If Paula Wells had known there be spirits in Lancaster Lane, she never would have agreed to deliver her mother’s cape to her Aunt Remi. But, her Dad said it couldn’t be mailed and he was too busy ⸺more like scared, she surmised when she turned off the highway and drove another five miles in the creeping dusk. “And why can’t it be mailed?” she asked. “Is there some weird law that says no package delivery for rural America anymore?”
“No law. Nobody will go out to your Aunt’s house.”
“Not safe for postmen, but safe enough for your only daughter. That makes a lot of sense. I guess I know who’s loved around here. Why can’t Mike or Leland take it next spring break?”
“It’s the Grand Commission.”
“The Grand what?”
After twenty minutes of rooting around in the attic, he’d returned with an ancient photo album, and had her sit beside him on the sofa. “This is your mom and your auntie on the porch of Lancaster House,” he said and Paula saw tears filling his eyes as he gazed at the picture of two young girls in long gray skirts and sailor blouses, straw skimmer hats, and laced shoes. “And here they are at fifteen.” They were sitting on the porch railing, in white voile dresses, their hair piled high and tied up with white ribbons.
“They look positively Victorian.”
“As they should. But I’ll let Remi explain it all to you. You may not become the Keeper of the Cape, as your mother was. The Wise One will decide.”
“Don’t tell me. The cape is magical. Makes a person invisible. Or some such hocus-pocus. Mama came from a long line of witches, and was a hundred and fifty years old, not sixty-three. Dad, you need to see the doctor about your dementia.”
“Will you take the cape to your Aunt Remi, or not?”
“Hell no, unless you tell me about this Commission.”
“Legend has it, the Wise One…”
“And who is he, or she?”
“The sacred oak on the hill.”
“A holy tree decides who keeps the cape. Got it. Go on.”
“The cape protects the wearer from harm when she’s out in the world.”
“It didn’t protect Mom from pancreatic cancer.” It wasn’t a deliberate stab, but her father closed the album and set it aside so he could turn away from her.
“I’ll tell Remi I tried and failed,” he said, and covered the box that held the folded blue velvet cape.
Paula sighed. “Alright. But I’ll need gas money.”
With a charged cell phone and a Triple A card, hiking clothes and three hundred dollars, she left environmentally responsible Burnside Estates, and headed to Lancaster three hundred miles southeast. She lost radio transmission at mile one fifty, and switched to CDs, spilled Diet Coke at one-fifty-two, and blew a tire at two-hundred. But, somehow, mishaps notwithstanding, her Rave 4 rolled to a stop at Lancaster House. Or, as she liked to call it, Eddie Munster’s Hell House at the end of Elm Lane.
“Aunt Remi?” she said to the woman who answered the door. It couldn’t be. This woman was barely twenty.
“I’m your cousin Jenny. Come in.”
“I didn’t know I had a cousin. Here, give this box to your mother. It’s the cape.” She offered the box, but the girl just stared at it. “It’s not the Holy Grail. Go on, take it so I can get back on the road.”
“No, no. You must stay a while, child,” came a voice from above. “Jenny, get us some tea.”
“I really can’t stay,” I objected. But it was too late. The woman had come down the stairs and had her by the arm, leading her into the room off the foyer. “And I won’t take part in any cock-a-mamie ritual involving talking trees.”
Inside the parlor were four other young women, like her, in their early twenties.
“Now that we’re all assembled, and all the capes are here, we can get on with the assignment of the Grand Commission,” Remi said with her slipperiest silver tongue.
The other women looked as perplexed as Paula felt, but they were quiet. Paula was insistent. “Yeah, explain that Grand Commission thing.” She sat on the hassock in front of a huge flowered overstuffed.
“Did your mother never tell you of Diana, and Hecate, Artemis, and Persephone? To some, these women are nothing more than the legends of pre-Christian peoples, but…they were once in human flesh and human form, and are our ancestors. And the tree sacred to them all, and to all the gods, was the oak. The tallest, strongest, oldest trees in the forest. They reach to the heavens with the tallest branches, which spread out farthest of any tree on Earth, and have the deepest roots beneath the ground. Druids consulted the oaks for answers to the toughest questions, and they divined the answers from the rustling of the leaves. I have messages for you all, Grand Commissions revealed to me by the Sacred Oak.”
So intense was Paula’s concentration on Remi that she didn’t notice Jenny lighting the candles on a table on which sat other boxes, the same size as her own. But, once the candles were lit, and the lights dimmed, her eyes beheld the array of the capes of many colors. Paula’s was blue, but there was a purple, green, yellow, white, and a black one too.
“The Bible says, that the house of the father has many mansions, and so Nature has many environments.” As she spoke, Remi moved down the row of boxes, “We see the grass as green, the mountains as purple, the sun yellow, the sea as blue, the clouds white, and the night as black. Not all of life is joyous. We see lightning, flood, storms, deserts, fire, explosions; we see disease, war, famine, and old age. They all end in death. Our heats mourn, and we wither away ourselves. Only hope redeems us. Beauty comforts us. And the most beautiful creation is to be seen in our daughters. In the flowering of young womanhood.”
