The celebration of the new year had come and gone, but Sugarberry was not ready to end the holiday season yet. By spending the Christmas holidays away from Dream Valley, she had missed seeing her best friends through the time of year that Sugarberry loved best. That is why this cold Sunday in January she was hostess to a houseful of local friends.
Chocolate Chip was there, of course, as was Garnet who had become a regular visitor since she and Wishbone became good friends. That led to Fern, for those three young mares had resumed their close relationship since their lives had settled down in Dream Valley. Dreamcatcher was there as well as two other of the mall's entrepreneurs-- Lemon Treats and Sparkler. The shy and quiet Elaine had been included, and no gathering at Sugarberry's would have been complete without Tabby and Faline. It was a Sunday brunch-- everyone had brought an appropriate dish-- and the kitchen and dining room were spilling over with good food and happy chatter.
"Sugarberry asked Aunt Maisie to join us, but Aunt Maisie thought I'd have more fun if I wasn't fussing over her all the time," Fern was telling Dreamcatcher.
"I can't believe you made this grand dessert all by yourself! Helga and Cecilia must have worked wonders with you," Sugarberry was telling Tabby while Faline sat on the floor playing with Fluff. Living up to her name, the little pink unicorn adored all felines and set out to make friends with every one she met.
"We had a lovely time in Forest Brook," Elaine smiled at Sparkler.
"Raptor!" Chocolate Chip's voice rang out as the black tiger-striped cat began stalking the buffet. Subsequently, he was ignominiously relegated to the basement which was enough to set Fluff's nerves on edge also as he, too, ran off. The loss of her two feline companions brought tears to Faline's eyes.
"Come, sweetie," Sugarberry said as she scooped up the foal. "We're going to get started on all this food now." Ringing a dinner bell that sat on the counter, Sugarberry soon had everyone's attention. "The buffet is now open!" She grinned. "The bell was Wigwam's Christmas gift to me."
"He gave her that just to make sure that he was never late for dinner," Garnet smirked.
"Where's that husband of yours?" Lemon Treats asked of Sugarberry, getting into line first. "Hiding in the basement with the cat?"
"He and Wigwam and Fetish went out to Butch's place." She winked at Sparkler. "Butch had some carpentry work he needed help with."
Tabby grimaced. "Does Butch still have that killer duck?" She picked through a salad, trying to find a tomato.
"Of, yes, Quackers is still going strong," Sparkler grinned. "He's such an angel, Tabby. How come you let him get to you so?"
"He was the one that was always trying to bite me!" Tabby shot back. "That duck is evil; just wait and you'll find out-- when it's too late."
"What's with the killer duck?" asked Fern curiously.
"Quackers had a vendetta against Tabby when Slugger first got him as a pet; she found the duck on her front porch trying to knock her door down with his beak."
"Ducks can do that?" Fern queried.
"They can, and they do," Tabby verified.
"Butch is putting a lot of time and effort into remodeling that cabin of his, Sparkler. Any reason why?" Lemon Treats asked with a grin as she loaded her plate with a variety of foodstuffs.
Sparkler's blue cheeks flushed pink. "He hasn't broached the subject with me," she admitted.
"Maybe he's waiting for you to give him a good deal on a diamond ring," Lemon Treats suggested.
"Speaking of which," Chocolate Chip said, "have you all seen Fern's acquisition?"
"I've seen it," Sparkler chimed, "but Toby wasn't dispensing any details about the proposal when he picked up the ring; care to share that with us, Fern?"
Fern's blue eyes sparkled nearly as much as her diamond. "Toby took me out to dinner at the classiest restaurant in New Pony the day after Christmas..."
"Not on Christmas Eve?"
"No; his whole family was at the house Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; he gave me a lovely necklace and earring set for Christmas, so I never expected that he had plans to propose."
"Not even an inkling?"
"I never thought about it, really; I was just happy to be with him after my stay in Bushley. His parents made both Aunt Maisie and me feel really welcome."
"But what about the proposal?" Sugarberry wanted to know.
"Well, after we had finished dinner, we ordered a simple sherbet for dessert. When the waiter brought it, he also set a jeweler's box on the table next to Toby. I imagine my eyes got as round as saucers as I looked from the box to Toby; he was smiling and he held the box in his hoof while he... well, he said some things; and then he asked me if I would marry him... and I said yes!"
"That's a real surprise," noted Garnet.
"When will the wedding be?" asked Dreamcatcher.
"That's the week before Tiffany's; poetic justice, I'd say," Lemon Treats giggled.
"Remember when we all thought that Tiffany and Toby would get married, once Toby got brave enough to buy a ring?" Tabby chattered.
"Which he could never seem to get around to doing," Sparkler smirked. "Lucky for him and you, Fern. I would have hated to see Toby under Tiffany's control."
"Miranda was bad enough," Fern admitted.
"Tiffany would have been worse."
