SYBIL’S  GIFTS


By A M Smith ©

Time for another story. This one is long, but I hope you enjoy reading it. I wrote it in 2016 as a competition entry, and it was awarded first place in the category of Stories over 5 000 and under 10 000 words. If you’re wondering where on earth I came up with the idea, the answer is simple: a TV doccie on the Whitby Horse Fair. Read on, to discover the significance.

  Sybil was attuned to  the weather. No doubt about it. Always was, right from babyhood.  As a baby she was quite content to lie on a blanket in the sunny back garden, gazing upwards for hours, staring at the swaying tree branches, waving at the swiftly racing clouds, clumsily trying to wipe raindrops from her eyes when she was outside in her pram, and a brief shower sprinkled the garden.

  She grew into a wispy, frail child, with pale skin, watery grey eyes, and straggly  mouse brown hair. She missed out on her mother’s dark prettiness and her father’s sandy sturdiness. Her arms and legs were stick-thin, although her mother force fed her malt and cod liver oil, in an attempt to fatten her up. But to no avail. Sybil stubbornly remained stick-insect thin and pale.

  When given crayons and paper, Sybil mostly drew clouds – sometimes big fat black ones, decorated with dramatic yellow lightning zig-zags; sometime she drew fat, puffy white clouds, against a clear blue sky.  “Draw a picture of Buster”, urged Mother, “look at his curly tail, and you’ve got a nice brown crayon for his coat, and black for his eyes – let’s see what you can do. Buster would love a picture, wouldn’t you?” she asked the dog, who obligingly wagged his tail and danced around, claws clicking on the kitchen tiles. Sybil produced a poor picture of a dog with a round body, four stick legs, no tail, and directly above, a fat black cloud, spitting rain onto his hapless head. Mother sighed. It was no use. Sybil only wanted to draw clouds.

  Sybil’s kindergarten teachers had no more success. They instructed, they threatened, they coaxed. But Sybil stubbornly continued to draw clouds in every possible way – clouds at dawn, clouds at sunset, clouds over the sea, clouds over the landscape. In fact, her cloud pictures were amazingly skillful for a child so young.


  Around the age of five, Sybil began to make weather predictions. “It’s going to rain today,” she’d announce, looking out onto the blue, sunlit day. “Don’t be silly”, said Mother, “there’s not a cloud in the sky; now go and brush your teeth – or you’ll be late for the school bus.” Sybil trudged off and brushed her teeth. At lunch time an enormous storm rolled in, and drenched the town for an hour. “Pure co-incidence,” muttered Mother, shaking out her wet brolly and hanging up her raincoat.

  But day after day Sybil’s pronouncements on the weather proved correct. Mother confided in Dada, one evening.   “George, I’m telling you: when it comes to the weather, Sybil’s always right. “

  George raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You’re imagining things.”

  “No, I’m not! You ask her – you watch – you’ll soon see.”

  “Sybil”, said Dada after breakfast on Saturday, “I want you to come with me to the Village Cricket Match today. There’ll be other kids there, the ice-cream van always comes, and besides, you want to see your Dada bowl out Tidebury’s captain, don’t you?”

  Sybil raised her eyes, and said” No thank you, Dada; it’ll rain at teatime and the cricket will stop. But if you really want me to come, I will,” she added dutifully.

  “Yes, I do!” said Dada briskly. “Go find your hat, let’s enjoy this sunny summer day – we don’t get that many of them.”

  Sure enough, at teatime, Dada and Sybil huddled in the Tea Tent, along with forty other players and spectators. The rain swept across the Village Green cricket pitch in grey shifting curtains. “Looks like you made a lucky guess,” said Dada, “who would’ve thought it? Out of a clear blue sky, too.” They trudged home in a fine drizzle, which didn’t let up until late afternoon. A watery sun tentatively poked its head through the low cloud, but the summer’s day was definitely defeated.

  “Just a lucky guess, that’s all,” said Dada to Mother, after supper, when Sybil was in bed.

  Mother said with ominous calm: “Really? You wait and see.”

                                                            ***

  “What a pity it’s such a rotten day,” said Dada gloomily peering out at the racing low clouds, and the thrashing tree branches. “I was looking forwards to our trip to Shelly Cover – didn’t you want to swim and hunt for starfish, like we did last time?”

  “We can still go,” said Sybil, “the sun’s shining there – it’s a lovely day at the beach. Oh please, Dada, let’s go?” and she turned an imploring face up to Dada, for once showing a vestige of enthusiasm.

  ”But … look outside, child!  There’s no point.”

  “Yes there is, please let’s go, Dada,” said Sybil, unusually persistent.

  “Yes, lets,” chimed in Mother, with a deeply significant look at Dada. “I’m sure Sybil will be right – I’ve already made a picnic lunch, let’s give it a try”.

  Sybil was correct, of course, and the family spent a glorious day at the beach.

  “Well?” asked Mother, after supper when Sybil was in bed. “What do you say now, George?”

  George wasn’t convinced. “You know how changeable the weather is in this part of the country. I don’t know. It’s crazy!” he burst out. “How can a six year old know what the weather’s going to do?”

  “Haven’t a clue,” replied Mother, “but you must admit she’s always right”.

  In the end, Dada had to tacitly admit Sybil was always right. He won a few modest bets down at the pub on local sporting events, his casual enquiries to Sybil about the likelihood of rain the next day, or on Saturday, always resulted in a confident reply. And she was always right. Once Dada asked her: “how do you know whether it’s going to rain or blow, Sybil?”

  Sybil was baffled. “I dunno,” she replied, “I just do.”

   Over the years Dada and Mother went through a series of heated arguments on the topic of Sybil’s strange affinity with the weather. Mother was all for leaving well alone “I’m sure she’ll grow out of it, once she gets a bit older – you know – when she gets to that age “ . Mother wasn’t comfortable discussing puberty with George.

