Grandpa’s mule was sick.
Sam watched as the pitiful old animal walked around in a never-ending circle. “Toby” had been walking for days, plodding steadily through the hot sun and humid nights.
When Grandpa first discovered Toby making his circle, he called to the animal. But Toby’s ears did not turn toward Grandpa as they always had, nor did he falter in his gait. The big animal did not alter his steadfast plodding, even when Grandpa laid a strap across his broad back. Grandpa had not the heart to continue beating the faithful animal, so he let him be after that. The veterinarian told Grandpa to just shoot Toby. Grandpa told him thanks, that he would do that. But when it got right down to it he couldn’t. Grandpa told Sam, “Toby will come to his senses. You just wait and see.”
At twilight each day, Sam could just make out the old mule’s ears, outlined against a milky sky, and always in motion. The animal was still circling each morning when Sam ran out to see. No one seemed to know why the mule went around in his loop. Perhaps he thought he was hitched to the sorghum mill. He was near the spot where he had turned the press every autumn for many years.
Sam thought about all the buttery sweet sorghum molasses he had sipped over the years, hot from the pan. Of course, Toby had done all the hard work back then. He had pulled the planter, then the plow. And when the sorghum was cut, Toby hauled the huge bundles to the press. Then he was hitched to the press, where he walked around and around for hours each day, as Grandpa fed the stalks into the mill from which the sweet juices flowed.
Toby did not always work alone. Grandpa’s younger mule, “Red,” had pulled the plow alongside Toby for as long as Sam could remember. The two mules worked the long rows of corn and tobacco, ate their straw side by side, and slept in adjacent stalls come nightfall. On the rare days they weren’t needed as beasts of burden, they rolled in the grass fields together. Wherever you saw Toby, Red was sure to be nearby.
One morning during Toby’s illness, Grandpa rode by him astraddle Red. As they passed the circling mule, Red snorted and waved his ears about like antenna, expecting some response from his old friend. But Toby seemed unaware that Red was anywhere around, and missed not a step on his journey to nowhere.
A few of the nearby farmers heard about the “crazy mule,” and stopped on the road to gawk at the animal. Sam hated them for it. Toby had been a good mule; he didn’t deserve to be laughed at.
There was a thunderstorm one afternoon, with heavy rain and close lightning strikes, but the poor animal seemed not to notice. He just walked on around, the rain steaming off him in the cool air that followed the storm. Sam slipped down the gravel road and stopped near the spot in the field where Toby trudged. The mule looked neither left nor right, as if he were wearing blinders again. Sam marveled at the nearly perfect circle Toby had created, as tidy and uniform as anything a machine could make.
When Toby had entered the field that first day the ground had been thick with weeds and grass. Before long the foliage was beaten down to tiny bits by the mule’s heavy hooves. Sam could see the path was all compacted earth now, clean and deep, as though nothing had ever grown there. And he saw that Toby’s big shaggy head was beginning to droop.
On the ninth day the old mule fell over dead, his limbs sticking up into the air at a stiff angle. Grandpa wrapped the animal’s hind legs with a chain from the back of the tractor, and dragged him away. When Sam got off the school bus that day he looked toward Toby’s circle, but didn’t see the mule. Instead, there was a new path of flattened grass leading away from the circle, snaking its way down the field and disappearing into the woods.
Sam saw Grandma heading to the barn with a bucket of grain, and at first he took heart when he heard a loud bray. But no, it was Red, standing alone now next to an empty stall. And Sam understood.
That was the end of Toby.
© Wade Kingston