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The Gold Band

by Catherine Yeates

 
Golden afternoon light filtered through the bonelike branches of the sycamore trees as Genevieve entered the mortal world. She floated like a wisp of smoke through the ancient roots that held a thick trunk in place at the edge of the riverbank. The water was high from recent rain, and the ground was damp. As the sun set, wind rustled her dark hair, and her rings glinted in the reddish light. Genevieve took the trail, trying to clear her mind of the concerns of her small duchy in the Underworld.
The tree creaked ominously as she passed, its shadow looming like the mountain of paperwork awaiting her review back home. Trade agreements with the kingdom to the south. The latest dispute over the meal plan for the upcoming ball. Not to mention the requests from several Oarsmen for funding to purchase vehicles in the mortal realm. It would make the souls of the dead feel much more at ease, they had said; nobody wants to pass into the beyond in a boat anymore—it’s all highways these days. Besides, they had pointed out, Oarswoman Juliana has a proper car, a big shiny black one that can hold at least six souls. Genevieve sniffed. Hopefully, learning that Oarswoman Juliana purchased her vehicle with her own money would quiet the Oarsmen.
As she neared the end of the trail, a powerful gust of wind ripped through the forest, and she stumbled, bracing herself against a nearby trunk. A sharp crack echoed, followed by a loud creak. There was a far-off thud and a subtle shift in the energy of the woods. She halted, the thoughts of her daily obligations abruptly leaving her mind. Unease beset her as she retraced her steps. There she found an enormous hole in the riverbank and a tangled mass of roots sticking up from the water. The sycamore tree had toppled into the river, destroying her portal home.
Around her, nature spirits chattered and pointed, while more emerged from the roots in confusion. Genevieve exhaled sharply and twisted the band on her middle finger, taking her frustration out on the warm metal. There was nothing to do about the tree, so she headed for the nearby town. There was a quaint main street with restaurants and bookshops, and soft music played over the speakers. As she reached the crosswalk, a large frog hopped over her feet, and she jumped. The frog jumped too, landing in the street as an oversized pickup truck drove past.
“Bad luck seems to be the theme of the evening,” Genevieve said with a grimace. But the frog’s spirit simply hopped back onto the sidewalk, unfazed by its demise. It followed her as she crossed the street, where it then settled under the ledge of the nearby café. Nightfall had granted her a closer approximation to a corporeal body, and her bracelets clinked as she rubbed her hands together to warm them before stepping inside.
“What’ll it be today?” asked the man at the counter.
“A mocha latte to go, please,” she said and retrieved a gold coin from her pocket. It emerged as one of the plastic cards the humans used to move money. She still wasn’t sure how it worked, but it always seemed to deduct the right amount from the treasury.
As she waited, a group of people in dark clothing caught her eye. Their attire was formal, and she perked up at the idea of a funeral. Portals to the Underworld were common around old churches and graveyards. If all else failed, she could wait for Oarswoman Juliana to arrive, but it reddened her cheeks to imagine having to admit she went for a walk in the mortal world and got stuck again. No, she would find her way back. As she accepted her drink, a man emerged from the restroom, adjusting his black suit. He met Genevieve’s gaze, and a cartoonish frown overtook his face. He mumbled something to his group and shot out the front door. Genevieve pursed her lips. “Well, it’s not as though I look like death,” she muttered.
When she left, the frog was on her heels again. After another block, she crouched and held out her palm. “Alright, come with me if you want a ride to the Underworld.” It climbed up her arm and tucked itself into the pocket of her dark wool coat. She followed the sound of an organ to the tall stone church down the street. Baskets of lilies lined the steps, and a wreath of delicate white flowers held a photo of a woman with long gray hair and a brilliant smile. Genevieve tossed her empty cup in the trash and followed the line of guests.
