Moving On, Looking Back
written by Sugarberry
Coming out of the gooseberry patch with both of her buckets filled to the brim with the dark, smoothly rounded berries, Sassy smiled in contentment. When Blackcap had first told her that they would be spending a week or two at Camomile and Forester’s farm outside of Neighberry, she had braced herself for a dull, uneventful stay. But Camomile’s life was anything but boring, what with a huge vegetable garden to maintain and berries to glean in due time, not to mention the flower beds and the lawn itself that needed constant attention. Sassy had been kept so busy that she had not missed her own home in New Pony for a minute.
Taking a minute to stand under a shady maple tree, Sassy breathed in the fragrance of the fresh country air and let her eyes feast on the luscious greenery accented by the reds, yellows, blues, purples, and nearly every other shade available in the flowers. All of this was backed by a cornflower blue sky that seemed to separate this beautiful valley farm from the rest of the world.
Arriving at the back door of the farmhouse at the same time as Blackcap and Forester, Sassy grinned at the two stallions. Both of them had been putting hay away in the barn, and they were hot, sweaty, and decorated with stiff, sticky bits of hay.
This was a side of Blackcap that Sassy had never seen before coming to the farm. Always in their past, Blackcap had worked hardest at avoiding work, at least any kind that involved muscle and exertion. He would plan the details of the perfect con for weeks, but come up with any excuse to avoid taking out the trash. Now, Blackcap accepted with a certain amount of enjoyment the backbreaking work that Forester set for him; and not once had Blackcap complained; neither had he mentioned any yearning for the city. He had settled into the day-to-day business of farming as if he had been doing it all his life.
No less surprised than Sassy by his response to the rustic life, Blackcap had been bemused to find that he was actually enjoying his time on the farm. When Forester had first approached him about coming to Neighberry to paint the barn, Blackcap had much regretted ever having sold a trusting Forester an inferior paint job. How was he to know that someday, his youngest daughter would be marrying the grandson of the very stallion he had gypped? At the wedding reception when Forester discussed the problem with him, Blackcap had felt well put upon to have been called to account for his past deeds; yet, for the sake of his daughter, he had been anxious to make amends. How long would it take him to paint the barn, anyway? A couple of days at the most was all it would set him back.
But upon arriving at the busy old farm, Blackcap had seen that Forester was hard pressed to keep up the place on his own. Camomile helped, of course, but she was more than swamped with her own gardening during the summer. The barn not only needed painting, but it also needed some repair work, as did several other of the sheds on the place. Fences needed fixing, crops needed harvesting, and weeds needed mowing. The couple of days had turned into a couple of weeks as first one project and then another had been addressed by the stallion in a burst of energy to make things right for Forester and Camomile. The main reason for coming to the farm, the painting of the barn, was still to be accomplished.
Blackcap had to grin each time he thought back to the conversation he and Forester had shared the first evening they had arrived at the farm after Garnet and Wishbone’s wedding. The two stallions had sat on the porch while Camomile was preparing them a repast after their journey; and Blackcap, viewing the barn again after so many years, had been overcome with shame.
“How long did my last paint job last?” he had asked Forester.
Forester had sat back and wrinkled his brow while pondering the question. “I’d say... a good ten years.”
That piece of information had shocked Blackcap, because he knew for a fact- as he was the one who had done it- that the paint was watered down to such a degree that it would not hold up beyond any proper summer rain. How, then, had it lasted for ten years? He had stared long and hard at the aging farmer before blurting, “But that paint... we both know it couldn’t withstand the first thunderstorm that passed through.”
Chuckling, Forester had merely settled in for a walk down memory lane. “I remember the day you arrived with your offer to paint the barn. It was rather late, and you said you’d start first thing in the morning. Camomile was just setting out supper, like now, and you eyed the food like you hadn’t eaten in days. So we invited you to sup with us, and then put you up in the guest room for the night.
“I have to admit, Blackcap, that I had my suspicions about you; I’d heard stories from other farmers who’d gotten swindled by a deal too good to be true. So I slipped out to the barn after you were asleep to check on your paint... and found that it seemed a mite too thin for the quality you’d assured me and Camomile it was.”
Blackcap was not so jaded that he could prevent a blush from creeping up his cheeks as he recalled his blatant lies. At the time, it had seemed the only way to regroup the family’s jangles; it had hurt him to leave Sassy working in that out-of-the-running restaurant for long hours each day when they had hit a bad spell of luck.
Forester continued. “Well, it just so happened that I’d been planning to paint the barn myself... if I ever got the time.” He shook his head, and Blackcap understood the shortage of hours when most of the work had to be accomplished between sunrise and sunset under often less than ideal weather conditions. “I had plenty of the paint on hoof, you see. So I just sort of exchanged your watered-down paint with my good stuff. The next morning, you set to work and completed the job by the second day. And a darn good job of it you did, too.” The stallion winked at Blackcap.
For a moment, Blackcap looked stunned. He had been feeling guilty as sin because he had duped this kindly old farmer, and now he was informed that Forester had been aware of his duplicity from the start. It rankled, but yet he had to admire the farmer. A respectful grin lit Blackcap’s face. “So I was conned in the process of conning?”
“All for a good cause,” Forester smiled back. “You’re labor wasn’t wasted... and neither were my jangles.”
“I like you, Forester. You’re a cagey ol’ cu...” Blackcap cleared his throat. “You’ve got a sly mind.”
Forester had thumped Blackcap on the shoulder and invited him into the house to partake of supper.
* * *
One thing that Sassy had learned upon her arrival at the farm was that Twilight Jewel, Camomile and Forester’s daughter-in-law, was not too happy to have her son’s in-laws inveigling themselves so intimately into the lives of her husband’s parents. Why Twilight Jewel felt this way was a mystery to Sassy. Well, true, she and Blackcap did not have a sterling reputation; but what did ponies expect, that they would run off with Camomile’s quilts and Forester’s prize ewe?
And for another thing, Camomile had let it slip that Twilight Jewel rarely came to the farm to visit under ordinary circumstances; yet since Blackcap and Sassy’s arrival, she had been popping in with increasing frequency so that even Camomile was becoming hard-pressed to put up with the mare’s saccharin visits that were only scouting expeditions to make sure the family silver was still in place.
