The Saga of Supermule
If ever a mortal has had to bear the burdens of the world on her back, such has been the fate of the Project’s newly acquired mule, Heraclia. Yet she is mightily endowed to do so. Like her namesake, Hercules, she is massive, as strong as an ox, mild as a lamb, bullheaded and dumb like a fox. With 250 pounds on her broad back, Heraclia will stoically trudge up a steep winding trail into the high Sierra Madre without perspiring or even breathing hard, leaving far behind the other mules with lesser loads who, bathed in sweat, sighing and farting with their ordeal, must stop every few labored steps to catch their breath . . . What is more, Heraclia can be as swift as she is strong. At first, Miguel Angel, our young village “dentic”, scoffed at her renown, knowing full well that in mules, largeness and lethargy usually go hoof in hoof. One day, however, as a joke, he raced her against one of the faster horses in Ajoya . . . and won! Upon dismounting, he shook his head in near disbelief and admitted, “¡Es muy buena, la mulona!”
Not only is Heraclia as fast as a horse, she is, when she chooses, as gentle. To prove this when he was selling her, her previous owner, Daniel Zamora, stood directly behind her and spanked her stoutly on the rump. She didn’t even slant back her long ears or hump her back, much less kick. For a mule, such forbearance verges on the unnatural.
But when she chooses, Heraclia can be as ornery as the mongrel she is. As a rule she responds to the slightest touch of rein or spur. Yet she has a mind of her own, be it small for her bulk, and when she decides to use it no tug on the bit can restrain her. Like all mules, she is quick to judge the relative capacity of her rider. This February, when I was taking Lynne Coen and Sue Brittingham, two young American volunteers, to set up a new clinic far back in the mountains of Durango, Sue—who is quite small—was riding Heraclia. Around noon we stopped for water at a ranchito called El Jiote. (El Jiote means The Ringworm!) When we remounted to continue our journey, Heraclia moved ahead a few yards, then abruptly cut file and trotted back to the hut, where she stopped as if to say, “Sorry sister, this is as far as I go!” Sue spurred the big mule and tugged at the rein with no more response than if she had been straddling a rock. Not until stout Cuca, the matron of the rancho, approached the mule waving a stick and accompanied by her snarling dogs, did Heraclia slowly turn and reluctantly follow the others. A hundred yards ahead, however, at the main trail junction, Heraclia did a right face and took off like a homing pigeon back toward Ajoya. Sue tugged on the rein with all her might, burning and tearing her hands, but the burdensome beast trotted on, oblivious. I galloped after her on my fast mule, La Coloradita (Little Red), but the trail was too narrow to pass. Finally, I plunged La Coloradita through a briar fence, galloped along a short cut across Enrique’s cornfield and emerged again on the main trail a quarter of a mile down and just ahead of Heraclia, who came trotting contentedly toward me, with Sue still aboard, tugging futilely at the bridle with bleeding hands. Encountering one blocking the trail, the big animal stopped short, befuddled. I could feel her mulish mind hesitating as to whether to try to barge past or turn back up the trail again. A sharp swat of the lariat across her muzzle decided her. She turned, and once again the obedient “supermule” caught up, in no time, with Lynne. That day she gave us no further trouble.
Among her many equine attributes, Heraclia can jump like a steeplechaser. Fences with her are pointless. When she wants to stay around, she stays; no fences or corals are necessary. Turn her loose at sundown and at sun up she is at the door, sputtering and muttering for her basket of corn with that asinine noise mules are cursed with, half way between neigh saying and bray saying . . . but once she gets it into her skull that she wants to leave, she leaves. No fence, however stout or high, can contain her. When I first brought her here to El Zopilote (the upper clinic) I had, unfortunately, run out of corn. Likewise, the corn shuck fodder had still not been cut and stacked in the “tasolera” (pyramid shaped haystack on stilts). Consequently, the big mule had to rely on what she could forage in the large fenced-in “potrero”, or grazing area surrounding El Zopilote. Heraclia was obviously displeased at not being handed her customary dinner in a basket. That night she jumped the fence and trotted back to Jocuixtita, 3 miles away, arriving at the but where we had given her corn leaves in passing the day before. Next morning two young boys, Lalo and Abraham, led her back to El Zopilote. The boys and I spent the day reinforcing and raising the fence. I even borrowed corn from Juan in El Llano, so as to entice Her Majesty to stay. But by this time, Heraclia’s mind was made up. She was so set on getting out that she barely touched her corn. The first we knew, there she was on the far side of the fence, trotting up the distant ridge toward Jocuixtita. The boys took after her like rabbits; ignoring the trails, they bounded down the slope, crossed the ravine, and sprinted 300 yards up the steep flank of the ridge to cut in front of the retreating mule. Lassoing her, they led her back, laughing with excitement. That evening we decided to hobble Heraclia, an act that so vexed her, she refused to eat at all. Next morning, of course, she was gone. Three days later Fausto found her, still hobbled, grazing on corn stubble in a field the far side of Jocuixtita.
