Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Bells

Long after he had ceased to remember many things, the old man remembered being a boy, and had vivid memories of Christmases from his childhood, of candlelight and snow and a Christmas tree he chopped down with his father in the woods and decorated with his mother. All of the ornaments were things he and his mother had found in the world around them --bird's nests, feathers, pine cones, and stringers of dried berries-- or made out of paper and scraps of cloth.

He could not remember the faces of either of his parents, nor the sound of their laughter, but he nonetheless remembered that there had been much laughter, and many stories, especially at Christmas time, and he knew that he had loved his parents, and that they had loved and cared for him until they were taken from him by soldiers. And he remembered the beloved dog who had helped him escape from the soldiers and whatever fate had befallen his parents.

Strangely, perhaps, he remembered everything about that beloved dog, who had been his constant companion through the many difficult years when he had been lost and constantly moving through a world that seemed so dark and filled with so much menace. He remembered the dog's soulful brown eyes, and the way it constantly connected to and communicated with him through those eyes. He remembered countless times when he had awakened from a nightmare and found the dog pressed against his body and studying him with a combination of concern and adoration. He remembered the dog's exquisite and unique smell --a combination of old leather, wood smoke, and something sweet he couldn't put his finger on. He remembered the comforting sound of the dog's breathing at night, and the way his chest rose and fell (a chest on which the figure of a white dove in flight was outlined against a background of black fur).

And mostly he remembered a Christmas Eve long, long ago, when he and the dog had sought refuge in the shell-torn church of a village that had been recently devastated by the conflict. There in that church their solitude had been interrupted by the arrival of soldiers, and he and the dog had found themselves climbing a seemingly endless and labyrinthine staircase that led them up into the bell tower. The higher they climbed the more dark and narrow became the passage through which the stairs ascended. Eventually they had emerged into the belfry, which was surprisingly capacious and had open portals on all sides. Since there was no further they could climb, they paused there in that cold, dark place and listened.

The soldiers, it seemed, had been unaware of their presence or had chosen not to pursue them. Who were they, after all, but a boy and his dog?

Then, as the boy and his dog huddled together on the top step, fearful, and the boy took the dog into his arms for comfort and warmth, the big bell creaked for a moment and then, very slowly, began to sway. And then its sound --deafening in such close quarters-- started to ring out over the village below. The boy pulled himself up to the ledge of one of the portals, from which he could see out across the entire village, crouched there in darkness. The boy knew there were people in the dark houses below, for he had seen them earlier in the day, scurrying furtively around to the few remaining shops that were still open for business. Some of these people were carrying geese, or crocks containing some scarce commodity, or huge loaves of bread. He'd even encountered boys not much younger than himself, dragging Christmas trees through the snowy streets.

As the bell continued to sway and ring out over the dark little town, the boy was seized with wonder. Soldiers or no soldiers, that village, which had known so much recent distress and sorrow, was poised in the cold and the darkness, its remaining residents preparing for the momentary peace of Christmas, the merciful hush that would settle over the place after the bell had rocked back into silence.

When the bell did finally stop swaying and ringing out, the distant voices of the soldiers had carried up that long staircase to the boy and his dog, and it dawned on the boy that it had, in fact, been the soldiers ringing the bell. After several moments of silence, during which the boy assumed the soldiers had departed the church, the men began to sing a beautiful and mournful song that the boy recognized from a Christmas past.

The boy and his dog sat there listening for quite some time, until they finally heard the voices of the soldiers, subdued now, moving once again out into the streets of the village. After what seemed a safe interval, the boy and the dog crept back down the stairs, moving together slowly in the darkness, and emerged into the empty church to discover hundreds of burning candles fluttering in the drafty sanctuary.

That night they returned to their hiding place in the woods outside the village, and the next day they began to travel further and further into the forest. The old man could not remember how many days they had traveled, but they had pressed on, becoming more and more lost, until the day they discovered the hut in which the old man still lived. It just appeared to them one day, as if it had grown up out of the ground or been built by prehistoric birds.

The boy had left home with a pack stuffed with seeds and potatoes and corn --the bag had been packed by his mother before she was taken away-- and, together with these provisions, the hut and the woods around it and the nearby streams provided almost everything the boy and his dog needed to survive. From the time he was a little boy, the man had been at home in the woods, and over the years he had become an expert hunter, fisherman, and trapper of game. From both his parents he had learned to forage and cultivate a garden.

