Of Lullabies and Lightning Storms

Dana Chamblee Carpenter

An old man crawled down the Ozarks from Elsinore to Gideon. He was dying and wanted to find his son. Six-year-old Sybil sat braiding the hair of a doll while the old man yelled his sad story through her window. Spit shot through the gaps of his missing teeth and splattered against the glass.

But in rural Missouri that was no excuse for a lack of hospitality. So around noon, Sybil’s mom, Cassie, brought the old man some iced tea in a tumbler — the last of her grandmother’s Georgian Lovebirds Depression glass. The old man never even looked at her as he took it and drank without pause, without breath, his eyes closed, but he cradled the glass’s bottom as he handed it back, his wart-covered fingers wrapping over Cassie’s, careful not to let the tumbler slip and shatter on the front step. Cassie almost smiled, almost spoke, but she didn’t see folks much anymore and was out of practice — she spent her days caring for little Sybil. By the time Cassie had sucked in breath and courage, the old man was already turning back toward Sybil’s window. For a moment, his skin stretched taut across his jaw. Cassie could imagine how he must have looked in his youth.

“Girl! God done told me to come here to you. He done said you’d tell me where my boy gone to,” the old man hollered at Sybil. “Tell me where Levon at, girl!”

When he finally grew quiet and lay on the lawn in the late afternoon sun, Sybil wrote her answer on a piece of purified paper, folded the note into a triangle and slid it through the flap in the plastic at her door.

Everything in Sybil’s life came and went through twelve inches.

The edges of the paper danced in the stream of sterilized air as Cassie reached through the opening on her side of the thick plastic at the doorway. Her latex-covered fingers squeaked as they curled around her daughter’s note. She folded it again carefully before slipping it into the old man’s hand, which was wet with the slaver of desperation and faith.

Cassie had been expecting someone to come sooner or later, ever since the women’s Bible-study group had been to the house last month and peeked in at Sybil. They’d come to study the story of Jezebel, but they all made sure to take a trip to the bathroom, down the hall past Sybil’s room. The newspaper stories hadn’t had any good pictures and the church ladies had been dying to see for themselves anyway. There wasn’t much else to do in Gideon.

Sybil had whispered something to each of them as they paused at her doorway, shaking their heads and thanking God for their good fortune. Sunday next, the women pressed their lips into tight smirks and, during prayers, cut their eyes to where Cassie sat at the back pew.

By now, she was used to the shunning and the smirking, natural consequences to having a baby out of wedlock in a place like Gideon where they still used the word bastard in an official sense; but when Bess Sanderson had come visiting the Monday after the church-ladies, Cassie was shocked. Bess, who’d been Homecoming Queen three years in a row and who wore white when she wed the mayor even though it washed out her fair skin and made her look like runny confectioner’s icing in the hot August sun; Bess, who hadn’t spoken a word to Cassie in seven years, had stood at the front door asking to see Sybil.

Cassie couldn’t think of a good reason to say no, so she had hovered at the corner of the hallway and listened to Bess Sanderson ask Sybil if her husband was cheating on her.

“Blossom, it’s been much too long a day,” Sybil had sung in her high, sweet six-year-old voice, “Seems my dreams have frozen, melt my cares away.”

“What’s that? I don’t understand.” Her voice tight with needing to know, Bess had stepped closer to the plastic barrier. “They said you knew things. They said you’d tell me the truth.” Her manicured nails curled against the sheathing. “What’s that mean — ‘my dreams are frozen’?” Bess turned back toward Cassie looking for answers. “Do you mean — ? Oh God. Is that girl saying — ?”

But Cassie wasn’t listening to Bess Sanderson. Cassie had slid slowly down the hall wall, her mind full of the sound of her daughter’s voice. It was the first time she’d heard Sybil speak.

“Say it again, honey. Say something, Sybil,” she had pleaded.

The little girl stood at the far side of the room, spinning round. Silent.