On the other hoof, Drifter, the only son of Camomile and Forester- and also Twilight Jewel’s husband and Wishbone’s father- had astonishingly gained a role model in Blackcap, finding in the assertive stallion what he himself had always lacked: self-direction. He had allowed Twilight Jewel to control the decisions in their life; and even though he now enjoyed the running of the restaurant, The Right Place, they had opened several years ago, he sometimes felt that his life had gotten out-of-hoof. Blackcap’s confident tackling of any problem provided Drifter with a sense of hope that even he could one day take charge... if Twilight Jewel allowed it, of course. Oh, dear, one step at a time!
But the Sunday afternoons fishing with Blackcap and Forester while the mares stitched on a quilt had been moments out of time for Drifter. He had accepted Blackcap’s offer to accompany him to the lumberyard one day to pick up the supplies he and Forester needed to effect repairs on the animal pens and sheds. He had even soiled his hooves once they had the supplies delivered by removing rotten boards from a shed while Blackcap sawed the replacement lumber to length. He had gotten so caught up in the work that he had not returned to the restaurant on time and had faced a severe set-down from Twilight Jewel about tending to his own affairs rather than cavorting with the likes of Blackcap Lamplight. But the scolding had not depressed Drifter. He had slept better that night than he had in ages. Blackcap’s eternal optimism and devil-may-care attitude were rubbing off on him.
This mingling of diverse personalities added some spice to Camomile’s otherwise sedate life, and she enjoyed watching as Drifter began to reassert his independence, becoming more like the young stallion who had once dared to dream his own dreams; and she noted with some amusement Twilight Jewel’s discomfort with the change in her husband, especially where Sassy was concerned. Drifter had always been respectful and condescending where his wife was concerned; but with Sassy, he enjoyed a playful, outspoken relationship that brought a smile to his face and put a spring in his step. The opposite was true for Twilight Jewel; she was often seen scowling at the light-hearted exchange that Drifter and Sassy engaged in while Blackcap merely grinned and joined in. It made for an interesting couple of weeks on the farm, and Camomile found that she would miss Sassy and Blackcap’s company when their work was finished.
* * *
“Well, that does it,” declared Blackcap, stepping back from the last of the barn trim he had just finished painting. He took off his old baseball cap and rubbed a hoof over his sweating forehead. “What do you think?”
Forester, having completed the morning chores, came up to join Blackcap in inspecting the new coat of red paint and the white trim. “Not too shoddy a job at all,” grinned the older stallion. “Looks mighty fine to me.”
“Glad to hear you say that. Now all I have to do is clean the brushes and get all this stuff put away.” He nodded toward an assortment of paint cans, brushes, ladders, and related equipment.
“I’ll need one of those ladders to hang Camomile’s flowers,” stated Forester, matching his actions to his words. Moving the ladder to a position by the barn door, he next retrieved a hanging basket of white petunias that waited to reclaim their spot on a black wrought-iron hook and prepared to mount the ladder.
“Wait just a minute and I’ll take care of that for you,” Blackcap suggested.
Forester laughed at Blackcap’s concern. “I’ve hung this basket for Camomile every year since we got married, and I hope to do it for many more. I’m not some doddering old fool just yet.”
“I didn’t mean to imply that you were,” grinned Blackcap, turning back to his own tasks after verifying that the ladder was safely situated. He was just drying one of his brushes when he heard Forester ask, “There, how does that look?”
Looking up to take in the placement of the basket, Blackcap’s attention was drawn instead to some motion further beyond the ladder leaning against the barn. Coming around the corner were several large, plump pigs, their legs pumping as if the hound of the Baskerville’s was behind them; and in a manner of speaking, he was. Actually, it was only Rover, Forester’s sheep dog, but Rover was upset to have found the neighbor’s pigs snuffling around his corn crib, and he was determined to rid the farm of their unwanted presence.
Unfortunately, Rover’s pursuit was sending the pigs directly toward the ladder on which Forester was balanced. Blackcap had time only to call out a warning; by the time Forester realized the danger he was in, the pigs were already at the base of the ladder; and their frenzied escape from Rover caused them to careen into the legs of the ladder and send it toppling, throwing Forester to the ground in an undignified heap with one back leg receiving the brunt of the fall.
“Ugh!” he groaned as he lay catching his breath. “My leg hurts something fierce.”
Blackcap was at the stallion’s side even before the dust had settled from the pigs’ cloven hooves. “Forester, don’t move.” He put a foreleg against Forester’s chest, effectively immobilizing him. “That leg looks like it’s broken to me. I’m going to get help.”
Sassy and Camomile, however, had been working in the garden and had heard the ruckus and came running to see what the commotion was all about. Sassy, hearing her husband’s verdict, immediately turned back to call the paramedics while Camomile dropped down to Forester’s side. “What in the world happened?”
“Rover took offense to Granger’s pigs coming over to visit,” Forester said, trying to mask the pain. “I was in their path.” He smiled weakly, but Camomile was not fooled.
“You poor thing!” She crooned and patted his cheek, then noticed the ladder still lying close by the prone figure of her husband. “You were up on that ladder weren’t you?” she asked, all the tender compassion gone from her voice, replaced now with a sharp edge. “Didn’t I tell you this morning to let Blackcap hang that planter?”
“What, you’d wish this broken leg on him?” Forester defended.
“No! What I mean is that Blackcap would have had the good sense not to fall!”
Forester and Blackcap shared a puzzled frown, trying to follow Camomile’s logic, when Sassy came running back from the house. “I’ve called the paramedics; they’ll be here as quickly as they can.” In her hooves were a pillow and a quilted lap pad which she capably used to make Forester more comfortable during his wait. Next, she offered him a drink of water, and only then turned her attention to Camomile and Blackcap, asking for a complete account of what had taken place to put Forester in such a position.
When Blackcap had given a concise and accurate account of the incident, Sassy grinned. “Here you are doing such a sweet thing, and this is the thanks you get for it.” She shook her head over the impaired leg.
“That’s not the way some see it,” Forester muttered, darting a glance at his wife.
“Some would have the sense to let a younger stallion do the job,” Camomile shot back.
“Now, now,” Blackcap interfered, feeling sorry for Forester who had enough to contend with at the moment. “No one had any way of knowing that a parcel of pigs was going to come gallivanting through the barnyard; I’d be in the same shape as Forester if I’d been the one on the ladder.”