The boy --who eventually became a young man-- and his dog were together every moment of every day, slept curled up together, woke together each morning, and wandered the woods from sun up to sun down. And each night they sat up together talking and remembering their long-ago life in a world filled with soldiers, darkness, and fear. The young man would often recount the story his mother had told him shortly before she and his father were stolen from him.

"There are flocks of angels in the mountains," his mother had said. "They live in the high places with the wild creatures, but in times of trouble they come down into the valleys and wander out into the world to lead those in peril to safety."

The boy had asked about all those of their acquaintance who had not been saved by the angels.

"They cannot save everyone," his mother said. "They have limited numbers and limited powers. These are angels who have not yet crossed over, not yet traveled beyond the mountains, but their job is to do what they can. And if you are ever in danger, my boy, you must be vigilant; they will come for you and guide you to a safe place. You must go where you are bidden."

They boy asked about his dog.

"He works with the angels," his mother said.

It didn't take the boy long to recognize his hut as the architecture of the angels. It resembled in no way any human habitation he had ever known, and from the moment he discovered it he had had the certain sense that it had never been occupied by another human being. Though it was humbly furnished, everything in it served some utilitarian purpose and showed no signs of ever having been used or even touched by human hands. The iron stove had never known a fire until the day the boy and his dog took possession of the hut. And though he and his dog rambled great distances in every direction, they had never encountered another person, had seen no footprints or signs of human presence or habitation.

Though the man often had the sense that he was living on another planet, he did not feel lonely.

The years in the hut went by so quickly, and the boy who had found refuge there grew into a man. Dogs, of course, grow old much faster than humans, and there came a time when the man was still young when the dog could no longer keep up with him on his long rambles through the woods, and often --and more and more frequently-- would stay in the hut, sleeping, as the man went about his daily routines. One day the dog could no longer get up from the floor without the man's assistance, and the man would carry him in and out of the hut and set him down in a clearing in the woods; from there the dog would wobble around in increasingly diminished orbits, and doze off in the garden while the man tended his plants or chopped wood.

It seemed to the man that the dog had been his constant companion for as long as he could remember. He couldn't say with any certainty how old the dog was, or even how old he was; he had never bothered to keep any sort of calendar and had lost track of time there in the woods. It had never occurred to him that he might one day lose his beloved dog, and even as he watched the dog's slow but resolute decline he was incapable of imagining a day when his dog would die and leave him truly alone in the woods. Finally, though, there came a day when the dog would no longer eat, and then refused water, and at night the man would sleep on the floor with the dog held tightly in his arms, and he would listen with growing terror to the dog's labored breathing.

Then one night the man had a vivid dream: He and the dog were once again climbing the stairs to the belfry, moving through darkness toward a flood of light high above them. When at last they reached the bell tower they encountered another staircase, even more narrow, that ascended still higher. They had sat there for several moments, looking into each other's eyes as they had on so many previous occasions, and then the man had buried his head in the dog's neck and said to him, "Go on now." And the dog had turned and headed up the stairs alone.

When the man woke up from this dream the dog was lifeless in his arms. He who had not cried since he was a little boy found himself crying almost without cessation for days and weeks and months. He cried as he buried the dog alongside the wild rose bushes that surrounded his garden. The man was inconsolable, and as there was now no one to console him or to share in his grief, he felt very lonely. He had grown so accustomed to talking with the dog, all day and into the night, and almost overnight he lost his voice.

The man barely ate, and would wake up in the night, calling out for the dog. Many times a day he would be convinced the dog was still there with him, sleeping nearby or following him on his rambles through the woods. Wherever his dog had gone he longed to follow him, to follow him once again to some safe place beyond his suffering and loneliness.

Somehow, though, the man remained there in that place through the changing of the seasons. In time his grief settled in him as a persistent and nagging sadness. He grew old, and often thought of his mother's story of the mountain angels. For this, he thought, I have been saved? For a life of loneliness and grief? It would have been better if he and his dog had been taken by the soldiers that night in the belfry. He felt he had been forsaken, and alternately cursed and implored the sky, the clouds, the trees, the earth in which his dog was buried. He frequently thought about striking out into the woods in search of the world he had left behind. Perhaps in his absence some peace had been made, or found. He could not, though, bear the thought of leaving his dog behind there in that lonely place, and so he remained.

One day the man found himself studying his reflection in the still surface of a little pond in the woods. It was perhaps a distorted or unreliable version of his face, but it was also clear enough to alarm him. He looked so old, so gaunt, so sad. He tried to remember the last conversation he had had with an actual human being, and was saddened to realize that he had no such recollection, however vague. He began to talk to himself, to try to regain his voice in the hope that someone, somewhere, might hear him, might be listening.

