A Mule’s Gotta’ Die by Molly Dugger Brennan
It has come to my attention that in order to be considered a genuine Southern writer, it is not enough to be from the South. It is not enough to live in the South. It is not enough to deeply love and chronicle all things Southern. No, to walk in the neighborhood of O’Connor, Capote, Lee and dare I say Faulkner, you have to kill a mule.
It is a Southern literary thing, this collective disdain of mules. I have known several mules in my time and this is my learned wisdom on the subject. Never, ever believe for even a second that a mule has come to like you. You may have fed and cared for the creature like it was your own blood relation, it may acknowledge the effort you have made on its behalf but it does not and will not, ever like you.
For those unfamiliar with the ways of the mule, let me fill you in. A mule is the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. If the horse were male and the donkey female then the product is called a hinny, which is smaller than a mule. Hinnys just aren’t as popular, if popularity is the right criteria, as mules. All male mules and most females are sterile. The sterility is a result of the fact that horses and donkeys are two different species so their chromosomes just don’t pair up nicely. The word “mule” is from the Latin mulus which loosely translated, means mutt.
If you have spent any time around a mule and it has not kicked you, it is only because it has not found the opportunity to do so. You have either been vigilant or lucky and either category is finite, my friend. William Faulkner himself, who had a painting of a mule on the mantle overlooking his writing desk, once wrote, “A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently, for the privilege of kicking you once.” Faulkner speaks the God’s honest truth.
While I have an earned respect for mules, I hold no romantic notion that they will ever trot joyfully over to the fence line when they see me there, holding apples. Donkeys can be persuaded to show affection and playfulness, not so the dour mule. Sterility must breed bitterness, as evidenced by the reproductively challenged mule. I’d like to think that they chose a career over a family, but the mules just don’t see it that way.
I believe that you can correlate how many times a Southern writer has been kicked by just how gruesome the mule’s death is in their writing. I think the king-daddy of payback was achieved by not just one but two Southern writers. Truman Capote ingeniously hanged one from a chandelier and is matched by Cormac McCarthy who had one beheaded by a deranged opera star. I would guess that both these gentlemen endured more than three hits from a sharp hoof in their lifetimes to so creatively, ghoulishly and destructively dispatch with their literary mules, may the ornery buggers rest in peace.
I have affection for everything with fur or feathers so murdering a mule, even as a literary device, is an anathema to me. Yes, I’ve had mules spit at me and wheel to kick at me as I skittered away in the nick of time. Yes I’ve had a mule look at me with utter contempt. No, I have never had a tender moment in the presence of a mule even though I have experienced much joy with horses, donkeys, goats and llamas. Mules are the Simon Cowells of the animal world, a hard nut to crack and even harder to like. It’s just as well since they — like Cowell — don’t give a spit for you either.
I am simply not ready to murder a mule. Some day I will as a rite of passage, but not today. Today the mules of the literary world are safe from me, left alone to harrumph through their vengeful lives. But watch your back, mules. One day I too will be recognized as a Southern writer and it will all be because I killed a mule.