The Headless Mule
Bernardo Villela has short fiction included in periodicals such as LatineLit, Penumbra Online and Horror Tree and in anthologies such as We Deserve to Exist, Enchanted Entrapments and There's More of Us Than You Know. He’s had original poetry published by Phantom Kangaroo, Straylight, and Raven’s Quoth Press and translation published by AzonaL and Red Fern Review. You can find some of his other works here: https://linktr.ee/bernardovillela.
The earth had spun the moon full again that Brazilian June. It was Moisés’s favorite month to visit his ancestral home. There was always magic in the air that time of year, and as he gazed upon the burning earth beneath a Saint John’s Day bonfire, something far more enchanting demanded his attention—a young man with soulful, penetrating eyes.
Moisés’s feet moved him toward the beautiful stranger before his mind could protest. He introduced himself and smiled at his own awkward abruptness. But the dashing young man smiled back, just as awkward. He said is name was Rafael.
Stiff icebreakers soon transitioned into smooth small talk and then into intimate conversation, deepening apace with the dwindling flames. The bonfire had long since died by the time they parted each other’s company.
Moisés didn’t find much tranquility at his aunt’s house. Come midday, he lay in a hammock reading. His Aunt Hilda came out to take clothes off the line and noted, “You and Padre Rafael really seemed to hit it off.”
Moisés’s heart bottomed out. He feared the evening might forever remain something that seemedto be something but never developed into anything real. The night was so dreamlike, he was prepared for any number of disappointments about Rafael: that he wasn’t gay—after all, they hadn’t touched on that kind of personal topic—that he was married, or that he just wasn’t interested romantically. The idea that Rafael might be a clergyman had never crossed his mind. Just then, all he could say to his aunt was a simple “Yes.”
He always enjoyed coming to his aunt’s house in the country. The guest room was ostensibly his, and if Moisés just wanted to relax with nothing but his records and his books, he could. When he’d arrived for this trip, that was all he was really seeking; he’d entertained no other expectations. Finding romance abroad was the stuff of teenage dreams. Yet, the past several fleeting hours promised something more—maybe…hopefully.
“I need a walk,” he told his aunt, and before he knew it, he was passing through Buir’s scattered houses and farms, making his way toward the woods. It was the longest walk he’d taken, and it took him deeper into the forest than he’d ever been. Granted, he also needed to clear his mind more than he ever had, whether during one of his visits or back at home.
Eventually, his trek brought him to a building he’d never seen. Its architecture was old, Lisboan. A sign read: SÃO ANTÔNIO SEMINARY. It looked like a woodcut engraving come alive, but that effect was amplified by the fact that it lay not too far outside a sleepy town he thought he knew well though he’d never seen this place.
Sure, it was quiet enough in this area for studying scripture, but something about the remoteness still felt off. The only thing more surreal than the seminary’s surroundings was stumbling upon Rafael. Moisés couldn’t believe his misfortune. He wanted to cleanse himself from the potential disappointment of having no future with Rafael. He wanted to allow for the possibility that his aunt was wrong (though she rarely was) but seeing Rafael meander around the building crushed him. Rafael spotted Moisés and smiled, and that smile momentarily cast aside his doubts and reservations. It reminded Moisés of Rafael smiling in the fire’s glow and permitting Moisés to call him Rafa, which was a privilege.
“Rafa!” Moisés called out. “What’re you doing here? Teaching a class?”
“Ugh, you must’ve learned my nickname, then.”
Moisés didn’t know how to respond. He looked away for a moment. Rafael cleared his throat and hurriedly continued. “Forget it. I’m not a teacher. I’m actually in seminary myself.”
With that uncomfortable necessity taken care of, it was as if the St. John’s Day bonfire burned anew, and the prior night had never ended. The conversation rolled on until Rafael needed to be off to dinner and then to Vespers.
“I owe you an apology,” he said at last.
“You don’t,” Moisés started, but Rafael held up his hand. Moisés examined that right hand which had been called upon to bless sinners and cast out demons. He wanted to clasp it within his, make it his own, to become of one flesh and one body. Rafael locked eyes with him, patient, still, neither moving nor encouraging movement on Moisés part; not here, not now.
“You know I believe in sins of omission, so allow me to say,” he inhaled, steeled himself. “I was so glad that you didn’t freak out when I said I was studying here that I got carried away. But just now, I’m out of time.”
“I suppose we can’t speak tomorrow,” Moisés said knowing full well tomorrow was Sunday.
“How about lunch Monday? Then I can give you the explanation you deserve.”
It was agreed, and they parted ways.
