Of Sugar and Skulls

by FnordBear

The One Truth

In the small town of Wing Wood there lived a small filly. Garnet of coat, amber of mane, and brown of eye, the chubby little blank-flanked filly would normally be the very image of cuteness. This cuteness, however, was marred by the tears streaking her face, her broken and defeated posture, and the looks of sadness passing ponies gave her as she shuffled slowly towards a small cottage on the outskirts of town. Few ventured to this cottage, it was a place few wanted to visit as it sat within full view of Wing Wood's memorial garden and cemetery.

Indeed very few ponies made a pilgrimage here. Ponies having their roots in a prey-species had an ingrained aversion to death. It did not help matters that sometimes in a world of magic and mystery such as theirs that the dead sometimes became restless. Indeed, the small burro population of Wing Wood were the only frequent visitors to this hallowed place. This past summer though had seen a terrible and dramatic rise in visitors to these grounds, bother itinerant and permanent.

Gentle Repose turned her thoughts to her mother and father. Her mother Cream Crest, a waifish pegasus of red coat and a cream-colored mane was the first to fall ill when the plague came a callin'. Her father, Stalwart Duty, a bulky earth pony stallion of charcoal coat and brown mane had stayed faithfully at the side of his mate until the end. The very next day he too passed from the plague, having stoically endured it's symptoms without a word.

Through luck, divine providence, or perhaps a cruel twist of fate, Gentle Repose had been spared the ravages of illness to be left alone in the world, one of many newly minted orphans of Wing Wood. Now dwelling on these thoughts the little filly made her way to an unassuming stone cottage. The Wing Wood Funeral Home. With trepidation she climbed the short wooden steps to the door and gave a hesitant knock. She knew the stories the other colts and fillies told. The burro who lived here was crazy, she ate small foals and buried them at night when no one was watching.

Her parents had told her not to be afraid of the old jenny who lived in the cottage. Her mother always told her she was a caretaker for those who could no longer care for themselves and the other children were being foalish. Her father, ever the honest type, told her she worked an honorable profession and that should anything ever happen to one or both of her parents then it would be time to call on her.

With hesitation Gentle Repose knocked softly on the cottage door. She waited thinking that perhaps she hadn't been heard and raised her hoof to knock again when the door slowly opened to reveal a short, stocky, burro with a coat fading to gray with age.

The jenny looked down at the little filly and tilted her head to the side, her ears standing straight and alert. A small, kind, smile graced her face deepening the wrinkles of age. With a hint of an accent the sad filly couldn't place she softly spoke, "What can this old jenny do for you today little nieta?"

Not meeting the old burro's gaze Gentle Repose looked down at her front hooves as she nervously pawed the ground, "I-I'm, Stalwart and Cream's filly...they...we need you..."

The gentle smile turned to a frown as the old burro bent down and wrapped the filly in her forelegs. Nuzzling the filly's cheek she softly spoke, "No llores, don't cry, nieta. Come inside. We will have some tea, get you cleaned up, then we will go speak with tu madre y papa and take care of them yes?"

Nodding, the distraught filly followed the jenny inside the cottage.

The inside was, well, homey she thought. Not the scary house of horrors the other fillies and colts told her. It looked to be like any typical four-room dwelling. There was a sitting room, a kitchen, a door that lead to a bedroom/bathroom combination, and a fourth room that was closed off. The old jenny ushered her to a table and after a few moments of preparation sat a cup of steaming chamomile tea and a plate of creepy-looking frosted cookies in the shape of skulls.

Taking her own cup and cookie the jenny sat across from the little filly and asked in a gentle voice, "Mi nombre es Maravilla y tu?"

Looking down at her cookies the little filly replied, "I-I'm sorry I don't understand..."

Scrunching her eyes the jenny spoke again, a bit slower, "Forgive me nieta, I do not get many visitors so it is easy to slip in to the old tongue. My name is Maravilla, what is your name nieta?"

Feeling a little more at ease due in no small part to how kind Maravilla was being in her time of need she answered, "My name is Gentle Repose...my mommy says she named me that because I sleep a lot."

With a smile Maravilla dipped her cookie in the cup of tea before her and munched on a bite while looking thoughtfully at the young filly, "Now nieta, what brings you to my home, you said tu papa y madre need my services?"

The little filly nodded dejectedly, "Yes ma'am, the plague..."

With understanding dawning on her Maravilla nodded sadly, "Forgive me...I misunderstood, I thought they wished to hire my service. I see es tu who needs my works."

The little filly looked up at the older jenny and asked, "I don't understand..."

Shaking her head Maravilla answered, "Little nieta, did tus padres, your parents, tell you what Abuela Maravilla does for Wing Wood?"

The little filly feeling very lost and in over her head shook her head no.

"Ah I see. I am a keeper of the dead little nieta, a mortician we are called in these modern times. I take care of those who passed on and see that they are honored properly." Came the jenny's somber reply.

"Like...like a grave digger?" Asked the sad filly.

