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  • Writer's pictureSimeon Ayres

Mule's Story

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

By Simeon Ayres

Luckily, only once before had I heard the terrible crunch of a fellow sailor falling from the rigging to bare board, yet when the old storyteller Mule fell, I was so close, time slowed to barely a crawl. As I raised my head towards his cry, I felt his dread that the footing below him was gone, and where in the heavens was that handhold? I could count so very slowly those seconds of heavy flight as the

air refused to hold him, and why would it? I felt my body tighten in dread, as if its contraction could somehow save my old friend, or perhaps save myself from

witnessing his fate. Truly, I felt the oak boards of the deck give as he hit, then

spring from beneath my feet just a fraction of an inch at the wince and shiver of

impact. I heard the grey thud, the shatter of bone, and something burst and spill

inside of him.

There he lay contorted on the deck, his face, already paler than the scudding

clouds, his lips mouthing an “Oh fuck” to the world. as a drop of blood dribbled

and pooled from the corner of his mouth. The bleeding coming from a hidden

somewhere inside. Maybe his back was broken, his hips, his spleen? I watched

mesmerized as the fist of his right-hand clenched then unclenched as if still

reaching for rigging that wasn’t there.

On a doctor-less whaleboat like the Albion long out to sea, there’s next to nothing that we crew could do for one who has fallen. I'd seen a man die from a shallow cut to the hand. What medicine there was in the world never reached this old ship. There was rum and molasses and quinine, perhaps a little opium and then rum again, but none of these would fix a body as broken as Mule’s.

I had spent a good part of my life on the Albion, out of Whitby on the East coast

of England. I was twelve when I boarded, and of hunting whales. I was the boy of

the boat back then, and I had never seen the ocean before, but that's another tale altogether. That first week aboard I fell in with the company of the old quartermaster, the man they called Mule. It was Mule who learned me all the

ways of the ocean, or as he called it the Hwaelweg, the Whale Road. He learned

me all its language, the algebra of the ocean as he called it, he learned me the

means of its music and a lot of tall tales too.

I would tell you a tale of this man Mule though, both cautionary and curious. Then it’s yours to pass along to any hungry ears that would lean into it. Tales are easy enough to tell, that’s for sure, anyone with a fat and generous tongue can spit the bones of a story out to waiting ears, out into the world. Yet I had not met any, before or since who measured up to Mule. I will never forget that first story he told, maybe because I remembered it so well at his end.

I should start at the beginning then or close enough. Most stories start with a

question you see, and mine was innocent enough. “How is it you got your name,

Mule? No one I’ve ever known has been called by such a name.”

“It’s my real name, lad.” Mule said. “I didn't know me mother; I grew up with me father. He was a traveling storyteller, a Senchai. He carried the stories of all his peoples. He carried their histories, their mythologies, the geographies, and naming stories of all the land and the ancestor business, too. What he carried best though, were stories, that’s why he said that my name was Mule; he said that it was me job and indeed me holy duty to carry them too, that I should be like our own Mule with her big saddlebags, that instead of them being stuffed full of blankets and canvas and the brass cooking pot, me bags should carry stories, just small ones for now, mind you, not like those that he spoke.”

I leaned into Mule that morning; he had a way with words, a lilting poetry. He

knew that everything has a voice, has a tongue of its own. He knew that every

constellation of words is a magical spell, that every sentence, when uttered into

the world, has the power to either lift or diminish, to fill the soul, or to rob the

same weary traveler of his last meal or his golden teeth. I was so excited at his

words that he spun out into constellations and worlds.

“So, your father taught you the stories?” I asked.

“Aye, lad, they say that he was the best, that there were none like him; that he

could hold a story for a week or more, could fold it intricately and shape it into

holy chapels of fear, or laughter, or frenzy. Father’s jaw spat out words in such

vivid patterns and with such a cadence, that all who listened were transported.

When he spoke, his voice could stop a galloping horse in its tracks and calm a

screaming baby. Then for the ladies, too, his voice could warm the fuzz between

their legs, send the hot prickle up into their hearts, and the blood to blush their

faces. Some would say he had a good deal of the rascal inside of him”

“You see, he knew where a story came from and how it could reach out way

beyond us. He could conjure it up and work with it as if it were a snake to be

charmed, as if the story itself were a wild beast with the dark eyes of a wolf, with

a gold-tipped pelt and a long, proud tail. Father would call to them stories as we

traveled between places, ask them to come out of the wild woods or the bogs or

the moors. They would follow us down, slinking just out of earshot and eyesight,

but follow us all the same, then father would gather them in a circle, feed them

with praise, then ask them to stay and be spoken by him and seen and heard by

all. Of course, a story could not resist this, for truth be told, they live off of man

like lichen on rock. They love to hear of their wonder-filled nature, their wild

beauty at center stage. Besides, father did them great justice.”

