Sharon Stephenson – The Homing Mule

Euretha Mae Hughes could shoot a gun.  Raised in poverty in rural Mississippi, target shooting was a useful pastime for any scrawny girl with a temper and a mouth.

Euretha Mae Hughes could also garden.  Once married, she had produce year-round, either fresh, frozen, or ‘canned,’ put up in glass jars.  Each fall, even now, the driveway curving to the farmhouse built by her wiry Swedish husband is a virtual lava flow of red spider lilies.

Closer to that farmhouse in spring you see her real treasures, from cloud white to bright blue to velvet black, “tall and bearded like good-looking men.”  When grandchildren and great-grandchildren would get careless in their own play and brush up against one of her beauties, she would yell out “Stay off of my Mary Randalls!” or “Keep away from those Nina Levetts!” confusing the hell out of the thicker kids and causing the sharper ones to imagine those irises with the ladies’ names as sentient beings, their slowly bobbing heads ready for fortune telling.  The one goggle-eyed granddaughter would ask if she’d ever be popular.  The irises refused to nod, and that poor ugly child died a little inside.  The only nodding those Mary Randalls, all pinkish like the bottom of an infant’s feet, would ever give that girl was when she asked if she possessed special powers.  Nod. Nod. Nod!  And so for a number of years, enhanced through her readings of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the Bible, her buy-in to the possibility of child-magic would be rock solid.

Years before that goggle-eyed grandchild was even a thought, Rita, the eldest of Euretha’s four children, was given a job to do.  She had to walk a neighbor’s mule back to its rightful owners after it had wandered too near Euretha’s gardens.  Not long after Rita took the mule back to its home turf did it come right on back, stomping in the flowerbeds, and again she was told to catch the mule and walk the half mile to the neighbor’s farm.  This time young Rita had a message, one she was embarrassed to give, “My mother doesn’t want to see this mule again.”  Assured by the neighbors that they’d keep their fences mended, the thin, serious girl trudged home along a busy road, tall grass catching in her socks and scratching up her shins.

But we all know adults often write checks their asses can’t cash, and two weeks later Rita got off the school bus, walked up the driveway and was met by her mother.  “Go tell the neighbors to come here and get their damn mule.”  Rita dropped her schoolbags on the grass, made an about face, and trudged down the hot two-lane road yet again.  She was looking forward to the upcoming entertainment – Euretha was surely going to give these people a tongue-lashing about their mule, perhaps with her little 410 rifle to lean on, just to drive the point home. Rita lacked the ability to rip someone apart with words —  smart mouthedness tends to skip generations.

And so Rita escorted the mule-owning neighbor to the Anderson farm, her fear and excitement making her uncharacteristically chatty about how hard it is to keep fences mended and how dry the weather had been of late. The farmer used the talk as an opportunity to practice what he’d say to this skinny child’s mother.  Once on the farmhouse porch Rita’s cheeks were noticeably flushed – she was already embarrassed for this farmer because she knew too well what it was like to be at receiving end of her mother’s wrath.  She quickly leaned in and knocked on the screen door in her role as emissary.  Euretha answered, and while wiping her hands on her apron said, “Your mule again got in my flower beds.  He’s in the backyard.  Get him out of here.” Then she told Rita to come inside to help get dinner ready.  The neighbor quickly apologized, reminding her that farm life is so very hard. Euretha looked at him and then past him, pursed her lips, slowly saying “MMMMM-HMMMMM” a bit too loud, a hint of edge. She then turned aside, and shut both the screen door and the front door in his face.

The mule was in indeed in the backyard as Euretha had said, but he was not in any shape to walk back to anybody’s farm.  Euretha had shot him at what looked to be fairly close range with a 12-gauge shotgun, smack in the forehead.    Rita, watching from an upstairs window, saw the neighbor take off his hat, run his hands over his face, then set off for home to get a truck to haul away his foolishness.