“I feel like it’s the first day of school,” Brietta admitted to her mother as she came into the kitchen for breakfast after a peaceful weekend of lounging between visits from relatives and friends who were anxious to resume ties with the mare now that Brietta was back in town.
“As well you might,” Lena said. “Your grandfather will be the strictest teacher you’ve faced yet.”
“What are you telling the girl about me now, Lena?” rumbled Conrad as he entered the room and made himself comfortable at the table while Anna bustled about with the final preparations for breakfast. The stallion appeared younger than he had when Brietta had first come home, and she hoped that her presence back in the family had allayed some of the worries he had taken upon himself.
Aiden followed his father into the room. “Well, Brietta, it’s a beautiful day on which to begin your career.”
“Is it?” Brietta asked, her eyes glancing out the window at the sloping lawn and gently swaying trees with the early morning sunshine slanting over the dewy grass. “I... I hadn’t noticed.”
“Brietta is a little nervous, Aiden,” Lena informed her husband of the obvious.
“She’ll be fine once she’s gotten a few contracts in her hoof,” Conrad remarked, accepting the coffee pot from Anna and filling the mugs on the table. “The business will be second-nature to you, Brietta; it’s in your genes.”
Aiden smilingly concurred. “You’ll do fine.”
* * *
When Aiden, Brietta, and Conrad got to the quaint stone building that housed their law offices, Colly was already busy arranging things for the day. Conrad walked Brietta to her office while Aiden reviewed his calendar.
“Still jittery?” her grandfather asked, eyeing Brietta closely.
“Not at all,” Brietta grinned, slipping into the chair behind her desk. “This office gives me confidence.”
“You’ll be under your father’s or my supervision for these first few days anyway, Brietta. We want you to be quite comfortable with all the office procedures before you sink your teeth into any solo work.”
“You don’t trust me, do you, Grandfather?” Brietta asked with a teasing smile on her face.
“In a word, no... not until I’ve seen what you’re capable of. Now, come with me so we can go over today’s strategy.”
“Yes, sir,” Brietta replied, getting up to follow her grandfather as if she were still a little foal. She sighed as she closed the office door. Not yet would her sanctum listen to the knowledgeable advice that she would dispense nor for awhile overhear her shrewd decisions. “Grandfather will treat me like an errand runner, I’m afraid,” she muttered to herself.
When they arrived at the outer office, they found Sloan and Dorian waiting with ledgers in hoof for the office meeting which invariably occupied the first segment of the day. Aiden, already on the phone with a client, waved them on, indicating that they were not to wait for him. The others entered the conference room, with Conrad taking the head of the table; Sloan, at Brietta’s side, pulled out a chair for her and she smiled a thank you. He sat beside her while Dorian pulled up the chair opposite her. He grinned his welcome, but neither of the stallions said a word, apparently in deference to Conrad’s strict protocol. He ran a tight meeting and would stand for no superfluous chatter. He glanced at Dorian to begin.
“Max is coming in with some land contracts,” the stallion said. “All of it should be relatively routine; I don’t foresee any problems. However, a new client from Grover is coming by concerning a merger possibility; I’d like you to be there for that, Conrad.”
Sloan was next, listing off some probate and estate cases that were nothing out of the ordinary. By that time, Aiden had joined them and announced that his day would be filled with meetings at the Greensway Corporation.
Conrad nodded his head. “You’ll have your hooves full there, although this is preliminary litigation. Brietta, I’ll keep you with me- I’ve got an unclaimed property case you’ll find interesting, and we’ll join Dorian this afternoon for his merger problems. Any questions?”
“Colly needs to see Sloan on some document changes for one of his estate matters; she has everything ready to go. Other than that, we’re all set,” Aiden said. His gaze rested on his daughter and a slight motion of his head let her know that he wanted a word with her. She lingered behind as the others went their way.
“Your grandfather will expect you to observe for these first few days, Brietta. I hope you’ll bear with his cautious methods.”
“Don’t worry, Father. I expect he’ll be harder on me than anyone else simply because I’m his granddaughter. I certainly will not chafe too much under his guidance; I’m sure to learn more in a day with him than in a week elsewhere.”
But by one o’clock when Conrad broke for lunch, Brietta was finding it hard to smile. For all her hopes, Conrad had invariably forgotten she was with him and had not included her by word or action in any of the morning’s proceedings with clients.
Fortunately, both Sloan and Dorian were ready for lunch at that time; and Conrad opted to study some documents and sent the three on their way.
“How was your morning, Brietta?” Dorian asked, casting a look in her direction that could not conceal the laughter in his eyes, although Brietta was in no mind to see it.
“Boring as Godfrey’s lectures!” she burst out- referring to one particularly monotonous professor at law school who could put his class to sleep faster than anyone- causing her companions to laugh outright.