All the while in his telling, Mule watches me intently, he knows his story’s finding a home, that in my young mind, a world of images is beginning to dance as he speaks. He pauses just a little allowing me to catch up, to call the story forward.

“Was it just you and him Mule?”

His eyes brighten a little at the invitation to go on. “We were always on the road,

always between one place or the other. As the afternoons lengthened, we would

come into a small town or village, the headman and woman would be expecting

us. They would greet father well, pour him ale or porter, and prepare a meal for

us. After dinner was eaten, all the people of the district would come and gather,

and me father would hold them captive with his tongue, would let out those wild

and magical beasts that he had called from the hidden places.”

Mule was just beginning to reach his stride, he had himself an audience, an ear

to listen in me, a place for his tale to come alive. He continued, licking his lips of

the juices of the tale. “I fell in love lad, with the tales, with me father, and the art

of it all. I loved the anticipation, the amazement, and then the adoration that

flowed afterward. I grew intoxicated. Me father was the King of stories, with a

voice like spun honey, and besides him, I was the little King-in-waiting. Each

night that he spun those tales, he slept with another of those fine Celtic beauties,

red and raven-haired, plump milky breasts. And every night, I was left alone to

dream, curled on the skins by the big fire.”

“Is he still out there?’ I asked. ‘Telling his stories?’

“I cannot tell you, “Said Mule. “But I can hazard a guess. You see stories, after

being told, need praise from the teller and then feeding, and then tucking up in

bed and, in the morning, they need to be shown the way home. I suppose that

they’re like children.”

I was wide-eyed then, my whole body a wriggle.“You mean to say the stories

are alive?”

“That’s about true, lad, the best ones are great living things. You couldn’t imagine

just how powerful a story can be, how it is strong and sleek and muscled, and

broader than us by far, how it has sharper teeth, and enough stamina to leap

over whole countries.”

“The last day that I saw my father, he had called down a beast of a tale from the

mountains above Donegal. He said that it was primal, a shapeshifter, he said that

he had heard talk of it all his life; that it still lived in the caves up there, and no

one had dared speak it for a hundred of years or more."

I remembered feeling a kind of concern for myself at this point, as if this tale of

Mule’s was about to completely change my world. But all I could do was ask him,

“what did you do Mule?”

“Well, we went a searching it out, didn’t we? Climbed all the way up to the top of

the highest peak, where the cloud and rain and mountain mist lives. Then father

started singing and cooing, and well, eventually, he called it up. It followed us

tentatively over the mountain and down the pass. It smelt of wet dog or wolf, and bones that have been long buried and dug up again. And it sounded as if it were dragging chains behind it. I tell you, lad, I shivered, and I shook with fear and walked twenty paces out in front of my father, yet still I felt it at my neck.”

“That night in the tavern, he brought forth that old tale, revealed it slowly in front

of his audience; it was spellbinding, such a tale I have never heard. He drew the

whole village into that room, such that the rafters were packed, and every eye

and ear leaned in. I watched their faces, all off into their own vision worlds, each

dreaming the story for himself. When it was over, after that wonderful and terrible

journey, each of us fell into a deep silence, it was as if we couldn’t move. Even

the dogs sat still and alert, even the bubbles in the ale wouldn’t rise, no one so

much as farted; see, they were all mesmerized all enchanted.”

“Another world existed in that inn, a world where pure possibility hung low in the air. He knew then, just how well he had told that tale, that silence before the

crowd erupted like a flaming volcano. Well, they fed him ales and mead and then strong Irish whiskey and then some more, they called him the Emperor of story, the King, then they got him right royal drunk. Then he struggled up the stairs with two comely young women, green-eyed beauties, one on each arm.”

“What he did not do, though, was the after-story business. He didn’t put it to bed, didn’t offer his praise. That was his undoing.”

Mule paused for a time; looking out to sea, the wind blowing his hair.

I was desperate for more, fair wriggling with excitement, “Go on Mule. Then what

happened?”

“Well, lad, I heard it that night as I lay beneath the sheepskin, its heavy breath, its

sharp claws on the flagstones, that chain dragging behind it. I lay still as a stone,

neither daring to breathe or cry out. It brushed past the fire, I could see its dark

outline close as your face, I could smell its warm rancid breath like a cloud all

around me. Then, quick as you like, it stomped off to the upstairs rooms, opening

doors and scaring the bejesus out of all that was up there. I heard Father’s

scream and the screams of them two girls. And I ran out of that inn, down them

cobbled streets, all the way to the port where I clambered aboard one of them big boats and hid through the long night. Then when morning came, when the ship sailed with the tide and I showed me self, one of the sailors said that the inn had burnt to the ground.”