Suddenly contrite, Camomile turned her energies to making Forester more comfortable, giving Blackcap a chance to talk with Sassy alone. “What’s this going to do to our plans of returning to New Pony tomorrow?”
“My gosh! I hadn’t thought of that. We can’t just walk off and leave Camomile with all the chores to do by herself.”
“My thoughts exactly. Once we have the doctor’s opinion, you wouldn’t be adverse to staying longer?”
“I don’t see that we have a choice.”
* * *
Later, at the hospital, Camomile opted to spend the night in Neighberry to be closer to her husband; and Blackcap assured both Camomile and Forester that he would make sure that all the chores were taken care of at the farm. Fortunately, the medication for the pain that the doctor had prescribed for Forester kept the stallion sedated enough so that he did not have the will to fight his forced incapacity or to bewail Blackcap and Sassy’s further confinement to the farm. Twilight Jewel seemed cool and aloof as if she somehow blamed the accident on Blackcap and Sassy, but Drifter assured the Lamplights that he would be able to take some time off from the restaurant to help on the farm as well.
Twilight Jewel found herself between a rock and a hard place. She could not fathom having Blackcap and Sassy at her in-laws home even for one night without supervision; they could pack off everything if they’d a mind too. On the other hoof, she could not in good conscience bid her husband to accompany them to the farm for the night and play bodyguard, not when Drifter found the violet-eyed mare so fascinating. She found that she would much rather be assured of Drifter’s safety than that of the household possessions, so kept her mouth shut concerning her misgivings about the reliability of Sassy and Blackcap.
Camomile did ask one particular favor of Sassy before she and Blackcap left for the farm, and that was to call Wishbone and Chocolate Chip for her to let them know of their grandfather’s accident. She knew that Sassy would give a more succinct report to the two than Twilight Jewel, who had of love of theatrics.
Sassy promised that she would notify both young ponies of the day’s events post haste.
* * *
“I was hoping you’d be more circumspect now that you’re married,” Sassy griped as she finished listening to Garnet’s story of her and Wishbone’s honeymoon.
“Mother! I didn’t ask to be spirited away by Tinder and Honeydew,” Garnet’s voice came back. “And you’re sure that Grandpa will be okay?”
“I’d say the biggest problem facing us is to keep him quiet long enough to heal that leg of his,” Sassy confided. “He won’t take too kindly to sitting back and watching your dad and Drifter taking care of the place.”
“We’ll come visit this weekend,” Garnet promised. “That’ll help keep him diverted.”
“I’m perfectly sure that your account of kidnaping and pirate ships will set his mind at ease, dear,” Sassy drawled. “You might, however, want to hold back the part about the cannonball.”
Garnet chuckled. “Yes, Mother.”
* * *
Sassy caught Chocolate Chip at home after a long, hard day at the office. “... so your grandfather will be laid-up for awhile, but he’ll do fine. The doctor said it was a clean break, and he doesn’t foresee any problems from it.”
“I’m so grateful that you and Blackcap are there to tend to things,” Chocolate Chip assured the mare. “Mom and Dad would have a hard time managing the restaurant and the farm. But are you sure this won’t be too big an inconvenience for you? You’ve been away from your home in New Pony for weeks now.”
“Well, there is one thing you could do for me, Chocolate Chip.”
“I’ve already called a neighbor of mine to tell her of our delay, and she’ll continue to pick up the mail and look out for things. But I could use some stuff out of the apartment, and Tilly wouldn’t be able to get to the post office to mail a package; she doesn’t get around so well any more.”
“What do you need? I could go over there yet tonight and have the items mailed out tomorrow.”
Sassy proceeded to list the things she wanted, and Chocolate Chip carefully jotted them down along with the address of the apartment.
“Tilly is right next door to us, and she has the key to our place. I’ll call her and let her know to expect you. And thanks, Chocolate Chip, for doing this.”
“No problem. Look for your package in a couple of days.”
* * *
Hanging up the phone, Chocolate Chip was ready to dash out the door when she realized that she had never been in the part of New Pony in which Blackcap and Sassy’s apartment was located; she retraced her steps to the phone and dialed Xavier’s number.
“Xavier, I have to run an errand over on East Graham Street. I was wondering if you’d accompany me.”
“Graham Street isn’t in the best part of town, Chocolate Chip. Are you sure you have the right address?”
“Yes. I wrote it down exactly as it was given to me”
“What is it, a pawn shop?” Xavier asked, his voice harsh.
“No, it’s Garnet’s parents’ apartment.”
“I promised Sassy I’d send some of her things to her at Grandpa’s farm; Grandpa fell today and broke his leg. Blackcap and Sassy are going to help run the farm until he’s back on his hooves.”
“They’ve been there ever since the wedding?”
“Obviously so. I guess there was a lot of repair work that needed to be done. But will you come with me tonight, or do I go alone?”
“There’s no way I’m letting you go alone, Chocolate Chip. I’ll be over in a couple of minutes.”
The receiver went dead before Chocolate Chip could even say, “Thank you.”
* * *
“I missed you walking home from work,” Xavier admitted once he and Chocolate Chip were on there way. “Another busy day?”
Chocolate Chip was quiet for a moment. “May I tell you something in confidence, Xavier?”
“Of course. I’m not a scandalmonger.”
Another pause ensued. “Did you know that Fabia is the niece of the company’s president?”
“I wasn’t aware of it. Is there some significance to that relationship?” Xavier hedged.
“Fabia’s my supervisor, you know; but the longer I work under her, the more I question her capability to handle the job she’s been given.”
“You’re saying she’s incompetent?”
“I’m saying that she seldom does any work. She relies on me and Tarn to compile all the information and make the assessments, then she takes the credit for it.”
“I’m sure that happens all the time.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“Maybe not, but it’s not going to change, either.”
“It doesn’t seem to be an efficient way to run a company, to let an unqualified pony hold a position of authority when that pony doesn’t have a hint as to what is going on,” Chocolate Chip complained.
“What in particular has you so fired up?”
“Well, I’ve been hearing bits and pieces around the office about Fabia’s ability to bring off any presentation as if it’s her own, so I started asking some discreet questions. I seems that she’s an expert at her job only when she can submit someone else’s efforts; she can put on a good show, but she hasn’t a clue as to where the facts and figures came from.”
