by Charles Matthias
“Hear the tolling of the bells...
They are neither man nor woman–
They are neither brute nor human–
They are Ghouls”
–Edgar Allan Poe
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.
“You know the old myth about how the weird
leave their spawn in cradles in exchange for the human babies they steal.”
For three long days David enjoyed the company of Alice. At first, it had seemed odd to wake up on the couch. And then he would remember that he had given his bed to the woman that had met him in the library. He would smile at the thought of her laying within his sheets clad only in her necklace, and then rise to make something for her to eat.
But Monday morning he merely lay upon the couch. From the sounds in the kitchen, the furtive whistling of the tea kettle and the soft embrace of the refrigerator door closing, he knew that she had risen already and was preparing him something with which to eat before they commenced their daily activities. He smiled to himself, half lost in the dream of those days, his back not in the least bit sore from having spent three nights sleeping upon the couch. And he remembered.
Each morning, he found her in bed, but each time she was already awake. Her eyes were thankful when he brought her tea. She smiled lightly with her lips, and would slide up from the warm quilts. Around her neck he saw she had already donned her necklace that ended in that alluring tulip that also seemed to be a bell. But she bore no other clothes, despite the chill of the air. It never appeared to bother her in fact.
They would talk then, he sitting on the edge of the bed, and she sipping from her tea. Dawn had not yet arrived at that point, so naturally their speech turned to matters of the dark, wonderings if there was anything out in the night that men only centuries before might have trembled in fear from. Alice was always intrigued by such things, and to David she seemed to yearn to meet them. And as they spoke, David too looked out those windows longingly, thirsting to meet the spectres that he had always thought man’s fancy.
When the sun would begin to rise, the sky would turn leaden grey. Clouds hung heavily over the land, silent and ponderous. Though light began to suffuse the town, the air was stifled. But, there was still light.
And at that point, Alice would rise from bed and slip into her green dress. It was the only clothing that she had apart from the woolen coat that hung by the foyer. On the second morning David had offered some of his wife’s clothing, as he judged they would fit her as well, but she demurred. It did not seem that her dress needed cleaning anyway. It was always fine and well cared for, never did a wrinkle stay within its mellifluous folds. In fact, David realized as he lay there on the couch pondering, her dress had seemed more exquisite each day.
His momentary confusion faded as he thought on the rest of their day. She would talk, and he would listen, letting the dulcet tones of her voice ring in his ears. The music that he listened to in his mind to help focus his thoughts faded into silence whenever she spoke. And he let her words surround his mind, shaping his thoughts to meet their melodious exegesis.
At some point he knew, he had taken care of Noah. The boy did not seem to notice Alice’s presence any more than he noticed other visitors. She was just there, and the five year old accepted it as plain fact. Most of the time, David put the contraption of wire and wooden baubles before the boy so that he might remain occupied while he enjoyed the pleasure of Alice’s discourse on all things of folklore. He really did not want to have to tend to the child after all, not when he could be with her.
And most of the time it was of folklore that they spoke. After they had risen, they would sequester themselves in the living room, sitting close on the couch with various books laid before them on the coffee table, esoteric tomes that David had procured over the years, studying the ghosts and goblins that had come in the night to frighten the people of past centuries.
They were David’s books though, and she would ask him such penetrating questions that he was left scraping at the deepest wells of his knowledge to satisfy her curiosity. It was so stimulating though to answer her and to listen to her thoughts and musings. Those old tales were true for her, that much he could tell. And as her words wound through his mind, filling it with the clear ringing of her cadences, he knew that in some way, they were true for him as well.
And there was so much more. So many intricacies and strange things that seemed to occur that his mind had difficulty cataloguing them all. Like what had happened when the church bells rang for Sunday Mass yesterday. Or when Alice had held Noah in her arms, and the little boy had reached up to touch the bell at her neck. Though the church bell was only two blocks away, he could barely hear it, but he certainly felt it. While the bell at Alice’s neck seemed to reverberate more clearly and harmonically. He felt commanded, in the moment that Noah had rung the bell, to look straight at the woman, even as the very air shimmered and distorted before him, leaving him for a single disoriented moment looking at something completely other.
But the morning, just as he was waking, was not the time he could even hope to attempt to understand all of it. David could only accept them as aspects of the wonder that came with Alice in his home.
He felt sure that they would spend the rest of the year discussing such things, delving deeper into the mysteries at the edge of man’s perception. But he knew that things would be different that day. Alice was already up and in the kitchen. David smiled as he caught the fresh whiff of tea on the air. The sound of a spoon clinking along the sides of a cup rang briefly. Shifting upon the couch, David sat up and looked back at the kitchen.
Alice was there, already dressed, carrying a cup of steaming tea towards him. She smiled. In her other hand was a small piece of paper. “Good morning,” she said. It was still dark outside, but a quick glance at the grandmother clock that sat upon his mantle told him that the sun would soon rise.
“Good morning, Alice,” he replied, feeling a warmth suffuse him. He took the cup in his hands and held it before his face, letting the vapours drift into his nose. “Ah, this smells good. Thank you.”
“You are welcome. And there is something I need for you to do today, my love,” Alice dangled the sheet of paper over his lap. “I need you to find everything on this list and bring it back here by this evening.”
David gripped the tea cup in one hand and then took the list from her. At first glance there was nothing elaborate. He knew where he could find everything on the list, even the one item that struck him as querulously odd.
“Acid?” David asked, looking up at her in befuddlement. There was a calm assuredness in her gaze though that made him feel a child for even asking.
She smiled slowly, her lips pressed close together. Her face was tight, controlled, but at the same time, completely at ease. “Of course, my David. We will need that tonight. I need you to find some. Can you do that?”
David nodded slowly. He could find the acid at the university. At one point in time he’d needed access to some chemical while he was doing an analysis on a bit of bone he’d dug up as part of a demonstration for one of his classes. They had given him a key, and then forgot to ask for it back. It had hung unused on his key chain ever since. The bone sat on his mantle.
“Yes, I can find it for you, Alice.” He sipped at the tea, it was not so hot that it burned his tongue. And then the phone rang, as it always did first thing in the morning. His hand shook in surprise, and some of the tea fell into his lap. He grimaced and set the tea cup down on the coffee table, and dried his pajama top as best he could.
Alice answered the phone, holding the receiver firmly in one hand. “Yes? Oh no, I’m sorry, but he cannot answer you right now. Can you call back tomorrow? Good. Bye.” And then she hung up, smiling once more to him. “I will make things ready here for when you get back.”
