The wishing tree is a twisted thorn on the brow of Mill Hill, one of those trees that has been shaped by centuries of wind into a crouching, defensive posture. The local school girls — of which I suppose I am one — hang coloured ribbons on the branches to represent their wish: that George Anderson will look at them, say, or that their parents will let them go on holiday with Millicent, even though Millicent’s parents aren’t married, and that kind of immorality is bound to be catching.
They do their best to twist and twine and tangle, but they can’t knot their ribbons. There are rules.
Then they go back to bed and dream their boring dreams — of George Anderson, and Millicent, and the Costa del Sol — and when they come back in the morning, any ribbons that haven’t been blown off the tree will make their owners’ dreams come true.
Mostly, the winds have scattered them. Mostly, they lie on the slope leading up to the thorn, like snakes on a mass migration. Over the year, they’ll turn up in bird’s nests, bowers and badger setts. Jemima swore she saw one hanging out of a cow’s back end, as if it had been slurped up whole and swallowed and digested.
(She said that was my one, and that a cow’s back-end was a good place for my twisted wishes, but I take that with a pinch of salt. I don’t know much about a cow’s digestive system, but I don’t think a name written in felt-tip pen could get through it intact. Besides, if my wishes are twisted, Jemima and her kind are the ones who made them so).
As the poisoner’s daughter, there was some debate among the school governors as to whether I should get a ribbon. Could I be trusted to wish for the right things? Would I be carrying out my mother’s wicked work in my head before I was old enough to do it in practice? They actually called a meeting about it — a whole meeting, just for me. I don’t know what they think Jemima and the other girls are wishing for. It’s certainly not world peace.
Even when they eventually — reluctantly — decided I’d done nothing wrong, they still put rules in place. I was not allowed a black ribbon, just like I’m not allowed to wear black, or light candles, or listen to heavy metal music. My thoughts have to be steered away from morbidity at all times. There’s witchery in my blood.
Of course, I’m also the daughter of the murder victim, but I don’t remember him much. All I can see when I picture him is a red face, screwed up with some emotion I don’t understand. Mr and Mrs Sampson said he did something ‘improper’ to me, but that doesn’t tell me much. They have a pretty broad definition of ‘improper’.
I wanted a ribbon. I’m not bothered about their other traditions — I never wanted to dance around the maypole, or bear rushes to the local church — but I feel a kinship with the wishing tree. Not only has it been sharpened and shaped by the prevailing winds of this town, but it has something of my twisted sense of humour. When Madeleine wished to get out of her detention with Mr Morris, and her ribbon was found wrapped conspiratorially around the wishing tree’s branches the next day, her wish was granted when the other, discarded ribbons got tangled round Mr Morris’s windscreen wipers and made him crash his car into a ditch. Madeleine got her wish and she had to have counselling. It was wonderful.
The other thing the wishing tree and I have in common is that we don’t get to run away. At least mum got to go to a different town, albeit one with a prison in it. But we have to stay here, because we wouldn’t matter anywhere else.
If the wish-ribbons have been out more than a day, they become sad, discoloured things, like sucked sweets, tangled in the hedgerows. I wonder sometimes if it’s littering, what we’re doing. I wonder if animals get trapped in the tangles and choke themselves trying to pull free. But that too is folksy — little totems, little tributes — a dead rabbit strung up in the hedge like a condemned man. The governors would love it. They were very upset, when my mother got caught, that capital punishment had been abolished a few decades before.
There’s only one way to deal with criminals, they say. Criminals’ daughters are more of a grey area.
Last night was a terrible storm. The ribbons got all the way to Brill, on the other side of the valley. But when we trudge up Mill Hill in our wellies after breakfast, there’s still a ribbon left hanging there, sickly yellow, limp as spaghetti. It’s so casual — just draped over one of the lowest branches like a cloth over a waiter’s arm. As if the wishing tree is presenting it to me:
“Today’s special, Miss. Vengeance. They say it’s a dish best served cold, and I have some that’s been brewing and maturing for the best part of a decade.”
We both know I didn’t wish for vengeance, but the girls would never believe me if I said so. I wished for mum to be free — free as a dandelion seed, free as the discarded ribbons that turn up in birds’ nests, or tangled round windscreen wipers, like multi-coloured imps. Free as the wishing tree and I are not.
But I can’t help enjoying Jemima’s look of queasy dread, as she squelches toward me in her wellies.
“What did you wish for, Janey?”
I don’t say anything. I just smile.
Lucy Stone is a freelance writer, lexicographer, and mother of one. She has written for online comics magazine Aces Weekly, and has recently completed a lavish, meandering Harry Potter fanfic entitled Sympathetic Magic. She can be found on Twitter @LucyStoneWriter. Writing fantasy stories is the most exciting part of her day. Johnson, who described a lexicographer as a ‘harmless drudge’, had obviously not tried motherhood.