In the years Moisés had been coming to Buir to visit his empty-nester aunt and uncle, he’d discovered that, as small and out-of-the-way as it was, all walks of life lived there. However, the outcasts were encouraged to make themselves less visible and vocal than in a metropolis. As such, he’d made friends with those who walked the path more commonly trod, but most walked the same one he did. His oldest friend in town, Roberta, exemplified that. People got on with her well when she was young, but then when she proved that it’s “not just a phase,” that she was not a tomboy, her existence in Buir changed. As an adult, Roberta was a butch lesbian who lived her life without worrying about what her neighbors thought—understandable when people would so often say things like, “But you’re so beautiful; that’s a shame!” Considering this, it’s unsurprising that she teased Moisés when he told her his news.
“Have fun with your little priest, but beware the mula sem cabeça,” she said while brushing her horse’s coat.
“The mula sem cabeça?” Moisés asked, surprised that Roberta would pull out a centuries-old legend. “You mean the headless mule that terrorizes towns whenever a maiden seduces a priest?”
“Hey, you got it! I wasn’t sure you’d know that one. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were born here.” She laughed.
He wished he’d never heard the story. A flame-headed mule terrorizing townsfolk was a difficult image to put out of mind. Even as a kid, the legend hadn’t bothered him, but then when he grew up, he realized a headless mule is no more believable than a headless horseman—same kind of image, really.
“That’s a girl’s curse,” Moisés retorted, trying to put it out of his mind.
“A girl’s curse? Really, Moisés? I figured you for a progressive guy.”
Moisés tried to laugh it off but felt strange. “I wasn’t trying to be sexist,” he tried to play it off, “it’s just that that story always punishes the girl. She’s not the one who takes a vow—but that’s no way to get details out of me.”
“True. Priests don’t tend to play hard to get. OK, spill.”
Roberta quieted herself, allowing him to share without being scared by the shadows of flame-headed mules. There was not much she could say to console or counsel him. It was quite a tangled web he was in, but listening was enough. Recounting what had happened and what he had felt without the need to filter it offered Moisés a momentary respite from his burden before he returned to his aunt’s house.
Moiséswasn’t closeted to any of his relatives, but confessing to his aunt he’d fallen for a man of the cloth seemed a bridge too far. Over dinner, he downplayed his lunch with Rafael’s and confirmed with his aunt and uncle that he would attend mass with them as usual.
It was mostly out of courtesy that Moisés agreed to go. He had long since broken away from the Catholic Church. After coming to grips with his orientation, and more than a decade away on his own, he finally decided to convert to a protestant sect. Despite his conversion, when visiting his family, he still attended Catholic services with them, even though his uncle gave him an out. It was worth going just to keep them company. And truly, once he started attending those services, he found his mind at peace. The Catholic rituals remained familiar to him, and the certainty of knowing he’d not be allowed to take communion having converted actually made him more comfortable than when he felt obligated to take it despite being treated like a heretic.
The priest in Buir’s parish wasn’t so fire and brimstone as the ones who had driven him away in his youth, and his earnestness and affability left space for Moisés to take a chance by praying about his situation. He asked the Lord for the moral strength to listen to Rafael openly and to do the right thing even if he wouldn’t.
The next morning wasn’t the warmest, so most of the restaurant’s guests dined inside. Rafael opted to take a seat outside because it afforded them more privacy. As they sat and chatted, there was small talk at first to re-break the ice that’d refrozen on the Sabbath. Moisés noticed something was different. Even on Saturday, when Rafael had been caught in a not-quite lie of omission, he seemed more relaxed than he was today. Whatever still bothered Rafael, Moisés was about to find out.
“About Saturday, at the Saint John’s party. I should have mentioned after we talked that I’m in the seminary. I went in street clothes because I’ve been having a crisis lately. Not of faith but of vocation. I needed a night as someone among the laity to relax while I thought about it.”
Their food arrived, and after a polite pause to talk with the server, Rafael cut to the chase. “While we talked, it’s like I forgot what I was studying. Then, when I realized ‘Oh, I should tell him,’ it felt like it was too late. I didn’t want to derail the conversation. Then the next day when I saw you, for a moment I was glad, and then you said it—”
“That I’d found out?”
Despite having spoken his piece, no relief showed on Rafael’s face. Moisés awaited more.
“Yesterday, while I prayed—during mass, after confession—I thought about how I would feel if the roles were reversed.”
“If I were in the seminary?” Moisés said chuckling.
“I realized I put an unfair burden on you. If I told you I was studying and that I liked you, you’d feel pressured, like you would be deciding my future. I don’t want to put that on you.”
