...there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of Southerness in literature.

What say we throw off the narrative imperative this once and let the damned mule live, and why not, let him live on with the spirit of Fidel in his sensitive hairy lip and his long white tooth, the power of Ali in every hoof, the sting of a hornet in his rump? Let’s take this chance to drive it deep into the Carolina piney woods, into that light flashing its potential for migraine and epileptic fit as black trees fly by, where we’re supposed to pull a paint job for the wilted Southern branch of the family Rockefeller, & we’ll find him there, that inescapable crazed gallop barreling at us, that excitable suicidal reincarnation of Che kicking up the gravel road, and so the resisted and shattered story may begin again, & in it I, in dubious first person, will barely get the fishtailing truck stopped in time to avoid killing him outright to say nothing of the farmer running right behind him though I had to swerve broadside & the mule jumped up into the back of the pickup, wreaking havoc with the paint, splattering his long dark legs Dead Canary Yellow and the back window cracked, not from the mule but the hammer the farmer had whipped from its holster in his bibs and fired at the mule’s head to get him to by God dammit now stop, but you know he wouldn’t? (Thus the story, now in color, may carry on in glory.) Place my partner there riding shotgun, a Jew from Chicago, wandering grandson of rabbis of Poland and Russia, and he will sit there stunned as any Yankee at Bull Run, but the loping farmer, he has put me in mind of my own grandfather so I will slip out & in a smooth flanking action, quietly enter the past tense and wave my arms once & the giddy mule who was mighty limber for one so old will have bolted gamely for home and farted twice in time-honored traditional revolutionary salute by the time the farmer swings the moaning gate shut. Some things never change, I said. The farmer didn’t say a thing, but looked as pleased as a farmer can look who has on his hands among other tribulations a wild mule as the man’s own story will soon have it what leaps over fences and jumps into trucks. The farmer pulled out his wrinkled wallet but I refused, it was just the one crack, the International Harvester pickup was old, and the Rockefellers, they could afford one more gallon of that damned yellow paint. Besides, I told him, we would all get something out of this. A story. We would call it The Battle of First Mule Run. Well he’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker now for sure. The man said this without a grin. He was no Rockefeller on your TV. And we could end it all here, a postmodern polyvocal fragment but this bunch of Rockefellers for whom we were going to work still owns even now several solid square miles back there, a little kingdom of pain with its own post office, though once they owned even more, including all the red clay and pines they sold to the government to make your Fort Bragg. Some things never change. The job was to paint up a special heated indoor pool, a giant Dead Sea thrashing bath of surging alchemical waters and steam that up close roared as if God was in there bubbling somewhere but it was only Mrs. Rockefeller who had the arthritis in her special aquatic room that had been lined with exotic soundproofing tiles— the third set, actually, replacements imported from Italy—so that when you dropped a hammer right there beside the pool, it could not be heard on the other side. My mother is there on the other side, she told us once, she rode a white horse in gloves. Into the clean Danish dressing rooms with a sprig of mint from the garden, seventy years the family retainer, and all his people slaves before that, a tall man in bow-tie and white monkey jacket carried us iced tea in the hot afternoons. We got him to bring himself a glass, sit down for it, and when he was told my partner was a Jew from the North, he refused to believe again. Naw, he said, waving his long thin hand, all y’all are kin. By this time the Rockefellers had sold all their mules. I can picture the old lady there still floating deep in the heart of whispering waters. I imagine her God is in there, too, waiting for her in the steam. He has taken the form of an angry mule. My painting partner has gone back to Yankeeland, back to rooting for the curséd Sox and being devout, an officer in his synagogue, fatback gravy and biscuits for him no more. And whatever the I represents or obstructs in self-delusion or narrative transparency, I am still sweating it out in the South, and yet here I have managed to tell you this story, like a miracle, with only one lie. Because as you well know some things never change, and although they can live in their impotence forty years in some cases or longer, all stories, even broken ones, come to la fin, & given his talents and bold predilections, his taste for rebellion and soured corn, it must be that by now in cold & hard truth, bless his heart, that poor mule named Robespierre is surely dead.

GREGORY DONOVAN is the author of the poetry collection Calling His Children Home and of poems published in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Southern Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, MiPOesias, Chautauqua and elsewhere. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and is Senior Editor for Blackbird, the online journal of literature and the arts.