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Mule Killers (from Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing)

My father was eighteen when the mule killers finally made it to his father's farm. He tells me that all across the state that year, big trucks loaded with mules rumbled steadily to the slaughterhouses. They drove over the roads that mules themselves had cut, the gravel and macadam that mules themselves had laid. Once or twice a day, he says, you would hear a high-pitched bray come from one of the trucks, a rattling as it went by, then silence, and you would look up from your work for a moment to listen to that silence. The mules when they were trucked away were sleek and fat on oats, work-shod and in their prime. The best color is fat, my grandfather used to say, when asked. But that year, my father tells me, that one heartbreaking year, the best color was dead. Pride and Jake and Willy Boy, Champ and Pete were dead, Kate and Sue and Orphan Lad, Orphan Lad was dead.

* * * *

In the spring of that year, in the afternoon of a rain-brightened day, my father's father goes to Nashville and buys two International Harvester tractors for eighteen hundred dollars, cash. "We've got no choice nowadays," he tells the IHC man, counting out the bills and shaking his head. He has made every excuse not to buy a mule killer, but finally the farm's financial situation has made the decision for him. Big trucks deliver the tractors and unload them in the muddy yard in front of the barn, where for a day they hunch and sulk like children. My grandfather's tobacco fields stretch out behind them, shimmering in the spring heat. Beyond the slope of green, the Cumberland River is just visible through a fringe of trees, swollen and dark with rain.

The next morning, after chores, my grandfather calls in the hands to explain the basics of the new machines, just the way the man in Nashville has done for him. He stands next to one of the tractors for a long time, talking about the mechanics of it, one hand resting on its flank. Then with all the confidence he can muster he climbs up to start it. He tries three times before the tractor shivers violently, bucks forward, and busts the top rail of a fence. "This one ain't entirely broke yet," my grandfather jokes, struggling to back it up.

"Reckon you'll break it before it breaks you?" someone calls out, and only half of the men laugh. Most of them are used to sleeping all down the length of a tobacco row until the mules stop, waking just long enough to swing the team and start on back up the next. They all know when it's lunchtime because the mules bray, in unison, every day at five to twelve.

My father stands with the men who are laughing, laughing with them and scuffing up dust with his boot, though he is nervous about the tractors. His light eyes are squinted in the sun, and he slouches - he has his father's height, and he carries it apologetically. He is trying hard to keep certain things stuffed deep inside his chest: things like fear, sadness, and uncertainty. He expects to outgrow all of these things very soon, and in the meantime, he works hard to keep them hidden. Lately, he has become secretive about the things he loves. His love is fierce and full, but edged in guilt. He loves Orphan Lad: Orphan's sharp shoulders and soft ears, the mealy tuck of his lower lip. Music. Books and the smell of books, sun-warmed stones, and Eula Parker, who has hair thick and dark as soil. He has loved her since he was ten and once sat next to her at church; during the sermon she pinched him so hard his arm was red until Tuesday, and he had secretly kissed that red butterfly bruise. But Orphan will soon be gone, and none of the hands read books, and he laughs at the tractors just as he would laugh if one of these men made a rude comment about Eula Parker, because the most important thing, he believes, is not to let on that he loves anything at all.

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