“For me self, though, I would never, ever, dare venture back onto that soil again,

save that story recognizes me and serves me what it did my father. He’s dead,

you know, his heart was ripped out by a story, the wildest most outrageous story

told in the last three centuries. That’s why I’m on the sea, lad. I have the few

tales that I know and nothing more save the ocean now. That story is why I’m here lad, that story’s what shaped me, what made me who I am.

And there Mule lay, broken upon the boards, and I kneeling beside him, propping his head upon the curve of my leg, with a crew of his most devoted audience gathered around. For a man of stories like Mule he had scarcely a word left now, as if a man only has so many, and he can see the count tapering off.

“You will not be leaving us to sail this ship without you, Mr. Mule.” I was prodding him with my words, urging him to hold fast to life.

Mule’s voice was weak, as if each word had to scramble a rocky headland to

arrive. “I will take my leave when I am r-ready, though it may be sooner than I

had intended.”

“Then who will tell us stories, who will carry us into all of the other worlds like you have these past years?” I asked.

And Mule sighed a kind of sing-song sigh that carried a distant melody back,

before weakly sniffing the air towards him and looking up at me from the deck.

“Hah! You were a young lad when you c came aboard, a pup. I remember it like

yesterday, n never even seen the ocean. What kind of boy had never seen the

sea?”

“She came to hold me though, Mule, she carried the both of us all those years.”

“Aye, she c carried us lad, and she will carry you further still, me-self she might

just take today.”

Mule’s eyes were wet, and tears were beginning to wash down his cheeks, but

despite the obvious pain, there was a peace to him. He swallowed often, as if

trying to hold something down.

Then his voice rose again, wavering struggling to meet the cold air. “P-prop me

up a little, lads, and face me back towards Ireland. I w-will have words to speak

with that holy soil before the day is out. I have me a little unfinished business with a story that took me father.”

We moved him as gently as we could. His breath shallow, his body broken, a leg

jutting out at an obscene angle, a left-arm limp at his side, and that side of his

chest deflated and crushed. But he still craned to look out towards his home so

far away.

“I remember that one well, Mule,” I said. “It took many a waking night to get my

young mind around that one, and besides, you told me of your father and his

demise at the hands of a story, but what was the story? You’d told me about it all

those years ago, but you’ve still yet to tell me the story itself.”

“I wondered about that tale myself,’ he murmured. “What would’ve happened if

I’d stayed, crawled out from under them skins and praised and fed that story for

me father. What then? Would it then have slunk off home to the hills while my

father stayed cuddled up to them two beauties?”

“Then I would never have had the grand pleasure of your company these long

years,” I said. “Would not have had my young mind fed with such outrageous

ideas. I would have slept well at night, but my life would have been duller for it.”

Mule groans. I could literally see the life draining from his fingers and toes,

retreating up his arms and legs, pulling back from his hips and belly, until only his chest and head hold on to the world. At the same time, I thought I saw that last story his father had told, yet never praised, retreating with him. I imagined the remote and lonely cave in the mountains above Donegal inhabited by that

outrageous tale.

His eyes were misting up as I watched, his vision leaving the ship, traveling farbeyond the edges.

“Ah, there, she is, I can see her in the distance now, the Emerald Isle,’ he

gasped. The cliffs of Moher, I c-could leap over them from here - The Ring of

Kerry, and the Blaskett Isles, and the Hill of Tara. I can h-hear the old ones

calling, the stone tombs are opening, the ancestors p-pouring out. There is

feasting and pipes and fiddles and a fire burning hot and bright upon the

headland, its sparks are kissing the stars. Flame-haired beauties dancing, and

Father’s enchanting the crowds with his golden voice and a great tale of

homecoming.” His voice was thinning, trailing off into the distance he described.

As we gazed seawards, following his words through the bright morning and out

over the sea, all of us seeing and hearing Mule’s homeland calling, coming home

with him in this his last story.

Oh, we would’ve all carried him back there if we could, we would lift his broken

body onto the softness of a lone cloud, and we’d tether twelve dozen grey geese

to it, and they would carry him honking homewards, riven on a story of the place he longed for.

Quietly, finally his eyes closed, his last out-breath mingled with the morning air. An icy gust filled the sails, and with this new breeze, the sky lowered itself, heavy upon the deck. And there it was, a smell of wet dog and long-buried bones

descending amongst us, a rattling of chains, and the chill breath of something

menacing that seemed as large as the Albion. I shivered then as I felt the rough pelt of animal brush past me. My fellow crew, gathered around Mule’s body, as uneasy as me, as if being hunted by something they couldn’t see. How could I not think then about that first tale of Mule and his father then? About the stories that shape and define our lives, the stories we tell, and how they grow far bigger even than us. You see, I think you would want to be careful as to the stories you told yourself, and told others too, wouldn’t you?


THE END

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