© Veronica Weal, 2010

Winner, 2010 ‘Bronze Swagman Award’, Winton Queensland.

A burning sun was beating down one summer afternoon.
The eucalypts were drooping in the heat.
A pitiful procession wound its way along the track
behind a cart that held a rough bush coffin in the back,
while puffs of dust were raised by plodding feet.

The old horse turned unbidden at the graveyard’s open gate.
The weeping widow bowed her weary head.
Her tears were real enough, but sheer relief had made her cry.
Behind a linen handkerchief, her daughter’s eyes were dry
and both of them were glad a man was dead!

They barely saw the coffin and they barely heard the words
of comfort that the priest began to say.
For them the scene was darkened by a shadow that would fall
upon their lives as surely as the shadow on the wall
that caused this scene of tragedy today.

The woman’s mind recalled the day she’d buried Rosie’s dad.
She did what many widows had to do.
She wed another miner, who would care for them at least,
but found the man she’d married was a drunken, loutish beast,
a tyrant and a monster through and through.

She helped her husband work the mine that gave their daily bread
and mostly he would thank her with a curse.
Each night, compelled by drink, he found a reason to complain.
The food was salty, cold or burnt – to talk to him was vain.
He used to take his belt to her, or worse.

She tried to hide the beatings from her girl. She blessed the day
when Rosie had to go away to school.
Each end of term, a neighbour brought her home upon his dray.
The mother worked while Rose kept house and learned along the way
 to fear the miner’s cold, despotic rule.

One night, when Rose was twelve years old, the miner came home late.
His eyes, lit up by lantern light, were wild.
In one hand was a bottle and the other held his dream –
a piece of rock that glittered with a vivid golden gleam!
He showed his precious trophy to the child.

Despite the gold, the miner’s temper steadily grew worse.
His wife began to think of taking flight.
One fateful night she realised that Rose had not come back
from locking up the hens and now the night was growing black.
She peered outside and saw a beam of light.

She rushed inside the shed and saw a sight to haunt her dreams.
A shadow, thrown by lamp-light on the wall
loomed up and hovered briefly like a monstrous, evil beast
above its prey. Rose lay inert, her dress all torn and creased
and terror held the girl in silent thrall.

The mother felt a surge of rage she’d never known before.
She snatched a nearby hammer up and then
she struck with all her strength, then hit the swaying man once more
and watched her husband fall, a lifeless heap upon the floor.
She cursed the lust of brutal, heedless men.

The woman held her daughter close, while queries filled her head.
She’d always tried to hide the man’s abuse,
so would they now believe the tale of horror that she told,
or would they think she’d murdered him so she could steal his gold?
Her tortured mind held visions of the noose.

And oh, the shame and scandal! But a barrow stood nearby,
and what she planned sent shivers down her spine.
A nightmare trip with bloodied corpse through darkly brooding night,
on rocky paths just barely lit by feeble lantern-light –
and then they dropped his body down the mine!

The inquest, some days later, deemed it accidental death.
The widow bought a cottage by the sea
and lived with Rose, who later earned her living with a pen
and spent her days in solitude. She shunned the glance of men,
content to live a life of chastity.

In church each Sunday Rose’s mother begged, on bended knees,
forgiveness for the greatest sin of all;
but both the women knew, until their final breath had ceased,
they’d live their lives forever in the shadow of a beast,
a shadow which would haunt them from the wall.

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