Twenty-Nine: It's Only Human
Lilly Jewel slowed down, then stopped. The old, faded mare was at it again.
Her friend, Distinction, frowned, and tried to nudge the young unicorn. "Just leave her alone. She's kinda weird. Come on, we need to get to school."
Symphonia finally caught up with her two friends "What's going on?"
"Lilly's staring at Missus Lawn Ornament again." Distinction whipped her black and white streaked tail against Lilly Jewel's yellow flank, as hard as she could. "Come ON... let's just go, Lilly!"
The pale old mare stood out on the lush green that surrounded her cottage. Her legs wobbled slightly as she reset her stance; at her age it was hard to keep one's knees locked - or so Lilly Jewel's great grandmare had once complained. Lilly Jewel watched as the aged pony slowly bent her neck down once more, and began taking mouthfuls of her lawn.
"Eww... She can't be THAT poor. Besides, she could just apply for Lunassistance!" Distinction dug at the ground with her silvery-gray hoof. "She's just a crazy old mare, now let's goooo!"
"Cordiality's mother once said that she's one of those converted ponies." Symphonia studied the old mare with narrowed eyes. "She said that they're not normal in any case. Maybe converted ponies don't like real food." Great, thought Distinction, there always had to be a not-normal condition with anything Lilly Jewel became fascinated with.
"She looks so lonely." Lilly Jewel's large orange eyes shimmered. She had that look again, thought Distinction. Lilly always got that look before she took in a stray dog or got them all stuck helping some silly pony with some dumb problem. Distinction considered Lilly her bestest ever friend, but sometimes she could be a real pain.
"No, Lilly Jewel. We are NOT going to go over there and make friends and stuff. She's weird, and we're late, and lets GO!" Distinction grabbed Lilly's golden mane and gave it a fierce yank. It was like trying to pull a frayed rope tied to a barn.
"Listen, girls. We see this poor old mare out here all the time, eating grass. Nopony even knows her name, do they? She never goes out, she's never at any of the festivals; think about how lonely she must be!" Oh, there was no question; Lilly had that look, she had it strong, and there would be no escape. Under her breath, Distinction quietly cursed; today was going to be another weird day.
"Hey! I've got an idea! Wait here!" Lilly Jewel suddenly galloped off towards the new Starcolts stand; that, at least, wasn't too bizarre a thing for Lilly to do. Since the famous chain of tea-houses had finally reached all the way out to smaller towns like Clydesdale, everypony seemed to be looking for any excuse to visit them. 'Weird old mares' had apparently become the latest excuse, at least for Lilly.
Distinction stomped her hooves in frustration. "Here we go again. What was it last time? A duck?"
Symphonia thought for a moment. "No, the family of ducks was last month. You're thinking of the Magic Chicken."
The Chicken hadn't actually been magic, more's the pity, but Lilly had been convinced that it was; the girls had spent most of a week taking care of the decidedly unimpressive fowl until Distinction had tracked down the farm it had wandered away from. They had gotten some very nice 'thank you' cookies from that adventure, but it was not enough to make up for a week of catering to the every whim of a chicken that was not in reality a powerful sorcerer in disguise.
"Don't remind me. If I never see another chicken as long as.... Hey, Lilly!" The sprightly yellow earth pony had returned; on her back she had a saddlebag-styled take-out carrier heaped with small cakes, cups, and a container of tea.
"Come on, girls! Let's make friends!" Lilly Jewel grinned widely, and set off towards the ramshackle cottage and the grazing old mare.
"We could just go on to school, you know." Symphonia was her usual, coldly rational unicorn self.
Distinction shook her black and white mane. "No, that's useless. Remember the Mrs. Tincture incident?" That had ended up with the entire school involved, paint spilled on all of their coats, and that's not even including the overturned compost cart - no, leaving was NOT an option.
"We'd better follow and take our lumps then." Symphonia was, if anything, practical.
"And hope they're made of sugar." Groused Distinction.
"Helooo!" The yellow and gold filly stood, tray on her back, grinning and blinking at the ancient mare.
She was an old earth pony mare, with a faded pinkish coat and a white shock of mane. The mane also had just a touch of remaining pink - or was it peach? The oldster slowly turned her head, still chewing on a small mouthful of grass nibbled from right off of her front lawn.
"B-Buttermilk?" She squinted her old green eyes, trying to see who was speaking to her.
"No, actually, it's tea. I have some tasty cakes, too! I'm Lilly Jewel, and these are my friends, Distinction and Symphonia! Hello! It's nice to meet you!" Lilly stepped closer and raised a hoof in greeting.