Resignation settled slow on a woman like Cassie. The first of it, when she missed her period at sixteen, had come quick like a shot. She had recovered once the worst of it, telling her parents, had come and gone. Through all those months of angry stares at her swelling stomach when she did the shopping at the Piggly Wiggly and of being sent home from school and then whispered to by the Reverend’s wife that maybe Cassie should worship at home until after the baby came, Cassie had held to her dream of a life far away from Gideon, a life extraordinary. Cassie had always known she was destined to have a life like that.

Flashes of red and orange had flared in the hills that September morning in ’78 when her daddy drove her down into the alluvial plain to the hospital at Hayti. He had griped about having to use one of his leaves at the Box Factory, but Cassie’s mama was sick and couldn’t take her. And that wasn’t what her daddy was really mad about anyway. Cassie was six months along when the boy had gone off with some motorcycle gang out to the reservation in Utah or Arizona; a spirit quest, he had called it, to find his Navajo ancestors.

The baby had come quickly and Cassie’s father insisted on taking them back home to Gideon that afternoon. Cassie fell in love with her armful of sweetness and just knew that everything was going to be different now that she had someone all her own.

The New Madrid fault shook a little when Cassie introduced her mother to baby Sybil. The crystal drops hanging from the candelabra on the mantle in the den tinkled as yellowed fingers tugged at the blanket to expose the tiny face.

“Oh, Cassie, she’s something special,” Mama had whispered.

For a month Cassie had held her baby, bathed her and changed her diapers, rocked her to sleep, breathed in the smell of her newness. She battled what her mama labeled “the colic” with James Taylor and Carole King; Cassie didn’t know any normal lullabies. Her voice grew hoarse with trying to soothe Sybil.

When the fever spiked, Cassie had sung to the bundled basket in the passenger floorboard for the whole hour-long drive to town. “Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself.”

But a few miles outside Hayti, the baby got so suddenly still that fear choked Cassie. At the hospital, she got a last kiss on the hot forehead.

Cassie had an album up in the attic somewhere with all the clippings she’d gathered in those early years, an odd kind of baby book, full of pages curled with age and heat, the first with a snapshot in front of the house as people in white coats carried long rolls of plastic past a crowd of gawkers under a headline: Gideon Gets Its Own Bubble Baby.

In the picture, Cassie held the door.

The sun threw shadows onto the front porch as Cassie handed the old man Sybil’s note. He squinted as he read and mouthed the words like a child just learning to read:

“Once he reached for something

Golden, hanging from a tree,

And his hand came down empty.”

Cassie expected the confusion in his pursed lips, but the horrible awareness that dawned in his eyes shocked her. He had looked at her then, his mouth slack with regret, but she had nothing for him. He slipped the note into his shirt pocket, quietly nodding to himself, and then he disappeared into the gap of yew trees at the edge of the yard.

“What’d you tell that old man?” Cassie asked her daughter, but Sybil ignored her. “You tell me what that meant.”

Sybil just kicked her feet against the plastic that pressed against the walls of her bedroom. She lived in a bubble inflated by the air they forced in; her world swelled and dipped like a jellyfish played upon by the water. Sybil drug her feet down the plastic wall until the flesh on her soles rolled and squealed with friction like the rocks buried deep in the Reelfoot Rift.

A letter came weeks later from the old man’s daughter.

Cassie sat on the front porch steps to read it. A saw-whet owl was calling to its mate in the dusk, its voice growing higher and higher with fear. Cassie didn’t sleep that night. She sat in the hall and watched Sybil through the cloudy plastic.

Cassie took the letter to Reverend Dakin when the nurse from Hayti came for her bi-weekly visit. She told the Reverend about the church-ladies and Bess Sanderson, about how they had asked secret things and Sybil, who had never spoken, not to the doctors nor the nurses, not to Cassie, Sybil had whispered to each woman a Delphic answer.

“Gideon was a prophet, you know. In the Old Testament,” the Reverend said as he pulled his thumb against the corner of his leather Bible, drumming the pages like a flip-book and fanning the ashes of his cigarette.

“What?” Cassie asked.

“You know, our town Gideon and Gideon the prophet.”

“I don’t understand.” Cassie tried to make the Reverend’s words explain how Sybil knew that the old man’s son had strung himself up in a tree half a mile from his deer stand in the backwoods. The old man’s daughter had written to thank Sybil for giving her father peace of mind before his passing and a chance to bury his son.

