In the pueblo of Aljarillo the mules are burning. Thick smoke rises with their screams.
In the ramblas, the old men watch, and rub their wounds. They have been punched by hooves and lacerated by teeth and their fists are cluttered with bruises. Mules, they have learned, do not go willingly to a pyre. They fight.
Miguel speaks. ‘The mules had it coming to them, amigo.’ Swollen lips distort his voice.
Pablo stares into his hat, as though he sees oblivion there. ‘Perhaps.’
‘Evil.’ Miguel touches his jaw and winces. ‘Zorro, Pio, all of them. We had no choice.’
The fire is climbing; sparks race hot and red in their faces. The old men smell blood and fat and shit as it sputters in the fire. Behind, the women weep and pick at their rosary beads.
‘Pio was family,’ says Pablo, blue smoke roiling in his nostrils.
‘We have been unlucky,’ Miguel says. ‘That is all. Bad luck’
Across the parched plain, beyond the huddled dwellings, the bloodied sun slides below the horizon, drawing darkness after it.
Miguel knows exactly when bad luck arrived in Aljarillo. It was the day the arroyo ran dry. The same day Consuela had offered to cut off his testicles with a kitchen knife. On that bad luck day, Miguel had been in his hammock smoking the last of his cigarettes, feeling the long ache in his bones. Consuela was digging in the yard, the uneven rim of her dress hanging below her stained apron.
‘Why you not work? No-good bastard? That mule is fed up, needs to plough, needs to fetch water.’ Her hands are blistered from turning the barren earth; in the shade of a withered mesquite tree, bars of sunlight fall across her face. The girl he married is no longer young, observes Miguel. She has not, now he thinks about it, been young for a very long time.
‘Why you lay about, useless old man? Consuela tosses a pan of dishwater onto three lolling cabbages. ‘Eh, answer me.’
Miguel pushes his hat back and regards her. She is rummaging for something in her apron and, clumsily, pulls out a kitchen knife. He sighs. Consuela hasn’t threatened him in years.
‘You want us to die of thirst, eh?’ She steps nearer and prods his groin with the knife point.
‘Perhaps, mi amor,’ shrugs Miguel. He knows she is slower these days, weaker, but even so.
‘Perhaps I will carve off your testicles, eh? No good man.’ Her hands are shaky and she inadvertently pierces his thigh.
Miguel winces and watches a yellow scorpion skitter into the shade of the empty grain store. ‘Perhaps, mi amor. But then I no warn you about the mule.’
‘You full-of-shit husband.’ Consuela looks down at him and a lock of silver hair breaks free from her scarf. Once, he thinks, her hair was deepest black, the colour of olives.
‘I didn’t want to tell you, mi ángel, but Zorro has gone bad.’
‘Bad? Zorro? What garbage, lazy man.’
Miguel catches her wrist, the knife hand, pulls her closer and whispers. ‘He has bad intentions, mi amor. Evil.’
Consuela places her bony knee into Miguel’s groin. ‘Zorro is a good mule.’ She adds her weight. ‘He wants to work. Not like fat lazy bastard man, who lets his wife beg for water. Those testicles are useless to such a man.’
Miguel is in pain, and holds his breath. ‘Ja, you are probably right, mi amor.’
Nearby, Zorro is snorting into the parched earth. He hears his name and looks up, pulling his thick lips into a crooked smile. He has the teeth of a heavy smoker and sores blackened by flies.
‘The mule starves,’ says Consuela. ‘He will die, and he is all we have.’
Miguel sees that Zorro is moulting, legs bald below the knees.
‘Oiga Consuela,’ Miguel pauses, shaping an idea, arranging his face. ‘It is Zorro’s fault we are starving. He has cursed our land. Look at his eyes?’
‘His eyes? What is your fat mouth saying now?
‘Red as the devil’s. I think he has a demon inside him.’
‘Pah! You loco man.’ But Consuelo is less sure and relaxes her knee and the grip on the knife.