It took David only a few minutes to dress and finish his tea. He then took another few minutes to rouse Noah and dress the child. Noah seemed eager to move that day, but as always, his motions were clumsy and had to be slow. Within ten minutes, the two of them left the house, Alice’s list secure in his pocket.
It was about nine, and the sky was beginning to lighten infinitesimally from black to dark grey. David could not quite say why he took the boy with him apart from sheer habit. Alice could certainly watch over him while he was gone, but habit was habit. He would take the boy to the rectory and let his older brother Samuel watch over him.
Though the rectory was only two blocks away, it was still bone cold outside, and so David buckled Noah into the child seat in the back of his car. The contraption of wire went into the passenger seat as always, and then David climbed behind the wheel. It took a moment for the engine to turn over, but a few seconds later he was pulling back out of his driveway and turning on the radio. It was the finale to Khatchaturian’s Second Symphony he noted with a strange sense of amusement. It had already reached the massive carillons that brought the symphony to its momentous climax when they pulled into the rectory’s driveway. Strangely, he thought the carillons were rather subdued.
He did not think much on it though. The day was lighter already, but only another shade of grey. The ground was full of frozen grass, but no snow had yet to fall. It would come soon though, of that he felt certain.
Samuel must have been in the main hall, because before David had even managed to get Noah unbuckled from the seat, his older brother the priest was standing in the doorway a look of unmeasured relief crossing his features. “David! It’s good to see you! Do come in for a moment and sit down.”
“I cannot stay long, Samuel,” David replied tersely after setting Noah’s feet on the macadam. “I have some errands to run. I’ll pick Noah up when I’ve finished.”
Samuel came to his side, bent down and smiled at Noah. “Are you happy to see your uncle, Noah?” The boy’s lips twitched into a smile. He may have been retarded, but he still recognized family.
After giving the boy a quick hug, Samuel straightened and looked David in the eyes. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you since last Thursday. What’s going on?”
David blinked, genuinely surprised. “You have?”
“Yes, I’ve called you each morning these last four days. In fact, I called not twenty minutes ago.”
David bristled and shook his head. “Don’t take that tone with me.”
His older brother grimaced and then nodded, his lips fading into a simple line. “Very well. Will you at least come out to the graveyard for a few minutes before you head off? You haven’t visited Mom and Dad yet this year.”
A tremble clutched his heart, the first true feelings of pain he’d had in the last three days. The cold bit into his exposed flesh, and he blew out a heavy sigh that misted into the air. “Yes, you are right. My chores can wait a few minutes longer.” He bent down and hoisted Noah onto his shoulder. The boy opened his mouth in wonder. “Let’s go.”
The church was right across the street from the rectory, and the graveyard lay beyond the church. Once a year, David would make a pilgrimage to that cemetery to where his parents lay interred. It was strange that he had forgotten it until now, but he smiled at the reason for his forgetfulness. Alice was waiting for him. She would understand the need for this. The spirits of the dead had to lie in peace after all. How many folktales told of spirits ill-regarded by their sons and daughters coming back to teach them a lesson?
Samuel waited until they were across the street and in the shadow of the church steeple before speaking again. “There was a woman who has been answering your phone these last few days. I admit it caught me off guard. I take it you’ve met someone?”
David was looking up at the stone steeple. The giant brass bell was visible half-way up the steeple in small cupola. But when Samuel mentioned the woman staying with him, a smile creased his lips. “Yes, Alice. I met her last Thursday while I was at the library. She wanted to learn more of folklore.”
“Truly?” Samuel asked, his voice guarded. “And does she come over every day now?”
David could not help but laugh. “Come over? No, she stays with me. She says she has to go home soon, but for now she’s sleeping in my bed.” His laugh turned crooked. “I am sleeping on the couch, dear brother, never fear for that.”
Samuel let out a mildly guilty chuckle. “Of course not.”
“But she is happy to stay as long as there is more to learn. And she knows so much already, Samuel. She has a keen eye for folklore, and a mind that is as sharp as a knife! I have listened to her ask questions that have made me think of folklore and of all ancient myth in new ways, ways I had never considered. It’s really quite exciting.”
David felt his breath coming quickly now as his body tensed from the thrill of her tones still reverberating in his skull. “I think I am in love with her.”
The priest said nothing for several long seconds as they passed beyond the church and entered the graveyard. It was held in a large field with oak and ash trees framing it. Grey marble headstones rose up from the Earth in a profusion, some large and some small. Some were ornately designed, while others were merely plain headstones or crosses. They matched the hue of the sky, like bits of the heavens snatched from above and anchored to the earth below.
Samuel began to say something, but as they stepped into the graveyard, his mouth closed. It was almost instinct for all men to remain quiet in the abode of the dead. David knew that in his mind, Samuel would be reciting prayers, but right then, his eyes could only look for the familiar headstones of their parents. Set amidst some of the largest headstones were two fairly modest crosses. David turned towards them as soon as he could.
When he stood before them, staring blankly at the names etched into stone, he knelt and set Noah down upon the ground. The boy’s legs folded under him and he sat on the grass unawares. The names swam before David’s eyes, twisting and turning around.
“It’s been twelve years now,” Samuel said softly.
“To the day,” David added. “Twelve years since I killed them.”
Samuel sucked in his breath. “You didn’t kill them, David. It was an accident.”
David grit his teeth. He could feel the soft soothing voice of Alice in the back of his mind, gently assuring him. “And what if some part of me wanted there to be an accident? Wanted them both to die?”
“Well, you know that is not true,” Samuel replied his voice aching. “You loved them, I know, I have seen it in all that you do.”
“But I knew there was something wrong. I knew deep down there was something wrong.”
“What? What was wrong, David?”
David could no longer see the names at all. Even the crosses were beginning to waver before him, indistinct and hazy. He turned and scowled to the priest. “Everything. I don’t know yet.”
“It was an accident, little brother. These things happen. I cannot explain it any better than that. Do not blame yourself for something that was out of your hands.”
A sour smile played across his lips. “I was driving, Samuel. I was driving. You cannot take that away from me.”
“No. I suppose not.” Samuel looked back at the graves for several long seconds. “Do you wish to visit Alice’s grave?”
Samuel did not look up. “Your wife.”
David felt strangely surprised. She had died about five years ago too after all. But when he thought of her, he thought not of the Alice he married six years ago, but of the Alice that was waiting for him back home. He did have chores to attend to still. “No. No, I do not. I should really get going.”
“I have to deliver daily mass at 4 so do remember to come for Noah by then.”
David nodded, and then another thought struck him. “Do you think you could forgo using the bell today? This close to it, feeling it ring really upsets Alice.”
“Feeling it?” Samuel blinked at that. “Upsets her? The bell?”