Reverend Dakin spit his phlegm out the church window. “Folks believed in such things back then. That God told us what we needed to know. His mouth to our ears. Thought he used those what we’d consider afflicted now. Maybe that’s the connection.” He squinted at the letter again.

“You’re saying that because we live in Gideon, God is using my Sybil to talk to us? With Carole King lyrics?”

“You just got to have faith, Cassie.”

That Sunday after Cassie showed him the letter, Reverend Dakin preached about modern-day miracles.

“God is alive and among us!” he hollered to his indolent flock. “I ain’t an educated man. I don’t know nothing about absent clockmakers and the like. I’m just here to spread the word. God’s word. And He come to Gideon to tell us to listen up!”

Folks from all over New Madrid County came to see Sybil then. Some wanted revelation; others came, like medieval pilgrims, to whisper confessions to the anchoress and seek absolution.

Sybil didn’t write her cryptic answers anymore. She mumbled them and only once.

“Winter, spring, summer, or fall.”

“Then trouble’s gonna lose me, worry leave me behind.”

“Footsteps in the hall to tell me I’ve been this way before, nevermore.”

“Oil slick, slipping and a sliding and a slapping on. Kootcheroo.”

Cassie sat cross-legged on the floor beside her daughter’s door, gloved hand opening the plastic flap just wide enough for the string of words to slip past the high whistle of the machines. She studied Sybil’s body language, waiting for a sign that she was about to speak, and watched her mouth so she could shape the words as her daughter shaped them.

Beyond those moments, Sybil never spoke.

Cassie never asked a question.

When Sybil turned thirteen, reporters and camera crews rutted the front yard. They hadn’t come to ask Sybil questions; they just wanted her picture because she had lived so long. The bubble boy in Texas had just died.

“You can’t expect more than sixteen,” the doctors had told Cassie then. “And you should prepare yourself for it happening any time. Every day from now on is like winning the lottery.”

Cassie had buried her parents that year. But not Sybil.

Students started coming from the state university at Columbia to study her. They sat for hours in the farmhouse chairs Cassie had dragged in from the kitchen. Year after year, they watched Sybil, their eyes oscillating from her to notebook. Scratches in the hardwood floor recorded Cassie’s passage from Sybil’s room to elsewhere.

“Excuse me,” she’d say as she slid behind them, her hands full of dirty clothes or sterilized food.

They nodded as they scooted their chairs forward.

Then one day Cassie couldn’t take it anymore. “I’ll be out in the yard if you need me,” she muttered under her breath.

They nodded, but they never took their eyes off Sybil.

Sybil lay on the floor rolling her head against the plastic until her hair arced with static electricity. She never looked at the researchers or her mother; she watched the stars on her ceiling. The Junior Astrology Club from Jefferson City had donated a kit; they’d heard about Sybil and wanted to do something for her. Cassie spent a week stenciling and pasting a glow-in-the dark galaxy while Sybil huddled in the corner of the room, her bubble world shrunk to give Cassie room to work.

The constellations warbled beyond the rise and fall of the plastic as it breathed. The stars of Berenice’s shimmering strands fluttered behind the distortion. Sybil’s hair, a shiny black gift from her father, stretched out around her; it had been chewed at the ends and crackled with energy that had nowhere to go.

The researchers scribbled in their pads.

Outside, Cassie stabbed her trowel in the dirt beneath Sybil’s window. And then she heard the tires climbing the gravel of the steep drive. She turned to watch as the van veered onto the grass and stopped. A woman rolled down the window of the passenger side.

“Is this where the bubble girl lives?” she hollered across Cassie’s yard.

Cassie nodded and turned back to planting the sunflowers that would grow tall enough for Sybil to see.

“Why this don’t look no different from the houses back home.” The woman muttered as she got out of the van. “Paul Delfoy, I thought you said there’s a bubble. There ain’t no bubble here.”