"If need be little nieta, different tribes honor their dead in different ways. It is part of my trade, my calling, to see to it they are honored in accordance to the ways of their tribe or their specific wishes." The old jenny spoke with a hint of compassion mixed with the smallest dose of pride.

No more was said as the two finished their tea and cookies. After the the cleanup from the small snack Maravilla retrieve a warm, damp, cloth and cleaned the little filly's face, washing away the tears. "Come now nieta, help this old jenny get hitched to the wagon in back and we will go visit tu madre y papa."

The wagon was not what Gentle Repose had expected. The old jenny trudged along across town at a languid pace. Beside her Gentle Repose trotted along on her little stubby legs to keep up. Behind them was a lacquered black cart, completely enclosed with a set of decorative landau bars on the side. Gentle Repose glanced to each side as they trudged down Wing Wood's main street. Where she saw ponies she saw frowns. Where she saw burros she saw sympathetic eyes and the occasional head bowed in respect.

After a half hour at their slow pace they made their way to the tiny house Gentle Repose had called home all of her short life. Taking a moment to unhitch herself Maravilla approached the quiet abode before turning to the filly and asking, "Did one of the physicians from Canterlot see to them already little nieta?"

Gentle Repose nodded her head, "Yes ma'am, he said the Summer Plauge doesn't inq...inq..incublate..." she stuttered.

"Incubate nieta."

"Yeah, that word. He said it doesn't incubate in the...dead. So it is safe..." She replied stumbling a bit over the big word a little filly shouldn't have to know.

Reaching in to a small compartment of the wagon Maravilla retrieved a pair of paper masks and a spray bottle. She laid the masks out flat and sprayed them down with a generous helping of mint-smelling water. Then with practiced hooves she looped the mask around her muzzle and did the same for the little filly.

"This will help, once the soul leaves the body, there can be a smell...try not to think too much of it nieta. It's only nature preparing what tu madre y padre no longer need to return to the earth and sky." Maravilla spoke in a gentle but firm voice.

The little filly nodded tears threatening to well up in her eyes again. "Nieta, abuela can handle this part if she needs to. A little filly shouldn't have to do this."

Snapped out of her sorrow, if but for a moment, Gentle Repose stamped her hoof down and declared forcefully, "No! They are my mom and dad...I should help take care of them."

With a soft smile, hidden behind the paper mask Maravilla gently commanded, "Come then little nieta, show me where they are so that we may get them back to the cottage so that my work can begin."

The two entered the small house and as it is want to do time passed. Gentle Repose, being a stout earth pony, was far stronger than a little filly of any other tribe for her age. Between the jenny and the filly Gentle Repose's parents were carefully and reverently wrapped in clean bed sheets and one by one moved to the back of the wagon. Once their grim task was complete Maravilla made to hitch herself back to the black wagon.

"Let me pull it." Gentle Repose softly spoke.

"Qué?" Came the puzzled reply from Maravilla.

"They are my mom and dad...my family...let me do this...please." Came the nearly silent plea from the little filly.

"OK little nieta...I will beside you in case the burden becomes too great." Maravilla said with equal parts admiration and sadness in her voice.

Once the filly was hitched in to the cart her earth pony strength kicked in full force and without slowing once or a single complaint the duo made their way back through town to Maravilla's cottage. Gentle Repose paid no mind to the stares from the ponies of the town, nor from the respectful smiles of the burros.

The day was edging towards evening when Maravilla and Gentle Repose moved their pitiful burdens from the back of the black cart. Cream Crest and Stalwart Duty lay on separate tables in the once closed-off room of Maravilla's cottage. Gentle Repose could see why this room was kept closed. This was Maravilla's work room. Many of the tools of her trade laying and hanging about the room would make most ponys quite squeamish.

Wearing a fresh mint-mask the little filly sat on a stool in the room while she watched Maravilla work. She hadn't known what to expect. Maravilla had asked if her parents had expressed any final wishes. She had told her no. Maravilla had then said she would prepare them in the tradition of their tribes and then have a small service combining both traditions after.

Gentle Repose watched tearfully as Maravilla tended her father first, brushing and trimming his mane and tail in to the military cut he had years ago in the guard. She then rolled him over on to his stomach, tucked his hooves under him and laying his chin on a small pillow. She then cleaned his coat with a mix of aromatic oils and soap until it shined then toweled him down and brushed away any tufts of difficult fur. When she was done Stalwart Duty looked very much like a well-groomed soldier taking a rest. Gentle Repose hadn't seen her father looking this good since her mother fell ill.

"Nieta, are you well? You do not have to be here. Abuela promises tu madre will be taken care of just as well as tu padre." Maravilla spoke softly to the sad little filly while wrapping her in a hug.

Giving a mighty sniffle and puffing out her chest bravely Gentle Repose said in a shaky voice, "I...I want to help with mom..."

Slightly taken aback but admiring her courage and commitment she handed a wing-comb to the little filly. No, little mare. Maravilla thought.

