The Posy Ring(4)

By: Catherine Czerkawska

When Daisy was eight, Jessica May had fallen ill, fading away as though somebody had enchanted her. Daisy remembers her mother growing thinner and frailer. Somebody had taken her warm, vibrant mother and left this strange attenuated creature in her place. A changeling. At the end, it was as though all that was left in the van was love. Love and pain. And then there was nothing, because her mother had been taken to hospital where everything was clean, white and impersonal. Hard-edged. Nothing like the van with its sprawled cushions, its crocheted throws.

It was then that they had copied out the words of the wish, writing them carefully on white silk, sailing to the island, labouring up the track that led to the Clootie Tree at the top of the fairy hill: Dunblae.

‘Do you think it’ll work?’ she had asked and her father had said, ‘It’ll do no harm to try.’

At the top of the hill, she remembers, the atmosphere changed. The track was a friendly place, breathless with heat, loud with birds. But the top of the hill was a different matter entirely. Even then, as a child, she had been aware of a certain foreboding. Later, she learned the word ‘numinous’ and knew that it described the hill. But it was more than numinous. It was other-worldly in no good way. For the first time ever, she had been afraid of a place, rather than afraid of a person or an event. The place itself frightened her. The tree – bending with the prevailing wind, clinging onto life amid the rocks – frightened her. If her father had not been there to reassure her, she would have taken to her heels and run back down the track, back to the van that was and always had been their sanctuary. The tree was a gaunt and ancient hawthorn and it was festooned with rags, the clooties that gave it its name. They fluttered from its many hoary branches, bizarre washing hung on lines. Wishing rags. Although she had no words to describe it at the time, the visit had stayed with her. As an adult, she realised that it was the intensity of the emotion that had unnerved her. Each piece of cloth was imbued with an individual sorrow, a sense of longing, like their own for Jessica May to be well again. She could feel it. The panic and desperation were almost tangible. The desire for the restoration of some balance. Some hope for the future.

‘Where is it?’ her father asked.

She pulled the silk scarf from her backpack.

‘Here it is.’

He was tall enough to tie it onto the tree, pushing other pieces of rag aside to make room for it.

‘What now?’ she asked. ‘What do we do, Dad?’

For the first time ever, he seemed to be at a loss. ‘I don’t know, hen.’

‘Should we say a prayer?’ Ever since her mother had fallen ill, the van had been in one place, a permanent campsite. And Daisy had been going to a proper school, a small primary school where they sometimes went to church, where the priest sometimes visited, where they said prayers.

‘I don’t know any prayers.’

So Daisy said one. ‘Our Father who art in heaven…’

‘I didn’t know you knew that.’ He stroked her hair.

‘We say it at school.’

‘I don’t think it’s the right prayer for a place like this,’ he said uneasily. ‘Do you, Daisy?’

‘What do you think we should say then?’

‘Your mother would know. But I’m afraid I don’t.’

‘I know another one. “Hail Queen of Heaven.” But it’s a song, really. A hymn.’

‘Say that one then. Or sing it. Can you sing it?’

‘I think so.’ She stood with her hands steepled, palms together, as they did in school, and she sang, ‘Hail, queen of heaven, the ocean star, guide of the wanderer here below, thrown on life’s surge, we claim thy care, save us from peril and from woe. Mother of Christ, star of the sea, pray for the wanderer, pray for me.’ She repeated the last two lines and he joined in. He could always pick up a tune in no time.

He nodded. ‘Yes. That’s better. That makes sense. Pray for the wanderer. That’s us.’

At last, they turned away and retraced their steps down the hill. She had expected more. She had expected magic. A miracle. The heavens opening. A chorus of angels at least. She couldn’t help feeling disappointed, although she pretended that she believed in it. At the bend in the track they turned around one last time. She saw their pathetic flag of white silk, already blending with the other rags suspended there. So many wishes. Then they were walking downhill, slipping quietly past the house, past Auchenblae. He pulled her along, not letting her linger there.