  He, on the other hand, wanted to have Sybil tested, to find out how she did it, what it meant. Mother’s reaction was characteristically unhelpful. “And just who are you going to ask? Dr Widdows? The Rector?” She had a point. Dr Widdows, the local GP, was heading for a doddery eightieth birthday; the Rector was as deaf as a post.

  “We could take her to the University,” he suggested.

  “And say what?” asked Mother. “Tell them we have an eight year old daughter who’s a weather prophet?”

  George dropped the idea. But Sybil’s strange talent gnawed away at him. How did she do it? Neither he nor Mother had any scientific training, any university education; or any particular interest in meteorology, for that matter. It was very odd. He did a bit of research on the Internet, at work. During the lunch-break nobody came into the Stores, and he could play on the computer to his heart’s content. His workmates teased him about watching porn, but he shrugged off their innuendo, and continued to research his daughter’s unusual gift.

  “I don’t suppose,” he said cautiously, “that your Granny or any of your old Aunties, could do this weather thing, could they?”

  Mother shook her head, but looked pensive.
  “Well,” prodded George, “out with it”.

  Mother slowly said, “I do remember my Granny Lee telling me about her mother,  I never met her, I think she’d already died by the time I was born – something about my great-Granny  …“ she stopped and fiddled with the teaspoon in her teacup.

  “Yes?” prompted George “Go on. What about her.”

  Reluctantly Mother said in a low voice “Well, I think my Great-Granny – and that part of the family – I think they lived in caravans.” She raised her troubled face to George, who looked mystified.

  “Don’t you understand? They were gypsies!“ snapped Mother. “There. I’ve told you!” she leant back in her chair and glared at George.

  “So?” replied George. “They were gypsies. What of it? That’s all long ago and far away. Now I know where you got your pretty black curls!” and he grinned at his wife.

  His attempt at humour fell flat. “It’s a gypsy curse, I’m telling you,” said Mother ominously, “this is no gift.”

  George looked steadily at his wife. “Now, Betty,” he said in his most reasonable voice, “please: think about what you’re saying. Why should it be a curse? Why can’t it be a  talent, a gift? Maybe her fairy godmother flew over her cradle at the christening, and we didn’t notice”, he continued, trying to lighten her sombre mood.

  “No”, replied Mother, “you didn’t notice, did you? At the christening. Those two old women at the back of the church.”

  George’s face was a picture of incomprehension. “Well, I noticed them, even if you didn’t,” replied Mother in a defiant tone. She’d done her best to blot out the memory  these many years, but it was a relief, in a way, to talk openly about it now. She could remember them, as if it were yesterday. Both old women were skinny, dressed in black, with black lace headscarves over their grey hair, a glint of gold in their wrinkled ears, a touch of gold on their wrists and fingers.  She remembered spotting them when she handed baby Sybil over to the Rector, but the baby’s loud crying over the cold water on her forehead had distracted her, and when the family left the church, the women had disappeared. She’d  dismissed them from her mind, but once Sybil’s strange weather talent  emerged, the memory  crept back.

  There’d been other odd instances over the years; tiny nosegays of wild flowers would appear on the baby’s blanket, out in the garden, or a sun-ripened plum would appear on Sybil’s windowsill. Another time, one autumn, six chestnuts on a leaf appeared on the back step. Little seasonal tokens, little signs of unseen visitors. Betty always swept away the signs, or gifts, or whatever they were, and never spoke of them to either George or Sybil. She didn’t want to think about them.

  Betty and George shelved the topic of gypsy heritage; it was too far-fetched for George to embrace, and too uncomfortable for Betty to deal with.

  And then there was the recent episode with the birds. Mother sighed heavily. On  Sybil’s eleventh birthday, she’d found a raven with a broken leg, on the path outside the kitchen. Without hesitation Sibyl picked it up, carried it to her bedroom, and nursed the bird back to health. The raven hardly made a sound, but croaked quietly whenever Sybil fed it.

  After three weeks it disappeared. Just flew away. Betty wasn’t sorry. She didn’t like the bird. Ravens were a sign of bad luck, death even.  Later, the bird reappeared at intervals, landing neatly on Sybil’s windowsill, despite its crooked mended leg, carrying  gifts in its beak. Thus far it had brought a shiny gilt button, the handle of a broken plastic fork, a tiny, shiny white stone, and a golf tee. 

  Following  the raven episode, Sybil brought home a series of wounded birds and doctored them back to health. She simply ignored her Mother’s complaints and questions, serenely going about her business with the birds, busy in her own little world.

  It came as no surprise to George and Betty that Sybil failed her 11-plus examinations that year.

 “Sybil shows no interest in her schoolwork. She has no friends. We strongly suggest an appointment with the School Psychologist. We can arrange it for you,” said the headmistress.

 Unanimously, Betty and George  chorused “no thank you”, and departed, leaving the headmistress perplexed.

 “Now what?” asked Betty, looking piteously at George. They both knew that Sybil was different, a child of the winds and airs; not exactly handicapped, not exactly fey,   but not exactly your average 11-year old either.

  “Don’t worry, Betty,” said George “I’ve been working on a plan for a while.  Let me explain.” He made Betty a cup of tea, and revealed he’d made a tidy nest egg over the years, quietly using Sybil’s weather forecast powers to make winning bets on sporting fixtures. He’d mastered the skill of on-line betting, succeeding in remaining  anonymous, placing his bets around the country, never going for the jackpot, just a steady stream of winning bets.

   “I think we should  take her out of school – let’s face it, she’s not interested is she? She can read and write, do some figure-work, but I can’t see her going to college or holding a job, can you?” Reluctantly Betty nodded agreement. “Maybe  if we tell people she’s being home-schooled, then we can leave her be. She’s no trouble to anyone, you must admit,” proposed George. “We live in a quiet village, there’s plenty of countryside for her to roam, play with her birds, just be herself. And if I carry on with the betting, we’ll be able to buy her a little cottage of her own when she’s grown, and we’ve .. well, gone.”

