What could they
imagine,
dragging those
heavy iron cars
along iron rails
along tunnels
so low
they had to keep
their heads
down
lest they scrape
their long ears, tails,
cropped manes or polls
and their rumps
on the rough black
oozing roof
of the mine,
or catch
on the tilted timbers
every so often
holding up the shaft.
Many a long black hair
caught in the splintered edges
of the axe-hewn wood
tarnished with dampness
and coal tar
   and some blood.

   
Only once in a while,
once every spring,
the beasts would be
unharnessed,
haltered and roped together,
brought up, up to the top of the
shaft like so many Dantes
and turned loose into the light
of lush farm fields
in the Endless Mountains
of Pennsylvania:
the blazing yellow air,
scents of new grass and
songs of birds
uncaged.

Oh, joy! The abandoned
kicking of heels, rolling in grass,
cantering then galloping circles
into the yellow buttercups,
the white smiling daisies
(they had superseded the snowdrops)
the low violets, all
fresh flowers
debase themselves
before that
inexpressible
joy, that
uncontrollable
beauty:
those whinnying prayers,
their brief hysterical songs
   of gratitude at this
   redemption, this
   unsought
   reward.

   One can only
shudder
   to think:
   imagine
   once again
   their return
   to that dark world,
   those tracks running
   still under that Paradise
   above their
   hanging
   heads,
   somewhere
   near Scranton.

(March & November, 2014)
Author’s Note*
“Based on a story told to me in Pennsylvania, somewhere near Scranton (while I was narrating the Barns of Clifford Twp. film, 2010), detailing how the coal miners’ mules, brought out to pasture in the spring, would run wild, crazed with the light and freedom of what should have been their birthright on the farms.”

Alison Armstrong has published short fiction, poetry, essays, and art and literary criticism since the 1970s. She has also published two books, The Joyce of Cooking (1986) and a volume of textual scholarship (1993) in the Cornell Mss of WB Yeats series. She teaches in the Humanities Department at SVA. Her short story, “Driving,” was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Match Factory.