Francis the Talking Mule awoke from a long and dreamless night to find himself part of a twenty-mule team, hauling ore from the borax mines in Death Valley.
It was a waking nightmare.
"This can't be happening to me!" he cried. "I'm an artiste! Okay, so I'm a comedian. Maybe I work in the movies rather than the legitimate theater. Still, art is art. I've dedicated my life to the elevation of the spirit. What am I doing here?"
The other mules looked at him as if he were mad. One of them snickered. Another brayed. It was obvious to Francis that he was the only talking mule there.
The mule skinner strode up. He was a tall cowboy with a long, somewhat lopsided face. He looked strangely familiar. "All right, Mr. Mule," he said. "What's all this fuss about?"
"You've got to call my agent! There's been a terrible mistake!"
"No mistake, Mr. Mule." The cowboy shook his head, making his jowls quiver. There was a twinkle in his eye. "I'm afraid you died, and were reincarnated."
"But why as a mule, of all things? I can sing! I can dance! I've brightened the lives of millions!"
"You were given an extraordinary opportunity and, let's be honest, you wasted it. It happens all the time. People get what they deserve. I myself used to be the president of the United States, and now I'm back where I belong. You don't see me complaining, do you? And if you did, what good would it do me?"
"My God," Francis breathed. "You're really Ronald—"
"Shhh." The cowboy put a finger to his lips. "Let's not tempt me with false pride. Now pull yourself together. It's time we got to work."
"Isn't there any way out of this?"
"Work hard, do your honest best, and when you die, you'll be reborn as a better mule. Then do it again, in your next life. If you keep at it long enough, well," the cowboy spread his hands, "there's no telling where you might end up."
It was good advice, if hard to hear. Francis knuckled down. The route from the Harmony Borax Works to Mojave covered 165 miles, one fifty-mile stretch of which was waterless. The roads were primitive, and in the summer the heat soared as high as 130°. But he bore up under it. He was, underneath all the glitter and the gab, a good soul.
Sometimes, he and the cowboy spent the evening together, talking about the old days in Hollywood.
Other times, though, a sense of the monstrous injustice of life would swell up in him, and he'd cry out, "Why must I be stuck in this ludicrous body? Why couldn't I have been reborn as Olivier or Gielgud?"
The cowboy always took it in stride. "There you go again, Mr. Mule," he'd say, with a little smile. "There you go again."
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.