                                                            ***

  Sybil gently drifted through the years, preoccupied with her birds, spending hours dreamily surveying the sky.  Her teenage years slipped past without any of the normal tempests experienced by her one-time peers. The village girls blossomed  into extravagant makeup, tight revealing clothes, hormone induced sparring with the local lads, binge drinking whenever they could get away with it.  George saw them in the pub over weekends, young , loud, drunken, and loutish.

   His Sybil was the exact opposite. She preferred her own company, wafting inconspicuously through the house, their garden, the surrounding farms and countryside. Her clothing was always in pale shades of blue or grey, or cloudy, long gathered skirts, or faded dungarees and tee-shirts. Dippy Hippy! Yelled the local boys, catcalling, but always from a good, safe distance.

   They still remembered the time Darren Gooden tried to grab Sybil and mess around with her, behind the Village Hall one placid summer’s evening. Sybil had been in her usual trance, strolling home, when Darren jumped out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her roughly to him: “How’s about a kiss Hippy Girl?” he leered. Out of nowhere, out of a clear sky, a blizzard of black feathers targeted the boy, a veritable hail of crows and ravens, cawing, croaking, screeching, pecking and clawing at his head, hands, legs. It was a maelstrom of feathers, thrashing arms, pumping legs, yelling – like that old Hitchcock film – The Birds , reported one bemused onlooker who’d run out of the Village Pub, alerted by the yelling.

  Darren pelted off, trying to protect his head with his arms and his anorak, pursued by a cloud of vengeful black birds. Sybil was nowhere to be seen. Darren’s face, arms and legs were a bruised scabby mess for weeks, and after that, the teenage population gave Sybil a very wide berth indeed. They might mutter weirdo under their breath, when they saw her in the Village, but they took care to mutter quietly.

                                                            * * *

  Life flowed smoothly until the day George watched TV coverage of the traditional Appleby Horse Fair.  He was so engrossed in the scenes of horses, colourful crowds, the traditional painted caravans sprinkled amongst the modern motor-homes, that he was unaware of Sybil’s presence, behind his armchair.

  “What’s that, Dadda? Where’s that?”

  George jumped. “Oh – you startled me!  that’s the annual Appleby Horse Fair held in Cumbria –  it’s the oldest horse-fair in Britain, been going since 1685 they say. Horse traders and gypsies come from all over Britain  to …“

  “Oh! Dada! Aren’t they pretty!” breathed Sybil, gazing spellbound at the TV screen.

  George turned round in astonishment to gape at his daughter. Normally Sybil never interrupted him – in fact, she seldom spoke, and then usually in a semi-whisper.

  “What’s that, my lovely?” he asked.

  “Those”, replied Sybil pointing at the traditional wooden caravans.  “I want to live in one of those!”  and with that she abruptly left the room.

  George was nonplussed.  Sybil seldom showed enthusiasm for anything – a new dress, a birthday gift, a surprise outing all received the same polite, but lukewarm response.  He shook his head. Well, that was Sybil. She was different.

  Next morning Betty rushed into their bedroom and shook George violently. “Wake up! Sybil’s gone! She’s not in her room – bed not slept in – George! Wake up!”

  George and Betty searched the house, the garden and the surrounding woods and fields, but without success. No-one had seen Sybil in the village either. Betty checked Sybil’s cupboards and finally decided that a few skirts and tops were missing, along with her green rucksack, her hairbrush, her toothbrush, other basic necessities.

  “She’s definitely gone,” announced Betty. “But where? What do we do now?”

  “Here:  I’ve made tea, have a cuppa, love,” said George, “I think I know where. Listen to this.” He related the TV incident, Sybil’s fascination with the gypsy wagons.

  “Oh no,” wailed Betty when he’d finished, “I told you, there’s a curse!”

  “Nonsense”, said George robustly, “remember she’s eighteen years old, about time she spread her wings a little, don’t you think? I mean it’s not Mars, its only Cumbria, not that far away. Is it?” he added doubtfully. “I think we should wait and see – only until Monday, mind you, and then if she’s not back we’ll report it to the Police.”

  But they didn’t have to wait  for the three days to elapse. Next morning, Betty was in the kitchen clearing away the breakfast table, when there was a loud, persistent rapping on the kitchen window. She turned, and saw the raven on the sill, pecking diligently at the glass.

  “What do you want, you black devil!” shouted Betty, waving her arms at the bird, “Shoo! Go away! Sybil’s not here.”

  The bird didn’t budge. It stayed on the sill, pecking, pecking at the window glass. Clearly, it wasn’t going to stop. What on earth could it want? Betty reluctantly opened the window a crack.  To her astonishment the raven stayed on the sill, and extended a leg towards her. Betty saw something  beige – a slip of paper, maybe – wrapped round the birds leg, tied with a thin piece of string. “What in the world?” whispered Betty, eyeing the bird distrustfully. The raven looked her in the eye and bent its head to worry at the string with  pecks and nudges.

  “Okaaay”, whispered Betty, fearfully extending her hand towards the bird. She didn’t trust that strong, sharp beak, but the raven again thrust its leg towards Betty, who gingerly tugged at the string, but in the end, had to fetch scissors and snip the string to retrieve the slip of paper.  To her astonishment the raven remained docile, co-operative, even. Betty smoothed out the crumpled paper and saw it was half a train ticket – she could just make out the word Whitby. “My God,” she gasped, looking at the raven, which cocked its head to the side, and gave a low croak.

  “For goodness sake,” exclaimed Betty to George that evening, when she’d shared the exciting news, “anyone else would have picked up the phone and called us, but no! not Sybil – she sends a raven! “

  “That’s airmail for you,” laughed George, relieved and proud that his strange daughter had thought to allay her parents’ worries over her abrupt disappearance. “Come to think of it,” continued George thoughtfully, “I  don’t believe I ever saw Sybil on the ‘phone – did you? So raven-airmail makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. If you’re Sybil,” he added with a rueful laugh.