The church was cavernous, with tall stained-glass windows and a high, curved ceiling. The service had yet to begin, and the crowd chattered. Genevieve sat at a pew in the back, and a woman two pews away whirled around with a severe look on her face. She had short white hair, and her mouth twisted into a scowl. In an instant, she appeared beside Genevieve. “I’m not going yet—I already made that clear.”
Genevieve raised her eyebrows at the ghost. “I’m not here to drag you anywhere. Alas, I’m a bit stuck myself.”
“I’m not stuck—I’m waiting for her. Told her I’d wait, and now that she kicked the bucket, I can’t find her.” She crossed her arms.
“What is her name?”
“Edith.” She craned her head around. “Where is that woman?”
Genevieve glanced around more discreetly and spotted no other spirits, though she did again make eye contact with the man from the café. His eyes flicked between her and the ghost beside her—the man likely had some sense for the unseen. A chord filled the air, sending vibrations through the wood pews as the pipe organ marked the beginning of the procession.
#
The service was pleasant. Short, with a few readings punctuated by hymns and stories of Edith’s life and many fine qualities. She was friendly, kind, and loved growing things—she had a garden she tended with friends from her retirement community. The pastor was a jovial woman with a thick accent that Genevieve vaguely associated with one of the mortal realm’s northern kingdoms. Minnesota, she believed.
As people filtered into the courtyard after the service, the ghostly woman crossed her arms. “What’s the point of sticking around if you aren’t even going to your own funeral?”
“Adelaide!”
“Where were you?” she asked as the other woman appeared.
“I was up on the balcony. I wanted to see everything, to take it all in. Besides, I wasn’t sure you were coming.” Edith smiled at them, the laughter lines deep on her translucent features. Her curly hair hung loose around her shoulders, and she wore a plain green dress.
“I thought you skipped it. Maybe to go out on the town and drink.”
Edith laughed. “It’s good to see you, too.” She turned to Genevieve with a curious expression. “And who are you, dear?”
“My name is Genevieve.”
“She’s here to take us away,” Adelaide said flatly.
Genevieve huffed. “I already told you that’s not why I’m here. I happened to be in town, and where I’m from, it’s polite to attend funerals you happen upon. It’s a way to meet your new neighbors.”
Edith’s eyes widened. “Oh, you’re from… beyond?”
“Can everyone else see you?” Adelaide asked. “Are you just standing there, talking to the air?”
“I’ve made myself invisible to anyone not paying attention,” Genevieve said. “But yes, I am from the Underworld. Tell me, will there be a procession to a graveyard?”
“Not until tomorrow. They held the service tonight as some of the family wouldn’t be available tomorrow. I have no need to attend the burial, though.”
“Maybe not, but graveyards are good places to return to the Underworld.” Genevieve scanned the crowd. “Not to be gauche, but did you die somewhat suddenly?”
“That’s right—she tripped,” Adelaide said.
“My, you were keeping a close watch over me,” Edith said.
“I didn’t push you, if you’re wondering.”
Genevieve drummed her fingers on the large ruby in her necklace. “It seems the Oarswoman hasn’t become aware of your death yet.” As she gave the crowd one last look, she spotted the man from the café approaching cautiously.
His eyes unfocused as he looked at the two other women. “They’re here, aren’t they? I can’t quite see them, but by God, it feels like my Gran is right there.”
“Hello John, I’m so glad you could make it,” Edith said.
“Did she say my name?”
“I’m afraid he can’t hear you well,” Genevieve said.
“Not like you could hear either,” said Adelaide. “Not when you were always losing your hearing aids.”
Genevieve snorted and turned back to John. “Edith is here as well as Adelaide.”
His eyebrows rose. “That’s nice. Are they moving on together?”
“I would like that,” Edith said. “You waited for me like you said you would.”
Adelaide nodded and mumbled something, which led to a series of odd looks between them. Genevieve nodded to John to step away.
“Sorry for my reaction earlier—I thought you must be a ghost, but I never see them so clearly. Nor in coffee shops. I’m still not sure if the woman who drives that gigantic black SUV is there or not.”
