They were a couple of sightseers hitting all the spots when they saw the sign, hand-carved in brown-stained wood, classic minimalist Forestry Commission style.
They flipped a coin; they were on holiday, being spontaneous. She won. They pulled off the road to Inverness and parked the station wagon in a graveled arena of mud.
She opened her door and gusts of wind hit her. The wind-smacked pines wheezed like an old accordion band; the air was sharp with resin from their oozing, bruised limbs. The trees counter-punched with creaks and groans that rose above the roar of passing traffic. Pheasants and other roadkill, feathered and furred and squashed beyond recognition, rolled along the verge like country tumbleweed.
They climbed stone steps cut into the shaded hillock, voyeurs, pilgrims bearing a heavy load of cynicism. Up the cone-strewn mud track into the beech forest they walked, passing boulders luxuriant in snug coats of moss. Above a brook that burst from the dark soil the beeches rose, trunks festooned and branches bowed with tattered blossoms, some fresh, some ancient, all synthetic.
Strips of plastic flapped, cut from old grocery bags and recycled into tools to nudge fate. They took in the chaotic mass of plaid ribbons, faded tea-towels, handkerchiefs, bright bandanas and tinsel. A silky nightdress had been wrapped around a coarse-barked trunk, arms outstretched, waiting to be taken. Washed-out old jeans hung beside boxers and briefs. A hi-vis vest cried out from the shadows. A battered saltire flag flapped next to felt-pen scrawled t-shirts that bore dreams and hopes and prayers to some unseen force.
Doubts over etiquette brushed aside, she photographed, compelled. At that road sign, “Clootie Well”, she’d imagined a sacred shrine, ordered and formal beside some natural feature in the landscape, a sink-hole or a spring. This place was intuitive, spontaneous. Human. And somehow private.
Beside her boot, a white lace hankie had been trampled into the mud, an “A” neatly embroidered in one corner, clear in navy blue. With a pang, she thought of her grandmother’s snowy stock, ironed crisp, always to hand for anything that life threw at her.
She photographed the sad hanky too, wondering if it had been dropped by a visitor or if it was a homeless wish, separated from its branch.
He looked at her shots. Superstition. Weird, huh? She put down her camera.
Take off your shoe, she said firmly.
He gave her his crazy-lady stare. What?
Your left shoe.
Shrugging, he unlaced his sneaker. The heel of his black sock was threadbare.
He handed it to her but she pointed to a branch, flexing and swaying in the wind.
There. That one.
He put on his sneaker and stretched to tie the holy sock neatly on the limb, then stepped back to look at his handiwork. Okay?
She shrugged. Make a wish?
He gave a guilty nod.
Me too, she said.
Satisfied, they walked back down the track, no longer intruders in the orchard of hopes and dreams.