The most wondrous mule that ever was
By Brian Doyle
Recently I was in Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border, and a shy man told me a story that I cannot forget; so I share it with you today.
I had the best mule that ever was, said the shy man. That mule was a wonder. I called him Cyrus although I believe that was not his true name. I believe his true name was probably the sound the other mules made respectfully when they came upon him in the fields or on the road. You could tell the sound they made was some sort of respectful title for Cyrus, like sir or governor. He was something like the chieftain of the mules for miles around my farm. I used to farm 400 acres, most of which was woods, and the farms around me were mostly woods also, so a lot of the time Cyrus and me were in the woods, and even the little animals in the woods were respectful of Cyrus. Raccoons and deer and such would skitter out of the way when we came through, same as they usually do, but then they would stand alongside the road and nod to Cyrus. You think maybe I am telling you a fiction, but I am not. My bride noticed this too on her own, the times she took Cyrus out to haul logs. The only animals that were not respectful of Cyrus were the bigger animals like cougars and bears, and there was an elk, lived over to Oklahoma, that one time tried to attack Cyrus, but that did not come off, as Cyrus stood his ground.
That mule was a wonder. No one knew how he came to be what he was, but he just was. He was a fine worker and not as testy as your usual mule. Your usual mule is generally displeased because of his complex family history—not as thoroughly displeased as a donkey, of course, but generally unhappy with his lot—but this was not so with Cyrus. My bride came to love him deeply for what she called his inarguable character. She says that there is personality and then there is character, and the one is a pond and the other is a sea. She says even chickens can have personalities, whereas character is a reverence. She too noticed the respect in which Cyrus was held by all sorts of other creatures. I remarked once that he was something like the emperor of all the mules for miles around, but she said it was more than that, that all sorts of people also had the greatest respect for Cyrus, and that perhaps he was a sage or a saint in ways we sensed but did not understand. She says we don’t know much at all about how this works. She says we talk about humans being sages and saints, but we don’t think at all about sages and saints among the other beings, and who is to say that there are not sages and saints covered with fur and feathers? I say, Do you mean fishes too, and she says, Good heavens no! And we laugh. But I think she was right about Cyrus.
Well, he got old and died. Mules get old and die like anybody else. Cyrus took a long time to get old, though. He was 40 when he retired and 50 when he died. This was a Tuesday. He had free rein of the farm, of course, and he came out of the woods and over to the house and called to us to come out, and then he lay down in the grass. We all gathered around, and after a while he died. We buried him in the woods, among the pin oaks. He sure liked pin oaks. He liked all sorts of oaks, bur oak and red oak and white oak, but he liked pin oaks the best, so that’s where he is. I go out there almost every day still, and you would be surprised how many tracks of animals you see there, all sorts of animals, little and big, even the bears and cougars. I never have seen elk tracks there though. I don’t know what it was between Cyrus and the elks, and now I guess I will never know.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel Mink River. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.
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