birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

It All Started with Mama Cherokee

I was unmoored, unfocused, and uncommonly brave the day I pulled off Interstate 85 and into a gravel parking area just outside the door of Sister Lee's double-wide trailer. Actually, it was not just a double-wide, but a conglomeration of connected structures for which the double-wide served as the "storefront" and the rest seemed to have been gradually added on as random building supplies or funds had become available.

I'd passed that ramshackle maze hundreds--maybe even thousands--of times in my life, which at that point was all of 35 years long, and I'd always been intrigued by the plywood sign painted with a weathered palm and the words "palm readings" and "fortunes revealed" below Sister Lee's name. Curious as I was about the place, however, I'd never had the nerve to stop. Until that day. My life was in such turmoil I guess I had to stop.

My knock on the door was answered by a squat gypsie-looking woman who peered around the edge of the door to look at me.

"Is Sister Lee in?" I asked.

"No, she is out," replied the woman in a thick unfamiliar accent--maybe Eastern European.

"I'd like to have my fortune told," I said.

"I am Mama Cherokee, Sister Lee's assistant, and I cannot do full psychic readings but I can read palms. It will cost you $10."

Ten dollars happened to be all the cash I had on me, and almost all the cash I had to my name at that point in my life. I gave it to Mama Cherokee, she slipped it into the pocket of her apron and then she said, "Wait here."

As I stood in the darkened front room of the trailer and my eyes adjusted to the indoor lighting I realized I was surrounded by religious icons--pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and various saints, statues of them as well, were placed all about the room. Symbols of holiness that dotted the room's bizarre landscape, which consisted of Sam's Club-sized packages of toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, and canned goods. It looked like a stockpile of supplies for some upcoming domestic apocalypse--less menacing than the stash of a prepper might be and a better organized than the collection of a hoarder.

Before I could think too hard about it, though, Mama Cherokee returned, her apron removed and her hair now tied in a kerchief of some sort. Not exactly the stereotypical scarf of a sideshow fortune teller, but similar. She motioned me to another room down the trailer's hall, sat me down in a folding chair, and began looking at my right palm with great intensity.

I can't recall much of what she told me except that she said, You are going through a great struggle right now and you are worried about your children." Both were correct. She went on to suggest that things would get better soon and made a few more leading comments that apparently were meant as teasers because then she said, "There is more I can tell you but you'll have to pay me another $15."

"I don't have $15," I replied.

"There's an ATM right down the road," she responded. "You can go get cash and come back. I will light a candle for you to follow back here."

I nodded and rose and threaded my way back to the front door.

"Come right back, okay?" she called.

I waved as if to say "yes."

I wondered if Mama Cherokee could read my mind. Did she know that as soon as I got in my car I would drive home, not to an ATM? Did she care? Would I somehow be cursed if I did not return? Would Mama Cherokee leave that candle burning for me till I did come back? I did not know, but not being particularly superstitious--just angst-ridden at the time--I decided to risk it.

Though I never returned to Mama Cherokee, I also never really left her, nor has she left me because ever since that day my life has been populated with psychics who seem to crop up at the most opportune moments and places--at a library in my hometown, a back room in Costa Rica, a ranch house in Sedona among them--to nudge me in some new direction. Those are stories for a longer version of this piece, but for now suffice it to say that I am so glad I made that first stop and became one of the initiated at Sister Lee's.

Sister Lee's trailer shack no longer exists, by the way. It was demolished more than a decade ago, a victim of a highway widening project I think. But I think the spirits of Sister Lee and Mama Cherokee remain there and I hope one day I will find a way to reach them and see if that candle still burns--maybe even have an extra $15 in my pocket.

Commitment for Naught Soup

Teach the Dream