she asks.

“Yes! I found him on the alameda. He—I thought he might make you smile. He is a very silly creature. Do you know what he did?” He begins to tell her about the boys, then stops, realizing she will not like the story. And something opens inside him, a window of doubt. Has he acted correctly?

He shakes off the question, listening to his daughter say, “But he must belong to some-one, Papa. Don’t you think they’re worried?”

“Of course, of course. I’ll make sure they get him back. I just wanted to show you.”

“I’m tired, Papa. Thank you for the mule. Can you put me back in bed now?”

“Of course, my dear.”

He hides his face as he sets her carefully in bed. Sometimes, in the mornings, he gasps when he sees her—she looks so much like her mother. The girl has been sick so long that mem-ories of when she was well belong to another life. He cannot believe he was ever that happy.

As he sets her down—so light in his arms, as light as when she had only three years and would dance around the living room as if it was the whole world—he thinks to himself that soon she will die. He stands over her, trying to smile.

“Papa, what’s wrong?”

“I—I’m just feeling bad about taking the mule,” he says, his voice, usually so steady, breaking as he looks at her. “You’re right—I should return him.”

She smiles sleepily, her black hair fanned out on the pillow like a halo. “I knew you would, Papa. You are so good.”

She closes her eyes and falls asleep.

 

The philosopher walks down the alameda, leading the mule along the side of the street. Like the mule, he has studied indifference, and he has been a good student. But as he walks he begins to feel bad for the boys. Maybe he should have helped, instead of taking the mule? But no, as soon as he allows that thought to enter, many other concerns begin knocking around in his brain. No—he must push them all back.

Look at this street, he tells himself. It is a fine street. And the ocean over there, it is very fine. This mule, it is a silly creature, as am I. And this is all I can hope for—to walk along and smell the salt sea smell, to hear children laughing from down the road at the carnival for the Fiesta del Fuego. To feel a breeze upon my face. To not think too much.

 

*

Rinaldo lies in his parents’ bedroom, struggling to breath. Three ribs are broken, more are bruised, and he is coughing blood from his lungs. His grandmother has cut fruit, oranges and apples, into pieces and laid them among the huge, above-ground roots of the banyan tree below his window. It is an offering for him, so that he may live. Dogs and birds pick at the fruit, then leave it, and it sits there rotting like carrion.

Ernesto is in the bedroom they usually share, one room over, pacing back and forth, wondering if his brother will live. He told his parents that it was an accident, and his lie weighs heavily on him as does his brother’s suffering, his loud and painful breathing from the room next door. Ernesto feels something he can’t quite grasp—a new feeling, something about permanence. He clinches his fists open and closed, open and closed as he paces.

In the living room his father shouts about the mule. “We can hardly eat as it is!” he shouts. “Without the mule and cart we’re done.” His wife stands before him, nodding, quiet tears in her eyes, then goes to look in on Rinaldo.

Alone in the living room Ernesto’s father thinks of Ernest Hemingway, his son’s name-sake, the great man who laid his Nobel prize on the stairs of El Cobre, not far from this city of Santiago. That man had all the luck, he thinks. Why can’t Ernesto be more like him?

He walks to the window, shaking his head. Below on the street, beneath the long branches of the banyan tree, the mule stands munching an old bit of apple. A great feeling comes over him, washes down his body. The mule has returned! It has come back on its own!

I must behave in a way to deserve such happenings, he thinks.

And he rushes out the door, shouting at the top of his lungs.

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