• Published 29th Nov 2022
  • 615 Views, 47 Comments

Cammie - Jarvy Jared



A mother's journey to the north inevitably leads her to a journey through her own heart.

  • ...
4
 47
 615

1 - A Custom

One morning, Chamomile saw Astral standing in the grove, which was only a little odd, because he was dead.

The grove was where she went every morning since his death, because it was there where his grave resided. It was a humble thing, made of granite as opposed to typical crystal. Surrounded by the natural overgrowth of the forest and beset frequently by the musky vapors and mist sown in the shade of Bridlewood’s thick canopy, it periodically became damp and covered in moss and vines that had to be cut away each day. When it rained, as it had the night before, the water would splash mud all over the marker, meaning that she had to clean the surface too in order to preserve what had been carved onto its stoic face.

That morning, when she had come to the grave armed with her shears, a bucket, and a sponge, she caught sight of Astral standing just at the edge of the grove. His mossy-green coat and wavy, sand-colored mane nearly blended in with the verdant supply, and it was only because of how his eyes shined like stars in green space that she was able to see him. She glanced up from her task, the shears held in her magic. He was looking at her with a kind of knowing smile. He seemed almost healthy, too, without the emaciated form of a dead pony walking.

She looked quickly from him to the grave, then back to him. He hadn’t left, nor had he come any closer to where she stood, and she wondered if something was holding him back. She blinked, and he was still there. She frowned at him, but he kept smiling, and now it seemed that the smile, for how knowing it was, was also tinged with sadness, though that could easily have been the result of the long shadows that cascaded down into the grove like lightless figures.

Seeing that he appeared unwilling to leave, she resumed her task. With grim determination, she cut the lichen and vines growing all over the grave, discarding the cuttings onto the patches of a cobblestone path laid behind her. Then she dipped the sponge into the bucket and pulled it out all covered in water and soap. She scrubbed the surface of the grave with a thoroughness that comes when one dedicates themselves to the task and the task alone, when one momentarily can forget they exist in the world, and only every now and then did she glance up to verify if Astral still stood at the perimeter, which he did.

All of this was conducted slowly, tediously, as daylight began to stream through the leaves and the temperature of the forest began to rise with the hour. Everything around her seemed to shimmer with the freshness of a new day, but she remained focused on her task. She would not be satisfied until the granite slab gleamed like marble. The next day would, she knew, require the same diligence, for the vines, if nothing else, were as stubborn as she was. All the days, all the mornings, followed this routine, in which she found the comfort of habit but not much else. But that was all right to her. She would spend all of her mornings cleaning and trimming, going slowly through the task, methodically and meticulously removing the extraneous material and polishing the stone until all that was left was a shiny slab of sorrow stating to the empty air:

Here lies Astral, much loved and forever missed.

It seemed a pitiful thing, that epitaph. A short one had not really been her idea, but a short one had been preferred. It just felt wrong to her. How could something so brief encapsulate the life of any pony, no matter how old they were when they died? And Astral had not been old, she often thought—he’d breathed his last when they weren’t even middle-aged. She imagined sometimes, as she cut away the vines or sponged away the dirt, that each thing removed was an attempt at representing the number of years he’d lived, and because she took her time in removing them, they represented the incompleteness of his life—and the incompleteness of her own.

Finally, she was done. She levitated up the cuttings and tossed them somewhere into the grass, placed her sponge back in the bucket, and pocketed her shears. She was filled with the urge to touch the grave with her hoof, like she wanted to reach through it to the supine form underneath—indeed, she’d used to do that every morning. But she banished that urge to the far reaches of her mind. The temptation to reconnect with the dead had gone out of her since his death.

Now she could look at the grave without much feeling or thought associated with it. It was a thing to clean. The throbbing echo of grief, while it remained in her chest like a secret, came from a far-away place—as one was aware that their heart beat, but only as a distant realization against the noisy backdrop of everyday life, so, too, had her grief become. Time had diluted her sense of it until it was already too late to turn back the clock.