“Ah, you’ve probably seen the Oarswoman. Are you a mortician?”
“Hospice nurse. Which I realize might not be the best career field for one who can sense all the other folks hanging around. You seem different from the ghosts, though,” he said with a glance at her jewelry.
“I am a duchess from the Underworld. I am a visitor in the mortal world, though I would prefer to return home soon.”
“Are you stuck?”
“For the moment. I used to come here through a portal at the base of the old sycamore tree on the river, but the tree fell. And admittedly, I’m not the best at finding portals.” She pursed her lips. “Though I’d like to show the Oarswoman that I’m perfectly capable of getting back to the Underworld on my own. I could do with a good graveyard or a deep lake.”
“There’s a lake behind the hospice where I work. I could take you there,” John said.
“I would appreciate it.” She turned to the other two. “Well, my dears, it was lovely to meet you, but I would like to return to the Underworld. Would you care to accompany me?”
Adelaide sent a nervous glance at Edith, but the woman only smiled and nodded. “I’ve already said my goodbyes. The funeral is more for the rest of them.” She patted Adelaide’s shoulder. “What about you, dear?”
“Yes,” Adelaide said gruffly. “I’m ready to leave.”
They piled into John’s small white sedan. He glanced at Genevieve with a puzzled expression. “Is there a frog in here?”
“Oh, yes. Poor thing got squashed by one of those monstrosities driving around.”
“Ah.”
“John, your car is very comfortable,” Edith said.
“How do you know that?” Adelaide asked. “You don’t have a butt anymore.”
John shifted in his seat. “I’m sorry you two, I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
Genevieve reached into her purse and withdrew a small glass bottle of perfume. “Here. Close your eyes.” She sprayed a puff on his face, and he frowned.
“Is that myrrh?”
“Indeed. It’ll wear off in a day or so.”
John peered into the rearview mirror. “It’s good to see you, Gran. And you too, Adelaide. You’ve been hanging around a while now, I take it.”
“Three years.”
Edith glanced at her, a softer expression on her face. “You didn’t need to do that for me, but I’m glad you’re here. What was it you said? ‘I’m sorry I can’t hang on, but I’ll still wait for you.’”
Adelaide grunted in reply and nodded, and quiet fell over the car.
“Right, the lake near the hospice,” John said, and he pulled out of the church parking lot.
#
The road led past the red brick hospice building, winding beneath the thick canopy of the nearby forest. The car pulled into a small lot beside the trails. As it rolled to a halt, the silence grew uneasy.
Out of nowhere, Adelaide’s eyes fixed on Edith, boring into her placid face. “What about Gregory?” Adelaide asked.
“What about him?”
“You spoke to him last month. You don’t want to see him before you go?”
Edith huffed. “He’s a lovely man, but we’ve already said everything we needed to say to each other.”
“What if you run into him in the afterlife in a few years?” She sent a demanding look at Genevieve. “Does everyone go to the same place?”
“Yes and no. The Underworld is vast, with many lands, some like your world and others quite different. There’s no divine judgment if that’s what you’re worried about—petty, wrathful gods are more an invention of mortals than a reality.”
“Can you find people you knew in life?”
“Sometimes. Many souls use their afterlives to experience things they didn’t in the mortal world. Others pass through the Underworld and either go to rest or begin a new life from scratch.”
“Why are you so worried about Greg?” Edith asked. “He and I have been divorced for decades. We kept in touch because it’s nice to have friends. You waited for me.”
“But I don’t know what I have to offer you. I tried to do things for you, but I couldn’t do much. Even alive, I couldn’t do much. Just a fragile old bag of bones.”
“You are not. That day we met, right after I moved into the retirement community, we talked all afternoon—I couldn’t remember the last time anyone made me laugh as hard as you did. Even after you passed, you were helping me. You made the plants grow. You found my pills when I dropped them. And I’m pretty sure you sprayed water in the face of that rude woman who said my clothes looked cheap.”
