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Love for the Balkiest Beast of Burden : Nostalgia: Some youngsters fall head over heels for horses, but one young girl finds beauty and grace in the guise of the lowly mule.

September 02, 1993|SARA HARRELL BANKS | THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

Jonathan's mule-drawn wagon arriving at the house was as sure a sign of spring as the first robins. He'd come to plow on a day when the wild plum trees showed tiny white blossoms and "seven sisters" narcissus honeyed the air.

Jonathan, who owned the finest mule in Wilcox County, Ala., plowed small fields for folks who had a bit of property but were not really farmers. The day he arrived at my uncle's house was special and one to be enjoyed.

Each spring, Jonathan showed up driving Joshua, the mule that everybody else said was the "stubbornest mule in the entire county." But according to Jonathan, there was no such thing as a stubborn mule--just smart ones that refused to do things that didn't come naturally to them.

Before the sun was high, Jonathan was walking behind Joshua, the plow cutting into rich Alabama soil the color of heart pine. I watched from the wagon that was parked in the shade of the big oak tree.

"How come you named him Joshua?" I once asked.

" 'Cause Joshua fought the battle of Jericho," replied Jonathan. "And I fight it every time I plows a field."

Jonathan knew everything there was to know about mules and how they worked. Or didn't.

"The father of our country brought mules to the United States of America," I told Jonathan one day, proud of my newly gained knowledge of mules.

"So they say," he said, sitting next to me in the wagon while we ate cat-head biscuits filled with syrup. "But it ain't so. They was mules here before that."

"Well, I read it in a book," I said righteously. "So it must be true."

"Should be," said Jonathan softly. His voice seemed to come from somewhere low in his throat and kind of vibrated. "I expect mules was here before the President, though. How you think folks plowed before all those folks signed the Declaration?"

I hadn't given it much thought. "I don't know."

"Well, folks was raisin' cotton for a long time even before that and I don't reckon they was using horses, do you?"

Unhitched from the wagon, Joshua was cropping hay nearby. He flicked a long ear as if he knew we were talking about him.

"How old is Joshua?" I asked. Jonathan had told me, but I'd forgotten.

"Younger than me and older than you, but younger than you and me," Jonathan replied. Well, that didn't mean much. I knew Jonathan was old; he was at least as old as my daddy and that seemed ancient.

"Will he live to be old?" I asked, following Jonathan over to the fence. "I hope so," Jonathan said. "Mules live a long time. My wife's brother's mule is 30 years old."

I couldn't imagine an animal being that old. "Can he work?"

" 'Course he can work," said Jonathan. "When he can't, he'll quit. Mules is jest naturally smart that way. Can't run 'em too hard, can't work 'em too hard. That's why they got a bad reputation 'bout being stubborn. All that means is that they can figure out if something's gonna hurt, and they won't do it. Mule gets caught in barbed wire, he'll stay still 'til somebody come to help. A horse will get hisself all tangled up and cut up.

"Folks that can't work mules don't give mules credit," he said. "A mule ain't gonna cross a bridge less'n he figures he's safe. And he ain't gonna work so hard in hot weather that he gets sick. Folks that try to make 'em are the same folks than can't figure 'em out."

"Well, if George Washington didn't bring 'em over here, where did they come from?"

"Do you mean where do they hail from or where do they come from?" asked Jonathan. He'd tried to explain about mules being born a dozen times before, but I still didn't understand it.

"Tell me again," I said. I had a reason for needing to know. I wanted my own mule.

"Mules don't reproduce themselves. So, if you cross a male jackass with a female horse, you get a mule, or a John mule. If you cross a male horse with a female jackass, called a Jenny, you get a female mule called a Hinny." He walked down to where he'd stopped plowing and I followed him.

"Sometimes, you can't tell much difference between a Hinny and a Jenny. Some mules look more like horses, and some more like mules. Remember, a male donkey is a jackass and a female donkey is a Jenny. What'd I tell you?"

"That only a ninny can't tell the difference between a Hinny and a Jenny," I repeated.

Joshua whuffled.

"We'd best get back to work," said Jonathan, going over to put the harness back on his mule. He always took it off at noon and evening to let Joshua feed and take water.

At the dinner table that night, I decided to approach the subject of mules.

"How come we don't have any mules?" I asked.

Uncle Doyle was buttering a corn bread muffin. " 'Cause I lack two of the qualities necessary for working mules," he said. "Patience and fortitude."

"Well," I said, "I think they're beautiful."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said my uncle.

"Jonathan said that mules helped win the war. He said that we sent mules to England and that without 'em, Hitler would have won."

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