Rafael stole a glance at Moisés’s face then looked away—at water glass, the movie theater across the street, anywhere but at the man sitting before him. Then, looking up bashfully, he sighed and confessed as if Moisés was his father confessor. “Right before I came here, I told my spiritual advisor I no longer believed the seminary was my path. Whether you felt anything for me or not, that was my truth. Whatever calling I’d heard from the Lord could be fulfilled another way. It was hard until I said it, then my advisor excoriated me and told me that I couldn’t change my mind because he knew what made me do it and that I was irreconcilably damned.”
Tears rolled silently down Rafael’s face. Now Moisés did take Rafael’s hand. He looked into his eyes, trying to keep from crying himself. He wanted to find the right words but realized they didn’t exist. He’d not only made a nearly impossible decision, but after he made it, he was flagellated, made to feel like the unrepentant thief. In lieu of speaking, Moisés bowed his head and kissed Rafael’s hand. In his dreams that night, a burning bush spoke to Moisés.
“I will catch on. You will catch on,” it said. He awoke slick with cold sweat, confused and terror-stricken. He had no idea what the dream meant nor why he should be afraid of what the biblical bush said. Maybe it just reminded him of a local legend. After heading to the restroom and downing a glass of water, he reminded himself that the headless mule was about a girl. In place of counting sheep, that got him to sleep again.
Tuesday and Wednesday were the closest he’d ever come to a romantic idyll. Moisés invited Rafael to lunch with him and his Aunt Hilda. It was rather sudden for a meet-the-family moment, yet incredibly it didn’t feel too rushed. In fact, it was as if Moisés's whole life were merely a lead-up to those two days and evenings. They took long walks together, dined out, and read one another their favorite sonnets. Myriad conversations covered a million subjects, not that it mattered what they discussed when they were together. Only one imperfection marred those forty-eight hours, and Moisés wouldn’t have known if Rafael hadn’t told him.
While walking through the village Wednesday evening, they changed direction suddenly and without any immediate explanation from Rafael, who led the tours by default. Only as the night drew to a close did he admit that the change in course was to avoid a few seminary colleagues he’d spotted along their route. Moisés understood Rafael not wanting to have the life he’d just given up colliding with the one he chose in its stead. It was too soon. The wound was still fresh. Yet as he lay himself to rest that night, he couldn’t rid himself of the bitter taste in his mouth from feeling that the man who loved him also saw him as a source of shame.
When morning broke on Thursday, the sun shined bright, cleansed his palate, and removed the doubts from his mind. Thrushes sang full-throatily, and Moisés looked forward to another day. All thoughts of nightmares had been successfully banished. His mind was instead occupied by dreams of a long-term relationship that would alter the trajectory of his life for the better.
Rafael had to clear out some books and other personal effects from his dormitory and drive them back home. Moisés helped his aunt clean the house, as it was their maid’s day off. Their errands kept them both busy and allowed anticipation for their nighttime reunion to grow.
To make up for their day apart, they planned a picnic on the edge of the woods under the night sky with the pale glow of candles between them. Minutes before they were to lay their blanket down, Moisés thought he had better see if he could scrounge up a few more candlesticks. There weren’t many at home, so when Rafael arrived, he asked if they could swing by Roberta’s to borrow some.
On their way over, Moisés noted the early arrival of darkest night. He blamed that on the overhanging cloud cover and hoped it wouldn’t rain on their picnic. He knew Buir wasn’t due for showers until later in the winter, so he felt confident that his prayer for clear skies would be answered.
He knocked on Roberta’s door. She answered almost immediately. Seeing Moisés, her jovial smile turned mischievous.
“What can I do for you?”
“Can I borrow a few candles? We might run out.”
“Hmm, do I have any?” she said in a voice that told everyone that she indeed did have many and was deciding whether or not to hand them over. Moisés was about to protest when she finally relented.
“Thank you,” he said with exasperated relief when she returned.
“Sure, thing. See you later and be careful. You know what I mean, Zezinho.”
Moisés smiled sarcastically and turned around. Roberta and Rafael exchanged nice to meet yous, then they walked toward the spot Moisés had picked.
“What was the ‘be careful’ about?”
“Silliness, probably even sillier than you imagine.”
Rafael refrained from asking further questions while Moisés meticulously arranged their picnic. He seemed well and truly impressed, but Moisés couldn’t take pride in his date’s admiration. Roberta’s teasing niggled at him. He quashed that doubt. It’s a silly superstition about a curse. I’m not a girl and Rafa wasn’t ordained anyway.
They picked at the food and chatted about their day. That put them both in better spirits, especially Rafael. Apparently, it wasn’t just the Church who disowned him. When he got home and told his family what happened, they did the same. Once again, Moisés failed to find the words to console him, but Rafael said it was ok. Just talking about it cleared his mind for a bit, and that made him happy.