"I'm not so sure," stated Fern. "Did you hear what came of her and Roland's trip to New Pony over Christmas?"
"No. What?" asked Lemon Treats.
"They had a wonderful Christmas with her folks as far as that goes; but on the trip back to Dream Valley, Miranda informed Roland that her father didn't think he was good enough for her; he advised her to discontinue seeing him, so Miranda told Roland that their friendship was over."
Sugarberry was stunned. "I didn't know that; we haven't seen Roland since before Christmas; but with it being between semesters now, I though he would be busy with his own affairs."
"It isn't the first time a stallion got dumped, Sugarberry."
"Maybe not, but I did have a hoof in setting the two of them up. I feel terrible about this."
"After Miranda has time to think about it, maybe she'll realize that Roland is more important to her than her father's opinion."
"That probably won't happen," said Fern. "Toby says that Miranda's father would use her love of finance to bend her to his wishes; she stands to inherit a large fortune some day."
"She couldn't have loved him if she's willing to hurt him like that; he's better off without her," Elaine observed.
"How's the new apartment working out?" Sparkler asked of Fern.
"It's great; Aunt Maisie and I aren't bumping into each other every step we take now."
"I hear your Aunt Maisie is helping Snuzzle with activities for the patients at the hospital."
"And she loves it! She thinks Snuzzle is the greatest pony on earth."
"Which may be true," noted Elaine.
By this time, everyone was seated at the table with overflowing plates; Faline was ensconced in a high chair next to her mother. "Interesting piece of furniture," commented Lemon Treats with an eyebrow raised in Sugarberry's direction upon seeing the foal's special seat. "Poeticus and I haven't even made that purchase yet."
"Faline's got to have someplace to sit while she eats," rationalized Sugarberry, watching the foal chase Cheerios around the tray. "And besides, we'll need one here sooner or later... I hope."
Sparkler looked at the two mares who were already carrying foals. "Who's due first?"
"April for me," said Lemon Treats.
"May," contributed Dreamcatcher.
"It's a good thing the hospital is updating the maternity ward," observed Sparkler.
"Both of my sisters are expecting," added Sugarberry, "and we got word from Vulcanopolis that Hydrangea and Pacificus should have their first by late September."
"There will be lots to look forward to this year."
"Is anyone else getting married?"
"I heard that Perry proposed to Dawn over the holidays," Elaine offered, "but I don't know if they set a date yet."
"Come on, Elaine, why don't you tell them all about your time in Forest Brook?" Tabby said mischievously.
"It was wonderful, of course, meeting all my relatives for the first time..."
"Not that, Elaine. What about Alan?"
"Alan???" a chorus of voices asked.
"He's... someone I met in Forest Brook," Elaine explained, blushing furiously.
"A friend?" asked Sugarberry. "What's he like?"
"He works for the Fairfax publishing company," Tabby broke in. "He and Elaine really hit it off. And so handsome, isn't he, Elaine?"
"Tabby!" Elaine protested.
"Oh, come on, admit it. You were smitten with him!"
"When will you see him again, Elaine?" queried Fern, knowing the pain of separation.
"Well, he told me before I left that it was possible that he would be getting transferred to the Dream Valley publishing house opening at the end of this year."
"What???" the mares chorused again.
"A publishing house in Dream Valley?" asked Sugarberry. "You never mentioned that, Tabby."
"I didn't have time!" said Tabby in exasperation. "Anyway, the Monks and Fairfaxes are combining their forces to start a new branch here in Dream Valley. Cool, huh?"
"And this Alan will be a part of that?" Chocolate Chip asked of Elaine.
"It's not official, but he thinks there's a good chance that he'll come here."
"Oh, I can't wait to meet him!" trilled Sparkler. "He must be very special if he has impressed you, Elaine."
"All it takes is the right one," pointed out Lemon Treats, winking at Elaine.
"I guess," weakly smiled Elaine.
"Plus, I told them that the highly-esteemed Sugarberry was a friend of mine," Tabby continued, "and they seemed very interested. They're going to try to convince you to change from your current publisher."
"To have a local publisher would be great, but West Winds has been good to me."
"But the Fairfaxes' and Monks' are willing to pay you more!"
"I'd have to see that in writing."
"Macarius will be in touch; he can be quite charming."
"Macarius... wasn't he the pony in charge of Driftwood's book signing at the mall?"
"Yes; he is Thomas' cousin on his mother's side... or something like that."
"Poeticus has written enough poems to fill several books!" exclaimed an excited Lemon Treats. "Maybe he will have a chance to get them published!"
"The writers' group has been discussing an anthology; this news will get everyone fired up."
"Where are the Monks and Fairfaxes going to build this new complex?"
The exchange of information filled up the rest of the luncheon, and the mares moved to the comfort of the living room and turret area before being served dessert and coffee or hot chocolate.