“So how does she continue to go on as she does?”
“Because no one has the courage to question the niece of the president.”
Xavier cast a sideways glance at the mare. “And how about you?”
“I like my job.” Chocolate Chip laughed nervously. “I just learned that the pony whom I replaced tried to alert her superiors to the fact that Fabia was simply taking credit for other, more capable, ponies’ work; she was let go when Fabia stepped in to cast doubts on her veracity. No one questioned Fabia, of course.”
“Sounds like you have a dilemma.”
“Tell me about it. I can continue to work hard and have Fabia get all the credit, or I can raise a ruckus and end up unemployed.”
“Well, at least you’re getting paid by staying on.”
“Yeah. Some days it doesn’t seem worth it, though.”
The streets were dingier and less orderly as Chocolate Chip and Xavier neared the address Sassy had given, and it was with some relief that they finally reached the correct apartment number and located Tilly. The mare had hobbled to the door to answer their tentative knock, and looked with interest at the pair standing before her.
“Sassy said you’d be comin’,” she grinned, showing several empty spaces in her row of yellowed teeth.
“You have the key?” Xavier asked, holding on to Chocolate Chip’s foreleg as if expecting to have to pull her out of harm’s way at any moment.
“Yeah, I got the key.” She held it up, but pulled it back when Xavier reached for it. “Why don’t ya come in and have a cup of coffee first?”
“We’re really in a hurry,” faltered Chocolate Chip, noting the none-too-clean interior of Tilly’s rooms.
“Tsk, tsk. You younger folk are always in such a hurry-scurry way. It won’t hurt ya to set down a spell.” She fumbled with a stack of newspapers on the coffee-stained sofa and tossed some unfolded scarves and ribbons on the floor. “Make yourselves comfortable,” she then said, going off with her uneven gait toward a small kitchen.
Casting an apologetic glance at Xavier, Chocolate Chip moved into the room, staring at the piles of books, magazines, dirty dishes, and knickknacks on every available surface in the room. She ran her hoof over the sofa cushions, brushing away some crumbs and cat hairs, before sitting down primly on the edge. Xavier remained standing.
As Tilly prepared the instant coffee, she kept up a running dialogue of neighborhood happenings as if Chocolate Chip and Xavier were regular visitors. “Fleeter lost his job... again. He says that it wasn’t his fault, but he says that all the time. Course, he isn’t as young as he used to be.” Tilly chuckled. “None of us are. Lizzie thinks she is, though. She was here today peddling cosmetics, painted up like a circus clown, if ya ask me.”
Listening to the gossip, Chocolate Chip became aware of movement across the room and could not help but admire a beautiful cat that came out of another tiny room with the door partially closed. The cat was grey, long-haired, and had a proud, bushy tail that was waving now with slow, deliberate movements. Chocolate Chip was so caught up in the fluid motion of that tail that she did not notice what the cat was carrying until it stopped in front of her and deposited a wet and frazzled clump of fur at her hooves. Staring at the bedraggled object, Chocolate Chip only slowly realized what it was.
“A mouse!” she exclaimed, jumping to her hooves and darting to stand behind Xavier.
“What a good kitty!” cooed Tilly, coming with a coffee mug in each forehoof. Her limping gait caused the hot, brown liquid to slosh over the sides of the mug, of which Tilly seemed entirely unaware. Handing a mug to each of the ponies, she then proceeded to pick up the mouse- it had not moved a muscle- and take it to an open window to toss outside. That done, she returned to the kitchen counter to retrieve her own mug and joined Chocolate Chip on the couch where the young mare had again perched. Tilly motioned for Xavier to take the chair, but the cat beat him to it.
“How do you come to know Sassy?” Tilly asked of Chocolate Chip.
“Her daughter married my brother.”
“And you, young fella, you’re a courtin’ this one, I suppose?”
“No. But we’re good friends,” Xavier responded in a choked voice, finding the coffee to be very strong and very, very bitter. The cat hair floating on top had not helped, either. He made himself comfortable by leaning against a wall and tried to catch Chocolate Chip’s eye in an effort to get them out of this loathsome apartment as soon as possible. That proved to be a more difficult task than he had at first anticipated, as Chocolate Chip had now seemed to accept Tilly as a bosom bow.
The two mares sat and visited like old friends, sharing tidbits of information about family history and social problems and current fashions, while Xavier bided his time watching the cat clean, counting how many more cat hairs loosened by the cat’s vigorous licking joined those already in his mug. He only became fully conscious again when he heard Tilly say, “Well, I’ve sure enjoyed your visit, Chocolate Chip. It can get kinda lonely around here with Sassy gone.” The mare abdicated the key to Chocolate Chip’s hoof.
“I guess it is getting rather late,” Chocolate Chip said, looking guiltily at Xavier. She got to her hooves. “We’ll bring this back as soon as we’ve rounded up Sassy’s things.”
“No hurry,” Tilly said, remaining on the couch. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“You didn’t have to act the saint,” grumbled Xavier as he and Chocolate Chip entered the apartment next door.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” queried Chocolate Chip, surveying Sassy and Blackcap’s apartment with approval. Even though the neighborhood was not the best, the apartment’s interior was clean and well-organized. The furniture was of high quality, the pictures on the wall were classy and attractively grouped, and a plush carpet softened the entire setting. Sassy’s vibrant personality enlivened the space even in her absence.
“I’m just saying you didn’t have to respond to Tilly like some beloved aunt; all we needed from her is the key.”
“She’s lonely, Xavier, and she seldom gets out of that apartment of hers. She enjoyed our visit.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Chocolate Chip rolled her eyes. “I’ll hurry, then, and get what I need.” She busied herself hunting up the items Sassy had requested, having no trouble locating them in the orderly rooms. When she had everything safely tucked away in her backpack, Chocolate Chip took one final look around to ensure that things were as they should be before grinning at Xavier. “Let’s go, then.”
Returning the key to Tilly, Chocolate Chip gave a hug to the infirm mare. “I was thinking, Tilly. How about I bring something from the deli over on Thursday evening, and you and I can have another good visit?”
The mare’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm, the happy smile on her face taking ten years off her age. “I’d like that!”
