The two of them entered the corral and knelt by the animal’s side. “Mule’s dead, honey,” the man said softly.
“Don’t say it that way. So cold.” The woman turned and fixed her gaze on the moon, just rising now, big and low in the failing daylight, as if birthed, like some old Egyptian god, by the black waters of the Edisto itself. An egret lifted up from the shallows.
“That’s his soul,” she said, pointing at the bird. “That’s his beautiful mule soul.”
The man said nothing. The woman, a respected pediatrician back home in the High Country, a clinical professor at the medical school, a scientist, his wife of forty years, had always solaced herself in times of sorrow by becoming like a child herself, like one of her patients in need of a story.
The woman followed the egret’s flight. She wanted to go with the bird, but chained to earth she closed her eyes and let her thoughts fly where they would, back to school at Old Dominion, and farther on, back to her daddy’s farm in Leesburg, and to the horses and mules there, and to Rafe, her favorite. And then to the healing services her uncles took her to on Thursday nights, the one crippled by arthritis in his hips and knees, the other dying slowly, of a smug, lazy cancer that was in no hurry, and how the first would tell her, after the preacher had laid on hands, that he felt the arthritis draining from his joints — thick pain, like molasses, leaving his body — and how for a day or two after, he could walk.
“I’m getting my medical bag,” she said.
“We can’t help him,” said the man. “He’s in mule heaven now.”
“We’ll see,” she said.
Alone with the mule for a moment, the man nudged the animal with his foot. “Get up,” he said. “Heal! I command thee!”
His wife arrived with her medical bag and a syringe. “I’ve got adrenaline in here for a football team,” she said. She found a thick surface blood vessel in the mule’s fetlock and emptied the syringe into the vein. She pounded on the mule’s chest.
Her husband walked away and let her do what she needed to. As a clergyman, High Church Episcopal, he understood the boundless permutations of grief, and how they had to be honored.
Wherever they had lived, even in their salad days, he and his wife had always kept a pet mule. They’d been the butt of jokes because of it, but it didn’t trouble them. “Lose touch with your childhood,” his wife used to say, “and you lose touch with your life.” The man recalled how he would often talk to the mule, and even try out sermons on him. Sometimes the mule would start kicking and rolling in the dirt as he spoke, and those sermons were always his best-received. Some had been published.
He gave his wife a few minutes’ time alone before he returned to her side. “How’s he doing?” he asked gently.
“I think I’ve got a pulse,” she said.
“I think I saw his tail twitch. Did you see it?”
She was weeping copiously now.
The man gathered up his wife and led her to their cabin, while in mule heaven, a newly dead mule made himself at home.