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What makes a pony? Is it her dreams? Her thoughts and her ambitions? What she hopes to accomplish before she dies? Is it her fears and her worries, the many things that she dreads in life?
When I lived in Canterlot—when I was around my family—I knew exactly what my future was going to be. I knew the type of a career I was going to pursue. I knew the kind of stallion I was going to marry. I even knew the type of foals I wished to have. If someone had asked me then “what makes a pony,” I would have answered with “the sum of all my talents.”
That was an easy thing to believe while I had a home. When I arrived in Ponyville—when I was thrown through the frigid veil of endless night—it was as though a trial by fire had robbed me, had burned me of all the things that I had long taken for granted.
I don't think anypony can be prepared for becoming homeless, for what it means to be worth the sum of all one's talents and not a single one of them granting her food, bed, or a hug to safely surrender to. No amount of years of musical composition or philosophy could have prepared me for the nights I spent searching for food in the streets or a place to sleep in the shells of abandoned buildings. There were times when I could have given into dread. A sane pony would have had no choice but to give in.
But, as I soon realized, nopony could be any more prepared for becoming so blessed—as I would be blessed. If it's the home that makes a pony, then I'm built out of the grit of those far stronger and more generous than I. There are many souls in Ponyville who will never get to hear the songs I make for them. But that's hardly the tragedy I once believed it to be, for the building blocks of my chorus already exists in their hearts and throats. I know this, for they've been so gracious as to share such foundations with me.
My shivers stopped as soon as I heard her. It had to have been her; I knew no other pony who took that dirt path between my house and her farm. Under the roar of a summer's rainy downpour, I heard her scuffling hooves against the wooden stoop of my cabin's patio.
I looked up from where I sat with a pen and paper, finishing the final touches to a written composition of “Threnody of Night.” Before me, the flames of the brick-laid fireplace had dwindled to a dim glow. I was so engrossed in work that the invisible winds of cold were barely bothering me. The rain continued to pound against the wooden rooftop shingles, and still I heard her lingering just outside. I was more curious than concerned. Adjusting the sleeves of my hoodie, I stood up, trotted across the cabin, and swiftly opened the front door.
Applejack jumped and spun to face the entrance, gasping. I wasn't used to seeing her startled... much less soaking wet. The poor mare stood on my porch, drenched from head to tail. Blond bangs framed a freckled face beset with shivers as she blushed a shade of red embarrassment.
“Greetings,” I said with a placid smile, keeping the door ajar with glittering magic. “Kind of a lousy day for a walk, isn't it?”
“Oh. Pardon me,” Applejack muttered and fidgeted. The world was a thick curtain of veritable waterfalls beyond her. The dirt path snaking past the cabin had long morphed into a dark brown river of mud, and the bright light of the afternoon refracted a ghostly gray sheen across the forest stretching beyond. “Uhm... Shucks, this looks really, really bad, I reckon.” She chuckled sheepishly. I spotted a basket bundled with soaked towels beneath her, as if she was using the last vestiges of her own dry flesh to keep the package from being soiled any further. “I only meant to take a breather from this dag blame'd flood. I swear, pegasi don't give us as much solid warnings like they used to.”
I shrugged. “It came as a surprise to me as well. Normally, I'm always out and about. Today, though, I just happened to be indoors, working on something.” I smiled pleasantly. “Speaking of indoors, you look as though you need a change of scenery.”
“Oh, ma'am, think nothin' of it!” Applejack shook her head and pointed out at the offending monsoon. “I'm sure it'll clear up... erm... eventually. Don't you fret none. I'll be out of your mane soon. It was never my intention to impose—”
“Now what kind of a pony would I be to leave a soul like you drowning out here in the rain?” I trotted backwards a few steps and motioned towards the inside of my cabin. “March inside. I've got a fireplace in here. Let's get you warmed up.”
“Uhm...” Applejack bit her lip. She gazed at me, at the rain, at her basket, and at me again. “You absolutely sure I ain't bein' a bother?”
I grinned slyly. “Get your sopping wet tail in here before I change my mind!”
“Well, alright...” She shuddered before humbly shuffling into the cabin with the basket in tow. “Whew. Y'know, I don't rightly remember this place, which is odd—considerin' I walk this path so often. Didn't there used to be an abandoned barn around these here parts?”
“There could have been,” I said with a smile, closing the door behind her so that we were both sealed off from the chilling moisture outside. “I'm rather new to town, relatively speaking.”
“Well, howdy-do and welcome to the neighborhood,” Applejack said. I slid a bucket towards her. Taking a hint, she placed her hat down on the floor and began wringing her long blond threads over the metal container. “I swear, though, this cabin must have sprouted up overnight.”
“Mmmm... Not exactly,” I said. I marched over towards the fireplace and levitated three fresh logs out of a metal stand to the side. “But I don't blame you for not noticing it.” I dropped the new planks of wood at the base of the chimney and stoked the flame. Soon a brilliant glow was once again spreading through the cabin, this time heating up more than just myself. “I'm not... exactly the kind of pony who attracts attention easily. It's only fitting my house carries the same habit.”
“I noticed the apple trees you've got planted between here and that shed you've got outback,” she said. She paused, rolled her eyes, and smirked to herself. “Heh. Of course I noticed the apple trees.”
“No crime in that.”
“I noticed that they're grafted. Did ya plant them yerself?”
“Mmmm...” I trotted across the cabin, past my bed, and opened a wooden cabinet full of fresh towels. “Yes. But I had some help.”
“I've got an orchard full of hundreds more like them just up the road.”
“So we're neighbors!” I grinned at her.
“Heh. Reckon we are. Now I feel bad for not sayin' 'howdy' sooner. How's that for rotten hospitality?” Her voice trailed off as she gazed up towards the walls of the place. “Huh... Now will ya take a look at that?”
“Hmmm?” I trotted back towards her. I trailed her eyesight, observing the numerous musical instruments lining the wall. The two of us were surrounded by a rather familiar assortment of flutes, guitars, harps, chimes, violins, cellos, and clarinets—all hanging from metal fasteners across the interior of the small, fire-lit cabin. “Oh. Heh... I'm a musician,” I hummed, as if that could succinctly explain the undeniable forest of orchestral tools surrounding us. “There's one good reason why I'm not living in the center of town. With all the racket I'm bound to make, the most 'hospitality' I'd get would be a swift kick to the flank.”
“What? You compose tunes or somethin'?”
“I search for them.”
“I...” Applejack stopped wringing her mane dry and bit her lip. “I-I reckon I don't get it.”
“Neither do I.” I smiled and handed the towel to her. “Until I find what I'm looking for, that is. And then it's another mystery.” She took the towel and I marched once again toward the fireplace, stoking the flame some more. “The name's Lyra, by the way. Lyra Heartstrings.”
“Applejack,” she introduced herself like it was the first time.
It's always the “first time,” and I can't help but feel charmed on each and every occasion. There's a melodic tone to a pony's voice when she thinks she's never spoken to you before, and Applejack's twang is something that violins can only dream of. I look forward to the day when I get to hear it again. My life's a symphony that way.
“And I swear I wasn't fixin' to burden anypony,” she continued. “I would have made it home safe and sound had the rainstorm started just a sneeze later.”
“Why the cross-town trek, if I may ask?”
“Cuz of this.” Applejack draped the towel over her neck and began stripping the basket of its soaked wrapping. “Oh dear Celestia, please don't be ruined—Whew!” She exhaled with relief as she pulled a tiny alicorn doll out into the amber light of the fireplace. The toy was dry—about the driest thing in the cabin, and she nuzzled it like it was her own infant. “I would have plum tossed myself off a cliff if somethin' bad came to this.”
“Well, your secret's safe with me, Miss Applejack,” I said with a goofy wink.
“Huh?” She blinked up at me, then frowned. “Oh hush! T'ain't nothin' like that!” She cleared her throat and placed the doll back into the basket. “It belongs to my 'lil sister, Apple Bloom. Her Ma gave it to her, just before she and Pa tragically passed away. May they rest in peace.” She squatted down and exhaled, reveling in the warmth from the fireplace as she continued speaking, “Apple Bloom's having a bout of the pony pox right now. It always happens to us Apple family ponies at her age. My experience was anythang but a bed of roses, so I wanted to make it easier for her. I went into town and had her doll patched up and freshly cleaned, but on the way back... well...” She motioned towards the walls of the cabin, still echoing with the deluge of rain pounding from the outside world. “I almost had a heart attack. I couldn't allow Apple Bloom's doll to get ruined. Maybe now you can understand why I stole your patio like I did.”
“You didn't steal anything, Applejack,” I said calmly. “I completely understand. But, if you ask me, the doll is the least you should be worried about. Here...” I reached towards my cot and pulled free a woolen blanket. “No need to have two members of the Apple family coming down with something nasty.”
“Oh please, Miss Heartstrings. I can't—”
“Shhh.” I draped the blanket over Applejack and shoved her closer to the fireplace. “You can. Just relax. You've been through a rain-soaked nightmare; it's the least I can do.”