David nodded, even as he began to walk around his brother and back out of the graveyard. He left Noah sitting on the frozen grass. “Yes. We can’t really hear it where we are. And it makes her physically ill so much that she turns green.” And with that, he continued on his way. He had to do his chores. Hopefully his brother would be kind enough to do as he was asked.
* * *
I was shocked at the abruptness of my younger brother’s departure from the graveyard. It had become clear to me in those few minutes I spent with him how drastically he had deteriorated over the course of the preceding four days. There were subtle clues in his behaviour that unsettled me, things that only a brother could see. I admit that I pushed him slightly, testing him to understand my own fears; fears that I had at that point been unable to name.
But now I at least was certain that the source of my fears was indeed the woman Alice who had moved in with him. I wish I had done more than call David every morning. I should have made more attempts to visit him. But I assured myself that it was not as serious as I thought, and rationalized my reticence with duty. I had to prepare for the last Sunday in Advent, I told myself. My brother would understand. I could just try again on the next day.
I am ashamed that it took him coming to drop Noah off for me to realize the gravity of the situation that he faced. Yet, I still did not quite understand the nature of the threat he faced, and I had no notion what might be done to save him. I only knew that there was something dreadfully wrong with Alice, and that she had come to him looking vaguely like his dead wife and bearing the same name. It was clear she had some design on him, though for the life of me I could not fathom what or why.
I resolved to pay closer attention to this problem. When David returned to pick up his boy, I would definitely question him further. After daily mass that afternoon I could even take it upon myself to visit again. I resolved then not to let that woman keep me from spending time with my brother. I am, as you know, not normally a forceful man. But David and Noah were the only family that I had left, and I was not about to let this woman who put such a fear in my heart take them away.
At the time though, I was left to look after Noah. A pleasant task of course. The boy could not speak, nor could he move very well, which given the cluttered state of the rectory – I have never been very good at putting things away I fear – was ideal. Perhaps, I thought, I could speak of my fears to the boy. He would not understand, but he would listen at least.
I carried Noah back to the rectory after giving David a few minutes to get in his car and leave. In his haste to attend to the chores that Alice had given him, David had forgotten to leave Noah’s toy. I was sure I could find something of my own to occupy the boy.
I wish I had asked David what chores she had sent him on, but at the time I felt I could still do that when he returned.
Though I am blessed with a small parish, especially during the holidays, there was still a great deal of church business that I had to attend. So, I brought Noah into my study and set him on the floor. I took out a clipboard and turned my chair about so that I could see the whole room while I worked. But Noah just sat and stared aimlessly for quite a while, so I am afraid that as the minutes drew into hours I quite lost track of the boy.
It was only when the rumblings of my own stomach made me think of lunch that I looked about to discover where Noah had got off to. I was relieved to see him in the room with me, but he had made his way over to a cabinet and had pulled out one of the liturgical handbells that I use from time to time. He was running his fingers along the inside and looking at me with wide eyes.
I complimented him on finding my bell, and got up to ask him to put it back when he gave it a firm shake. It rang warmly with a rich sonorous peal, and for the life of me, I cannot help but say that I felt a compulsion just then to look at the bell more closely. I took the bell from his hands, he gave it up to me easily, and then set it on the shelf behind him. The brass thrum stopped when the bell touched the wood, but I still felt as if a soft hum were echoing in my ears.
I asked Noah if he would like me to tell him more about the bells after we’d had our lunch. In the child’s own way, he let me know that he liked the idea. Or at least, the sound of my words pleased him, because a smile crept along his lips. It was a small thing, but clear nevertheless. I made sandwiches, and helped him eat, and then after washing away the breadcrumbs that had fallen on his shirt, I took the bell in my hands and began to tell him about it and the history of bells.
I do realize that you who might be reading this at Bishop Levi’s behest are well aware of the history of liturgical bell use. But I feel it is important that I convey at least in part what I told the boy. Though I do not believe he was capable of understanding everything I said, or even most of what I said, nevertheless I felt that at some level, communication between us occurred.
Bells have served many functions throughout history. In China, the art of bell making goes back to at least fifteen hundred BC. In Europe, the art is much more recent, and began to flourish in the aftermath of the crusades when trade was established with the, at the time, more advanced Moslem kingdoms. They possessed superior metalworking skills, and the Europeans learned from them, and more bells began to be cast, amongst other things.
Bells were used to keep time. In many cities, there was a man who would, on each hour, strike a large bell so that everyone would be able to know the hour. With the advent of mechanics during the Renaissance, many of these bell ringers were replaced with automatons, metal sculptures that did the ringing for them. They were often designed to look like knights or other noble characters. Some of them are still in use today in cities in Europe.
In the church, bells have long served a purpose. During the Eucharist, we ring the bells at the precise moment of transubstantiation when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. My parish church is old, and still possess a steeple with a working bell, and this practice is maintained. It is a source of pride in fact for the members of our parish to have liturgical bells still in use.
Of course, the construction of bells has grown more advanced over the centuries. Most especially in this last. Bells are musical instruments, but each bell that was forged was in some sense unique. Pardon me, but I also spent a small portion of my time discussing what I know of music theory. Each note sounded in music has what is known as the fundamental tone – the note that has been played – and a series of overtones – notes that we hear faintly in addition to the fundamental.
Every note played on a piano or violin resonates across a metal string. The overtones operate very symmetrically, with the frequency of each overtone an integer multiple of the frequency of the fundamental. It operates differently with bells. The overtones sounded by a bell are determined by the shape of the bell, and also, by the material used in its forging. When the overtones created by the bell are at frequencies that are not integer multiples of the fundamental frequency, then the overall tone of the bell is hazy and indistinct, a sort of throbbing ring that cannot be determined exactly.
In the nineteenth century, techniques were devised that allowed bells to be cast with overtones that apart from the second overtone, were all integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. This gave the bells the faint sound of a minor third triad. Bells such as these were used in some of the first massive carillons that adorn many of the finest cathedrals and music halls. Later in the twentieth century, this errant overtone was devised out, so that the sound of a bell perfectly mimicked the quality of a plucked string. The bell that Noah had selected was itself tuned to D above middle C.
It was as I was talking about the musical qualities of bells that I came to ponder something that David had told me. The odd request not to use the bell because it upset Alice had bothered me greatly. What about the sound of that bell might be upsetting her? It certainly was not the noise it created because David said that neither of them could hear it anymore. That in itself struck me as strange since the church bell could be heard all across town except during the busy seasons of school.
