© Kym Eitel

Winner, 2011 Graham Fredriksen Memorial Award, North Pine, Queensland; ‘Nandewar’ Poetry Competition, Narrabri, NSW and Ipswich Poetry Feast Bush Poetry Section and Overall ‘Babes of Walloon Award’, Ipswich, Queensland.

My Grandad told me stories, back when I was just a girl,
of fun and far-off places and my mind would be awhirl.
Exciting stories filled my head, I’d sit upon the floor,
and beg him, “Tell the donkey one, please Grandad – just once more.”

To hide the gore of war from me, he’d make the stories fun,
and “happy ever after” was the close of every one.
He spoke of World War Two, Fromelles, the Sinai, Palestine,
showed medals, faded telegrams, old letters tied in twine.

Young faces smiled in tattered photos – smooth-faced teenage men,
but soon my thoughts would wander, “Tell the donkey one again!”
“A steam boat with a thousand donkeys sailed to Anzac Cove ,
and into clear blue water all the laughing donkeys dove …”

But I was just a five year old, I didn’t see the truth
or heartache in the stories of his war-time stolen youth.
“And mule-teams too, they liked to play in mud pools, Ypres, France.
When grumpy though, long ears laid back, they’d freeze in stubborn stance.”

The shed was Grandad’s refuge, like his peaceful, secret place.
From time to time, his words would slow.  He’d stare off into space.
“They’re God’s own special creatures – see the cross upon their backs?
They’re mighty strong.  They hauled supplies and food in heavy packs.”

He jig-sawed wood and sawdust flew.  He sanded smooth each piece.
Exertion seemed to soothe his soul, as though it brought release.
“The donkeys walked on silent hooves when men played hide and seek,
pulled stick and canvas stretchers for the soldiers, hurt or weak.”

As droplets spattered, Grandad sniffed, “By Christ, it’s hot in here.”
It wasn’t sweat.  Each splatter was a burning, grief-filled tear.
The timber soaked up anger as he freed himself of pain
by telling funny stories – how the donkeys kept him sane.

“Poor Belle slid down the mountain once, we had to winch her up ,
and Duffy, he liked whiskey, he would slurp it from my cup.
And when their hungry tummies growled, they watched us as we ate.
I’d let them have my hard tack and the crumbs right off my plate!”

And then he’d droop, his hands would stop, “Their hearts were full of trust.
I gladly shared my food with them … can’t live on rocks and dust.”
He glued and hammered softly, and I soon began to see,
he’d built a donkey rocking horse, especially for me!

“The dark haired donkeys, they could hide beneath the veil of night,
but grey ones glowed like night lights, if the stars were shining bright.
And so, to make them darker, and to keep them safe from view,
we dyed the donkeys purple with a Condy’s Crystals brew.

The camouflage of purple hid them well … until they brayed !”
He laughed and shook a can of paint – a pretty purple shade.
Each brush stroke went on lovingly, like Gramps was grooming coats
of tiny, gentle donkeys on the shore, straight off the boats.

“Those fearless purple angels pulled the Red Cross stretcher beds,
while fireworks whizzed and sparkled, making halos ‘round their heads.”
When Gramps was sure the paint had dried, I touched it, cool and sleek,
then placed a thousand kisses on his smiling, stubbled cheek.

I rocked upon that special toy my dear old Grandad made,
and asked incessant questions, “What is shrapnel?  What’s grenade?”
He’d flinch, a mask would hide his face, “Those words are full of woe.
Courageous mates like Blossom and Delilah helped me though.”

I memorised each donkey’s name, each story and each deed …
“new shave tails ” – untrained donkeys that he had to train and feed …
“hey, saddler! – bring a plate and punch! ”, as tummies shrank with thirst …
“those faithful donkeys …” Grandad paused and then his big heart burst …

“They swam through blood-filled water  from the boats to get to shore
where bullets fell like hail stones in that thudding hell of war.
Through cannon’s boom and sniper fire, with shrapnel overhead –
the ground was wet with blood where men and beasts lay sprawled out, dead.”

Tales tumbled out I’d never heard – he’d kept them locked inside.
I didn’t want to hear them, so I snuck away and cried.
I made a little stretcher and pretended ‘nurse at war’,
with dolls as injured soldiers, crayoned blood across the floor.

When Grandad saw me acting out that gruesome war-time scene,
he snatched my purple donkey and he slammed the kitchen screen.
I cringed to hear the anguish in his voice as Grandad fled –
“I’ve filled her mind with poisoned thoughts!  Oh, God just strike me dead.”

My Grandma chased him, sobbing, but he pushed her hugs aside.
I’d shot him in the heart.  He snapped.  His joy for life just died.
The doctors gave him sedatives to keep him numb and calm.
They put him in a hospital to keep him safe from harm.

“Come out and fight, you bastards!  Come and face me, man to man.
Your name is on my bullet!  Come and shoot me if you can!”
My Grandma hugged me close and told me I was not to blame,
but Gramps had been okay until he saw my stupid game.

My rampant curiosity just would not let him be.
I gouged and clawed my probing way inside his memory.
Yes, I had brought those horrid visions back to haunt him so;
the stench of death and holding gutted mates while cursing foe.

He only lived a few more weeks before he passed away.
The doctors said that Gramps gave up.  His heart just stopped one day.
His shed became my refuge where I cried each day and hid.
I swept the floor and tidied tools, the way that Grandad did.

One day, a glimpse of purple caught my eye, then gasps of joy –
wrapped carefully in blankets was my wooden donkey toy.
Gramps’ stories flooded back anew.  I knew them word for word
as though it was just yesterday, his rumbling voice I’d heard.

“A steam boat with a thousand donkeys sailed to Anzac Cove,
and into clear blue water all the laughing donkeys dove …”
Oh how I’d love to kiss him now, tears burned and welled.  I sniffed.
His heart and soul, his spirit, lived inside that special gift.

If I could turn back time, I’d change that day that caused his end –
my Gramps would still be living … if I hadn’t played pretend.

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