Eighteen: Imagine There's No Heaven
Grassdancer stomped her hoof again. She felt angry, and why shouldn't she? That darn Goldrivet had gone and turned out to be... to be... a fan of musical theater! It just wasn't fair. She'd done everything she could to attract him, and it just wasn't fair.
It was San Francisco, that was the problem, filled with all those gosh-darned fa...
Humph. That was odd. That was very odd.
She couldn't bring herself to say the word. It kind of hurt to think it. She never had that trouble in her human life. She'd been taught to hate those quee... uncommon... stallions... that... liked other stallions...
What the Gosh? What was wrong with her? She was angry, she was definitely still angry, she felt spurned, she felt like she had been somehow judged not good enough for the likes of Goldrivet. But... they did make such a cute couple, singing in the garden and...
No. This was very, very strange. This was something more serious than whether or not the stallion she had wanted turned out to be a... singer... in the... garden. What was going on? She should be denouncing him, decrying his... what?
Grassdancer struggled inside her own brain. It was hard to recall, it was right on the tip of her tongue, but yet not there. It was... some kind of... immorality. That was the word! Those... she forced herself to say the word, it burned her, but she managed - fa.. fag.. faggots. Those... two... were wrong. Somehow.
Why were they wrong? She had a memory that they were wrong, but it was hazy.
Church. She had been taught at a church. It was a place she had gone, back when she was human, back when she had been Grace Laird from San Mateo. She had gone to the church of the New Reformed Jehovah's Templars. They had been very conservative, very traditional, very pre-Collapse in their attitudes. That was the point.
She hadn't thought about any of that since she had been Converted. She hadn't wanted to. Remembering it now filled her with a feeling of sadness... of shame. Why? It had been a big part of her life.
She walked through the village. They were busy constructing the new house. So many ponies working together. A part of her wanted to run over and ask if she could help, but she was too upset for that. Something was strange, and losing Goldrivet had made her aware of it.
Grassdancer hadn't prayed in over six months. She hadn't even thought about god. She hadn't thought about Jesus. She had thought a lot about the Princesses, Celestia and Luna. Every time she saw the moon... goodness! In her mind, she had been... thanking... Princess Luna... for the moon.
That was blasphemy, wasn't it? Then again, it was her moon.
Suddenly it hit Grassdancer as if she had been punched in the stomach; she wasn't a Christian anymore. It hadn't been something she exactly chose. It hadn't been anything dramatic. It... just didn't apply anymore, somehow. How could it?
During her Conversion, she had experienced a dream. She barely remembered it anymore, but at the time it had been very profound. What was that dream? It had seemed so important back then.
The new town hall was casting a shadow over the packed earth pathway that had gradually developed with the traffic of ponies every day. Celestia's sun was warm, and Grassdancer felt hot. She decided to lay down on the new grass growing by the path, in the cool shade of the pavilion. She had to figure this out.
The dream. In the dream she had somehow met Celestia and Luna, she was sure of that. It was very intense, she knew that as well. But... for the life of her, she couldn't remember any of the details anymore. It was too long ago.
Is that what had changed her beliefs? She didn't remember anything like that at the time; Grassdancer was pretty sure that she hadn't gone running around the clinic shouting that she'd seen the light of Celestia or anything. No, she'd just told others, newfoal and human, about her dream, and they had told her of theirs. It was just something you did at the clinic, because Conversion dreams were kind of interesting. That was all. Nothing more.
Grassdancer tried to think about Jesus. She tried to think about how to pray. With effort, she remembered, but... it just didn't seem to matter anymore. The bible, the crucifixion, Noah's ark, Revelations... all of it... that was kind of human stuff.
Human stuff. She really did think of it that way. Strange stuff that those weird humans would do.
It was hard to imagine ponies nailing anything to a cross, even a sweater. And if some big, scary god put ponies in a garden and told them not to eat from one tree, they would pretty much not eat from that tree. It wouldn't be right. It wouldn't be nice.
And, if anypony did eat the fruit, it would certainly be some yearling or foal who didn't know any better; and being angry at them and throwing them out would just be cruel. It would be mean. Suddenly, Grassdancer felt a strange mixture of fear and relief in her heart. She didn't like the human god anymore. He was really pretty mean.
