• Published 29th Nov 2022
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Cammie - Jarvy Jared



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

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11 - Visitation Rites

Over the course of three days, the coiled clouds thickened and darkened like gluttonous snakes, obscuring the sky with their heaviness until, with a teeth-chattering clap of thunder, they released their burden. A ferocious downpour stampeded into the valley, battering trees and bushes down to sticks. A furious stream of runoff channeled through the ground, splitting the dry earth and dirt into unstable mud. For some of the earth ponies on board, the storm reminded them of the one that had, a generation ago, flooded all of Maretime Bay, and for this reason not many were surprised or startled by it; but for the unicorns and pegasi, this was their first experience with torrential conditions and nature that would not yield to either will or worry. They crowded the interior of the train to watch, fearful mumblings and morbid curiosities only assuaged by the fact that, since the train was so bulky, no wind could topple it.

“We can’t work in this,” one pony said.

“Obviously,” said another. A formal announcement had yet to be made, but no one doubted that it would come—it would be cruel to force them to work through such a downpour, especially given how, with it, the earth was too unsteady.

But work was the furthest thing from Chamomile’s mind. So was the storm, even though it raged a breath away from her. Sitting in one of the dining cars, she played with her salad, picking and jabbing at it with her magically held fork. Frequently, there would be a terrific flash of lightning, followed almost immediately by thunder so powerful it rattled the windows and glassware. She didn’t have to count the spaces between lightning and thunder to know they were right under the storm.

Around her, the workers of the train continued their jobs as though the storm did not exist. With cheerful smiles, they refilled glasses, spoke to the passengers, exchanged pleasantries, fulfilled orders, and kept, in general, an air of calm about them. When one of the diners asked if there was a possibility for a power outage, a kind unicorn replied, “No, madam, that is unlikely. This train runs on a completely insulated system of connections powered primarily by the coal furnace and backup generators. You’d have to strike from the inside to cause any sort of damage!”

Chamomile wondered if these cheerful messages were but methods of hiding their own worries and doubts. She tried to observe them, to see if any cracks would show, but could come to no consensus.

“Pardon me,” one of them said to her, catching her staring. “Would you like something, miss?”

She was too tired and irritated to wave away his concern. “Just another glass of water, please.” Of course, I could always go outside to refill mine, she thought dryly.

As the waiter went away to grab a pitcher, Chamomile looked across the table at the empty seats in front of her. She looked at the clean plates and neatly folded napkins. She saw her reflection in the glass of water opposite of her, saw how it was warped and elongated. Was it just her imagination, or did it somehow make her eyes seem redder than they actually were? She couldn’t recall crying recently.

Then again, for these past three days, she felt that she’d been crying anyway.

Since that night, Gaea had wanted nothing to do with her. Chamomile had worked with her, laying down the tracks and assisting in fastening them, but whenever a break was called, Gaea would depart before Chamomile could talk to her. On the train, the earth pony frequented distant areas of the train, and Chamomile was unable to get close. A coldness had settled between them that could have been mistaken for professionalism had she not known the reason for it. It tore her up inside to think that this was all her fault, that, in one fell swoop, she’d pushed Gaea away—without, she realized, really wanting to.

She wanted to apologize, but because Gaea never gave her the opportunity, that desire simmered into heated indignation. Resentment, like the fire in the train’s furnace, burned bright and true. But it fumigated guilt just as remembering what she’d said and done did, leaving her a mess of conflicting emotions, which she was sure the Gaea could sense, and which only made her avoidance sting even more.

The only relatively comforting thing about this was that Clip, true to his word, did not ask a word about what had happened. But Chamomile suspected that it was just an illusion.

“Astral,” she murmured to her reflection in the glass.

An emptiness throbbed inside of her with his name. She missed him—but this was a different kind of missing than the one that had cursed her since the day he’d died. It was deeper, heavier, in a way that she didn’t think was possible. She’d thought she’d felt the full extent of what it meant to miss somepony—she’d thought she’d learned, over time, how to bear it so that she was not destroyed by it. She thought she’d come to understand the nature of loss. But perhaps she’d been naïve. Perhaps you never stop missing so acutely, as much as you become numb to it, or convince yourself that you are numb to it. And in time, that numbness might be mistaken for understanding, even for moving on. Yet, every now and then, in the shades and contours of life that progress without stopping for the dead, some thing or another—a song, the stillness of Sunday morning light through the window, the august whispers in autumn’s evenings—will sparkle in the mind’s eye like a jewel, and you will be reminded of that pony you miss, who that pony was, what they meant, how they made you feel—and the pain of missing them will return, like a phantom limb’s kind of pain, and you, having convinced yourself that you do not feel it, will be swept in an intensity so extreme, you will feel like your heart is freshly tearing itself apart. And perhaps when you miss somepony so strongly, when you realize you miss other things not related to them, all those missing items would be stitched together as a giant quilt of your losses, and you would be struck down—as those very trees outside were being struck down by the rain—by the immensity of your sorrow.

If only you were here, Astral. You’d know what to say, what I should do, how I should do it.

