Mule Skinning

Good morning, Captain!

Opal plays the music loud to drown out the whispers. The off-brand, third-hand MP3 player is beside her on the bed. All night long, she played the music, the cord tangling every time she turned over. She can’t say how many versions of Mule Skinner Blues have been recorded, but she’s scrounged up more than fifty of them from dodgy sites on the internet. It may not be legal, but she’s got them playing on repeat. 

Opal’s named after her great-granny, even though the old lady scared folks. A spittin’ image, grandpa used to say, pulling out scuffed boxes full of precious pictures made long ago. When Grandpa held the fragile photos out so she could see, Opal recognized her own eyes in that little girl dressed in hand-me-down dresses made from feed sack cloth. She looked like a girl hearing a whisper. 

It’s hard to be a fourteen year-old named Opal these days, but she’s never really noticed that. To many other thoughts press against her for Opal to fret about having an old-fashioned name. She lives in the house her namesake’s daddy built. There’s ice on the inside of the windows this morning. The whispers carry further in cold air. 

Do you need another mule skinner

On your new mud line?

Right now, Rose Maddox is her favorite mule skinner. Opal wrote a report about Rose for school in the fall. She found internet photos of her on the library computer. There were no hand-me-down dresses for Rose by the time she was famous and folks were makin’ pictures of her. Instead she wore sequined skirts and tasseled jackets alongside her brothers, but there were still those eyes. Rose had eyes like Great-Granny Opal had. Eyes like Opal has now.

Opal shivers in her thin nightgown as she goes down the narrow, steep stairs, her nighttime blanket shrugged on her shoulders. The whispers tickle the back of her brain as a blue yodel shouts in her ears.

Mama’s drinking coffee in the kitchen, bitter and black. She tells Opal to take those damn things out of her ears. Opal starts to act like she didn’t hear, because she didn’t, but she knows what Mama wants without having to hear her. She knows what defiance brings. She pulls the earbuds out.

Mama wants to know what Opal intends to do with her life, why she’s just now getting out of bed. She can’t just lay about listening to music all her life.

Opal tells Mama that she wants to be a mule skinner, and that brings the back of a hand quick. Be something reasonable, Mama says, don’t be such a smart ass. Opal realizes that Mama just don’t understand metaphors. Her life’s been too hard for that.

Still, Mama oughta know better, she really should. Great-Granny Opal and Hiriam raised mules on the very same farm, back when people used mules and hired mule skinners. Someone had to figure out how to get mules to listen, to convince the team to do hard work.

The whispers in her head hold so much promise, so much distraction, so much terror for Opal. They even drown out her music some harsh mornings. Who can drive the whispers to something useful? 

Opal wants to be a mule skinner. 

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