Once upon a time there lived a poor farmer. Every morning at dawn he would go to his barn where his mule lay, asleep on the soft straw, and he would say to her, "Arise my friend, for there is great work for thee today."
Her ears were grey and pointed and clever. Her eyes were dark. She loved the farmer dearly, for he had raised her from a foal. She would bray with pleasure as he hitched her to the cart, and examined her hooves, and bid her drink deep from the trough, and fed her with grain, and brushed her coat until it shone. Then they would set out into the fields, and work long and hard the day through.
While they worked the farmer would speak of things great and things small, and she would listen, for he was her sole companion, and she his. "Dost thou sense the coming Spring?" he would say, "and the awakening of all kinds? The ponderous cinnamon bear, and the fowl in the wood, and the rabbit in her darksome den?" And she would look at him as if she understood, her ears and nose twitching. Perhaps, in her way, she did. The ways of Beasts have ever been a mystery to Men.
Every Saturday they would go into town. The farmer would ride his mule slowly up the road, for mules are sensible animals that do not gallop without good reason. The farmer would delight at what he saw of the countryside, for much is to be seen when one has the time to look. When he reached the town however, the townspeople would laugh at the farmer, for it was not considered proper to ride a mule. Noble men dwelt there, and rode fine horse, black and brown and snowy white, and they would frown as they passed the farmer and his mule. Even the children laughed at him. So he would carry out his business at the market quickly and return home, his cheeks as red as Autumn apples.
Each evening he would lay down fresh straw for his mule, and she would lay herself down and dream the ancient dreams of Beasts.
And they lived this life, such as it was, for many years.
One winter, a wild horse strayed onto the farmer's land. Its coat was like black velvet, and its eyes like fire. The farmer said to the horse: "Surely thou art a gift from the distant gods. I shall make thee my own."
With his savings he bought a new saddle and stirrups and bridle, and although it took him many months, he broke the wild horse. When finally he rode it into town, children followed him up the street whooping and shouting, and the blacksmith stood in his doorway to watch, and the young women cooed and sighed and leaned from the high windows to see. Passing noblemen appraised the horse with lofty words. Even the mayor himself stopped in the street to speak to the farmer.
The farmer began to visit the town more often. In the past it had taken all day to make the trip to and from the town; now on his horse the countryside flew by. Once home he would brush the horse's coat until it was like silk to the touch, and give it fresh straw to sleep on at night. His mule he sent out to the far field, where she fed on nettles and brambles and brayed with loneliness. Her coat grew tattered with burrs, dull and dirty. At night she lay upon the cold boards of the barn.
The black horse meanwhile, had become known in lands far and wide, and many boastful things were said of it. Such was its fame that one night a thief crept into the barn and rode the horse away.
The farmer was stricken. Having spent all his money on the horse he had not the means to buy another, let alone one so fine. For a week he roamed on foot around the borders of his farm, believing in his heart that the gods would take pity and send another horse. They did not.
Only after this week had passed did the farmer wake from this dreamlike state. His thoughts returned to his mule, and the flame of his old, simple happiness rekindled in his heart. He rushed back across the fields to the barn.
But when he opened the barn door, he found his mule lying on the boards, her ribs showing through her coat, and when he touched her she was cold and dead.
This story was written in about 2002.
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