‘See for yourself.’ Miguel eases the knife from her hand and slips it beside his thigh. A smudge of blood is seeping into the loose weave of his pants, but the wound is not deep and will dry in the sun.
Consuela clicks her fingers and Zorro labours over to her and doesn’t resist as she holds him by the jaw with one hand. ‘He has disgusting disease,’ she tells Miguel. ‘You have neglected him. I will kill you with my bare hands.’
‘Perhaps, mi amor.’ Miguel sits up, slowly, rubbing his back. He squints into the sun. ‘But who will protect you from the demon mule? He steeples his fingers, resting his chin upon the tips.
‘Not you, ugly man.’ But Consuela has moved nearer, hand upon his shoulder, her body leaning in to him. He reaches up and covers her hand with his own.
‘Si. Si,’ he nods. ‘This ugly man will protect you.’
‘He is a very sad mule, Miguel, and dying, like us.’
Miguel partly disagrees. In Aljarillo, everyone has been dying for longer than they’ve been living but nobody has ever owned a sad mule.
‘Zorro is not sad, mi amor. He is thinking. Scheming. He laughs inside at us. He thinks our dead crops are a joke.’
Consuela reaches out and strokes the mule’s cheek. ‘Zorro needs food, needs water, needs a cigarette. He has nothing to joke about. He should have kicked you in your fat stupid head a long time ago.’
‘Perhaps, mi amor.’ Miguel looks at Zorro, sees contempt in his face, and is angered. ‘But Zorro only looks thin on the outside,’ he tells her. ‘Inside, he is well fed by the devil. His spirit is fat and strong and wicked.’
‘Lies!’ Consuela wags her finger but is less sure. She is superstitious by nature, and her hands creep to the wooden crucifix around her neck.
‘It’s true,’ says Miguel, pleased at the new turn in his story. ‘I’ve heard him speaking in a human voice, in a language I can’t understand. It is a terrible voice, Consuela. I’m so sorry to tell you this.’
As if in protest, Zorro lets out a great shuddering whiney, shaking his head as if with madness, red eyes rolling.
‘See!’ Miguel points. ‘See how the demon shakes him!’
‘Oh, poor Zorro!’ Consuela’s voice falters.
‘It’s the devil,’ Miguel insists. ‘Zorro is not the mule he was.’
And then fear takes her. ‘We must get Father Sanchez to rid him of this terrible demon.’
‘Ah. Father Sanchez. Si.’ Miguel runs his thumb and forefinger over his upper lip, as though reshaping his moustache, a thing he did when pretending to mull over a problem. The priest was set in his ways. His advice was always more prayer, more work and more mortification of the flesh, and for this reason Miguel held back.
‘It is an excellent idea, Consuela,’ Miguel kisses her hand. I will call up Father Sanchez. See what he suggests.
But tears had started in Consuelo’s eyes. ‘Perhaps we should leave,’ she says. ‘This place has been cursed for years. It is time to go and find the sea, find our children. I don’t want to die in this desert.’
All the women of Aljarillo dream of the sea. They had listened spellbound to the itinerant vendors that had once passed through with stories of magical lakes of water that rolled across the land, lifting and falling, rustling like skirts at a dance, how it carried people from one land to another in floating houses.
There was a time when the men of the pueblo told their women that they would set out to find this sea for themselves, and bring back a photograph, fill their canteens as extra proof. Perhaps they would even find the children who’d left so many years ago to fight in civil wars and had never come back.
‘I wonder if the sea is just a fairy tale, Consuela,’ Miguel says. ‘That there is no such thing, after all.’
‘Don’t say that, idiot!’ Consuela throws up her hands. ‘I feel the sea. I smell it. I know it is out there. Sometimes, early morning, I’m sure I see it glittering in the distance; it’s like a mirror, Miguel. But then, when I look again, it has gone. Nothing there. But our children are there, Miguel. I know it. They are there at the sea.’