“Good. I’ll see you then.” With a final goodbye, Chocolate Chip preceded Xavier out of Tilly’s place, allowing the stallion to say his own brief farewell to the mare. Closing the door behind him, Xavier huffed.
“Why’d you go and promise her you’d come again?” he asked Chocolate Chip angrily.
“Because she’s a sweet old mare, and I think she’s pining for something out of the routine to happen in her life.”
“Sweet? I beg to differ, Chocolate Chip. She’s a... a... slovenly housekeeper at best and a source of food poisoning at worst. You can’t be serious about going back there!”
“Oh, but I am. Tilly is in need of a friend, and it might as well be me. It’s because of Grandpa that Sassy isn’t here to look out for her, after all.” Chocolate Chip glanced at Xavier. “You needn’t put yourself out by coming with me next time, although I do appreciate your escort. I know my way now, however, and will be perfectly comfortable coming alone, even though it is getting darker earlier every evening.”
Taking a quick look around him, Xavier shuddered. There was no way he was going to let Chocolate Chip come into a neighborhood like this without his protection, even if it meant another uncomfortable evening in Tilly’s company. “Thursday, you say? I’ll pencil it in on my calendar.”
Chocolate Chip smugly smiled.
* * *
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Sassy and Camomile were hard pressed to keep Forester down. “Blackcap and Drifter are taking care of everything,” his wife admonished him, pushing him back against the cushions of the sofa where he was recuperating.
“I’m supposed to be comforted by that?” barked Forester, making another unsuccessful attempt to raise himself. “A restauranteur and a blackguard watching over my sheep?”
Camomile and Sassy exchanged an amused glance. “Drifter did grow up here, and you couldn’t praise Blackcap enough when he was helping you,” Camomile noted.
“Helping is one thing; taking charge is a different matter,” grumbled Forester.
“You gave them plenty of instructions,” added Sassy, smirking over the explicit list of duties that Forester had given the two stallions, treating them as if they were inept school boys. Blackcap had barely controlled his temper while Drifter had only shared an amused grin with Sassy. Now, as she cleaned the latest batch of gooseberries that she had picked, her mind was putting together an idea.
“Camomile,” Sassy broached the subject, “were you serious about leaving the rest of the berries go?”
“Yes. We have more than enough in the freezer to see us through to next year; I’ve never seen so many gooseberries in my life.”
“Would you mind, then, if I were to pick them for some use of my own?”
“What would you do with them, Sassy?”
“They’re too good to go to waste; I was thinking that with a little experimentation, I could develop a pastry that might go over well at The Right Place, sort of a seasonal draw.”
“Twilight Jewel’s never been fond of gooseberries,” warned Camomile.
“But Drifter is,” observed Sassy, remembering the complimentary things he had to say about the pies she and Camomile had prepared only yesterday. “And I think Twilight Jewel would be, too, if we could put a more elegant spin on them.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Sassy grinned. “You’ll see my first effort for dessert tonight.”
* * *
“Well, what does everyone think?” queried Sassy, eying the ponies around the supper table with some trepidation. She had put a lot of planning into her presentation of this new concept for the lowly gooseberry and thought that it had turned out quite delectable; but the faces around her gave no clue as to what any of the others were experiencing from their first bite until Blackcap grimaced and said, “Try again.”
“It’s not that bad,” defended Drifter, taking a second bite. “Maybe it just needs a sauce to top it off.”
“I expected more oomph out of it,” stated Camomile. “Just add more gooseberries next time.”
Forester, finding that eating was the highlight of his confined day, flashed Sassy a bright smile. “It’s great, Sassy. Can’t imagine why the others don’t just say so.” He cleaned up the last crumbs from his plate in satisfaction.
“Well, I’ll see what I can do tomorrow,” sighed Sassy.
* * *
Suppertime the following day ended with the second attempt at Sassy’s perfect gooseberry dessert. She had been isolated in the kitchen for the majority of the day, experimenting with different ideas and trying them out with no one but herself to judge the results. Tasting each attempt with an unprejudiced mind, she had narrowed down her options until she was satisfied that her concoction would now meet with everyone’s approval. As she removed the latest batch from the oven, she noted with satisfaction that they were baked to a delicate golden color that was pleasing to the eye; the aroma was heavenly; and the filling, after a quick taste that burned her tongue, was luscious. Sassy set the pastries on a wire rack to cool while she set out to prepare a topping.
“How’s it going?” asked Camomile, coming into the kitchen and sniffing the air. “Forester says if they taste only half as good as they smell, you’ve got yourself a winner.”
“Forester would say that about dog food, as bored as he is,” laughed Sassy. “But I’ve got to agree, they’ve turned out rather well, I think.”
A glance at the clock on the wall set Camomile scurrying. “It’s that late already? If we want more than dessert for supper, I’d better get cookin’!”
* * *
Sassy’s innovation turned out so well that Drifter invited her to come into Neighberry the following evening to serve the confection to Twilight Jewel and Lollipop to get their opinion; if it mirrored the results of the first taste-test, the new dessert item would be included as a special menu item on the weekend.
As a result, Sassy found herself in Twilight Jewel’s kitchen the next afternoon mixing up her pastries when Lollipop arrived home from her classes at the vocational school. Lollipop, just out of high school, was not unaware of her mother’s dislike for Sassy, and she grinned to find the mare making free with her mother’s domain.
“Does Mom know you’re here?” queried the filly curiously as she settled down at the counter with a glass of milk and a cookie to watch Sassy at work.
“Yes, she knows; but I must admit I’m here because of your father’s invitation, not your mother’s.” She cast a searching glance at Lollipop. “I hope this idea of mine hasn’t caused any trouble in the family,” she said.
Lollipop dismissed that idea with a wave of her hoof and another grin. “It just livened things up a bit,” she admitted. She watched as Sassy combined ingredients in a bowl and asked, “Where did you come up with this recipe?”
“I remember my own mother making a treat for special occasions, but she never wrote the recipe down. I’ve often thought of it, but never felt motivated to make it until I tasted your grandmother’s gooseberries. My mom called them tassies, and I think she made them with cranberries; but I’ve come close to duplicating them even if I’m not using the same ingredients.”
“Your son must have inherited his cooking ability from you,” observed Lollipop, remembering the forbidding stallion at Wishbone’s wedding. “I hope to make a name for myself in the restaurant business myself.”
