© Brenda Joy
Winner, 2013 —‘The Kembla Flame’, Illawarra Coast, NSW.
When we bought our son a pony
the old man who lived alone
very slowly trekked along the two mile track.
As he watched our little Tony
ride around the home-yard zone
it was clear that memories came flooding back.
He was overcome with feeling
and this man who seldom spoke,
this old hermit, rarely seen within the town,
simply seemed to be appealing
to have someone share the yolk,
so I put the kettle on and sat him down.
He had come from Illawarra
(I’d not known of that before)
where his working years were spent within a mine
and he told about the horror
of the never-ending chore
at the ‘face’ way down the shaft’s abrupt decline.
There the workers had the toughest
of the jobs, deep underground,
where they hacked ‘black gold’ from bowels of the earth.
In the hottest, blackest, roughest
hole of hell that could be found —
it was there they learnt what comradeship was worth.
And that’s where those little horses
(cross-bred ponies, mainly males,
from the age of four until they’d reached their teens)
had to trudge relentless courses
hauling coal in ‘cars’ up rails
for this job could not be done by other means.
Though at night these ponies stabled
underground within their ‘cave’,
were provided sustenance so they’d survive,
(for this labour-force enabled
profit gains) yet like a slave,
each would suffer every hour while alive.
They relied upon the kindness
of the driver who they served.
The relationship involved a two-way trust.
With the threat of hurt or blindness,
codes of mate-ship were observed
in that narrow world of heat and clogging dust.
And a horse had just one ‘owner’
(here ‘Old Jo’ now paused a while
as he thought about the one he’d loved the best).
For so long he’d been a loner
but recall now brought a smile
as he praised his ‘Little Friend’ above the rest.
The pit ponies suffered greatly
but a job was never shirked
and his Little Friend would do as Jo would ask,
but he seemed to sense innately
if a threat or danger lurked
like the time he’d just refused to do his task.
Nor had Jo enforced submission.
Then there’d come a mighty roar
and the roof in front of them had given way.
Through the pony’s intuition
and the strength of their rapport
they had both been saved from certain death that day.
A true bond of love existed
between man and little horse
but the time would come when Jo would have to leave.
War had struck and Jo enlisted,
not without a deep remorse
for he knew his equine pal would surely grieve.
Throughout torrid years of battle
he did not forget his friend
and he vowed he’d bring him up from depths below.
It is hope of future that’ll
keep up courage till the end
and his Little Friend meant everything to Jo.
For he had no girl awaiting
his return from bloodshed shore,
Little Friend was all the family he knew.
With his heart anticipating
that he’d meet his mate once more
he’d approached the pit to see what he could do.
Jo had found so many changes
had occurred within the mine
as increased demand required some other means.
In the shaft there’d been exchanges
that saw ponies’ roles decline
when their toil was undertaken by machines.
But his heart had filled with gladness.
He’d believed his little mate
had already been released to romp and graze.
(An old man now paused in sadness
as he thought about the fate
of those ponies who’d outlived their useful phase.)
They’d been taken in collections,
twenty, thirty at a time
(often blind and traumatized by sudden change)
where men following directions
to perform this awful crime,
had to gun them down en masse at close-up range.
Little Friend just one un-numbered
in the tragedies of fate
(and each stage of progress has such tales to tell).
As for Jo, he was encumbered
as he grieved for little mate
and he wept within a hermit’s lonely shell.
But at times a new beginning
has an unexpected start
and the sight of Tony’s pony brought release.
As his words had tumbled, spinning,
from the pain within his heart
so it seemed the sharing brought a little peace.
No old man can live forever
and so Jo would pass away
within months of when his tragic tale was told,
but I know that I will never
lose the pathos felt that day
while the curtains made of memory unfold.
Nor will I forget how Tony
loved a man so near his end
who would trek the track each day with hay in hand
to caress another pony
as he would his Little Friend
when they reunited in the promised land.