The Glassy Farmstead by Andrea Stern
The Mule is a peculiar person. I see him at university in the evenings, smoking in front of a windowed facade, next to the library. He is neither small nor big, he wears jeans, a white T-shirt and cheap sneakers. Sometimes he will remove his brown cap to smooth his hair and I realise he is already balding. When it rains, humid leaves will often fall on his head and nature will crown him. He stands there, smokes his cheap cigarillo like a joint, by holding it between his thumb and index finger, stoically ignoring the weather. His view rests on the ground most of the time, pensive and shy. You will not notice him, unless you approach him and catch his eye. He will lift his head and shift it a whit to the left, to look at you from under his old brown cap made of corduroy. His thin grey iris is awkwardly calming. Dark like a starless universe, his eyes encompass you, and make you feel exposed. His glance passes you like a bodiless web as if to trap you, pull you into an invisible space. He makes you feel small. When he looks at me I feel like the first astronaut, modern soldier, floating in space, my face hidden behind a gold-mirrored visor. I float, bound to life by a mere cord, measuring the blue and white circle with my white-gloved fingers in awe.
The Mule is a steady worker. I see him at the book shop in the city centre, tirelessly patrolling the shelves, arranging books, refilling the sold-out holes in history. Sometimes he will leave his cart and smoke outside the front entrance. A tie will tell him that he already had had two cigarette breaks, to which the Mule will only nod in reply. Each time I ask him about a book he will think, able to remember the exact location, as books are of great importance to him. For if you were to ask him what he does for a living, he would answer: 'I take classes in comparative studies'. And if you wondered how old he is, he would after a pause, as if embarrassed, reply: '25'. Wanting to start a new phrase but remaining silent, he would push his chrome-plated cart past Dante, Dickens and Dostojewsky, all of them eyeing him with dreamy yearning, a bit like me.
I see the Mule pretty often on my way home, riding the train. His head usually rests on the cold window, at which he will sometimes furtively glance, while holding a Sartre. When I sit down next to him, and peek in his strange little book, I read the word 'hell'. If I look up to ask him how he is doing, he will smile and utter a phrase, but the shrieks of babies and brakes, will drive his soft voice away almost instantly. Thus we often end our day, sitting next to each other and remaining silent, reading a book.
Last Sunday, despite of his cold gray eyes, I saw him help a charity at the icy lake outside of the city. I was surprised and wondered how he raises his biannual tuition fees. That day I told him what I had been secretly calling him, and he repeated my words nodding with a frustrated face. Looking at each other in silence, we were laughed at by tipsy couples, wandering the promenade boutiques, heads and bags filled with labels. He said he loves his new nickname, and that before we had met he had called himself 'Systemidiot'.
The Mule and I are peculiar people. We study, we work, we laugh and love, and do not know why, for we already forgot. At least he now knows of his title, for I too am a Mule. Most of our fellow student-mules are still unaware.