Chamomile paused. Who was to say he couldn’t be here? Even a ghost of him would suffice.

She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to draw forth the same image she’d seen of him back in the Badlands. Surely if heat was enough to make her hallucinate him, a little bit of willpower would do just the same. She could just imagine his late morning smell, and the flashing of his eyes, and the weak smile, the pale skin, his hair beginning to fall out in clumps—

She opened her eyes. He was not there.

Now she did feel the urge to cry, but she fought it valiantly, blinking away tears that began to gather. She could not cry out here, in public, with ponies watching. And on the chance—and it was a very slim chance—that Gaea entered the dining car, she didn’t want her to see her tears.

She stood just as the waiter returned with the pitcher. He looked questioningly at her, and she shook her head. “I’m no longer thirsty, sorry.”

“That’s quite all right, miss. Do you need anything else?”

“No, thank you. I think…” But she did not complete that thought. Instead, she shook her head, then walked off, the waiter looking after her.

But where to go? Going to find Gaea was out of the question—even if she succeeded, Chamomile wondered if that wouldn’t be considered inopportune. There was Clip, but she had no idea where he was. She could wander for a time if she wanted, but that thought made her feel restless. She realized she wanted somepony to talk to—not necessarily to discuss what she was feeling, but to fill the gap left in her. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her morning dwelling on what was lost. Then she remembered: Polar was in the medbay. They didn’t know each other all that well, but perhaps that was what she needed.

She left the dining car and walked on, making sure she didn’t bump into anypony. Though she was slow in her steps, the other cars seemed to fly past her, as did the other passengers, who were, thankfully, too busy watching the rain to notice her. Her thoughts were focused on the medbay, so focused in fact that she almost missed seeing it when it appeared in front of her.

When she was about to hit a door, she stopped, then backed up a bit to see where she was. She recognized now that she was in front of the entrance to the medbay. She realized, too, that it’d been a few days since she last checked up on him. Another wave of guilt washed over her, but she shook her head and forced herself to open the door.

Trotting past an empty waiting room, she looked to see if there were any staff present. One came up to her to ask for her business, and she said she was here to visit a patient: Polar Blast. “Another visitor?” the nurse said, blinking owlishly. “I didn’t realize he was so popular… though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.”

Chamomile was about to ask what that was supposed to mean—as well as to clarify if what she saw on the nurse’s cheeks could be considered a slight blush—but chose not to. She let the nurse direct her to Polar’s bed.

He was awake, and, surprisingly, without any sign of medical injury—no bandages or casts covered him, no tubes stuck out of his body. There was a wire that traveled from his chest to a heart rate monitor gently beeping next to the bed. He was leafing through a medical journal that’d been part of a stack of magazines on the nearby table, but looked up when he saw her. His smile was bright and warm. “Oh, hey! Chamomile! You came to visit?” He sounded coherent, which led her to think that his hangover and concussion had been resolved.

“I did,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all! I’m the only pony here, actually—aside from the doctors and nurses, I mean.” He blew a strand of hair out of his face. “Can you believe that? It’s almost embarrassing.”

“I can imagine. How are you feeling?”

He groaned, snapping the journal close. “Oh, please, don’t ask me that. That’s all that the doctors and nurses ask me.”

“Well, they have to—it’s their job.”

“Yeah, but it’s so boring! I want to talk about other things—like what’s been happening outside, are we there yet. I haven’t been able to leave this room in, like, forever!”

His brashness and brazen nature were enough to momentarily lift the cloud of despair hanging over Chamomile’s head, and she smiled a little at his antics. “All right, all right. But I am curious as to how you’re feeling.”

He relented. “A lot better than I was feeling when I first woke up, here. No sign of headaches, and my hangover’s gone.” He grimaced. “Gosh. I can’t believe I went and got drunk like that. You know, back in Zephyr Heights, I never drank a whole lot.”

“Why exactly were you in that place?”

“It was hot and the tavern was cold. That’s about it.”

“Makes sense… but… drinking?”

“Oh, yeah… well, here’s the thing.” In a somewhat embarrassed tone, he revealed that it was a bet between himself and some of the bar’s patrons. They’d wanted to know how a pegasus compared to the tolerance of an earth pony. “And, you know—not wanting to damage the pride of the tribe, I took up the bet.” He shook his head. “Either the stuff they call alcohol is a lot stronger than anything we pegasi could make, or—and I hate to admit this—we’re just not as hardy as earth ponies.” But he said all of this with a note of amused irony in his voice, and while he was clearly embarrassed, he never stopped smiling.

“I have a feeling your ‘pride’ might bite you one day,” Chamomile said.

“What, isn’t it biting me already? I guess not.” He hummed. “Still, it was… fun, really. I mean, before I blacked out. I think maybe one day I’ll return to that bar and challenge them again.”

Then he looked at her. “By the way, I didn’t do anything embarrassing while I was drunk, was I?”

“Well…”

His face fell, and she laughed at the look of utter dismay. “Oh, no. No, no, oh, no.”

“It wasn’t anything too bad, really.”

“But your look—you have to tell me, what did I do?”