When everyone was comfortably settled once more, Dreamcatcher asked about the fire in Berryville; Sugarberry looked to Chocolate Chip for support as she still could not talk about the incident without getting emotional. Chocolate Chip had heard the story enough that she knew all the details as if she had been there.
"... so Vanguard pulled Driftwood away from the wall, but they still got caught by it as it fell; Driftwood was hurt the worst, but Vanguard got his share of injuries, too."
"How awful!" Fern quavered.
"How is Driftwood doing by now?" asked Sparkler.
"Raspberry relates that the doctors say he is healing just fine, but Driftwood wants the cast off so he can get back to a normal life again. Once the insurance claim is settled, he wants to get started on another restaurant," relayed Sugarberry.
"What started the fire in the first place?"
"It went so fast, the fire-ponies figure that there had to be some kind of explosion, probably from a gas leak."
"Yes, but it could have been worse."
"So what was anyone else's Christmas like?"
Chocolate Chip exchanged a glance with Garnet and giggled. "My mom was elated to have Wigwam come to Neighberry; she approves of him. And she was so impressed with Garnet that she made my sister move to the little room under the eaves so that Garnet and I could take over her big room. Lollipop wasn't too happy about that at first, but she got over it."
Garnet continued. "We walked out to Chocolate Chip's grandparents' farm on Christmas Eve; the snow was falling and the sheep were bleating when we got there-- her grandfather was doing the chores-- and it was all so magical," she grinned.
"That was always my favorite place when I was growing up," admitted Chocolate Chip. "Of course, Grandpa never expected my to do any of the heavy work, like mucking out the sheep pen."
"I helped with the goats when I was staying with some friends of mine," Garnet replied. "I kind of like working with the animals that way."
Tabby rolled her eyes. "That's what you're doing at the casino all the time anyway, isn't it?"
"She's got a point there," Fern giggled.
"What's it like, taking over Butch's old job?" Sugarberry wondered.
"Kind of scary sometimes; it's a huge responsibility."
"Wigwam says you are doing a fantastic job!" encouraged Chocolate Chip.
"Tell everyone how Wigwam reacted to Juggler."
Chocolate Chip giggled. "While in Neighberry, we all went to a movie; we had gotten there early, so everyone was just randomly sitting around talking. Wigwam had gone back out to the lobby to buy some popcorn..."
Garnet took over. "... and while he was gone, a friend of Chocolate Chip's came in and took advantage of finding her all alone. He started talking to her; and before you knew it, he was sitting next to her. Juggler didn't see Wigwam come back in with his popcorn, so this stallion kept talking while Wigwam stood over him with this glower on his face, looking as menacing as any villain I've ever seen." She giggled at the remembrance, and Chocolate Chip resumed the story.
"I think Juggler must have felt Wigwam's gaze drilling through him, because all of a sudden he looked up and saw Wigwam standing there with this menacing stare; he was on his hooves so fast that he accidentally bumped the box of popcorn, sending all those buttery clouds all over the place."
"Buttery snow," choked Garnet. "Wigwam didn't even bat an eye. He handed the empty box to Juggler and said, 'Replace this,' and sat down in the seat that Juggler had so recently left, taking Chocolate Chip's hoof in his in case Juggler still had any doubts."
"What did Juggler do?"
"He bought another box of popcorn for Wigwam and then retreated to the last row of seats."
"I don't know this Juggler, but I feel sorry for him," admitted Sugarberry.
"I was able to introduce him and Wigwam after the movie, by which time Wigwam was being civil again."
Baby Faline was playing with Fluff and the recently released Raptor on the floor when Sugarberry remembered something else that would interest the little foal. She left the room for a minute and returned carrying a dome-shaped something in her hoof; she held it up for all to see.
"When Barnacle was in town for Christmas, he left this with Hubert and Agatha to give to me when I got back from Berryville to replace the wedding gift that ended up going to Faline. Meet Kenya."
"Sug, you finally have your own Shelby!" Tabby was very pleased. She took the clam-like creature from her friend, waking him in the process. "Why didn't he bring me some, though? He said he had more than he could handle in his ship; I told him I'd be glad to take the overflow. What is he doing with those things then?"
"I've fallen and I can't get up," the Shelby stated without concern.
"So far we still only have Mecha in the line of the Shelbys," Tabby complained. "I hope they can find their way to the mansion, without any water in the immediate area."
"Is it true you have a Furby room in your mansion?" Sparkler asked curiously.
"Oh, yes. Abandoned Furbys or Furbys in the wild come from all around, and I give all of them a home. There are still plenty showing up every day. Just think of the fun they'd have with a whole parcel of Shelbys!"
"Knock, knock," Kenya interrupted.
"Who's there?" queried a laughing Chocolate Chip.
"Anita burp," Kenya said, and proceeded to belch loudly.
The mares, having had their fun with the Shelby, placed the clam on the floor near Faline and her two kitties. The foal reached for Kenya and pushed him towards her feline companions and proceeded to play contentedly with all three of them. She cooed in delight at the clam's chatter while the mare's returned to their own themes.
