And Did Those Hooves…

© Catherine Lee

Winner, 2018 Blackened Billy Written Verse Competition, Tamworth, NSW.

We led you from your fields of green, each pastoral, idyllic scene;
replaced serene locations with the combat zones of war.
Oblivious of our intent or what this change in lifestyle meant,
you dutifully followed to whatever lay in store.
Enlisted for a regimen of chaos, yielding horses then
from Britain to America, Australia to France,
were shipped at sizable expense, sheer misery their recompense—
compelled to take their part in man’s macabre, destructive dance.

Regardless of your abject fright–the booming guns and flashing light–
you fetched and carried, charged the blazing furnaces of hell,
stood staunchly by your master’s side, though thousands of you fell and died
from agonising injuries, disease or vicious shell.
Despite exhaustion, hunger, thirst, you underwent the very worst
of all that we could throw beneath your faithful, weary feet;
yet loyally you soldiered on, till finally when hope was gone,
so many of you floundered and conceded grim defeat.

So while those hooves sunk deep in mud, braved putrid slush and pools of blood,
you surely must have felt that we had brought you to your end;
yet suffered on without a voice—were coached for this, had little choice—
through wretchedness you couldn’t ever hope to comprehend.
For could those soulful, baffled eyes that witnessed carnage, realise
in any shape or form what such insanity could mean?
To enter such despair as this—an Armageddon’s dark abyss—
was truly inconceivable, repulsive and obscene.

You pulled supplies, transported arms, increased morale and eased our qualms
with silent acquiescence and rapport beyond compare,
moved injured men past din and stench, or rushed a well-protected trench—
with every vile experience we stomached, you were there.
When cannon fire and shrapnel hail that fell so close did not prevail,
with nostrils flared and ears pulled back, you bravely stormed on through;
so highly trained for gross distress—yet how to grasp the viciousness
and contrast to bucolic lives of freedom you once knew?

You tolerated cruel disease of influenza, ticks and fleas,
and those who lived returned to work the dreaded fronts of death,
where some would snort the poison gas – or drown in some obscure morass,
too overcome to lift their heads to take a vital breath.
You gasped for water, strained to choke when breathing dense, explosive smoke,
endured the mange or ringworm and the tough, uneven sod;
observed the slaughter of your kind – God knows what thoughts spun in your mind
whenever equine corpses lined the battlefields you trod.

Those pounding hooves that ruled the plains in summer sun and driving rains
or cantered, streaming manes aloft, along some golden shore,
were forced to labour under fire and plough through bodies, viscous mire,
unquestionably petrified by such horrific gore.
Yet still upon your mighty backs you bore us in these foul attacks,
dodged missiles as you staggered over brutal, strange terrain.
The bond we formed emerged supreme—a solid and respectful team—
confronting the unthinkable and all that’s inhumane.

So did you then, with conflict done, imagine you’d return to run
once more in forests, mountain ranges, southern sun-drenched lands?
Like us, did you anticipate, expect that we would compensate
your steadfast, loving service with a life of no demands?
But rules of quarantine revealed your harsh, abhorrent fate was sealed,
although we railed against the law to which we had to yield;
for had not sturdy, dripping flanks borne wounded soldiers back to ranks—
saved lives amidst each terrifying, burning foreign field?

They classified each passive mount—the records show the final count—
for transfer, sale, or tragically, condemned you to the grave;
but first, though they could not enthuse, they cured your hides and took your shoes,
while splendid manes and tails, distasteful orders were to shave.
My painful choice – to let you go and leave you to the ruthless foe,
or grant you instantaneous and merciful release;
unjust reward for valour shown—an act for which I can’t atone,
regardless of the fact I granted liberty and peace.

In countless restless, haunted dreams that summoned fear and comrades’ screams
I’d see from clouds of mist and flame your chestnut coat approach,
and there in deep, expressive eyes that seemed to gaze beyond the skies,
did insight of enforced betrayal shine – or sad reproach?
Unable to accept, adjust to how we broke your matchless trust,
frustrated by the knowledge I’d been helpless to explain,
I pointlessly thereafter built a labyrinth of crushing guilt,
till finally I had to come to terms – or go insane.

So now when musings bring you back, we amble on that quiet track
above the station, out beneath the stars beyond the reach.
Your flanks are dry, your gaze is calm, without a remnant of alarm;
you’re safe at last – security that none can ever breach.
Much time has passed – so many years since once we walked that vale of tears;
we recognise your sacrifice with permanent regret,
but know those hooves forevermore resound upon Valhalla’s shore,
so honour you lest ever—God forbid—we should forget.

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