There was a breeze, swift and brief, and it brought the smell of metallic sky with it. Chamomile looked back at the edge of the grove. No flicker of surprise jingled in her soul when she saw that Astral was gone.


Astral had written a will. He had written many things, actually. He wrote poems and letters and scraps of songs he never sang, all by hoof—this was before magic had returned to the unicorns—and she could still remember how his face lit up when, for their first anniversary, she got him a feather quill pen that she’d discovered by accident one day in her flower bed when she was gardening. It was like moonlight consecrated into feather form, just as she was trying to find a perfect gift for him.

He had used that pen to write everything that came after, the will being the very last.

She kept it in a locked safe above the tea shop. Before then, she had spent every night for a month reading that will, combing its sparse text like it was a cryptic artifact from another time, to the point that she could not sleep or function during the day. When she began falling asleep while attending to her customers, she realized she couldn’t continue torturing herself with these nightly reading sessions, and so, she locked the will away and threw the key somewhere deep in the forest behind the shop. She hadn’t opened the safe in all the years since.

Even so, the will was never far from her mind, and today, as she returned to the tea shop, dwelling on that phantasmic sight, she found herself thinking it back over.

All that he’d written, in black ink, and using that moonlight-consecrated pen, was a single sentence: “Remain tight in a bud.” It was completely unlike Astral in every way—Astral, who liked long poems and often spoke with a verbose, voluminous quality to his words—to the point that she had thought, perhaps, somepony else had written it. But she recognized his hoofwriting, knew it was him and could only be him. This did not erase the ambiguity of his final words. All those nights spent reading the document crystalized in her mind as attempts at discerning their true meaning. “Remain tight in a bud”—she knew he was fond of flower imagery, and had little doubt that he was referring, in some respects, to the floral origin of her own name, but what was the significance of what seemed a highly unusual command?

It could not be literal; it had to be metaphorical. But no amount of consideration could reveal anything about the words beyond the observation that they were ambiguous. One of the other reasons why she’d therefore set the will in its safe for good was that she was too tired to try anymore—perhaps it was one of those mysterious gaps in understanding reality that Astral was fond of proselytizing, an example of what he called “negative capability.”

At the back door to the shop, the will and its hidden meaning came rushing back to her, and for whatever reason, she struck upon an epiphany. Flowers remain in their buds because the season is not yet right, and when spring comes, that is when they bloom; perhaps this was what Astral was telling her to do.

Yet almost as quickly as it had come, the epiphany vanished under a torrent of fresh questions. So Astral was telling her to wait for spring to bloom? But it could not be a literal spring, could it? And what did that mean, then, to “bloom?” Was he saying that she was an unripe flower? That she was past her prime? Had the seasons come and gone without her noticing?

She paused as those questions rushed over her, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. Then she shook her head. She had spent the last few years trying to question little. It would not do to fall back into that spiral.

She opened the door to the tea shop and stepped inside.

Once upon a time—as all the stories went—it had been a warm, well-lit, quiet place, a humble yet compelling locality in Bridlewood that she had poured her heart into. It used to be the home of her parents, and after their death, she’d inherited the building and transformed it into a rustic tea shop, filled with round oak tables and chairs, scented candles, mood lighting, and, of course, an assortment of flavors. She grew the flowers and petals herself in a garden plot to the side of the building, and had an eye for combining flavors to create an exotic and exquisite taste far more unique than what Alphabittle could offer at his Crystal Tearoom. All were new things that served to push aside the fact that here, ponies had once lived, and here, ponies had once died.

But in the wake of Astral’s passing, death had crept in like a rather petulant repeat customer, sweeping aside the need for mood lighting and scented candles. The shade that the blinded windows provided every morning seemed darker than usual. Even when she opened them, there were corners of the shop the light could never reach. More effort had to be expended on dusting the tables, the chairs, and the counters. Her plants, growing outside of the shop, fared far better than the decorative ones that lived on the shelves, half of which, in the first week, had perished, dried up by an invisible sun, yet frigid to the touch.

She’d grown used to these changes, adapting and changing to them in order to keep up the appearance of a functioning business owner. It had come to a point where she no longer really noticed how different the shop was from how it had been not only when she first had opened it, but in the burgeoning years when she and Astral worked together in it.