Grassdancer felt troubled. She felt confused and worried. How had this happened? She used to be mad at a lot of different people. She had hated a lot of people, once. She couldn't imagine hating any of the ponies here; they were her herd, they were her friends. She couldn't even hate Goldrivet and Sweetpepper, and she was really trying to. They really did make such a happy couple, and they sang really well together and...
She wasn't Grace, anymore! She absolutely wasn't Grace Laird, favela dweller, Christian, church member anymore. Worse than this, she realized she was alright with that. She was actually... glad of it. Looking back, she had been so angry all the time. Angry at the... musical theater lovers. Angry at politics, angry at other religions, angry at other sects of her own religion, angry. Just angry. All the time.
Now she wasn't angry anymore. She felt like the sun was a gift from Celestia, and the moon a gift from Luna. She felt a part of the land, being an earth pony and all, and when she sang to the plants in the garden, or to the tree by the town hall, she felt love and joy. That kind of behavior would have been 'witchcrafty stuff' back in her human life. She realized that she kind of used magic now.
That was a thought. By the standards of Grace Laird, she was a witch now. Not like the unicorns, of course, but... earth ponies had their magic too. What had Sweetpepper said? Earth ponies were like walking magic spells, wherever they went they radiated life magic. Magicians and sorcerers and fortune tellers were condemned in the bible. Or so she thought she remembered. It all seemed so unimportant now. It was hard to recall the details anymore.
What was important was being a friend, and helping out. Grassdancer got up again, and wandered over to the new construction project. She could work on this weird issue in her head, and still help!
"Hey! Can I help?!" Grassdancer shouted up at Crescent, a green and white stallion, dragging a toolbox with his teeth.
"Grab a hammer! We're putting in the last of the flooring. I could definitely use an extra hoof!" Crescent grinned and began rooting through the toolbox. He pulled out a hammer and held it for her "Heah!" he slurred, mouth full of hammer.
Grassdancer took the hammer from Crescent, biting lower on the long handle. Crescent regarded her. "Grassdancer, right? Thanks for helping out. Dragonfly's on nails today, she can hold several at once with her magic, so we can get this done really fast now!"
Dragonfly, a yellow unicorn mare with a brown mane, floated two nails out, each in different directions. It was a fairly impressive stunt, but then she had been practicing constantly -along with the rest of the unicorns - ever since the decision to try to open the crates. She was proud of being able to levitate two separate objects at the same time. The nails hovered over the marks provided in the prefabricated floor planks.
Grassdancer tossed her head, releasing and catching the hammer with her teeth, until she felt she had just the right balance to her grip. It always felt good to help out, and working here, with Crescent and Dragonfly, kind of pushed her earlier thoughts away entirely. As she hammered the floating nail, concentrating on swinging her neck just right so that the nail would be driven in straight, Grassdancer felt happy. She was helping everypony!
Soon the floor was finished. Grassdancer looked around at the fine, smooth, polished floor. She pranced about on the beautiful wood; her hooves made such a warm, happy sound on the boards. She couldn't help but grin.
"It sounds pretty nice, doesn't it?" Crescent swiveled his ears, and smacked the floor with a deep green hoof. Clomp. Clomp. "I love the sound of hooves on a wooden floor. It just sounds sa‘iid, somehow."
"Sah...aye..eed" Grassdancer tried to say the odd syllables. She'd never heard that word before.
"Sa‘iid...it's Arabic for 'happy'." Crescent began to gather up the hammers, putting them into the toolbox. It was always a good idea to keep the work area tidy.
"Are you... did you used to be... an A-rab?" Grassdancer was shocked. The green stallion didn't look like one of them.
"wa ‘alekum es salaem, that is the truth. Middle East Corporate Zone. That's where I grew up. My family moved to the North Amerizone when I was thirteen. Already knew English, though, so in some ways it wasn't so hard." Crescent had finished with the hammers, and was collecting nails; there was a limited supply, so it was smart to account for every one.
Grassdancer felt curiosity surge in her. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Of course. My life is an open book." One nail had rolled into a corner; around the floor was a short border that acted as wainscoting within the structure.
"Were you... religious... before? Before becoming a pony, I mean. Are you now?" Grassdancer felt nervous asking about such things. It just didn't seem appropriate, but she had to know.