‘Perhaps, mi amor. But if our children are still alive they will be old themselves and have children of their own, who will also have children. They will have forgotten us.’
This sets Consuela crying. And when Consuela cries she grows violent. Hobbling inside, slamming the rickety door, she bangs pots and hurls spoons until Miguel rouses himself from the hammock and puts them both to bed, exhausted.
The next evening, the neighbour Pablo has an accident. He had been working the plough, the mule Pio straining to pull the furrow along baked earth, the contraption jerking and hiccoughing.
The air is cooling a little, and Miguel rises from his hammock, parched and in need of water. He sees Pablo slump suddenly in his seat, and he stops to watch. The reins drag on the ground, Pablo’s body bounces left then right as the plough bumps and veers. And then Pablo is on the ground, Pio trotting on without him.
‘That was a bad fall, amigo.’ Miguel steps over the fence. ‘You are hurt, si?’
‘I think I’m OK.’ Pablo lays on his front groaning. ‘My face broke my fall, amigo. A lucky thing.’
There is, Miguel notices, much blood on Pablo’s face. But he also notices that one arm is trapped at an odd angle beneath his body, and Pablo is using the elbow of the other to pull himself along, like some limbless creature squirming towards water.
Down on his knees, Miguel rolls Pablo over and helps him sit up. He knows at once the sharp notes on Pablo’s breath. Despite the decades, Miguel remembers the smell and taste of whisky. He picks up the canteen and takes a long swig.
‘Where did you get this, amigo?’
‘Saved it. For an emergency.’ Pablo’s head sags. ‘And here we are, amigo. Useless old men. An emergency.’
Miguel knows that the whisky is valuable. That it could have fetched enough money to buy food and water for Pablo and his wife for many months. He holds the canteen to Pablo’s mouth, but Pablo twists his head away.
‘No more. Maria will smell it. She will curse me to hell. She must never know.’
Miguel takes another swig and wipes his mouth. ‘Funny you should talk about cursing and hell because I reckon somebody is laying curses these days, amigo, and it’s not the women.’
Pablo’s forehead gathers, like somebody is running a tack across it with a needle and thread, then pulling tight. ‘What are you saying?’
‘Put it this way. Your mule was behaving a shade erratic if you ask me.’
‘It is the thirst,’ says Pablo.
‘Perhaps. But did you notice his red eyes? And all that nodding, as if taking orders from some other master. A demon perhaps?
‘No! It’s nothing like that.’ Pablo climbs to his feet, unsteady, grunting at the pain in his arm. He grips Miguel’s leg for support, then his shoulder. ‘Pio is a good mule. Demons don’t bother with good mules.’
‘I suppose not, amigo,’ says Miguel. ‘Though Father Sanchez always says evil can go as easily on four legs as two.’
‘Well not this mule. This mule is family.’
‘I thought the same of Zorro but now, I don’t know,’ says Miguel and draws closer. ‘I believe Zorro has got himself possessed. Look at my fields. Blighted.’
‘All the fields are blighted,’ Pablo sighs. ‘No rain for years. Now we must tell our wives they can either starve or die of thirst.’
‘It is a terrible dilemma,’ agrees Miguel. ‘And Maria will be so sad to see you’ve broken your arm and won’t be able to work the plough at all.’ Miguel picks up the canteen. ‘She will wonder why you fell.’
Pablo pauses and Miguel watches as his face changes, the panic in his eyes as he realises his predicament. ‘Come to think of it,’ says Pablo. ‘That mule was acting strange.’
‘I thought so, too.’ Miguel swigs the canteen.
‘Si, he was, like you say, erratic.’
‘Like a thing possessed?’
Pablo ran on. ‘Si. Si. Like a demon. And.. and…making strange faces. Si.’
‘Si. Real mean faces.’
‘Zorro, too. And was Pio speaking in a strange language.’
‘No…well…..si. Now I come to think of it. Si. He didn’t stop talking.’