That morning, however, perhaps because of what she had seen in the grove, she became far more sensitive to all the changes, and for a moment, felt the stifling confusion one feels when they step into a building they no longer recognize. She was aware of how small it felt. It had always been small, which was part of its attraction—you could come and settle in a cozy place. But today it felt far too small for anypony, let alone her. She looked around, trying to determine if it was because the walls had shrunk closer together—but that wasn’t an accurate way of describing that sense of smallness, she realized; it was more like some invisible thing had taken up so much room that there was little seemingly left.

Familiarity came only when she went to the counter and began to set up all her wares, routine providing momentary relief.

The shop was empty. Consciously she knew this, verified as much with her eyes and her ears—so why, then, did this feeling of a cramped enclosure haunt her? What was causing it?

She shivered; then, inexplicably, she looked at the back door. It was a quick look, nervously given and nervously returning to her shelves, but in that moment, she could have sworn that Astral had appeared there.

“Mama?”

Chamomile nearly jumped. Her mane and tail whipped around, and she cried out when she accidentally jostled the shelf. Luckily none of the items fell. She set them back into place and looked at the speaker.

“Juniper? What are you doing up this early?”

An olive-colored colt with a bushy, bark-brown mane blinked sleepily at her. “I had a dream,” he murmured.

“Oh, honey.” Chamomile left her spot behind the counter and approached her son, who fell easily into a maternal hug. “Was it a bad dream? Is that it?”

He shook his head into her chest. “I don’t think so. I think it was a good dream, and that’s why I woke up.”

“What do you mean?”

“I dreamed I could lift the broom with my horn, Mama. That’s why I think it was a good dream.”

Chamomile was thankful that he had his head buried in her chest, because that meant he didn’t have to see her wince. She stroked the back of his head, thinking, Yes, of course he would dream that. Why wouldn’t he? Ever since…

“But I also woke up because I was thirsty,” he said, voice muffled.

She felt the urge to sigh, but forced it away. “Well, I suppose since you’re up, you may as well have breakfast. I’ll cook us both something.”

“Okay. Can I help set up the shop?”

He had pushed away from her and looked up with sparkling, sincere eyes. She managed to smile. “Now, why would you want to do something as boring as that?”

“Because you do it.”

That sincerity caused her heart to swell with pain, but this, too, was forced aside. “I’ve already done it, honeybun, but, when you’re older…” She ruffled his mane, making sure not to accidentally hit his horn. “In the meantime, though, you can at least set the table for us.”

Given a task, he now went away with a slight spring in his step, as though something as mild as table-setting was somehow a great accomplishment. But, she supposed, her smile growing sad, that was true for Juniper.

After all, it was quite the feat for a unicorn to go about their day, addressing normal concerns and performing normal activities—all without the ability to use his magic. And not once, in all his seven years, had he ever been able to.


While they were eating, there was a knock at the door. Chamomile glanced over, surprised that a customer came this early—usually she was open by nine-thirty, and it was not yet even eight. “Stay here,” she said to Juniper, unaware that her command held trace amounts of an overprotective fear.

She approached the door and opened it to find a tall mare. Her mane was cut short in the style of a colt’s, and her coat was close to copper in complexion. She had a small bag over her shoulder. “Morning, Chamomile,” she said. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“No, no, of course you’re not, Penny.” She thought about asking her about what had brought her to the door, but noted that some excited, nervous energy seemed to have entered the other mare. Penny Point fidgeted on her hooves. Her smile was at once kind and concerned. Chamomile chose another course. “Would you like to come in?”

Penny nodded. Chamomile closed the door behind her, and they now stood bathed by the faint illumination of the sun streaming through the glass panel.

“Oh, Ms. Penny!” Juniper exclaimed from his seat. He quickly wiped his mouth and trotted over, smiling up at her.

Instantly, the nervous attitude which had occupied Penny vanished, replaced by genuine cheerfulness. “Good morning, Juniper. Are you excited for school to start?”