But home is the place you keep going back to, whether you want to or whether you have to. Returning from my last trip to the high sierra of Durango, when big Heraclia, of her own accord, took the cut-off back to El Zopilote, I knew the battle was won. On arrival, I fed her until she was full to bursting and turned her loose unhobbled. Next morning found her standing expectantly beside the clinic. On seeing me emerge, she impatiently began to sputter and mutter her half-horse, half-ass noises. Obediently, I filled her basket with corn, then hurried to throw down from the tasolera several big bundles of corn shucks, making sure she had enough to keep her happy. And now she sticks close by . . .
At last I guess she’s learned who’s master: Unfortunately, so have I.
The ‘Wine’ that Turns to Blood
The mule, Heraclia, has long been the bearer of burdens critical to man’s fate, for better and for worse. Since becoming a stable member of our clinical entourage, her burden has become, in a sense, the gift of health and life. She serves as a stalwart emergency vehicle, standing on call day and night, the bearer of medicines and medics across the mountains to the ill and injured—truly a furred, four footed Florence Nightingale.
Before the Project purchased her, however, Heraclia’s burden was anything but salubrious. In fact, I strongly suspect that some divine or whimsical Justice fated her to the deliverance of health services as atonement for having been for three years the bearer of a portentous cargo that, too frequently, abetted injury and death.
Heraclia’s former owner, Daniel Zamora, has for years been the main supplier of “vino” in the barrancas. Here “vino” means not wine, but a very hard liquor distilled from fermented “maguey” (agave), and actually a form of mezcal or crude tequila. Its sale, like that of all alcoholic beverages, is prohibited in the barrancas. The result is, of course, a thriving bootlegging operation. Most of the moonshined “vino” comes from La Noria, near Mazatlán. It is transported in trucks at night to San Ignacio and from there, Daniel Zamora shuttles it by mule train to Ajoya and points beyond. I have often passed him—his clandestine cargo stowed in burlap sacks crowned with innocuous pottery—winding his way up the mountain trails to Chilár, Jocuixtita and Verano.
Where alcohol goes, festivity—and sometimes fatality—follow. The villager who “buys-up” Daniel’s firewater is usually quick to throw a dance, so as to divert his neighbors and, in the process, make a killing on the sale of liquor. Too often the killing turns out to be literal. In the barrancas, it has become part of the ritual of the dance for every post-puberty male who can get hold of a pistol to carry it tucked in his belt, the larger the caliber the better. The pistol, like the moustache, is apparently a sign of virility, a priapal totem whereby the young man can indulge his primeval need to display. Unfortunately, alcohol gives the rustiest firearm a hair-trigger, as testified by the many casualties at dances and fiestas. Here in the barrancas, “dancing accidents” are the major cause of serious injury and death in males from adolescence to middle age, although women and children are by no means exempt. The toll of the dance in the Sierra Madre can be compared only with that of the highway in the U.S.A. (where, also, young people try to display their budding manhood, not with guns, but with equally lethal souped-up cars and “choppers”). In the dance, as on the highway, the role of alcohol is equally disastrous.
The toll is high. Last year, in the area of our clinics, there were at least seventeen shootings or knifings, ten of them fatal. Two of the dead and three of the injured were women or girls. Eleven of the incidents took place in dances and/or fiestas and would almost surely have been avoided but for the faulty judgment or poor coordination caused by drink. Half the shootings were accidental. Other years it has been similar.
‘Dancing accidents’ are the major cause of serious injury and death in males from adolescence to middle age.
