There are a couple points I am attempting to expound on in this chapter. One, that there is more sentient species diversity than Thomas is accustomed to “back east”. Secondly, that most species have a sentient and non-sentient contingent, to account for farm animals in addition to “Pony Friend” types (the non-pony toys).
Anatomy notes: Sheep are even-toed ungulates (cloven hoof) and horses are odd-toed ungulates. But “hoof” works for both species.
The sky, filling with clouds, had a strange yellow hue, and the air was thick with humidity when the two unicorns left the veterinary clinic. Othello, always cognizant of his favorite pony’s whereabouts, fell in at Tabby’s side.
“Where exactly is this sheep farm?” Tabby asked, a bit breathless, as she had been moving nonstop gathering supplies since her boss had told her at quitting time that they had been summoned by a sheep farmer with a ewe in labor.
“Cherry Hill Farm, off County A,” Thomas supplied, switching the medical bag to his other hoof.
“Are you sure it’s not a farmer who is himself a sheep?” Tabby asked. For all his learning, Thomas was still an easterner, and unaccustomed to sentient species other than equines.
“Is that a thing?” Thomas looked at her curiously.
“Well, sure. There are sheep that are kept as farm animals, but there are also sheep that keep farm animals themselves.”
“Does that get confusing?”
“Yes!” Tabby affirmed without elaborating.
“Well… in any case, this is our chance to break into the agricultural scene,” Thomas said, gazing off thoughtfully into the distance. “Dr. Martingale has a strong hold on that market.”
“We don’t really have the resources to be traipsing about the countryside all day,” Tabby pointed out. She would have it easier, being able to teleport; but since she wasn’t a doctor and Thomas refused to use magic, they would be stuck walking. With each other. Talking. Which wasn’t so bad…
“Not right now,” Thomas agreed, “but once Elaine is here…”
“You’ll send her out traipsing the countryside?” Tabby asked with a sideways glance.
“Maybe,” Thomas said with a grin.
“She’s not really going to want to work for her brother,” Tabby scoffed. Strange, how he seemed to hold some kind of affection for his little sister, Elaine, who was in her final school of veterinary school.
“Why not?” Thomas asked indignantly.
“I mean… siblings…” Tabby grimaced, kicking at a loose pebble in the road. “They’re annoying.”
“Do you have any?” he asked.
“One. A sister,” she said in a clipped tone.
Perhaps sensing her reticence, Thomas didn’t pursue that line of questioning. “Elaine’s going to visit for a week this summer,” he revealed. “You’ll get to meet her.”
“What’s she like?” Tabby asked after a pause.
“She’s always been on the shy side, so I’ve been a bit protective of her,” he revealed. “She’s very smart, very kind… you’ll like her.”
“Will I really, though?” Tabby wondered aloud. “I don’t have a good track record.”
“Yes, you will,” he said firmly.
The wind picked up then, making further conversation difficult, as the focus moved to keeping hair from blowing into the face.
Cherry Hill Farm
“Well, here we are,” Tabby announced unnecessarily as they crested a rise and saw the farmhouse before them in a cozy little valley. A spattering of raindrops had started.
“There’s a chicken coop and bee hives,” Thomas said, getting the lay of the land, “but I don’t see anywhere to keep sheep.”
“Oh, I remember this place. Tiny and I came here occasionally,” Tabby recalled, taking a closer look at the buildings.
Thomas knocked on the door of the little blue cottage. It was opened promptly by… a sheep. The ram was not the standard garden variety farm animal, but was instead colored in a palette usually associated with ponies, having a blue body with a curly green topknot of hair.
“Doctor! Glad to see you. Come in,” the ram invited, opening the door wide just as the downpour began in earnest.
“I didn’t realize you were a farmer that was a sheep,” Thomas confessed, stepping across the threshold.
“Aye, that’s what I told you on the phone, ain’t it?” The ram looked at him strangely. “A sheep farmer,” he clarified. “We’ve got chickens and beehives and a little clover field.”
“So the ewe is…” Thomas worked out.
“My wife, of course, Sheila,” the ram stated. “I’m Grant.”
“Nice to meet you,” Thomas said, shaking his hoof.
“Well, look who it is, Miss Tabby!” Grant exclaimed when he saw the pink unicorn following the doctor. “Tiny said that you’d up and left him.”
“It was his idea,” Tabby pointed out, barely avoiding knocking her head on an overhead beam in the relatively tight quarters. Everything was on a slightly smaller scale than customary in equine dwellings.
“Sheila, the doctor is here, and guess who the midwife is; it’s Miss Tabby,” Grant said, leading them to a curtained-off area in the one-room cottage. “She’ll tell you nothing’s wrong, but don’t listen to her,” he continued, addressing the medical team.
“He’s making a fuss over nothing,” the pale orange ewe said from the bed, shaking her head. Though smiling, it was clear she was in some distress by the pained look in her eyes.