“And I don’t doubt that you will,” smiled Sassy. “Your parents have done a great job with The Right Place, and your dad is quick to admit that you’re a big help there.”
Lollipop looked pleased. “I love working there, and I plan to learn everything I can so that I can bring in new ideas. Or, maybe...” The filly suddenly lowered her eyes and blushed.
“Or, maybe you can what?” prodded Sassy.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking it might be fun to go to New Pony when I finish my schooling.”
“Ahhh...” Sassy remembered that Lollipop had spent a great deal of time at the wedding reception with Chocolate Chip’s friend from New Pony, but she skirted around the issue. “You would have your big sister’s help and guidance.”
“Wha... oh, yeah. Chocolate Chip could show me around the big city, I suppose.” The glow in Lollipop’s eyes hinted at another diversion.
“Speaking of your sister, she visited my apartment to round up some things I found I couldn’t get along without any longer; she enclosed a note that said Xavier had accompanied her there.”
Lollipop’s eyes simply sparkled. “Xavier? Did she say anything else?”
“About the stallion? No, but she did say that she’d enjoyed visiting with my neighbor, Tilly, who can be quite a hoof-full. Your sister is a very nice pony. Do she and Xavier have... plans for a future together?” Sassy stared at Lollipop innocently.
“Chocolate Chip and Xavier?” The filly laughed. “No, no. Nothing like that. They’re just good friends, that’s all.” Suddenly, Lollipop sobered. “Or, at least, I think that’s all it is. Wigwam’s hopes will be dashed if she falls in love with... someone else. She wouldn’t, would she?” Lollipop asked anxiously.
Sorry now that she had baited the girl, Sassy relented. “Oh, not Xavier by any means; I should think that he had his eyes on you more than your sister.”
That piece of information transformed Lollipop back into her cheerful self. “Can I help you with something, Sassy?” she asked, finishing off her milk and jumping down from the counter stool.
“You could chop some nuts,” suggested Sassy. “We need them for the pastry and the filling.”
“I’m on it.”
* * *
“I’ve never liked gooseberries,” sniffed Twilight Jewel after taking a bite of the tassie. Sassy ignored the remark, having expected just such a reaction, turning her attention to Lollipop instead.
The filly had taken a bite, then a second, then a third. Now her eyes closed in sheer delight. “It’s great, Sassy! The pastry’s tender, the filling is ambrosial, and the topping is luscious.” Her eyes popped open. “I can’t wait to start scribing the menu attachments for this special! We’ll call it Sassy’s Tassies, right Dad?” She turned to her father, completely ignoring her mom.
Sassy was shaking her head in the negative, but Drifter wholeheartedly agreed with his daughter. “Perfect, Lolli. Ponies will want to try them just for the name.”
“That’s not what I...” began Sassy, but Twilight Jewel interrupted her.
Pushing back her chair, Twilight Jewel got to her hooves. “I’ve got a headache,” she complained. “I’m sure the three of you can manage the dishes by yourselves.” Giving each of the three a withering glance, she swept from the room.
Drifter and Lollipop did not seem to notice, Drifter busy finishing off the abandoned dessert at Twilight Jewel’s place and Lollipop scrounging up paper and pencil to do a preliminary design for the menu. Sassy sighed and began clearing the table. She had known Twilight Jewel would not be pleased, but Sassy had hoped that she would at least graciously accept the fact that her husband and daughter found the dessert a delight and concede that it would fare well at the restaurant. It made Sassy uncomfortable to think that she was usurping Twilight Jewel’s accustomed place of dominance with her family. “Maybe you should just call it Gooseberry Delight,” she suggested.
Drifter, however, obviously thought otherwise as he finished eating and carried a load of dirty dishes to the sink. “Sassy, the dessert is as refreshing as you yourself. Your name has to be attached to it.” He thought a moment, then grinned. “Of course, Sassy’s Delight wouldn’t be half bad, either.”
“Nope,” Lollipop overruled. “I’ve already got a design worked out.” She held up her artwork, an old-fashioned spidery script with an abundance of curlicues advertising, A Taste to Delight: Sassy’s Tassies. It was accompanied by a description of the dessert being offered and a price that caused Sassy to gasp.
“You can’t sell it for that much!”
“Why not?” grinned Drifter. “Plain old apple pie costs a jangle. Your tassies are a far cry better than apple pie.”
“He’s right, Sassy. Ponies will be willing to pay to get a taste; it’ll be the talk of the town.”
“You’re the experts,” acknowledged Sassy, suddenly feeling that this project had somehow gotten out-of-hoof. She glanced to the doorway through which Twilight Jewel had disappeared. “I just hope Twilight Jewel agrees with all these decisions.”
* * *
By the time Drifter had accompanied Sassy back to the farm, Sassy was more sure than ever that she had inadvertently driven a wedge between Drifter and Twilight Jewel with her interest in supplying The Right Place with a signature dessert. Drifter had played down her attempt to address the situation, saying that he and Lollipop were perfectly capable of making some of the restaurant’s decisions on their own. “Twilight Jewel will just have to defer to our preferences now,” Drifter had told her, then added, “just as I’ve had to do any number of times down through the years.”
While Drifter took himself off to the barn to help Blackcap with the evening chores, Sassy found Camomile was watering flowers; but she turned down Sassy’s offer to help, urging the mare to go in the house to visit with Forester who was feeling more sorry for himself each passing day.
Finding Forester staring out the window through which he could watch his son and Blackcap feeding the sheep, Sassy settled a gentle hoof on his shoulder. “You’ll be back out there soon enough, and then you’ll wish you’d taken better advantage of your leisure.”
“I’m bored, Sassy... bored stiff. I wasn’t made to sit around without doing something!”
“You have books and magazines and crossword puzzles...”
“I need to do something useful,” muttered Forester.
“How about I go pick some more gooseberries, and you can pick the stems off for me?” suggested Sassy.
“Well, that’s better than nothin’,” grumped the stallion. Then, casting a worried look at Sassy, he utterly surprised her by saying, “I couldn’t help but notice how chummy you and Drifter are becoming; I didn’t plan on nothing like that when I invited you and Blackcap here.”
“Forester!” she said, dismayed. “You think Drifter and I...”
