Flash Fiction Friday #3
All summer, I’ll be posting a flash story every Friday. This one is my copy editor’s favorite.
Peal and Ring
For Gretchen. Inspired by Bob Bauman, who suggested “church bells, 3:23 p.m., turquoise.”
Marie was in love with the boy who rang the church bells. She’d never met him, but she loved him all the same.
His bells’ peals resounded over the town—sometimes to mark the time of day, and other times to brighten lives and ears. They played softly for funerals, and slowly after the midday meal. They rose to a crescendo and echoed over the horse carts that got stuck in the street.
Up and down the scales, musical or atonal. The bells heralded all changes, soothed all hearts. Someone had to ring the bells, and it had to be a person who could climb all those steps. Marie liked the idea that it was a boy her age.
She loved the mysterious bell ringer. She loved his talent and his range. She loved the turquoise eyes she’d set in his imaginary face. She loved his care in choosing which piece to proclaim.
In the summer of her sixteenth year, when the food was plentiful and the workload was small, she gathered her courage and went to meet him. She took hold of her yellow bird’s cage—her only summer chore being to look after the pet—and set off across the town. She passed cows on the green, lowing and chewing. She waved to the travelling actors practicing their play at the end of the high street. She nodded to friendly neighbors and paused to let vegetable carts go by.
She walked until she arrived at the foot of the church tower. It was tacked onto the wooden chapel like an afterthought. Or perhaps the chapel itself was the afterthought, since that building was made of wood, but the bell tower was cool gray stone. The cobbled column rose higher than any other structure in the town by several stories, and she looked up and up and up as though it could point her toward the sun. She didn’t want the sun. She wanted the bells and the boy.
The door at the tower’s base was thick and wooden, held together with bulging iron grilles and nails. A tablet hung from one of these at eye level: “Only the holy may enter here.”
Marie would not let the message deter her. She hoisted her bird’s cage in her right hand and pushed on the door with her left. It opened, unbarred. To fortify herself, she sang a simple tune, one she’d only heard previously on the fiddle, and she repeated it over and over as she ascended the stairs.
Her thighs soon tired, and her bird arm drooped, but still she climbed. She moved slower, and the bird took up her song so that she could breathe more easily. And still she climbed. The afternoon light could not penetrate the staircase’s tube, but she heard the bells count off the hour. Three o’clock.
Still she climbed until there were no more stairs.
She collapsed to her knees on the open floor, jarring her bones on unforgiving stone. Other than her brief cry of pain, the bell tower was silent and lifeless. No whisper of cloth from the bell boy’s movement. No scent of ham floating her way as he chewed his lunch. Even her bird had gone mute.
“Hello?” she called. Her voice rang out, whispering echoes across the bells and bouncing off the tower walls.
She roamed among the bells, skimming her fingers over their smooth surfaces and inspecting the pulls on the insides. These were all attached to a huge loom whose purpose she could not divine.
Until 4 o’clock came. The ropes attached to the loom’s frame tautened and slackened so that they could play the hour. First the warning tune, and then the count. Bong, bong, bong, bong. She stuffed her fingers into her ears to keep the tones from deafening her.
The bells rang on their own without human touch! Marie would have stayed to observe further, but the hour was late and she needed to get home to make dinner.
From then on, every day for the rest of the summer, Marie returned to the tower whenever she finished her meager summer chores. After a few days, she stopped waiting for her beloved boy to appear, or for the vicar to chase her away. Instead, she began to work with the bells.
She repositioned pistons that had slipped so that the affected bells would ring clear. She tightened the ropes when they got too slack. She polished the metal so they would not rust.
The summer days lengthened and then grew shorter again, and finally the boy did appear in the tower. But he wasn’t a boy at all. He was an old man, stooped and with white hair, who smelled of pickled cabbage. His polishing cloth had little to do in the wake of Marie’s labor. But he smoothed and swished it anyway, polishing the bells like he was soothing his heart.
“Hello,” said Marie, the same as she’d done on that first day.
And, like that first day, she was greeted with silence.
“HELLO!” she said again.
This time, the boy who played the bells jumped. He shook his chamois at her. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
She stuffed wool strips in her ears and retrieved her own polishing cloth from her bag. Side by side, they looked after the bells and the ropes. “Could I set these up for a new song?” she asked.
“What was that?” he replied. “You’ve been here all along?”
When the old man left town, he took Marie as his new apprentice. Together, they cared for the countryside’s bells and made music sing out over the kingdom. When the old man died, she became the regional bell caretaker.
She hadn’t been in love with the boy who played the bells, after all, but with the bells themselves.