Noah rang the bell once more at that point. I felt a need to stare once more at it, and then up into Noah’s face. His eyes were generally vacant, but I thought I caught something within them. Some plea perhaps? I still am not sure. I fear it may be just a bit of my own imagination at work, my desire and hope that the boy may not be as brain damaged as the doctor’s had said. Though he was not my son, he was still my family and I wished that he would be able to comprehend the finer things in life.
I took the bell from the boy’s hands and walked back to my desk, trying to ponder those questions. Alice had worn a strange black bell about her neck that did not seem to make any sound at all. Perhaps there was some meaning there as well?
I am afraid I had no more time for contemplation just then. David had returned from his errands and was knocking hard upon the door. I put the bell in the bottom drawer of my desk, and then went to the front door. David looked impatient, asking only after Noah. I admit I deliberately left Noah in my study that I might draw David into the rectory so that I could question him further, but he would have none of it.
Disappointed, I felt I had no choice but to carry Noah to the front door. Moments later, David was putting Noah in the car, and I had only been able to ask one question of my younger brother, a question he ignored.
It was already growing late in the day, and I had but an hour left to prepare for daily mass. I resolved to attend to the matter of my brother immediately after mass, but I was thwarted in that too. One of my parishioners needed to speak with me on a matter weighing heavily on their soul. I was delayed an hour as they wound their way through a complicated weave of confession and need for solace. I will confess myself that I was horribly distracted during the entire affair, but must give thanks now for it.
God does work in mysterious ways. For if I had not been in the church that late, I do not think I would have been able to help my brother at all with what happened that night.
* * *
The radio was playing the last movement of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony. David was delighted as he pulled into his driveway when he heard the final relentless drive of the march reach its tumultuous conclusion. The symphony was notable for its use of the chimes, allowing those tubular bells to resonate long after the rest of the orchestra was silenced. It was meant to symbolize the dying echo of the calamity the Symphony was written to commemorate.
But then, as the orchestra finished its final ululation, there was nothing. David grimaced as the silence wore on, but no sound came forth. Disgusted, he turned the car off and then helped Noah out of the child seat. There were more important matters to worry over than a mere technical glitch.
He laughed to himself as he opened the front door. The air beyond was warm and rich with an exotic fragrance. He did not see Alice inside, but he knew she was there. “Alice! I am home. I have everything you asked for as well.” His excitement was too great to even wait a moment to hear a reply.
After setting Noah down on the floor, David ran back to the car and popped the trunk eagerly. The shopping had taken longer than he had expected but he had everything on her list, even the acid too. The latter was in its bottle still, and he grasped that in one hand while the two bags he hoisted up with his other.
Alice was standing in the door when he closed the trunk. He waved the bottle of acid in the air and she smiled. She turned and stepped back inside without a word. David hurried after her, depositing the bags on the coffee table in his rush to put his arms around her.
“Did you miss me?” he asked as he hugged her close.
Alice nodded and then set one finger on his lips even as he was leaning forward to kiss her. “Not yet, my sweet. Not until we are properly wed. Then we can do that and far more, day after day.”
Wed? That sounded like a perfect idea. He could no longer imagine his life without this woman. In fact, it was beginning to grow difficult to even remember his life before this woman had stepped into it only a few days ago. All else seemed like a dream that he had finally arisen from; a nightmare of misery and dreariness.
David grinned eagerly to her but broke his embrace nonetheless. “I have everything you asked for. It’s all in the bags. Now please, talk to me some more.”
Alice slid past him, gently patting the boy on the top of the head. She peered into the two bags and then drew out a small candlestick. She turned into over in her hands and then set it back within the bag. “Yes, this will work.”
She then sniffed the air and grimaced distastefully. Her head turned slowly until she was looking down at the boy. Noah was staring at the wall as he sat legs splayed on the floor. “Noah is dirty. Look at those pants, there is dirt all over them. Where did you go?”
Even as Alice bent down and forced Noah to stand, David felt some creeping bit of shame come over him. “I went to drop the boy off at the rectory and Samuel asked me to go visit Mom and Dad’s grave.”
Alice had managed to get the boy’s shoes off and was working on his pants. “You went to the church?”
“No, just to the cemetery.”
There was a long moment of silence while Alice worked the boy’s pants off. She did not seem to be satisfied with this and began to lift his shirt over his head as well. “You left Noah with the priest? Why did you do that?”
David blinked, certain now that he made some sort of mistake. “I always do that. I am sorry, Alice. I should have asked you if you wanted to watch him.”
“Did you go into the rectory?”
“No. I hurried back here as soon as I could.”
“But you still went into the graveyard?”
David nodded, watching as his son was stripped of all his clothes. “Well, it seemed the right thing to do. I had to show respect to the dead.”
Alice looked back to him and offered a strained smile. “Of course, my love. You did. Could you put Noah’s clothes in the laundry?” She tossed the boy’s underwear onto the top of the pile and widened her grin.
David’s face replied in kind. He bent down and picked up the pile, turning towards the laundry room back behind the kitchen. “And wash your hands before you come back!” her voice called after him. The way her words just settled around his ears and lingered, he knew at once that it was a very good idea.
In fact, he felt a mild distaste for Noah’s clothes by the time he tossed them into the hamper. His skin definitely itched he thought. There was a small sink in the laundry room, and he quickly rinsed his hands off, scrubbing them hard, as if something foul had coated them in slime. But eventually David knew that they were clean. He dried off his hands and stepped back in the living room.
Alice had sat down in the antique chair he’d inherited. One of those fashioned from stout oak and stained around the turn of the nineteenth century. He could not for a moment help but notice how it made this wondrous woman look like a queen atop her throne. David had often used it for reading, and Samuel had long favoured it when he had come calling. And there had been another, one who had sat in that chair resting a hand upon a swollen belly.
Alice cradled Noah in her lap. The boy lifted one hand and brushed his finger tips across the bell at Alice’s neck. A soft throbbing sounded, and David felt his mind lifted, filled with an amorphous pleasure at its tone. And also, he felt a compulsion to study the woman, to fix her every detail in his mind. Before he could do that, the air before him broke, and he saw something else.
Where Alice sat was a marvellous being, a woman with green flesh, large solid eyes, wearing a lightly verdant dress that appeared now more a wedding gown. Her face had no nose, but she seemed to bear a crown, horns or feelers of some kind ringing around her temple. Her hands had grown into long vegetative claws, and they held the boy tightly against her exposed belly. That bell, seemed to glow violet as it thrummed between her emerald breasts.
And then, silence fell once more, and the vision passed.
David trembled, and then fell to his knees. “Alice!” he cried, his voice hoarse as if he’d been screaming for a very long time.
She smiled to him, and patted the boy on his head. “Yes, my David. There is much still to tell you. But first you must do one more thing for me, and then I will answer all of your questions, as you have answered all of mine. Then, we can be together as we were meant to, my love. For all the rest of our lives.”