“I don’t think nothing of the sort,” Forester admitted. “It just seems kind of funny the way Drifter can’t seem to get enough of farm life now all of a sudden with you here.”
“Camomile says the same for Twilight Jewel,” pointed out Sassy.
“That’s a fact. Neither of them is acting like their usual selves.”
“Maybe they’re just adjusting to the fact that their children are adults now,” mused Sassy. “An empty nest syndrome of sorts.”
“Your kids are all gone from home; did you go through that?”
Sassy thought for a moment before answering. “Each of our children were raised to be independent from an early age, Forester. They prided themselves on their self-sufficiency. It wasn’t a big deal when they left home.”
“Independence,” muttered Forester. “That’s what it is about Drifter. He seems to have more spirit, more confidence.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” Sassy noted.
“No,” agreed Forester. “But Twilight Jewel might not like the change.”
* * *
Getting the farm chores done early on Friday night, Blackcap and Sassy went into Neighberry for a night on the town, which meant a walk down Main Street and a leisurely dinner at The Right Place. Drifter had promised them the best table in the house, but first he showed Sassy to the kitchen so that she could verify that the tassies were being made to meet her expectations. Finding everything to be in order, Sassy joined Blackcap who was being entertained by Lollipop who made sure that their every wish was met quickly and efficiently. Twilight Jewel, as hostess, had given them a weak smile when they entered, but had deliberately shunned them ever since.
Sassy enjoyed the meal they were served, but she utterly treasured watching ponies’ responses to the tassies. No one was disappointed in the new menu item; Sassy discreetly observed many of the guests take their first bite and grinned to see the blissful response. She only became discomposed when she began noticing that those customers with whom Lollipop spoke after they had experienced the tassie were sending curious glances in Sassy’s direction; and one couple actually stopped at Sassy and Blackcap’s table to compliment Sassy on her expertise in creating such a pleasing dessert. Blackcap preened and puffed out his chest, enjoying Sassy’s recognition with pride.
Twilight Jewel, however, was far from satisfied with the evening. If she heard one more pony praise Sassy’s Tassies, she was going to scream. Fortunately for the mare, she found a welcome distraction when she turned toward the door to greet the latest customers only to find herself facing Garnet and Wishbone.
“Oh! We didn’t expect you until morning!” she enthused, hugging first her daughter-in-law, then her son. “What a wonderful surprise!”
“Wishbone got off work early; and when Wigwam found out that all that was holding us back from leaving for Neighberry today was my shift at the casino, he sent me home,” Garnet informed Twilight Jewel. “How is Grandpa doing?”
“He’s finding that he doesn’t make a good couch potato,” Twilight Jewel smiled. “Your visit will surely brighten his weekend.”
“The place is busy tonight, Mom,” Wishbone noted. He had gotten in his fair share of work at The Right Place before he had left Neighberry for school in Dream Valley.
“Friday nights are always busier,” Twilight Jewel stated, hoping she could ward off conversation on Sassy’s part in the evening’s success for a little longer, at least.
That was not to happen, however, as Lollipop spotted her brother and sister-in-law. “Garnet! Wishbone! You’re here!” She hugged and kissed the two ponies, then pulled them with her to where Sassy and Blackcap sat. “Look who’s here!”
What ensued was a boisterous reunion as the newlyweds were embraced by Sassy and teased by Blackcap who was joined by Drifter in fatherly pride for the two young ponies who were obviously very much content with their new status in life. The honeymoon fiasco with Tinder and Honeydew was elaborated on while Blackcap’s tales of farm life were laughed at, Forester’s accident was properly lamented, Sassy’s culinary success was celebrated, and Wishbone and Garnet were properly fed. The evening flew by and slowly the ponies dispersed, Sassy and Blackcap returning to the farm while Lollipop accompanied Garnet and Wishbone back to the white two-story house in which the three siblings, Wishbone, Lollipop, and Chocolate Chip, had grown up, to get a good night’s sleep before traveling on to visit Camomile and Forester.
Twilight Jewel and Drifter opted to stay at the restaurant to assist their capable help with closing after a rather hectic night of business. The restaurant seemed dreary and inhospitable with the absence of the laughing voices of Sassy, Garnet, and Lollipop and the bantering exchange of the stallions. Drifter was moody and Twilight Jewel was downright melancholy.
When everything was in place and the doors had been locked, the two ponies wordlessly headed for home, Drifter lost in thoughts of the festive evening just past and Twilight Jewel nursing a grudge against Sassy who could draw anyone into her spirited sphere of influence; Twilight Jewel’s only source of comfort was that Sassy had years of experience in gulling unsuspecting pigeons, so it stood to reason that she would be an master in the field. What irked Twilight Jewel the most was that Drifter, normally so malleable, seemed to feed off the energies of both Sassy and Blackcap, turning him into a stranger.
Unable to contain her annoyance over the last hours any longer, Twilight Jewel snapped, “The party atmosphere of the restaurant tonight will probably scare off the majority of our regular customers.”
“It was a highly enjoyable evening. I think everyone who ate at The Right Place tonight went home in better humor than when they arrived.” He chuckled. “Blackcap and Sassy sure can enliven a gathering, can’t they?”
“Just like clowns at a circus,” Twilight Jewel muttered. “Some ponies love them, some despise them.”
Drifter shot a glance at his wife, acutely aware of the distance that had grown between them of late, an unfortunate happening caused by... what? Shattered dreams? Boredom? A feeling that maybe, somehow, they had missed something important in their lives?
Where had the years gone? It was only yesterday- wasn’t it?- when he and Twilight Jewel had been as full of life and love as Garnet and Wishbone were now. Even Sassy and Blackcap had retained that vitality. Where had he and Twilight Jewel gone wrong?
As a colt, Drifter had adored Twilight Jewel from a distance, positive that he would never have a chance to win her heart yet hoping that one day she would condescend to notice his existence. And to his immense satisfaction, that day had come after high school graduation when the field was cleared of a number of contenders for Twilight Jewel’s hoof as classmates left Neighberry for colleges and careers elsewhere. The mare had taken a job in the local hardware store that her parents owned, and she smiled upon Drifter when he came to town to make purchases for the farm.
