©  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.