I record these events in my journal, both because Bishop Levi has requested it, and because I feel I must. I was not present for all the events that I am about to record, but they have been told to me by my brother as best he can recall. This journal is not about me, for I played only a small role, but rather about my younger brother’s ordeal, and that of his five year old son’s, and of the woman.
Before I can begin to describe what happened this Advent, I must first tell you a bit about my younger brother David. He is four years younger than me, and teaches history at the local university. His speciality is medieval folklore, and you can find countless books on the subject in his home.
His life has been filled with tragedy. When he was twenty, our parents were killed in a car crash. David was driving that winter night, only three days before Christmas. David only suffered minor cuts and bruises in the accident. That was twelve years ago. Christmas was always a difficult time for him after that. There was little to celebrate, and few to celebrate with since I had my duties as a priest to attend to. I feared that he would never look on the holidays with joy again.
That is until he met his wife three years later.
I always remember how fond of her David was. For three years they tried to have children. And five years ago, they were finally successful. But his wife, Alice, died in childbirth from haemorrhaging. The child, Noah, lingered too long in the womb while the doctors tried in vain to save Alice’s life. For a period of five minutes, Noah did not have any oxygen in his brain, and that has led to permanent brain damage. Noah will never learn to talk, and he can walk only slowly even after five years.
One of my deepest challenges has been David’s rejection of God after his wife’s terrible death. We still talk, and he still lives only two blocks from the rectory and the church, but he does not attend Mass, and he will not talk matters of faith with me. Caring for Noah has been a heavy burden for him, and sometimes I have helped in looking after the child while I am at the rectory working on next Sunday’s homily. Noah is a sweet child, despite his disability, and I have grown quite fond of him.
It is important to remember this tragedy, as it has coloured all aspects of David’s life in the last five years. And I believe it is the reason that he proved so vulnerable to the woman who came into his life only one week before this past Christmas. Though I only met her twice – and the second time saw her end – I still feel that I have brushed too closely to something forbidden and best left forgotten. But we cannot shirk from the mysteries of this world. Even those we thought only myth or legend.
The woman was named Alice just as David’s wife had been. She also bore a remarkable similarity in appearance to his departed wife. I think now on it and recall that her features were much the same, but it was not the same person behind the eyes. Some different countenance was there, and I could not help but reflect that even the same face will look different when somebody else uses it. But the feel of familiarity left me with a chill when I beheld her for the first time.
I am getting ahead of myself. Let me describe instead the day that David met this other Alice.
Winds raced across the small town, battering trees and signposts. Even the great bell that hung resonantly in the church steeple swung ponderously back and forth as it strained against the wind. People clutched their cloaks tightly around their hunched shoulders, pushing against the wall of air like burrowing moles. On the horizon dark clouds gathered, carrying the promise of snow to follow the wind.
The wind did more than just make tree branches bend or bells turn. The very colour in the sky was sapped, blue draining into a feeble gray. Homes bore a gaunt look, and the façade of cheerfulness the town possessed in Spring and Summer was given over to a deathly pallor. Bright lights flickered within the homes, but their warmth did not penetrate to the streets.
Those few who walked the streets were bundled so tightly against the wind and the cold that their faces were hidden, pinched tightly, or reduced to a small hole in the front of their coats. Words were sucked away by those winds, and so even when two wanderers passed each other by, they said nothing, only went about their business with single-minded purpose.
Holiday garlands were strung up along the main street lights. The winds lifted them, clawing at their substance, and succeeded in yanking a few of the down, dashing them mercilessly upon the asphalt. Christmas was but one week away, the schools were closed, and yet few dared to shop for gifts. It was a better day to stay indoors and enjoy the warmth of hearth and home that the winds could not snatch away.
With students gone home for the holidays, the library itself was nearly abandoned. Only a few brave souls had ventured within its empty halls that day, and most of them worked there. They laboured to straighten up the messes left behind in the wake of students studying feverishly for the final exams. Now, it was the domain of teachers doing a little research.
David was one such instructor. He sat at a small table bent over a tome of medieval lore that he had hoped to read that year, but pressing matters had kept him from doing. At his feet sat a small child whose gaze wandered aimlessly. Between the child’s legs was a small device of wooden baubles and twisted wire. The child would lift one of the wooden baubles along the wire until it reached a summit, when it would slide down along the wire until it reached a trough in its path.