She took a deep, shuddering breath, and soon she was nestled comfortably before the flames as her body dried in the toasty aura. “Hmmmm... I reckon this feels mighty nice.”
I smiled. “I would think as much.”
“Kind of reminds me of the fireplace we've got back at the farm,” she said, tightening the folds of the blanket around herself. Her green eyes danced with the crackling embers. “My Pa built it. He once told me that he went by the same unwritten blueprints that his father and his father's father before him used when the Apple family first settled in this part of Equestria. Can you imagine it? So many homes, and all of them usin' the same thang.”
“It just goes to show...” I squatted down across from Applejack and gazed softly at her. “...you can get away with amazing things, so long as you have a good foundation.”
Twelve months ago, I was a sobbing mess. I laid on my side in the shadowy corner of a barn on the edge of town, curling in towards myself and covering my face with a quivering pair of hooves. The only thing more potent than the pangs of grief blistering through me was an immense cold, something that chilled me to the bone. For days, the frigidity had been my nemesis, a cryptic sensation that haunted and horrified me through the streets of Ponyville. At that time, however—hidden in the dust and hay of the abandoned barn—I welcomed the freezing sensation, for the shivers it gave me nearly shook my tears loose, making me think that none of what I was going through was actually happening.
Through hiccuping breaths, I smelled the rustic surroundings around me. I felt one with the detritus, a lost and forgotten piece of history. My saddlebag full of meager belongings had been tossed in the corner upon my stumbling arrival, and in the sparse beams of sunlight needling through the barn's porous ceiling beams I could barely tell the difference between my lyre and the random bits of farm junk surrounding it.
Another sob, another shiver: I heard my voice squeaking free from my chapped lips, and it sounded like a perfect stranger. Oh, if only I could forget myself as well, I thought. My life would have been a great deal more manageable if I could no longer remember the sensations still hounding me, of a raving pony wreaking havoc across town, of Twilight Sparkle's face looking through me as though I were invisible, and of the great height that had stretched beneath me as I stood on the town hall building's rooftop and teetered on the brink...
I whimpered and buried my face in my hooves. I felt like a little foal. I had tried fleeing from this place, running eastward. If I could have galloped all the way home to Canterlot, I would. But no less than half a mile from the edge of Ponyville, a horrible wall of cold assaulted me, to the point that I started losing the feeling in my limbs. I rushed back to the center of town, collected my nerves, and tried trotting west instead. After the same distance traveled, an invisible blizzard struck my body, and I had to return to the heart of my sudden prison.
There was no sense in asking anypony for help. As a matter of fact, I didn't want to even look at them. The residents of Ponyville were cheerful. They had every reason and right to be, and I didn't hate them for it. I hated myself. Stumbling across their paths—being subjected to their rosy expressions—served only to remind me of how cold, hungry, and scared I was. So I did what all three of those factors persuaded me to: I hid.
I ran to the west edge of town—where the cold was bearable enough to endure but grating enough to keep me awake—and I threw myself into the hollow of that abandoned barn on the side of a dirt road. I had wanted to collect my thoughts, but soon I had an even more impossible task to accomplish. I had to collect my spirit, but that had all too swiftly shattered into a hundred unrecoverable pieces, like the tears leaking over my hooves and onto the dirt floor and hay.
Even if I could put myself back together again, I wasn't sure I wanted to. I didn't like the idea of what that soul would be tethered to, of what fate it had to anticipate. It's one thing to be homeless. But to be nameless? You can live in a mansion paid for with the world's largest fortune. You can own a million houses, a million acres of land, and a million servants dwelling on it to do your bidding. You can even have your very own plot in the ground reserved for you in the world's most sacred cemetery. So long as you're nameless, you don't have a place to call “home,” not in this lifetime or beyond.
I was contemplating this, crying over this, despairing and shivering and collapsing over this, when she first arrived.
“Land's sakes!” her drawling voice echoed against the dilapidated walls of the barn. My ears picked up a quartet of hooves scraping through the wooden doorframe as the figure entered from the bright world outside. “I knew I heard somethin'! Uh... Hello? Somepony? Who's there?”
I didn't realize that I still had energy left in my body until I found myself bolting upright with a gasp. I turned towards her, and the first thing I saw were her freckles. A bright slit of light captured a pair of green eyes, followed by the warmest smile I had seen in three starving days.
“Whoah! Howdy there!” She waved two of her hooves high above her head to show she was harmless. I saw a brown hat, a ridiculously long blond mane, and two baskets of apples that hung from her sides. “Take it easy, sugarcube. I didn't mean to scare you or nothin'” She looked strong, fearless, the very definition of a working earth pony. Then all of those iron features immediately melted into a soft and sisterly gaze of concern. “Oh darlin', you look an absolute mess! I could hear ya cryin' like a poor widow from the road over yonder. Is everythang okay?”
What could I say to her? What could I say to anypony that would carry the smallest degree of weight? Life had given me a hammer and chisel, but my world had been turned to mud and sand. I almost wished I had played dead instead of responding to her. Maybe I would have gone unnoticed like the ghost I had become.
Instead, she stared steadily at me and said, “You do realize that this here barn's been abandoned for decades, right? Are you a long way from home?”
Her words were delicious, like soothing musical notes that I hadn't the fortune of discovering until then, and they were gracious enough to squeeze even more moisture from my eyes. I barely sniffled, though, for I was too busy staring—not at her, but at the twin baskets of red fruit adorning her figure. I was suddenly aware of how dry my mouth was. There was a deep rumble, like the wooden structure of the barn was settling all around us.
She heard it too, but was in a far saner condition to recognize it. “Heheh... Hungry, ain'tcha?” She smirked, following the angle of my eyes. “Let's start on the right hoof, shall we? My name's Applejack. Here.” She twisted her head around, balanced a red fruit on her nose, and tossed it my way. “Have an orange. Heheheheh—Ahem. That's an old family joke.”
I suddenly couldn't hear her. My taste buds were screaming over my ears, for I had scarfed down the contents of the apple in less than a minute. Choking would have been bearable so long as I wrangled a few tender morsels down my throat. Once I had bitten my way to the core, I wasn't entirely sure if it had helped my hunger any, but it had certainly dried my tears.
Applejack was whistling. “Whoa nelly! Easy there, girl! Heheh... Good thing I wash those things before takin' them to market, huh?” She sat down on her haunches in front of me. “Well, I toldja my name. Reckon I might get a chance to learn yours?”
I shuddered, avoiding her stare as well as her question. Even nowadays, I think I say my name out loud only to appease myself. I certainly wasn't the one to invent it, and if I was to give myself a fitting replacement, would anything announce it better than my lyre? All that mattered was that—at the time—something was gnawing at me far more than either cold or hunger. Applejack was so real, so warm, and so there. I was willing to do anything, or say anything, just to shatter the looming horizon of loneliness that threatened to drown it all.
“Lyra,” I ultimately whimpered. “Lyra Heartstrings.”
“Lyra,” she murmured aloud with a nod. Reaching her hoof up, she tilted the brim of her hat and smiled placidly my way. “That's a mighty pretty name you have there, Lyra.”
My vision instantly blurred again. I could feel my heart beating. I wanted to hold her. I wanted her to hold me. I wanted to be warm, to be safe, to be happy—and I knew that none of it would last. None of this would last. I should have ended the conversation right then and there. I should have grabbed my saddlebag, galloped out of the barn, and hid myself away in the forest where there'd be less intelligent creatures to smile at me, to feed me, to remind me that I was something worthy and capable of being cherished, just as Applejack's soothing voice was caressing all of the shivering ends of me, like I was not just some dirt-covered, tear-stained piece of refuse.
“I know this town like the back of my hoof,” Applejack continued. “And I must say I've never seen you around these parts before, Lyra. Are you visitin' family or somethin'? Is there somepony I can take you to? There's no need to be wastin' away in some dirty 'ol barn, now is there?” She blinked and squinted at me. “Uhm... Miss Heartstrings?”
At first, I wondered why she was asking me so many questions. As soon as the image of her teetered and was swallowed by perpetual shadow, it suddenly made sense. I was blacking out. I fainted like some pathetic damsel, my whole body going limp. Starvation, it seemed, isn't so exhausting until you remind yourself that you're capable of eating something. I collapsed from such a sensation, and when I came to—the world was a thousand times brighter than the inside of that barn. I saw the ground passing beneath me, and when I glanced up the horizon was bobbing.
“H-hey there!” I felt the vibration of Applejack's voice. With a shuddering breath, I realized that she was carrying me across her back. A dirt road led towards a red barnhouse nestled in a sea of delicious apple orchards, and we were gliding towards the bright epicenter. The world beyond the crest of Ponyville grew colder and colder, but Applejack's warm body and breath melted all of my shivers away. “Just relax, sugarcube. I'm takin' you somewhere safe. Yer gonna be just fine.”
“This...” I fought for an even breath, draped across her spine. Days of running, panicked, across the lengths of Ponyville brought an ache to my limbs that I was just then discovering. “This is where you live?”
