The adobe wall was in shadow, not yet touched by the morning sun. I leaned into it taking in its coolness, inhaling its earth comfort. Slowing my breath, relaxing into stillness, I hoped for a measure of invisibility and calm. They knew I was there. The horses flicked their tails and eyed me nervously as they munched on the green grass. The mule stood not far from me, steady and solid, taking his fill of the lush green watered growth. He knew I was watching him. I waited until he looked up. His eyes met mine. My presence was acceptable to him. We’d met like this before and now we acknowledged the other with unwavering attention in our gaze. This was our customary greeting.
I have always believed that we were friends,
but most would say that was a child’s fantasy.
He moved quietly with dignified slowness in sharp contrast to the wild, skinny horses that roamed free on the desert land. They were afraid of people. The only contact people had with them happened a couple of times a year when they were rounded up for the rodeo in the nearby pueblo. And, of course, on occasions like this when they found their way into the ten acre lush oasis at Dorothy’s. The lawn occupied an oval space between the hollyhock bordered driveway and the grape harbor. Lawns were a luxury in this desert country and this one was watered often. I hoped the horses and the mule would get to stay a while. Soon the sun would lose its early morning colors and burn bright in the sky. Others would be up. The horses and the mule would be chased out and the large stockade gate secured. It didn’t seem to matter how the gate was latched, they always got back in. Everyone was certain it was the mule who knew how to open it. There were many theories about how he managed this amazing feat over and over. Most of these opinions were offered as fact. Then the latch was changed, even wired sometimes. Within a few days we would be greeted by the mule and the horses munching away on the lawn. Everyone admired his ingenuity. His boundaries exceeded his strong physical body. He was one with this earth, this land and he roamed it freely. A gate did not detour him, especially if there was grass on the other side. The horses would always follow him.
My dad and two of Dorothy’s hired hands came running around the corner of the house. They were shouting and waving their arms. The horses began to cry out, kick up their hoofs, bucking and looking terrified. They wanted to get away from the men and in their fear went in circles for a little while. Then they made a fast run through the the open gate and out onto the unfenced parched reservation, past the enticing waters of the Rio Grande and the shade of the cottonwoods. They didn’t stop running for a long time. I don’t know how long. They were out of my sight, and I felt they were still running. Running for their lives. The men laughed. Their voices were excited. They felt bold and strong. The mule continued to eat, moving slowly. He looked at me and I looked back with deep love and appreciation. To be this unafraid was something I had never seen before I met him.
The hired hands laughed and walked slowly toward him. I didn’t understand Spanish, but I did feel gentleness in their tone. They herded him through the gate respecting his pace and making low, soft sounds that seemed more like love talk than anything else. My dad followed along wanting to be part of protecting the lawn, banishing the invaders, locking the gate and making secure the ten acres where only the invited were to go. The gate was always latched in such a way that any grown person could open it. Dorothy wanted it to be convenient for people to come and go, for trucks and cars to drive into the compound. The gate was suppose to keep out the non-human. Mostly it did unless you were a bird, a snake, rabbit, chipmunk, cat, small dog, lizard, horny toad and I’m sure many others unknown to myself. It did keep out cows and horses unless they followed the mule. I watched my father vainly attempt to emulate the sounds made by Jose and Roberto, but his voice was harsh and he stayed back, afraid of the mule. He was afraid of the horses too, being from the city, but something else came into his eyes and the tightness of his jaw when he looked at the mule. The mule didn’t look at him or the other men. He only looked at me. He ignored them. When he walked through that gate it appeared as if it was his idea, his decision to leave.
The mule looked different than the horses. His face was longer, his ears bigger and he was stockier. His ribs did not show and his muscles looked strong and beautiful when he moved. I saw him walk slowly but never fast or break into a run. I wish I had seen him gallop like the horses, but it was not his way, at least when people were around. I asked my father about his different looks. He explained to me that his mother had been a horse and his father had been a donkey. Their boy child was called a mule. I was so excited. Perhaps a new little mule-horse would come in to eat the grass one day. Maybe one of the horses was his wife. When I shared this with my father, Jose and Roberto greeted me with smiles and chuckles.
“No, nina,” said Jose, a mule can’t have children.”
Disappointed, I blurted out “Why?”
“Your father will explain,” said Jose patting dad on the shoulder and walking off laughing and talking in Spanish with Roberto.
I turned to my father with tears in my eyes. I knew the mule would be a wonderful father, a good, strong, unafraid father. I felt the rightness of it. As children do I instinctively responded to my need for a father, a male mentor. I wasn’t concerned with what species this mentor was. The mule was different than people, and I often felt my own difference, alienated from my tribe, my species. The defining line between animals and people was very thin and porous for me. I crossed it all the time. The mule was a good friend to the horses and to me.
My father said, “He has no seed,” and walked briskly back to the house to get ready for work. I knew his mood, this tone of voice, and did not run after him asking more questions. He did not want to talk about it. The mule bothered him and not having a seed seemed to be a bad thing, something shameful. I knew there was nothing bad or shameful about this mule. Turning these feelings around in my head into thoughts I searched for words to express myself. Father had taught me to be an ‘independent’ thinker. I was, but he also taught me to hesitate before I spoke. Feelings, perceptions, became unspoken secrets. I did not know what would happen if those secrets were spoken aloud but I knew they shouldn’t be, so I stayed quiet, afraid of being taken away into the land of the unseen, the barely living, the land where all children were taken who were not like their parents, who were different in some way. Such difference made them outcasts.
What was the meaning of seed? I knew that it was not a seed that was planted in our garden. It was a seed that was carried inside, a part that let a horse or a donkey have children. Did my father have a seed?