“Uh huh! I got my homework done and everything!” He beamed, then looked a little embarrassed. “But won’t the other kids get mad? They didn’t get to do homework this summer.”

“I’m sure they won’t mind,” said Penny. She glanced at Chamomile, and Chamomile knew what the look meant.

“Juniper, could you be a dear and clean up for us? We’ll be just a minute,” she said to her son.

Dutifully and excitedly he nodded, leaving them to talk in the foyer of the shop. Chamomile watched as he brought each plate over to the sink and, standing on a little stool, began to scrape and scrub.

“He’s the only kid I know who gets excited about doing more work,” Penny murmured.

“How has he been doing? I haven’t been keeping up with all his grades.”

“Well—or rather, more than well. You have a sharp son, Chamomile.” Chamomile noted how, in saying her name, Penny seemed to draw it out slowly and deliberately, like she was testing out the waters. “His math scores are the highest in the class. Why, I think he may have a future in engineering—when we had that earth pony construction worker visit as a guest, he couldn’t stop hounding him with questions.”

“I see. Then you aren’t here about his grades?”

“No, oh, no, no, I’d never come to your place over…” Penny paused, cleared her throat. Chamomile watched as she re-oriented herself. She was her oldest friend in Bridlewood, but despite that, Penny had a habit of trailing off when pressured by anything. It was a miracle she was a teacher.

“I wanted to, ah, show you something, actually,” Penny confessed.

“Show me something?”

She gestured to sit down, and they did at the nearest table. Penny opened her bag to retrieve with her magic a sheaf of paper. “It came by in the mail,” she explained, showing the front side to Chamomile.

It was a job advertisement, printed on a yellow sheet, with a photograph of a pony wearing a cap and coat that both bore a blue-and-white-striped patterning. He looked comically cheerful, like invisible pins stretched his smile across his entire face. He was standing on some sort of platform and next to him was a massive steam locomotive—Chamomile guessed so based on the plume of white that rose in a frozen spiral out of a funnel-like structure at the front. Underneath was text presenting the viewer the opportunity to join “the first Equestrian Railroad Company.” Below that they had a list of jobs—most of which were evidently of a manual labor sort.

“I didn’t take you as somepony interested in trains,” Chamomile said, looking back at her friend. “But it does sound interesting. Do you know where you’ll be going?”

Penny shook her head, so vehemently that it was like Chamomile had uttered some reprehensible accusation. “As interesting as it does sound, I’m afraid it’s not for me. I’m too married to my job, you know, and we don’t have nearly enough teachers in Bridlewood for me to even consider changing it.”

Chamomile quirked an eyebrow. “Then why…?”

In answer, Penny tapped the advertisement with a hoof and flipped it to the next page. “Here: it says that the expedition will be heading north. North,” she repeated, “and away from the three tribes’ cities.”

“Yes?”

“I was thinking you might be interested in joining them.”

It was like Penny had suddenly declared that the moon. Chamomile stared at her, feeling laughter quietly bubbling in her, which she suppressed with an intake of breath. “That’s quite the joke, Penny.”

But Penny stared at her—stared at her with hopelessly pitiful eyes that made Chamomile’s lips twitch in annoyance, eyes that were large enough to contain the entire sea of sorrow with which everypony had looked at her for all these years.

“When was the last time you went anywhere, Chamomile?” she whispered urgently. “I mean outside of Bridlewood. Have you visited any of the other towns?”

“No,” Chamomile said, a bit defensively. “I haven’t had the time. The shop demands most of my attention.”

“So much of your attention that you can’t be bothered to take care of yourself?”

Chamomile looked harshly at her friend, who did not shiver under her gaze. “What do you mean by that?”

In answer, Penny activated her magic to grab Chamomile’s hoof. She held it up so that the light from one of the ceiling lamps cast an eerie glow around it. Both could see the outline of her leg. Chamomile felt like she was under sudden observation. “You’ve thinned,” Penny said with a tight frown. “Paled, too—I can tell.”

Chamomile pulled her hoof away just as Penny’s magic dissipated. “That’s none of your concern!” she whispered harshly.