“Conrad didn’t allow you one single input, did he?” Sloan queried.
“Not one, and the legalities were elementary. Any first year law student could have handled the work blindfolded.”
Dorian patted her shoulder. “Don’t fret; things will get better... in a month or so.”
“He couldn’t have been this... this smothering with either of you. He doesn’t trust me because I’m a mare rather than a stallion.”
“There you’re wrong, Brietta,” Sloan said. “I thought I’d never get a chance to face a client, but one day Conrad somehow determined I could be trusted and let me on my own. Don’t ask me what he based his decision on, as he never once questioned me or allowed me my own opinion.”
“I wouldn’t have believed it of my grandfather if I hadn’t just experienced it.”
“I was ready to jump ship after I was here three days,” Dorian admitted, “but Sloan told me to hang in there. And he was right. At some unseen juncture, Conrad cast me adrift and never looked back.”
“You’ll survive, Brietta. Just watch and listen. Conrad will teach you all you need to know, as long as you’re patient.”
“And here I thought he would expect too much of me!”
“He’ll soon be so proud of your talents that he’ll trust you to fly,” Sloan told her, guiding her into the Main Street Café where good food served fast but appealingly was the mainstay for upscale business ponies in this part of the town.
As the three ponies ate, they shared experiences from their days at law school, Brietta having followed the two stallions several years behind. Teachers’ idiosyncracies were discussed in detail, extra curricular activities were laughed over, and the memory of long hours of study were quickly dismissed for brighter, happier memories.
“One thing puzzles me,” Dorian began as they were returning to their place of business. “You two grew up here, and Sloan never hid his plans to return to work with Conrad and Aiden; but never once did I hear him mention you, Brie. Surely you must have been well-acquainted.”
Before Sloan could comment, Brietta responded with what she hoped was a light answer. “Sloan was a great companion when we were foals, but he was way too mature for a high-spirited filly when he got older.” A quick glance at Sloan told her he was not happy with her answer; the stallion’s face was set in a blank mask of indifference, but Brietta knew by his clasped jaw that he was restraining himself from a curt response.
Sloan’s face was no more pleased when Dorian drew Brietta into his office as soon as they had returned. Colly, too, frowned over that occurrence until Conrad, with several books in his hoof, joined Dorian and Brietta for their afternoon conference on mergers. When the representatives of Conlon and Associates from the neighboring town had been shown into the office to join the lawyers, Colly’s frown deepened. She did not condone the fact that Dorian had placed a chair for Brietta at his right side and much closer to him than was entirely necessary.
* * *
“Brietta,” Lena said with a certain amount of subdued excitement in her voice as she knocked softly outside her daughter’s third story bedroom, peering into the room as she did so as the door was fully open.
“What is it, Mother?” queried the mare, closing the book that she was reading in her quiet corner. The beautiful June day had beckoned for her to take a walk when she had gotten home, but she had picked up a book instead with the intention of reading only one chapter; but she had become so involved in the plot that she could not put it down. She almost welcomed her mother’s intrusion, however, as it forced her to surface to the real world once again.
“You’ll never believe what I found!” Lena trilled, walking across to join Brietta and sitting in the companion chair next to hers. Brietta noted that her hoof was closed around something... something that was obviously very small as there was no sign of its identity peeping out.
“Do I get three guesses?” asked the mare, grinning at her mother’s rosy visage.
Lena had obviously been cleaning somewhere in the house as she had a kerchief tied around her mane to keep the dust off and to prevent her hair from falling into her face. She went on as if Brietta had not spoken. “Do you remember that little jewelry box that had belonged to Aiden’s mother, the one he had salvaged from Myrna’s things before Conrad boxed everything up and shipped it away?”
“That wooden box with the different wood tones forming a pattern?” Brietta definitely remembered it as it had intrigued her when she was a foal, tracing the complicated configuration with her hoof, pondering how any pony could construct such a convoluted design by simply laying out the varying shapes of light and dark pieces of wood to fit together.
“I’d stuck it away in the closet, and I was rummaging in there today trying to sort things out when I came across it and decided to have a look inside again. Do you remember what was in the box?”
“Of course. It was a golden chain, very simple.”
“That’s right. I was going to look at the chain; but when I lifted it, I dropped the box. It hit the edge of the dresser... and popped apart.” Lena’s voice had become very mysterious.
“You broke it?” a puzzled Brietta asked.
Lena sat back and smiled. “It didn’t break. It hit in such a way that it revealed a hidden compartment. And this was inside.” She stretched out her hoof toward Brietta, on which nestled a golden oval pendant with ornate filigree on the front.
