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  Updated 1-2-08

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Mule Named Christmas

By George Motz

Adam Sorenson and his wife, Hannah, were farmers. They had married after he returned from the Great War, that ĎWar to End All Warsí. They farmed through the hard times of the Great Depression, and while they had prayed for children, it was not destined to be. A pious man, Adam had often considered the ministry, as he and his wife were firm believers, and they were Swedish Lutheran, and often spoke their second language at home, as did many of our northern immigrants in our part of the nation.

The Second World War came, and all the young men went off to fight once more, and this time, Adam also went away, not to war, but to the seminary, to study to be a minister, to fill in one of the many now empty pulpits in the nation. And so it was in late October 1943, when Hannah and Adam Sorenson arrived out in our little Swedish neighborhood.

The church was an old and rural one, poor as those proverbial church mice. All they could offer to the new pastor was forty dollars a month and forty acres of farm land, as the minister was expected to pay his own way too. So shortly before Christmas, Adam and Hannah settled into the small church parsonage, and started to learn the ways of this new neighborhood.

It soon became evident to Pastor Sorenson that the large extended Christianson family sort of controlled the affairs of the church, controlled them in almost every aspect. And Bertha Christianson, the matriarch of the sizable clan, controlled the entire family, the entire church, and the entire community, dominating all by her voice, her wile and her size. She had long dictated what songs were to be sung on Sunday, and she also controlled the choir, which Hannah had joined, as she too loved to sing. Bertha also played the organ at church, except for when she sang solos, and then it fell to Hannah to play for her, while one of the Olson boys pumped the old bellows on the reed organ.

Now Bertha played the organ like she sang, with all the delicacy of a blacksmith pounding out a plow share, but the hammer on anvil made a much more welcome and melodious noise than Bertha most thought.

Adam needed a team of horses to farm his forty, well, actually it was only thirty-seven acres, as the church and the cemetery took up three acres, and there was twelve or so acres of pasture, giving the minister enough land to graze a team and four or five milk cows, to help supplement his forty dollars a month from doing the Lordís work.

As there was a war on, there was rationing of almost everything, and horses were included. But it was around the second week of December when there was a notice given that draft animals were going to be sold at a nearby railroad depot on the Saturday before Christmas. Adam took their few carefully hoarded dollars, and walked the almost twelve miles to the railhead and sat in amongst the many other farmers seeking a team or maybe a single animal to work their little farms.

Team after team were sold first, then the single horses were also dispersed. A large and bony gray horse, all covered with welts and scars was put up for auction during the sale, and nobody wanted him. The horse was obviously an outlaw, was the considered opinion among the farmers watching, and even Adam passed on the bidding for this lone animal. With no bidders, the gray was sent back to the holding pens, to the kill pens, as meat was meat and there was a war on, so nothing would be wasted.

The auction was almost over and Adam still hadnít been able to purchase a team of horses to work his land, and he was growing worried. He lowered his head and he prayed, but his prayer was answered in a strange way. Loud curses were called from beyond the sale arena, as boards were broken and the loud thrashing sound of an animal was heard, an animal rebelling against the powers that be. A big reddish mule was now being forced into the sale ring by two wary workers. He was the last animal of the day to be offered. A sorrel mule, standing as tall as any horse presented that day, with a head as large as any Adam had ever seen before in his lifetime, the violent mule viciously struck out at everyone around him. Mules were a rarity up in the northern reaches of the nation, a warm weather animal, they said, and canít survive the winters! The mule tried to take a healthy hunk of hide off of one of the government men who came too close with a pitch fork in his hand, and then the animal lashed out with a hefty hoof at another man.

The assembled farmers laughed at seeing the mule try to Ďnailí the men from the government, as they too had a healthy dislike for any form of government worker.

And once more, like with the gray horse before him, there was no takers among the assembled farmers, as all were now leaving and heading for home, some happy, some sad, as there was far less draft animals available at the auction than they had hoped for.