  Periodically the raven would reappear, always with a message wrapped round its leg. There was a cross-Channel ferry ticket stub; then a shred of a till slip in French.

  “That bird ‘s clocking up plenty air-miles,” said George as they marveled over another till-slip fragment in a language they couldn’t identify. “I had no idea they could fly that far. I hope you’re offering it something, for all its troubles!”

  “As a matter of fact I am,” said Betty “last week I gave it bacon scraps from breakfast, “it loved those; it eats toast crusts too, but it wasn’t keen on the sunflower seeds I bought specially for it. Maybe you can research on the Internet what ravens like to eat ?”

  “Mmmhh”, replied George neutrally, knowing full well that ravens first choice was road-kill. “I’d stick to toast and bacon rinds, if I were you.”

                                                            * * *

  The next raven-mail was puzzling: it was a short length of plaited human hair, secured by an elastic band to the bird’s leg. Betty identified the fine wispy mouse brown strands as Sybil’s hair, but the thick, glossy black hair? Whose was that?

  “Whatever do you think it means? If only that bird could talk! I can see the brown hair is Sybil’s, but the black hair? Whose is that – and it curls!” she added, distrustfully eyeing the strong black curly strands.

    Hesitantly George said “I think it might mean she’s found a fella.”

  After this episode, the raven was absent for months.  The following Spring it arrived at the kitchen window, looking bedraggled, and extending its leg in the customary way.

  “Oh, you’re back”, cried Betty, “what a relief! Where have you been? And look at the state of you! What have you brought us this time? Why – whatever’s that?” Finally she managed to cut a grimy snippet of pink ribbon off the bird’s leg. The raven devoured every scrap she offered, and hung around for a week, demanding food every time Betty went into the kitchen.

  “I suppose this means we’re grand-parents?” said George slowly. “Who knows?”

  “I think you’re right” said Betty, “if only we could see them. I wonder where Sybil is now? Must be somewhere really far, judging from the state of that bird.”

  Finally, the raven departed, looking fatter and glossier after a week’s rest. “Bye bye”, called Betty, “come back soon”. A soft croak floated down to her, as the bird flapped purposefully away.

  It was a chilly November autumn morning when Betty awoke to a hail of pecking on the bedroom window.  She staggered out of bed and drew the curtains, “All right, all right, keep yer feathers on, I’m coming” she muttered, and then gasped. The windowsill was covered in ravens, as were all six trees in their garden. Overhead a cloud of black birds circled restlessly over the roof, swirling back and forth, cawing and croaking.

  “George – wake up! There’s something going on – wake up, do! I’m scared! Come and see the birds!”

  “What? “ said George, “wassamatter?” Betty yanked him out of  bed, and shoved him to the window. They stared out uncomprehendingly, fearful. Suddenly the entire flock of birds veered off around to the back of the house. Wordlessly Betty and George rushed downstairs, into the kitchen, and wrenched open the back door. Utter silence descended, not a bird moved.

  There, on the back step, was a woven wicker basket, filled with clothing and coarse gaily striped blankets, under which something moved feebly. Not a bird stirred. Clutching George for support, Betty cautiously threw off the clothing and the two uppermost blankets, to reveal a tiny baby swaddled up Indian papoose style, trying to wriggle out of its bindings. Springy black curls peeped out from a brightly coloured woven cap, its caramel coloured face was wrinkled with effort, and its dark red lips parted to let out an aggravated bellow. At the sound, every bird instantly took off, and the flock retired safely to the treetops, apart from the airmail raven, which hopped onto the edge of the basket, and extended a claw towards the yelling baby.

  “How the hell did that bird carry a basket?” stuttered George.

  “Don’t be silly George,” snapped Betty “it couldn’t possibly; humans must have brought it. You don’t suppose? “ she said hopefully,  her voice quavering. “Sybil! Sybil! “ she called, setting off the flock again into a cacophony of cawing. But answer came there none.

  That was the airmail raven’s  final delivery. Thereafter it devoted itself to the baby.  Despite Betty’s initial efforts to chase the raven away from the baby’s basket, she finally admitted defeat, and left the bird in peace, perched on the edge of the basket, where it served as an efficient avian baby-monitoring system.

  “What’re we going to called her?” asked George, once they’d tacitly agreed that this was indeed their grand-child, and would remain with them. “How about Raven? It’d suit those black curls and those eyes!”

  “Over my dead body,” snapped Betty “no grandchild of mine’s going to be named after that bird! Rose is a pretty name, don’t you think? Remember the snippet of rose pink ribbon the raven brought us?” So the baby was duly christened Rose Sybil in the village church. Betty surreptitiously kept an eye out for old back crones lurking in the back of the church, but to her relief, they didn’t appear. That night she casually commented on the fact to George, who grinned and said “So no gypsy curse for our little Rose, hey Betty?”

  Betty glared at him, but didn’t rise to the bait. She  needn’t have worried. Rose grew into a sturdy child, chubby arms and legs, round face, framed with bouncy black curls.  Her eyelashes were thick and black, and her dark eyes sparkled with lively curiosity. Around the age of three she entered the Why Phase: Why this? Why that? George exhibited saintly patience with the endless questions, Betty less so. Inevitably one day, when she was nearly five, Rose asked the question: “Grampy , why do I live with you and Nanna?  Where’s my Mummy? “

  Without even thinking George replied “Oh, your Mummy’s out there somewhere, exploring the wide world, drifting along with the clouds … that’s why she sent you to us with the Raven, so we could look after you and love you lots – that’s the why of it.”

  Rose looked thoughtful, and George held his breath. Then her face cleared and she asked “Grampy, will you play French cricket with me after tea? Please, please!”

“Of course, my lovely,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief.