“Contractions started mid-afternoon,” Grant said, hovering about. “But there’s been no progress.”
“These things take time,” Sheila chided. “It’s the way of nature.”
“That may be,” Thomas agreed, “but since we’re here, let’s just check on things.” He’d never had a patient capable of speech, and that part was a bit unnerving.
“He thought we kept sheep!” Grant chortled as the examination got underway. “The very thought!”
“Ah, yes, our poor dumb kinsmen, bless them!” Sheila agreed. “No, too close of kin to stomach the keeping of.”
“Though my Great-Uncle Angus married one,” Grant noted. “They all said he was crazy, and expected her to go frolic in the meadow instead of meeting him at the altar; but there she was at the church and baa-ed her way through the vows. Eighty fine years they had together.” He nodded with conviction.
“Can I ask why you didn’t go to the hospital maternity ward?” Thomas asked the couple.
Grant shrugged. “The hospital isn’t always willing to work with our kind.”
“You hear about it happening sometimes, but usually we’re sent to a vet for our ailments,” Sheila added. “Between Tiny and Doc Martingale, our needs are pretty well met.” Moments later, she cried out as a contraction racked her body.
“Well? How do things look?” Grant asked anxiously.
“It’s a good thing you called,” Thomas said. “The lamb’s head is entering the birth canal, but not the feet.”
The couple exchanged worried glances. “Is it serious?” Sheila asked.
“It’s correctable,” Thomas assured them. “I’ll need to push the lamb’s head back and then pull the legs forward to proceed to a normal birth position.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Sheila said, mustering a brave smile. “Get on with it.”
Things progressed quickly from there on.
“Remember to breathe, dear,” Grant entreated, holding his wife’s hoof.
“Do you think I don’t know how to breathe!” Sheila snapped, brow shiny with sweat.
“You know, most species get on just fine without a coach,” Tabby pointed out, frowning at Grant.
“Tabby,” Thomas said warningly. This was hardly the time to combat birth plan strategies.
“What? I’m just saying she doesn’t need someone shouting at her to do what’s obvious!” Tabby shouted.
“She’s right, though,” Sheila said, putting an end to the disagreement. “Grant, dear, why don’t you go boil some water?”
“All right,” Grant conceded, trotting off to the kitchen area.
“We don’t really need boiling water,” Tabby pointed out.
“What? Oh,” Sheila laughed. “That’s just what we always have the fathers do to keep them out of the way. Just something to occupy their minds, the poor dears. The lambing process is quite an ordeal for their nerves.”
“That makes sense,” said Tabby. “Now, just, uh…”
“Breathe?” Sheila supplied.
“There,” said Thomas triumphantly. “The lamb is in place.”
It was not long before Tabby placed a wrapped bundle in Sheila’s forelegs.
“Well, just look at the wee mite,” said the awestruck father, who had returned from his task.
“She’s perfect,” Sheila agreed, beaming down at the tiny aqua lamb with a tiny tuft of curly lavender hair. “We’ll name her Lorna, after my mother; and what is your given name, Doctor?… There you go, Lorna Thomasina, a very sensible name.” She nodded firmly.
“That’s really not necessary,” Thomas protested while washing his hooves.
“Nonsense, the matter is decided,” Grant sided with his wife. “Lorna Thomasina it is.”
“No offense to you, dear; you have been lovely,” Sheila said, turning to Tabby and patting her hoof. “But throw a Tabitha in there, and I think that’s a bit too much, don’t you?”
“I completely agree. I don’t have much use for it myself,” Tabby said.
Sometime during the delivery, the storm that had been threatening had come to pass; though the wind, thunder, and lightning had hardly been paid heed to by the occupants of the cottage as they had more important things to occupy their minds. Now the storm had, for the most part, dissipated; but a pounding rainfall continued.
“You can’t think of heading back in this weather,” Grant pointed out as the two ponies collected their supplies. “You’ll need to wait it out.”
“Stay for supper,” Sheila invited.
“No, don’t put yourself out on our account,” Thomas said, shaking his head. “You have more important things to focus on. We would be underhoof.”
“Nonsense, Grant is perfectly capable,” Sheila volunteered her husband. “He makes a passable alfalfa casserole.”
“Yes, dear,” said Grant dutifully, taking down a bowl from the top of a cupboard.
“No, not Grandmother’s mixing bowl!” Sheila was aghast. “The very idea!” The lamb bleated, as if also offended by her father’s ignorance.
“Ooh, that’s a 535 Pyrogine, orange sunset design exclusive to 1963, highly collectible,” Tabby observed. She helped locate a less significant bowl, but that was the extent of her kitchen expertise.
Dinner preparation was a companionable time, with Grant regaling the ponies with tales of his origins in the pastureland around Greenwoods, his courting of Sheila, and the couple’s move to Cherry Hill Farm. Tabby was remarkably inefficient at peeling potatoes, but otherwise things went according to plan. By the time they sat down at the rough-hewn table and benches, the rain was letting up; and when clean-up was done, there was a hint of orange sunset in the sky.