With tender care and love Gentle Repose carefully and methodically preened her mother's wings. While she worked on the feathery appendages Maravilla bathed and anointed Cream Crest and together Maravilla and Gentle Repose positioned her so that she too looked healthy and simply at rest.

"No...mom doesn't look right..." Spoke the young mare. Reaching over to Maravilla's work bench she eyed the various implements, both mundane and arcane, of the trade. Finally she settled on a simple comb and hair gel. With quick and practiced movements she ran the gel and comb through the mane of her mother's remains. Once finished the mane stood up proudly in a faux hawk.

"There...now she looks like mom..." Came the choked statement of fact from the young mare.

Carefully replacing the hair gel and comb on Maravilla's workbench she turned to the older jenny and asked, "Now what do we do?"

Leading the filly over to a large utility sink in the the corner they both washed up and then with a bump and lift of her head Maravilla carried the little filly on her back to the sitting room and plopped them both on the couch. "Well little nieta, tu padre was very traditional. Earth ponies believe when they pass their remains should be returned to the land that they so love. So I think we shall have a burial for him. For tu madre I think we shall do it the pegasus way and return her to the sky with a pyre." Came Maravilla's business like reply.

"OK...I think they would like that..." the young mare said in a small voice.

"Tu padre, I knew him you know." Maravilla finally spoke breaking the awkward silence that had followed.

"Really?" Asked the little garnet pony.

"Si, we met many years ago in a small village in the Badlands. He was a guard then. Sent to look for a 'witch'. That witch was me. I was taking care of the dead for the ponies there. It was a superstitious backwater. They would just bury their dead quickly, place a marker, and try not to think about it. No mind paid to tribe or culture of the dead. It scared them that I was not afraid to handle the mortal remains and give them honors." Maravilla paused and then continued with a grimace. "It didn't help that half the town were tribalist and the lone burro among them acted different instead of trying to fit in. He helped me find a job in the guard doing my work for those that fall in Celestia's service."

The little filly looked up at Maravilla with a hint of wonder in your eyes, "So...you really just take care of ponies that can't take care of themselves anymore? Right?"

"Si, little nieta. Not just ponies, griffins, minotaurs, dragons, zebras, donkeys, all the tribes of Equestria have different ways to honor the dead. As different as we all are we all recognize one truth." The old jenny said with a smile.

"What is the one truth?" Asked the now quizzical little pony.

Maravilla looked at the little mare trying to guess her age. She was blank of flank and still had quite a bit of foal fat. She can't be more than a few winters old. She thought. Finally she gave her reply, "The one truth is nieta, we all die. Be you a mighty king or a humble tender of the dead, one day, we all die."

The two sat in silence, one little filly thinking very big thoughts and one old jenny doing perhaps the hardest part of her trade, comforting the living.

After a time the little filly spoke up, "Ma'am..."

The old jenny spoke up cutting her off, "Now no more of that 'Ma'am' business, you can call me abuela, grandmother, or if you must Maravilla."

Smiling slightly the little filly continues, "Abuela, what happens when a pony dies? Mom and Dad never really talked about it..."

Shaking her head Maravilla spoke softly, "Neita, granddaughter, I don't know. Some say Celestia carries the souls of the dead to paradise, other say our spirits are reborn over and over. Griffins think once we die that's it and everything after is just oblivion. The minotaurs say they wander through a great maze in the afterlife and if you find your way out you can be reborn in a better life or move on to a great heavenly choir. The Yaks seem to think if you live a good enough life you will be reborn as a heavenly being in charge of your very own planet."*

"Abuela, what do you think?" The little filly pressed.

"Neita, I think we all die twice. Once when we pass away and once when we are no longer remembered. That is part of my calling. To make sure the dead are remembered. That way no matter the afterlife the dead have some semblance of immortality." Maravilla let her soft words sink in to the little filly.

After another time of silence the little filly spoke up, "I want to help with the service. They are my mom and dad and I want to make sure they are remembered."

Maravilla looked on in mild surprise and then following some deep instinct she reach forward and hugged the little orphaned filly close. Neither noticed as they held each other the subdued flash of light on the little fillies flank.

Time passed as time does when left to it's own devices and Gentle Repose became a mare. It had been many years since her parents were taken by plague and a kindly old burro helped her find her calling. She stood smiling looking at a photo of a much older Maravilla grinning a toothy grin, surrounded by half the burro population of Wing Wood while a teenaged Gentle Repose held up her newly minted mortician's license. She took a step back and gave a satisfied nod at the picture hanging on her wall next to her apprentice and full-fledged mortician's licence.

With a slight skip in her step the pudgy mare turned the open sign around for the first time in her newly open funeral parlor in Ponyville. With a smile on her face she set a plate of skull-shaped frosted cookies that matched her cutiemark on a small table on the porch. Falling in to a comfortable chair watching the town go by she sighed happily. While she wasn't currently doing business, she never would lack for customers.