The green and white stallion stopped, a curious expression on his face. "You know... I was, once. It's odd. I... haven't really thought about such things since, well, since I became a pony." Crescent set himself down on the floor. "My family were very devout. I was too. Five times a day, we kept halal as best we could, and I... but now, no."
"Did you have a dream? During Conversion? Did you dream?" Grassdancer felt like she was on to something.
"Yes, yes I did. I had a wonderful dream. In it I met the two princesses. They were very nice to me." Crescent smiled, slightly, remembering.
"I did too. They say a lot of newfoals have the same dream. Or at least dream of the princesses. Do you remember the details?"
"I did. For a while." Crescent seemed slightly sad, like he had lost something precious "I remember that the dream was very important to me. But, like all dreams, it gradually faded from my memory. It is a shame, really. I know it was beautiful and very nice."
Grassdancer folded her legs and joined Crescent on the floor. The wood felt cool and pleasant to her legs and belly. "Do you think we're supposed to worship the princesses here?"
Crescent laughed. "They are, if what little I remember of my dream, and also that which I have been told, without doubt whatever passes for 'God' here in Equestria. But I know in my heart also beyond any doubt that they do not want to be worshiped."
"How do you know this?" Grassdancer shifted her weight slightly, the wooden floor was nice, but it was also hard, and her hocks were hurting just a little.
"Because that is the one thing I can remember clearly of my dream; they told me not to. In my dream, I saw them as a manifestation of Allah, and so I prayed, and they were very clear that they did not want to be worshiped, that they did not want a mosque or a temple or a church. They had the power to tear the mountains from the land itself, the power to remake the very sky, but when we deal with them, they just want us to be polite. Nothing more. Worship is an evil, here." Crescent noticed that he had somehow scraped his cannon, just below his left foreknee, and began to lick the small wound.
"Why? If they are so powerful, if they are so great, why don't they want to be worshiped? Why is that so wrong?" Grassdancer felt dizzy, as though her world was falling, somehow. Echoes of her past beliefs swam in turmoil in the back of her mind.
"Look around you." Crescent paused from licking his injured leg and nodded at the happy newfoals going about their work, hammering together the buttressed frames that would become the walls of the pavilion cottage. "Peace. Al-Salam. Perfect peace, ideal peace. Everypony working together, everypony kind to each other. There is no hate here, there is no judgement of the kind we had on the Earth. I told you that my family was very devout. What religion were you, in your human life - I think I can guess. You were Christian, were you not?"
"Y-Yes, I suppose I was." Saying 'was' made the back part of her mind, where her past lay, upset. Her words were automatic, from the heart, and it was very clear to her that she was no longer a Christian, she was no longer religious, and there was no going back.
"I was a Muslim. If you had come to my childhood home, you would not have been welcome, and my parents would have looked down on you as dhimmi, as an inferior to be tolerated at best, to be protected from your own wretched state. Would I have been welcome in your home if I had come to visit you?" Crescent looked at Grassdancer with intense eyes, serious and without humor.
Grassdancer looked down, her ears low. "No. No, you wouldn't. My mother would have lambasted you up one side and down the other. You wouldn't have even been let in the door. And not just for your religion, either. It would'a been as much for your race as anything."
"Here, I am a green pony. You are a roan pony, strawberry and white hairs together, and very pretty I might add. We look far more different from each other than we ever did as human beings, do we not? But we do not hate each other for that." Crescent gave his leg a few more licks, it stung a little, the licking helped. "Where are all the gods and saviors in this place, in this Equestria? Do we need them here? We have the princesses, but they are neither jealous nor wrathful. They do not want our worship, and they have no sacred books. What is their only law? Friendship. That is our religion now, and it is universal here. I have met nopony who has managed to cling to what they believed on Earth. Not one."
Grassdancer raised her head, her ears back and flat "Don't you think that's a little, well, not entirely right?"
"Would you change it? Would you go back to a world where you would not be welcome in my house, or I in yours?"
"N-no. I wouldn't. Not for anything in the world." The realization sat heavy for a moment, but then Grassdancer felt strangely light, strangely glad. "You know, I really wouldn't go back to that. I think... I think I like having modest princesses that don't need to be worshiped. I think I like that better than... church. I get more fellowship just building this house than I ever got back then. And more joy, too, I think."