Around this same time he started to have what he felt certain were hallucinations, or dreams that were carrying over into his waking days. One night he stepped out of the hut and was startled to see what appeared to be nests, immense constructions high up in the skeletal branches of the trees and pulsing with bright blue light. It was winter, and the sky had been dark and moonless, and from these luminous nests there seemed to emanate a sound like the shimmering of hundreds of sleigh bells, a sound that filled the woods all around him. In the morning all was once again silent, and the nests looked liked nothing more than towering structures of sticks and leaves. At night, though, and for many nights, the blue lights in the trees and the shivering of the bells returned.

The man began to have the unshakable sense that there were other presences out there in the woods with him. Perhaps, he thought, his dog had sent the angels back to fetch him. For the first time in many, many years he felt the fog of his grief lifting.

One day early in the winter he awakened from a peaceful sleep and had gone out to gather wood for his fire when he was startled to see a gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. He dropped the wood and stood there for several moments, staring at the band and puzzling over it with his fingers. It was the shiniest ring he'd ever seen, and was so firmly and snugly set upon his finger that he discovered he could not remove it. For much of the day he studied the ring and fiddled with it and wondered about it. He sat up late into the night by the fire, listening to the chirping of the bells and gazing at the band on his finger, which was of such bright and burnished gold that it captured flickering firelight and often seemed to be burning.

By the time he went to bed that night he was convinced that as he had slept the previous evening he had been espoused to a spirit. And with that queer conviction came a sense of almost overwhelming happiness.

Each successive year following this nuptial visitation, around the same time, the old man would wake to discover that some new and increasingly extravagant gift had appeared as he had slept. One year he woke to find a piano in his hut. With this mysterious gift he also received the ability to play the piano as if he had been studying the instrument all his life. This last gift was a source of comfort to him, and he often sat up late into the night playing beautiful songs that seemed to flow directly from his fingers to the keys of the piano.

Another year, very near the end of the old man's story, a boy and his father who were traveling through the woods had gotten lost in the swirling snow and darkness. The man and the boy were poor and were fleeing a cholera outbreak in the north that had claimed the boy's mother. The man hoped to return to the village where he had spent his childhood before being swept north with a wave of soldiers. He had not been back to the village in almost two decades, but an old woodsman and trapper who had outfitted him with a sleigh and two old, sturdy horses, had drawn him an elaborate map. Once safely through the northern woods, the trapper had said, they would find a river that would be frozen at that time of year; if they followed the course of the river as it meandered south it would eventually deliver them to a clearing that was just east of the village that was their destination.

If things went well, the boy and his father were to travel through the woods for five days, and arrive at the river early on the evening of the fifth day. Things had not, however, gone well for the boy and his father. The snow in the woods was deep, and the way through often seemed impenetrable. There were frequent obstacles that slowed their progress and often stopped them in their tracks. The father had to keep struggling through the snow to clear fallen timber and brush, and when this proved impossible they had to make long and awkward retreats and detours.

At some point the moon was blown over with clouds, the temperature plummeted, and the wind began to blow. The man could not keep his lantern lit, and the struggle to do so became an obsessive battle. Both he and his son were bundled in blankets and furs, but they were very cold. The sleigh provided no refuge from the wind, and the churning legs of the horses kicked up a constant swirling curtain of snow that enveloped the sleigh and kept the boy and his father pinned down in a blizzard from which they could not escape. The man would pull up for a few hours each night in some place that offered modest refuge from the wind, and he and the boy would curl up beneath their furs and blankets and struggle to find warmth and sleep.

Even during the hours after daybreak there was very little true light, and they kept plodding --more slowly, it seemed, all the time-- into the permanent murk of the woods. Things grew more dire by the hour, and the father was becoming convinced that they were lost. For longer stretches every day he had to wade through the deep and drifted snow, coaxing the horses along, tugging at their frozen harnesses, and navigating around ever more impossible obstacles. The boy was silent and shivering in his blankets, and there was now a fine coating of ice on his eyebrows, lashes, and even on the downy hair above his lip.

One evening in a mercifully sheltered clearing the man paused, thinking he might try to build a fire, and as he disembarked from the sleigh he was suddenly aware that the wind had abated; a hush had settled over the woods, the blowing snow was clearing at last, and as the man stood there he spied what he thought was a light a short distance ahead through the trees. He coaxed the horses along until he was close enough to confirm that what he was seeing was indeed a light in the window of a small, strange cottage, with smoke rising from its chimney into the cold night air. The man climbed back up next to his son, tapped the boy on the shoulder, and soundlessly pointed to the light through the trees. The boy leaned forward in his seat and stared at this unexpected vision. Steam billowed from the resting horses and the woods were eerily silent. The man listened into the silence and thought that he heard the sound of a piano, but the sound ceased before he could truly discern what it was he was hearing.

