Pit Ponies — A Short Story
The old miner fished the flooded quarry on occasion. His mind was not what it used to be, but fishing relaxed him and brought back memories of his youth when he was strong, fit and vigorous. He fished with light tackle; from an old wooden platform which jutted out from the weed- strewn bank, for the flotillas of red- finned roach and rudd which patrolled the shallows of the cold, clear waters.
The quarry held many secrets; huge pike like crocodiles, and great eels like miniature anacondas were rumoured to inhabit its dark and tangled depths. On the spartan cliffs, which towered above its steeply wooded sides, ravens and peregrine falcons had constructed their stick- like nests. And amongst the reeds, in the hidden recesses of the mist- shrouded margins, the ghostly boom of a single bittern would often echo for miles across the secluded body of water.
The old miner felt a sharp tug on his line, and watched the tip of his vintage cane rod bow to the water’s surface. He reeled in a beautiful, scale- perfect roach of about a pound; then quickly unhooked it, before releasing it only to watch it vanish back into the depths from whence it came.
A pair of courting swans, their plumage as white as snow, drifted spectrally in and out of the mist which was now swirling across the pool. He felt a second sharp tug on his line and unhurriedly reeled in a tiny rudd, which weighed no more than a few ounces. He lovingly cradled the fish in one hand, admiring its unbridled beauty, before once again releasing it back to the icy depths.
From somewhere in the woods, high above him, the haunting cry of a roosting tawny owl permeated the silence. The unearthly “Kee- wik! Kee- wik!” of its call, brought him back to reality with a shudder. The
accident in the mine was more than 50 years ago, but the memories of the tragedy were still both vivid, and painful for the old man.
His thoughts meandered back to the days of his youth, and how he’d cared for and managed his beloved pit ponies. In the shaft mine the ponies were stabled underground, and it was his responsibility to muck out and feed them on a diet of chopped hay and maize, and bring them to the surface for respite from their arduous and dangerous work beneath the earth. Typically, the ponies would work an eight- hour day, during which they could easily haul 30 tons of coal in coal tubs along the narrow- gauge railway. An average lifespan for a pony was no more than four years, so anything the old miner could do to prolong and improve the quality of his horses’ lives, made him feel content.
A particular favourite of his had been the white stallion called Pegasus; the strongest and most sure- footed pony he had ever known. Pegasus had lived a long life hauling those heavy coal tubs in the bowels of the earth, but then the old miner had taken particular care of him, and had given him extra rations when he could. And Pegasus could eat! Oh, how that stallion could eat!
But those times were long gone; and Pegasus and all the other pit ponies had gone with them. And now, as dusk approached, the old miner was alone with his memories, and his vintage cane rod.
His rod bowed once more to the
water’s surface, and once again he was cradling a beautiful, scale- perfect rudd of perhaps half a pound in the palm of his hand. He slipped it back into the pool, and it swam off into the ethereal depths.
Other creatures were about now; a dog fox barked from somewhere in the distance, and tiny bats swept the pool’s surface for any small insect they could find. A sharp wind picked up; masking the tunnelling and scuttlings of the smaller creatures in the undergrowth.
The wind also masked the first footfalls of the larger animals. But he knew they’d come. They always did; once a year, on the anniversary of the explosion which had destroyed and flooded the mine. He could hear them now, and the sound of their hooves clip- clopping on the paths which wound down through the woods, as they trotted through the trees.
The old miner put down his rod, put his hand into his pocket, and reached for the large, cubed sugar lumps which he knew they liked.
Through the mists he moved imperceptibly towards them. It was the white stallion which nuzzled his chest first, then one pony after another did the same; and he greeted them like long lost friends. The old miner stroked them, offering each one a sugar lump, then running his wiry fingers through their damp manes, and along their powerful backs. He felt their cold breath on his face, and sensed the longing, knowing, soft look in their dark eyes.
Time seemed to have no meaning now, and as the sky blackened, and a full moon emerged from behind its shield of freezing cloud, the old miner watched the pit ponies vanish like spectres into the trees. He followed; melting into the ether.
As the sun rose above the haunted pool, little moved, except the mists and the swan- spirits which swirled across the water’s surface; and the shoals of red- finned roach and rudd which patrolled the margins of its icy depths.
The mine shaft and headgear at Haugh Pit Museum, Whitehaven, Cumberland.
Preparing a horse for work at Bradford Industrial Museum.
An angler alone with his thoughts at Gedges Lake, Kent.