The suffering, the deprivation, the hunger, the hate, which come in the wake of all this pointless bloodshed is legion. A father stuffs his pistol into his belt, hugs his wife goodbye, and takes off for a “baile” in a neighboring rancho. His young wife, several months pregnant, tucks their four small children into the only cot, builds a fire in the doorway and sits in sleepless wait. Sending her man to a dance is like sending her man to war; she never knows if he will come back. But she tells herself, “It happens to others. It could never happen to him.” She puts a thick log on the fire and stares into the night. As a rooster crows its first warning of the still distant dawn, she sees through the lackness, the faint flicker of a pitch torch approaching down the trail. She jumps to her feet. It is he!… But no, the flame bobs too much. A runner . . . A boy arrives, sweating. Her heart pounds.
“Chano?” she says.
“Dead.” he replies. “A bullet right here . . .”
Excitedly the boy tells her the details, “He and Marino . . .”
But the details have ceased to be vital. They are not those which now matter. The cornfield has to be timbered for planting. The beans have run out. The children must eat. They can live on corn alone, for awhile. She can plant tomatoes. She can wash clothes in exchange for beans. She can sell the burro. And when the corn runs out? The planting? The baby already stirring in her womb?. . . The long nights . . . Her man is gone . . . Lost! . . . The firewood: She has burned up the last of the firewood in waiting: With dawn so near . . . If only dawn would not come: If only the chickens would lay! If only dawn would come quickly:
More bobbing torches. Again the rooster crows.
This same night in another but another woman greets a runner.
“Lico?” she cries.
“There was a gunfight at the dance. Lico shot Chano and . . . "
“Is Lico all right?”
“Yes, but . . . "
“Where is he?”
“Se fué.” (He left.)
There is a finality in that “Se fué” which is as irrevocable as death. When a man kills another in the barrancas, he leaves. The law almost never catches him, and for that matter, rarely pursues him unless the family of the killed has money. Yet bullets are a cheaper way to justice. The family of the killed will take the law into its own hands if the killer ever returns. He rarely does. For his wife and children, he is as good as dead. Thus, for each killing in the barrancas, often, two families are wrecked . . . that of the slain and that of the slayer . . . And then there are the parents, the brothers, the sisters. The feuds which follow.
But the people are basically good. Basically sensible. They do not want more bloodshed, more suffering by the innocent. They restrain their vehemence, their righteous anger, their urge to strike back at the family of the killer of their loved one. They control their hard feelings . . . until the next dance.
And so it goes on.
GUNS + ALCOHOL = INJURY AND DEATH. It is as straightforward as that.
The biggest “tragedy” is that there is no Tragedy. All this bloodshed and suffering result not from any great personal conflict, not from any soul-tearing struggle between good and evil, no Indian wrestle between Hubris and Nemesis, no tragic flaw, no stroke of destiny, no greatness worthy of man’s blood. The slain are not martyrs; the killers are not criminals. Both are good hearted, fun loving, hard working, young men who, like drafted soldiers, have been swept along in a social ritual which everybody pretends has to be.
No. There is no greatness nor even great weakness involved—simply habit, custom, the self-perpetuating pressure of peers on peers. Moustache, cigarette, pistola, vino. “The Surgeon General has determined that toting a pistol can be hazardous to your health” . . “Got your gun, brother?” . . . “You bet your life!” . . . And so it goes. No one takes the danger seriously until it is too late.
All this bloodshed is so pointless: So futile: So absurd: A human being is a temple. Even a human being with a dull slow mind. A tree is a temple: When I see a tree cut needlessly, carelessly, my heart cries out at the desecration. The waste: What, then, of man? And of man’s family?
But the paths are well beaten. The habits persist. The young man who sees two of his best friends shoot each other at a dance may weep at their loss, but he will carry his pistol at the next dance and drink with his buddies until he’s drunk—then fire joy shots through the tile roof—for that is the only manly way to be. He means no harm.
These are good people. These are strong people. These are people full of wisdom and feeling. Why are they not willing to stand on their own two feet and say, “Let’s stop this nonsense:”? . . . But Man, even more than to tobacco and alcohol, is addicted to Nonsense; it is a part of his Genesis. If I did not love him, I would laugh.
Sometimes I laugh anyway, to keep from breaking.