“You betcha! Sweet Apple Acres, home of the finest bounty of red fruit in all of Equestria!” We passed wooden fences and apple carts. I could hear distant livestock and smell bales of hay. “But my family and I can give you the grand tour later. You look as though you've got a mighty nasty fever, Lyra. Let's get you warmed up.”
I immediately gasped. “You... Y-you remember my name?”
“Why, of course, darlin'! Heh... Just cuz the Apple family is simple farmin' folk doesn't make us simple-minded!”
There are times when I feel as though the only infinite resource in the world is tears. Closing my eyes, I smiled—a fractured, porcelain thing—and clung securely to her. The world was bright all around me, as if a righteous fire was burning away the frayed edges of a nightmarish veil that had been hanging over my head for days.
I was almost sad to be let go. I opened my eyes, realizing that I was suddenly inside this blessed mare's house, having been plopped down on a sofa in the middle of an antique living room full of family pictures, heirlooms, and home-crafted decorations. There was a fireplace in front of me, and it was as empty as I felt. The sight of it made me shiver, and Applejack must have seen it, for soon she was grabbing planks of dried wood from a metal stand.
“Here, let me light this up. You make yerself comfortable and I'll get Granny Smith to fix you some soup.”
“Granny... Smith...?” I murmured. Just then, my ears pricked to hear the sounds of voices in the far end of the house. Applejack and I were not alone. The place was alive, and I felt very alien there sitting on the family's immaculate sofa with my tousled mane and stained coat.
“Her name is Lyra Heartstrings, Granny!” I heard Applejack shout across the interior, continuing a conversation that I in my numb state was only partially privy to. “I found her just outside of town! The poor thing looks like she's long due for some real hospitality.”
“I...” I bit my lip, squirming under a fresh curtain of shivers. “I thank you so very much, M-miss Applejack. But you really don't need to go to all this length just to... to...” My voice trailed off, for I was suddenly bathing in a sea of toasty warmth. The fireplace had been lit, and as my ears embraced the delicious crackling noises of the burning wood, my body veritably melted into the folds of the couch. “Ohhhhhhhhhh Celestia, that's nice,” I murmured with a drunken smile.
Applejack's return grin was a lot more charming. “Nothing treats a sick spell better than bathin' in the Apple family's fireplace.” She winked. “Shucks, I remember when I first had the pony pox. Cuddlin' up before this here mantle got me through all sorts of feverish nights.”
“I'm not sick,” I said as politely as I could. “I'm...” I felt a sore lump building in my throat. I didn't want to sponge up too much of this kind mare's generosity, but at the same time it felt like the first occasion I had in days to... relax and let go. I wanted to pour all of my troubles onto somepony, but I didn't want to burden them with something I barely even understood. “I'm lost, Applejack,” I blurted. I ran a hoof through my frazzled mane and stifled my whimpers before they could form. “I'm so lost, and I don't know where to start.”
“Well, I dunno about you, but I reckon that home is always the best place to start.”
“It's what makes a pony, or so I've always believed.” She placed the metal fireguard down before the brick-laid hearth and trotted towards me. “A while ago, when I was just a 'lil filly, I left this farm and headed out to the city, thinkin' that I could live a different kind of life than the rest of the family. Boy, was that one of the plum stupidest decisions of my life. Heh. I nearly cried my eyes out for days, until I ran back home, and everythang was just right.” She stood above me and gently dragged a hoof over my mane, plucking free a random leaf and stalk of hay that I had collected in the barn where she had found me. “Sometimes we leave home—even if it means running away from the place that means the most to us—cuz we're so desperate to find ourselves. And what happens? We only get more lost.”
“I didn't run away from my home, Applejack,” I said with a soft sigh. An invisible gust of wind came from nowhere. The fireplace suddenly seemed miles away as images of Canterlot flicked through my mind. “I would give anything to go back there, but I can't.”
“And just why is that, sugarcube?”
I bit my lip. Goosebumps were forming under my coat. I clutched my forelimbs to my chest and fought the icy shadows for as long as I could. Applejack had been so kind to me. The last thing she needed was an emaciated guest collapsing in the center of her living room. Never in my life had I anticipated becoming what I was then: a vagabond, a bum, a unicorn with no purpose or title. All my life, I had seen riff-raff gathered in the far shadier streets of Canterlot, and I had always regarded them with both pity and curiosity. Now I was sitting in their place, carrying the same disgusting scent, and even those impoverished souls had more hope than I did. Even if I could make my way back home, would I be able to stake claim to what which was once attached to me? Would my parents be able to help me any?
“Nothing,” I murmured, my lips quivering. “There is nothing for me to go back to.” I huddled into the deeper contours of the sofa. For a moment, I wished that it was a coffin instead.
“Hmmm... Well, right now, we have a place for you here, sugarcube,” Applejack said. Her selflessness was only outshone by the bright smile on her face as she swiftly trotted towards a closet, opened it up, and rummaged through rows of hanging jackets inside. “And I've got something else for ya. It's just the thing for them feverish shivers of yers.” After a modicum of effort, she emerged with a stone gray article hanging from her mouth. She dropped it by my side. “Here ya go. A little something I used to wear when I was a bit younger, for workin' around the orchards in autumn and all. Of course, I rarely use it these days, on account that I've grown myself a second skin. Heh.”
I looked at her, then at her gift. After a squinting study, I realized it was a long-sleeved sweaterjacket. Without a second thought, I encased the item in glowing telekinesis and all-but-flung it over my forward half. Finally, with only a little fuss, I slid my hooves all the way through and sat comfortably with the hoodie encasing my shivering limbs. Soon, the goosebumps shrank away, as if the jacket was somehow absorbing the heat wafting towards me from the fireplace. Looking back, I think it was the gesture itself that did the trick. Applejack was willing to give a little piece of herself, and it was like being engulfed nonstop in her hug. I couldn't help but smile, for I remembered what it felt like to be in the company of a pony who was more than a stranger. I was more than ready to call this polite and thoughtful mare a “friend.”
“Th-thank you. Really, Applejack,” I said, curling against the sofa's shoulderest and basking in the glow of the hearth. “For everything. I wish I could repay you.”
“My home is your home.” She merely shrugged. “Relax, rest up, and get better. Later on, we can see about helping you find yer place, ya reckon?”
I let loose the tiniest of giggles. “Sure, I 'reckon.'” I smiled, letting the gray sleeves of the hoodie dangle toastily over the ends of my front hooves. When I was young, I used to envy Twilight Sparkle, wishing that I too had an older sibling to look after me while my parents were away. I wondered if this was what it felt like. “Though I dunno if any place in the world has a fireplace as good as this one.”
“It's a good fireplace,” Applejack said with a nod. “My Pa built it. 'Always make sure that you lay down a good foundation,' he'd say. 'The rest takes time, but it works without a hitch so long as the foundation is solid.'” She gazed briefly into the fire. She looked a lot older suddenly, though she carried it with far greater strength than the frail melancholy that I see in most ponies' faces. “I reckon I've held much weight in them words of his. My Pa was the foundation of my life.”
I was floating dizzily on a cloud of warmth, but still I was able to understand the gravity of my new friend's words. “I'm sure you've done him proud,” I said.
“Hmm. I can only make him prouder.” Her green eyes twinkled briefly as she smiled, then trotted past me. “I'll see how Granny's doin' with the soup. I'll be back in a jiffy.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said, adjusting where I sat on the sofa. Sparks danced against the fireguard before me. I stared into the flame, allowing the thoughts of my recent circumstances to melt away. I pulled the hood of the sweatjacket over my horn and exhaled deeply, as if giving up a somber part of myself that had controlled my frightened limbs for so many nocturnal hours of despair.
It was the first chance I had to sit and think deeply in days. As a result, something dark and mysterious rose to the surface of my mind, something that had danced around the miserable waves I had so fitfully navigated up until that point. The more I meditated on it, the more my ears twitched, for I realized that I was unearthing a melody from the deepest part of my psyche, an undying tune that had been born in the recesses of my mind and remained unsung since the very moment I woke fitfully in a dark alley, a scared and freezing victim of endless night.
So engrossed was I in these ponderings, I barely noticed a yellow shape trotting up to my peripheral vision... then gasping.
I glanced over. There was a little foal looking up at me with wide amber eyes. A red bow swayed in her crimson mane, for she was shivering. Was I not the only one who was cold? No, that wasn't it. She was afraid of me.
“Why, hello there,” I said in as gentle and harmless a voice I could muster. I smiled at her and leaned over slightly. “You must be Applejack's sister.”
The girl back-trotted from me, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Uhhh...” Her jaw dropped as a pale sheen danced across her irises, like moonlight rippling over pond water. “Uhhh... AJ?!”
“Shhh—It's okay!” I smirked. “I'm guessing your sis neglected to mention that you had company—”
“What is it, Apple Bloom?” A familiar orange shape strolled back into the chamber, then immediately froze. My heart jolted, for Applejack was suddenly shouting, “Apple Bloom! Get over here! Now!”