Outside the wind howled, but David did not hear it, focussing instead on the words before him. Here he found old stories of myth and legend, of creatures that dwelled in the night against whom peasants defended themselves with superstition and religious icon. A smile twitched at the corner of David’s lips as he studied these things that had always fascinated him so. They were the goblins and gremlins of history, those creatures that lurked within icy shadows waiting to claim a foolish victim, or more often than not, the defenceless innocent who had been abandoned.
Schubert’s Erlkönig danced madly in his mind as he studied all of the similarities and differences. What boogeymen that man did make, some of them changed drastically from culture to culture, yet others remained oddly the same. There was a slight trembling to his fingers as he turned each new page. And when he finished the section, the music itself that he knew so well also began to fade.
David sighed and leaned back in his chair, looking up at the window and the bleak world beyond. The cold grey of Fall had not yet given in to the Winter white, but it appeared only a matter of time. The afternoon sun tried in vain to pierce the sky, but it brought no warmth to their town.
He looked down at the boy playing at his side and frowned. Noah slid one of the baubles along its wire down to the other side. His motions were slow and deliberate. There was no cognizance in them. A rat could follow its way through a maze with more cleverness than could this child navigate a bit of wood over string.
It was not that David did not love his son. On the contrary he had a great fondness for the child, and did not mind the fact that he would have to spend the remainder of his life caring for a person who would always be incapable of caring for himself. It was merely that David recognized Noah’s incapabilities, catalogued the ways in which the child fell short, repeated them to himself so that he might never forget them, and loved him anyway.
David’s frown faded after several long seconds. In that time, the boy was able to move one additional wooden donut along the contraption. It was the same sort that one perennially found in paediatrician’s waiting rooms. David bought one and carried it with him when he had to take Noah out of the house. He found it kept the boy occupied for hours, which, when he wanted to come to the library to study in peace and quiet worked wonders. The only sound he ever had to endure was the plink of the wooden baubles as they landed.
At the beginning of each semester when he came to study, he found it hard to avoid the inquiring approach of students. They saw the boy and wanted to greet him and by way of befriending his child, gain some favour with the child’s father (and inevitably their instructor). When they realized that Noah was retarded, their interest quickly waned he found. It was both cynical and exploitive, but it was the best way to insure his privacy.
So it came as a surprise to David when he heard the sharp click of a woman’s shoes approaching him down the tiled hallways of the library. David returned his eyes to the book, finding the next chapter to be not on European folklore, which was his forte, but on early Colonial folklore. Nevertheless, he began to read of the fears of Puritans and Pilgrims, and of the things that went bump in their night. The brazen fear of the Schubert lieder did not seem appropriate anymore, and so he let the music he played in his mind fall silent.
“Excuse me,” a firm but slender voice called from behind him. David felt a skeletal hand grip his spine and tighten. His hands, once holding the next page firmly, became limp and sagged at the sound of her voice. “Excuse me?” she said again, and David found himself turned around by that post-mortem appendage.
The woman that stood several yards behind him, between two shelves stuffed with musical manuscripts, was smiling ever so subtly. She was wearing a heavy woolen coat over what hinted at a verdant dress framing a slender but not anorexic figure. Her breasts were hidden by the coat, but between them he could see she wore a black tulip about her neck, though it looked metal and there was the faintest glint of something inside. His eyes lifted to her face and beheld lips creased into laugh lines that appeared unused lately. Above them sat faint green eyes that hid behind small secretary-style spectacles.
David could not speak as he stared at that face. Its lines were so familiar, but a veil was drawn across his mind and he could not say what made him shiver suddenly so. Beside him and on the floor, Noah did not even look up from the baubles. Another wooden donut plinked.
“Forgive me for interrupting,” the woman said and took another step forward. “But you are Dr. David Borge?”
He nodded dumbly. Whatever sepulchral fiend had claimed his tongue set it loose then. “Yes, but you can call me David. What can I do for you, ma’am?”
She looked beyond him for a moment at the window, and then her eyes settled on him once more. One hand reached up and plucked the glasses from her nose and she rubbed the lenses against the outside of her coat, as if she were cleaning them. “I was told that you are the expert on folklore.”
Few are the men who do not feel pride when complimented on their work. David was no different. His smile was slow and effacing. “Well, on certain aspects of folklore. I know little about Native American folklore for instance.”
Her smile then sent another jolt along his spine. Something in the back of his mind was active for the first time in a long time, some remembered bit striving towards the surface, but it was held tightly in check. “I was hoping to study folklore. Perhaps you could help me get started in the right direction.”