"You know," Crescent got up; the sides were done and soon the unicorns would be levitating them over to be hammered into place "It's a little hard to face Mecca, when the only direction is outside of space and time altogether. It's hard to take Mecca seriously, when in five years the entire Earth will no longer exist. In the place where I was born, I would have been put to death for such apostasy, if I had clung to it; good thing then that I am a pony now!"
Grassdancer laughed. Crescent was a really nice stallion, and green really was a nice color. "Maybe... maybe it's OK, whatever happened to us, coming here. Being what we are."
Crescent regarded the roan mare. "Perhaps faith is only useful to those in a hopeless world. Look!" Crescent held out his leg, the one he had been licking. "Healed." There was no sign of the scrape at all. Crescent's leg looked perfect, untouched, although a little dirty from all the construction work.
"Healed." Grassdancer repeated the word; in a way it meant more to her in the moment than it had for Crescent.
Caprice would not leave Alexi's hill, except to take care of basic bodily functions. She ate little, and had lost considerable weight, her soft curves rendered more angular now. Pumpkin did what she could, constantly reminding her that little Buttermilk depended on Caprice eating well enough to continue to make milk for her. Some days it was the only thing that got Caprice to eat at all.
Pumpkin wanted to try eating lunch out by the big lake to the south. She hoped that the change of scenery might help improve Caprice's mood. She told Caprice that Droplet had seen a big patch of tasty flowers out that way, and that it might be a treat for Buttermilk to go there; the little unicorn seemed to love flowers so. Caprice thought that Buttermilk should go ahead; she wanted to be easy for Alexi to find, if he should want to talk. She promised to eat something, really.
This was getting entirely out of hand, Pumpkin decided. Maybe Caprice had her problems, and maybe Alexi did too, but there was just a point where a pony had to grow the buck up and work things out. It was pretty clear to her that Alexi had just plain run away to the clouds rather than face things, and Caprice was pining like some adolescent.... well, like Pumpkin herself once had, not that long ago, in the human world.
Well, dammit, if she could deal with being a young pony with foal, if she could accept that responsibility and find a way to live, then it was about time that Caprice and Alexi, both a lot older than she was, should stop this nonsense! Pumpkin stormed off, leaving Buttermilk with Caprice; her sister might be a mess, but the one thing that still mattered to her was her little foal.
After she calmed down, she went to Sweetpepper and told him all about Caprice and Alexi. She was tired of this nonsense, and unwilling to put up with it anymore. Besides, she figured everyone in the community must know everything by now; she was not the least surprised to find out that this was indeed the case. Baskets had been discovered in crate nineteen along with the cups and bowls and such; Sweetpepper and Goldrivet filled up a basket with goodies from the garden. If Caprice wouldn't leave the hill to eat, then the food would be sent to her.
Pumpkin dragged a basket of hay, carrots, alfalfa, oats and two bell peppers back up the hill. She demanded that Caprice eat everything in the basket by the time she got back. No excuses, no whining. Eat, sister. Caprice pouted, but agreed.
Pumpkin had been so involved with Caprice and Buttermilk and everything that she hadn't bothered to learn to use her wings properly. Now she regretted this; if she had just spent some time actually building them up each day, trying to fly, she could just go on up to Cloudcastle and give Alexi the what for. She gave that idea a shot, just to see, but her wings were very weak, no surprises there. She resolved to practice every day from now on until she was a good flyer. It made her even angrier to deal with this; she had wings, real wings, and all she had been doing was sitting on a hill or taking little walks. It was a stupid waste of a fantastic gift.
Just like Caprice and Alexi, really. They had the gift of love, and they were wasting it. It didn't matter who did what or how much trouble it all was; it was love, Pumpkin could see that even if they couldn't, and the whole thing had just gone totally stupid.
This idiocy ended today! She remembered how Tyler had left her in the clinic when she had told him she was pregnant. Right now, she felt angry at Alexi. He had basically done the same thing; he'd run away when life wasn't perfect anymore. Pumpkin had seen more than enough of that kind of crap.
Pumpkin marched fiercely, straight into the middle of the village, and sought out any pegasus she could find. Naturally, there weren't any; they were all out collecting clouds or fussing with Cloudcastle. Just awesome. She needed to get Alexi down from his cloud so she could give him a good talking to. The problem was... how?