Panting, the little foal scampered over to her sister. I watched, blinking and confused, as Apple Bloom hid behind the mare. Applejack stood protectively in front of her while glaring down at me on the sofa. All of the sweetness and hospitality was gone, shattered to bits beneath an accusing frown as hard as diamonds. “Just who in the hay are you?! What are you doing in our house?!”
“Wh-What?!” I gasped. My heart was beating hard, as if it would tear a hole in the hoodie at any moment. “But... But... I was just.... I thought that—”
“Is that my jacket you're wearing?” Applejack exclaimed, her emerald eyes squinting harshly. I could hear Apple Bloom's whimpering voice as she cowered and hid her face. Behind both sisters, an old green-coated mare strolled up from the other room, curious about the violent commotion. “Have you been rummaging through our stuff?!” Applejack continued, almost sneering. “Spit it out!”
“You... You know my name?” Applejack cocked her head to the side. Her anger was briefly drowned in confusion, but soon that cloud faded and the scorn returned. “Did somepony put you up to this? If so, t'ain't funny! We already had a bunch of rambunctious colts vandalizin' our barn months ago! This here farm doesn't need no more mayhem on its plate! Now are you gonna answer me or not?!”
“I don't understand! I'm Lyra, remember? We were just—” I stopped in mid-speech. My heart briefly stopped, and I felt the warmth of the living room once again dissolving. The next breath from my mouth was a whimper, for I had been reacquainted with my own foolishness. “Oh dear Celestia, it's happening again.”
“What's happenin' again?! Dang it, missy! I demand to know why you've trespassed into our very own home!”
“Look... Uhm...” I stood up from the couch, weak, my legs wobbling. “This is... I'm...” I gulped and backed away from them, waving a hoof. “I don't even know how to explain th-this...”
“Try me!” Applejack's iron frown carried her icily towards me. The fire bathed every hard line of her features and none of the freckles. “Before I call the police.”
“We were just talking a moment ago, Applejack! You carried me here from the edge of town—”
“Carried you here?! I've never seen you before in my life!”
“I know you think that—But I swear to you!” I gulped before stammering like a fibbing foal who was desperate to avoid the paddle. “We talked! You lit the fireplace for me! You gave me this jacket—”
“Likely story. You reckon I'm stupid?”
“N-no! For the love of Luna, it's not what you...” I stopped in place. The shivers had quadrupled. I felt my bones turning to ice. My gaze swam dizzily over the many family portraits lining the living room. I saw nothing but the faces of strangers, like these three souls gathered before me always were and always would be. I grimaced as though I was giving birth to a familiar horror.. “I'm so sorry... I... I-I gotta go—!”
“Oh no you don't—”
I spun and galloped desperately towards the far end of the house. “I'm sorry!”
“Applejack—!” the old mare's voice started. “She's gettin' away!”
“Oh no she ain't! Macky?!”
Their shouting voices dwindled as I shot around a corner and bolted for the front door. Instead, I bumped into something large and red. “Ooomf!” I fell down on my haunches, reeling sickly. Looking up, I gasped. “Uhh!”
A tall stallion towered above me, his crimson coat rippling with a sea of iron muscles. On any other occasion, he would have been a delectable sight for a mare like me to behold. At the moment, however, he was as menacing as a leering minotaur.
“Big Macintosh!” I heard the elder mare's voice calling over the bounding hoofsteps of Applejack from the chamber behind me. “Grab her before she gets away—!”
I gritted my teeth, flashing a look left and right. I saw a bathroom within a leap's distance. Just as the red brute lunged at me, I bounded out of his reach and bolted towards the doorframe. The doorknob was already glowing from my telekinesis by the time I flung myself inside and magically slammed the thing shut. The house was rumbling from all of the bodies thundering after my hooves. I slipped on a rug, nearly fell, and scampered back on all fours in time to lock the door and press my weight up against it.
The door pounded once, twice. I shrieked and pressed myself desperately against it, trembling, my starved body and glittering magic acting as a frail bulwark against the entire family's righteous anger. “Oh Celestia. Oh Celestia please.” I started to weep, my tears gathering at the collar of the gray hoodie that had been donated to me by a ghost. The door pounded a third time and I nearly fell back, struggling to keep my hooves firm against the slippery tile.
“Open this door!” I heard Applejack say. “I swear we ain't gonna hurt you, girl. But—carn sarn it—you've got some explainin' to do!” I heard the muttering of the other family members just outside. “Don't you know that the Ponyville Police can put you in jail for invadin' somepony's home?”
“Please! Just leave me alone!” I sobbed, on the edge of hyperventilating. I murmured into the wooden surface of the door, “The police will do nothing! Believe me! Nopony can do anything for me. Oh blessed Luna...” I hiccuped and slid down against the door, grasping my head and shaking. The tune was louder this time, as if it was wanting to burst out my skull and bathe the walls of the bathroom with what was left of my soul. “I just want somepony to help me, like you almost did. It's that so hard to ask for?”
There was no response from the other side. I sat there, sniffling, hugging my lower limbs and trembling for what had to have been one minute... two minutes... three. I blinked, dried my eyes with a stone-gray sleeve, and glanced up.
“H-hello?” I remarked, nervously. Again, there was no reply. “M-miss Applejack? Apple Bloom?” I gulped. “M-macky?”
Pensively, I stood up. I stared at the doorknob for ages before finally summoning the strength to unlock it with my telekinesis. Pushing the glowing door open, I peered my head out into the hallway. There was nopony to be seen. I calmed my panting breaths long enough to sneak down the hallway. The floorboards creaked beneath me. With a wince, I inched my way, until I reached the edge of the living room where the entire debacle had started. I gazed quietly around the corner.
Applejack stood before the hearth, her flanks to me. “Hmm... seems like an awful waste of wood in the middle of summer.” She lowered her hat and scratched her blond mane while gazing into the crackling fireplace. “Just who's idea was this? Apple Bloom?”
“Wasn't me, sis!” the little yellow foal trotted past her. “Besides, I'm not allowed to put logs in without yours or Big Mac's permission! Ain't that what yer always tellin' me?”
“As much as I fancy you bein' all obedient-like, there are times when I wonder...”
“Hey! What's that supposed to mean?!”
“Eh... Don't get in such a hissy fit over it, girls!” The elder mare sat her green wrinkly self down in a rocking chair and smiled, basking in the warmth from the fireplace. “After all, this is just what the 'ol doctor ordered for my bones. Eh heh heh. Ohhhh... Apple Bloom, be a dear and go grab Granny's quilt. There's a good 'lil filly.”
“Sure thing, Granny Smith.”
“I reckon I better go help Big Mac with the chores,” Applejack muttered as she shuffled towards the back door to the house. “Heavens to Betsy!” She smiled and shook her head as she walked into the reddening sunset. “Just where does all the time go? I must be getting' old.”
“Ohhhhh shut yer trap, ya stinkin' baby!” Granny Smith spat.
“Teeheehee...” Apple Bloom managed as she dragged a quilt over to her grandmother. In the background, Applejack rolled her green eyes and was gone.
Biting my lip, I stepped back away from this scene. I stood breathless in the hallway, alone with my shivers. I glanced briefly at my reflection in a circular mirror hanging across the wall. An unkempt, dirt-stained, sad unicorn gazed back. Raising a hoof up, I played with the hood dangling behind my neck. It was then that I realized the extent to which I could afford friendship in this life.
My stomach gurgled again. I glanced longingly at the house's exit, but it stretched away magically before my vision, as did the guilt over what I was about to do next. In a blur, I galloped into the family's kitchen. I flung open the first cupboard I could find. I discovered two loaves of bread, and immediately flung them into the front pouch of my hoodie. There were many other things inside that kitchen—expensive and luscious trinkets that could have sold for many bits around downtown Ponyville—but I didn't bother touching a single one of them. It was my first robbery; it might as well have been a tiny one. I prayed to Celestia that it would be my last, and ran out of the farmhouse in a desperate flight to reunite with my lyre, as if it was the only thing that could tell me what “home” was anymore.
When Applejack trotted around the bend in the road the next morning, I could instantly see her. It had only been a day since my little “experience” at her farm, and I hadn't slept a wink. My body was kept up by shivers; my stomach was full of stolen bread. Through a combination of guilt and loneliness, I didn't hide in the corner of the barn like I should have. I stood at the edge of it, in open view of the orange mare as she strolled down the dirt path.
Sure enough, she saw me. To my mixed dismay and relief, she stood dead-still in the middle of the road and smiled my way.
“Why, howdy!” Her smile was electric. She could have been the sunrise itself for all I could tell. “Fancy meetin' a pony out here this early in the day!” She shifted the weight of two apple baskets on her sides. “Hankerin'' for some breakfast? Normally its one-bit-per-apple, but seein' as I'm feelin' mighty chipper this mornin', how'd you like a two-for?”
Her freckles were a welcome sight, distant shadows of a loving sister I knew I would never have again. The longer I stared, the more the sight of her face gave way to the memory of wooden kitchen cabinets being flung open and pilfered. I wrenched my gaze away from her, refusing to so much as look at the delicious apples that she was willing to sell me.
