[Steel Placed 1st]
By: FRR Mallory
© All Rights Reserved, by FRR Mallory 2003
Sibyl lived in a shack, way back up in the woods along the crack in the
ground we used to call Cow Mountain Canyon. Her house was made of logs and stone
shoved up tight and hard under a wide granite outcropping. The roof seemed to
climb defiantly out of the stones all covered in hardened near black wood
shingles long grown over by mosses and lichen. No one really knew when she began
living there or who she was even. All anyone was certain of was that Sibyl was of
the peculiar folk.
The Canyon was cut by a fast moving stream that originated up high on the
ridge from an underground spring. In the winter it got so swollen that it could
push a wall of mud down into the valley for more than two miles, which made
living in the crack, downright crazy. My mother once told me that back in the
60's a bunch of hippie people had tried to form a commune along the stream bed,
hauled a bunch of buses and campers up there and tried to dig in. They lasted
for three years before the stream took a dislike to them, scooped them up and
dumped them all congealed in a mud sculpture down at the foot of Rutger's
ankle, that is a bend in the barely wide enough for a narrow car roadway that
snakes back up to Sibyl's place.
After that, no one tried to squat in on the land bordering the stream and
arguments over who did or didn't own the piece where Sibyl's cabin stood faded
out probably cause no one could quite see any profit in that narrow little
slice of land.
Me, I'm Demi. I grew up just over the hill in a fancy dancy house what my
parent's liked to call the 'Little Ranch.' We were hobby farmers planting
elitist rows of wine making, too bitter to eat, grapes in little terraces facing
the sun. Father worked down in the city, had a condo apartment and stayed there
four days a week. Mother had an army of workers running the business of
keeping the ranch all spitpolished perfect for the weekend guests that descended
regular as clockwork every Friday afternoon.
My older brothers are twins and found their escape on the seats of their
dirt bikes leaving the ranch, mom and their way too young to join them sister to
camp and ride up on the fire roads and dirty hills. Me, I soon learned to
scoot off to the one place everyone would let me go without checking on me. That
was this big girly cute treehouse Dad had made carpenters build when I turned
8. The best thing about it was that it was on the other side of the ridge,
leaning right over the canyon with the massive redwoods surrounding it in one of
I met Sibyl when I was twelve although I had spied on her for more than two
years before that. That first meeting I had been hiding up behind some
bushes, watching her walking through the woods, leaning down here and there to pluck
at a flower or pull some leaves off a plant which she would tuck into the
dark green bag swinging from the belt around her waist. She reached the bush
where I was hiding and stopped. I remember that I froze inside, instantly full of
"You like sitting on ant mounds girl?" Her voice pushed at me, raw and
fluid all at the same time not anything like what I expected.
My mouth dropped open then my eyes turned down to stare at my feet and
certain sure, my shoes were covered in ants. I half jumped and half fell out of
the bush, my hands busy brushing frantically at the ants. When I looked up it
was into her big green eyes.
I got back to my feet, knowing my face was burning red with embarrassment,
not sure whether to turn and run or ask her all the millions of questions
which filled my head.
She interrupted my convoluted thinking in that pointed way she had saying
simply, "Well, come along then. You can't be hiding in bushes forever,
particularly not in a pansy pink dress."
That was my first jaunt along the unmarked trail. With me all silent and
stumbling and her with that quiet deliberation that kept swallowing my words
before they escaped my lips.
Before I knew it we were down around the bend, just to the right of her
roadway. She stopped then, opened a rusty metal box which was half buried in the
dirt. Out of the box she lifted a can of white paint and a very battered paint
That was the first time I saw her sign. It wasn't much. A big old piece of
plywood tacked up on two posts. At the top of it was a funny eye shaped
drawing with little lines radiating out of it. Below that were the words paperbags,
chickpeas, syrup, books. She was painting those out even as I read them,
covering them up in the white paint. When she was done she lifted a screw top
bottle out of the same box, undid the lid and washed out the brush. Then she went
over to a big rock and sat down.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Waiting." She answered.
"For the paint to dry." She answered again.