"One day when I came here to feed the cats while everyone was off celebrating the holidays with their families," Dreamcatcher began, "I couldn't find Raptor anywhere. Fluff helped me search the house-- I even had to open doors that were always closed because we were having no luck finding him anywhere-- and I was getting really worried. I figured that he must be hiding from me, so I stood in the middle of the living room to wait quietly for him to show himself."
"And did he?"
"After a length of time, I got the feeling that I was being watched, but there was no one in the room except me and Fluff. I scanned the room once more, and I found myself staring straight at the cat-- he had climbed up into the Christmas tree, up to one of the higher branches, and was resting on the branch with only his face showing; he blended in like he was just another ornament. When our eyes met and he realized he was found, he backed out of sight and came down out of the tree to sit down and smile at me with this smug expression on his face."
"That cat is incorrigible," Sugarberry sighed. "As soon as any of us turn our backs, he is in some sort of trouble, yet the next minute he will curl up in someone's lap as if he were a little angel.
"Our cat, Mimi, likes to sit under the tree, not in it," Lemon Treats noted.
"Sophia and Melinda," said Tabby, referring to her husband's two Siamese, "have taken to running up and down the grand staircase. They sound like a herd of elephants the way they go pounding around. It can be really freaky."
"We have the funniest little cat over at the animal shelter," Elaine giggled. "He's adorable, but a kleptomaniac! He steals anything he can get his paws on-- food, oven mitts, jewelry, whatever-- and always tries to hide it under a table in the back."
"How is the shelter in Friendship Gardens doing?" Fern asked.
"There are so many abandoned pets to take care of, and Secret Tale has so little help!" Elaine said, her eyes flashing at the thought of all the mistreated and abandoned animals. "I volunteer as much as I can; I hate to see the shelter and the animals suffering just due to lack of helpers."
"I wish Blue Belle was interested in animals instead of Pokemon," Tabby sighed. "She is such a bother at the Pokemon Center!"
"Oh, Tabby, you shouldn't say that about her," Sugarberry reprimanded. "She's not bothering you; she's helping you."
"What she's aiming for is to take over my position as head nurse eventually," Tabby seethed. "I'm sure she has a bunch of underhanded tricks in store to use against me--"
Sugarberry decided to divert the topic. "The other evening I thought I saw a light in your house, Tabby... I mean, in your empty house next door."
"Oh! Maybe someone is interested in buying it!"
"But when the relators show it, they have all the lights on; this was just one little light..."
"Well, maybe you just caught the end of it."
"...and it was in the middle of the night; I don't think most relators work that late. It seemed creepy somehow."
Garnet spoke up. "An empty house like that would make a good place for some pony to hide out..." She stopped and looked sheepish. "Not that I would know, of course."
"Have you all heard about the new perfume that Clare's Creations is putting on the market?" Lemon Treats could not resist the opportunity to advertise. "Clare's promised that I'll have it in time for Valentine's Day. So, everyone, let your stallions know that you would like to have a bottle of it; it would make a great Valentine's gift!"
"Sparkler, you haven't said anything for awhile," Tabby remarked.
"As if I had a chance!"
The afternoon was wearing on when the front door bell rang, and Chocolate Chip jumped up to answer the summons. Upon opening the door, she grinned broadly. On the front porch stood Poeticus, Thomas, Toby, Vanguard, Wishbone, Fetish, Butch, and Wigwam, each with a boxed pizza or soda. She looked back at Sugarberry. "Are you ready for this?"
"Ready or not, we're here," Wigwam said as he led the crew into the house.
"This is a pleasant surprise," Sugarberry said rather warily as she received her husband's kiss as he came in after Wigwam.
"We couldn't let you girls have all the fun," Vanguard replied.
"Where do you want the food?" queried Butch.
"To the kitchen," replied Wishbone, leading the way.
"Hope we're not intruding," smiled Poeticus as he paraded past.
"This was all Wigwam's idea," Fetish revealed.
"Hope everyone's hungry," Toby commented.
"Too bad Alan's not here," Thomas winked at his sister. After hugging his wife, he asked, "Where's Faline?"
Tabby took him to the turret area where the petite pink foal was curled up on a pillow on the floor with the sleeping Shelby on one side of her and a dozing cat-- Fluff-- on the other. Thomas leaned to give his daughter a kiss, but jumped back. "That cat spat at me!" he complained to Tabby.
"He thinks he's Faline's guardian; she's the only one that gives him any attention."
"Well, tell him that I'm her father." Tabby obliged by diverting Fluff's attention while Thomas picked up the precious foal. Faline opened her eyes for a brief moment. "I missed you, sweetheart," Thomas softly said; the foal reached out to touch his face, then snuggled contentedly back to sleep.