Adam looked once more back at the two remaining animals, now delegated to the kill pen, to be used for meat to feed a hungry nation, as any meat was welcome in these days of war. The two misfits now stood, at peace, head to tail, with their heads resting on the back of the other.

"Could it be?" he thought, but then he tried to dismiss the ridiculous concept which suddenly came to him. But when he considered his own predicament, he turned back and walked back to the kill pens where the two lone animals were located.

"How old is that mule?" Adam inquired of the government man who had been conducting the auction.

"Donít know and donít really care to find out!" replied the wrangler. "I respect my fingers way too much to try to open his mouth and try to age him!"

"And the gray?" asked Adam. The man just shrugged in reply this time.

Adam looked once more at the two animals still standing together, as if they were all alone against the world.

"Hey Preacher, need a ride home?" came a call, and Adam turned and looked over to where Homer Steadland was loading a single black bronc, a western horse, into a cattle truck.

"Can you wait a minute," asked Adam and Homer nodded, and quickly returned to trying to load the balky black.

Adam turned and looked once more at the pair of draft animals, all alone and the big gray lifted his head off the back of the mule and turned to look at Adam. Adam thought he could see a tear in the eye of the big horse, as if he understood what fate was to befall him and his companion. Adam tried to dismiss this look, but couldnít. Then Adam lowered his head, and closed his eyes, and prayed. When he opened his eyes, the gray was still looking at him.

"What do you need for that pair?" Adam softly asked the government wrangler.

"Are you crazy?" inquired the man.

"No, Iím serious!" replied the minister.

"I heard them call you a preacher, but even faith wonít do you any good with that pair!" retorted the man, with a smile on his face.

"Oh, I have a feeling!" Adam replied.

The wrangler looked at the mismatched pair left in the pen and then said, "They would bring fifty a head down at the kill plant. But we would have to risk loading them once more, and we canít afford that kind of trouble. Give me ten dollars, and the pair are yours. But none of us will lift a finger to help you with them!"

Adam looked at the small cattle truck Homer Steadland had and then called out to Homer, "Iíll have to take these two home by myself, Iím afraid. But thanks for the offer!"

"Well, see you in church!" called back the jovial Homer. Then he added, "Good luck, and the Lord be with you!"

Then Homer climbed behind the wheel of the old truck and it lurched to life and with a loud bang, as the motor backfired, in a cloud of smoke, he drove away, taking his own new horse home.

Adam watched Homer drive away, and then felt something. The big gray was nuzzling his arm, and it was also shaking in fear. The loud noise of the truck had frightened him, and he was seeking human comfort.

Adam hadnít examined the horse previously, as he, like all the others, had immediately dismissed him as an outlaw. But this simple act was not the act of an outlaw horse. Adam tentatively reached out and scratched the ears of the big horse, and the animal sort of responded. Soon, Adam risked climbing into the pen, but staying near the fence where he could dive for safety, if need be, at the first sign of trouble. But there was no need for this cautious action. The gray stood calm as Adam scratched his head and rubbed his back and neck. It seemed to enjoy the attention he was now getting.

"You sort of remind me of Major Reynolds, my old commanding officer back in the army," Adam said with a chuckle, as the horse stood and allowed him to check his feet and such. So that is how the gray horse came to be called The Major.

Ten minutes after buying the pair, Adam climbed up on the back of the big horse, and while sort of expecting to be thrown, or at least ignored, found that the horse readily responding to his commands, commands issued by using his knees to direct the horse around the pen, without even a bridle on him to guide or control him.

"Well, Iíll be!" declared the government man, stopping back at the pens. "Maybe there is something to this prayer stuff, after all!"

"I think he was someoneís pet, and then others got hold of him. He responds to kindness, not brute force. He has been abused along the way, and maybe with kindness, I can once more make a good animal out of him!" Adam replied, sitting on the big horse. "But he needs a lot of feed. But by spring work, I will know for certain!"

All the time Adam rode The Major around the pen, the mule stood in the middle of the pen and followed the pair with his head as they circled around him, never letting them get behind him.

