It left Lizzie in a foul mood, this memory, and she strode through the overgrown yard muttering to herself.
“It’s not real, of course it’s not real.”
But what if it is? What if you went there? What if you’ve been—
“I have not been different my whole life!” This came out in a shout and make Snicket straighten up from the grass she was munching. Even in her state of irritation, Lizzie thought the mule looked not frightened by her outburst but annoyed. That was nothing to the surprise Lizzie felt a moment later.
“Will you please stop whining?” The mule’s speech was clipped; her lips pulled back to show her yellow teeth. “You’re kicking and making a fuss.”
Lizzie gaped, but, having encountered talking beasts before, recovered rather quickly. “Who are you to lecture me on making a fuss? You wouldn’t work in the field half the time, made me look like an idiot to the neighbors—“
“You made yourself an idiot. You didn’t belong there anymore and you knew it, but you kept on pushing. Stubborn creature.”
Lizzie scoffed and stumbled over her tongue. “Stubborn? Me? You’re a mule! You should be praising me for it!”
Snicket bent and ripped another mouthful of grass and chewed through her words so that they came out rustley, so that she appeared to care very, very little about what she was saying, which made Lizzie’s shoulders raise a half inch. “I’m stubborn for what I want. What I truly want. I’m a mule and I know myself. You? You were just being stubborn for the impossible. See that bird?” She nodded up at the crow flying overhead. “If I was kicking and stomping over not being able to fly, that would be ridiculous. You have been ridiculous.” She clipped another tuft of grass and stared at Lizzie with insouciant calm.
“You—you—“ But there was nothing satisfactory to say. Lizzie’s shoulders slumped and she kicked at the grass. In the absence of noise the image of the land below the well swam back in view. She closed her eyes.
“I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to not fit in. I don’t want to be the only one. I know— it makes no difference, don’t lecture me.” She opened her eyes and looked at the mule, at the brown velvet face and long-lashed dark eyes. “What am I supposed to do? People live in villages. They work in fields or put themselves to some craft or ply some trade. And the girls I grew up with, they’re getting married. They’re going to have children and cook and clean and take care of people. They know exactly what they’re going to do.”
Snicket snorted. “And when has that ever been the same as happiness? If knowing what you’ll do from sunup to sundown was happiness we beasts of the field would be the most joyful creatures in the world.”
“But it’s hard, not knowing! I’ve only ever been here in this place with these rules and customs and habits.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
Lizzie’s back went straighter. “What? Are you gossiping about me, too?”
Snicket snorted and tossed her head. “As if there was anyone I could talk to! But I have ears, you know. Everyone knows you went somewhere— some castle. And they know that your husband is dead, though there seemed to be fierce debate over whether you killed him, or he was turned into a bear or a boar by a witch, or he was so ancient he died of old age.”
Lizzie gaped. “How dare they! How dare they?”
“Oh, hush. Isn’t it the habit and custom of peasants to gossip about anything different from their own boring little lives? And isn’t it true? Why didn’t you tell them?”
“You know very well I couldn’t have told them. Who would have believed me? It’d be like you talking to one of them. They’d think they were crazy, that it was some evil magic.” Snicket said nothing, and the silence spread so that Lizzie was aware of the insects humming and buzzing and ticking in the grass. She smoothed the skirt of her dress studiously beneath her forefinger and thumb.
“I didn’t tell them because I didn’t want to be sent away. I thought maybe I could just slip back in, that if I took care of my mother it would all… that I’d be unnoticeable.
“But I wasn’t. I wasn’t unnoticeable to myself, either. I’d have dreams about the castle, or drift off wondering how the others—the other wives— were doing. What they were doing. And then… it started to pile up, all the things I wasn’t saying and all the questions they weren’t asking. I tried to tell my mother one night, but she was feverish already and I could see that it upset her, that she couldn’t or wouldn’t understand it. A house with chicken legs! A man who hid his heart past the gates of hell!” Lizzie shook her head. The insects hummed their music. Snicket chewed slowly and shifted her weight, walked closer.
“I’m a mule.”
“Yes, I know that.” There was a weight on Lizzie’s shoulders, it dug into her collarbone and pressed a hot ache down her shoulder blades.
“I’m not a donkey. I’m not a horse. You might say I’m a failure at both. But I’m a damn fine mule. I’m better than either/or. I’m fast. I can work hard. I know my own mind. I won’t work myself to death for some foolish master.