“Uhm... Thanks but no thanks, ma'am. I... uhm... I'm just waiting for somepony.”
“Oh yeah? Anyone I know? I've got quite the little circle of friends around town.”
I bit my lip, leaning awkwardly against the wooden doorframe of the barn. “You... You wouldn't know her.” I sighed and ran a hoof through my mane, trying desperately to not look like the pathetic, homeless vagabond I so obviously was in front of her. “But maybe... just maybe you'll get to know her someday.” I tried to smile; it would have been easier to sprout pegasus wings and fly.
“You okay, sugarcube? T'ain't none of my business, but yer lookin' rather glum.” Applejack adjusted her hat and flashed me a sympathetic glance, warm like a fireplace. “It's a beautiful mornin'. No sense aimin' yer horn at the ground. You should try lookin' up at the sky for a change.”
I felt the edges of my lips finally curving upwards, something I couldn't manage on my own. I breathed a little more easily, my shivers dissipating somewhat. “I was... uhm...” I spoke before I knew what words were coming out of my mouth. I wondered how much I'd have to be rambling before I produced a truth that was applicable enough to a given situation. “I was just wondering about this barn...”
“Yeah? What about it?”
“Who does it belong to?” I glanced up at the shoddy, wooden structure where I had spent the last two fitful nights. Somewhere inside, my lyre and saddlebag were lying like the accursed treasures of a splintery sarcophagus. “Does anypony own it?”
Applejack snickered and trotted over to stand beside me. “A better question is 'would anypony want to?'” She heartlessly kicked at part of the doorframe, causing a vertical plank to fall ineffectually into the dirt between us. “From as far I recollect, this here barn's been around far longer than I have. My Ma and Pa never talked about it. Odds are it belonged to Filthy Rich's family before they went into the retail business, but that would have been ages ago. Nah, from what I gather, this here land's plum for the takin'. Though I doubt any pony's gonna want it.” She glanced at the solid line of trees that bordered the dirt patch on the other side of the old structure. “Even if these trees were chopped down, it'd take either hundreds of ponies or a heap'o'magic to make the ground soft enough to plant anythang. Long story short, darlin', the barn's just a fadin' memory... like so much of what's left of Ponyville's past these days.”
I gazed up at the structure, running an affectionate hoof across the doorframe. “I know a thing or two about fading memories,” I murmured in a distant voice.
“Hmmph. That's funny.”
Curiously, I glanced at her. “It is?”
“No, not that.” She rubbed her chin, squinting towards something below my neck. “I used to have a jacket just like the one yer wearin'.”
I gulped and fidgeted with the long sleeves. “You don't say...?”
“Hmmph... Heheh... But it's been ages since I wore the thing.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I'm guessing, from working in the cold weather for so long, you've grown a second skin?”
Applejack's eyes twitched in thought. “Well, that's a nifty way of puttin' it.”
I took a deep breath, then cleared my throat as I gazed at the fragile lengths of the barn. “Tell me... What's a good way to... uhm... to earn some money around town?”
“Bits, yeah.” I nodded and looked at her. “You know of any Ponyvillean hiring for...” I bit my lip and navigated the impossibility of the thought just as I was producing it. “... for freelance stuff?”
“If you want to learn a thang or two about job openings, just go take a gander at the bulletin board at main street,” Applejack said. “Though I doubt yer gonna find anythang aside from full time offerings.”
I gulped and stared down at the dirt. “Right. Figures...”
“Though I'm sure there're plenty of freelancin' stuff for a musician to do,” she said pleasantly.
I looked up at her, blinking. “Musician?”
“Well, shucks, girl!” She pointed at my cutie mark with a chuckle. “You didn't get that cuz you like to lick stamps, now didja?”
“M-my special talent,” I uttered in a numb voice, as if a sheet of ice was clearing from over my head. “Right...” I looked towards the distant pocket of hay inside the barn where my lyre was hidden. “Hmmm....” I glanced back at Applejack and pointed at her cutie mark. “I see your special talent is selling oranges.”
She blinked at me, then snorted. Her hat nearly fell off as she let out a loud guffaw. I joined with my giggles, for suddenly the day was feeling warmer.
When Applejack trotted around the bend in the road, she paused to stare at the wooden barn. It was obviously the same wooden barn she had trotted past every morning on her way to town, only now there was a green tent pitched next to it.
“What in tarnation...?” She squinted curiously. Her ears tickled with a gentle melody wafting through the branches bordering either side of the dirt path. “Is the circus movin' into town?”
“Try 'a traveling minstrel.'”
Applejack looked my way. “Huh?” She jolted as four bits flew towards her and landed on the brim of her hat.
I was standing in the doorframe of the barn, leaning against the dilapidated entrance while strumming my lyre. “Is that enough for two of those delicious apples, ma’am?”
Applejack glanced at the baskets in question hanging from her side. She lowered her hat and retrieved the bits. “Well, to be honest, missy, that's enough for four of 'em.”
I gave her a practiced smirk, something that I was getting better at after so many weeks spent performing in town. “Alright, then. Four. They look absolutely scrumptious, and it so happens I have the bits to spare.”
“Is that so?” Applejack spoke while picking four of her best fruit from the baskets and bagging them. “I'm guessing you're a mare on vacation.”
“More or less, though I must say that this town's looking brighter and brighter with each passing day. I'm thinking of staying for a while longer.” I strummed the lyre and motioned towards her. “You look rather fit, if I may say so, ma'am. Tell me, do you work on a farm?”
“Heh, as a matter of fact, I do.” She smirked at me and held the bag of apples out in one hoof. “And if yer truly fixin' on hangin' around here, then you're bound to get to know me and my family. We've been harvestin' apples here for a long time.”
“A long time, huh?” I gently took the bag from her in glowing telekinesis and laid it beside the tent next to the barn. “Then perhaps you could answer something for me.”
“This barn: it looks abandoned. Is that true?”
“Well, uhm... Pretty much, yeah.”
“Does that go for the land as well?”
“As far as I know.”
I smiled knowingly. “So I'm guessing this structure's standing here for no reason?”
“What are ya gettin' at?” Applejack glanced at me sideways. “Thinkin' of doing some demolition?”
“Well, it depends.” I strummed on the lyre and kicked my rear hoof playfully against the wooden side of the building. “Would you happen to have some experience in the matter?”
“Hah! Sorry, missy, but you're askin' the wrong pony.”
“I'd love to give ya some advice, but truth is I'm not all about barn-tearin' as I am about barn-raisin'.” She fanned herself in the morning sunlight before planting the hat back atop her blond mane. “As a matter of fact, I've watched my Pa build many a thing in his days. May he rest in peace.” Her nostrils flared as she murmured, “He could build log cabins in his sleep if he wanted to.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Log cabins?”
“Lickety split! They used to call him 'the House Planter' around these parts. Heh. But—yeah.” She trotted back into the dirt road. “I'd better be off to market. Still, though, if you wanna see about tearin' barns down, you'd best be askin' ponies around town.”
“Ponies like who?”
When Applejack trotted around the bend in the road, she froze upon hearing a roaring voice. Splinters of wood flew through the air, followed by a blur of bright colors darting in and out of view.
“Rainbow Dash?” She squinted awkwardly in the morning air. Slowly, she lurched towards the side of the road, shocked to see an old barn being torn to shreds—plank by plank—by a familiar blue pegasus who was sailing her agile body violently through the wooden structure. “Whoa, there, girl!” she ducked as a wave of wooden bits splattered over her head. “Watch where yer divin'! Seriously! Is there a war I don't know about?”
“Here.” A helmet floated magically towards her. “You might need this,” I said with a smile from where I stood beside my tent and supplies. “She gets a little crazy from time to time, but it makes for a fun show.”
“Uhm... I reckon it does.” Applejack removed her hat and slapped the helmet on awkwardly in its place. “Any chance somepony might help this make a lick of sense?”
“What's so hard to understand? There's a barn here now, but soon it won't be. Isn't that right, Miss—Rainbow Dash, was it?”
“Nnnnngh!” The goggled pegasus was busy smashing a wide gaping hole in the middle of the barn. She yanked a support beam loose with her bare teeth and prepared to kick a chunk out of the ceiling loose with her rear hooves. “Haaaaugh—!”
“Yoohoo?!” I shouted, cupping my muzzle with a pair of front hooves. “Earth to Rainbow Dash!”
“What?!” Rainbow Dash looked down at me. Slowly, the berserker sneer across her face melted. She greeted each wave of confusion with a series of blinks. “Wait. What? Who are you again?”
“Lyra Heartstrings.” I leaned forward, glowing my horn through the hole in my helmet like it was a symbol of trust. “Remember? I'm the pony paying you fifty bits to tear this barn to the ground.”
“Hold up.” Rainbow Dash levitated above the two of us, her ruby eyes bright. “You mean to tell me that I get to break stuff and get paid for it?”