David crawled forward, still trembling so much. He put his chin against her knee, staring into her eyes. The spectacles rested at her nose, but she stared past them, as if they had always only been an affectation. “Tell me, my love. What must I do?”
Alice laid one finger upon the bell at her neck. “Your brother will be giving his daily mass soon. While he is at the church, you must go into the rectory and steal all of the bells. All of them. Hide them somewhere that he will not find them for at least a day. Do not bring them back here. Take them far away if you can.”
His head bobbed up and down as he continued to prostrate himself at her legs. “I will do as you say. I hate them.”
She smiled and gently stroked one hand over his hair. “I know you do. And then, once his mass is over, you will go into the church. You will take the bottle of acid and pour it over the bolts of the steeple bell.”
“The bell will fall. It could kill somebody.”
Alice nodded. “There will be nobody in the church then, my love. And it will take a few minutes before the acid eats through the metal. You can be well away from there before it falls. When you are done, come back here and I will tell you the glorious future that awaits us all.”
David nodded to her, his hands still trembling. He would do as she asked. He had so many questions of his own. So many. And she would answer them. All he had to do was get rid of all those insufferable church bells.
He rose to his feet and took the bottle of acid. David returned to her side and bent forward, pressing his lips to her forehead. He then bent lower and kissed his son as well. “I will return when I am done.”
Alice lifted one hand and caught at the edge of his shirt. “My love, just one more thing.”
“When you are done, be sure to remove all of your clothing before coming inside again.”
David nodded slowly, and then turned around and walked towards the door. The bottle of acid was clutched tightly in his hands. They were not trembling anymore.
“It’s true that the bell is an instrument apart,
that it’s baptised just as if it was a person
and anointed with the chrism of salvation to consecrate it.”
Most of the time, Father Samuel Borge enjoyed helping his parishioners with the day to day problems that often plagued their lives. However, as the minutes ticked past into an hour, he grew tired of listening to the woman’s complaints. It was a weakness he knew, but he could not help but worry instead over his brother. Something had to be done he knew, and it was all he could do not to rush the woman from his office so that he might check on David.
Thankfully, she did finally leave nearly an hour after daily mass had finished. His secretary had already gone home for the day, and with the night already upon them, the only thing left to do was to make sure that nothing had been left out unattended.
Samuel had ignored his brother’s request not to ring the bell during mass. In fact, it struck him that if his brother did not want it rung, then it out to be rung, and loudly so!
He wished the woman well as she offered her final thanks to him before leaving by the main entrance. Samuel watched her go for a moment, breathing a long sigh. He should have been more attentive to her he knew. He resolved to make up for his distraction later. Surely she would understand in hindsight how his concern for his brother had occupied his mind.
However, pulling his stole close as he stood feeling the cold air that had rushed in through the doors wrap about him, he pondered just what it was that he thought he could do to help his brother. Although, Samuel knew that it was not entirely impossible for a woman to have come into David’s life and completely wind him about her finger, he doubted that this was the case. There was simply one fact that kept returning to his mind, that he found wholly unnatural: her dislike of bells, and how it seemed neither she nor David could apparently hear them when they should.
Was it possible that this situation was not natural at all?
A cold chill ran along his spine then, as if some skeletal finger were tracing curls in his flesh. He pulled his arms more tightly over his chest and turned towards the sanctuary. He always found a sense of warmth and comfort there in the presence of the altar and crucifix.
Being an older church laid down more than a century ago, the floor, though now covered by a warm burgundy carpet, was fashioned from stone. So too were the walls, though set in these were stained glass windows. During the daytime, the sun would angle into the windows, casting a warm profusion of colour upon the pews and generally in the morning when mass was held on Sundays, the light would fall onto the altar. At night, they were empty, dark eyes peering in on a small bit of warmth.
The steeple of the church was set at the farthest end of the sanctuary, and so behind the organ manual was a small door that led to the belltower. It was normally left unused except for cleaning four times a year. It took Samuel a few minutes inspecting the sanctuary before he realized with a growing sense of alarm that the door was standing open, with a faint light flickering from within.
Uncertainly, his heart whispering a hope that he dared not speak aloud, the priest walked to the door, stepping around the organ bench carefully. He could hear the sound of footsteps beyond the door, though they were muffled as if whoever was there was trying to be silent. Samuel waited a moment at the edge of the doorway, not daring to step through. His fingers gripped the edge of the door, knuckles white. The person inside was coming back down the steps.
Samuel trembled and took a step back from the doorway. The light that was flickering was clearly that of a flashlight. The end of the beam came to rest on the inside of the door, and then as the man stepped from the wooden steps to the stone floor, it flashed out, just past Samuel’s face.
“Samuel?” the voice he had hoped most of all not to hear rang out. “Get out of my way!” The voice, at first curious, was suddenly aggressive, and almost unrecognizable.
“What are you doing here, David?” the priest asked his younger brother. He could not help but realize that it was the first time in five years that David had even been within these hallowed walls.
“Just get out of my way!” And then David swung the flashlight. Samuel let out a gasp of surprise, but was too late to move. He felt a sharp stab of pain at the side of his head, and then the world around him twisted. His knees buckled and he fell to the carpeting, marvelling at its soft texture after all its years of use.
Dimly, he was aware of somebody grabbing him by the arms and dragging him around. And then he was dropped once more on the ground and he heard somebody running he thought. Samuel tried to make his eyes work, but there was a pounding in his mind which kept him from thinking clearly.
It persisted for several minutes, before it began to fade into a dull throbbing. Samuel managed to shift himself into a sitting position, though his arms were trembling. He reached up and felt where his brother had struck him. There was some blood. Head wounds bled more, he remembered. He’d have to get a bandage. For the moment, Samuel took the stole and pressed it to the side of his head. He hated to soil it so, but there was nothing else.
After a long breath, Samuel scrambled to his feet. And then he fell from his feet once more when a thunderous crunching sound came from the belltower door. An agonized metallic screech ensued, and only stopped when a great cloud of dust burst from the doorway. Samuel stared in horror before climbing back to his feet and rushing to the cloud filling the aperture.
Though there was not much light within, it was just enough that he could see what was before him. The bell. It lay in a heap of splintered wood. The stairs above were thoroughly destroyed. The bolts at the bell’s apex were all corroded and melted. Somehow, David had destroyed the bell.
Samuel stumbled, his mind unable to grasp even a single thought. All that he felt was misery.
When he finally stopped coughing and trembling he was huddling behind the altar. Samuel could not quite remember crawling there, but he knew that he must have. The dust was settling already, but it would be a very long time before they could ring the steeple bell again.
