THE BELL WAR
TWO SCREECHING CATS slice the late morning silence. They circle each other, backs hunched. Chickens scatter to safer pecking grounds.
A priest approaches. Sunlight on his black robe bastes his body. His sandaled feet kick up dust as he rushes past the beige stucco house with faded blue wooden shutters. They open. A stream of water douses the priest and cats.
“Oh! Père Chaumont,” Madame Bonnet says. One spotted hand holds a rusted pail. The other covers her mouth.
The wet cats slink away.
“I’ll dry quickly in this heat.” He wants to call her stupid. Instead, he makes the sign of the cross and hurries off. He must be at his church by noon. He almost runs down rue Jean Jaures, up Avenue de la République and past the two angels flanking the church entrance.
The church’s interior feels like a cold slap. The incense smell from centuries has impregnated the foot-thick stone walls. His eyes, although helped by the half-light of flickering long, white candles, take time to adjust to the dark.
Good. Each taper means more souls are working their way out of purgatory.
Eventually, he focuses on the gold-leafed altar and makes out his beloved Virgin’s face staring at the suffering Christ.
While Madame Bonnet’s water had felt almost refreshing in the sun, he now shivers. Stupid, stupid woman.
He kneels. The cane footstool feels rough through his robe. The Bishop, during his last visit two years before, suggested changing the cane for softer cushions. Père Chaumont had nodded but has postponed action. Discomfort during prayer is good for the soul, he thinks.
Dust flickers in light rays penetrating the slit windows. Although Père Chaumont has only been priest in the church twenty of its seven-hundred-and-ten-year history, he considers it his church. If the responsibility for each soul, each stone, each candle weighs heavily, he accepts the pounds as his mission assigned by God.
It’s time. He crosses himself. Twelve clear, clear bongs ring out the hour — reminding people time is fleeting — singing of the glory of God. He inhales, shuts his eyes and listens as he does every noonday as he kneels on the same cane stool.
Bong. Then an overlapping bong followed by a ng sound.
Where was the pristine sound he so loved?
Why an echo? A nasty echo?
Bong-ng. Bong-ng. Bong-ng.
There was something wrong, horribly wrong.
Bong-ng. Bong-ng. Bong-ng.
He rushes to the empty street. All the residents are inside eating. Why haven’t they noticed? Why haven’t they come running?
Bong-ng. Bong-ng. Bong-ng.
He looks at the steeple. Black birds float above the sandy-brick tower, a contrast to the unreal blue sky.
His grey bell hangs motionless.
“You’ve scarcely eaten, Père,” his housekeeper says twenty minutes later. A white fish, in onion sauce, congeals on his plate. The table lamp casts a ruby reflection though a full wine glass unto the bleached oak table. The baguette, brown from the wood oven, is untouched.
“I’m sorry.” He toys with his fork, puts it down, glances at his watch. He goes to the window and opens the shutters.
“Don’t let in the heat,” the housekeeper says.
“Just for a minute,” he says.
As the town slumbers after lunch, Père Chaumont climbs the belfry’s uneven stone steps. Their centers are worn from the centuries of ringers mounting the stairs to ring the three bells before they were automated.
When he first arrived at the church, Père Chaumont had to ring the bells himself. He didn’t trust anyone else to do it until he wrote a specialist in bell tones. The expert journeyed from Geneva first to install the mechanism then to show the priest how to reset the mechanism in fall and spring when the clocks changed and how to override it for marriages and funerals. The Swiss had departed the next day, saying he disliked the stink of small villages, perfumed by smells of the fertilized fields flanking the village.
The priest touches the bell, which is as tall as he is. The grey metal almost burns his fingers. He checks and rechecks the mechanism. Everything seems correct.
It’s almost two. The first bong nearly deafens him, but he still hears the echo and the ng. It’s coming from the bottom of the mountain rising outside the village.
It’s not the hot wind blowing off the Pyrenees that disturbs the priest’s sleep. Nor is it his mattress, although he feels each of the seven wooden slats under it, reminding him of the seven deadly sins. It’s the hourly echo and ng per bong.
Somewhere between four and five, sleep wins. He dreams of demons sneaking up to the belfry where Satan, stinking of burning flesh, make him choose: the bells or his soul.
He wakes, more tired than when he’d gone to bed. In the kitchen, he boils coffee and tears some bread from the previous evening’s baguette. He can’t find the honey. His annoyance that his housekeeper thought her dentist appointment more important than his breakfast, bubbles under the surface.
He won’t say anything that might rock the uneasy truce forged five years ago: he lacks the energy to train a new housekeeper to his whims.
From his place at the table, he looks out the kitchen window. The back of the rectory has a small garden with bright red tomatoes and pole beans. The housekeeper takes care of the garden, another reason to accept her dereliction of duty this morning.
Where does the rival chime come from? Villefranche? Les Roches? Prades? All too far. He must find out.
He stops at the greengrocer, who is lugging a basket of peaches to the front of his shop. Père Chaumont has been expecting Monsieur Perez to come to confession for a long time.
