“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” –Maya Angelou
My life didn’t take a turn for the better until I betrayed my mother. Since she was Queen Chrysalis, every pony I know has assured me that it was for the best that I and the rest of my hive deposed the one who gave me life. Even considering how cruel she was to other races, I sometimes missed her company.
Before King Thorax showed us a better way to live, by sharing our love instead of hoarding it, I had never known what loneliness was. After all, how can one feel adrift in the world when one is constantly surrounded by thousands of fellow changelings?
After my reformation, I moved to Ponyville to become what I call a “Grievance Councelor”. I use my shape-shifting abilities to look like ponies that my clients have problems with. Terrible bosses, treacherous husbands, that sort of thing. I struggle against a torrent of awful-tasting rage and sorrow in order to dine upon the delicious catharsis that comes after the emotional baggage that these ponies carry around slips away.
A few ponies know my real name, but I call myself Mister Lonely Heart. At first it was because after living a drab, unsatisfying life of a slave under Chrysalis’s strict rule, I craved the emotional connections with ponies that were denied me my entire life. The other reason, I later realized, was that the lonely-hearted were my most frequent clientele. Their lives were just as wretched as mine once was, but for seemingly countless reasons.
The pony that sat before me rubbed one foreleg against the other as she studied the padded wall in my office. “What’s with the wall, mister? Do ponies get real violent with you or somethin’?”
Smiling, I replied, “No, Applejack. Some of my clients sometimes have to hit something, other than me, in order to work out their aggression.“
“Ah don’t think you have to worry about that from me. My doctor told me to come to you because Ah kinda hurt myself.”
“Yes, I’ve read your doctor’s diagnosis. You apparently had a slight heart attack that was most likely brought on by excessive stress.”
Applejack leaned towards me, cupping a hoof to her muzzle conspiratually. “Nothin’ leaves this room, right? Ah don’t want Big Mac or any other family member knowin’ that Ah came here.”
“Don’t worry about a thing, Applejack. Just like with any doctor, I am legally bound by the laws of counselor and client privilege between us. Even if a client demands that I give up another client’s information, I cannot and will not comply. If I do, my business will be shut down.”
She nodded. “Great. So . . . uh, how do we start?”
“Tell me what’s on your mind. Where do you suppose your stress comes from?”
She turned her hat round and round in her hoofs as her eyes drifted to the carpet. “Well, Ah had been workin’ extra hard. Ah guess maybe that’s it?”
“In somepony as young as yourself?” I smiled warmly. “Come now.”
She chuckled, but with little mirth. “Ain’t you a flatterer? My doctor told me that you can imitate anypony Ah want, right?” She squirmed in her chair. “Even if it’s somepony who’s . . . passed on?”
I blinked. This was the first time anypony ever asked me that. “I . . . suppose I could do that. The thing is, I’m not so good with voices. And I need to see pictures of the pony you had in mind.”
“Kinda figured that. Thing is, it’s been nearly a decade since my parents died. Since my family’s real big on recallin’ important dates like birthdays an’ such, Ah’ve been thinkin’ a lot about mom and dad lately.”
“I’m assuming you want to say your goodbyes, then?”
Her brow wrinkled and I tasted a coppery whiff of anxiety. “Ah want to say a lot more than that. Can Ah come by tomorrow with my family album?”
“That will be fine. I hope I can help.”
* * *
The next day, Applejack handed me a thick, well worn, apple-themed photo album. She sat next to me and pointed out several pictures of her father, Bright Mac.
She turned a page. A large red pony was sitting next to Applejack as she held a newborn foal in her forelegs. “That’s Applebloom. The fella starin’ at me is my brother Big Mac.”
“Have you always lived on your apple farm?”
Holding her chin up high with pride, she replied, “No other place Ah’d rather be. Big Mac does most of the heavy liftin’, but when Granny Smith ain’t around, Ah’m the one runnin’ the show.”
One picture had a mare with a jar for a cutie mark. Her long brown curly hair flowed over her shoulders as she smiled for the camera. Applejack tapped the picture. “That’s my mom, Buttercup.”
This wasn’t the first time a client had brought photo albums to my office. It took a while for me to understand why ponies kept so much carefully organized memorabilia in their lives. During Chrysalis’s reign, changelings weren’t allowed to mourn our dead. We lived only for tomorrow, for the past, as well as our dead brethren, was always useless to hold onto. When you aren’t allowed to have a life of your own, that makes perfect sense.
Having no past means having no perspective. Having no perspective leaves only selfless obedience. Which is the only thing my queen wanted from her children.
