By Roberto Moulun


mule cartoonNo one knew with certainty how the name Malakias got into the family, but it had persisted through various generations, together with a belief in miracles, votive candles and holy water. Tradition is a matter of endurance, and after six generations of repetition, it becomes an article of faith; thus to give a different name to the first born boy in the Tenorio family, would have been an unthinkable sin.

Malakias Tenorio was the sixth generation child to carry this name, originally taken from Malachi, the fifth century Hebrew prophet who rabidly preached against priesthood, marriage or divorce – leaving his contemporaries with few social choices. Not that the origin of the name really mattered. The people in the village of Galindo had no knowledge of the old prophet.

In keeping with yet another family tradition, Malakias grew up to become a muleteer. He inherited the three family mules: Angela, Dominga and Bizantina and so was soon better known as El Mulero than Malakias Tenorio.

Of the three mules, Dominga was the strongest. It had the sweet disposition of a Carmelite friar. Once loaded, it started on her own at a soft trot, following the monotonous route between Galindo and the twin village Topacio. Bizantina was as a good mule should be: Stupid, sure- footed, pointed-eared, and given to episodes of stubborn negativism. Angela, by contrast, had the haughty temperament of Carmen, the Gypsy in the opera by Bizet. Malakias always thought of the mule in the feminine, which was incorrect — mules being hybrid — but Angela’s personality reminded Malakias of an aunt on his maternal side, and so, he always spoke of her in the feminine.

Indifferent to her master’s reflections, Angela kept her own counsel. She carried her loads with the air of someone born to better things. On her route, no bush went unexplored, nor any barking dog without a kick. She chased the milk cows that strayed on her trail, and mastered the trick of inflating her belly while Malakias hitched up the cinch, and by suddenly deflating, scatter her load at will. Yet, in spite of all its calamities, Angela possessed a lovely, poetic streak. She frequently stood by the brooks they crossed, not to drink, but to listen to the murmur of the water and to gaze at her own equine reflection. Her pointed ears were attuned to the soft sounds of wind through foliage and often she stood gazing at the horizon, following the irregular flow of clouds with somnolent eyes, dreaming perhaps of unending skies. Malakias would then softly hold his mule by the neck and scratch her ears.

At age seventeen, El Mulero was strong, bare-footed and square- jawed. He could have torn open the jaws of a wolf with his bare hands and could run up a hill without his breathing changing or his chest complaining, and yet, like Angela, he also listened to the forest whispers or followed the capricious twists of the clouds, at times whistling to them, as if he were their herder.

Nights are long in Galindo. The insignificant village is like any other delivered from the womb of a poor land. ln the evening, the villager’s complaints are spat by the light of oil lamps. Their conversations are often reminiscent descriptions of how in a distant past, they mined gold from rivers which suddenly went dry, turning into rivulets that carried only sand. The conversations shift then to the illness of neighbors and their ailments are reviewed in detail. Once the subject is exhausted, the lamps are extinguished one by one, and night takes over.

Malakias, because his occupation demanded much traveling, was the news-bearer of Galindo and Wednesday evenings, when he returned from his weekly trips, were popular nights at the local bar EI Altet. Drinks were charged at half price and bits of smoked ham and hard cheese freely served by Don Vicente’s pretty wife, Mercedes. A Spaniard from Crevillente, a town in Alicante, Don Vicente Manchon owned the bar and presided from behind a solid wooden counter. He seemed always occupied cleaning a spot from wine glasses, but kept an alert eye on both the accounts and the discussions. He wrote the accounts with white chalk on a black board placed behind the counter, but since he was not a demanding collector, drinks flowed like the rivers of old.

However, if a discussion became heated, he at once intervened, uttering some few words in Levantine. No one understood a word of the archaic dialect from Alicante, but foreign languages have a mystical, always calming power. This mystic charm always worked for Don Vicente, who had the physical appearance of a retired prize fighter.

On such Wednesday nights, Malakias sat at the head of a long table while the neighbors drank his news and thin glasses of red wine, discussing each of his stories from every possible perspective. A mottled crew, the men of the village had been thrown together during the short- lived gold bonanza, and left behind as the useless mining tools when the gold disappeared, swallowed again by the land.

And so it happened, that on the night of an Ash Wednesday, Malakias brought incredible news. The rivers, he said, were once more flowing with gold! The news perplexed all present who whittled what he said with innumerable questions and demanded detailed descriptions. When Malakias brought out a small leather bag brimming with gold dust, the questions ceased. One by one, the men silently left the bar with excuses, muttered no doubt to persuade their neighbors of their disbelief, to secretly participate in the bonanza.

When they were alone, Don Vicente calmly approached Malakias at his table. “Is it true what you announced?” he asked.

“Most of it is true,” answered EI Mulero.

“Where did you lie?”

“Not all the rivers carried gold,” Malakias answered. “There was only a small creek that formed a pool of water. My mule drank it dry. I found the gold dust in the bottom.”

“That mule of yours is now a bag full of gold,” Don Vicente said.

“How so?” Malakias asked.

“ Well, if the mule drank the water of the pool, then, the gold must be somewhere inside her!” Don Vicente shrugged his shoulders. “It is obvious. Be careful, gold is the father of betrayal, it twists the hearts of men worse than a hurricane.”

He returned to his counter to resume the cleaning of glasses, leaving Malakias silent and reflective, his face obscured by anguish.

“ I must go now, feed my animals.” Malakias said. “How much do I owe the house?”

“Nothing. Tonight you drank on me.”

Malakias walked in the dark toward the stable. Angela heard his steps and recognized the smell of her master. She inflated her belly preparing herself for a new load. Perhaps she didn’t feel the stroke of that knife that ripped her open.

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