David had done this. Why had David done this?
Because the bells upset Alice.
The answer was the first clear thing that had come to his mind in many hours. For some reason, Alice detested the bells. That was the answer. He had to go to his brother’s home and confront them. This was not a mere infatuation. This was something unnatural and evil. His heart tightened at the iciness even the thought of it imbued.
Thankfully, his head had stopped bleeding, but the stole was thoroughly stained. Samuel laid it over the arm of the lectern and then went to the liturgical closet where the bells used in Eucharist were kept. To his surprise, they were all missing. He searched the closet for a minute, making sure that they had not been misplaced, but he found no evidence of them. They were simply gone.
He took a deep breath. David must have stolen them before sabotaging the steeple bell. Very well, he had more in the rectory. He would have to use one of them.
Samuel’s lips were set in a grim line as he stepped out into the cold air. The night was dark and heavy, clouds rolling deep and low over the tree tops. These were not the comforting blankets that lay across the sky, but an oppressive menacing force that suffocated the warmth from them. Samuel hurried across the street to the rectory and slipped inside.
He did not even think to treat his own wound, but went straight for the cabinet in his study where he kept his bells. A cold chill raced up his arm as he opened the cabinet door. There was nothing within. All of the bells that he kept were gone. Not even their carrying cases remained behind.
Weariness buckled him and he collapsed on his rear, robes bunching under him. David had already been here and stolen these bells too. He tried to think of where he might find a bell, but his mind was a complete blank. Aimless, his eyes wandered around the room, seeking out the crucifix he kept on the wall behind his desk. “Lord, please! Help your servant save him. Please, Lord!”
He was not sure why then, but his eyes case down at his desk. A sudden spark kindled inside of him, and with it, a surge of energy. Samuel nearly leapt to his feet then, and a moment later he was bending over his desk pulling open the bottom drawer. There, right where he’d left it that afternoon was the bell that Noah had been playing with. A laugh escaped Samuel’s throat, ragged, but true.
Slowly, Samuel lifted the bell free from the drawer. It was warm to the touch, and it thrummed softly as it lifted off the phone book beneath it. And for one moment, his head bowed in prayer, he felt as if the whole world sang the pure D note with the bell.
* * *
David felt a warm thrill race through his flesh as he stripped his clothes free. He was sitting in his car, staring through the windshield at the soft glow that was emanating from within the living room window. Soft drops of white lace were gently settling upon the glass, melting quietly and trickling down to collect at the wiper blades. The snow had begun.
His shoes he tossed into the passenger seat, and they were quickly followed by his socks, and then his pants. He left his underwear on for a moment longer, stopping to take off his coat and then his shirt. There was no sense in folding them, as they did feel unclean after having been in the church. David understood that now.
When he had at last slipped free of his underwear and dropped them atop the pile of clothes, he began to feel a slight nippiness to the air. The gossamer petals of snow continued their downward descent, gracing the earth softly and with care. The blades of grass in his front yard appeared to be wearing pearls along their edges, and the windshield before him was beginning to turn into a slippery smear.
David smiled to himself and climbed out, letting the snow dance around his flesh. It was cold, but he felt invigorated by it. Tonight, he remembered with freakish delight, was the Winter Solstice. Many a folktale and ancient religions had seen power in this night. He laughed, spinning on his toes, crackling the grass with each step. His voice carried into the sky, but softened, as the snowy blanket muffled all sounds.
David laughed again and then almost skipped on his way to the front door. It was not locked, and he swept inside. The chill outside barely touched him, but the warmth that was waiting for him suffused him immediately. He drew a deep breath, the pleasant fragrances of myrrh and holly carrying his elation even higher. Tonight was a night of magic ritual, incantation, and celebration. Tonight was the longest night of the world. Tonight, the night need never end.
It was time for all the things that went bump in the night to come out and play. And David had already done so.
He laughed again, looking around the room. Alice was waiting for him, wearing her elaborate wedding gown, a veil drawn over her face. David grinned at her and felt his heart pound heavily in his chest. “All is done, my Alice. All is done as you asked.”
Alice smiled back to him, and held out her hand. “All is ready for us, my David. Come, and know thyself true.”
David clasped her hand, feeling an energy he could not ever remember feeling course through him. The bell at her neck trembled, and seemed to slide back and forth between her breasts, even though she was not moving. It chimed soft and pure, and the world began to dissolve around it.
Alice’s flesh drew back in the wake of that chime, green and brilliant to his eyes. Her hands were long, fingers stretched out into tapering claws. And around her head, the veil was now supported by a crown of green flesh. Sparkling verdant eyes met his for a moment, and her thin lips parted into a smile. A darkness filled the recess between her lips, but from it came a harmonious song.
And then, it all disappeared when the bell stopped its chime. David blinked, feeling flush with excitement. His hands were sweaty, and he felt the hair atop his head was slick.
“Yes, my David. That is what I am. A creature of folklore, forgotten in this day and age. Come, learn more.”
She guided him back to the bedroom. David stayed at her side, wishing only to hold her closer, to see that face once again. Something about it assaulted his mind, breaking at every sinew that had fashioned it. He had to know more.
The bedroom had been transformed. His bed had been disassembled, with the headboard and footboard leaning against the wall. The mattresses were sticking out of the closet door. His dresser was against the wall next to the headboard, while his side table flanked it. The large rug had been rolled up and shoved in the closet as well, leaving the floor bare.
But Alice had obviously been at work, for the chalk he’d bought had been drawn upon the ground in a pentagram, in which lay Noah, staring serenely up at them as they entered. At each point of the pentagram the candlesticks were placed and lit with green candles. Beyond the pentagram another diagram had been drawn, with two lines that curved outwards in a bell-shape from one corner of the star. Into the far wall where the edges of the bell met the floor an ornate door had been drawn. David stared at it all in awe.
“What is this?”
“We are going home, my David,” Alice assured him, her smile alluring even behind the veil. “And there we will be for the rest of our lives, husband and wife as we were meant to be.”
“But,” David asked, feeling for the first time like he was looking into the light of the sun, “you are something else.”
She smiled and nodded her head. “Do you remember the tales the early settlers used to tell? Of creatures that would steal children from their cradles and leave their own progeny in its place?”
David nodded slowly, running one hand up along the ruffles of her arm. “Yes, I know of it. Are you one of them?”
“We both are, David.” She said, her voice singing to him again. He felt all the songs that he had learned in his youth being systematically erased, replaced instead by that beautiful voice. “You were born in our world, and placed in the Borge cradle in exchange for a human child. Your appearance was made to look like the human child so that none but we would know. The human child was taken to our world and made to serve us. Feel him. He knows you.”