“I certainly did.”
“You’re good, Adelaide. I want to move on with you.”
She nodded, though her expression remained cloudy. In a blink, she was outside the car, and the others followed. John pointed toward a trail leading to the lake. The trees were tall, rippling silhouettes against the inky blue sky and bright moon. With a wave of Genevieve’s hand, small pearls of light floated through the air, showing the way. Before them, the lake stretched across the horizon, glittering and vast, its waters gently lapping the shore.
Edith halted at the edge of the trees, her ghostly fingers touching the bark of a pine. Adelaide sent her a frown that barely disguised the panic on her face, and Edith turned to her. “There’s something I need before I go. You know that I love you. That I want to spend our afterlives together.”
“Of course I know that,” Adelaide said.
“But I need to hear you say that’s what you want.”
“I love you, Edith. Always been more for showing it than saying it.”
Edith nodded. “I hoped I could show you that as well. Before you died, I bought a ring. Was going to ask you to marry me.”
“You know I didn’t need all that. A wedding and whatnot.”
“I know, but it would have meant something to me, and I know it would have meant something to you.” She sighed and clasped her hands. “But it’s not as if I have that ring with me now.”
Genevieve gestured to the two women. “If it’s a ring you need, I can provide one.” She twisted a gold band from her finger and handed it to Edith. “A wedding can be yours in the Underworld. In my duchy, we love a good celebration.”
Edith accepted the ring and held it out to Adelaide, whose sharp eyes softened with such clear affection. “Darling, would you marry me?”
“Yes, happily.”
She slid the ring onto Adelaide’s thin finger and smiled, and Adelaide’s face broke into a grin as bright as the moonlight over the lake. Then they embraced and shared a kiss beneath the low branches of the trees.
They stepped apart and turned to Genevieve and John. “I’m happy for you, Gran. Adelaide,” he said.
“I hope you have a good life,” said Edith.
“Yes, I imagine we’ll be watching over you if we can.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Genevieve held her hands out wide, and the shimmering lights formed a doorway. The space within it glowed like a bright golden curtain billowing softly in the wind. “If you’re ready, step through.”
Edith smiled and took Adelaide’s hand, and they disappeared into the portal. Genevieve gave John a curt nod. “Thank you for your help.”
“Do you think they’ll be okay?” John asked.
“I do.”
#
“Genevieve, doing my job for me, are you?” the Oarswoman asked. “I see you’ve brought me two lovely people tonight.”
“Two and a frog, actually,” Genevieve said as the creature crawled from her coat pocket and hopped to the ground. They emerged in a pavilion beside an immense river, where the water sparkled between the marble columns. In the distance, Genevieve’s castle rose into the air beneath the golden sky.
Oarswoman Juliana pressed her hand to her dark suit and bowed. “Wonderful to meet you. I would like to welcome you by showing you around.”
Edith and Adelaide grinned as Juliana led them away to the gardens at the edge of the pavilion. There, they might discuss flowers for the upcoming wedding. Then they would walk through the pomegranate vineyards and perhaps spend the afternoon with a few glasses of wine and fresh bread from the bakery. In the coming days, Genevieve would refer her jeweler to them to help them select their wedding rings. Any of the precious metals and gemstones of her duchy would be theirs, as would the finest fabric for their clothes. Soon enough, the duchy would fill with beautiful décor—flowers and garlands, streamers and drapery, perhaps pale blue to match Adelaide’s eyes or the softest silver like Edith’s hair. Genevieve rubbed her finger over the space where her ring had sat. She smiled to herself—now it was in better hands.

 

Catherine Yeates is a writer, artist, and former neuroscience researcher. Their writing has been published in Wyngraf, Tree And Stone, and Twin Bird Review. They live with their partner, cat, and two rambunctious dogs. Find them at cjyeates.com.

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