“Woman, I told you just what it said on the computer. Come see Gideon’s Own Bubble Girl and Eat at the Ajax Café.” The man pushed himself through the driver’s side door. Cassie couldn’t imagine how he had managed to get himself behind the wheel in the first place. The man was huge.

“Ma’am, you sure this where the bubble girl lives?” he asked.

“Smackwater Jack bought a shotgun,” Cassie said to the dirt. She nodded again and crossed the yard to the water hose. Mrs. Delfoy followed Cassie.

“We done been over to the river at New Madrid to see the Fault. They say the river run backwards and made a waterfall that sunk a bunch of boats and killed some folks, but there ain’t nothing to see of it now.” The woman stood over Cassie as she knelt to rinse the dirt from her hands. “We’re on our way back down to Amos. In Arkansas? We done went to St. Louis and now we’re stopping to see the sites on the way home.”

Cassie stood and watched Mr. Delfoy move up against the house to peer in Sybil’s window.

“So that poor girl done lived in a bubble all her life. My, my. That’s tragic now, ain’t it? Bless her heart. You her mama?” Mrs. Delfoy asked.

Cassie opened her mouth to speak at about the time Mr. Delfoy spun away from the house like he’d been popped.

“Mona, get in the car.” He looked sickly and, as he passed the women, Cassie could see he was shaking; she felt the ground move under his weight.

Cassie knew Sybil must have said something to Mr. Delfoy, shouted it to him through the window. She went in the house, drying her hands on her pants, and asked a research student what Sybil had said, but the woman muttered something about subject confidentiality. Cassie pressed her lips in a hard line and went to make herself a pot of coffee and ponder Paul Delfoy’s fate.

That night the lightning storm came. Sybil had paced her room ever since the Delfoys left. Around noon she started mumbling to herself, “Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come. Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”

So Cassie knew something was coming, just like the day before the Thanksgiving earthquake back in ’96.

“I just lose control. Down to my very soul. I get hot and cold. All over, all over, all over, all over.”

Cassie had tried to watch the Macy’s parade with her daughter on the tiny TV she pulled into the hall, but Sybil wouldn’t sit still. By the afternoon she was pounding her feet on the wall and screaming. “All over! All over! All over!”

Cassie ran outside. She stood beside the yew in the front yard where she knew Sybil could still see her. Breathing the cool air slowly as she tried to calm herself, Cassie felt everything change. The earth pulsed electricity in an effort to release the tension . . . but too late. Cassie stumbled across the heaving ground on her way back to the house. Her hands streaked red down the white hall as she worked to balance herself; she had been squeezing the yew berries and her fingers were coated with juice. She thrust them into the plastic gloves and reached for her daughter. But Sybil sat on the edge of her bed, calm and silent.

The quake passed; they always did.

The lightning storm would pass, too. And tomorrow would come as it always did. And Cassie would turn forty in the spring. Sybil would be twenty-two next month.

“I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again.”

Thunder pealed through the foothills.

Earlier that afternoon as the storm front rolled in, Cassie had checked the generator like she always did when there was a chance the power would go out. Some people could live in the dark but not Sybil.

The lightning struck somewhere on the hill out back of the house. And the lights died. The blackness suffocated Cassie as she waited for the generator to kick on. It never did. She felt her way to the hall closet to get the flashlight.

Sybil was by the door; the plastic sheathing deflated like an amniotic sack over her. Her breath came fast and shallow, lifting the plastic with quick pulses like a heartbeat. Cassie laid the flashlight on the floor and slid her hands into the gloves. She held her daughter, hummed lullabies, and waited.

The plastic rested on Sybil’s face like a shroud. With the last of her air, Sybil whispered an answer for her mother though Cassie never asked a question.

“Wasted days and wasted nights,” Sybil had muttered before the plastic sheathing dipped into the hollow of her mouth and silenced her.

It had been two weeks now and Cassie still didn’t know if Sybil meant it as judgment or prophecy. Freddy Fender was just too damn cryptic, like Nostradamus. You could make it mean anything or nothing at all.

DANA CHAMBLEE CARPENTER armors herself in subversive t-shirts as she navigates the snares of a private university in Nashville, quietly encouraging students to side-step the conventional.

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