Miguel empties the whisky down his throat, sucking in his cheeks and then blowing out. ‘Your mule has cursed you, amigo. Like my mule has cursed me. Next time he might kill you.’
‘Perhaps all the mules are cursed,’ says Pablo.
‘Do you really think that?’ Miguel eyed him. ‘Well, you know a lot more about mules and if you think they are cursed, it’s only right you let your neighbours know. Now hold still and let me set your arm.’
The mules were doomed from that day. Miguel was quick to spread Pablo’s opinion and it became clear among the men that the mules were responsible for everybody’s bad luck. Something had to be done. The old men got busy finding evidence against them – the miller’s broken grinding wheel, the plague of thirsts, and the conference of blue-black rats that had taken control of the streets. For the first time in decades, the old men had a purpose.
Finally, word went forth about the baker Gonzalo and his wife. Eldora was pregnant.
‘I don’t know how it happened,’ says Gonzalo. ‘It must be God’s way.’
‘It happens the usual way,’ says Pablo, punching his arm. ‘Congratulations.’
Gonzalo scratches his head. ‘I thought after the accident I would never father children.’
Miguel and Pablo had met Gonzalo and Eldora in the street, Eldora riding on the mule, her enormous belly resting on its back. Miguel and Pablo look at each other and remember Gonzalo’s unfortunate injury.
‘Eldora swears no other man has touched her,’ says Gonzalo. ‘Even though some would like to.’
Eldora smiled, a pink blush rising up her throat, and Miguel wonders. Eldora was the youngest woman in the pueblo. She wouldn’t be a hundred for several years yet. Many men envied Gonzalo.
‘Oi, oi,’ she cries suddenly. ‘The child is kicking, Gonzalo. Look!’
Sure enough, Eldora’s belly is moving, changing shape as the child tosses and kicks within, and Eldora writhes and pulls off her headscarf, letting her grey hair fall wildly around her face. She throws her arms around the mule’s neck and kisses him.
‘She is not herself,’ says Gonzalo. ‘Too little water….’
‘ She is fond of that mule though, amigo?’ Miguel raises his eyebrows at Pablo.
‘Ah, si.’ Gonzalo agrees. ‘She has always had a soft spot for Reyo.’
Miguel smiles. ‘It’s just that, amigo, with the mule situation, it’s wise to be careful.’
‘What’s your meaning?’ Gonzalo is suspicious.
‘Well, I’m sure you’ve seen the way the mules have been looking at our women lately.’
‘No! Reyo would never look at Eldora in a bad way. Anyway, amigo, mules are infertile.’
‘So they say. But there’s some bad magic in the air, amigo. Very bad magic.’
At this, Gonzolo is agitated. ‘You don’t think Reyo is the father?’
‘No! Do you think this, Gonzalo?’ says Miguel. ‘But you must warn your neighbours to keep their wives away from the mules.’
And so the word went around that Eldora’s baby was half mule. One man – Miguel – reported a clatter of hooves as Eldora gave birth and a great braying and hee-hawying as the child drew breath. The old women of the village did not believe him, but the old men did. And so the rounding up and burning of the mules began.
Mule carcasses give up ash. Thick and dark. It swirls and swells in the violet sky like a great murmuration. The screams of the mules have subsided, the air thick with the smell of their roasting meat. It is unbearable to these starving people. Later, one old man – it will be Miguel – will eat the flesh, and others will follow. But the old men will know that this terrible conflagration is not the end of the curse but just the beginning. They will know that, behind them, their women are leaving, returning to the cottages, loading their meagre possessions onto handcarts. The old men will not turn around to watch them. But they will know. Soon, the old men will die of forgetfulness. They will lie among the charred bones of their mules and let the life run out of them like sand. They will not remember the night the mules burned, the night the women stepped into the desert and kept walking until they were nothing, until they dissolved and all that remained was a glittering seam opening up on the far horizon.