Book 2, Ch 3: The Mule’s Advice

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

Book 2, Ch 3: The Mule’s Advice

Book 2, Ch 2: The World Below the Well

Lizzie tumbled into the memory like falling down a well.

She almost had fallen down it, down into the dark. Looking for the witch’s silver that the older boy had told her was there. She was five, maybe six.

Lizzie walked across the overgrown yard to the ring of moss-covered bricks; she put her hands on the ledge.

It had been so much higher then, up to her chin. But she had refused the boost, had wanted to climb up herself, convinced that was how the magic would work, how she would be granted her wish.

And what was her wish? She hadn’t thought of that in a long, long time

She was going to wish for her father to be well again, jump up from his bed and pull the bandages off his head and chest and say it was all a game, all a joke.

Some part of Lizzie argued this was ridiculous, thinking of all this. She could feel where it was slipping to: the suspicion, the near-religious belief that everything would have turned out all right if only her father hadn’t died. The painful suspicion that it was somehow her fault that he had. She gripped the bricks hard and tried to push this younger Lizzie, this girl-self out of her mind. Her chest ached and strained under the pressure, as if she was the one who had been stepped on by a wild horse, not him. She leaned over, felt the cool air that came from below the ground; breathed in and opened her eyes.

There was the circle of rippling silver. But that wasn’t all. There was the voice; she knew it was the Witch, the one who lived in this cursed alcove. What was the  voice saying…?

“Ask…”

Lizzie opened her eyes. If she could have seen her face reflected in the water far below it would have been as pale and washed out as the moon. Her voice was a whisper. “I don’t want to remember this.”

Something like a sigh rose up from the darkness and Lizzie closed her eyes again. It didn’t matter that she was no longer a child. It didn’t matter what she had seen and done, the dangers she had faced at Bluebeard’s castle and in the Underworld. This memory made her a child, and she felt the fear of a small person.

But first she felt excitement. Nerves. Pressure.

She felt a door.

Lizzie tried to open her eyes but either magic or the temptation to witness the images rushing through her mind made that impossible: She had fallen down the well. But there had been no water. She had landed on a grassy hillock. Picked herself up and wandered away though she could hear the boy’s voice calling for her from somewhere high above.

The sky was a weird muted yellow, as if from a fire, but the air was clear. Yet it all weighed on her, pushed down on her shoulders so that she wondered if she really was underwater. She wondered if she was drowning.

But just as the thought came to her, before the fear could touch her, she saw an apple tree laden with red-gold fruit.

And the apples said, “Shake us down, shake us down, we are all of us ripe!”

So she ran to the tree and shook and shook so that it rained apples all around her, until the tree sighed and its branches lifted up once more, free of the weight.

One of the apples had fallen into her apron pocket, and she ate it as she walked on down the dusty, empty road.

Then she came upon an oven built of bricks. It stood by itself; there was no house or bakery in sight, but the most wonderful yeasty-rich aroma wafted over her, and the loaves in the oven began calling to her.

“Take us out, take us out, we are all of us baked!”

So she threw open the double doors and snatched the loaves out with the corners of her apron. A dozen wheat-gold loaves sat upon the bricks, but one small bun fell into her apron pocket, and she ate it as she continued walking.

She walked for so long she forgot she had ever done anything else, but she was neither hungry nor thirsty. And then there was a little house built of wattle and daub, neatly whitewashed with a clean-swept yard and a prodigious flower garden.

A fluffy white head popped up from the flowers, and the old, old woman said, “Come in child, and dine with me. It is time for dinner.” So she did.

The old woman set a bowl before her and said, “Here, pick the stones from these lentils and we shall have soup.” So Lizzie sat and picked.

“Now put them in the pot and give them a stir, and soon we’ll eat.”

Even a child of Lizzie’s age knew that dried lentils needed to soak overnight or else boil and boil all afternoon, but the whole thing was so strange, so yellow-lit like a dream, like another life, that she didn’t say these thoughts out loud. In fact, she hadn’t spoken since she had fallen down the well.

She tossed the lentils into the pot. No sooner had she stirred once with the old wooden spoon than they were done! She was amazed, but only ladled them into bowls and sat and ate with the old woman.

“If only we had bread,” said the old woman.

“There are twelve loaves cooling on the bricks by the oven up the road,” said Lizzie.

“Hmm,” said the old woman. She nodded her head— and there was a basket on the table to Lizzie’s right which she hadn’t noticed before. Of course, it was full of bread, and what bread! The crust was crisper, the inside softer and more chewy even than the little roll she had eaten earlier.