Meanwhile, the old man in the hut lifted his head from his piano, his long and crooked fingers poised above the keyboard, and listened intently into the night. He was prepared to swear that he had heard sleighbells in the woods outside his window. This was somehow yet unmistakably different from the old persistent shimmer of bells that had now and again filled his woods whenever the luminous blue nests would make their appearance. This was the clear and isolated shaking of sleighbells, a sound he had not heard since he was a boy. Humans, he thought, and then: Soldiers. He had been hunted down at last. He was now too old for any of the true terror of his younger days, but he was nonetheless afraid. He listened more closely and heard the sleighbells again, a few seconds of emphatic shaking and then silence. He sat there at the piano and heard footsteps approaching through the snow. He heard the snapping of brush that sounded like gunshots after so many years of silence in those woods.

And then he heard a child's voice just outside his window: "Father, I'm afraid," the little voice said, and this declaration was followed by one tentative knock on the door. The old man got up from the piano stool, moved across the room, and opened the door to find a man and a boy standing there, looking for all the world like frozen ghosts.

"I apologize," the man said. "My boy and I are lost, I'm afraid, and we are close to freezing to death. We would be grateful for an opportunity to warm ourselves by your fire before continuing on our journey."

"You are lost?" the old man said.

"Yes," the father said. "We seem to have lost our way in the blizzard."

"I was myself lost in these woods once upon a time," the old man said, "and I stumbled across this hut just as you have. It was my refuge then, and I would be happy if it could be yours now. You are welcome here, and I will treat you as my honored guests."

The old man settled the boy and his father on stools near the stove, and fetched quilts and blankets from the trunk that had been magically replenished annually for many years. He hung their clothes to dry by the fire, and retrieved their frozen packs from the sleigh. He led the horses into a sheltered area near the hut and gave them food and water. In a small cold cellar he had dug off the back of the hut the old man had more food than he would ever eat --dried and smoked fish, wild boar, all manner of fowl from the neighboring woods, roots and herbs and berries, mushrooms, truffles, and various potatoes and vegetables he had grown in his garden from his mother's seeds. He had always eaten well, and was blessed with plentiful fresh water all around him. And now the old man was pleased to be able to provide a feast for his visitors.

They sat up late that night eating and talking about the journeys they had all undertaken and the sorrow they had known. The old man was surprised to learn that the village to which they were destined was a place familiar to him, and very near the village where he and his dog had had that long-ago experience on Christmas Eve. As he studied the map the trapper had provided he recognized many of the landmarks, and realized that he was not more than two day's journey from the place he had started out from so long ago. All of the streams around his hut flowed into the river that skirted the village in question. He was surprised that no one had crossed his path in all those years in the woods, but was exceedingly delighted to have these visitors now.

The boy couldn't take his eyes off the old man; with his long hair and beard and fierce and lively eyes, the old man reminded him of the pictures in his mother's Bible. And the old man was enchanted in turn by the boy, who reminded him of himself at a similar age.

That night, as the boy and his father drifted off to sleep in the bed that had been prepared for them on the floor, the old man played quiet songs on the piano and thought of his beloved dog and the dream of their last parting in the belfry.

The next day the old man packed the sleigh with provisions, drew a clear shortcut to the river on the trapper's map, and while the father went out to prepare the sleigh for departure he sat down in the hut with the boy and told him the story of the mountain angels. And then he stood in the clearing outside the hut and waved to them as they headed back out on their journey.

That night the woods outside were roaring with the bells --the old man had never heard them so loud-- and the pulsing lights from the nests were so bright that they illuminated the inside of the hut as the old man drifted off to sleep and slipped away at last --quietly, peacefully, purposefully-- to follow his dog one more time.

Early the next morning as the sun came up, the father paused the sleigh at a bend in the river, from which they could see the spire of the village church in the distance. As the father let out a whoop of happiness and urged the horses on, the boy was puzzling over a mysterious string he suddenly discovered tied around his neck and disappearing down into his many layers of clothing. His father clapped and cried out to the horses, and the boy slowly coaxed the string out of hiding and found himself gazing with wonder at a gold band that now rested in the palm of his hand.