But once I saw why these ponies held onto their past, I realized how selective their sentiments were. Twilight Sparkle once told me some local wisdom; We are defined not only by what we leave behind, but also by what we choose to keep.
Applejack asked, “So, are these pictures enough for you to look like my dad?” Her voice tightened slightly as she laid the album onto the floor between our chairs.
“I think so. If you’re sure you want to go through with this.” I made sure to look her straight in the eyes when I asserted, “There’s no shame in backing out.”
“Ah’ve been wantin’ to do this ever since Twilight told me how you helped her with her personal problems.” She shut her eyes, took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
Keeping the album’s pictures firmly in mind, I let my magic’s green fire engulf me once again. Bright Mac had a light red mane and tail and bright yellow fur. His cutie mark was a cross-section of a green apple.
I quietly said, “I’m ready. You can open your eyes now.”
She snapped open her eyes and suddenly went weak in the knees. I could almost hear her heart pound. As she tried to swallow, tears slipped down her cheeks. Applejack’s lower lip trembled as her ears flattened.
“It’s as if you never left,” she whispered.
Trying to regain her composure, she got off of her chair and paced restlessly back and forth in front of me. In my line of work, that reaction is common among new clients.
“Okay.” She said with a tone of finality, as if winning an argument with herself. “Ah’ve been wantin’ to say this for ten years. Dad?”
I pricked up my new pony ears attentively.
“Ah’m sorry you and mom are dead.” Her breathing sped up. “Ah’m sorry that Ah was too frickin’ stubborn to stay near you in the orchard.”
She stamped a foot in frustration. “Ah’m so dang sorry that Ah was too scared to save you! You’re both dead because of me! Ah wasn’t brave enough! Ah wasn’t fast enough!” With a deep breath, Applejack screamed, “It’s all my fault that there’s just the four of us on our farm!”
The sudden acid-flavored wave of self-hatred almost made my disguise slip away. Concentrating even harder, I stayed quiet as Applejack pulled out some tissue from a nearby box and blew.
“Not a day goes by when Ah don’t miss you something’ fierce. Every day Ah check the river near my our farm to make sure those stupid beavers ain’t makin’ a new den. When an extra-large thunderstorm dumped a bunch of rainwater into the river, it busted a den wide open.”
Applejack wiped away her tears. “Ah had never seen a flash flood hit so fast in all my life. It slammed into you and mom like a freight train!” Sitting on her haunches, she pointed at me. “It only took a second for the water to reach your necks. Y-you both reached out to me, beggin’ me to help . . . “
A primal groan rose from deep within her. She wasn’t in my office anymore. Her green eyes wavered and lost focus.
“And Ah didn’t help!” she cried. “Ah was just too scared to move that A-ah let you slip away! All Ah had to do was reach out”-she held out both hooves at me-“and just grab you!”
She stared at the padded wall. Looking at me, I quickly cocked my head at it. In a few quick steps, she reached the wall and slammed her hooves into the thick padding. “But Ah didn’t! One stupid little moment of hesitation took you away!”
Applejack’s powerful blows made the paintings near the wall tremble. I could feel the vibrations through the floor. “Ah’d give anything to bring you back! So would Big Mac!”
The paddings held firm against her weakening blows, much to my relief. Applejack was sweating and sobbing as she slowly returned from the past. “Ah just hope that wherever you are, that you can forgive me. ‘Cause Ah don’t know how long it’ll take for me to forgive myself.”
Sliding down the wall, she slumped to the floor in an exhausted heap. She put her hooves over her eyes and wept. I sat down next to her, still in her father’s guise. The catharsis from her venting slipped out in a thin but delectable stream. Feasting on that rarest of emotions, I kept an eye on my client.
After a few minutes, she had calmed down a little. “Could you change back, mister?”
Complying, I said, “Just let it all out, Applejack. You’ve been holding onto this guilt for, what, nearly a decade?”
“Yeah, but it feels like a century. When Big Mac found me, mom and dad were long gone.” Struggling to sit up, she continued, “He asked me if Ah saw them.”
Choking back a sob, she looked at me. “Ah could have told him the truth, but Ah was just too ashamed of what Ah’d done. So Ah told him no.”
“He still doesn’t know the truth, does he?” I delicately asked.
Applejack slowly shook her head. “The biggest lie Ah ever told anypony is still my biggest secret. This is comin’ from what Ponyville thinks is the most honest pony around.”
“Are you feeling any better?”
“A little, yeah. Ah guess this guilt’s been eatin’ at me for so long, Ah just let it get worse without even realizin’ it. Workin’ harder and harder every year must have been comin’ from that guilt, you know?”