Madame LeRoyer had confessed to committing adultery with Perez last summer. He’d given her fifty Hail Marys and insisted she darn the altar cloth. Most of his penances include something not just for the soul, but for the hands. If penances benefit the church, so much the better.
He has to be careful, because wagging tongues might guess the nature of the sin if Monsieur Perez is seen sweeping the church steps the same time Madame LeRoyer mends the altar cloth. His fears were for nothing, because the greengrocer had not appeared at the confessional, despite, Père’s hints he should drop by.
“Bonjour, Père Chaumont.” The greengrocer smile and offers a banana. Since Madame Le Royer had confessed, Monsieur Perez has offered a free peach, apple, even a kiwi each time the priest passes.
Père Chaumont refuses the banana. Grocer Perez can’t buy his way out of Hell with fruit. Père Chaumont is no Eve tempted by a snake.
The priest doesn’t smile. “Have you noticed a new bell sound?”
“Don’t pay attention to no bells,” the grocer tells the priest.
Next the butcher’s wife — now there’s a woman who will pay attention, he thinks. Her shop window features pork chops decorated with parsley, a plate of meatballs in tomato sauce.
As he pushes his way through the brown bead curtains at the door, the butcher’s wife is beating something in a copper bowl with a whisk. Chickens and rabbits hang by their feet behind the counter.
“Bonjour, Père. Fresh mayonnaise, almost done.”
Her confessions are so boring he dreads hearing her voice when he slides the confessional door open. She’d yelled at her children, accidentally weighed an order for the old folks’ home incorrectly. She’d thought badly of her neighbor, whom Père Chaumont considers a bitch also. Yet, those confessions, the ones where souls merely toy with danger, are preferable to those of his parishioners drowning in sin.
He asks about the bells.
She puts down the bowl, places both hands on the counter and leans toward him. “It’s the old convent. That’s where they come from.”
“The old convent?”
“You know. The one in the foothills. Les étrangers bought it.”
He didn’t know. Père Chaumont hurries to the rectory. On his office wall is a two-hundred-year-old map. Buildings are sketched in faded brown ink. Paper clips, elastic bands, staples and pencils fly in all directions until he finds his magnifying glass at the back of his bottom desk drawer.
He peers at the map and sees his church and surrounding houses. Little has changed.
There’s a convent hidden in the forest about five kilometers outside the village, not quite up the mountain.
He has never walked that far. He seldom walks beyond the edge of the village. Somewhere there has to be a commandment that priests shouldn’t hike. He looks at his sandals, which were not designed for trails. He finds rubber boots in his antique wardrobe. They’ll be better than sandals.
The forest smells of pine and damp. He passes an ant hill almost at knee level. Streams of ants march to the top.
The convent is in a cleared area. Trees are cut into piles of fresh firewood. Grapevines, with still small and hard light green fruit are planted to the left. Instead of nuns, young people in shorts pull weeds between rows of onions. Immodest women brandish nipples through t-shirts.
“Bonjour Père,” one of the girls says. Her hair is braided. She wipes her sweaty forehead with the back of her arm. Her American accent is broad, nasal, grating.
At that moment his church bell sounds in the distance overlapped by the convent bell.
Père Chaumont couldn’t speak. How dare these foreigners ruin the purity of his bells tolling. He imagines taking a hammer to bash the smirking faces of the infidels desecrating this convent.
“Get the priest some water,” the girl calls. “Restez-vous ici.” She guides the red-faced priest to a bench between the vegetable garden and the vineyard. “Find Paul.”
The priest hears a metal screak as another woman, her rear end hanging from her shorts, works the pump handle siphoning water into a tin cup. Her arm muscles are as defined as any man’s.
Despite his thirst, he knocks the cup from her hand. “Stop your bell.” The order sounds more like a gasp.
A man, maybe in his mid-twenties, blond and blue-eyed and bronzed to questionable racial status, comes from inside the building. “Pourrais-je vous aidez?” May I help you Père? His accent is worse than the young woman’s.
The priest stands so fast the bench topples. He points his finger at the young man. “Stop your bell.” Not trusting himself not to hit these foreigners, he turns to stomp home, shaking most of the way.
Into the fall, the bells ring almost simultaneously: bong-ng, bong-ng. The priest demands that the mayor revoke the carte de sejour of the Americans.
The mayor shakes his head. “Not in my jurisdiction, Père.” The priest thinks he sees the mayor smirk, but decides it was his imagination.
In bed in late September, when it is still smotheringly hot, the priest has an idea. He will starve them out.
The butcher and the baker agree.
Monsieur Perez, who still hasn’t confessed his adultery, refuses.
“Maybe Madam LeRoyer can change your mind.”
Monsieur Perez looks behind him where his wife is stocking lemons. Because she did not respond, the priest assumes she hasn’t heard. He debates repeating it but decides he could always use the information later.
The days grow shorter. Grapes are harvested. Orange nets are placed under olive trees to gather the shaken fruit which will be carted off to the cooperative and turned into oil. Sounds of guns shots echo through the woods as the hunt starts and finishes.