Tears started to form in the eyes of the old mare. She hung her head, her ears drooping. "Buttermilk. I was hoping you were... Buttermilk."
"I could go get you some buttermilk, if you really want. I'm really sorry, I thought everypony liked tea and cakes!" Lilly Jewel looked slightly disappointed. Distinction knew she'd do it, too. She'd just go off and get some buttermilk for the old weirdo. She was like that.
"No... no. Buttermilk is my daughter. One of my daughters." The old mare sighed and looked up. "She's a yellow unicorn, with a yellow mane and yellow eyes. You look a little like her when she was young. Sweet little Buttermilk..."
"Oh! Duh!" Lilly Jewel rolled her orange eyes. "I see now! On to my reason for being here then! Me and my friends here see you a lot, out eating your lawn. We figured that maybe you might enjoy a change of pace! We've got lots of fresh, hot, Starcolt's tea, and some really yummy cakes too! But best of all, we've got a big old heap of friendship to offer!"
'Missus Lawn Ornament' looked at the grinning yellow pony, and then at her two nervous, uncomfortable compatriots. It was clear who was actually offering anything in this group. But then again, there was always one. One pony who instigated things. If anypony knew that, it was her.
Also, that grin. The yellow filly might not be her Buttermilk, but she didn't want her to leave. "I... I'd love some tea and cakes. And friendship."
The little yellow pony named Lilly Jewel immediately lit up like a street lantern at dusk. She was a sweetheart, that one. The aged mare gave a tiny bow. "By the way, my name is Caprice. Caprice Venäläinen. Pleased to meet you." The old mare hobbled over to the flat spot in her yard and carefully, slowly, folded her legs and lay down. Lilly trotted up and did the same; she immediately began reaching into her carrier and setting out cups and portioning out cakes and tea.
There was nothing for it; Distinction and Symphonia joined the impromptu lawn party. When Lilly was on a kindness kick, there was nothing else to be done. Even hiding under the bed was useless. They'd tried that. Instead, the silvery-gray earth filly and the purple-black unicorn filly folded their legs, sat down, and sipped tea. Free tea, what the hay.
"Ven..ah..lie...nin?" Lilly Jewel tried to pronounce the strange name. She had no idea what the word meant, it sounded strange, even alien. "That's a very unusual name."
"It's not from around here. It's not from Equestria, sweety." Caprice carefully sipped at the tea in front of her. It was good. She hadn't had tea in a long time.
Lilly Jewel took a nibble of the little carrot cake in front of her. "Try the cake, Caprice! It's really tasty, and I figured you could use something a little nicer than just gobbling lawn all the time!"
Caprice regarded her own cake. It looked delicious; it even had a little orange carrot made out of frosting on the top. "You really are a sweetheart, aren't you?" She took a small bite of the cake, and then sipped some tea. The flavors of tea and cake warmed her mouth and danced on her tongue. "But you needn't worry. I assure you that I can afford any kind of food I might desire. I'm not poor."
In for a bit, in for a bridle, thought Distinction. "Pardon me miss Vena... layla... um... Caprice, if you don't mind me asking..."
"Missus, actually. I'm married. Well, I was. In my heart I'll always be. He died a few years ago." The old mare looked down at her cake, sad and lost in memories. "Ah, sorry dear. Just call me 'Caprice', it's easier. Your question?"
Distinction felt bad for bringing up sad things but pressed on, "What I want to know then is, if you can eat whatever you want, why the hay do you eat dumb old grass out on your lawn?" Distinction looked away, a little uncomfortable. "I mean, Clydesdale's not a big city like Manehattan or anything, but we've got restaurants, markets, smoothy shops, fancy restaurants, cafes and... fancier restaurants!"
Caprice laughed. Her laugh was still delightful, and helped put the little fillies more at ease. "Clydesdale has grown over the last five or six decades, no question. At some time or another, I've probably been to every one of those places. You know that bulger place over by the Quills and Sofas superstore? The one with the double-soaked wheat? Best hay fries in town."
"Sweet Celestia, she's right!" Distinction was surprised. "I love their fries! They season their hay, that's the secret, you know."
Symphonia washed some cake down with tea. "Then I would conclude that why you eat the grass off of your lawn is because of some personal reason that we do not, as yet, comprehend."
Caprice laughed again. "You remind me of a pegasus I once knew. He studied the weather. Old Cirrus. He was very intelligent. My Alexi and he used to be friends. Well, before..." The old mare looked briefly sad again. "Anyway, to answer your question, I like grass. Right off the lawn. The greener and taller the better."