Nodding, I replied, “Ponies are often motivated by negative urges. One thing you have to tell yourself is that you were only a filly at the time of your parent’s deaths. What could you have possibly done?”
“Ah was strong enough to leave home while mom and dad were away at the local hospital for Applebloom’s birth. This was before Ah got my cutie mark and Ah wanted to get it by visitin’ some relatives of mine, you see. Ah waited until only Big Mac and Granny Smith were the only ones at the farm.”
“How long were you away from the farm?” I inquired.
“Not long. After a brief trip to Manehatten, Ah came home. My parents were furious at me for leavin’ behind their backs. Ah was so caught up in my own personal goals that Ah forgot the first thing that my folks taught me and my brother; family comes first.”
Sighing wearily, Applejack replied, “Do you know what Ah sometimes see Big Mac doin’ with my sister? He pulls out the album Ah brought here and tells her his memories of mom and dad. The good times that we all once had. Times that Applebloom will never fully experience for herself.”
She put the photo album away in her satchel. “Granny Smith ain’t gonna be around much longer. Applebloom’s still in school so she can’t work full time just yet. One moment of faulterin’ changed everything for them. For me.”
“I still don’t believe that your parent’s deaths were anything that could have been prevented,” I stated earnestly. “It’s good to have regrets about bad decisions, but not if the outcome wasn’t anything you could have remedied.”
“Maybe I need another talk with my dad about that,” she said with a resigned shrug. “But not today, All that yellin’ and cryin’ has worn me out. Maybe we can pick this up next week?”
“You can have as many visits as you deem necessary, Applejack.”
We shook hooves, a sight that would have delighted Thorax and repulsed my mother. She trotted out the door, tired but a little happier than when she came in.
When the door clicked shut, I put my left hoof onto my chest and took a deep breath. When I slowly exhaled, I swung my left foreleg out. I was told by a colleague that this helped calm him down after the more intense sessions.
This did indeed help clear the air. But my job is never without drama for long.
* * *
Big Mac smiled as he sat down in my office. “You know who Ah am, don’t you?”
“Well, I’ve been in Ponyville for a while now, so I think I’ve seen you selling apples with your sister Applejack once or twice,” I replied with a careful, guarded tone.
He studied me critically. “Ah don’t suppose you could tell me if Applejack’s been seein’ you, right?”
I blinked. “Sir, I can’t tell you anything about any of my clients in any way, shape . . .”
Holding up one of his huge hooves, he cut me off. “Save it. You just told me what Ah wanted to know. She’s been here.”
“What?” I jerked my head, astonished. “I didn’t say anything about your sister.”
“Didn’t need to. You hesitated before answerin’ me. One moment of hesitation can change everythin’, you know.”
Trying to regain my composure, I looked over his paperwork. “It says here you set up an appointment as a new client. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Leaning confidently into his chair, he replied, “Nothin’ too serious. Ah know that since Ah’m a client, you can’t say squat to my sister or anypony else about anythin’ Ah tell you, right?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Good. Well, Ah got a whole lot of confessin’ to do, so listen up. Ah bet AJ asked you to imitate mom or dad, right?” He quickly added, “Yeah, Ah know, you can’t say nothin’ either way. Ah think it’s cute that she’s tryin’ to escape her past by havin’ you imitate it. You can never escape guilt, though.”
I squirmed in my chair, flustered by this arrogant display. “Sir, I don’t . . .”
“Just keep it zipped for a spell, all right? Believe me, there’s a point to all this. She probably told you about how she waited till mom and dad left the farm before she skedaddled off to Manehattan without even asking’ me or Granny Smith if that was all right.” He scowled at the bitter memory. “Ah wanted to kick her flank sideways for doin’ somethin’ that selfish. When she slunk on home, Ah had hoped that mom and dad would punish her.”
Snorting, he said, “But they didn’t. Ah guess havin’ Applebloom made them soft. All they did was swear to stay close to her on the farm so she didn’t get itchy hooves again till she was grown up.” Looking up at the ceiling, he gave a resigned shrug. “They always did have a soft spot for their daughter.”
“I can see why you would be bitter about that,” I admitted weakly.
“Not as bitter as Ah would soon be, I’ll tell you that for free. About a year later, we were out in the orchard near the river. When a nearby beaver den busted open, a flash flood knocked our parents off of their hooves. It don’t take much water to carry somepony away, you know.” Big Mac had the same faraway look that Applejack had. “Ah was too far away from the flood to help them, but Applejack could have hauled them outta the water.”
