Under the tormented dark

Bonfire Night this year was madness. Wales has been in lockdown since 23rd October, and with public displays cancelled I guess people decided it was a good opportunity to host their own.

We are on the top of a hill on the side of a long valley, so we get a good view anyway – we can see as far as the Brecons in one direction, and the coast in the other. Fireworks started going off as it got dark around 4:30pm and continued for another three hours.

There was no let up: every minute saw at least one explosion. At one point we had 10 displays going off at the same time, all along the little stretch of village below our fields.

We are fortunate in that our equines have never bothered too much about fireworks; they’re the stand and stare kind rather than the run around and stress kind. I went out to check on them and found both mules round the side of the hay barn, standing side-by-side in unusual fellowship, each resting a hindleg as they gazed at the flashing lights below. Their pricked ears and watchful gaze belied their otherwise peaceful appearance.

I stood in between them, one arm over Xato’s back while Marty tucked himself behind my other shoulder and then, curiously, rested his chin on it. It was a warm night for November and pleasant to just be with them in the darkness. Sound travels very well in our valley and each relentless bang rumbled and boomed up and down its length.

As I listened to the bangs and the screamers, saw the clouds above the opposite hill light up with unseen fireworks from the other side, worried about the worldwide ramifications of the US election whose results had not yet been confirmed, and felt the attentive watchfulness of my two solid mules lined up stoically on either side, I had a sudden realisation that this was as close as I was ever likely to get to what it might have been like on the mule lines during WWI.

It was the mules who put me in mind of it; without them it would just have been another noisy Bonfire Night. I thought about The Black Mule Of Aveluy, a short story by Captain Charles G.D. Roberts, and his evocative description of the mule lines “under the tormented dark.”

He writes: “Those terrible swift shells … had tested the nerves of man and beast sufficiently during the daylight; but now, in the shifting obscurity of a young moon harrowed by driving cloud-rack, their effect was yet more daunting.”

I can’t really put myself in the shoes of those men who waited uneasily in the darkness, who had already seen countless horrors and had more yet to come. But did my mules feel any differently to their comrades a hundred years previously? Did they have any more understanding of those bangs and flashes going off in the valley below them? Did they, like those army mules, simply have to put their faith in the human beside them?

Needless to say, on that night and on this night, and on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, I will kiss my mules above their gentle, unharried eyes and be grateful that they will never have to experience anything worse than a firework display. May this always be the case.

Originally posted to the Facebook page on Remembrance Sunday

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