Lilly Jewel smiled, that was good enough for her, mystery solved. Symphonia cocked an ear, her questions just beginning. Distinction, however, was appalled "Listen, I don't want to be mean or anything, but eating grass is weird! Nopony eats grass anymore. Not off the ground - I mean, it isn't like we're living in caves or anything. Ponies see that and they'll think you're weird. No offense. Ma'am."
Caprice looked squarely into Distinction's blue eyes. "But, I am weird."
Symphonia sported a half-smile at that, Lilly's eyes grew wide, and Distinction stared right back "That... that's not the kind of answer you're supposed to give to that!"
"It's almost..." Symphonia's half smile became a three-quarters smile "...weird, huh, Distinction?"
Lilly Jewel giggled at Distinction's sputtering; Caprice joined in. "It's alright... Distinction, was it? It's fine. It's alright to be weird. In fact, sometimes it can be wonderful to be weird. I know it doesn't seem like it at your age, but... as an old pony, I can assure you that being a little weird is almost a gift."
"Oh, you're not THAT old!" Lilly Jewel was trying to be nice. "You're only as old as you feel, right?"
"No, sorry Lilly. I'm quite old, and that is just a fact. I'm turning one-hundred and fifty-five tomorrow. I'm afraid that's pretty darn old. Well... for an earth pony without any forbidden magic, anyway." Caprice remembered Comet Tail from long ago. She was supposed to have lived three centuries, if the stories were true. Old Comet Tail.
"So it's your birthday tomorrow?" Lilly Jewel brightened even as Distinction's ears began to droop. "We'll bring you a birthday cake! We could have a little party even!" Distinction began wondering about how this became a 'we' thing.
"So you actually like the taste of grass, plain old grass. And you don't give a hoot about who sees you gobbling your lawn. Is that it?" Distinction couldn't help the slight dismissive snort, she hadn't wanted to be sucked into this particular Lilly-project in the first place.
"It's more than that." Symphonia had been working things out, as always, while her friends talked. "It is my understanding that you may be a converted pony. A..." The filly struggled to remember "...a newpony, I think they were called. Is this true?"
Caprice became silent for a moment. She hadn't thought anypony in Clydesdale remembered such things anymore; she had taken some pleasure in the thought that nopony thought of her that way any longer. She had imagined being free of her past in her old age.
"Newfoal. We were called newfoals. Yes. I was... am... one of them." Caprice decided to celebrate being outed with another taste of delicious cake and tea. "By the way, Lilly, the cake and tea is really wonderful."
"Oh, thank you Caprice!" This is what Lilly Jewel lived for, she began beaming at Symphonia and Distinction.
"You were, um... creatures once, right? From another world." Distinction was studying Caprice, trying to discern any anomaly, any freakish clue to some monstrous heritage.
"I heard they were like dragons!" Lilly was feeling bubbly "With rubbery claws instead of hooves. But they didn't have tails, and they had tiny, itty-bitty eyes like moles!"
"That's actually pretty close, Lilly." Caprice studied her tea more carefully than it deserved "The creatures we came from were a lot like dragons in all sorts of ways. Mean dragons. But Celestia sorted us all out. She arranged for us to be converted into ponies, in order to save us."
"Did it hurt?" Lilly Jewel gave a concerned look.
"Actually Lilly," Caprice raised her gaze "It was the happiest day of my life. There was a waiting line, but I begged to be turned into a pony. I got lucky and didn't have to wait. I was so glad. It didn't hurt at all. I went to sleep, and woke up a pony. It was... so wonderful." The ancient mare's eyes became misty; remembering her first steps on hooves, back at the Bureau, so long ago.
"I was told you destroyed your world." Distinction still couldn't find anything about Caprice that looked like it had once been part of a tail-less rubbery dragon-thing.
"Distinction!" Lilly Jewel scolded "That's not very nice."
"No it wasn't very nice, and we never should have done the things we did to our world." Caprice turned her head to face Distinction. "You are right. We killed our world, and if Celestia hadn't intervened, we would have all died out, and it would have been entirely our own fault. When we became ponies, we weren't like that anymore. It was a complete job, Distinction, you won't find any trace of what you're looking for: you shouldn't ever doubt Celestia."
Distinction turned red under her coat; she had been staring rather rudely at the old mare, but she hadn't expected to actually be called out on it.
"You seem to like your cake and tea. So being a... newfoal... isn't why you eat grass." Symphonia was still trying to figure out the central issue of why they had come visiting.