His lower lip trembled a little. The acrid taste of sorrow drifted off of him. “But she didn’t! She just stood there, shiverin’ like a coward! When they got yanked out of sight, Ah ran over to AJ. Since Ah still couldn’t trust her to be honest with, Ah asked her if she even saw mom and dad. Even after the way she treated us, Ah gave her one last chance to be honest with me.”
“W-what did she say?” I asked, knowing full well what the answer was, hating myself for not legally being able to tell the truth.
“She said no!” He barked. “Why would anypony ever tell a lie like that to her own dang brother is beyond me! That’s twice she broke up the family! Ah was so dang mad at her that Ah wanted to toss her into the flood.”
He pawed at the carpet, scowling. “But that would have been too good for the likes of her. A wild filly like Applejack would have wiped out the rest of the family if it wasn’t for me.”
I started to taste a slight hint of catharsis. “I don’t quite understand, Big Mac.”
“Oh, you will,” He remarked wryly. “Over the years the farm’s been doin’ pretty good, all things considered. Ah was worried that AJ might leave the farm for good when she got roped into savin’ Equestria over an’ over. But bein’ a hero won’t bring back our parents. Ah make sure AJ never forgets her one moment of hesitation.”
He smirked at my confusion. “Whenever AJ gets just a bit too uppity around the farm, all Ah have to do is pull out the family album, put Applebloom in my lap and talk about how great her parents were. That pulls the starch out of AJ’s sails real quick.” Nodding with satisfaction, he continued, “Ah’ve been keepin’ her on that guilt trip for half her life. She chose to leave our parents behind, so Ah chose to keep her on a leash.”
The stream of catharsis was pouring out of him now. Even though it nourished me, I didn’t like the taste.
“She’s been workin’ the orchard so hard, she had to get carted to the hospital.” Snorting in contempt, he groused, “Personally, Ah think she’s fakin’ it, but Granny Smith and Applebloom are all freaked out about this. Maybe Ah’ll hire some help, but Ah ain’t never lettin’ Applejack forget her failure.”
Struggling to keep my commentary as legally abiding as possible, I asked, “Why are you telling me this? How am I supposed to help you get through this problem?”
“Oh, there ain’t no problem at all, mister,” he replied cheerfully. “Ah know from the grapevine that you feed off of catharsis. You are the only one in Equestria that knows my methods of controllin’ my sister. Since you can’t tell her what you now know without losin’ your business, Ah can finally get this big ol’ secret off my chest.” He chuckled. “Feels pretty good.”
Trying my best to not scream at my client, I said, in the most cautious voice I could muster, “Is that all you have to say?”
Trotting happily towards the door, he replied, “Eyup! See you around, mister.”
My mother would have been proud of Big Mac’s manipulations. I pray that no mare ever falls in love with him. She might not like what she’ll eventually discover.
I came to Ponyville to not only devour the catharsis my practice produces from my clients, but also to find out all the myriad ways ponies live their lives. The longer I stay here, the more I realize that life for ponies is a domination game. Pony nature is elitist, prone to subjugating others. Queen Chrysalis always thought in broad, plain terms when it came to conquest, but ponies find far more subtle ways to hold sway over their own kind.
Applejack never paid me another visit. Whenever I see her at her apple kiosk or pulling a cart, she always looks tired. Bags under her eyes. Drooping mane and tail. Big Mac is always somewhere nearby, looking far more robust.
I often feel just as exhausted, for the same reasons. Like Applejack, I feel like a coward for not being able to tell her what her brother is doing. I carry a lump of guilt in my chest that never lightens no matter how many other ponies I help.
When I betrayed my mother, I left behind the most cold-hearted creature I knew. Some ponies, in spite of their cheerful appearance, are far colder.
I had never known what loneliness was until I saw how other ponies are bound to their grief and misery for their entire lives.
Can I ever find the happiness I’ve been hoping to keep ever since I’ve moved here?
Sometimes, on the difficult, lonely days, the answer isn’t so clear.
There might never be an answer.
* * *
“Everyone sees what you appear to be. Few experience what you really are.”—Niccolo Machiavelli
One of the inspirations for this story was a long standing observation of mine that one of the biggest sources of guilt trips is the television. Every day, you and I are dutifully reminded that we smell bad, that we're fat, that we aren't voting for the right guy. We don't eat the right food, wear the right clothes, watch the right movies, etcetera ad nauseam.
We are surrounded by guilt trips every day. How many of them control you? Are you even aware of being controlled?
Something to think about, folks. (But don't let me guilt trip you.)