I looked at the sign, then at the way the sun was shining right down on it,
accompanied by a little breeze.
"Oh." I answered, not understanding at all.
We waited there with the words faded back into silence as I tried to figure
out what to say. Instead of coming up with anything I began to stare at her.
Somehow I had expected her to be shabby and dirty. Instead her hair was
tidy, a faded deep red with long silver streaks all braided back and bound with
colorful scrunchies. Her face had that in between look, surely not as young as
my mother but not as old as the rumors said she was either. Her dress was made
of some soft fabric that flowed off her, the colors shifting and blending
with the nature that surrounded us, in some weird way in my mind I knew that
nature welcomed her, embraced her.
"They say you are crazy." The words finally bubbled out of me.
She glanced at me, then nodded amiably.
That bugged me. She should have been . . . something. Upset maybe.
Then she rose, picked a new can of black paint out of the box, a much
smaller paintbrush and began to letter on the now dry white sign. Peaches, corn,
toilet paper, balloons, helium. When she was done she once more cleaned the
brush, then put everything away and closed the box.
That was how I met Sibyl and how I followed her back up to the cabin. She
never asked me any questions, even when I came back day after day, taking
liberties with her privacy. After my first tongue-tied day I found that words
leaked out of me in a constant flow. I never knew such words were inside me and in
the midst of that flood I began to hear Sibyl. Not words from her mouth but
words from her thoughts as she placed things in front of me and watched. And I
began to watch too as people climbed up the canyon bearing boxes of stuff which
they left for her under the eaves of a ramshackle lean-to. First to come were
the peaches, corn, toilet paper, balloons and helium. Just like on the sign.
Then I realized she had asked for them.
The people would stop. Then just like me, would flood questions at her,
sometimes panic questions, sometimes hurt. And, Sibyl would look at them, then
away at the tall towering redwoods surrounding us, the words she offered were
few and oblique. And she would direct them to this big flat stone that rested in
what you could call her front yard. Next to the stone was an old bucket of
river sand which she would tell them to dump out on the stone. Then she would
hand them a bunch of twigs all bundled together. Some would rake the sand, some
would push it with their fingers. She never told them what to do or why. Then
she would bring out a little small round flat stone with a dimple right in the
middle of it. She would set this down on the sand. I remember how it would
grow so quiet then, how the only sound you could hear was the tree whispers and
creek laughter. Then she would draw from her pocket a very ornate Victorian
lighter, shaped like a woman's hand with one finger pointing. She would set the
lighter down on the rock. It had a bump on the bottom which fit the rock
dimple perfect. Then she would look at the person waiting there, all hungry with
need and she would spin the finger.
And, we would all watch it go round and round, glittering gold in the
sunshine. And when it was done she would nod, draw a line in the sand from where
the finger pointed. Then she would return the lighter to her pocket, have me
bring out the balloons, helium and little scraps of paper. And, the person would
write stuff. Wishes, hopes, dreams and prayers. When I got older I would roll
the scraps, tuck them into the helium balloons and she would have the person
stand where the line had pointed and let loose their balloons. She called it
setting wishes free in the world, that somewhere the balloon would pop and the
wish would drift down through the ether into the consciousness.
I am twenty-nine now. My dad had a heart attack in his secretaries
apartment. Mom sold the ranch and moved into the condo. My brothers opened a
motorcycle dealership in the city. Me, I flunked out of college and became a writer.
Yesterday I sewed a linen shroud around the body of Sibyl. I used the
wheelbarrow to carry her back inside the cabin where the back wall hides the big cave,
way back in to where the silent forms of other women lay bound forever to this
place. I laid her to rest there and came out here to find a man waiting, his
gift already left in the lean-to. I remember a moment of thinking I should tell
him that Sibyl is gone. And, he asks me my name.
"Demeter." I answer quietly.
He has been here before, gives me one long look before pouring the sand out
on the stone. My fingers clench over the lighter in my own pocket, handed to
me in those final moments with Sibyl and I think that maybe I will ask for
peaches next time. I like peaches and I go about setting wishes free.