"Actually, it kind of is." The aged mare had a strange, sad smile on her muzzle. "When we first arrived in Equestria... there was a... problem. We ended up with almost nothing, far, far away. All there was to eat was grass, so that is what we ate for the longest time."
"That must have been terrible!" Lilly Jewel extended her hoof and gently patted Caprice on the foreleg.
"Actually... in some ways, it was the best time of my life." The fillies were surprised at this. "It was difficult, and scary, and we weren't sure that we would be rescued. But it was also when I found love with the stallion of my dreams, had my first foal, and worked together with a whole community of ponies, sharing everything." Caprice sighed wistfully. "Every meal, we would all gather together on the grass and eat as one herd. At night we slept out in the open, all together, one big family. Everypony depended on each other, and we all needed and cared for each other every day."
"I think I understand." Distinction seemed more at ease now. "You eat grass because it reminds you of those times. You miss your friends. You miss your herd. It kinda makes sense to me now."
So Caprice told the three fillies about Windfeather, and Alexi and Pumpkin; she told them about Summerland Village and about how the pegasai worked out how to make rain, and how Sweetpepper had figured out the secrets of what it meant to be an earth pony. She told them about how sad it had been for her when they had finally been found.
And she told them rather vaguely about how she had gotten her cutie mark - a pyramid with a small heart right near the apex - the day she had met Celestia and Luna, the day she had convinced them to spare Summerland village. Caprice left out the detail of the village being instantly moved; it had been clear from that day that Celestia did not like to openly show what she was capable of.
Caprice also left out what had happened after Summerland had been moved. How the villagers, for all their tears at having to leave the village, had been become unbelievably angry when they realized that they wouldn't get to stay in Canterlot, have wealth for life, and be famous anymore. Caprice had been crushed by how very human their reactions were, how she and her family had been shunned by the very ponies she had thought were her herd, her community, her closest friends, for the crime of saving their village at the expense of a lifetime of wealth and privilege.
Caprice, Alexi and Pumpkin had been forced to move away from Summerland Village, to start a new life in Greater Fetlock. For many decades, they had lived together, raising their foals and knowing a warm, domestic happiness. Then Pumpkin had met a stallion and moved away with her son, Blueberry. Buttermilk, possessed of great talent with magic, ultimately joined the Royal Unicorn Corps, and Strawberry had moved away to Fillydelphia with a cute pegasus mare named Winter Melon. When Alexi had finally died, Caprice couldn't stay in Fetlock anymore; her grief at losing the love of her life was too great.
Caprice heard tell that her old friend from the Conversion Bureau, Dr. Pastern, had been living in the little town of Clydesdale. She'd always thought of Roselyn Pastern as a friend. Roselyn had made her into a pony. Roselyn was now a pegasus named Rose, but she was still a doctor, specializing in herbal remedies. They had shared the cottage behind her for several years, until the day Rose Pastern never woke up again.
Now, Caprice was all alone. She lived in her cottage, and ate her lawn to remember the happiest days of her life; the days before she made the mistake of thinking that Conversion eliminated every single aspect of humanity, turning it to pony.
Or perhaps, she had believed the idealistic books in the crates too much, and had clung to an illusion that ponyfolk were universally immune to bitterness and selfish ambition. Equestrians were not in any way as greedy or cruel as humans had been, but they were not the perfect, ideal beings Caprice had imagined. The villagers of Summerland never forgave her for cheating them of easy, elite lives; they blamed her for clinging to a selfish dream of an idealized village that had never existed the way she imagined it to be.
As she finished the last bite of her carrot cake, Caprice suddenly realized another reason she ate only grass; it was a kind of penance, for that final time she had thought that the arrogant part of her that was Venice could take on a goddess, and win. She had honestly thought that saving the village was what everypony wanted the most; it was another human trait to cry for one thing while secretly desiring another.
Caprice sometimes wondered if everything had simply played out the way Celestia had wanted all along, and that all she had done was to make it easier for the princess to achieve her true goal. Caprice would never know. But she did know that she was never welcome in Summerland Village again.
Sometimes, Caprice wondered if Windfeather had not been entirely wrong.
But these fillies didn't need to know any of that. It was enough for them to know that she treasured her memories, memories of that sweet, young-love flavor that was, the taste of grass.
When the cake and the tea was gone, Caprice thanked her little visitors; the intellectual Symphonia, the forceful Distinction, and the compassionate Lilly Jewel. They were good little ponies, and she had enjoyed their visit. Lilly had told her to expect a nice surprise tomorrow, for her hundred-and-fifty-fifth birthday; Caprice had softly laughed to herself at how uncomfortable that promise had made Lilly's friend Distinction.