When they had finished, the old woman looked at her and said, “If only we had apples we could finish the meal with a treat.”

The words came easily out of the little girl’s mouth. “But there are dozens of apples under the tree up the road.”

“Hmm,” said the old woman again and nodded her head. Something red and white caught Lizzie’s eye— and there was a plate of sliced apples; the crispest, sweetest, best apples she had ever eaten, better even than the apple given her by the tree.

She cleared the dishes and washed them in the metal tub without the old woman asking her to. There was something about her that made Lizzie want to please her, to do the right thing. But it was different than at home or in the village— places that felt like a dream compared to the intense realness of this strange, generous land. She didn’t want to be good out of manners; she wanted to be Good, to be Helpful; she wanted to fit in at just the right moment. It was like with the tree— how could she have walked past it knowing that its branches would break under the weight of all those apples? It was easy to help. And how could she have kept going and let those delicious loaves of bread burn? They only singed her fingertips a tiny bit. It was like that with this old woman: if she asked, or if Lizzie could guess what she would ask, well, of course she would help. It made her happy to.

When the dishes were dried and put away, the old woman said, “Now for some music and entertainment— if you can believe whatever you see.”

Lizzie nodded, braids sliding like two gold-brown garden snakes across her back. If the old woman had taken her hand and told her to jump so as to fly she would have done it.

They stepped out the back door and sat down on a stump bench. Lizzie’s feet didn’t reach the ground; she tried not to swing them as she waited. She chanced a look at the old woman, but her hostess watched the trees at the edge of the yard without blinking, so Lizzie turned and watched, too.

And, oh! Out of the trees came such creatures! Had she ever dreamed anything so fantastical? She had no names for them except faeries.

Tiny women with wings.

A piglet with wings and a golden spiral horn.

Two boys a bit bigger than she was with hairy goats’ legs beneath them.

Enormous snakes with ladies’ faces.

Little heaps of lumbering mud.

And all manner of winged, multi-headed mixed-up animals, leafy people, shadow folk and wisps of colored, concentrated wind.

Lizzie watched them all. Then, something like an enormous cricket hopped onto a toadstool that grew before Lizzie’s eyes, and began to play a chirping, trilling tune.

All those assembled turned and bowed to one another. Then they bowed to Lizzie and the old woman. Then, they danced.

Lizzie watched and watched. Her eyelids grew heavy. She was lifted up, carried, tucked into bed and then she was asleep under the heavy weight of a down comforter.

And then… and then…

Lizzie jerked herself up and gasped as if she hadn’t breathed through the recollection, and maybe she hadn’t. It isn’t often one discovers a hidden pocket of memory that has been silenced, blotted out for a decade. She gripped the well, then pushed back, broke her hold. She paced around it, unable to walk away, unwilling to get closer. She pressed her hands to her eyes and shook her head, but the memory was in her body, breathed in like underground gas. It made her nerves tingle, her limbs shake.

She was rising up, up through the water, through the shaft of the well. There was shouting, but she didn’t move. Someone hauled her out of the bucket, laid her roughly on the ground, pressed on her chest, rolled her over and thumped her back. Someone was shaking her…

“Oh my god— oh—“ Lizzie retched, heaved. Nothing came out, and then a thing string of greenish spit, acidic and painful on her throat.

Her lungs hurt. Her shoulders hurt. Her heartbeat was sluggish, erratic. She wanted the apples, wanted the bread. She wanted the cool touch of the old woman’s hand on her forehead, not these hands that shook her and shook her until she gasped and sat up.

She’s alive! Praise God!

Then the tone changed and they threw something from her pockets into the well and rushed her away.

They had forbidden all the children to ever go back. But that wasn’t what made Lizzie shake and shake, hunched over in the grass.

That night, before she knew better, she told her mother all about the land below the wishing well. Maybe someday Lizzie would see that it had been too much for her mother, almost losing her only daughter so soon after her husband’s terrible injury. Maybe if Lizzie had come back empty handed instead of with an apron-full of silver pieces she could have listened to her child, comforted her and indulged her. Maybe her mother wouldn’t have drawn back, maybe everything would have gone back to normal if her father had lived just a few days longer.

But as it was, little Lizzie told her tale, her mother refused to believe her, and her father died that night.

Lizzie beat the ground with her fist. She cried out, she wailed.

Up from the well, the voice called again.

Ask.


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

Book 2, Ch 2: The World Below the Well