Paula didn’t expect the words of a crazy ol’ self-styled oracle to turn that twinge in her heart to actual tears. She wiped them away quickly, but noticed that Jenny was doing the same. She’d been in such a hurry to leave, she hadn’t noticed Jenny was wearing a black armband. Maybe to match her black cape?
One by one, Remi called the women by name, and told them to take the cape of their choice. After making their selection, Remi draped the garment around their shoulders, and whispered her message to them, hugged them, and each left the parlor. Paula was last. Of course, the unbeliever was always marginalized.
“It looks as if my choice has been made by default,” she said as she approached Remi. Only Judith’s blue cape remained.
“You don’t want your mother’s cape, I know. That’s why I left your choice for the last. The best.”
“I was hoping for something a little cheerier. I wish you had gold or a red one, perhaps. Mama’s been dead for a year, and…”
“And you’re still angry with her.”
“She was wonderful. So loving, so giving, so saintly… to everyone but me. I wish I had a nickel for every bum she fed at Christmas, every kid she visited at the hospital while I was home with a cold. She was charitable at our expense, and now she’s gone just when it was my turn. Who’ll help me plan my wedding? Cherish the grandbabies?” The tears were back, and Paula turned away from the table. She’d left her purse by the hassock or she’d have made a grand exit.
“The other women have lost their mothers as well. Jenny, lost hers just two weeks ago.”
Her purse pressed against her heart like a life preserver, Paula stopped short. “I didn’t know.”
“Auto accident. Drunk driver.”
Paula sank to the hassock. “Oh, my God. The cape didn’t protect her mother either.”
“I hear you father’s version of the cape’s meaning in there. Some people understand and some don’t.” Remi picked up Judith’s blue cape and put it over her shoulders. “Come, the night air is chilly. We’ll share.”
She took Paula’s hand as they walked to the back of the house, to the back porch that overlooked a large garden in the middle of which was the largest oak tree Paula had ever seen. The trunk was as wide as a redwood’s and the gnarled branches as long as her father’s maple trees were tall. In moonlight it looked like a giant, silver-gilded octopus.
Remi led her under its tentacles, to the center, and wrapped the cape around Paula, enveloping them both in its warmth. “Judith, it’s me,” Remi said, “and Paula is with me.”
A shadow appeared, a shadow that Paula could see wore the face of the girl in her father’s photo album. “Mother?” Paula whispered.
Slowly, Remi slid away from her half of the cape. “Tell her, Judith. Give her her own Grand Commission,” she said before disappearing into the darkness.
“Is it really you?” Paula stuttered.
“Yes. It’s really me. Whole and happy. With one last task before joining the other ladies. Oh, yes, there’s no such thing as loneliness if we would listen and understand that Nature speaks to us all the time. That every form of life possesses an infinitesimal and infinite bit of truth. My Grand Commission was to serve the world. I was to be as a wheat field, giving sustenance to the many, and, instead, I let roses grow. I didn’t realize they had thorns. I abandoned my commission. I didn’t realize how that hurt you and dad, and Mike and Leland until it was too late. I’m sorry, Paula. And I hope you will not abandon your Grand Commission.”
“The Wise One spoke to you, too? I thought Aunt Remi was the Oracle.”
“She is. The Wise One charged me with telling you, the rose in the wheat field: Your destiny is in your hands. You choose your own Commission.” The young woman came close to her then, and kissed her cheek. “Be happy, my daughter. I ask nothing for you or from you. But know that I love you.”
Panic set in when Mr. Wells was delayed in traffic. Paula smiled at Mr. Sandoval, the loan officer at Community Savings and Loan, and opened her portfolio. “Dad said to start the presentation without him, so here goes. I received my MBA in May, but my father and I’ve been working on a business plan since…” She was so tempted to say, since Aunt Remi had sewn her a red cape, but she couldn’t explain such an un-business-like experience to a just-the-facts-and-numbers guy like Sandoval. “…Since my sophomore year.”
The Wise One had spoken. She was to decide her Grand Commission, to take a mystical experience and translate it into happiness. Her flower shop would be her daily conversation with truth Aunt Remi had shown her. Nature’s colors, her variety, from the daintiest of bluebells, to the massive Lancaster Oak, all growing things have wisdom. The oracle inside us can learn from them if we’ll just pay attention. Even at work.
”We’ve scouted a dozen locations, and this one on Porter Street is definitely a winner. Two blocks from St. James Hospital. And within walking distance of three churches: Catholic, Baptist, and Non-denominational. Two blocks from Aaron Brothers’ Funeral Services. And a quarter of a mile from a high school. You know what that means? Births, proms, weddings, baby showers and farewell services. Hopefully in that order. Our slogan? Listen to the flowers.”
Jenean McBrearty lives in Kentucky, takes online classes and pretends she’s a princess. Or, on a cloudy day, Norma Desmond, when she and imaginary friends splurge on chocolate ice cream. Her fiction, photographs, and poetry have been published in over 100 journals and anthologies. Her novel, Raphael Redcloak: Guardian of the Arts, was selected by the Santa Clara County, CA, library as a YA selection; her YA novel Retrolands is serialized on Jukepop. Other books (Tales From the German Mind, Deathly Short Stories, Helmut Wolf, etc.) are available on LULU.com.
Photo credit: Kevin Young for Unsplash.com.