Bells (January 2022)
By Chelsea Thornton
When Luke Barlow was born, his bell rang.
It was a bell within a field of bells. No two bells were the same, each one wonderfully unique with its own identity. Some were small; some were large. Some were made of copper that was gleaming and pink or lackluster and brown. Some were silver or gold or platinum, wood or ceramic or crystal. They were all different, but only one belonged to Luke.
On the day that he was born, at the moment he entered the world, his bell rang. It was made of pewter, shiny and new. There was an ornate pattern stamped into the metal — vines that wrapped around the lower part of the dome and creeped up into the waist. The sound it made was a kind of harsh clanging, but combined with the ringing of the other bells in the field, together, they created a symphony.
A symphony of life and death, of beginnings and ends.
Luke first heard the myth about the field of bells when he was just eight years old.
“And believe it or not,” the old man was saying, “some of us can hear them.”
They were lounging along the bank of the river that ran directly through their quaint little town. Luke had gone there to do homework and read as he often did when he knew his mother would be working a late shift at the hospital. Marius was the old homeless man whom everyone was kind to but tended to avoid because they said he was often three sheets to the wind with an oar missing to starboard. Luke had no idea what that meant.
“But where are they?” Curiosity cast a glow on Luke’s round, boyish face. “The bells?”
“Ah, no one knows. But I think I may be getting closer to finding —”
His mother was calling him, and he knew he was late getting home. He hastily gathered his books and papers into his bag, told the old man he was sorry but he had to leave, and then trudged up the hill. His mother stood at the top, still in her scrubs and waiting for him with one hand on her hip. The sun had been hiding behind clouds that shone like gold in the sky, so he hadn’t noticed that it was dipping so close to the horizon, turning the expanse above them pink.
“Sorry, mom,” said Luke with his head hung as he kicked at the grass.
She tousled his cinnamon brown hair and pushed him toward home.
After that day, his mother forbade him from hanging out down at the river alone. He could only go if his older brother Lane took him, and considering Lane was always at the drive-in with his older friends, smoking and breaking bottles against the asphalt, he never got to go.
He also forgot all about the bells.
At least until he was fourteen and his mother finally allowed him to go to the river again. Of course, he was sure it was because old man Marius had been found dead in the alley between the bookstore and a boutique. They said he passed peacefully in his sleep.
Luke climbed one of the biggest trees on the bank of the river and settled in its branches. He dangled his feet in the air and stared down at the golden specks winking at him from the surface of the water where the sun hit. He remembered the story the old man had told him that day. The story about the bells.
“There is one bell for every person on Earth,” the old man had said. “Each person has a bell in the field of bells. Their bell rings when they are born, and it rings when they die. It rings during any significant beginning or end. It could be a new pet, a new sibling, a child. A marriage, a divorce. The gain of a new friend or the loss of someone they care about. Even opportunities can ring their bell. Any opportunity that marks the beginning of something good or the end of something bad.”
Luke’s brow had furrowed with youthful curiosity. “But then wouldn’t it ring at the beginning of something bad or the end of something good?”
The old man had nodded then. “I suppose it would.”
Luke wanted to find the field of bells, find his bell. He didn’t want to miss out, miss a sign, miss something that was too small, miss out on one of those opportunities. He was sure that if his bell rang, it wouldn’t differentiate between the beginnings of good or the beginnings of bad, sure it wasn’t as though it could make both cheery, bright rings and ominous, deep rings to help him discern which opportunities to grasp and which to let slip through his fingers. Still, he didn’t want to miss any of them.
He hopped down from the tree, landed on his feet, and rushed back into town. By the time he reached the bookstore, he was out of breath. His steps slowed when he neared the alley.
Tingles erupted along his arms and the back of his neck, eliciting goosebumps that made his hair stand on end. He crept to the corner, his heart beating in his throat. When he peered into the shadowy alley, he swallowed the terror down until it settled. There was nothing there. He wasn’t sure what he had expected — for them to have left the old man’s corpse? — but, clearly, there was nothing to fear.
Moving into the shadows, his eyes swept around the alley. He had been hoping to find something, some kind of clue as to where the field of bells was. But the alley had been emptied.
Then came the crash of glass. Luke spun around.
“What are you doing here, Luke?”
It was his older brother Lane standing with two of his friends — who honestly had more hair than they did brains. A hundred shards of translucent green glass from a broken bottle now littered the alley at Lane’s feet. He was twenty-one now, old enough to drink legally but not to smash bottles legally. Something he apparently kept forgetting no matter how many run-ins he had with the cops.
“None of your business, Lane.”
When Luke started to move past him, Lane caught him by the arm. “You think the old man was going to leave behind some valuables that you could swipe? Like what? A book with half the pages torn out? A hubcap? An apple core?”
The two men behind him chuckled.
Luke yanked his arm out of his brother’s grasp and glared up at him. “I’m not a dirty thief like you, Lane! And that old man was a lot kinder to me than you are.”