Plink. David nodded dumbly. “Of course. I’m reading a book here on folklore. Perhaps you could sit down and I could should you some of the rudiments.”
A slight chuckle reverberated from her throat. “And you are not even going to ask me my name?”
David flushed with embarrassment and stuttered as he rose to his feet. The chair scraped noisily against the floor. “Oh, my apologies, ma’am. I’m David, as you know. Uh, what’s your name?”
“Alice.” It was shared through tight lips as if she were revealing a secret organization that would kill her for doing so rather than something so simple as what her parents had called her at birth.
“Alice,” he repeated, smiling slightly. “I knew somebody named Alice once.” He added, though strangely, he could not think of her just then.
“It’s not an uncommon name,” Alice replied as she came over to his side. She glanced down at Noah who so far had not yet looked up to notice her. The boy was still sitting with the contraption nestled between his splayed legs. His finger guided one of the wooden baubles slowly along its track. “And this is your son?”
“Noah.” David grimaced and gestured to the book that lay open on the table. “Take my chair. I’ll get another.”
She smiled winsomely and then glided down into the chair. The coat still clung about her shoulders. David walked stiffly to the table one window down and took its chair. It was the heavy wooden chairs common to libraries, with old cushions that seemed a part of history themselves. He sat it down heavily next to Alice.
“You’ve loved folklore all of your life?” Alice asked as her fingers traced across the page. She did not seem to be looking at the words, rather her eyes gazed around them as if she were only pretending to read.
“Yes. It has always fascinated me,” he admitted with a small smile. He still felt as if he were in the grip of some unearthly hand, and so he sat straighter.
“What fascinates you about it?” Alice began to turn the pages, slowly lifting them with one finger and guiding them across the empty air above the book. They turned around her finger like obedient dogs.
“Well,” David said, looking from the book to her. She was not staring at him just then, and he admired the smoothness of her cheeks, her high ears, and the way it all sloped together into her neck. The barest hint of her neck was visible just above the puffy line of the coat. It looked more like cream than flesh, like warm milk and honey. His tongue pressed against the back of his teeth.
“Well,” he repeated, when he realized that he had fallen into silence. “I have always liked to know the stories people told to explain those things that they could not fathom. Most of them have some kernel of truth in them, you know. Somebody sees something that he doesn’t understand, and he tells his friends and neighbours about the marvel that he saw. Well, the story is exaggerated in its retelling, and pretty soon, the reality is covered under by the tale. I love folklore because I want to understand what truth it may have been that led people to tell those stories.”
Alice turned her eyes upon him, staring at him over the rim of her spectacles. “You mean none of these folktales was just made up completely? Nothing just to tell a good story?”
He smiled a bit more as he warmed to the subject. “Well, not every story the ancients, or even our own forebears told was one of great importance. I’m sure that there are countless fables we’ll never know because they weren’t written down, or for whatever reason, they were not passed on. I’m sure that war, famine, and plague have eradicated stories as well as lives. But all the ones that we do know, seem to explain some phenomenon of the natural world, or to impart good advice for living. A good story, I guess is one that tells us something important.”
The woman leaned forward, and her necklace leaned forward. David could not decide if it looked more like a bell or a tulip. It made no sound though as it strained against its chain. “So, are there any folktales that are true?”
The windows rustled from a sudden gust of wind. One of the wooden donuts plinked down under Noah’s steady finger. David frowned as he listened to those sounds and stared helplessly back into the woman’s eyes. “Do you mean, true as in what they say? I suppose that may be possible for some of them. But most are clearly fanciful. Nobody takes the stories of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus seriously, though there are valuable lessons to be learned from studying them.”
“I’ve heard it said that people just don’t believe enough anymore.” Alice’s eyes went back to the book. David felt his chest sag. “That our belief makes these things real. That would be sad if it were so, don’t you think?”
“Sad?” David leaned forward, resting one elbow on the table. He stared into her face, trying to catch her eyes again. She did not look up at him. “How do you mean sad?”
“That these tales, these bits of superstition. Isn’t it sad that people do not believe in them anymore? And if by doing so, that they would not be anymore?”
David shook his head. “I do not understand what you mean. Do you want the ghosts and goblins to be real?”
“These folktales filled the universe with wonders and marvels. Now we fill it with thermodynamics and resonance. It doesn’t seem as magical does it?”