"Curious!" thought Adam. "He never looks directly at me, but always off to the side, like he canít really see me."

And then it came to Adam. The mule was almost blind! Adam figured that he couldnít see out of one eye, and had to rely upon the other one to do the work of two. That would explain why he never looked directly at The Major or at himself.

Also, anyone coming up from the blind side would do so without the mule knowing, and so he would react, lash out, and so he was labeled an outlaw too. "Two misfits! But together, would they make a working team?" Adam asked himself.

Taking a rope from the fence rail, Adam rode The Major back to the mule, talking softly to the mule who was watching him with his curious stare and slowly he dropped the rope over the muleís neck, and the mule stood still, never moving. Adam sat for a few minutes longer on The Major, watching the mule, but the animal never offered any resistance to the rope.

Sliding off the far side of The Major, Adam reached under the big grayís neck and caught the rope and loosely tied it together and then with one hand on The Majorís mane, and the other hand holding the rope, he led the two mismatched animals back to the fence, and the mule once more never offered any resistence.

The big holding pen still had some hay in the manger, so Adam opened the gate and allowed the two to go and finish up the remaining hay as he tried to figure some way to get the team home. It was almost three in the short afternoon, and dark was still a little over two hours away when he finally left the pens and headed for home.

From twine, Adam had fashioned a bridle for The Major, and the railway station manager, who had been watching the activities, had given his consent for Adam to keep the rope holding the mule to led him home.

Adam was very sore from riding the bony horse the ten or so miles home, and it was after dark when he got there. Hannah was worried, and when she saw the two animals, she gasped in disbelief, then she started to laugh.

"What ever possessed you to buy those two?" she said, with tears of mirth in her eyes, as she looked at the almost ridiculous team.

"Faith!" replied a hobbling Adam, as he tried to restore circulation in his old and work-worn legs. "Faith!" he repeated. "The same kind of faith I had when I married you! Youíd be surprised what many people said when we got married, but you turned out okay, so far. Maybe these two will also turn out the same way!"

Hannah playfully snapped the kitchen towel she had in her hands at her husband, and then with a smile, took him into her arms and give him a big and very sincere kiss. He was a gentle man, and a caring man, and who could ask for anything more. And yes, they made a strange looking team, when you looked at them. He stood well over six foot tall, and she was barely five, but they each pulled their share of the load, come what may.

In the early morning, Adam milked his five cows by hand, while Hannah took care of the chickens. He turned the cows out of the barn, as the day was unreasonably warm, for December. There was the promise of another warm day, maybe even getting up to forty degrees, so Adam hoped. He missed the weather reports over the radio, but with the war on, these reports were forbidden as the enemies of the nation might use them to plot an attack against us. With the morning chores done, Adam turned the cows and the new team out into the little pasture that ran behind the church, next to the cemetery, to try to find some winter graze among the old brown grass. Then he walked stiffly to the church and kindled a fire in the big wood furnace in the basement, so that there would be heat for the congregation when they arrived over an hour later. Hannah had breakfast ready for them when he got back home, and also had kettles of water heating on the wood cook stove, "As we donít want you smelling like a billy goat in church, do we?" she always admonished.

A sheet was tied across the corner of the small kitchen as Adam took off his clothing, not so much in modesty, but out of social protocol, as he and Hannah enjoyed each others bodies. Behind the sheet, Adam dropped off his farm clothing and soon was lathering up with harsh homemade yellow soap, and then he sat in the tub and using his razor, he shaved while Hannah did the breakfast dishes and checked on the hot dish she was preparing for dinner, one she would let cook slowly in the oven of the old stove while they were at church.

"What are you going to name the mule?í she asked.

"I really donít know, but something will come up!" answered Adam.

"You got your sermon ready?"

"Changed it yesterday, as I rode home. Iím going to talk about ĎFaithí!" Adam replied. "Faith and patience!"

"Youíll need both today. Bertha is singing an original song for all of us, a special treat!" Hannah reminded Adam, who cringed at the thought from behind the curtain of the sheet.