Alice took David’s fingers in her hand and let them lay upon the bell that rested in her bodice. David’s flesh twitched, the metal beneath them simmering and shivering at the same time. A doleful tone echoed in his ears, and once more the air began to swim. Alice’s flesh was green in places before resuming a human appearance.
“I’m...” David could not help but feel the very air sucked out of him. “I’m folklore?”
“Of course. Why do you think you studied it so? You were looking for your past, David. Not their past, but yours. And you’ve found it. Found it at last.” She cupped his face in her hands. But he could not describe how he felt. His feet were no longer touching the ground it seemed.
“I did kill my parents,” he stuttered, staring down at the child. “And my wife.” He looked back at Alice. “They weren’t really mine.”
“And you knew that too,” Alice assured him, taking his hand again and drawing him closer to the pentagram. “We were betrothed at birth, you and I. You married the other Alice because she looked like the one who in your heart you knew was yours.” Her hand met his chest and her fingers spread through the smattering of hair that adorned his flesh. “But you knew she was wrong. And so did he.”
David followed her other hand and saw that it was pointing towards Noah. He stared at his son as the child looked back up at him with wide eyes. The child was still unclothed, and his hands were holding something dark. He narrowed his gaze and saw that it was some piece of black metal, but he could not quite picture what.
“Yes, my David. Noah knew. He is like us after all. But he is special too. He is very special. And he will help you step through, just as,” Alice put her hand to the bell at her neck, “the one whose place you took helped me.”
He looked to the boy and then back to Alice, and then at the bell at her neck. He lifted his fingers again and brushed the rim of it with his nail. It trembled beneath him, cool and remote.
“My Noah will become a bell?”
“Not just any bell, my love,” Alice assured him. “He is special. All children we have with humans are special. His life will mean many more bells for our kind. We need them. Now come, my love. There will be time to answer all of your questions when we go to the other side.”
David nodded, and she led him to one side of the bell-shaped diagram that stood before the door. “Now, carefully, step over and stand before the door. Do not smudge the lines. It is very important that you do not.”
He did as instructed, and stood facing the wall. The wallpaper was rustling against itself, and flakes were falling from the wall in slow profusion. It was as if the entire wall were rubbing against itself. His flesh trembled, his body warming with some inner energy that he could not comprehend. Alice was right though. He was one of the others, it all made sense now. And he was going home. With her.
Dimly, he realized that he could feel around him. The air in the room was charged with static or something even stranger. He could feel his boy holding that empty bell in his hands. Those hands rubbed the incunabulum and held it close, all thought of moving gone from his damaged mind. Alice was setting down the last of the candles, completing the conjuration, while the bell in her bodice rocked back and forth, ringing exuberantly. No longer did David see the human, but only the verdant other.
And then the opening of the bedroom door shattered it all.
David turned his head, and saw Samuel standing there, a red line along the side of his head from where he’d been struck with the flashlight. His eyes were wild and frightened, and snow littered his shoulders and hair. Impossibly, he held a single brass bell within his right hand. A rosary dangled from his left. “Stop this now!” He cried, and he rang the bell forcefully.
Though no sound echoed, David felt the tolling of that bell hammer against his bones. Alice shrieked, throwing her hands over her ears, even as her human form dissolved once more. The black bell at her neck throbbed, bobbing up and down frenetically. Samuel looked at the floor, his eyes widening in horror, and then looked back up at the green woman.
“No, he’s mine!” she cried, and grabbed at the priest’s arm, biting down into the flesh. Samuel let out a cry and fell backwards, trying to lift the rosary that he clutched in his left hand up to meet her.
Alice pushed him back against the wall of the bedroom, and the rosary fell from his grasp. David stared, dumbfounded as the two of them struggled. Where had that bell been? He thought that he’d claimed them all. Well, it was clear there was still one more to go.
“Stop, Samuel. Leave her be and leave us.” He called out. “She is mine and I am leaving with her tonight. Stop what you are doing.”
Samuel looked at him, his face ashen. “David, no!” Alice bit down harder on his arm in that moment of distraction, and the bell fell from his grasp. David stepped out from the lines, careful not to disturb any of them. He kicked the bell into the corner of the room and then grabbed Samuel’s other arm.
“Leave us both. Alice, please, you don’t need to do that any more. He will leave.”
Alice straightened up, still gripping the priest’s right arm while David struggled with his left. “This is madness, David! You’ve been tricked! She’s a demon come to destroy you and Noah!”
“She is no demon, Samuel. She is the one I am to marry.”
“She just looks like your wife. Oh David, please! Don’t listen to her!”
David shook his head, staring sadly into the eyes of the man who he had once thought of as his brother. “I am like her, Samuel. And tonight I go home with her.”
“And Noah?” There was a frantic edge to Samuel’s voice. Both Alice and David stared intently at him, eyes piercing.
“Noah’s life will make it possible for David to come back with me, foolish man.” Alice laughed lightly then, her own gaze eager and wild. “And he will make many more bells for us. His voice will sing through them as it was meant to.”
Samuel looked to David pleadingly. “No, don’t let her do it. She’s talking about killing your son, David! She wants to kill your son!”
David snarled and tightened his grip on the priest’s arm, pushing him back further against the wall. “No more lies!”
Alice’s smile was one of triumph, but it lasted only a moment. Her eyes trailed down to the ground, and filled with horror. “Noah! No!”
David turned and was stunned by what he saw. Where Noah should have been was the black bell. It sat quietly and unremarkable in the centre of the pentagram. Standing outside it, holding the brass bell in his hands, was the child. His eyes were simple and for one moment, clear. He lifted his arm, even as David lurched to stop him, and rang the bell.
The cries in his ears were at first of Alice shrieking in agony. There was no sound from the bell itself, but there was a commanding presence in that empty air. Some forceful motion that made him fall to his knees and tremble. It was a compulsion, one that turned his mind about, cleared it of the incense and song, and put it onto one single thing.
That was all. Just one overriding thought that he could not ignore. David stared, realizing that he was looking down at the pentagram, the bell, and the door drawn into his wall. Wrong. He gasped, hands suddenly deathly cold. Stumbling backwards was the green creature that had taken on his wife’s countenance. A look of rage and loathing filled her eyes, smouldering like ashes before bursting into new found flame.
“They are mine!” she snarled, launching herself forward in fury. David leapt up, and met her, pushing her backwards until she fell against the drawn door. He grabbed the bell at her neck, suffered as it burned his flesh, and rang it hard.