“No, I suppose not. But that’s the interesting thing though, Alice.” He smiled once more, showing the tips of his teeth. “Even in this day, we have our own folktales. The monster under the bed. Santa Claus. The bogeyman. And all those horror movies with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. They are the new folktales. And they are also just retellings of the old folktales, updated for our time. So you see, people still believe in them, even if they tell themselves that they are just stories. They are still being told.”
Alice’s own smile came then, wide and filling her lips. There was a soft susurration of delight in the air, and it made David tremble. It was cut short by another wooden bauble plinking in Noah’s toy. “Good. That makes me glad. I had not seen it that way.” She turned once more towards him, her hand resting upon the book. There was a warmth in her eyes that David wished he could immerse himself in. But that warmth did not pass beyond her spectacles. “Thank you for telling me that.”
And then she rose from her seat and pulled the coat tighter. “Wait!” David called, still trembling.
Alice looked down at him. He hastily rose to his feet. “Wait, don’t go. There is more to learn if you want to hear.”
He felt as if he were being studied thoughtfully, as if he were a specimen for a class to dissect just so they could see what his organs looked like. Her perusal took several seconds. Finally, mercifully, she turned away from him and back towards the book. “Do you want me to stay then?”
“Yes, Alice. Please stay.” He could not believe the sound of desperation that had filled his voice.
“Very well, I shall stay. But I must be going soon. I have a long journey ahead of me, and I do not want to travel at night.”
David looked out the window. The sun would set soon, such as it was. The grey clouds continued their relentless trek across the sky, and somewhere behind them, the sun lingered, a pale withered thing in the winter air. “Do you have far to go?”
“Very far, I’m afraid.”
“Well, if you want, you can spend the night at my place. I would like to tell you more.”
Alice’s smile was pleased. He felt a rush of excitement then. That hand about his spine tightened its grip though, and he stepped closer. His hand found hers, cupping the cool flesh. “Please, I would very much like to have you stay the night.”
“Very well.” She tightened her grip. “I will stay the night. As you have invited me, I can hardly refuse.” Alice smiled again. The bell that lay within her bodice vibrated. “Now, tell me more about your studies. You work in medieval folklore, is that not true?”
Just then, he heard the distant chiming of the afternoon bell. The bell in the parish steeple always rang during the afternoon daily mass. Right at the moment his older brother was standing before the sacrifice of the Eucharist and blessing it. As David and Alice sat back down, with the faint echo of that bell thrumming in the air, he felt a strange sort of nausea.
David blinked his eyes. The world before them swam, and light changed its consistency. Reality seemed to draw back from his eyes like parting fog. Alice did not seem to wear a coat anymore, at least not of wool. There was something for a moment there, bright green in hue. Long claws clutched the edge of the cloak, and there was something else, shining brilliantly.
And then, the moment passed, the sound of the bell dispersing under Noah’s plink. David fell into his seat, stomach twisting into knots.
“David?” she said, turning to him. The fog had passed, and his eyes cleared. She was sitting as before, just as he had known her to be. “Are you all right? You look a little white.”
“I? Uh. I don’t know. Sorry, just felt dizzy for a moment I think.”
Her smile was both soothing and electrifying. “Then shall we continue?”
David nodded, happy to do so. The echo of the bell faded even then from his mind. All he wanted once again was to tell this woman of folklore, and to tell her about it all through the night.
Father Samuel Borge pulled his coat tighter around his ears. The wind was slowing down, but it was still bitterly cold. And with the sun now set, the deep chill of night was beginning to settle over the streets. It was impossible to see any stars, and the moon had yet to rise anyway. But there were plenty of lights on in the homes along the street, so he had no trouble seeing his way along the sidewalk.
A smile graced his chapped lips as he thought back on the daily mass that he’d given only a few hours before. Advent had always been one of his favourite times of the year, and it pleased him to see so many of his parishioners come to daily mass. Normally, there were only a handful of people that would attend, but he counted nearly five times the usual showing that afternoon. Of course, the schools were out, he reminded himself. It would not do to think that it was the quality of his homilies that brought them out into the cold after all.
But it was evening, and it being a Thursday, he was walking the two blocks from the rectory to his younger brother’s house. It was their habit to share dinner together on Thursday evenings. Friday and Saturday he would be too busy with preparations for Sunday. And especially at this time of the year, he had to enjoy any moment to be with family that he could afford. But Samuel did not mind truly. It was all part of being a priest after all.