“Absolutely!” I grinned.
“Wicked sweet!” She coiled up in mid-air and sprung like a missile towards the remaining structure. “Eat it, barn! Rrrrrrgh!”
There was a resounding explosion. Applejack and I flinched under a shower of splinters.
“Well, I see you're new in town!” Applejack grunted, then brushed flecks of sawdust off her baskets of fruit. “But you must have some sort of fancy gift of gabbin' to get RD here to do such hard work so early in the mornin'!”
“She's a friend of yours?”
“A loyal one at that, though she can be a loyal pain at times.” Applejack managed a smirk, and the volume in her voice playfully picked up some. “Like when she accidentally delivers a rain cloud to the wrong end of the apple orchards!”
“Hey!” A spectral bolt of lightning shouted overhead before exploding once more into the barn. “I heard that!”
“You own a farm?” I struggled to ask amidst another spray of debris.
“Ahem. Yup. Sweet Apple Acres.”
“Now there's a marketable name.”
“Eh. When it matters. Why? You fixin' to get into the fruit sellin' business? Cuz that job's kind of filled enough as it is around town.”
“It's not that,” I said, glancing at Rainbow Dash's chaotic job. More and more sunlight covered the patches of dirt alongside the road as the barn was slowly disassembled before our eyes. “I was hoping to find a pony who's had some experience with the land around here. I've been needing to ask for some advice, you see.”
“Really? Like what kind of advice?”
“You see I'm... uhm...” I shifted a bit where I stood and smiled gently. “My stay here in town... it's like a vacation, more or less. But I think I'm going to be here a lot longer than I originally anticipated. I mean—why not? Heh... It's a beautiful village.”
“I've always stood by that,” Applejack said with a smile.
“You wouldn't happen to know any pony who's an expert on building?”
“Oh...” I took a deep breath, glanced at the line of oak trees surrounding the collapsing barn, and murmured, “Log cabins.”
Applejack instantly brightened. “Well, shucks! Heheh... funny you should mention that!”
I gulped and murmured, “You don't say...”
“I happen to know a thing or two about that!” She smiled. “My Pa could build log cabins in his sleep. He taught me everything he knew. May he rest in peace.”
“Well...” I adjusted the sleeves of my hoodie and turned to face her. “If you don't mind my asking, how's a good way to start?”
“You start with a good, sturdy axe.”
I blinked. For some absurd reason, I hadn't expected that. “Oh?”
“Heheheh...” Applejack squinted slyly at me. “Unless you're rich enough to buy the lumber....” She pointed straight at the woods. “Seems to me like you've got plenty to work with here. That's how every family in these parts got started.”
“Yes.” I gulped and managed a brave smile. “I guess that makes sense. Uhm...” I scratched my neck and looked humbly her way. “Could I trouble you for some advice on where to get the right axe... not to mention other tools?”
“Hey! No trouble at all!” Applejack leaned against a nearby tree and smirked. “Though you might wanna write some of this stuff down, assuming you can concentrate while Rainbow Dash reenacts the Lunar Civil War over our heads. Ain't that right, Rainbow?!”
“Hnnngh—Huh? What?” Rainbow Dash stopped and hovered above us, panting and sweating. “Applejack? Why are you wearing a helmet?” She went cross-eyed and tapped the goggles on her own face. “The hay is all this?”
“Did ya bang yer head too hard that last time or somethin'?” Applejack stifled a guffaw. “Better not hurt yerself until after yer done with Miss Heartstrings' job!”
“What job?!” Rainbow Dash frowned. “Who's Miss Heartstrings?!”
“Hi there!” I waved up at her, smiling. “I'm the one paying you one hundred bits to tear this barn down!”
“Hold up. You mean to tell me that I get to break stuff and get paid for it? Wicked sweet! Raaaaaugh!”
When Applejack trotted around the bend, she immediately made a face. Slowly, under the fall of amber-colored leaves, she trotted straight towards a rhythmic thwacking noise. “Uhm... Ma'am? Do you need a little help there?”
“Nnngh... No!” I exclaimed. It came out as a snarl, but I was too exhausted to apologize. I sweated as I levitated the axe three feet in front of me. I was hacking away at the side of a thick oak tree. My horn pulsed atop my skull, the invisible leylines of magic tingling in agony as I stretched my telekinetic muscles to the breaking point. “I've got this covered! I just need to convince the dang tree to work with me! Nnngh!”
I swung the floating axe once more. Wooden chips and sawdust splashed across the broad patch of dirt beside the path. No matter how much I cut and chopped and bit at the tree with my blade, the natural structure wasn't showing any signs of falling anytime soon.
“Ahem. As much as I hate to get in another pony's business...” Applejack smiled gently and paced at a safe distance around my clumsy task at hoof. “...but I really do wish y'all'd let me give a little demonstration.”
“Mmmff... Don't you...” I chopped. “...have an...” I hacked. “...Ironpony Competition...” I flailed. “...to get to?!—Whoah!” I fell down on my dainty haunches, breathless, as the axe plopped down to the soil beside me.
“Just how many ponies know about that thang between Rainbow and I? I swear—she must be braggin' around town for perfect strangers to have caught wind.” Applejack trotted over and touched a hoof to the axe's handle. “Seriously, though. May I?”
I took several deep breaths, wiped the sweat from my brown, and motioned towards her. “Knock yourself out...”
“Well alright.” She smiled and hoisted the axe up in her teeth. Trotting over to the tree, she leaned the tool against it and paused to glance back at me. “Ya see, darlin', you're goin' about it all wrong. If a pony wants to chop down a tree like this beaut here, ya gotsta judge where the weight of it is leanin', on account that yer fixin' to make it fall where y'all want it to.” She circled the tree and slapped a part of the trunk perpendicular to where I was pathetically chiseling into the thing. “Right here's the best part. Then, once you've chosen the proper place to start cuttin', you do it like so.”
Applejack once more gripped the axe in her mouth. Her muscles tensed and her hooves dug into the earth as she flung the whole weight of the blade repeatedly into the trunk. Her incision was noticeably angled, biting at a forty-five degree towards the tree's roots. Once the diagonal slice had been made halfway through the tree, she pivoted her swing and chopped horizontally, so that a visible notch formed neatly in the thick of the structure.
“Yeesh...” I couldn't help but scratch my head and gawk in wonder. “You must have some really, really strong teeth.”
Applejack finished her task and spat the axe onto the dirt. “Hmmph... Yup, I reckon I'd have to.” She hadn't even broken a sweat. I watched as she paced around to the side of the tree opposite of the notch and squinted at it closely. “I've dealt with trees all my life. I live on the apple farm over yonder. No doubt you've heard of 'Sweet Apple Acres'.”
“I just might have,” I said with a smile. “Still, thanks for the help—”
“Oh, we ain't done yet, sugarcube.” Applejack pointed at the bark. “Now's time to slice straight into the trunk from the other side of the cut we just made. Once you've chopped through what's left of the width, the tree should collapse in the direction of the angled notch. You feel me?”
“I feel you.” I marched up to the tree and levitated the axe into position. “Though, I gotta ask, do you always spend your mornings helping random unicorns fell trees?”
“Just what's so random about it?” Applejack stood safely back from my task and smirked. “You're here in Ponyville, tryin' to make an honest livin', from what I gather. It wouldn't be right neighborly of me to just walk by and let you burn out your magic horn all crazy-like!”
“Heh...” I concentrated as I hacked away at the tree, parallel to the horizontal slit she had formed at the base of the notch. “You make it sound as though just any pony you run into could be your neighbor.”
“Yes, well...” Applejack dusted her hat off and watched me at work. “That's a mighty fine strategy in my book. The golden rule ain't so golden if ya don't bother polishin' it with every soul you meet, ya reckon?”
I paused briefly in cutting to meditate on that. I inhaled the crisp autumn air and smiled, as if reenergized. “That's a very solid thing to live by, ma'am.” I resumed chopping. The entire height of the tree wobbled precariously, slowly leaning in the direction that Applejack had expertly designated. “No wonder you're prime Ironpony material.”
“Heh. I hate to say it, but I'll hardly get that title by bein' nice.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Oh, nothin'...” Applejack scratched her chin. “I could have sworn there used to be a barn around these here parts.”
“I'm sure it did what all useless things do,” I murmured while giving a few last, final thwacks. “It disappeared.” The tree snap, and started to lean away from us. “Heeeeey... There we go!” I backed up, grinning wide.
“Ahem. Now's where ya shout 'timber,' missy.”
“Oh, uhm.” I took a deep breath and opened my mouth wide. Just then, the ground rolled with thunder. Loose leaves fluttered all around us from the tree's heavy collapse with the earth. I blinked and blushed slightly. “...timber?”
I looked back at the giggling mare and smiled. “I don't suppose I can carve the thing hollow and just live in it, huh?”
“Ya gotta make the notches deeper, Miss... Miss...”