The house had become livelier and louder with the arrival of the stallions; they had provided plenty of pizza and refreshments so that no one needed to go hungry. "This dinner bell really works," commented Butch after clanging it loudly enough to wake the dead.
"I hope you don't mind us crashing your party, Sugarberry," Wigwam grinned, dropping another piece of pizza on the mare's plate.
"No problem, as long as you've supplied the food."
Butch could not help but torment Tabby. "Quarterback's been saying that if anyone knows what happened to Tex, it's you, Tabby. He thinks you finally got back at him for that worm business back in sixth grade."
"I wasn't responsible, but I must congratulate whoever masterminded his disappearance!" Tabby squealed. "It's so cool, isn't it?"
"I miss Emilio," mourned Sugarberry. "That poor little tarantula was in the clinic more than any other pet in Dream Valley."
"He's the only tarantula I've ever seen who is accident prone," Thomas remarked.
"I hope Tex is taking good care of him... wherever he is."
"I hate to break up a great party," interjected Fern, "but I feel guilty about leaving Aunt Maisie by herself all day; Sugarberry, thanks for such a splendid time." She hugged the strawberry-patterned mare.
"Gee, Toby hardly got a chance to eat a slice of pizza; the freedom's gone already, ole' buddy," Wigwam quipped to the purple stallion.
"It's a fair trade-off," the stallion smiled, his eyes lighting on Fern with genuine love.
"Aww," the other girls crooned.
"Take this tray of goodies home to Maisie," Sugarberry bid the departing ponies. "And tell her that next time, she has to come visit, too."
* * *
Toby kept the pace slow as he and Fern crossed town to Fern's apartment even though the January evening was cold; he was finding that their time alone was scarce, and he valued every moment that he could have her to himself. But when her apartment building came into view, Fern began to hurry of her own accord.
"The lights from my apartment aren't on," she worried.
"Aunt Maisie probably fell asleep waiting for you," Toby assured Fern, but he felt uncomfortable because everyone who knew Maisie knew that she would never fall asleep other than at bedtime-- she could never stop worrying long enough to take a nap during the day.
Neither pony said a word as they hurried up the steps and down the hall to reach the door to Fern's rooms. Unlocking the door with a trembling hoof, Fern pushed it open and went straight to the lamp on a nearby table. The soft white light fanned across the room to the cozy rocker that was Maisie's favorite chair; and there sat Maisie, her eyes staring straight ahead as if watching some invisible show.
"Aunt Maisie!" Fern called, running to her side. "Are you okay?"
Only then did the elderly mare seem to comprehend that she was no longer alone. "Fern? Is that you?" She looked blankly at her great-niece. "Maud..."
"What about Granny?" asked Fern, frightened to see her great-aunt so passive. Maud was her late grandmother, Maisie's sister. Was Maisie confusing Fern for Maud?
Toby was checking Maisie's pulse rate and could find no obvious signs of a medical problem. "Maisie," he said gently, "Fern's here now. Did something happen while she was away?"
"Letters," Maisie said, and both Fern and Toby turned to the coffee table where sat a metal chest, its lid turned back with bundles of letters spilling out from the interior. Several other bundles had been untied and were piled in stacks on the table.
"These were all of Granny's correspondence; she saved every letter she ever got," Fern explained to Toby. "I brought them from Bushley hoping to get time to read them, but so far I've never gotten around to it." She picked up one of the envelopes and turned back to her aunt.
"Were you reading letters all afternoon, Aunt Maisie?"
Maisie closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the cushioned rocker and sighed. When she opened her eyes again, she whispered, "I thought it would be okay."
"Of course it's okay! Did you think I would mind?"
Toby noticed one letter that had fallen to the carpeted floor and drifted under the edge of the chair. Absently he picked it up and shuffled the pages together neatly; it appeared to have been a fairly newsy letter by the number of sheets that had been filled with a neat, flowing penmanship. He looked for the corresponding envelope, and found it on the table. Picking it up, he heard a choked cry from Maisie.
The mare was staring at the papers in his hoof. "It was... addressed... to me," she managed to say.
Toby handed the yellowed envelope to Fern who looked bewilderingly at the address: Mrs. Maisie Trenton, 175 Seventh Street, Edgewood Junction, Ponyland. The return address in the corner was of Granny's home outside of Bushley. The letter had been written by Maud to her sister, Maisie, but obviously never sent.
"I thought... I should... read it, being addressed... to me and all." She looked at Fern as if she expected to be reprimanded.
"But you think now that you shouldn't have?" Fern prodded.
Maisie closed her eyes and shook her head. "No. I shouldn't have, Fern."
"If it was addressed to you, then Granny must have intended for you to see it."
It took Maisie a minute to collect herself; she took Fern's hoof in hers and asked, "Fern, dear, have you ever been so angry that you wrote someone a horrible letter that you couldn't bear to mail once your anger had melted away? And you had to destroy it so that no one would know your anger?"
