A soft wind unclenched the winter’s chill and stirred withered leaves hanging from skeletal branches, imbuing them with a tingle of life. Defying the ice that constricted its embankment, a swift-flowing river ran a gauntlet past trees knotting deep roots into the frozen ground.

Taking care to avoid patches of ice and snow, Ardith kept her eyes on the rough path that bordered the river as she walked Grandma’s dog Ginger. Every few feet the golden retriever wagged her tail and stopped to sniff at a clump of dry weeds while Ardith plodded forward.

She was weary of walking the dog and bored with this visit to her grandmother who stubbornly clung to her isolated rural home. But she had made the long trek to the countryside when Grandma promised to divide her jewelry between Ardith and her cousin Sylvie. Although Grandma had tried to be fair, Ardith felt cheated.

Earlier that day, the elderly matriarch had ushered the cousins into the dining room where her valuables were laid out on the large, cherrywood table. Each item was labeled with a number.

Grandma held up a sugar bowl filled with scraps of folded paper. “The two of you will take turns drawing a number out of this bowl. Each number corresponds to a piece of jewelry. We’ll toss a coin to see who goes first.”

Ardith’s mouth watered as she appraised a filigree pendant, a cameo surrounded by garnets and a ruby dinner ring. She was thrilled when she won the coin toss and was allowed to draw first. Her number corresponded to a string of irregularly shaped coral beads. Sylvie drew next and was rewarded with the pendant.

As the table emptied of its treasures, Ardith received two plain gold rings that had been her grandparents’ wedding bands, a pocket watch and a carved cinnabar Chinese bracelet. Sylvie won the cameo, the ruby ring and a pair of jade earrings.

Ardith bit her lip. Grandma’s system wasn’t at all fair. So far Sylvie had received all the good jewelry. Gritting her teeth, she drew one final time. Her number corresponded with an empty locket. Sylvie accepted the final item, a strand of pearls.

As they finished their drawing, Grandma’s dog Ginger pawed at the door, begging to go out. Fearing she couldn’t mask her disappointment much longer, Ardith offered to take the dog for a walk while Sylvie modeled her jewelry.

Now that she was out of sight of the house, Ardith no longer tried to gulp down tears of disappointment that burned her eyes as Ginger chased a rabbit into the underbrush. When Ardith wiped her sleeve across her face, Ginger ran up to a ragged old woman dressed almost entirely in black except for a red scarf. The woman carried a sack and was apparently gathering aluminum cans that had been strewn along the river bank.

Ardith immediately called Ginger to come back but the old woman knitted her shaggy eyebrows into a scowl and grumbled that dogs should be kept on a leash. When Ardith apologized, the old woman shot her a withering look then hobbled down the trail singing a curious ditty:

“Find a diamond in the mud, rubies hidden in the trash.

Doesn’t matter in the end, we are only dust and ash.”

Was the old woman delusional, thinking she would find diamonds and rubies scattered among aluminum cans? At least she was headed in the opposite direction, so Ardith knotted her fingers under Ginger’s collar and guided the old dog home.

Grandma seemed surprised to see them. “That was a short walk.”

“Ginger jumped up on an old woman collecting junk on the river bottom and made her nervous.” When Sylvie flaunted her new jewelry, Ardith stooped to pet Ginger to hide her indignation.

Grandma seemed oblivious to Ardith’s reticence. “I’m glad someone’s picking up the trash by the river. I try to do that too, but I can’t seem to stay on top of it.”

“I think this was a homeless woman looking for aluminum.”

Sylvie interrupted. “Ardith, why don’t you try on your jewels?” She preened as she flashed her ruby ring.

Ardith didn’t want to hurt Grandma’s feelings so she said, “Jewelry doesn’t go with sweatpants.” Secretly she despised the keepsakes she’d received and never planned to wear them.

When she returned home the next day, Ardith tossed the box of her grandmother’s trinkets in the back of her closet. She forgot about it until she read an ad in the paper, “Will trade or buy old jewelry. Top dollar.”

If she sold the antiques and bought something nice, Ardith felt certain Grandma would understand. The next time she went downtown, Ardith took the box with her.

The pawn shop owner shook his head as he evaluated her items. “Your coral beads aren’t worth anything, but I can buy the rest of this stuff and give you market value for the gold that’s in them.”

Ardith eyed a display case. “Can I trade for that diamond pendant?” The value of the gold covered most of the cost and Ardith paid the difference. She left the pawnshop feeling vindicated—at least she had one piece of good jewelry. There was no need to tell Grandma—-she could always wear the coral beads whenever she visited and no one would be the wiser.

When the family gathered to celebrate Grandma’s eightieth birthday a few weeks later, Ardith forgot about the coral beads and wore her diamond pendant instead. When Sylvie bragged about Grandma’s pearls, so Ardith tucked her pendant under her blouse to avoid comments.

Fortunately no one noticed as aunts, uncles and cousins all crowded into the dining room and kitchen, preparing a family dinner elaborate enough to rival Thanksgiving.

It soon became clear there were too many cooks so Ardith offered to take Ginger for a walk. Although she usually let the dog run free, this time she clipped a leash onto Ginger’s collar.

The dog looked at her with woeful eyes. “Sorry, Ginger, but we might meet up with that crabby old woman again.”

Ginger wagged her tail as if she understood then bounded happily down the path that led to the river, pulling Ardith behind her. Within minutes she startled a jackrabbit out of the brush.

“No Ginger!” Ardith screamed as the excited dog tore the leash tore out of her hands and chased the rabbit onto a ledge jutting over the river. When the rabbit veered into a thicket of scrub oak, Ginger lost her footing and tumbled into the water.

Ardith ran to the embankment. In the eddy swirling beneath her, Ginger was dog-paddling furiously, barely keeping her head above water.

“Hold on!” Ardith braced herself against a tree growing crookedly out of the river bank. She wasn’t a good swimmer and if she wasn’t careful, she could fall in and they could both drown. No time to call for help. Ginger was floundering in the strong current and could be swept away at any moment.

Crawling out onto the branch, Ardith reached down to the struggling dog and grasped her collar, then looped the leash around her waist and tied it tightly. Now she inched her way back along the branch. When it creaked and dipped precariously, she feared it might snap in two.

“Easy does it, Girl.” Ardith blew out a sigh of relief when her feet butted up against solid ground. With a superhuman effort she hoisted the wet dog onto the embankment. As Ginger scrambled over Ardith’s shoulder, her paw tangled in the diamond pendant and tore it loose. It glittered as it tumbled into the water.

For several moments Ardith and Ginger sprawled shivering on the rough grass. Ardith imagined she heard the old homeless woman singing her ditty again. This time it made sense. Diamonds were inconsequential, weighed against the disaster that almost befell them.

Soaked to the skin, Ardith and Ginger hurried home where they were piled with blankets while Grandma got dry clothing out of her closet.

Grandma noticed the torn chain dangling around her granddaughter’s neck. “Did you lose your locket?”

Ardith nodded. “But I’ve still got your corral beads and I’ll treasure them always.” She wasn’t lying. They would be a reminder of Grandma, of her close brush with death and the value of life.

Published in Stories