“Nothing, nothing!” She waved his concern aside. “You just said some… stuff.”

“What stuff?”

She, feeling merry, mimed zipping her lips shut—only to momentarily realize the irony of that statement.

Polar was quicker than her. His eyes widened. “Oh, no. What did I say about Zipp?”

She would have laughed. But his voice was full of dread, dread that sobered her and made her consider him again. She could leave the matter behind, but Polar’s eyes were pleading. And truthfully, she was a little curious as to what he himself meant by what he said.

“It’s just strange, is all,” she began, looking away from him towards the window. “You were saying things like, ‘Why doesn’t she remember me?’”

She looked back at him. He mouthed those words to himself, then asked, “Did she?”

“She knew you from when you spoke up at the station.”

He seemed simultaneously relieved and upset by this. “You were like that, too,” Chamomile added, “when you said that.”

“Ah. I… I see.”

He fell silent. Both listened to the crash of thunder and slap of rain on the windows, which remained as intense as ever.

“What did you mean by that?” Chamomile asked. “Even Zipp was confused. Does that mean you knew her before you took this job?”

He shuffled in his bed, the blanket rustling restlessly under him. “I mean… everypony did. Or at least, every pegasus. She’s the princess. You grow up in Zephyr Heights and you know about the entire royal family from the moment you’re born.” He looked up at her, scoffing. “You’d have to be blind or deaf not to know her.”

“I suppose that makes sense…”

But she didn’t think it truly did. There was something missing in his statement—an explanation for why he’d sounded so upset with Zipp. It couldn’t just be from the distance naturally found between a princess and her subjects. He’d seemed to be intimately aware of her in a way that was not shared, and this seemed to have crushed him. Did he, perhaps, truly know her in some other context that only he was privy to, that she had forgotten? Was that why he had been so upset?

“Still, I guess you’re right,” Polar said.

“Huh?” She’d been staring into space.

“It wasn’t that big of a thing, what I said.” He spoke a bit rapidly. “So, that’s a relief to hear.”

She nodded, though privately she was uncertain. “Right.”

“Anyway,” he continued, “that’s enough about me and my problems. You’ve got to tell me what’s been happening out there!”

Though she was tempted to return to the subject prior to this one, she recognized that Polar had no intention of doing so. It’d be easier to relent to him. She brought him up to speed, starting from when they’d left the Badlands to their work yesterday. She spoke only about the job and none of what Gaea had said to them that night. There wasn’t much to say, at any rate, and she finished in a matter of minutes.

Polar groaned. “Great. I’ve missed out on a solid set of days’ work!”

“Zipp said that you’ll still be paid in full.”

“Yeah, but I haven’t been able to help out at all. I’m sorry, Chamomile.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” she automatically said.

He shook his head. “Don’t give me that. I made my decision, and now I’m paying for it.” He sighed. “Well. At least it sounds like you still have a lot of work left to do, before the job’s done. Maybe I’ll be able to join you soon.”

“Assuming the doctor lets you out by that point.”

“Yeah…” He spoke dubiously, glancing back towards the medbay entrance, as if he saw the doctor just through the wall. “I’d much rather get to it sooner rather than later, that’s for sure.”

Then he shook his head and looked at her, smiling again. “Either way, thanks for checking up on me. It means a lot.”

She smiled back. “Sure thing, Polar.”

Having said and done all she needed to say, she left his bedside and made for the door at the other end of the car. Just as she reached it, she stopped, remembering, and turned back around. “The nurse said ‘another visitor’ when I came in. Does that mean somepony else was here?”

He nodded. “Yeah. That was Gaea.”

Chamomile wasn’t too surprised, but she started anyway. “Oh. And… how is she?”

“She’s okay, I guess. But she seemed… lost, somehow.” He tilted his head, one ear flopping down. “Did something happen?”

She wanted to say no. Instead, she was quiet. Her smile slipped away, and she couldn’t face Polar anymore.

“Oh,” he said quietly. A beat passed, before he said, “Did something happen between you two?”

And for some reason, unlike with Clip, she answered him, sighing. “I’m not sure. Maybe. But I don’t know what.”

“I see…”

They were both quiet, the rain beating upon the windows without end. Thunder shook the train twice, and lightning cut across the sky, flashing Chamomile’s shadow onto the door. Then Polar said, “Well, for both your sakes, I hope you work out whatever it is that’s happening between you two. You’re good for each other.”

“What?” She turned and looked at him, wide-eyed.

He grinned. “Hey, don’t look too shocked. I’m a pegasus. My eyesight’s better than most. I could tell you were good for each other the moment you two met.”

“I…” She frowned. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Polar. I think you might be mistaken.”

“Hmm.” He was, surprisingly, unoffended. “You know what, I could be. After all, I still might have a concussion. I could be seeing things that aren’t there.” He paused, then, tilting his head the other way, he said, “Or maybe…”

“I think I’d better let you rest,” she said, reaching again for the door. “Though I do hope that you’ll be able to join us soon. On the job, I mean.”

“Of course. You take care, Chamomile.”

She could feel his smile on her back as she left, his words still swirling around in her head.