THE END

SYBIL’S GIFTS

Sybil was attuned to  the weather. No doubt about it. Always was, right from babyhood.  As a baby she was quite content to lie on a blanket in the sunny back garden, gazing upwards for hours, staring at the swaying tree branches, waving at the swiftly racing clouds, clumsily trying to wipe raindrops from her eyes when she was outside in her pram, and a brief shower sprinkled the garden.

She grew into a whispy, frail child, with pale skin, watery grey eyes, and straggly  mouse brown hair. She missed out on her mother’s dark prettiness and her father’s sandy sturdiness. Her arms and legs were stick-thin, although her mother force fed her malt and cod liver oil, in an attempt to fatten her up. But to no avail. Sybil stubbornly remained stick-insect thin and pale.

When given crayons and paper, Sybil mostly drew clouds – sometimes big fat black ones, decorated with dramatic yellow lightning zig-zags; sometime she drew fat, puffy white clouds, against a clear blue sky.  “Draw a picture of Buster”, urged Mother, “look at his curly tail, and you’ve got a nice brown crayon for his coat, and black for his eyes – let’s see what you can do. Buster would love a picture, wouldn’t you?” she asked the dog, who obligingly wagged his tail and danced around, claws clicking on the kitchen tiles. Sybil produced a poor picture of a dog with a round body, four stick legs, no tail, and directly above, a fat black cloud, spitting rain onto its hapless head. Mother sighed. It was no use. Sybil only wanted to draw clouds.

Sybil’s kindergarten teachers had no more success. They instructed, they threatened, they coaxed. But Sybil stubbornly continued to draw clouds in every possible way – clouds at dawn, clouds at sunset, clouds over the sea, clouds over the landscape. In fact, her cloud pictures were amazingly skilful for a child so young.
Around the age of five, Sybil began to make weather predictions. “It’s going to rain today,” she’d announce, looking out onto the blue, sunlit day. “Don’t be silly”, said Mother, “there’s not a cloud in the sky; now go and brush your teeth – or you’ll be late for the school bus.” Sybil trudged off and brushed her teeth. At lunch time an enormous storm rolled in, and drenched the town for an hour. “Pure co-incidence,” muttered Mother, shaking out her wet brolly and hanging up her raincoat.

But day after day Sybil’s pronouncements on the weather proved correct. Mother confided in Dada, one evening.   “George, I’m telling you: when it comes to the weather, Sybil’s always right. “

George raised a sceptical eyebrow. “You’re imagining things.”

“No, I’m not! You ask her – you watch – you’ll soon see.”

“Sybil”, said Dada after breakfast on Saturday, “I want you to come with me to the Village Cricket Match today. There’ll be other kids there, the ice-cream van always comes, and besides, you want to see your Dada bowl out Tidebury’s captain, don’t you?”

Sybil raised her eyes, and said” No thank you, Dada; it’ll rain at teatime and the cricket will stop. But if you really want me to come, I will,” she added dutifully.

“Yes, I do!” said Dada briskly. “Go find your hat, let’s enjoy this sunny summer day – we don’t get that many of them.”

Sure enough, at teatime, Dada and Sybil huddled in the Tea Tent, along with forty other players and spectators. The rain swept across the Village Green cricket pitch in grey shifting curtains. “Looks like you made a lucky guess,” said Dada, “who would’ve thought it? Out of a clear blue sky, too.” They trudged home in a fine drizzle, which didn’t let up until late afternoon. A watery sun tentatively poked its head through the low cloud, but the summer’s day was definitely defeated.

“Just a lucky guess, that’s all,” said Dada to Mother, after supper, when Sybil was in bed.

Mother said with ominous calm: “Really? You wait and see.”

                                                            ***

“What a pity it’s such a rotten day,” said Dada gloomily peering out at the racing low clouds, and the thrashing tree branches. “I was looking forwards to our trip to Shelly Cover – didn’t you want to swim and hunt for starfish, like we did last time?”

“We can still go,” said Sybil, “the sun’s shining there – it’s a lovely day at the beach. Oh please, Dada, let’s go?” and she turned an imploring face up to Dada, for once showing a vestige of enthusiasm.

“”But … look outside, child!  There’s no point.”

“Yes there is, please let’s go, Dada,” said Sybil, unusually persistent.

“Yes, lets,” chimed in Mother, with a deeply significant look at Dada. “I’m sure Sybil will be right – I’ve already made a picnic lunch, let’s give it a try”.

Sybil was correct, of course, and the family spent a glorious day at the beach.

“Well?” asked Mother, after supper when Sybil was in bed. “What do you say now, George?”

George wasn’t convinced. “You know how changeable the weather is in this part of the country. I don’t know. It’s crazy!” he burst out. “How can a six year old know what the weather’s going to do?”

“Haven’t a clue,” replied Mother, “but you must admit she’s always right”.

In the end, Dada had to tacitly admit Sybil was always right. He won a few modest bets down at the pub on local sporting events, his casual enquiries to Sybil about the likelihood of rain the next day, or on Saturday, always resulted in a confident reply. And she was always right. Once Dada asked her: “how do you know whether it’s going to rain or blow, Sybil?”

Sybil was baffled. “I dunno,” she replied, “I just do.”

 Over the years Dada and Mother went through a series of heated arguments on the topic of Sybil’s strange affinity with the weather. Mother was all for leaving well alone “I’m sure she’ll grow out of it, once she gets a bit older – you know – when she gets to that age “ . Mother wasn’t comfortable discussing puberty with George.

  He, on the other hand, wanted to have Sybil tested, to find out how she did it, what it meant. Mother’s reaction was characteristically unhelpful. “And just who are you going to ask? Dr Widdows? The Rector?” She had a point. Dr Widdows, the local GP, was heading for a doddery eightieth birthday; the Rector was as deaf as a post.

“We could take her to the University,” he suggested.

“And say what?” asked Mother. “Tell them we have an eight year old daughter who’s a weather prophet?”