“Do you know that I had kicked out and nearly flattened three other buyers at the market that week? I didn’t have to go with you, or with anyone.”
Lizzie looked up. “What is your point?”
“I chose to go with you. I let you take my lead rope— I let them put the lead and halter on me! Are you listening, girl? Stand up.”
Lizzie looked at her without moving, and it was a petulant and even scornful look that was like the sting of a horsefly. Snicket darted forward and Lizzie cried out. The mule lifted her up by the shoulder of her dress.
“Ow! Stop! Stop— you’ll tear it!” The dress tore. Lizzie swung wild but the mule pranced back with room to spare. Lizzie massaged her shoulder and cursed the beast. “You don’t boss me! You’re my mule. I’m the master—“
“‘I’m the master,’ really, you surprise me. After what you’ve been through?” The words stung and Lizzie rubbed at the red skin at her shoulder. “I’m no more yours than you are mine. I’m my own mule. And I’m not ashamed of who I am. Do I make a fuss that I can’t talk to people? That I have to play a dumb beast? No. Because it’s my choice. Why should I share everything? Why shouldn’t I have a secret or two to myself? I certainly won’t waste my time on those clods of earth, and I don’t seek out punishment.
“I chose to come with you.”
“Well, why? Why would you do that? I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I can’t have a normal life in the village. I can’t get married. I can’t tell the truth to anyone—“ she paced and waved her arms. Snicket just stood there, one ear cocked back, waiting.
“—And—and— It is so boring but I’m scared!”
At this the mule actually brayed, but a moment later her whiskery muzzle was rubbing Lizzie’s cheek. Lizzie tried without much conviction to push her away. “Stop— I’m ridiculous…” But they stood like that for a time and then Lizzie threw one arm up over the mule’s neck and stroked her brown furry side.
“All right, tell me. Why did you come with me?” She spoke into the mule’s black mane. Snicket’s answer vibrated warmth into her neck, into her aching shoulders.
“I came with you because you were different. Because you weren’t half-asleep like all the rest. Because I could tell you’d seen things. Because I knew that sooner or later, you were bound to go somewhere, and I want to go somewhere too.”
Lizzie shrugged but didn’t stop petting the mule’s neck, making rivulets in the brown with her fingertips. “But I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not much of a guide.”
Snicket laughed, a burst of sound between a whinny and a bray, and pulled back to look at Lizzie. “I don’t need a guide. I just need a human. If I walk around by myself, what do you think will happen? Someone will manage to get a harness on me and that’ll be that until I kick down the barn door and escape. But runaway mules get beaten once they’re caught.” She shuddered as if to rid herself of a fly, but Lizzie felt how deep the current of feeling went. Snicket looked past her.
“It’s a convenience and a companion I’m seeking. I don’t care about not knowing what comes next. Can you understand that?”
Lizzie nodded. “We’re not so different. What will happen when strangers see me out alone, with a mule or not? I’m a woman, Snick— I’m as much at risk for being bridled and penned as you are.”
They considered this.
“I can’t be anything but a mule. But you… why do you have to be a woman?”
Lizzie laughed. “Why, what else would I— Oh.” She pulled back and looked at the mule. “But… you mean…?”
The mule, which was looking less and less ‘animal’ to Lizzie and more and more like a peer, a possible friend, fairly shrugged her shoulders. “Why not? I can’t remove my coat but you humans change clothes and suddenly you’re someone else. There’s no difference between a rich man and a poor man once they’re naked. But see a fellow withe a plumed velvet hat and a pair of shiny black boots— and if he’s wearing rings on his fingers, well! Everyone goes scraping and bowing. But why? It’s only the gold and the cloth. Tell me, haven’t you ever bluffed? Haven’t you ever had to pose as someone else?”
Lizzie’s mind flew to the tower, the blood-spattered, too-large clothes of her husband that granted her passage beyond the magical barrier around the estate. She nodded.
“Well, what’s the difference? And what’s the good of being a woman if you can’t do whatever you like?”
Inside Lizzie Borden a sort of whirlwind was rising, an invisible spiral stirring up her hopes as if they were light as autumn leaves. It pressed into her lungs, shimmied her breath so that it was light as a reed, excited, nervous, but free from doubt.
“All right. I’ll do it. I’ll change my clothes— I’ll be a man.”
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux