Juan Castro Perez, corporal muleteer of the Third Battalion of the Canaries Falange, third company, is hunting for wild asparagus in the brush. Day has been attempting to break for some time now, but a dense, damp fog coils around the tops of the dwarf oaks and cork oaks, holding it at bay.
Dewdrops trickle off the branches, burrowing tiny funnels into the sandy ground and rolling down the soldier’s forage cap. Castro climbs a stony hill dotted with oaks and low scrub. A few granite crags jut out, halfway up. He’s heading toward them when suddenly he stops and crouches, one knee to the ground, holding his breath, his heart pounding. Something moved in the fog, a gray shadow behind a patch of bramble. Through his sidepack, Castro fingers the handle of the pistol Sergeant Otero lends him when he goes asparagus hunting. Getting caught by the reds is the last thing he needs. It’s been a year since Castro switched sides, and if a turncoat falls prisoner, not even Jesus Christ Himself can save him from the firing squad. Deserter and traitor. It would mean court-martial, death sentence, ten shots, and into the ditch within a heartbeat.
Castro narrows his eyes and breathes deeply. He feels tiny droplets of icy water in his lungs. For a few interminable minutes, he awaits the enemy’s next move. “Why send me out to hunt asparagus, when it’s so nice playing cards back in the hut?”
The fog lifts a little. Shapes and colors slowly become distinguishable in the undergrowth. Castro makes out the familiar silhouette of a mule. Alone, or not? He glances around cautiously and cocks his ear, listening: just the unremarkable sounds of a country morning. That’s all. He cocks the gun, and the click-clack of its well-oiled parts seems to embolden him. He crouches low toward the undergrowth, keeping his eyes peeled, alert. He circles the crags, walking around the sunny side, and sees the mule standing there, frozen, expectant, having sensed his presence. Castro surveys the terrain: the ruins of a cottage with a collapsed arbor, stone porch, the remains of some abandoned fig trees, a hayrick, rotting straw. No one. Maybe the mule got lost on the hill. She’s not hobbled and wears no halter.
He approaches the animal. The mule cocks her ears nervously and starts, her eyes frightened. She raises her muzzle to reveal big, yellow teeth.
Castro knows animals. He’s in charge of the regimental mule train. He speaks softly to the mule, who responds to the friendly tone of his voice.
“Hey, there! Shhhhhh. There now, pretty girl. What are you doing here, eh? Where’s your master?
Hey now, girl.”
The mule seems reluctant, but when the corporal strokes her neck, she stretches her black muzzle forward to sniff him.
“Well, well, well. What are you doing here, eh? There, there. Don’t be scared, pretty girl.” Castro leans in so she can smell his body, places his open hands before her snout, and the animal’s hot breath warms him. “What are you doing here, baby girl?” he whispers. “You lost? No master?” The mule flicks her ears, lets herself be stroked, feels the man’s friendly hands on her powerful chest, on her loins, her ribs, which stick out a little. “Not too well fed, eh?” the soothing voice inquires.
The corporal’s fingers slide gently to her hocks. The animal remains calm. She’s well trained.
“A good, tame mule, eh?” he whispers approvingly.
Castro inspects his find with expert eyes. A fine-limbed mule, solid knees, shrunken belly, straight, slightly arched back. A good mule, the kind his father used to buy at the Andujar fair, this one an unusual ashy white. An excellent mule. He gazes into her lively, round eyes, shiny and hard.
“Where’s your master, baby girl?” he whispers. “You with the army? The fascists or the reds? You lost?”
He crouches to examine her cannon bones, to see if there are scratches, any indication that she might have broken her hobble and run away. No sign of that. Castro studies her small hooves with satisfaction, notes that her horseshoes are new. The clinched nails show through the center of her hooves, two centimeters from the ground; she’s well shod. Like a marquis–well, a marquise.
“What do you say, baby girl? You come over to the other side too? Which column are you with?”
The mule lets him stroke her strong jaw, her hard bony face, her downy-soft black snout, sprouting a few bristly patches of gray. But she doesn’t respond to his question.
Castro imagines his arrival back at the company, his encounter with Captain Montero, announcing his find by the trenches. One more beast of burden he’ll add to those already in his care, the twenty-four that make up the mule train of the Third Battalion of the Canaries Falange.
Castro takes the bandolier off his sidepack and ties a couple of knots, improvising a headstall. He transforms his belt into a makeshift halter.
“Not bad!” he says to the mule proudly. “No asparagus today, but this will do for now. Let’s go.”
On the slow walk back to the nationalist lines, he’s pensive. He thinks about his poor family, the farmland they work for don Federico in La Quintería. Castro will never be a landowner, but a mule would be an undeniable asset. The decision is simple. “I’ll bring you to my father. We sure could put you to work back home when the war’s over.”
He looks at her and muses, “We don’t know your name, now, do we?”
After a few more steps, he stops. The mule does likewise. Certainly well trained.
“Not going to tell me your name, eh? I’m going to call you Valentina, for being so valiant, placing yourself between the reds and the fascists, with all the shooting. Suitable: Valentina.”
The mule pricks up her ears.
“You like that, eh? It’s settled, then. Valentina.”
He pats her neck.
Castro, leading the mule, takes a detour, returning the back way to the abandoned cortijo where the regiment has its stables.
A short, dark, stocky soldier steps forth. Less than a centimeter of forehead separates his single, long bushy eyebrow from a patch of bristly black hair.
“Where you going, Juanito? Where’d you get that mule?”
“She’s on loan from the other battalion; they sent her to be treated. She’s got a sore on her withers. Her name’s Valentina.” He looks at the mule and says, “Valentina, this is Chato. He’s from Andújar too. Like me. A little slow, but not a bad person.”
That night, Castro fills out the train’s regimental incident report. Mules: 24; Horses: 5; Incidents: none.
He doesn’t count Valentina. He’s decided to try to slip her through, unnoticed, and take her home when the war is over.Chapter Two
June 19, 1938. Third Triumphal Year. The facade of the Prior cortijo has been hit by a cannon, snapping a palm tree in half. The kitchen of the cortijo is spacious, and its huge black sooty fireplace contrasts starkly with the whitewashed walls covered in graffiti and pro-Falange slogans: Viva the Third Battalion of Regulars! Viva the Falange! ¡Arriba Espana! Antonio Perez Latorre, First Company, Second Platoon, Soria Regiment, slept here, November 19, 1936.
The cannon blast left a gaping hole in the wall that opens onto the stables, and although they’ve covered it with waterproof canvas, gusts of damp wind push through. The roof tiles have been removed and used to build shelters in the trenches. A summer storm, which has been pounding down all night, soaked the flat roofs so much that it’s raining more inside than out. Castro balances an empty tin can on his lap, catching the monotonous, rhythmic drips of a leak.
As always, when the weather changes, the parasites become more active. The muleteers scratch their heads, armpits, and chests vigorously. Now and then, one of them will catch a louse and crush it or flick it into the fire.
Heliodoro is spit-roasting a strip of bacon on a piece of barbed wire. The fire flares up with the fat drippings. He takes it off, squeezes it between two pieces of bread, and bites down with gusto.
Aguado contemplates his comrades. Faces toasted from the sun, weathered by the elements and by work.
“We look like pirates,” he says. “We look like the bad guys, not the handsome soldiers in new uniforms you see in the movies.”
“Go on, say it!” Pino replies. “What we look like is a bunch of militiamen. If we entered a convent looking like this, the nuns would strike us down themselves!”
“That’s what you’re hoping for, isn’t it? A convent full of novices . . .” Lieutenant Vico exclaims.
“It was just an example, Lieutenant. I’ve never been in one of those places, but I bet it smells good.”
“Probably like incense,” Aguado adds.
“And roses, from the cloister,” Amor interjects.
“No,” says Pino. “I meant like the smell at the dressmaker’s.”
“Starch?” Aguado asks. He was once a traveling fabric salesman and never misses a chance to flaunt his knowledge.
“Christ, no, you fool!” Pino explodes, bursting out laughing. “The smell of cunt when there’s a bunch of women huddled in the same place!”
“You think nuns smell like cunt?” the lieutenant inquires. “Idiot.”
“Lieutenant, sir, kindly tell me whether nuns are women or not.”
“Get out of here. Take your nonsense with you.”
That’s as far as they’ve gotten when the blanket-cum-door opens and a liaison walks in.
“Lieutenant, sir! Commander Soler’s orders, sir: The mules are to head out; there’s work to do.”
It’s the order they’ve been awaiting.
“All of them?”
“All of them.”
Then, to his muleteers: “Let’s go, then. No more sitting around.”
There’s still an hour before dawn. Lieutenant Vico finishes his cigarette and continues his rounds. The mule drivers tie on their tabards and head out into the night, into the cold, crisp mountain air.
“Let’s see what today brings,” Pino says, stretching until his bones crack.
They’ve been ordered to carry machine-gun ammo, mortar shells, and hand grenades. Which means things are really about to heat up.
In the hazy dawn light, the mule train climbs a steep, rocky path winding through the foothills of the Sierra Trapera. Each driver leads one mule by the halter, with two more tied behind, single file. Their hooves ring out on the pebbles. Flowering rockrose and rosemary line the narrow path, offering a bucolic contrast to the war. Castro thinks about the beehives he left behind in the Sierra Andujar, in El Lugar Nuevo. He’s been gone for nearly two years now. Who’s going to neuter the animals while he’s away? His mouth waters, dreaming about eating bowls of honey swimming in oil, stabbing a crust of stale bread with his jackknife and drenching it, like bread soup.
Suddenly a distant crash as sharp as thunder rouses him from his fantasy.
“That’ll be old Red, starting the dawn chorus,” Cardenas notes.
The mule drivers instinctively stop and strain to listen through the chirping flocks of birds. A few seconds later, the howling of mortar fire grows louder. The birds fall silent.
“Captain Atilano, that cabron, telling us to rise and shine,” the liaison says calmly, referring to the mythical communist captain they often blamed for attacks. “He must’ve gotten an early start this morning.”
Two explosions erupt on the other side of the mountain. The ground beneath them trembles slightly. The animals prick up their ears. They’ve been through this before, though they’ll never get used to it.
“Let’s go, boys!” Castro orders his men. “Move it, let’s get going, no sense hanging around here.”
More shells whiz through the sky. Another half dozen explosions blast out on the other side of the mountain. Then the barrage stops and silence settles in once more. Birds sing again. Castro finally breathes easy. Same old story. Calm now, until next time.
The corporal doesn’t know that the Tenth Division has just arrived from Madrid to reinforce republican positions and is preparing to launch a counterattack to retake Antigua and Cansino, on the flank of Penarroya.
The convoy traverses a low plain dotted with oaks and wild olive trees. The mules and drivers cross a dusty riverbed and take up the path again; tractor prints and tank tracks are embedded into the ground. They reach the command post, housed in a dilapidated barn surrounded by a couple of sheds, all camouflaged with netting. Castro is updating a lieutenant when a sergeant blows the whistle. Air raid. Three small fighter planes have flown into view from the other side of the hill. They’re flying low, against the rising sun, heading toward the trenches.
“Move!” Castro shouts. “Get the mules under the trees, now! Take cover!”
They get the animals out of sight just in time, as the fighters turn wide to make a second pass back toward Castro and the muleteers. Tracers whiz furiously through the air, sending dirt flying. Soldiers who had just been picking off lice, chatting, writing letters, thinking about their far-off homes, dive into ditches. Three animals, standing half-unpacked, are left, forsaken, out in the open.
Castro, livid, emerges from his shelter behind a wall.
“Where the fuck are you, cabrones?” he shouts at his men. He finds them huddled behind the farmhouse wall. “Can’t you see they’re going to bomb the house, you fucking cowards? Get the mules under the trees–and stagger them! Heliodoro, over to that hill; Petardo, get back into the pines; Cardenas, behind those rocks!”
While shouting orders, he runs to the three mules and takes them to shelter in a corral.
After a few passes, one of the planes changes course and heads for the command post.
“Watch out!” someone screams.
Castro hurls himself to the ground beside a granite wall and covers his head with his hands. One of the muleteers, Amor, hiding behind a big oak tree, realizes a bullet has hit the trunk, inches from his head. Before the planes return, he runs for the protection of the granite wall.
“Get down, here it comes!” Chato cries.
By the time Amor takes shelter behind a rock, halfway to the wall, the fighter has already machine-gunned the plain, creating two long furrows of flying earth and stones. The plane straightens course and turns to gain height. Amor feels something wet on his chest.
“My cognac!” he cries, devastated. “Lord, please let it be blood.”
“You hit?” Castro asks, alarmed.
“Worse,” the muleteer laments, feeling his chest. “They got my bottle.”
He licks the liquor off his fingers.
The three planes fly off.
The muleteers drive their teams up the rolling hill single file, winding through scrub and oaks. On the other side, escalating stray bullets whistle through the air; some pierce leaves or sever branches that fall like light rain on the convoy. The direct hits puncture tree trunks with dull cracks. From the crest of the hill, the battlefield emerges amid a thick, dusty cloud that tinges the land a weak brownish-gray.
Excerpted from The Mule by Juan Eslava Galán Translated by Lisa Dillman. Copyright © 2008 by Juan Eslava Galan. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.