George dropped the idea. But Sybil’s strange talent gnawed away at him. How did she do it? Neither he nor Mother had any scientific training, any university education; or any particular interest in meteorology, for that matter. It was very odd. He did a bit of research on the Internet, at work. During the lunch-break nobody came into the Stores, and he could play on the computer to his heart’s content. His workmates teased him about watching porn, but he shrugged off their innuendo, and continued to research his daughter’s unusual gift.

“I don’t suppose,” he said cautiously, “that your Granny or any of your old Aunties, could do this weather thing, could they?”

Mother shook her head, but looked pensive.
Well,” prodded George, “out with it”.

Mother slowly said, “I do remember my Granny Lee telling me about her mother,  I never met her, I think she’d already died by the time I was born – something about my great-Granny  …“ she stopped and fiddled with the teaspoon in her teacup.

“Yes?” prompted George “Go on. What about her.”

Reluctantly Mother said in a low voice “Well, I think my Great-Granny – and that part of the family – I think they lived in caravans.” She raised her troubled face to George, who looked mystified.

“Don’t you understand? They were gypsies!“ snapped Mother. “There. I’ve told you!” she leant back in her chair and glared at George.

“So?” replied George. “They were gypsies. What of it? That’s all long ago and far away. Now I know where you got your pretty black curls!” and he grinned at his wife.

His attempt at humour fell flat. “It’s a gypsy curse, I’m telling you,” said Mother ominously, “this is no gift.”

George looked steadily at his wife. “Now, Betty,” he said in his most reasonable voice, “please: think about what you’re saying. Why should it be a curse? Why can’t it be a a talent, a gift? Maybe her fairy godmother flew over her cradle at the christening, and we didn’t notice”, he continued, trying to lighten her sombre mood.

“No”, replied Mother, “you didn’t notice, did you? At the christening. Those two old women at the back of the church.”

George’s face was a picture of incomprehension. “Well, I noticed them, even if you didn’t,” replied Mother in a defiant tone. She’d done her best to blot out the memory  these many years, but it was a relief, in a way, to talk openly about it now. She could remember them, as if it were yesterday. Both old women were skinny, dressed in black, with black lace headscarves over their grey hair, a glint of gold in their wrinkled ears, a touch of gold on their wrists and fingers.  She remembered spotting them when she handed baby Sybil over to the Rector, but the baby’s loud crying over the cold water on her forehead had distracted her, and when the family left the church, the women had disappeared. She’d  dismissed them from her mind, but once Sybil’s strange weather talent  emerged, the memory  crept back.

There’d been other odd instances over the years; tiny nosegays of wild flowers would appear on the baby’s blanket, out in the garden, or a sun-ripened plum would appear on Sybil’s windowsill. Another time, one autumn, six chestnuts on a leaf appeared on the back step. Little seasonal tokens, little signs of unseen visitors. Betty always swept away the signs, or gifts, or whatever they were, and never spoke of them to either George or Sybil. She didn’t want to think about them.

Betty and George shelved the topic of gypsy heritage; it was too far-fetched for George to embrace, and too uncomfortable for Betty to deal with.

And then there was the recent episode with the birds. Mother signed heavily. On  Sybil’s eleventh birthday, she’d found a raven with a broken leg, on the path outside the kitchen. Without hesitation Sibyll picked it up, carried it to her bedroom, and nursed the bird back to health. The raven hardly made a sound, but croaked quietly whenever Sybil fed it.

After three weeks it disappeared. Just flew away. Betty wasn’t sorry. She didn’t like the bird. Ravens were a sign of bad luck, death even.  Later, the bird reappeared at intervals, landing neatly on Sybil’s windowsill, despite its crooked mended leg,  carrying  gifts in its beak. Thus far it had brought a shiny gilt button, the handle of a broken plastic fork, a tiny shiny white stone, and a golf tee. 

Following  the raven episode, Sybil brought home a series of wounded birds and doctored them back to health. She simply ignored her Mother’s complaints and questions, serenely going about her business with the birds, busy in her own little world.

It came as no surprise to George and Betty that Sybil failed her 11-plus examinations that year. “Sybil shows no interest in her schoolwork. She has no friends. We strongly suggest an appointment with the School Psychologist. We can arrange it for you,” said the headmistress.

Unanimously, Betty and George  chorused “no thank you”, and departed, leaving the headmistress perplexed.

“Now what?” asked Betty, looking piteously at George. They both knew that Sybil was different, a child of the winds and airs; not exactly handicapped, not exactly fey,   but not exactly your average 11-year old either.

“Don’t worry, Betty,” said George “I’ve been working on a plan for a while.  Let me explain.” He made Betty a cup of tea, and revealed he’d made a tidy nest egg over the years, quietly using Sybil’s weather forecast powers to make winning bets on sporting fixtures. He’d mastered the skill of on-line betting, succeeding in remaining  anonymous, placing his bets around the country, never going for the jackpot, just a steady stream of winning bets. “I think we should  take her out of school – let’s face it, she’s not interested is she? She can read and write, do some figure-work, but I can’t see her going to college or holding a job, can you?” Reluctantly Betty nodded agreement. “Maybe  if we tell people she’s being home-schooled, then we can quietly leave her be. She’s no trouble to anyone, you must admit,” proposed George. “We live in a quiet village, there’s plenty of countryside for her to roam, play with her birds, just be herself. And if I carry on with the betting, we’ll be able to buy her a little cottage of her own when she’s grown, and we’ve .. well, gone.”

                                                            ***

Sybil gently drifted through the years, preoccupied with her birds, spending hours dreamily surveying the sky.  Her teenage years slipped past without any of the normal tempests experienced by her one-time peers. The village girls blossomed  into extravagant makeup, tight revealing clothes, hormone induced sparring with the local lads, binge drinking whenever they could get away with it.  George saw them in the pub over weekends, young , loud, drunken, and loutish.