The words spoken, “He has no seed,” with a low guttural tone, as if growled, were imprinted into my memory.
My father’s tone of voice cautioned me to hold my tongue, hide my curiosity. But, I had to know what he was saying, the meaning behind the words, his true feelings. There was something he did not like about the mule. My instinct to protect someone I loved was aroused. I called on my strength, my love for my friend and a warrior state of mind. Whatever it took I would protect the mule. My father would not hurt him, ever! I needed to understand his communication, the focused distain, the fear edged with anger embedded in his words. Nimbleness of mind and body was needed to foil my father. I understood this, and it seemed I had been educated to develop this understanding from birth. It was not a social or moral skill, but one that had been developed to keep me alive. It often surprised me that not everyone was attentive to his tone of voice, the voice that alerted me to the presence of the unspoken underlying communications that were often part of my father’s conversations. I watched him take apart those that invaded his unspoken boundaries and personal rules; rules that only he knew. I had decided to never again be hurt, internally split by his words, with his thrusts of meaning that went deep into my heart. This hurting made me feel as if I was my own enemy. I had decided if it were true that if I really was a bad person, flawed and beyond repair, that I would still be myself anyway. stay alive. I would remain silent to insure that his words would not extinguished my spark of life. The strategy was flawed, but it was what I had devised and it worked to keep his judgement and anger at bay. It also created loneliness and the illusion of being unloved.
In the few moments it took for my father to walk back to the house I realized the mule, unlike myself, did not need my protection. He was impervious to words and thoughts and would always remain strong and true to himself. He liked me and I liked him. I was his friend and I wanted him to know this. I would love him with a fierceness that would infuse him with my caring. At the intersection of his world and my world we had formed a kinship, a bond of family. Perhaps for a while we would walk the same path. I would follow him into the desert at his side, laying my hand on his body as we walked. He would feel my presence. He would open another world for me beyond the gate, beyond the sheltered world of humans.
Katherine Lind was staying in the little studio. I would go to her and ask her to teach me the meaning of “He has no seed.” I would explain all the events of the morning from beginning to end. Katherine was taking a year long sabbatical from her job as a teacher. We all liked her especially my brother and I. She would spend a lot of time with us telling stories and answering the hundreds of questions that children have.
Words do not live by themselves, they are surrounded by events, feelings, memories and our time on earth. Katherine told stories and I told her this mornings’ story.
She smiled sitting quietly for a minute or two after listening to my tale. On other mornings she had joined my father herding the horses and the mule through the gate. The scene was familiar to her. She understood what I was asking. “Your father is afraid. I will try to explain why, but first do you understand how children, babies are made, not just people babies, but all babies?” I did or at least I had witnessed the mating dance of chickens, dogs, cats, pigs, cattle, birds and yes, horses. I had been present when little chickens cracked the shells of the eggs they were growing in and emerged looking all wet and wobbly. I had seen a calf drop to the earth from its mother’s body and watched her lick it clean and encourage it to stand and take milk from her. Katherine explained to me that a male has a seed which she called sperm. He puts this sperm inside the female who usually has eggs and when they come together, the sperm and the egg, they grow into a baby. After a lot of questions I came to understand that the mule could not give another being his sperm. Apparently, he had none.
Deep inside each of us the knowledge that we can have children,
that they grow and can have more children is always present.
It came as a shock, a disturbance in my stability, that some beings cannot father or mother children. I shared this with Katherine. She said, “I have never had a child and never will, but I do mother children. There is more to this than the physical birthing of offspring.” I listened as she talked about mothering and fathering and told me that every living being has a need to mother or father. It is an encoded soul need, a primary drive we are born with. Every being has this need, animals, plants, insects and the garter snakes that she knew I was especially fond of. Inside of Katherine was the need to nurture, care, love, protect and to pass on life stories and teachings. She said I had seen these life giving qualities in the mule. My mental disturbance shifted into understanding. Yes, of course, I saw in him the father, the mentor, the teacher. Still I did not know why my father was afraid? He had seed or sperm. Well, at least three, one for me, one for my brother and one for my half-sister who lived in Texas with her mother. This made him different than the mule. Did this frighten him?
Katherine knew what I was feeling, thinking. She usually did. I liked that about her. She listened and looked for a deeper meaning more than most people. When she talked her voice was soothing and clear. She liked to taste her words finding the right flavor before she spoke them. I watched her and waited. She said, “Some men think that having seed or sperm makes them a man and that without this they are crippled, only part man. Sometimes women think this way about men or themselves if they cannot or do not have children. I do not. The creation and raising of children is more than a sperm and an egg uniting. All living beings have worth, are very valuable, simply because they exist,” said Katherine.
I was quiet, learning, taking in the information. I spoke softly, reverence in my voice for a truth that was being born inside of me. Then I made a declaration, “ I believe your way Katherine. I’m like you.” Katherine and the mule had soothed the pain in my heart. I could feel this new awareness growing. I would live from that moment, speak from that moment and return to my vow to never abandon my love for the mule and the understanding that was mending my heart. We sat not talking for quite a while. Tears come out of my eyes. Katherine asked me if I would go for a walk with her. She opened the gate, carefully closing it behind her, and we walked out into the desert.
He was a mule.
I was a little girl.
I knew him from the time I was three until my seventh summer.
I never saw him after that
and no one else did either.
Although many remembered him
and kept looking for him.
As the years passed I grew into a young woman,
a mother and then an elder.
I continue to take those walks
beyond the gate, into the desert.
We walk, my hand resting on his side.
I will always be his friend and he mine.
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