Brietta reached out and picked up the bangle, beginning now to understand her mother’s excitement. After Myrna’s death so many years ago, Conrad had attempted to wipe out all memories of the mare who had meant so much to him but had been taken from him so early in life. Just as he would no longer allow the bells to ring from the tower of Whitehall Place, he had also removed all signs of the mare’s vibrancy from the house in a futile effort to assuage his grief.
The cleansing had done no good, but Conrad had gained some comfort from the simple act of purging the mementoes from his sight. It was Aiden who had suffered most from this cruel eradication of all that was his mother’s; to lose her was one thing; to also lose any tangible evidence of her love and her gentleness was quite another.
Never one to disobey his father, Aiden had nevertheless sneaked into his parent’s room late one night after learning of his father’s vendetta and retrieved one token of his mother’s that would have to serve as the only palpable connection he retained of her.
And now that memento had released a further token of the mare who had been gone so long.
“It’s a locket,” noted Brietta, holding up the trinket and turning it over.
“Open it,” instructed her mother.
Brietta pushed in the catch that held the locket closed, and the two halves sprang apart, revealing tiny likenesses of two ponies, one easily identifiable as Conrad, the other a mare who had only been described to Brietta by her father.
“My grandmother,” Brietta breathed, her eyes darting to catch her mother’s. “It’s Myrna.”
“Yes, and isn’t she beautiful?”
The two mares sat in silent harmony, gazing at the mare who had become such an enigma in their lives by her blatant non-existence in the midst of all that had been so profoundly affected by her. To see her image was like opening a door to the past, a door that had remained closed for too long. Like the tower door, mused Brietta to herself as she wondered about this lady who, along with Conrad, had engendered Aiden who in turn had fallen in love with Lena and brought forth Brietta herself. The connection to this mare pictured here was overwhelming.
“I showed it to him as soon as got home,” Lena assured her daughter. “He had gone out to the patio to think through some of the legal problems from the day. When he saw his mother’s image...” Tears dropped from Lena’s eyes as she recalled how affected Aiden had been to see this mare who had been the heart of his world suddenly brought back to him, if only as captured by some early photographer some fifty odd years ago, for Myrna had apparently been near eighteen when her likeness had been recorded. “He went for a walk to get his emotions together before Conrad could see him and ask what had upset him so. We are not to say anything to Conrad until your father decides whether or not to reveal the locket to him.”
“I understand,” Brietta nodded. “Grandfather has his own way of dealing with things, but that may not be the best for the rest of us.” She stared at the image, unable to break away from it. “To have lost his mother when he was at the vulnerable age of sixteen must have been awful.”
“And Conrad expected him to take it like an adult, when even Conrad couldn’t cope with the loss,” reflected Lena. “Your father did well to face the reality as he did without the usual crutches to bear him along. I often have thought that’s what made him so special; he’s more aware of other ponies feelings than many of us are.”
“And it’s also why Conrad is so brusque in his dealings with others; he can’t allow himself to become too close to anyone,” observed Brietta.
“I’ve always thought there’d come a day when he would come to grips with his losing Myrna, but I guess some things are just too deeply engraved in our being that we can’t let go even if it would be for the best.” Sighing, Lena got to her hooves. “I’ll leave you alone for awhile to get acquainted with your grandmother in private, Brietta. It’s high time you got to know her.” With that, Lena quietly slipped out of the room.
Peering at the pony who stared back at her almost like a ghost from the past, Brietta found herself smiling. Myrna had been a gentle mare, her father had vouched for that. She had been pale blue with curling pink hair, from her father’s accounts; and although the picture was in earthen tones, Brietta could well imagine the exact shades and hues that had colored her grandmother.
There was an aura about this image that brought it to life in Brietta’s imagination; she closed her eyes and saw the loving kindness that would have radiated from all Myrna’s actions towards her family and her friends and the community in general. No wonder Conrad had been devastated at her loss.
When her ponderings turned into dreams, Brietta could not say.
She saw her father as he must have looked as a teenaged pony, his yellow body lean and trim, the sky blue hair cascading down his side. Myrna was baking cookies as her son loped into the room after a day spent with his friends, and she smiled at him contentedly.
“Your favorite,” she said, pouring him a glass of milk. But when she handed the drink to him, it had become a puzzle box fabricated of walnut and pine.
“Thanks, Mother,” the young Aiden had smiled, devouring a wooden cookie and reaching for more.
The dream had expanded, including now Conrad. The stallion had returned home from work and walked in on the pleasant scene in the kitchen where his wife and son were now both settled down with a snack, the wooden box between them.
But Conrad had no sooner taken Myrna in his forelegs to greet her with a kiss when she had collapsed against him; the puzzle box dropped out of her hoof, shattering as it hit the floor just as Myrna’s life drained from her. Aiden had stood in the background, stricken, holding splinters of the box as Conrad tried all in his power to revitalize the pony who was the center of both their lives. But he had failed.