 His Sybil was the exact opposite. She preferred her own company, wafting inconspicuously through the house, their garden, the surrounding farms and countryside. Her clothing was always in pale shades of blue or grey, or cloudy, long gathered skirts, or faded dungarees and tee-shirts. Dippy Hippy! Yelled the local boys, catcalling, but always from a good, safe distance.

 They still remembered the time Darren Gooden tried to grab Sybil and mess around with her, behind the Village Hall one placid summer’s evening. Sybil had been in her usual trance, strolling home, when Darren jumped out, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her roughly to him : “How’s about a kiss Hippy Girl?” he leered. Out of nowhere, out of a clear sky, a blizzard of black feathers targeted the boy, a veritable hail of crows and ravens, cawing, croaking, screeching, pecking and clawing at his head, hands, legs. It was a maelstrom of feathers, thrashing arms, pumping legs, yelling – like that old film – The Birds , reported one bemused onlooker who’d run out of the Village Pub, alerted by the yelling.

Darren pelted off, trying to protect his head with his arms and his anorak, pursued by a cloud of vengeful black birds. Sybil was nowhere to be seen. Darren’s face, arms and legs were a bruised scabby mess for weeks, and after that, the teenage population gave Sybil a very wide berth indeed. They might mutter weirdo under their breath, when they saw her in the Village, but they took care to mutter quietly.

                                                            * * *

Life flowed smoothly until the day George watched TV coverage of the traditional Appleby Horse Fair.  He was so engrossed in the scenes of horses, colourful crowds, the traditional painted caravans sprinkled amongst the modern motor-homes, that he was unaware of Sybil’s presence, behind his armchair.

“What’s that, Dad? Where’s that?”

George jumped. “Oh – you startled me!  that’s the annual Appleby Horse Fair held in Cumbria –  it’s the oldest horse-fair in Britain, been going since 1685 they say. Horse traders and gypsies come from all over Britain  to …“

“Oh! Dada! Aren’t they pretty!” breathed Sybil, gazing spellbound at the TV screen.

George turned round in astonishment to gape at his daughter. Normally Sybil never interrupted him – in fact, she seldom spoke, and then usually in a semi-whisper.

“What’s that, my lovely?” he asked.

“Those”, replied Sybil pointing at the traditional wooden caravans.  “I want to live in one of those!”  and with that she abruptly left the room.

George was nonplussed.  Sybil seldom showed enthusiasm for anything – a new dress, a birthday gift, a surprise outing all received the same polite, but lukewarm response.  He shook his head. Well, that was Sybil. She was different.

Next morning Betty rushed into their bedroom and shook George violently. “Wake up! Sybil’s gone! She’s not in her room – bed not slept in – George! Wake up!”

George and Betty searched the house, the garden and the surrounding woods and fields, but without success. No-one had seen Sybil in the village either. Betty checked Sybil’s cupboards and finally decided that a few skirts and tops were missing, along with her green rucksack, her hairbrush, her toothbrush, other basic necessities.

“She’s definitely gone,” announced Betty. “But where? What do we do now?”

“Here:  I’ve made tea, have a cuppa, love,” said George, “I think I know where. Listen to this.” He related the TV incident, Sybil’s fascination with the gypsy wagons.

“Oh no,” wailed Betty when he’d finished, “I told you, there’s a curse!”

“Nonsense”, said George robustly, “remember she’s eighteen years old, about time she spread her wings a little, don’t you think? I mean it’s not Mars, its only Cumbria, not that far away. Is it?” he added doubtfully. “I think we should wait and see – only until Monday, mind you, and then if she’s not back we’ll report it to the Police.”

But they didn’t have to wait  for the three days to elapse. Next morning, Betty was in the kitchen clearing away the breakfast table, when there was a loud, persistent  rapping on the kitchen window. She turned, and saw the raven on the sill, pecking diligently at the glass.

“What do you want, you black devil!” shouted Betty, waving her arms at the bird, “Shoo! Go away! Sybil’s not here.”

The bird didn’t budge. It stayed on the sill, pecking, pecking at the window glass. Clearly, it wasn’t going to stop. What on earth could it want? Betty reluctantly opened the window a crack.  To her astonishment the raven stayed on the sill, and extended a leg towards her. Betty saw something  beige – a slip of paper, maybe – wrapped round the birds leg, tied with a thin piece of string. “What in the world?” whispered Betty, eyeing the bird distrustfully. The raven looked her in the eye and bent its head to worry at the string with  pecks and nudges.

“Okaaay”, whispered Betty, fearfully extending her hand towards the bird. She didn’t trust that strong, sharp beak, but the raven again thrust its leg towards Betty, who gingerly tugged at the string, but in the end, had to fetch scissors and snip the string to retrieve the slip of paper.  To her astonishment the raven remained docile, co-operative, even. Betty smoothed out the crumpled paper and saw it was half a train ticket – she could just make out the word Whitby. “My God,” she gasped, looking at the raven, which cocked its head to the side, and gave a low croak.

“For goodness sake,” exclaimed Betty to George that evening, when she’d shared the exciting news, “anyone else would have picked up the phone and called us, but no! not Sybil – she sends a raven! “

“That’s airmail for you,” laughed George, relieved and proud that his strange daughter had thought to allay her parents’ worries over her abrupt disappearance. “Come to think of it,” continued George thoughtfully, “I  don’t believe I ever saw Sybil on the ‘phone – did you? So raven-airmail makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose. If you’re Sybil,” he added with a rueful laugh.

Periodically the raven would reappear, always with a message wrapped round its leg. There was a cross-Channel ferry ticket stub; then a shred of a till slip in French.

“That bird ‘s clocking up plenty air-miles,” said George as they marvelled over another till-slip fragment in a language they couldn’t identify. “I had no idea they could fly that far. I hope you’re offering it something, for all its troubles!”

“As a matter of fact I am,” said Betty “last week I gave it bacon scraps from breakfast, “it loved those; it eats toast crusts too, but it wasn’t keen on the sunflower seeds I bought specially for it. Maybe you can research on the Internet what ravens like to eat ?”