Hearing this news, Adam almost broke one of the commandments, and then quickly lowered his head in a prayer of forgiveness.

Adam and Hannah arrived at the church and he pumped the organ bellows while Hannah played a soft refrain to greet the early arriving parishioners. When one of the Olson boys arrived, he took over that task of slowly pumping the bellows allowing Adam time to go and don his black robes. And to seek some solitude, as he got ready to administer to his other flock.

Emerging from the little room allocated to him in the basement, Adam was met by Bertha Christiansen. Bertha was wearing a bright red robe, a new bright red robe, in stark contrast to the dull ancient purple ones the rest of the choir wore.

"Reverend Sorenson, I hope you arenít going to be preaching too long today. I am having a large family gathering at noon to celebrate my new song, and I need to get home early!" Bertha announced loudly, and importantly for all who were near to hear.

Adam knew this proclamation was for the benefit of those invited and also for those not invited to the family gathering. He just smiled and never dignified her request, almost command, with a reply.

"And be sure to mention that the Christmas anthem I am going to sing today, I wrote myself!" Bertha declared, loudly once more and Adam once more promised to make mention of this fact.

As the choir and minister were about to emerge from the confines of the dark basement, a commotion was heard upstairs. The youngest Olson boy raced down and signaled for Adam.

"Olaf Gustafson is here!" he called out.

Adam had heard of Olaf, an elderly man who Ďwasnít rightí in the head. The poor Gustafson family kept him at home and they did their best for the old man, as he slipped further and further into his dementia.

"Send him home!" bellowed Bertha Christianson. "I donít want him here-especially today!"

Adam never reacted to her command as he was always going up the steps as fast as his confining black robe would allow him to go.

Old Olaf was cackling at the confusion he had created upstairs, and the family was trying to calm him down. Little kids were clinging to their mothers in fear, and many fathers were standing protectively between the old man and their families, as men have always done when faced with trouble.

"Olaf Gustafson, I am very glad to meet you!" boomed Adam, in his loudest and deepest voice.

The old man stopped his cackling, turned and looked at the big man standing before him wearing black robes. Adam had extended his big right hand and there was a sincere and honest smile on his face. Instinct took over and Olaf took the offered hand in return and gave the ministerís hand a healthy shake.

"Iím glad to meet you too!" Olaf exclaimed, and Adam nodded and smiled comfortingly at the rest of the grateful Gustafson family as they herded the old man towards an empty pew.

"Dad insisted that he come along today!" whispered Peter Gustafson to Adam. "I am so sorry! There was little we could do to keep him at home."

"Donít be sorry!" smiled Adam. "This is the Lordís house and all are welcome here, especially those like your father who are hurting or sick!"

"How can you allow that man to be here?" exclaimed Bertha Christianson, who had marched up behind Adam.

"We are all Godís children! He has an illness, and he is now here in this house of healing, and all who seek the Lord are welcome here!" Adam replied, trying to not rebuke Bertha too loudly, but wanting to establish that this was not ĎHerí church, but the church of the entire community.

Bertha gave a loud, "Hrumph!í, then flounced up to the organ, where she quickly dismissed and displaced Hannah who had been playing a soft meditation musical piece while the congregation entered the church proper. Hannah cast a questioning look at Adam, and he smiled back at his wife, as she scurried along the side of the church, to be able to join the choir as it marched in, with Bertha now hitting the organ keys as hard as she could, and no soft pedal was ever applied while Bertha played. Adam soon followed a few feet behind the choir as they made their entrance.

As Adam went past the Gustafson family, Olaf reached out his hand once more, and Adam stopped on his march to the pulpit and took the offered hand in his, and laid his left hand over the top and said quietly, "Peace be with you Brother!", and old Olaf smiled back at him, then released the offered hand.

The early part of the service went well, but with apprehension, as the anthem was about to be preformed, Adam then informed the congregation that Bertha was going to preform a Christmas song, one which she had especially written for them, a song entitled, "The Animals Worshiped Him Too!"

