Painted horses

for Tadeusz Narkiewicz

Painted horses

Painted horses graze the pastures
In the past I thought I had,
Churning turf in sepia fields
Dewed by the blood of the bad:
Men with scimitars and turbans
Who rode in from eastern lands,
On their own unpainted horses
With their bibles in their hands.

I am descended from knighthood
So my father often told;
How a distant male ancestor –
Gentle, brave, gallant and bold –
Had fought off Ottoman armies
Along the Danube so blue;
He painted his horse red and white,
And did what he had to do.

Painted horses, said my dad, met
The panzer in ’39,
Built in far-away factories
By the green banks of the Rhine.
But I never thought to ask my
Grandad when he was alive –
I can barely recall his voice;
He died when I was just five.

And no horses were included
In his wartime photographs;
But tanks and uniformed young men,
All of whom soon parted paths.
He was born in Vilnius, and –
So my father often said –
When he was still a teenager,
Stalin painted that town red.

He was kept in a transit camp
Until Russia joined the West;
He lied about his age and was
Sent west then at their behest –
Crossed the Great European Plain
And somehow ended up here,
Far away from painted horses
And all he had once held dear.

In a town in the Black Country
He settled down with a wife;
Like many others, did his best
To make an attempt at life:
Scrubbed tanks in a chemical plant,
Never sending letters east;
Had four children, lost his wife, and
Smoked his way to his last priest.

Alas, no diary was found
Among his personal cause,
Just the mundane mementos of
That second greatest of wars:
Some photographs of his family,
Some photographs of his friends,
And some letters typed in German
With “Heil Hitler” at the end.

Though any of us could now play
Judge, historian, or sleuth
In an impossible quest for
That illusive thing called truth;
Like a madman, like a minstrel,
Like a boy I still believe
In horses – in painted horses
There is nothing to reprieve.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

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