“Mmmhh”, replied George neutrally, knowing full well that ravens first choice was road-kill. “I’d stick to toast and bacon rinds, if I were you.”

                                                            * * *

The next raven-mail was puzzling: it was a short length of plaited human hair, secured by an elastic band to the bird’s leg. Betty identified the fine whispy mouse brown strands as Sybil’s hair, but the thick, glossy black hair? Whose was that?

“Whatever do you think it means? If only that bird could talk! I can see the brown hair is Sybil’s, but the black hair? Whose is that – and it curls!” she added, distrustfully eyeing the strong black curly strands.

Hesitantly George said “I think it might mean she’s found a fella.”

After this episode, the raven was absent for months.  The following Spring it arrived at the kitchen window, looking a bedraggled, and extending its leg in the customary way.
“Oh, you’re back”, cried Betty, “what a relief! Where have you been? And look at the state of you! What have you brought us this time? Why – whatever’s that?” Finally she managed to cut a grimy snippet of pink ribbon off the bird’s leg. The raven devoured every scrap she offered, and hung around for a week, demanding food every time Betty went into the kitchen.

“I suppose this means we’re grand-parents?” said George slowly. “Who knows?”

“I think you’re right” said Betty, “if only we could see them. I wonder where Sybil is now? Must be somewhere really far, judging from the state of that bird.”

Finally, the raven departed, looking fatter and glossier after a week’s rest. “Bye bye”, called Betty, “come back soon”. A soft croak floated down to her, as the bird flapped purposefully away.

It was a chilly November autumn morning when Betty awoke to a hail of pecking on the bedroom window.  She staggered out of bed and drew the curtains, “All right, all right, keep yer feathers on, I’m coming” she muttered, and then gasped. The windowsill was covered in ravens, as were all six trees in their garden. Overhead a cloud of black birds circled restlessly over the roof, swirling back and forth, cawing and croaking.

“George – wake up! There’s something going on – wake up,  do! I’m scared! Come and see the birds!”

“What? “ said George, “wassamatter?” Betty yanked him out of  bed, and shoved him to the window. They stared out uncomprehendingly, fearful. Suddenly the entire flock of birds veered off around to the back of the house. Wordlessly Betty and George rushed downstairs, into the kitchen, and wrenched open the back door. Utter silence descended, not a bird moved.

There, on the back step, was a woven wicker basket, filled with clothing and coarse gaily striped blankets, under which something moved feebly. Not a bird stirred. Clutching George for support, Betty cautiously threw off the clothing and the two uppermost blankets, to reveal a tiny baby swaddled up Indian papoose style,  trying to wriggle out of its bindings. Springy black curls peeped out from a brightly coloured woven cap, its caramel coloured face was wrinkled with effort, and its dark red lips parted to let out an aggravated bellow. At the sound, every bird instantly took off, and the flock retired safely to the treetops, apart from the airmail raven, which hopped onto the edge of the basket, and extended a claw towards the yelling baby.

“How the hell did that bird carry a basket?” stuttered George.

“Don’t be silly George,” snapped Betty “it couldn’t possibly; humans must have brought it. You don’t suppose? “ she said hopefully,  her voice quavering. “Sybil! Sybil! “ she called, setting off the flock again into a cacophony of cawing. But answer came there none.

That was the airmail raven’s  final delivery. Thereafter it devoted itself to the baby.  Despite Betty’s initial efforts to chase the raven away from the baby’s basket, she finally admitted defeat, and left the bird in peace, perched on the edge of the basket, where it served as an efficient avian baby-monitoring system.

“What’re we going to called her?” asked George, once they’d tacitly agreed that this was indeed their grand-child, and would remain with them. “How about Raven? It’d suit those black curls and those eyes!”

“Over my dead body,” snapped Betty “no grandchild of mine’s going to be named after that bird! Rose is a pretty name, don’t you think? Remember the snippet of rose pink ribbon the raven brought us?” So the baby was duly christened Rose Sybil in the village church. Betty surreptitiously kept an eye out for old back crones lurking in the back of the church, but to her relief, they didn’t appear. That night she casually commented on the fact to George, who grinned and said “So no gypsy curse for our little Rose, hey Betty?”

Betty glared at him, but didn’t rise to the bait. Betty needn’t have worried. Rose grew into a sturdy child, chubby arms and legs, round face, framed with bouncy black curls.  Her eyelashes were thick and black, and her dark eyes sparkled with lively curiosity. Around the age of three she entered the Why Phase: Why this? Why that? George exhibited saintly patience with the endless questions, Betty less so. Inevitably one day, when she was nearly five, Rose asked the question: “Grampy , why do I live with you and Nanna?  Where’s my Mummy? “

Without even thinking George replied “Oh, your Mummy’s out there somewhere, exploring the wide world, drifting along with the clouds … that’s why she sent you to us with the Raven, so we could look after you and love you lots – that’s the why of it.”

Rose looked thoughtful, and George held his breath. Then her face cleared and she asked “Grampy, will you play French cricket with me after tea? Please, please!”

“Of course, my lovely,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief.

THE END

8 Comments

Filed under WRITING

8 responses to “SYBIL’S  GIFTS

  1. Loved it! Hope you get (or have had?) it published. Peter is reading it as I write!

    Lots of love Sue 🤗

    Tel: 01263 584179 A day without laughter is, like, night.

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So ‘n heerlike storie!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was excellent! I really enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, Alison, this was spell-binding! What a lovely story! Write again!

    Like

  5. Dear Alison, What a delightful story! Enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

    On Tue, 11 May 2021 at 16:17, despatchesfromtimbuktu wrote:

    > alison41 posted: ” By A M Smith © Sybil was attuned to the weather. No > doubt about it. Always was, right from babyhood. As a baby she was quite > content to lie on a blanket in the sunny back garden, gazing upwards for > hours, staring at ” >

    Liked by 1 person

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