As it neared midnight, unease snaked around Moisés. First came the intermittent rumble of thunder—out of the ordinary this time of year, steady, yet infrequent like a harbinger’s drum summoning far-off lightning strikes and humid air. Moisés thought perhaps that’s why he was perspiring so much, but he suddenly felt itchy as well. Then he looked down and saw himself growing hairier. Before his eyes, his fingertips transmogrified. That same sensation overcame his feet. His haunches throbbed.
“Moisés!” Rafael screamed. Within seconds, what seemed a fever rising at an unnatural clip became something inexplicable. His head combusted like a like a match being lit. His shoulders broadened and flattened; his back curved; his torso narrowed; and hair grew helter-skelter all over his altered form. His face elongated, turning equine; and like a mule, he galloped away, leaving embers in his wake.
For a moment, Rafael sat paralyzed by shock. Having spent his life believing in what he could not see, he now disbelieved his eyes. Reminding himself of the apostles’ moments of doubt, he rose and ran after the beast who was Moisés, knowing it would accost others. He tried to shout before he lost his breath, but calling Moisés name didn’t stop the stampeding mule. He could only chase after the sound of its hoof-falls now joined by a whinny—equal parts triumphant and terrified.
Rafael knew he’d never catch it on foot. So, he ran in the opposite direction toward Roberta’s farm. Upon reaching it, he banged unceremoniously on the front door. She answered the door half-awake. When she heard Rafael’s story, she started closing the door on him. Rafael held out his hand to keep it open. His words came out desperately, they were growled. Near tears, he begged, “Why would I come here and make-up something I wouldn’t believe unless I’d seen it?” Realizing he was right, a sigh escaped her, and she led him around to her stable and told him Fogete was the fastest and friendliest horse in town. After a quick introduction, he mounted the steed and was off.
The galloping abomination had long since reached the village square, burning neighs and blind fury scaring lovers, families, and clergy awake. The crowd of curious onlookers barely had time to assemble when Rafael came charging at breakneck speed.
Having blazed through the village square, Rafael closed in on the panicked beast. It was now approaching the wooded path, and, seemingly emblematic of their love, the mule slowed just a bit.
Rafael had no understanding of how this nightmare had become reality. He knew he’d have just one chance to stop it. As his horse pulled even with mule aflame, knew the time had come. He couldn’t second-guess anymore. He’d have to have faith enough to jump off his horse and onto the mule.
First, he tried to go sidesaddle, but after bringing his leg over, he felt himself slip. Any hope of a graceful transfer was gone, so Rafael flung himself at the racing beast, slamming hard against bone and muscle. Desperately, he reached for its smoldering mane, seeking purchase and finding it. That put a momentary hitch in its giddy-up, allowing Rafael a moment to perform the miracle of pulling himself up onto its back. As he finally sat up straight on its back, the beast of burden regained its footing. It ran, and Rafael slid, gripping for dear life to keep from flying off head-over-heels through the fire. Holding the mane for these three to four seconds was, to his mind, nothing short of another miracle.
He prayed for a third as he reached into the blaze, singeing his hand. The mule reared back. Rafael pulled the bit out from where the mule’s mouth should be just as he was bucked off backward.
The headless mule transformed back into Moisés shortly after. How quickly, Moisés couldn’t say. He awoke, disoriented, to a loud, hollow, crack behind him. He turned to find Rafael knocked out, his neck contorted, undoubtedly broken.
All the world was black but for Rafael’s fading light. Moisés called for an ambulance, he’d later recall, his memory retaining no other images, only the emotional truth: it was his fault.
When the police and paramedics arrived on the scene, Moisés said all he could think of: they were out on a moonlight ride, the horse got spooked, and they were both thrown. The story seemed unlikely given that Moisés didn’t look like he’d taken a fall or rolled in the dirt, though canvassing did turn up many people who claimed to be witnesses. The Military Police didn’t listen to the people’s insistence that it was the Headless Mule. They assumed the story was borne of hayseed hysteria and that the folks in Buir were no less odd than those next door in Lumiar. Moisés version had to be the truth. No charges were filed.
The paramedics acted quickly and carefully enough to save Rafael’s life; however, the accident left him a quadriplegic.
Indeed, Moisés’s life trajectory was altered from that moment. He never returned to the United States. Instead, he remained forever in Buir to play both the parts of Rafael’s husband and caretaker.
Moisés also wondered much about what he thought he knew of the curse of the Headless Mule, though much remained a mystery to him. Rafael’s removing the bit from his mouth had freed him of the curse, but Moisés told anyone who’d listen, “I wish he hadn’t done it. I’d gladly go through that transformation once a week if it meant he could walk again.”
Rafael said the opposite to anyone who would listen. “I’d do the same again, even if it would still put me in this chair. I’m glad I have him to push me around.”
Both wondered if the other was lying.