“It is most definitely my concern. You’re my friend, Chamomile, and seeing you waste away in this tea shop ever since—” She paused, chewing on her bottom lip, while Chamomile stared angrily and shamefully at her. She felt exposed. Hideous, even. But she also knew, deep down, that Penny never meant her harm by her observations.

There was the high-pitched squeal coming from the sink, and both of them turned. Juniper had turned off the nozzle and, having not heard their conversation, was smiling quite obliviously at them. “All done!” he said. “Mama, can I go out to play?”

“Of course, dear,” Chamomile replied. “Just don’t wander too far, all right?”

He nodded, before racing back upstairs to grab a few items. Some seconds later, he reappeared with a small backpack packed full of whatever supplies he thought were necessary for playing. Smiling again at them, he left the tea shop, though not before giving Chamomile a hug and a kiss goodbye.

Once he was gone, Penny lowered her voice. “I’m worried about you, Chamomile, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also worried about Juniper in all this.”

“You think I’m not capable of taking care of my own son?”

“Just the opposite. You’re more than capable. But I’m afraid all you’ll do, or all you plan to do, is take care of him, at the expense of your health. Sitting here, day-by-day, while nothing changes for you, while nothing goes on…”

“So now you want me to get back out into the world? Is that it?” She nearly scoffed. “That’s rather cliché of you, Penny, don’t you think?”

But Penny remained undeterred by her bitterness. “I think you need a change of scenery. A change of pace, even. And I think this”—she jabbed a hoof at the pamphlet—“might do that for you.”

Then she hesitated. Some unknown factor had come into her mind, something that clearly she considered important, yet also possibly earth-shattering, for her to hesitate this way. Chamomile’s bitterness was replaced with intrigue.

“There’s also another thing.” Penny leaned forward. “I have a few friends in Maretime Bay who got this same offer, and they said that the company is… looking for something. I’m not sure what. But they said that it has to do with…” She sucked in a breath, then said, “Magic.”

How she said that word—how venerating, how startling. It was as though the past year had not passed at all, that their time as a fearful tribe had never ceased. Chamomile half-expected one of them, if not both of them, to start bing-ing and bong-ing.

“Magic,” she repeated, though gradually it was beginning to dawn on her as to what Penny was driving at.

Penny nodded. “They say that up north is something old. Very old, like pre-modern-Equestrian old. Maybe there are secrets hidden up there that could, well… help out, as it were.” Her face became grim, carefully guarded from expressing any excitement. “It’s a rumor, I will admit that much. But… well, if the possibility even remotely exists… wouldn’t it be best to try?”

To try?

Trying was tedious. Trying was what you did in the first few days after life ended and you had to keep going. Eventually you could not try any more, because you would be too exhausted by the constant stream of disappointment after disappointment that followed like a bad series of doctor’s check-ups.

But Chamomile said none of this. She merely looked down at the pamphlet, feeling herself torn.

“That’s why I brought you this,” Penny said softly. “I care for you. You and Juniper. And if nothing else, both of you deserve a chance at happiness—and I know you think he deserves it, most of all.”

“And if it’s all just a rumor?” she heard herself say, almost unbelievably.

Penny shrugged. “Then you’ll know. And then I think none of us will have that hanging over our heads anymore. We’ll know, and then…” She made a strange motion with her hoof, a sort of warding or permitting of some strange custom.

Penny rose from her seat, touching her shoulder. “At the very least, please, think about it. I really do think the travel will do you some good. If you say yes, I’ll take care of Juniper until you get back. You know I can do that.”

Chamomile didn’t respond to that. Penny stood there for a moment longer, before a sigh—a heavy one—escaped her. Chamomile felt her hoof slip away, and a few seconds later, she heard the door swing open and shut again.

The pamphlet was still sitting between her hooves, with the pony in front smiling up at her. She stared back. Then she looked up at the back doorway, as if expecting to see that pony, or anypony, there. But, yet again, it was empty.

“Magic,” she whispered.

And she almost smelled, as if an attempt at an answer of its own, something celestially metallic.