The Wishing Sisters by Beverley Byrne

Had it not been for armadillo racing, I might have missed that photograph. I chanced upon it in Labelle, a half horse town on Florida’s Caloosahatchee River, during the annual Swamp Cabbage festival. I guess y’all want to know what it is? Palm tree hearts. The love child of asparagus and artichoke, Labelle folk go crazy for it.

Guys in grease stained aprons were cooking Swamp Cabbage every which way and the smell of rancid hot oil hung sticky in the air. Beneath a bandstand shaded by holm oaks dripping Spanish moss, cowboys caressed keening steel guitars and Barbie teenagers clog danced. But I weren’t there for the entertainments. I was searching for treasure.

I’m what you English call a Totter. Scouring junk stores, thrift shops and garage sales in off beat towns I seek out clothing and homewares to upcycle in my Tampa workshop. Prettied up and labelled ‘vintage,’ they clean fly out my Wishing Sisters website.

Why Wishing Sisters? Because sisters is what I’ve always wished for. Brothers would do.

Mama said it was God’s wish made me an only child but I thought it kinda cruel of Him to hold out on siblings. She, like Papa, Lord rest his soul, was raised in an orphanage and they clung to each other like limpets in a hurricane. Mama’s story was our only folklore. She’d been found, days old, ‘wrapped like a papoose in two yards of human hair’ on chapel steps outside Fort Myers. Mama tended that swaddling mane like it was an heirloom. Now she’s gone, I have it.

Braided faded gold and smelling of lavender.

Like Mama, my hair’s worn long in solidarity with a family I have no knowledge of. I guess that’s why I favour old things. A link to a past, any past is better than none. Don’t get me wrong. My parents raised me happy as a clam. But alone with no kin, I feel part of me is filled with kapok.

Like I say, the photograph was on a junk stall next to the Armadillo Racing. I’d bet a dollar on number five, the number written in marker pen on an orange Post-It note stuck to its armour. I guess Armadillos don’t hear too well cos, despite my encouraging hollering, number five snuffled in circles while his rivals scuttled towards the finishing line. I felt an affinity with that lonesome shuffler wearing his protective carapace.

On a trestle table amid musty clothes and chipped crockery, that photograph stood out. The women captured by an ancient camera wore floral frocks like nighties. They stood, one ghost pale, the other looking like she’d lost a pet hound, on the stoop of a clapboard house. They reminded me of a TV documentary about members of a backwoods Appalachian sect. But what arrested me was their knee length cascading locks, which, like mine, evidently never been troubled by scissors.

‘How much?’ I asked the stall holder, a string bean girl with an alligator tattoo snapping round her neck.

‘Ten bucks?’

Turning the photograph over, shivers skittered down my spine. Written on brown paper backing in spidery fountain pen italics was, ‘The Wishing Sisters.’ Handing over a note, I requested its provenance.

‘Outta Wishing Farm. Since the last sister passed, they been selling stuff off. Auctioning furniture tomorrow.’

‘You don’t say! Could you give me directions?’

Despite starting early, the temperature was thickening like boiling grits. I found Wishing Farm by Lake Okeechobee, surrounded by palmettos deep in gator country. Parking my van alongside dusty pickups, I joined antique dealers and nosy parkers outside a house familiar from the photo. Some old biker, stroking his beard, commented, ‘The old maids sure would hate to see this.’

Wandering inside, I checked out the lots. Mostly heavy scuffed oak furniture. No use to me.

Lining the stairs were photographic portraits of children. Some in black and white dated, I guessed, from pre-war through to more recent colour.

A mahogany voice rumbled behind me.

‘That’s me, second right, third row.’ Spinning round, I saw a black guy, my kinda age, wearing a sharp city suit. I checked the photo. Sombre gap-toothed kid with an afro.

I asked who they were. ‘Orphans. Foundlings. Unwanted. Unloved. The Wishing Sisters took kids like us in, gave us a home. Saints for sure.’

‘Is this them? I asked, producing my photograph.

‘Yes Ma’am. But when we were here, they wore their hair soldier short. Never long and beautiful - like yours.’

I blushed pepper red and walked up stairs. He followed, our feet echoing on timber floorboards. In a bedroom, his footsteps quickened as he walked towards a shabby tallboy. Pulling open drawers, he said, ‘I just remembered something.’

He lifted out a mass of yellow hair, curled like a sleeping animal.

‘One time Miss Wishing caught me and my sister playing with this,’ he said, eyes misty with memories., ‘She scolded us good before tearing up and running out. Clarabelle, the old cook, told us Miss Wishing had a baby but their daddy called it Devil’s spawn and took it away. Before left, Miss Wishing shaved her hair and wrapped it round the child. Her sister shorn hers in sympathy, so the story went.’

Passing it to me gently, as if it were a newborn, he must have noticed my cheeks draining milk pale because he asked, ‘You ok Ma’am?’

I told him about Mama and her matching river of hair. In a voice butter soft, he said, ‘Clarabelle said when their daddy died, the sisters tried to find the child but never did. That’s why they took in orphans.’

‘I guess this kinda makes us kin,’ I smiled, stroking my aunt’s dull tresses.

‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘Once a year, us remaining Wishing folk get together. Since it seems you’re part of our family, you should join us.

Giving silent thanks to the Wishing Sisters, I folded the locks inside my bag and tucked my arm through his.

Published in Issue #20

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