“It’s gettin’ dark,” Grant observed, walking with them to the door after a last check on mother and lamb. “You’re welcome to spend the night.”
“No, you’ve done more than enough,” Thomas assured their host.
“Liable to have wolves set upon you,” Sheila piped-up from across the room.
“Aye, just like Uncle Robby,” Grant said somberly, shaking his head. “He learned his lesson.”
“God rest his soul,” Sheila murmured.
“Still,” Grant continued, his visage brightening, “that was up in Westridge twenty years ago, and wolves aren’t as plentiful here.”
“And I have a hodag,” Tabby offered. Othello was patiently waiting on the porch.
“Well then, I reckon that’s fine,” Grant conceded.
Parting words were exchanged–notes on caring for mother and baby, and entreaties to visit–and then the ponies and hodag started out for home.
The dirt path to the farm was muddy from the rain; but once they were back on the paved county road, the way was a bit smoother. Water dripped down from the surrounding trees.
“They may not have much,” Tabby said with a last wistful look back in the direction of the farm, “but little Lorna will be happy, don’t you think?”
“I think they have plenty of what matters. So yes,” Thomas said, wondering about the contemplative turn.
“Yeah…” Tabby trailed off, then continued cautiously: “Are you close to your parents?”
“I… was. They’re gone…” He sighed. Even after all these years, he tried to avoid the straight-forward term deceased, and instead settled on, “Lost at sea.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.” She awkwardly turned away, clearly at a loss for words.
Thomas hurried to fill the void, lest she leave off the conversation entirely. “It’s fine,” he said. “There may have been some rough patches growing up, but overall… we were close.” Except at the end, he reminded himself.
“They’d be proud of you. I mean,” she hastily clarified, perhaps embarrassed at the sentimental turn, “you’re a doctor; there’s not much more a parent could wish for.”
“I think there are more considerations for a parent than their offspring’s level of education,” he said, looking at her quizzically.
She gave him a disbelieving glance, but said nothing.
“Your parents… you don’t talk about them. Do they live in his area?”
Tabby shrugged. “My mom lives abroad; travels a lot for business. I don’t see her much.”
“And your father?”
“Lost on an expedition in the Himalayas,” she said quietly. “He was a hippologist. Working on his doctoral thesis.”
“I’m sorry,” Thomas echoed her remark from earlier.
“I was just five,” Tabby said dismissively. “I don’t remember him much.”
Thomas suspected she cared more than she let on, but let the topic rest. They lapsed into silence as Thomas considered the meager information she had offered, that though short of details, was beginning to reveal a picture of a family with high expectations, of which Tabby felt she had fallen short.
About a mile away from town, Othello stopped and pricked his ears, and Tabby put out a hoof to stall Thomas. There was a rustling in the bushes, and suddenly a majestic canine creature appeared, silvery gray with pointed ears and tapered snout. It looked the ponies in the eye for a moment before bounding across the road on its hind legs.
“There are wolves,” Tabby said, after an indeterminate amount of time had passed to process the encounter. She was apparently unphased and stepped forward, once Othello had indicated it was safe to do so. “But it’s more common to run into a dog-man.”
“Oh,” Thomas said, heart racing at the unexpected sighting of a creature that was surely large and strong enough to inflict real damage. And the look in its eyes had been unsettling; as if it was not happy and trying to communicate something…
“No one has agreed on whether they are sentient or not,” Tabby said as an aside. “In any case, they are very discreet and don’t care to communicate with ponies.”
“I don’t suppose they’ll be seeking medical help.”
“Probably not,” she agreed.
Before long, they reached the outskirts of town, and other pedestrians were spotted, so it no longer felt like they were alone in a primal world. The encounter still had an eerie hold over Thomas’ consciousness, yet with Tabby… she was so strong, capable. These sorts of things didn’t rattle her.
“Well, this is my turn,” she said as they approached the intersection of Park and River Streets. She hesitated, shifting weight on her hooves.
“I’ll see you home,” Thomas offered quickly. But Othello looked at him, baring his fangs.
“I have Othello,” Tabby said with a grin. “No need for chivalry.”
Thomas found himself feeling resentful of the hodag. “Well… see you tomorrow,” he said at length. “Good work today.”
“Thanks. Yeah,” she said with a quick nod, before finally turning and walking away.
Thomas looked thoughtfully at her retreating form. He had felt really close to her today, and for the first time felt confident in considering her a friend, not just an employee. He hadn’t had time for friendships in a long time.
A friend… no, that’s not what he was thinking of when he imagined leaving her with a goodnight kiss…
Don’t go there, he warned himself. A flirtation could ruin it. It was just as well that she had sent him on his way.
Sighing, he set out in the direction of the clinic.