"Only once," Fern admitted, thinking back to the day when she had been notified that she was to vacate the house that had been her home throughout her growing up years and had been promised to be hers when her grandmother no longer had need of it. That letter had been written in anger and tears to Maisie's husband, Troubadour, who had conjured up a will giving him the house; Fern had hated him at the time she wrote the letter; now that he was gone, she understood his motives to be his best effort to protect Maisie's welfare after his death. Fern was relieved that the letter had ended up torn to shreds and incinerated in the crackling flames of the fireplace.
"Maud didn't mail hers, but she didn't destroy it, either."
Fern's mind suddenly comprehended what had happened. Her grandmother, always intense in her feelings, had never kept it a secret that she carried no love for her sister or for the stallion Maisie had married. Although she had never said a word as to the provocation that had turned her away from the only sibling that she had, Maud had made it clear that there was no chance of a reconciliation between them. For that reason, Maisie and Troubadour had been strangers to Fern until last fall when circumstances had thrown her and her great-aunt together at Bushley. If Maud had put her loathing into words, Fern knew that it would be a scathing epistle.
"Granny may have been harsh, Aunt Maisie, but I'm sure..."
Maisie was shaking her head adamantly. Her gaze rested on the pages that Toby still held. "Fern, you must read the letter; secrets like this have no right to cause the tangles they do." Shaking off her doldrums and becoming authoritative, the mare lifted her hoof. "Toby, give Fern the letter and help me up; you and I will go to the kitchen and warm up some soup while Fern reads her grandmother's letter."
Toby obliged by putting the letter in Fern's hoof, accompanying it with a kiss on her cheek; he then offered his hoof to Maisie, and the two of them left the young mare alone with the words of her grandmother.
Fern slipped into the chair her great-aunt had just vacated; her eyes flew to the perfect script that had been Granny's pride. The date appeared in the upper right corner: it had been written many years ago. The salutation indicated no animosity, but it was with some trepidation that Fern began the letter.
It has taken much soul-searching on my part to begin this letter to you, and I realize it is long overdue. You and your husband have been married well over ten years now; it has taken me that long to come to grips with the feelings that some days seem as if they would overwhelm me. The writing of this letter will prove to be therapeutic, I am sure.
My story begins in the town of Dream Valley where, you will likely remember, I attended Teacher's College as soon as I was out of high school. You were a freshman in high school at the time that I left our home town; I remember how you envied me! You sat in my room all the while I was packing my baggage, and you stood outside the house waving to Father and me for as long as you could see us on the road. You vowed that one day, you would follow me there.
I was determined to do well to make Mother and Father proud of me; I studied faithfully and worked diligently at the library whenever I wasn't in the classroom. The teachers were impressed with me which made me strive even harder to live up to their expectations. Very seldom did I join in the social activities with the other students; my time was spent improving my mind, not my social skills.
But there came the one night when the girls I boarded with would not take my normal no for an answer when they asked me to join them at a dance sponsored by the local businesses of the town. They said that just this once, they expected me to act like the rest of them and have some fun. I didn't want to; but I soon found out that they were not going to let me hit the books, so I finally caved in to their prodding. Looking back on that decision now makes my skin crawl.
The dance was everything they had promised it would be. The hall was decorated to the hilt with flowers and silken hangings; there were refreshments supplied by the wives of the businessmen; a band played all the hit tunes of the day; and what the other girls liked best, there were plenty of young stallions waiting to twirl them around the dance floor.
I sat in a quiet corner and watched my friends as they joined in the dance; the music was performed well, and I found it a pleasure to listen to the airy tunes. The other girls would join me when they were out of breath and needed a rest, and a number of their dance partners were hanging nearby. I laughed and talked with them, but kept my place on the sidelines whenever the music started.
I was sitting alone like that when I became conscious of one of the stallions who had not joined the others on the dance floor for this particular dance. He was watching me instead. I tried to ignore him, but I couldn't help but look his way again; he grinned at me, and came to where I was and asked if he could sit down. I told him they were not my chairs to control, hoping he would go away. But he smiled at me again, and I was swept away by that smile. We talked politely of the weather and my classes and his job and how pretty the hall looked; and I'm sure he was as well aware as I was that when the dance ended, none of my friends joined us. They did, however, stand near enough that their giggles and glances were obviously painful. But the stallion seemed not to notice; and when the music started again, he asked me to dance.
Is it possible to fall in love in the course of a dance? I think it is, because it happened to me that night. It was early in the spring, and I attest that by the time the dance was over, all the flowers were blooming; at least, I thought I could smell their fragrance in the air-- I was that happy. We danced every dance that was played for the rest of that night; and when the last note had died away, he walked my home through the moonlit night... and he kissed me before he said goodnight. I went to my room and spent the rest of the night reliving that kiss.