Hannah now sat at the organ and one of the Olson boys was once more pumping up the bellows, in preparation for the anthem.

"Belt it out, Bertha, you old cow!" yelled Olaf, seeing the large and brightly red robed clad Bertha now standing up near the altar.

Hannah had just softly hit the first flourish of the introduction when Olaf disrupted the service, and she froze, as did everyone else present. Adam quickly regained his composure and hastily fled down the aisle to be near Olaf, and when he drew up to Olaf, the old man stuck out his hand in greeting once more, and Adam took it and then stood once more facing the altar, and also Bertha and she in turn then nodded for Hannah to begin playing the music once more as she prepared to begin singing her song.

The first line of the song went well, as far as Bertha could make it go well. But when she sang the second line, "And even the donkey sang for him!", as Bertha screeched, at the top of her lungs, and four or five notes above what would be her comfortable range, and a good octave over what the congregation wished to hear, there came a raucous sound from outside the church.

Everyone froze! The only sound to be heard was the gradual escaping of compressed air from the ancient bellows of the old pump organ, and the chuckling of Old Olaf. But that strange disruptive sound from outside stopped almost as soon as Bertha stopped singing.

Hannah, seeing everyone confused, and concerned, quickly called to the Olson boy, breaking him out of a fear induced trance, and the boy quickly began vigorously pumping the old organ once more. Hannah started the song once more from the beginning and Bertha started once more, but on the second line, when she got to "And even the donkey sang for him!" the almost vulgar outside noise repeated itself. Once more, Old Olaf chuckled loudly.

"Olaf Gustafson, I want you out of my church this minute!" Bertha bellowed, enraged at the interruption, and not finding out the culprit for the raucous noise that had stopped her solo, she vented her wrath on Olaf.

"But he didnít do anything!" protested Adam, still holding Olafís hands in his.

"It is the sound of the Devil, coming from the cemetery!" shouted Olaf. "Bertie, old girl, they are waiting for you out there!" he continued with a cackle. "You are waking the dead with your singing!"

Hannah got the Olson boy to once more pump the bellows and this time she pounded on the keys, in a loud and forceful manner to try to divert the attention away from Adam and Olaf, and back to the music.

The third time was not a charm! Once more, the sound came to the church. Once more the song stopped, and the congregation sat in silence. When Bertha started down from the choir loft, her face all red and her eyes were flashing fire. It was Homer Steadland who now leapt to his feet and declared loudly, "It looks like Pastor Sorenson has got himself a music loving mule!"

Now all present were well aware of the strange purchase of Adam the previous day. Any odd news was welcome in the small cloistered community, and the purchase of a mule was immediate rampant gossip, either via the party line telephone, or in the pre-church gossip.

"You get rid of that mule!" declared Bertha, now having the source of the disrupting sound discovered, as she stood inches away from Adam, and was waving a fat finger in his face.

"But I need him to do my spring work!" replied Adam.

"I am ordering you to get rid of him. After all, I give you forty dollar a month of my money to run my church!" an angry and confrontational Bertha now bellowed back at Adam.

There was a sardonic smile on Adamís face as the words went out, and were absorbed by one and all. A fight was here for him to take up. He had abided his time, and he had been warned prior to coming here that Bertha, and her family, would be a force to be confronted, contended with, and considered. Now was the time for him to establish the rule he would operate under, as there would be no mistake about what was said, and who said it.

"Madame, this is not your church, nor is it your money, nor do I take orders from you. This is the Lordís house and I work for him, and for him alone!" Adam said sternly.

"You tell her, Preacher!" hooted old Olaf.

The mortified congregation sat in awe. Never before in the past many decades the church had been in existence had anyone ever stood up to Bertha Christianson, or her mother before her, and now this new minister had just done so. Bertha turned red in the face, her body swelled up even more and the veins in her forehead and neck bloomed as she build up air, not unlike the old bellows on the pump organ, as her color now matched the scarlet color of her new robe.