The boycott fails. Each hour there are bong-ngs.
Père Chaumont preaches against the immorality of people living under their very noses, how it can corrupt the village youth. When Madame LeRoyer doesn’t squirm, he thinks that she has stopped sinning. At the end of Mass, he isn’t sure anyone knows that he’d been talking about the sins committed at the convent daily or those he imagines.
He demands Maître Cordelier write a letter asking the Americans to discontinue their bells. The convent’s lawyer writes back saying no law was broken. Cordelier delivers the response with an I-told-you-so look.
Père Chaumont loses weight from not eating. His face, always marked with frown lines, is haggard from lack of sleep because he wakes each hour to listen to the bong-ng.
Dark comes a little before five in December. The smell of chimney smoke hovers over the village. Bûches de Noël, decorated with ceramic bunnies and squirrels, adorn half the baker’s shelves. A boar hangs outside the butcher’s window. Each day there’s a bit less as people take roasts and chops home for the holiday meal.
Père Chaumont can’t contemplate celebrating Christ’s birth while his bell is being ruined by the ng after his bell bonged.
After Christmas Eve Mass, the priest prays for guidance. He stares at the Virgin and is sure he heard her whisper, “Destroy the bell.”
As soon as he can return to the rectory for his heavy coat against the cold Tramantane wind. Leaves whip around him. The sky is as black as his robe. The weather matches his anger.
Once at the convent, he hides behind the water pump. The infidels have enlarged the windows, so he can see into the refractory. Eight people, half men, half women, none over 30, all dressed in jeans and sweaters, seem to have designated roles: ladling what looks like soup, opening wine, cutting bread, laying the table, playing the piano, which he can’t hear through the thick stone walls. The fireplace, big enough to stand in, is burning a giant log. The air smells smokey from the fire.
He watches them laugh.
A Christmas tree, decorated with paper birds, butterflies and fish, is in one corner.
Those poor nuns, he thinks, the ones who lived there almost a century ago, must be turning in their graves.
The young people eat and wash up. Two women begin to play cards. Three men sit in wooden rockers with books. The rest chat. As the priest shivers, one by one they drifted off to where the priest can’t see.
From this distance he hears his bells strike the hours and the ugly override of the convent’s. The sound is worse in proximity.
When all the lights go out, he stands. Every muscle complains as he sneaks into the tower.
At the top of the stairs, he touches their bell. No wonder it made such a sick ng with its sniveling size. The damned thing is a less than a foot at its largest point. He can’t find a timing mechanism, only a computer. He’s afraid if he smashes it everyone will wake. Better steal it.
Despite pulling and tugging while grasping the clapper, it holds firm. Whether it was his concentration or the wind howling, he doesn’t hear footsteps.
“What’s going on?” the blond leader asks. The man’s flashlight illuminates the belfry. “Come down! Now!”
The leader, helped by a slightly larger man, grabs the priest. Holding his arms behind his back, he wrestles him down the worn stone steps and across the yard. The priest breaks free and runs toward the tower only to be tackled. Struggling to his feet, he thrashes out at whoever is in reach, hitting a woman. Within seconds, he is pinned to the ground. Gravel presses into his cheek.
The young man offers his hand to the priest, who refuses the help and struggles to his feet.
“Come inside,” the leader says. Lights from inside brighten the small courtyard.
The priest shakes his head. He’s the order giver not the order taker.
“You’ll catch cold,” the leader says.
“Stop your bell. You’re ruining mine.” The priest screams into the wind.
“How can we ruin yours?” a young woman asks.
The priest turns and heads back to the village as the bells bong-nged eleven times. He shakes with rage through Midnight Mass. For the week between Christmas and New Year’s he suffers a cold and stays in bed.
His housekeeper brings his meals on a tray. “Those foreigners, you know, the ones at the convent, came to the church. They brought you an apple tart.”
Why was God punishing him with this terrible cold for trying to preserve his beautiful bell? Père Chaumont blows his nose. Now the … the …the … he couldn’t quite find the word: sinners, heathen, devil’s spawn were desecrating his village and now his kitchen.
He huddles under the covers, ignoring the hot milk and honey that his housekeeper brought him. It’s almost noon. He waits for bells, the symbol of his failure.
“Bong, bong, bong…” He jumps out of bed and throws open the window. His bell alone, clear, pure rang twelve times. He’d won. God had triumphed. He does a mini-dance around the bedroom not feeling the cold stone against his bare feet. Halfway in mid spin, he hears another bell, a bell that had a dirty ng sound at the end. It rang twelve times too.
The rest of the day as each hour produced his clear bell tones, a few seconds of silence are followed by the convent bell’s counterpoint. He wants to ask the leader why, but he can’t bring himself to return to the convent.
The Americans never came back to the church. The priest never went back to the convent. The residents never noticed the bells. They didn’t think anything about it, but the priest does every day until he retires.
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D-L Nelson is an American born, Swiss Canadian. She has written 19 novels and two non fiction books. She lives in Switzerland and Southern France with her husband Rick, an airline journalist, and her dog Sherlock.
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