My grades suffered from then on, but I was happy. He worked for the phone company and as he was not a student, he did not have to worry about course work to tie him down. We were together for every dance that was held, for every movie shown in the theater, for every private party that any of the other students held. My schooling to become the best teacher I could be took second, even third, place to the hopes and dreams that I imagined to be the culmination of this romance.
Life was perfect... until that day in May when he came to pick me up for yet another dance; but he had some bad news. He had been released from the phone company, unexpectedly; his boss had simply told him there was no need to report for work the next day and had paid his wages and sent him on his way. He was despondent and so was I; we had been tentatively discussing our future together, and now he was out of work and could not afford any more planning for a life for the two of us.
But he told me he loved me and that the best thing for him to do was to find new employment as soon as possible so that our plans could continue to move forward. He had heard of a company hiring in Hayton and had decided to make his way there to take advantage of the opportunity. "Why do you have to leave Dream Valley?" I cried, but he pulled me close and explained that he could make three times the wages in Hayton that he was making here which meant we could be married three times faster. He dried my tears and promised me that he would keep in touch until the day when he could take me in his forelegs once again. He kissed me and left me standing alone; I watched him out of sight as he traveled the road to Hayton.
He called me a week later; he had gotten a job and it paid well, but the rents were higher in Hayton than he had expected; he was staying with a new friend in a dumpy little place until he got his first pay check which he could then put toward an apartment. He said he wanted to get a nice one because it wouldn't be long before he would have enough saved up that he could ask me to marry him and settle in Hayton. All he asked was if I had any extra money, would I be willing to send it to him so he could make a deposit on a nice place he had seen; he said that there weren't many available, and it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. What could I do? I was so much in love that I sent him all that I could, everything that I had been saving.
And then I waited. I was alone... so alone. I drowned myself in my studies as I had before I had met my prince. The teachers were pleased, but I could find no joy in my progress now; I continued to study, even taking advantage of their summer program and working at the local ice cream parlor to put away every jangle I could toward my wedding day.
Time dragged by, but I did not receive any further word from Hayton. Then one day when I was at work, I saw one of the stallions from the phone company who had attended the dances, too. I asked him if he had heard from Trouvere, and he looked at me funny like. "Why should I have?" he asked.
"I thought you were friends," I responded, and he laughed. "With a friend like him, I wouldn't need any enemies!" He went on to tell me that Trouvere had been fired for making off with the cash box in the office, and the bosses suspected him of lifting other articles over the course of his time with the phone company, too. They were glad to be rid of him.
I knew then that I'd never see him again. He had gotten what he wanted... my money. I had learned a hard lesson. I put the whole affair behind me and kept up my course work until I earned my teaching certificate and found a position in a school in Bushley.
It did not take me long to find that teaching was not my cup of tea. I had enjoyed learning, but I found no enjoyment in trying to drill knowledge into restless little foals who could not sit still long enough to write their own names. Fortunately, the bank in Bushley was looking for a secretary to the president, and I was hired after my contract with the school was completed.
Francis Feather was a smart stallion and he knew the banking business backwards and forewords; he expected the best from his employees and he appreciated the fact that I always handled my work efficiently and confidentially. He was older than me, of course, but we worked so closely that a deep respect and admiration grew up between us. I never expected it to amount to anything more than that, but Francis had other plans. He proposed marriage to me.
I felt none of the romantic love for Francis that I had for Trouvere, but I did have a devotion to him that seemed more stable and trustworthy than an affectionate sentimentality. We were married in a quiet ceremony at the church, and our life together moved smoothly on; we were ultimately blessed with the birth of our son. We treasured that child.
And you remember, Maisie, that you came to help me after Casey was born; and you shared our joy. You were a big help to me and you worked hard, but you enjoyed getting out in the evening. You never confided in me that you had found someone on your outings until one night you went to the Friday night dance in Bushley and brought a stallion back to the house with you; the stars were shining in your eyes when you came in upon Francis and I sitting in the parlor; you were pulling your beau behind you. You wanted Francis and I to meet him because you thought he was the special stallion you had been dreaming of, and you wanted our approval.
What you never knew, Maisie, was that your prince and my prince from my days in Dream Valley were one and the same stallion. Your Troubadour was my Trouvere. When his eyes met mine, I felt such a surge of emotion that I thought the whole world would hear my cry; but no one knew what I was going through, except possibly Troubadour. I could see that he expected me to launch an attack against him. But I said nothing, and he followed suite. I was not going to cheapen myself in Francis' eyes by making a scene over your infatuation with the scoundrel, because my former desire for this very stallion would be uncovered as well. So I smiled and nodded over your trite conversation while seething inside over the audacity of this stallion to sit in my house and romance my sister.
You were flying high that evening and it wasn't long before you and Troubadour left again to meet another couple at the ice cream shop; I let you go because I wanted some time to organize my emotions; I also wanted to talk with you in private; I couldn't take you to task in front of Francis without admitting more about myself than I wanted to. You and I would have plenty of time to set things straight the next day when we would be alone to discuss things without an audience.
