Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mules

"In 1919, there were 26.5 million mules and horses in this country. By 1945, less than a tenth of that number remained. They simply disappeared from the landscape."

That's how Lydia Peelle begins her note about her story, "Mule Killers," originally appearing in Epoch and anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006. The story is beautifully told, and what's most amazing is that it's Peelle's first published piece. Well, she's only 28.

The story begins:
My father was eighteen when the mule killers finally made it to his father's farm. He tells me that all across the state that year, big trucks loaded up with mules rumbled steadily to the slaughterhouses. They drove over the roads that mules themselves had cut, the gravel and macadam that mules themselves had laid. Once or twice a day, he says, you would hear a high-pitched bray come from one of the trucks, a rattling as it went by, then silence, and you would look up from your work for a moment to listen to that silence. The mules when they were trucked away were sleek and fat on oats, work-shod and in their prime. The best color is fat, my grandfather used to say, when asked. But that year, my father tells me, that one heartbreaking year, the best color was dead. Pride and Jake and Willy Boy, Champ and Pete were dead, Kate and Sue and Orphan Lad; Orphan Lad was dead.
That last sentence, with its melancholy rhythm and the surprising repetition of "Orphan Lad," sets a tone of heartache that does not relent throughout the story.

This is one dead animal story that transcends the cliche. It's quite a debut.