Inside her cottage, Caprice felt very tired. The cake was not settling well with her; she wasn't used to such rich food anymore. She sat for a while and looked through her memory books. Pumpkin's wedding. Buttermilk's graduation from the Academy Of Thaumaturgical Studies. The cards that Strawberry and her partner always sent her on her birthday. The love notes that Alexi would write her and hide around the house, just to let her know how much she meant to him.
I am sure that you are amazed to find that
your hayfresher is also a mailbox.
Hopefully my effort to tell you how much I
adore you has not accidentally been eaten.
If this note should find itself in your stomach,
then be aware that your Alexi loves you
inside and out.'
When she had dried her tears, she got ready for bed. Her hip hurt as she settled into her bed on the sofa. She hadn't been able to climb the stairs to her proper bed for some years now; the sofa was good enough.
It was difficult to get to sleep. Perhaps it was that cake. Perhaps it was how much she longed to see Alexi, even just for a second, just for a moment. Maybe it was that she felt so uncomfortable. Her left front leg had been hurting all day, she must have pulled a muscle somehow.
When finally sleep came, she drifted in and out of it, Sleep playing tag with her mind, until it finally won.
In the dream, she was with Alexi. They were young again, and they were walking together through the grass next to South Lake, towards the patch of flowers. That was the first place they had ever made love, out in the flowers. Now they were laying together in the flowers, Alexi bent over her, on the ground.
"I have missed you, my peach princess. But that is in the past." Alexi kissed her, warm and deep. Caprice's heart skipped with the sheer joy of it. "Alexi! Oh, sweet Celestia, my Alexi!" It was all she could say, there were not words enough beyond that. The scent of him again. The feel of his warmth. It was too much. It was just so wonderful, her heart skipped again and again.
"Caprice, there is someplace I want to take you." Alexi nuzzled her. "Get up, and follow me."
Caprice rose to her young, fresh hooves. Alexi was already ahead, beginning to run. "Come on!" he shouted. "Run with me!" Caprice began chasing after Alexi; catching up to him. They ran together over the endless grass, two happy ponies, the wind rushing through their ears and manes. As they ran, misty shapes joined them, cloudy ponies of every color and type; earth ponies, pegasai, and unicorns. The vague shapes became more defined, they became a herd. The herd grew with every second, in moments it stretched to the horizon in every direction; unimaginably vast, an ocean of ponies.
Caprice ran with the vast herd. They were almost flying now, hooves barely touching the ground, over a misty green something that stretched onward forever. Caprice remembered this scene, it was familiar... this was her Conversion Dream! No, wait... she had already been Converted so... it was becoming hard to remember. The herd around her was her herd, and she knew she belonged to them, and that they belonged to her. Caprice felt enfolding love, love sent to her from the impossibly large throng, and love given from her, to them all. The herd became misty and indistinct once more, and so did she, when she looked at herself. Her spectral hooves ran on fields of light.
Above, she saw in the sky the vast, infinite cathedral of stars and morning; and in that rose the formless essences that were Celestia and Luna. They had many names, and many guises, and Caprice wondered how she knew that. Caprice also knew now, somehow, that the herd ran forever, and occasionally that they would graze in fields of experience and sorrow and joy and wonder. Her belly was full; the herd had just finished grazing and were running to the next field. Yes, that was what was happening. She remembered this; it had always been so. It was the way with her kind.
It was only to be expected, now that she was a part of the herd, a herd led by living goddesses. The cruel universe she had come from, the empty place where there was only one field, where nothing ran save only to darkness, that place was behind her, forever gone. She belonged to Celestia and Luna now, and in this place, this universe of glorious day and sacred night, of grass and hoof and laughter and song, the chase would never end.
How did she know that?
Because it had always been so. It was the way with her kind, it was the way of the herd that ran on fields of light forever, it was the way of Equestria.
In the morning, the medical unicorns had cordoned off the cottage. Lilly Jewel had come with a big cake on her back; Distinction and Symphonia had brought little gifts; a mane brush and a scrapbook; old mares always loved a good scrapbook.
But there was nopony to give them to. The head medic tried to explain it to them as gently as he could, but Lilly ran off, crying. Distinction thanked the stallion and told him she would take care of her friend; Lilly was such a sensitive pony, but she was Distinction's best friend. Symphonia followed after wondering if she could get her bits back from the scrapbooking store.
Later, Lilly would look back on it all and be glad; "At least we were able to share one last happy day with her, right Distinction?"
And Distinction, for all of her unease at Lilly Jewel's wild heart, had to agree.