Maybe the unicorns could help, they were like all magic and stuff, weren't they? Unfortunately, they didn't know how to do much. They could lift and move things; many had gotten quite good at that, but not one knew an actual spell. Yes, there was a book of spells - several in fact - in the crate that had the small library, but the books were mostly written in the special script that Caprice understood, and she hadn't been very helpful lately. Nopony had dared to bother her, considering the situation with Alexi and everything.
Pumpkin stormed away from the unicorns at that; this was just friggin' nuts. It wasn't enough that her new family was falling apart, oh no, the problem was retarding the entire development of the community! Pumpkin had to sit and calm herself down, being angry still wasn't helping. Darnit.
OK, what could she, like, do? She could wait until the pegasai came back for the evening graze; but she wanted to settle this now. She looked up at Cloudcastle. Hey... there were a few specks of color up there, darting through the piles of reserve cloud above the main structure. They had probably just brought back some cloud from somewhere out beyond the edge of the county, out in the desert. Pumpkin had an idea.
She returned to the unicorns helping to finish the pavilion cottage. It was time to put the top canopy on, a cone of violet fabric, this one painted in checks. She outlined her plan to them, and they were more than happy to help; besides it would be an interesting test of their abilities.
Lightning and Ocean led some of the unicorns - Boeing, Aurora, Ren and Dragonfly among them - to levitate the cottage canopy up into the sky as high as they could push it. Next they tried spinning the cone of fabric, to try to gain any attention from above. Whether or not any of the pegasai noticed, the rest of the community certainly did, and soon a crowd of newfoals oohed and aahed at the impromptu sky show.
The unicorns, used to working together from pulling the nails out of the crates, began to force the spinning canopy to swing across the sky and orbit the town hall. This got a thunderous hoofstomping applause from the crowd; by now the unicorns had begun to enjoy the effort to signal the pegasai, and had forgotten the original purpose entirely.
"DUDES! I've got an idea!" Ocean was excited, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his horn glowing brightly "Up and down, make it pulse like a jellyfish! It'll be AWESOME!" Jellyfish were the last animal to have lived in the Earth's oceans before they finally died, almost everypony had once known someone who had seen the creatures.
The unicorns put their will into the effort, but it was hard synchronizing the new motion with the spinning and the skating across the sky. Lightning suggested a verbal chant, so the unicorns were soon shouting in unison "Up!" "Down!" "Up!" "Down!" and the conical roof began to pulse as well as spin, as it danced in a circle above the village.
This won them a very loud "OoooOOohhh!" from the assembled newfoals, and by now even Pumpkin had forgotten her anger enough to be wowed by the show. "This TOTALLY ROCKS dudes!" - Ocean was beside himself in glee.
Unfortunately, in the excitement of the moment, the chant became confused, with some of the unicorns pushing "Up" at the moment that others were pulling "Down", and the effect of the combined stresses exceeded the tolerances of the straining fabric. The beautiful, lavender-and-blue checked canvas ripped right down the middle, the parts exploding away from each other with a remarkably horrifying sound. "NooOOOoooOO!" yelled the crowd.
The two halves of the precious canopy fluttered down like dead birds from the sky; one section landed on the northwest hill, the other flopped across the top of the town hall. The unicorns hung their heads in grief and shame; what a terrible end to such an amazing performance. Ocean was inconsolable, wailing "DUUUDE! OH! DUUuuUUUUDE!" over and over, Lightning just kept saying how sorry he was, and Ren invented a brief, rhyming epitaph for the ruined roof.
"Oh marvelous canvas of checkered guise,
How great our sorrow at thy sad demise
Our show of power both wondrous and strange
Apparently exceeded our ability range
Forgive us, forgive us, beautiful roof
To your glorious memory I now raise my hoof."
The moaning of the crowd was interrupted by the ever-practical Trotsky, who called the crowd to attention; the two sections needed to be recovered; doubtless they could be sewn together with a little effort, and the roof ultimately saved.
As the earth ponies and unicorns set about the task of dragging the half from the northwest hill, and levitating the section from the top of the town hall, Pumpkin spun around looking desperately to see if the desired goal had been achieved - had any pegasai even noticed?