Myrna moved on in a kaleidoscope of color, away from both the ponies who had idolized her, leaving them in a monotone existence devoid of her brightness. Conrad constantly called out for her while Aiden attempted to reconstruct the puzzle box. All was lost in a whirlpool of loneliness that threatened to pull in even the unborn Brietta who hovered on the edge of the stallion’s reality.
Then, suddenly, with a tinkling sound, the dream collapsed on itself.
And Brietta awoke.
Sitting up, the mare realized that the locket had slipped from her grasp as she slept. Reaching down, she retrieved the locket from where it rested on the floor.
“Grandmother,” she whispered, gazing at the mare in the photo.
And somewhere in the very depths of her psyche, she heard the bells toll.
* * *
“Something’s up,” growled Conrad as the family picked at their food at the evening meal.
Anna looked on, wondering where she had gone wrong. She traced the addition of every ingredient in every dish back through the food preparation and could find no reason for the lack of appetite that seemed to have stricken three-fourths of the ponies now at table.
At Conrad’s words, Aiden and Lena exchanged a glance that only set Conrad further on edge. “You might as well tell me as to look at each other that way,” he asserted. After staring down Aiden and Lena, he turned his searching gaze on Brietta, and she was forced to lower her lashes to cover the brightness of her eyes.
Aiden, now that he had been challenged, made his decision; he cleared his throat. “It involves something of Mother’s,” he said, glancing at his father but failing to meet his eyes for more than a second or two.
“What could that be?” asked Conrad, his voice indicating his suppressed indignation.
Lena, feeling sorry for her husband, spoke up. “There was a small jewelry box that Aiden had in his keeping; it contained a gold chain that he knew to be his mother’s. Today I was cleaning the box when it slipped from my hooves, and the ensuing impact caused a hidden compartment to open. Inside was a locket, a locket with youthful pictures of both you and Myrna. I showed it...”
Conrad pounded the table with his hoof. “Where is this locket now?” His voice rumbled like thunder.
“It’s back in the box.”
“Bring it to me!” Conrad thundered.
Lena looked at her husband who valiantly stood firm. “I’d given the jewelry box to Lena years ago; its contents belong to her now.”
“How did you get your hooves on it when I explicitly stated that all of Myrna’s things were to be removed from this house?”
“It was the one thing I retained of my mother’s; I needed something tangible to remember her by.”
Glaring, but at a loss for words, Conrad remained silent; but his brow was furrowed with the intensity of his emotions as he struggled to gain control of the renewed pain that ravaged him now just as furiously as it had when he had first lost his wife. When he could speak, he said, “This picture... I want it destroyed.”
“No!” burst out Brietta, rising to her hooves. “You can’t take away the last shred of reality concerning my grandmother.”
“This has nothing to do with you, young lady!”
“It has everything to do with me! And with Father, too! You can’t pretend that Myrna never lived; she was too important to both of you!”
“You will never understand just how important she was,” Conrad said, the anger suddenly draining out of him, leaving him looking old and feeble again.
Hurrying around the table to his side, Brietta put her forelegs around him. “Grandfather, we all realize that Myrna was the love of your life. I don’t know why she had to die so young, but she did; and I’m sure that she never wanted you to suffer so much from her loss. Father loved her too, you know; but he understood that the memories of that love were good and healing things that needed to be nurtured. Even if you destroyed the picture, you couldn’t take that away from him.”
“Then I’m guilty of loving her too much,” Conrad said. He stood and walked from the room.
Looking stricken, Brietta slumped into the chair he had vacated. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“No, you did the right thing,” Lena comforted her. “We’ve always let him hide his feelings behind this obsession of pretending that Myrna never existed. Maybe your words will begin to heal that part of him that lays festering.”
“It’s strange,” said Brietta, lifting her head higher. “Whenever I think of Grandmother, I think of the bells because Grandfather silenced them because of her death. But now that I’ve seen her likeness in that locket, it’s as if I can hear the bells, too.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean that you have your hopes up that your grandfather will relent on not allowing the bells to ring,” warned Aiden. “Your grandfather may let us keep the locket, but I don’t think he’ll ever change his mind about the bells.”
“Somehow, their ringing doesn’t seem so important now that I can picture Grandmother in my own mind so clearly,” Brietta realized. “I promise I won’t badger Grandfather about them ever again.”
Lena smiled, grateful that the mood of the evening was shifting to less distressing thoughts. “I can recall a time when you were adamant that they’d ring on your wedding day.”
Grimacing, Brietta shrugged her shoulders. “And I thought Sloan would be my groom,” she admitted, then grinned. “So much for dreams.”