Mothers instinctively clutched their offspring as they could see a storm about to break within the church, and Adam braced himself, in anticipation of tempest which he knew was about to come.

Hannah, seeing what was about to transpire, with a prayer that here was any air left within the organ, pounded her hands randomly on the old ivory keys and was rewarded with a harsh squeal of discord. The effect was what she wanted, as all within the church turned to look at her and the organ, the building quarrel momentarily quenched.

"Keep your filthy hands off my organ!" yelled Bertha at Hannah. As those words still echoes through the old church, old Olaf started to laugh, and yelled in response, "You never told me that years ago, Inga, when you and I were kids and up in your old manís hay mow!"

Whirling about, Bertha uttered a loud blasphemy at the old man, who Adam now knew was much older than Bertha. As Bertha screeched, "You leave my sainted mother out of this!".

The sounds of the mule braying came once more over the church, as Bertha screeched at Olaf, and this time, the mule was loud enough to drown out almost all of what Bertha was yelling at Olaf and Adam, and anyone else who was now laughing at her and the revelation made by old Olaf.

Bertha Christianson now stood by the pew which housed Olaf Gustafson, with only Adam standing between him and her. She was still screeching and the mule was still braying and Hannah was still trying to play as the Olson boy vigorously pumped the bellows and old Olaf was still cackling in glee.

"Itís a good thing her old man caught your Pa that night up in that old barn when he did, or you would have been my daughter. Ah, Hell, I think you are anyway!" old Olaf declared for one and all to hear.

While he doubted that few nearby could hear what was said, as Hannah was playing so loudly, and the new mule was still braying, Adam heard and immediately knew the implications of what old Olaf had just announced. While he knew that while it was to his advantage to know this, he was also praying, for the future of the church, that nobody else had heard the announcement.

Unable to reach her intended quarry, as Adam was protecting the old man, Bertha now stomped out of the church proper, and reaching the three little steps down to the entryway in a rush, she tripped on the hem of the long new robe, and with a flourish of red, she went rolling down the steps and sat in an uncomfortable state on the floor, still screeching and crying now, as the mule continued his loud raucous braying from outside the church, his voice wafting over the tombstones in the old cemetery.

In embarrassment, Bertha fled out into the cold, with her harried husband following immediately behind her. But at the door, the man stopped and nodded back to Adam, and in his eyes, Adam saw a hint of humor, something he had never witnessed there previously in the little man.

Adam was now aware of old Olafís hand still clutching his own. They were like they were frozen there, in a death grip. Adam turned and saw that the old man was stricken. The face of the old man was white, and his eyes were sort glazed, as he sat leaning against the back of the pew.

Kneeling before the older man, and looking into his eyes, bright blue old Swedish eyes surrounded by an ashen face, Adam leaned in and heard the old man say, "I want Julie to sing for me!"

With the congregation now silent, Adam looked up at Hannah and whispered "Julie?" and Hannah nodded, and pointed to the choir, where a young girl of sixteen or so now sat frozen, looking at her stricken grandfather.

"Julie, can you sing for your grandfather?" asked Hannah softly, seeing that the girl was hurting. Slowly, her words were understood and heeded by the young girl and when she nodded in reply, Julie stood and Hannah played softly, "Silent Night". As the old German carol was played, the old man sat listening to the sweet soft voice of his granddaughter rising up, and he smiled, and then he simply closed his eyes.

There wasnít a dry eye in the church as the girl finished the soft lullaby for her grandfather, and when she had finished, Adam leaned in and the old man opened his eyes once more and said, "Pastor! Please do me a favor?"

"If I can, I will!" replied Adam.

"Name that mule of yours Christmas for me!" whispered Olaf.

"Done!" said Adam softly with a smile on his face.

And the old man closed his eyes once more, and Hannah started playing once more, and Julie sang the old carol once again, and old Olaf never opened his eyes again.

And that is how we came to have a mule named Christmas in our community, and how he liberated a church one Christmas service.


  who wears a white hat!

Copyright 2007 George Motz

 

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