The lines of chalk burst into brilliant flame, and the last thing he saw before the darkness of night claimed him was Alice’s face, green but shocked with betrayal.
* * *
David did not finally wake until the next morning, but Noah and I were there waiting for him. I prepared him some tea and as his mind cleared he began to tell me all of the things that had happened to him in the last few days. At this time I learned his side of the story, and I was able to piece together the events that had culminated in our confrontation on the night of December the 22nd.
It was at this time that David told me what Alice had said, about him being one of their kind, a creature of folklore. He explained how Alice had told him he was put in the cradle in exchange for the real David Borge. Needless to say I was shocked anew at this revelation. What was worse was that my brother clearly believed this to still be true.
I waited until he explained that he had in fact killed our parents that night because he knew they were not his own parents. How Noah, recognizing that his wife had not been the same kind as David, had killed her from the womb. And why all his life he had spent in the study of folklore, not as a scholarly pursuit, but in search of his own origin.
It was all quite fanciful, and if I had not seen Alice change before my own eyes into a monster, and then vanish so suddenly as she did, then I would have probably thought it the words of one in need of psychiatric help. As it is, David will likely need to seek a therapist in the days ahead.
But there was one important fact that I felt I should point out to David. There were after all many explanations for this faux Alice’s behaviour. David was an easy target because of his withdrawal from the church. Neither of us could deny the effect that the bells had upon her after all. Nor would I deny that something supernatural had occurred that night. Nor can I be completely sure that she will never return, but I will remain vigilant.
What has convinced me that Alice’s tale was a lie is that when the bells were rung, Alice herself changed, but neither David nor Noah demonstrated any monstrous qualities. If indeed he had been of the same race as Alice had been, why then did he not change when either myself or Noah rang the sanctified bell? David said that he had been made to look this way, but he could offer no better defence of Alice’s lies than that.
After David had recovered significantly, we both cleaned the bedroom, wiping away all of the chalk marks – I had wiped away the pentagram prior to leaving the room the night before. The candles had all been extinguished when Alice had disappeared, but I threw them away even so. I sprinkled some holy water and blessed the room just to be sure. We then reassembled his bed, but David did not seem eager to sleep there. I invited them both to stay at the rectory for a few days, and I am still enjoying their company. This morning David openly pondered whether he shouldn’t sell the house, but that is a concern for later.
The only thing that remained after all the chalk was cleaned was the small black bell that Noah had been clutching before. I have examined it myself, but confess to being stumped by its design. It lacks a knocker, and therefore can not make any sound. I have struck it with a mallet and still it produces no noise. The first time I did this I fear that David was with me and he was quite distraught at what he claimed he could hear. I have not done so again.
Regardless, this small black bell-shaped piece of metal is all the remains to show that this monstrous Alice was even here. I have already sent it ahead to Bishop Levi for his inspection. I am told that when they have uncovered its secrets, they will tell me.
In the meantime, I do my best to tend to my flock, and to look after my brother and nephew. Noah does not appear to have been affected by the encounter in the slightest. I have often put bells in his hands for him to ring since then, but if they ever did any more in his possession, all they can do now is ring warmly.
David has been with me to Mass every day since then, I am pleased to say. He sits by himself, and though he has yet to go to confessional, I feel it is only a matter of time. I could see that his spirit hungered when I presented the Eucharist yesterday.
In closing, I would like to make clear that my brother was not mentally stable at the time that he ruined the church bell or when he struck me. Therefore, he should not be held personally responsible for those events. My parish has already taken up a fund to restore the bell and tower, and I’m sure in a few weeks time it will ring loudly once again.
For now, I merely enjoy the sound of the smaller bells as they ring during the Eucharistic sacrifice. May they always ring.
Very cool concept, Matty -- once again you've shown your superb creativity as a storyteller. In terms of execution, having the story written from the viewpoint of the priest works well at first -- it echoes other stories of classic gothic horror in which the narrator is a highly educated person with an academic or religious background, and the flowery prose you tend to favour matches the character's "voice" and temperament perfectly. Unfortunately, this approach breaks down in this particular story because we lose the priest as a viewpoint character: much of the story is written from David's perspective, and wouldn't really work any other way -- the power of the story is in the juxtaposition of David and Samuel's very different interpretations of what's happening. The fact that Samuel is referred to in the third person in many scenes further detaches us from the idea of him as narrator and creates more confusion about whose perspective we're sharing as we're reading the story.
If you're committed to having Samuel open and close the story, I would recommend using self-contained letters, perhaps between Samuel and Bishop Levi, to frame the events inside the priest's perspective. You can then narrate the rest of the story in third person, shifting between Samuel's and David's viewpoints as necessary. There's nothing in the middle of the story that couldn't be done in third person, I think -- the discourse on the history of bells would have to be trimmed down, but I think it's a bit long anyway and has more detail than is really important to the story. The take-home fact about bells, for this story, is that they are considered a holy or consecrated instrument, and have long been attributed with magical or near-magical properties. This is far more important to the plot than the specific tonal properties of bells and how they have changed over time.
The quotes at the beginning of each chapter are interesting, and provide some much-needed historical perspective on the events; I'm not sure I would have remembered that church bells were consecrated if you hadn't included the quote at the beginning of Chapter Three. The quote for Chapter Two, though, gives away too much of the story too early; the revelation of Alice's Fae nature and David's supposed status as a changeling doesn't come until Chapter Three. I'd recommend replacing the Chapter Two quote with something that is more directly related to the events of the chapter and doesn't reveal so much of the plot.
From a technical standpoint, your writing is generally clear and shows attention to good spelling and grammar. You have a tendency towards using excessively obscure words and elaborate sentence structure, which can sometimes be off-putting or distracting. Be mindful of your viewpoint characters and whether you're writing in first- or third-person: you can get away with purple prose more readily if you're using a first-person perspective than if you're using third-person, but only if your viewpoint character would actually talk that way. Try to keep third-person prose a little more accessible, with fewer flowery touches: Remember that your readers are there primarily for the story, not for the writing.
You have some problems with commas and other punctuation in long sentences; I recommend checking out "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", which is a highly entertaining book on punctuation that has a lot of helpful pointers. You also have a tendency to overuse phrases like "after all", which aren't strictly needed for understanding the sentences in question. You'll want to watch for expressions that pop up more than once in the same paragraph, or several times on a page, and try to find different ways to convey the ideas expressed. Often phrases like "after all" aren't even necessary -- you can use tone and phrasing, instead, to convey the idea that something is reasonable or a matter of course.
Overall, this is a very good story and I enjoyed it very much. Still, the flaws in the execution of the story lead to some deductions in Technique and Artistry, which keep the story from quite achieving the top score.
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