The greatest pain being that his brother David no longer came to Mass. But he would always ask and invite him back. It was what the Lord would want him to do after all. He just had to be patient.
And after five years, patience and that little bit of hope was all that there was left.
A gust of wind bit into his face, and Samuel pulled his cloak tighter. Christmas lights lined many of the homes he passed, though they did not warm him as they usually did. There was a metallic tang in the air, like before a summer storm. It was odd to taste it in winter. The sky, though dark, felt close and oppressive, like a giant hand crushing into his back.
Samuel hunched forward and tucked his gloved hands beneath his arms and moved a bit faster. He felt some relief though. David’s house was visible now. There were no holiday decorations upon it, but the bedroom light was on at least. It took Samuel a moment to realize that it was the only light on.
Now that was certainly odd, the priest thought. Normally, David was up working in the living room at this hour. But the living room windows were dark, as were the dining room windows. They were like men standing atop a grave, silent and brooding as they peered into the darkness below.
Samuel chastised himself for letting his imagination loose. Perhaps David was watching something on TV. It would not have been the first time after all.
Still, there was a part of him that felt a terrible fear inside. This time of the year was always difficult for his younger brother after all. David hadn’t made his annual trip to their parent’s grave site yet. Perhaps Samuel could find time tomorrow to bring him. Yes, he would have to try.
Though there was light coming from the bedroom window, the curtains were drawn and he could see nothing beyond. When Samuel rang the doorbell, listening to the chordal bell tones sound, he saw a shadow rise and walk past the window. He felt a start and a trembling began in his bones. It was not David’s silhouette, but that of some woman’s. Who could she be? David had not mentioned meeting another woman.
And then his heart lifted some. Perhaps finding another woman to share his life was just what his younger brother needed. Alice’s death had been the reason he’d become so bitter and reclusive. Perhaps this other woman could even bring David back to the church.
Samuel smiled as the porch light came on and the door opened. He then felt his heart clutch in his chest. His legs became numb and weak, and he had to grip the door jamb to keep from falling down. “Good evening,” he stuttered as he stared at a woman’s face. Her expression was one of mild annoyance, and then recognition. At her neck he noticed a necklace that ended in a small black metal bell.
“Ah, good evening Father. David told me you might come. He’s sorry but he won’t be able to have dinner with you this evening.”
Her voice, it taunted his mind – he’d heard it before. Her face, it too was familiar, yet stretched, or shrunken, he wasn’t sure. It certainly was twisted in some way that he could not fathom. His eyes could not help but be drawn to that bell though. There was something about it, the way the light slid along its surface that made him tremble anew.
“Ah, that is unfortunate,” Samuel replied. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of your acquaintance. I’m Samuel, David’s older brother.”
One of her eyes lifted curiously at that remark. “Are you really?” She asked, although it seemed rhetorical. “My name is Alice.”
“Alice?” Samuel asked, dumbfounded. “That’s odd.” And then, something stabbed into his mind and he narrowed his eyes. For just a moment, a single moment, it was as if he’d been staring into the face of David’s dead wife.
He fell back a step and shook his head. “Are you all right, Father?” Alice asked, leaning a bit out the doorway. Though it was bitterly cold outside, and Alice was garbed only in a slender green dress, she did not seem to be cold at all. In fact, Samuel realized, he felt none of the house’s escaping warmth, only the winter chill that burrowed into his bones.
“I am fine.” He hoped that she did not invite him in. Quite suddenly, he thought it best if he should go back to the rectory. “Do tell David that I hope to see him again soon. Tomorrow if he can.”
She nodded slowly and drew back within the doorway. “I will tell him. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.” Alice leaned back in further, gripping the end of the doorway. The bell at her necklace rocked back and forth as she did so, but there was no sound to it. “Good night, Father.”
“Good night,” he said. She closed the door then and the porch light flicked off once again. Samuel made the sign of the cross over the doorway and said a quick prayer.
He sucked air past his chapped lips and turned back. There was something wrong, he felt certain. He would have to call David in the morning, speak to him personally. That woman upset him, and it was more than just the name, the same as David’s late wife. That Alice had been a kind woman, one who had always been giving of herself, with a ready smile that brought warmth to all those around her. This Alice did not.
Sullen and worried, Father Samuel walked back to the rectory listening to the nocturne of winds amidst rustling tree branches.
Onto Part II of Silent Bells!
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