by Kara Dennison
My friend JJ showed me the wish trees last time I was in England. She lives in a castle in Devizes. Well, a toll house built to look like a castle. She’s a tour guide at Stonehenge by day and lives in the castle basement at night, plotting out a hutch for the guinea pigs she’s planning to get.
Seriously, always hang out with a tour guide when you want to see the interesting sights on vacation. Their job is also their hobby.
Avebury is a comfortable, scenic bus ride out from Devizes; half fields, half tree-lined roadways. It’s rural and a bit fictional-feeling, a Thomas Hardy-themed roller coaster at half speed.
JJ and I dismount at a corner with a gift shop on one side and a pub on the other. The locals claim the pub is haunted (it is) but that doesn’t seem to hurt their business. Perhaps it even helps.
This is where, according to JJ, “the proper druids go.” It contains the largest stone circle in Europe and two smaller ones. Look around: sunbathers. Tourists. At least one person doing a Sun Salutation. There are good odds that half the people here are here every day around this time.
They say that when you visit, one stone in particular will “call” to you. Your Stone. I suppose technically I could vouch for this, if bumping your head against one while getting a photo counts as “being called to.” Mine was slightly tilted to the south, about twice as tall as me with a bit of a concave near the top half.
But the wish tree.
Maybe it’s not your wish. Maybe it’s someone else’s. Maybe it’s yours for someone else. Maybe it’s not a specific wish so much as “Good health, long life, don’t die in a flaming car wreck.” Maybe you don’t even have a wish on your mind and you’d just like for things to go not-terribly. That’s fine.
The trees don’t care. They’ve heard it all.
They’re up on a hill on the edge of town, close together in a maze-y knot of roots and branches. Tolkien by way of Dr. Seuss, curvy and winding and ancient. Simultaneously underfoot and overhead, as though they could trip you and then reach out and catch you just after.
And knotted around those branches and roots are ribbons, thread, strips of cloth, anything that can be pulled off and easily tied. Dozens, hundreds. Each a wish or a prayer. Some stranger hoping for long life, or true love, or to pass an exam or to beat a disease or maybe just to say they were there.
JJ has a backpack with her. She’s been giving me information about the area in her half-and-half accent—the daughter of an American engineer and an English secretary, US-educated and British-bred. She’s swung her backpack around to her front as we climb the hill, stubbing our toes on root after root as though we’re knocking them for good luck on the way up.
There was a christening here not long ago, JJ tells me. The most Church of England of christenings. Baby in a white lacy dress, proper English family members dressed in proper English Church clothes, a vicar presiding. And then all these proper English attendees pulled out ribbons and tied them to the tree on the baby’s behalf.
“It was so funny,” she says. “This very Christian ceremony taking place under a very pagan tree, and then everyone doing a very pagan thing like it’s nothing.”
How Arthurian of them, I think.
“Oh, I should have had you bring a ribbon,” she laments. Then she feels around. “Oh, I didn’t even bring a ribbon for myself.”
She pulls out a spool of emergency thread from the smallest pocket of her backpack. “This’ll do. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just has to be something you can tie.” And she measures off a length and bites it between her teeth to break it.
I see what I presume must be some of the ribbons from the christening. They seem new, shiny. Some are much older, frayed. Some clearly came off gift wrapping. Strips of shirt hems ripped off. Cheap fabric. Some might well be plastic. A few bits of string. I can imagine people hiking up without knowing the legend until their traveling companion has told them, then pulling off a bit of whatever they can, suddenly desperate for good fortune. I can imagine others coming prepared with a fistful of ribbons of different colors and sizes. A premeditated windfall if wishes.
High on a branch just out of reach, someone’s looped a length of white ribbon through a gold ring and strung it up. A widow? A divorce? An affair? A wish worth risking that symbol of commitment for? I want their story.
I have a cheap elastic bracelet around my wrist. Tiny white beads shaped like owls. It cost me a dollar at a gas station. I wore it for good luck at a convention where I was interviewing Tom Baker the actor the month before. I slide my finger under it thoughtfully. Something in the back of my mind pokes me.
Tie it on.
But why? It’s mine.
Tie it on. That would be good for a wish, right? A wish for success? It was with you through your biggest accomplishment. What could be better?
“Ah, never mind, I have scissors.” JJ pulls a pair of thread nippers out of some forgotten corner of her backpack and snips off two lengths of thread. I let go of the bracelet, the idea forgotten.
I kneel down and tie my bit of thread onto a jutting section of root; JJ does the same with hers. I tie mine oddly reverently for the great-granddaughter of an Orthodox priest.
JJ ties hers on thoughtfully but quickly, the way one might lock a door before going to sleep. Does she have a wish, or is she just playing along with me? Maybe she has the same wish every time she visits, over and over. Maybe it’s just a general precaution: a basic routine to ensure she’s being granted whatever luck the trees can afford her. Just in case.
Besides, what is my wish? Be successful. Don’t starve. Fame? Nah. Maybe? People liking me? Maybe just doing okay for a year. If any ancient spirits are listening, they’re probably beyond frustrated. I have no idea what she wants. Just have her find some money on the road. That’s a good fallback, right?
We leave the trees behind, picking our way back down the hill through the roots, veins crisscrossing the ground like a virus up a sci-fi hero’s neck. I leave my vague wish knotted to a root, thread-thin and uncertain. Will it come true? Will I even know if it’s come true, given how clumsily I made it?
They say—“they” being people on the internet somewhere—it’s St. Brigid who grants the wishes. That she breezes by the trees and sees the ribbons hanging there and blesses them. Others say it’s the goddess Brigid, minus the “Saint” part. Over the centuries it’s fallen down to “the spirits” or a nebulous “them,” or the even more nebulous “for luck” with no entities attached.
I suppose, given I’m alive and doing all right, my wish (such as it was) worked. Perhaps that’s good enough. Perhaps the trees actually listen.
Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, illustrator, and presenter from Newport News, Virginia. She works as a blogger and interviewer for Onezumi Events, and as a news writer for Crunchyroll, Viewster, and We Are Cult. Her work can be seen in “Associates of Sherlock Holmes” from Titan Books, various “Doctor Who” spinoffs from Obverse Books, and the light novel series “Owl’s Flower,” which she co-created with illustrator Ginger Hoesly. She works from a converted NASA lab, which she shares with four guinea pigs and a bass guitar.