But you didn't come down the next morning, and I found your bed had not been slept in. I was out of my mind with worry until a message was delivered at my door– a note that told me of your elopement with Troubadour. You told me none of the details; I'm sure Troubadour would not have wanted me to trace your whereabouts before he was sure of your complete and unfailing trust. There was nothing I could do to let you know that the stallion you had given your life to was unworthy of your affection.
I thought that you would soon come crawling back, abandoned by your husband. But the letters I began receiving when you were settled in your first home were filled with dotings about the wonderful life you were living; it appeared that for you, Troubadour was willing to fulfill his commitment to love and to cherish. I could not cope with that, so I wiped the two of you out of my life. Even at that, I expected you to someday find out the hard way what kind of stallion Troubadour really was.
But now the years have gone by; the occasional letter I do get from you is still filled with glowing reports of your life; I have never been able to bring myself to respond because I could not write with any honesty when I had condemned your marriage from the start.
So why this letter? You know that Francis is gone now, and Casey and I have gone on with our lives. I am determined to honor his memory by upholding the same kind of honest business dealings at the bank as he always did. You can be sure that Casey will grow up to be the kind and reliable kind of stallion that Francis was.
I know that you have attempted to see Casey at school, and I want to put a stop to that right now. I do not want my son to have any contact with you or Troubadour; and to insure that, I feel that you need to understand the reason for my disapproval of your husband.
You will probably see this as an insensitivity on my part to your feelings, but I have harbored the damaging information about your husband for too many years now as it is. The only way I can escape the torment of this knowledge is to share it with you. If that makes me the transgressor, so be it. I will have at least cleared my conscience.
Finishing with the letter, Fern could only stare at her grandmother's signature, her mind working to compile these new facts with all that she had grown up knowing about the mare who had raised her since Fern's parents-- Casey and Ella-- had died so unexpectedly. "Oh, Granny, Granny! I wish you would have confided in me!" She understood now why her grandmother had insisted on a very private life in her big house outside of Bushley, a place where Maud had found security and refuge from a world that she had once found hurtful. She also understood why the only relative left to Maud was denied access to this haven.
So engrossed in her musing that she was unaware of Toby's approach, Fern started when she felt the touch of his hoof on her shoulder. "You okay?" he asked softly, his eyes searching hers.
"Maisie is right; secrets are destructive."
"She told me briefly what the letter said; your grandmother must have thought it best to let it rest in the end."
"Just putting it on paper must have purged her of the secret somehow; she couldn't bring herself to upset Maisie, so she continued to carry it alone."
"I can understand now," said Maisie, joining them, "why Troubadour could never stand that picture of Maud on the wall after we had moved into her home; he took it down because he said it made him nervous to have her staring down at him all the time. I imagine it was eating at his conscience all along."
"He still loved you, Maisie. He never took advantage of you like he did Granny, and he did everything he could to make you happy."
"I sat there after reading the letter, remembering little things that verify the truth of Maud's words. Troubadour was always slightly apprehensive about the mail being delivered, always anticipating the arrival of the letters in the box and scanning them as if he was always expecting something. I imagine he would have intercepted a letter from Maud if one had ever arrived."
"What would you have done, Maisie, if you had received this letter when it was first written?" Toby probed gently.
"I would have been angry, very angry with both of them-- Troubadour for leading my sister on like he did and taking her money and Maud for not speaking out the moment she saw Troubadour that night at her house." She was silent for a minute before continuing. "Maud was right about that night; I was flying high, so happy to have found someone to share my life with, someone sturdy and able to take charge of things for me, but caring all the same-- at least he was kind and tender with me. But I remember now how he pushed for us to elope that night after we had visited Maud and Francis; looking back, I'm sure that he knew that Maud would never consent to my seeing him. It was his last chance with me."
"He must have loved you very much, Aunt Maisie," smiled Fern, patting her great-aunt's hoof.
"Yes, I don't doubt that. But I wish they had been honest with me; I would have forgiven them both; I would have welcomed Maud's presence in my life again."
"We can't change what happened, but we have each other, Aunt Maisie."
"For that I am very grateful," smiled Maisie, drawing Fern to her for an embrace. The elderly mare's gaze came to rest on Toby. "You will be honest with Fern always, won't you Toby?"
"She is my confidante; there will be no secrets between us." The stallions eyes met Fern's, and he smiled affectionately, his next words addressed directly to her. "The ring you're wearing attests to that."
Fern slipped into his embrace and rested her head on his shoulder while Maisie looked on with a soft smile lighting her face. "I, at least, have the privilige of seeing the fruit born of this labyrinth of concealment. The two of you are a new beginning for this family, my dears." She suddenly looked sad. "If only Maud could see you now, Fern."
Turning to the picture of her grandmother on the wall, Fern murmured serenely. "I'm sure she does, Aunt Maisie; I'm sure she does."