Pit Ponies — A Short Story

Marc Har­ris

Evergreen - - Contents - CLIF­FORD ROBIN­SON

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.

DOROTHY BUR­ROWS

The mine shaft and head­gear at Haugh Pit Mu­seum, White­haven, Cum­ber­land.

Pre­par­ing a horse for work at Brad­ford In­dus­trial Mu­seum.

DAVID SELLMAN

An an­gler alone with his thoughts at Gedges Lake, Kent.

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