Drifter would never forget the first time he asked Twilight Jewel to go out with him and she had said yes. They had gone to a movie, then the ice cream shop. She had confided to him that she had wanted to go on to school in Hayton, but her folks had scotched that idea by telling her that they expected her to work to help them recoup a financial setback they had incurred; they had made her feel guilty and partially responsible simply because she was the oldest of her siblings. She had to sacrifice her dreams until her family’s finances were secured.
Having loved her for so long, Drifter felt Twilight Jewel’s disappointment keenly, yet he could only be grateful for the circumstance that kept the mare in Neighberry where he had a chance to woo and win her. He set out to do just that, bringing her flowers from his mother’s garden, escorting her to the weekly dances at the town hall, taking long walks along the river. Always, he listened to Twilight Jewel outline her ambitions and offered the support he could, yet he never fully entered into her almost driven desire to aim higher than what was readily available on a local scale. For himself, he was perfectly content to continue farming with his parents.
Not so Twilight Jewel. As she realized that her aspirations were doomed as long as she remained under her parents’ control, she saw the necessity of revising her plans. Her womanly instincts told her that Drifter would do anything for her, so she began to subtly hint that they could share a life together, but not on the farm. Drifter dug in his heels, however, when she urged him to find a position at one of the factories in Hayton; she had to be content to win his agreement to a job at the local cart manufacturer. Once established there, Drifter was able to support a family; and Twilight Jewel consented to become his wife. Even then he knew that her acceptance of marriage had just as much to do with getting away from her parents as for a passionate love of him, but he was willing to take the chance, convinced that his love was big enough for the both of them.
As so often happens when one is making plans, life happens. Twilight Jewel found satisfying work as a secretary after leaving the hardware store and began to save money toward an education for herself, her hopes of getting to Hayton never deserting her. Just over a year after their marriage, however, a little filly was born to her and Drifter, a foal that Twilight Jewel had looked forward to as an extension of her own aspirations; she would make sure that her child had the opportunities that she had missed. But she was disappointed.
Always a beauty, Twilight Jewel had expected her firstborn daughter to be a replica of herself- deep purple coloring with a fall of pleasing midnight blue hair. The reality of the little brown filly born to her was like another door closing off any glimmer of hope, and Twilight Jewel transferred all of her frustrations against the innocent little girl who had done nothing wrong to deserve her fate. Here Drifter was equally at fault, and he was not proud of himself; for he had closed his eyes to his responsibilities toward his daughter, allowing his wife to berate and intimidate the child at every turn, denying her the parental love that was so necessary. Drifter could only be grateful that Chocolate Chip had been strong enough to survive the misery of those years and had found the support of new friends in Dream Valley who had allowed her to blossom into the successful young mare who could take on New Pony with confidence.
Drifter stopped in his tracks, struck by his wife’s remark about clowns. He clasped her foreleg, forcing her to stop as well. “T.J.” he said, his reminiscing causing him to revert to his pet name for her, “we used to laugh and enjoy ourselves over all sorts of nonsense.”
“Did we? I don’t remember.”
“Don’t say that! We were as carefree and fun-loving as Sassy and Blackcap once upon a time.”
Twilight Jewel’s eyes flashed in the light from the street lamp. There was no laughter in her voice as she responded, “You find Sassy appealing, don’t you?”
“She’s great fun to be around; even you can see that. She and Blackcap have a great sense of humor for all they’ve been through in life. They haven’t lost that zest for living.”
“They had nothing to lose!” Twilight Jewel snapped. “They’ve gone through life leeching off others, never doing an honest day’s work, while we’ve worked and scraped to make something of ourselves and are still here in Neighberry right where we started.”
“We’ve got our own business...”
“In the boondocks! We serve the same boring ponies day in and day out, hear the same gossip over and over again, know everybody’s aches and pains, and to what purpose? To do the same thing tomorrow!”
Staring at his wife, Drifter choked, “You’re jealous of Blackcap and Sassy’s wandering existence? That’s what you want, to follow every pipe-dream that comes along?”
“No! That’s not what I want! I want to be somebody! I want to be successful- not in Neighberry, but somewhere like Hayton where it means something! I want recognition for my talents. I want to be acknowledged as someone worthwhile!” Twilight Jewel covered her face with her hooves, completely undone.
Drifter pulled the now weeping mare into his forelegs. “Have I been so remiss in loving you?” he whispered in her ear while gently stroking her mane.
Unable to answer, the mare shook her head, but whether in the negative or the positive was impossible for Drifter to tell. “T.J., please look at me.”
Lifting her head slowly, Twilight Jewel rubbed the tears from her cheeks and raised shimmery eyes to meet her husband’s. “I... I must look a mess,” she gulped, meeting his eyes only for a second before ducking her head again.
But Drifter forestalled the action, framing her face in his hooves. Tenderly, he wiped the last trace of tears away. “You’re as beautiful as always,” he said, searching her eyes for some sign that she still cared as much for him as he did for her. Her angry acknowledgment of just how miserable she found her life with him had cut him deeply. Had he truly failed her that badly?
A shudder went through the mare’s body. “I don’t feel very beautiful,” she admitted. “Lately, I feel... I feel like everything’s closing in around me, and I don’t have anyplace to run. Part of it’s guilt catching up to me because I let Chocolate Chip down so, and part of it’s because... because I feel so completely expendable as if no one would miss me if I disappeared...” Drifter tried to counter that charge, but Twilight Jewel silenced him with her hoof placed over his lips. “And you were right... I am jealous of Sassy because she can make your face light-up like only I could once do.”
“I’ve loved no other mare but you since sometime around seventh grade,” Drifter smiled. “Maybe I should have reminded you of that more often. But, if you’re so unhappy, we should talk about making some other changes, too.”
Twilight Jewel gasped. “Drifter, I don’t want to leave you! I love you too much for that!”
“No one’s leaving anyone.” Drifter kissed his wife gently, gratified to hear her admission of loving him. “What I meant was that if you’d be happier in Hayton or any other place of your choosing, what’s to stop us from moving there? The kids are grown now; Lollipop can just as well rent an apartment as live at home. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d jump at the chance to get away from Neighberry herself.”
“You would do that for me?”
“I put my hoof down on our going to Hayton twenty-three years ago; maybe that was a mistake. You can decide where we spend the next twenty-three years... and more.”
“It would be like starting over again, just the two of us.”