“Heartstrings,” I said, grunting a little as I carved at the sides of the oak logs with my hatchet. The trees that were left standing beside the clearing around us were barren, devoid of leaves. A sharp chill hung in the air as I prepared to add to the rectangular pile of wooden beams being slowly built along the side of the road. “And this is coming along nicely. I hate to bother you on such a beautiful day.”
“Don't mention it!” Applejack waved a hoof, smiling. She wore a plain brown scarf around her neck to protect her from the bitter November chill. “I always take my sweet time headin’ home, just in case there're ponies like you roundabouts who need a helpin' hoof.”
“Well, I’m thankful. I really, really gotta get this finished,” I exclaimed, sweating, concentrating hard to make the notch perfect so that it'd fit with the rest of the beams I had stacked up. “It's taken me too long as it is. My magic just can't replace sheer experience, if you catch my drift.”
“Absolutely. I always feel bad for unicorns—” Applejack began, but then blinked and blushed. “Erm. No offense.”
I smiled at my work. “None taken.”
“It's just that y'all are always fancyin’ yourselves as capable of doin' all sorts of amazin' grunt work with them horns yer sportin'. Two of my best friends are unicorns, and I know for a fact that liftin' too much weight with magic can give a pony an awful bad headache. I think it's good that yer pacin' yerself. I only wish I'd had the opportunity to see ya and help ya out sooner.”
“Oh, Miss Applejack...” I smiled as I put the finishing touches to the wood with my hatchet. “Trust me. You have nothing to fret about.”
“If you insist. Ready to put the thang in place?”
“Care to spot me?”
I took a deep breath, tensed my muscles, and channeled a surge of magic through my horn. Slowly, I raised the entire beam of wood and levitated it across the dirt clearing towards the rectangular base I had started. With Applejack guiding me, I gently lowered the log in place so that its notches matched those of the beams already in place.
“There... That'll do it! Yeeeha! See? It fits a lot better than your previous ones, I'm willin' to bet!”
“I can see it already.” I exhaled sharply, adjusting my collar and drying the sweat from my neck. I gave her a sincere smile. “Thanks, Applejack. I couldn't have done it without you.”
“Pfft.” She shrugged and adjusted her scarf. “I only gave ya one tip and now yer thankin' me like I'm yer contractor or somethin'. I'm only happy to lend some help, Miss Heartstrings. Just don't forget to apply the mortar between the beams. I could show you how, if ya like. My father was an expert at buildin' log cabins, you see.”
“Really, now?” I took a deep breath of the cold, autumn air and glanced softly her way. “Dare I ask, did he have a lot to do with the making of this town?”
“Funny you should ask that, missy.” Applejack's breaths came out in misty vapors as she stood on the plain wooden scaffold beside me. Together, we finished plastering mortar inside the upper beams of one the cabin's completed walls. “A lot of ponies don't know this, but Ponyville's size tripled while my Pa was alive. He was responsible for many decisions that the City Council made, includin' the expansion of housin' projects in the north side of town.”
“Really?” I smirked as I applied more mortar. Flakes of snow drifted down and dotted the blue tarp that acted as the cabin's temporary ceiling. “So he wasn't all about apples, apples, apples?”
“Hey! T'ain't nothin' wrong about apples, apples, apples!” She briefly frowned while I let forth a foalish giggle. With a tranquil smile, she gazed off into the wintry lengths of the forest and said, “My Pa believed in lookin' after oneself, but his conscience extended well beyond that. Every soul he met was a pony in need, and he never stopped workin' for one second in his life to make sure they got as much a chance to shine in life as he did. Why, I'd reckon he'd make a mighty fine mayor...” She sighed heavily and her green eyes fell. “If fate had decided to smile on him and Ma.”
“I'm sorry,” I murmured.
“Heh. Don't be.” She smiled up at me. “I regret nothin', on account that Pa taught me everythang I needed to know to keep supportin' my family and loved ones proper.”
“You strike me as a very lucky pony, Applejack,” I couldn't help but mutter. My work paused ever so briefly as I endured a wave of chills. “To know where you belong, and those whom belong to you...”
“My Pa used to say 'Always make sure that you lay down a good foundation. The rest takes time, but it works without a hitch so long as the foundation is solid.'” She looked me in the eyes after saying those familiar words. “The way I see it, Miss Heartstrings, we're all in this heave-ho of life together. What better a way to enjoy it than to make sure we do it proper? Right now, there's no place I belong more than right here, helpin' you.”
I exhaled softly, adjusting the sleeves of my hoodie, feeling the toasty fingers of a fireplace in the back of my mind. “The world could use more ponies like you, Applejack.”
“Heh...” Her cheeks flushed slightly. “Shucks, I'm only doin' what I was taught was right. There are heaps of ponies way more neighborly than myself.”
“Yeah?” I leaned forward on the scaffold and applied more mortar. “Like who?”
“Take for instance this one pony,” Applejack handed me another brick. “Granny Smith insists that she's a she. Big Mac thinks it's one of the local mules. Whatever the case, we never see an inch of the soul, but that hasn't stopped whoever it is from dropping by every Saturday morning for the last three months straight and leaving a gift basket by our back door.”
“Oh?” I reveled in the feel of a campfire just beyond the partially finished wall of the cabin. Reaching into a heated trough of plaster, I gathered some of the aggregate and plastered it to the brick before stacking it atop a slowly rising chimney along the north side of the house. “Just what kind of a gift basket?”
“Funniest thing—Two loaves of bread, and each time they're still piping hot... as if freshly delivered from a local bakery!”
“Heh...” I smiled placidly to myself as I stacked the bricks higher and higher under Applejack's guidance. “Somepony must think you haven't a lick of baking skills.”
“Ha! Fat chance. Still, we never did figure out which of the townsfolk is makin' the dropoffs, nor why they're choosin' to do it all secret-like. But I ain't about to complain! The bread's delicious, and it saves me the trouble of havin' to bake my own on a regular basis. More time for workin' the farm, ya reckon?”
“That doesn't sound like much of a gift.”
“The best gifts involve givin' us things we need, not so much things we want.” She exhaled a vaporous breath into the wintry air and motioned towards the slowly rising chimney. “For instance, who else in their right mind would be spendin' Hearth's Warming Eve puttin' the finishin' touches on a log cabin?”
“It's my own fault,” I murmured. “I should have had this finished long ago.”
“At least yer dead-seat on workin' on it.” She smiled and winked at me. “A good work ethic means bein' willing to learn while you go against the grindstone.”
“I have you to thank, Miss Applejack,” I said pleasantly, wiping a smudge of plaster off my brow and grinning. “This fireplace is all you. I'm just glad I tackled it before winter was completely done with.”
“Well, I reckon you can still use it for when a cold spell hits,” Applejack said as she handed me another pair of nails. A white world of snow and frost lingered behind her as she stood on the scaffold in her green vest and brown hat. “Still, it's a mighty fine chimney. Right now, what's best is that we get this here rooftop finished.”
“Much appreciated, Applejack,” I grunted as I concentrated hard, hammering the last of several wooden shingles into place atop the log cabin. “But I've taken enough of your time as it is. Don't you have some seeds to plant?”
“As if any other ponies are awake at this hour. Heh.” She rolled her green eyes. “One thing at a time, I reckon,” she said, casting a glance towards the center of Ponyville over the threadbare treetops. “Winter may get wrapped up by tomorrow morning, but it'll still be a cold spring for a few weeks. It'd be a shame for you to not have yer house all fixed up by then.”
“You're a very important pony in town, aren't you?” I smiled and hammered more of the shingles into place. “I imagine all of the farm owners owe you bigtime each spring for clearing the fields of snow.”
“Eh... I'm pretty good at barkin' orders, if that's what yer implyin'.” Applejack smirked with a glint of pride. “But I'd gladly ditch the megaphone and take to the plow if it meant gettin' things done on time for once.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
Applejack sighed. “Only that every year Ponyville is late in gettin' Winter wrapped up, and a lot of that is on account of so few ponies bein' early birds like you and me.”
“Hmmm...” I hammered a final nail in and looked at her. “Seems to me like you could use some organization.”
“As much as I wanna share y'all's faith, I can only do what's best and make sure the fields get cleared and planted. I may not exactly be timely, but I sure as hay can be precise.”
“You're more than just resourceful, Applejack,” I said with a smile. With a brief chill, I adjusted the hoodie around my neck and exclaimed, “You're the kind of mare to lend a hoof to each and everypony you see. So long as that's your main concern, who cares about timing? You really think it's just the land that needs Wrapping Up? Ponies gotta live on that land, y'know.”
“Hmmm... I suppose that's a good way of lookin' at it,” Applejack scratched her chin. “Still,” she exhaled. “I'd give my bottom bit just to be on time for once.”
“Well, maybe I can help this year!” I placed the hammer down and swiveled about to face her. “That is—if you don't mind a stranger taking part in the labor.”
“Heh...” Applejack smirked. “You're never a stranger so long as y'all got a helping spirit and four strong hooves to guide it with.”
“A saying of your father's?”
“My own, actually, though I'd be lyin' if I said he didn't inspire that none.” She winked. “So, I reckon we should get you a vest or something.”