She couldn't spot any pegasai on the ground mixed into the crowd, so she looked up, towards Cloudcastle. The tiny dots of color that had been soaring between the storage clouds above the castle were gone; she could see no pegasai up there at all any more. While it had all been a great show - albeit an expensive one - it had ultimately failed.
Pumpkin slunk off. She would have to wait for evening, when the pegasai landed to graze with the rest of the herd. She decided to go back to the hill, to check on Caprice and Buttermilk. As she was walking, she remembered her vow to start exercising her wings. She flapped as hard as she could, in bursts, until she became tired and had to stop for a while; her gait was one of walking interrupted by brief low hops of feathery fury.
When Pumpkin finally made it to the top of 'Alexi's Hill', she found that Caprice had barely made a dent in the basket of treats. She lost it at that point and found herself screaming at Caprice in a remarkable mimicry of how her own mother had once yelled at her back on Earth. Finally, Pumpkin just broke down in tears; she collapsed on the grass weeping. She'd tried so hard, everypony had tried so hard, and Caprice just wouldn't eat her vegetables, and Buttermilk was going to starve when Caprice's udder dried up, and Alexi would never come home, and the canopy had exploded, and everything was wrong!
Suddenly Buttermilk was wailing too; strong emotions always seemed to upset her, it was doubly sad because she kept shouting her one word "GAFFOL!" in between her cries of anguish, perhaps thinking that the problem was a lack of enough Gaffol on her part. She was just too young to understand anything of what was actually going on.
Caprice hung her head, and felt the strongest urge to flee; she just wanted to run, and keep running, and never, ever stop running. It took her entire will to hold still, realizing that this was not the kind of pony she wanted to be. Every moment was a gift, she told herself, even the bad ones, because those were the moments that let a pony have the chance to do something good.
She calmed herself, as best she could, and began trying to reassure Buttermilk; Pumpkin was just sobbing softly now, so the little foal was the first priority. It took some time, but she eventually got her foal calmed down; Buttermilk was no longer crying, though she was still repeating 'Gaffol', for which Caprice tried to reward her with more licks and nuzzles. Clearly the little unicorn was trying to make things better, the only way she could. Yes, Buttermilk, thank you, what we need right now is Gaffol, no question about it.
Pumpkin was a more difficult problem; she wouldn't talk. She was upset, and Caprice could understand that some of that upset was with her; so she made a point of eating the contents of the basket, even though she really didn't feel like it. At first, anyway. As she ate more of the produce, she began to realize just how hungry she really was. The carrots were fantastic.
Pumpkin looked up at the sound of Caprice's hearty munching, and finally smiled - Caprice offered her a carrot "They are just SO good, Pumpkin!", so Pumpkin took a bite, more just to humor her than anything. The carrot really was good. Very good. Pumpkin crawled on her belly closer to the basket and soon both sisters were enjoying the bounty of Galloping Gardens together. Pumpkin even bit off a small piece of carrot for Buttermilk to mouth and suck on; she paraded around with the little orange bite as if it were First Prize for Best Gaffolling In Equestria.
When evening came, there was still no Alexi, but at least Caprice seemed to be in a better mood. She was willing to eat now, and she seemed much less mopey. She hadn't even noticed the canopy spinning right below her, so Pumpkin had fun astonishing her with the story of her failed attempt to contact Alexi. In the end, they were laughing together.
"Oh, Pumpkin. I'm sorry. I really am." Caprice looked up at the moonlight shining on Cloudcastle above, then she focused on her sister. "Heh. I wanted Alexi to take on all sorts of responsibilities, and here I was failing at my own. You were absolutely right - I need to stay healthy, I need to eat, because this one here..." She gave Buttermilk a nuzzle "...depends on me. Whether Alexi comes back or not, I have a daughter that needs me."
"And a sister, too. I need you too, you know." Pumpkin stared with sad, lonely eyes. "I need you so ...much."
"You know what, Pumpkin?" Caprice had a mischievous grin.
"To hell with Alexi-the-fancypants-pegasus! We're all the family we really need, anyway! Right?" Caprice giggled at that, and it was wonderful, because it had been several days now since last she had laughed at all.
"To hell with Alexi!" laughed Pumpkin.
"TAHEL!" beamed a prancing Buttermilk.
"Oh Celestia!" a shocked Caprice half-whispered in horror; then they were all laughing for a long, long time.