“That depends...” I ran a hoof through my mane and smiled into the frigid air. “Do they come in tan?”
“What are the wooden stakes for?” I glanced up from the row of blossoming shoots sticking up from the soil. “The pony at the gardening shop didn't exactly explain it well to me.”
Applejack walked down the rows of infant apple trees. “They're to make sure that the trees grow straight and proper. The thing about graftin' is that the scions aren't exactly prepared to stretch just right from the root-stocks. So long as you use the stakes in the dwarf-trees' infancy, you can make sure they don't keel over or somethin' worse.”
I chuckled. A flock of birds sang musically overhead, flying low over spreading leaves of green that surrounded the sunlit clearing in which my new cabin resided. “You must know apple trees like the back of your hoof.”
“I only wished they knew themselves half as much. Life would be a lot easier if the trees would just plant themselves.”
“Then where would all the fun be?”
“That's what I try to tell my brother, Big Mac, all the time.” She walked with me around the green yard of freshly planted grass. “One spring, he talked us into tryin' our hooves at growing pears. I still have nightmares about the next summer after,” she muttered with a slight shiver. “We've since agreed that I'm the entrepreneur of the family, not him. Heheh.”
“I'm guessing he'd make a better mascot,” I said with a wink.
“Ugh.” She rolled her eyes. “Y'all can ask half the mares in town and I reckon they'd whole-heartedly agree. There aren't enough sticks in the world to fend them off at times, I swear to Celestia.”
“Say, in speaking of summer.” I glanced up at the front of my cabin. “Could you give me some advice on adding a wooden outcropping to the front?”
“What, like a porch or somethin'?”
“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “This town is a lot prettier than where I moved from, and I wouldn't mind spending some afternoons sitting out here.” I shrugged. “And—well—you never know when it might decide to rain.”
Applejack looked up from the fireplace. Her body huddled securely under the woolen blanket as she gave me a squinting glance. “I'm mighty curious, though.” Her voice was a gentle murmur, barely heard under the roar of the rainstorm pounding in on the cabin walls surrounding us. “What's a musician like you doin' out here on the edge of town? Most artists hang out in the center of Ponyville. Seems like an awful shame for somepony as kind as you to be dwellin' someplace all lonesome-like.”
“Believe me...” I breathed easily, sharing the heat from the crackling flame with her. “I'm not half as lonely as you think I am.”
“You get plenty of visitors?”
“Oh... on occasion.” I smiled. “One friend in particular makes a habit of dropping by on a regular basis.”
“Oh yeah? What's her name? I bet I'd know her.”
I took a deep breath, my face melting into something cold and melancholic. “No. Unfortunately, you wouldn't.”
“Well, it's good to know you're not entirely alone. After all, you've got yerself a cozy little cabin here.” She smiled as she gazed once more into the soft red hue of the fire. “Must be awful peaceful.”
“Mind if I ask just what you do for a living?”
“What do I do for a living?” I repeated, gazing up at the rows of musical instruments haloing us along the walls. “I... live. I live to live happily, to compose musical accompaniments to the beauty that I see, to record that which is sad and that which is lost, for the somber things in life are mere shadows to the warmth and joy that we're often too busy to recognize.” I adjusted the stone-gray sleeves of my hoodie and smiled. “But I'm never too busy. I'm a pony who listens, Applejack, and more often than not I like what I hear, because what's the point in hating the few cherishable treasures that we are given? It's taken a while for me to discover what I've been blessed with. But I'm grateful for that time. It's like building a house: you learn more about the process as you erect the walls and rooftop for the very first time. Once it's finished, it's hardly a project of your labor and your labor alone. Rather, it's the sum of all the love and support that dear friends have contributed to it. In the end, a home is just an extension of yourself, something that couldn't exist without the foundations set forth by those you care about.” I closed my eyes and exhaled peacefully. “When I'm living here, all of my newfound friends are living with me, so that this place is something permanent... like a memory that never fades. How could anypony call that lonely?”
I wasn't exactly expecting a response to my heartfelt words, but I wasn't expecting utter silence either. As the seconds ticked away, the glow of the fire grew dim beyond my eyelids. I felt a cold wind billow through the cabin, though not a single window was open. When I opened my eyes, I saw a misty vapor wafting from my lips. With an inescapable chatter of my teeth, I glanced aside.
She was rubbing a hoof over forehead, reeling in a brief dizziness. As soon as she came to, her green eyes flew wide open. “What in the hay...?” Confusion swiftly blossomed into panic as she gazed fitfully at her bizarre surroundings, feeling the folds of the woolen blanket enshrouding her like a straight-jacket. “Where... in Celestia's name...?”
“Dah!” She gasped and jumped up, nearly tripping over the basket with Apple Bloom's doll. “Wh-what happened? What am I doing here? Why's my mane so soaked...?!” She started to shiver, like a frail soul that she had once carried out of a barn in some ancient place long forgotten. “Aww shoot... I collapsed in the rain, didn't I?”
“Please...” I stood up and raised two hooves. “Just calm down—”
“I'm so sorry to be a burden, ma'am. This is just so...” She bit her lip and ran a hoof through her wet bangs, quivering all over. I had never seen Applejack look this weak or frightened before. I immediately wanted to hug her. Nopony should ever have to feel the weight of the world crumbling atop her shoulders—nopony but me. If the cabin had fallen into dust all around us, I bet she would have been less scared. “How could I let myself faint in a rainstorm?” Her voice was breaking, as if she was on the verge of doing something I was hardly worthy of witnessing. “What's wrong with me? I'm never this... this...”
“Applejack... Listen to me...” I marched up to her and planted my hooves on her shoulder, forcing her gaze to be swallowed in mine. “You are a strong mare. But it takes strength to trust other ponies. So trust me right now. Everything is all right. You got caught up in the rain, and I took you in.” I smiled earnestly, replacing the warmth that she had lost when she stepped away from fireplace. “My home... is your home.”
Slowly, Applejack's shivers melted away, like mine always do... and so many of those occasions being owed to her. She gulped and nodded, her lips curving slightly. “Reckon that has a nice sound to it.”
“It'd better,” I said with a smile, ushering her back down to the fireplace where she could bask in the glow. “I'm a musician, after all.” I draped the blanket over the confused mare's shoulders, calming her further as the rainstorm persisted outside. “What about you? Do you sell oranges?”
Applejack blinked at me. It came out first like a stutter, but soon she was guffawing like the proper pony that taught me how to swing an axe. Soon, her breaths slowed to an even pace. “Ahem... So, uhm, I reckon you have a name? It's a shame to not know the pony who's given me such good hospitality.”
“Lyra,” I said with a gentle nod of the head. “Lyra Heartstrings.”
“Lyra,” she repeated it, her eyes dancing across the musical instruments above us with foalish wonder. “Now that's a mighty pretty name...”
“Hmmm... So I've been told.”
We talked for two and a half hours, during which Applejack never forgot me, and I couldn't have been more thankful. Most of the things she told me were stories that I had heard before, from months of gently coaxing such information from the many freckle-faced, amnesiac prototypes that I had been blessed with meeting before. Not once did I even consider interrupting her anecdotes, no matter how familiar they sounded. The sweetest melodies in life are the ones you're willing to listen to over and over again. No record player could do Applejack justice. She's a symphony I've been lucky to attend on several occasions, and every single time it demands an encore.
The rainstorm ended. Reluctantly, I helped her gather her things. While she fiddled with her hat, I personally bundled the basket with Apple Bloom's toy. I gave it to her and we parted ways. A quiet part of me felt as if I had finally discovered my older sister, only for her to be going away on a long trip.
I watched from the patio at the front of my cabin while Applejack trudged away in the mud. As I predicted, there came a point where she stopped in her tracks just before marching around the bend. I kept watching, for something was evidently weighing on Applejack's mind beyond plain forgetfulness. I saw her dangling the basket up and down in her grip, as if alarmed by how much heavier it felt. Swiftly, she unbundled the blankets keeping the contents dry. What followed next was a shocked expression that no painter could do justice. She reached into the basket, for nestled beside Apple Bloom's doll were two loaves of bread, a day's freshness still wafting from their crust.
Applejack's lips pursed. Murmuring mute words of wonderment, she scanned the horizon. She saw trees, mud, a misty rainbow, and even a peculiar log cabin. But she didn't see me.
I was back inside, nestled under blankets in front of the fireplace as I finished composing the last written bits of “Threnody of Night.” Soon, I would have the instrumental finished, and the last step before the magical performance would be acquiring more ingredients to act as a protective buffer. I remembered what happened during my last experiment. A frightening chill ran up my spine, so that I scooted closer to the flames.
But then I felt the folds of the hoodie around my body, like a sisterly hug that never ended, warming me far more than any burning logs ever could. For another night, I fell asleep with a smile, instead of tears. I didn't worry about the ashes of the fireplace spreading beyond the hearth. After all, it had a good foundation.
I don't know how long it will take for me to find my way home, but so long as I am living, I will never run out of neighbors.