As Luke darted out of the alley, he could hear their laughter following him.
When he would look back on that moment in the future, he would wonder if that was an instant that his bell rang. Maybe it had rang because it was the beginning of something bad, and if he had heard it, perhaps he could have stopped what happened next. If only he had stayed there with Lane or begged Lane to go home with him.
A knock on the door woke Luke from sleep late that night. It was the cops. There had been a fight at the drive-in. There were knives. Lane didn’t make it.
His mother didn’t stop crying for weeks.
Luke forgot all about the bells again.
Until a year later.
He had spent even more time by the river those last few months. His mom was always working overtime, and he knew it was because of Lane, because the distraction of work was better than always feeling sad. But he didn’t mind thinking about his brother. He thought of him as someone he didn’t want to be like. He wondered if Lane had known about the bells and if he had found his own, if he could have stopped himself from becoming … him, if he could have changed his fate.
As fate would have it, a terrible storm had passed through the week before. It had flooded the river, and as the water receded, it uncovered a piece of buried treasure.
Or rather, the map that would lead Luke to the treasure.
He spotted it from his perch, jumped down from the tree, and scrambled to the bank. Sitting on his haunches, he shoveled dirt and mud with his hands to finish digging up the small cylinder that had been exposed. It was a red leather tube, and when Luke freed it from the ground, he popped it open. Inside was a piece of ordinary rolled-up sketch paper. He unrolled it to find a map.
Luke unsurprisingly made it home before his mother, even though dusk was fast approaching. He wasn’t sure how far the map would take him or how long he would be gone, so he stuffed his book bag with snacks and bottled water. He wrote a note for his mother and left.
The map didn’t take him far, only to the woods on the outskirts of town. The woods were sparse, offering peeks of the orange and pink sky overhead through breaks in the canopy. As Luke kept his gaze down on the map, he stumbled over rocks, roots, and pitted ground.
As the sky darkened, the trees grew dense. The air grew cold.
Then, Luke heard birds.
But they weren’t birds.
Around him was the tintinnabulation of bells. They started out soft, like the birds he thought they were at first. They chimed and tinkled and sang. Then they clanged and ranged and tolled. He couldn’t see them, but he could hear them.
Resolute, he pushed on.
The orange and pink in the sky had fallen to just over the horizon, leaving the rest above a dark aegean blue. Luke retrieved a snack bar with apricots and white chocolate from his bag, opened it, and began to munch. He had just popped the last bite into his mouth when he saw it. It wasn’t what he was expecting, but he knew it was what he was looking for.
There, in the center of the woods, was a tall staircase. It went up from the floor of the grove to … nothing. The top steps simply stopped within the canopy of trees.
After stuffing the wrapper from his snack bar into his bag, Luke swallowed and approached the staircase with cautious steps. He stood at the foot of the stairs and stared up. He inhaled deep, then let the air roll out over his lips. Gripping the strap of his bag, he readjusted it. He squared his shoulders. Took the first step.
He took one step at a time, only moving up one after both feet were on the one before. It wasn’t the fear of heights; he didn’t have that. It was the unknown.
It took a couple of minutes before Luke reached the top. Both his feet were planted on the second to top step. His heart drummed in his chest. With one last deep breath, he climbed the last step.
Except there wasn’t a step there.
Luke’s foot slipped through the illusion.
He tumbled forward and down.
The air abandoned his lungs. When he attempted to suck it back in, he choked on it and coughed. He slowly pushed himself into a sitting position and looked around. He was surprised to see that he wasn’t back in the woods, having assumed that’s where he would have landed. Instead of dirt and fallen leaves, he sat on thick grass that was as bright as emeralds. Instead of dusk, the sun shone bright overhead. Instead of trees surrounding him, there were rows and rows of metal trellises. And hanging from those trellises …
Having caught his breath, Luke pushed himself to his feet. He spun in slow circles to take it all in. He saw all the different bells, watched as some of them rang, heard the symphony they created.
“I was wondering when you were going to show up.”
Luke whirled around so fast he nearly lost his balance. His eyes and mouth all opened wide. “Marius?!”
Sure enough, there stood Marius, wild gray hair and all. He beamed at Luke.
“How? How are you here?”
“They let me be a guardian of the bells. Can you believe it?”
Luke smiled when he saw light in the old man’s eyes. “Actually, yes.” His face fell with a thought. “Does this mean that I’m …”
“No.” Marius chuckled. “But you shouldn’t stay too long. This isn’t the place for you.”
Luke nodded as he turned back to the bells. “I’ll leave. As soon as I find mine.”
“You cannot take your bell, Luke.”
“What?” He spun around once again and gawked incredulously at the man. “Why not?”
“The bells only work here. They will not work down there. Your bell must stay.”
Luke frowned; his shoulders slumped. “My brother died. I thought …”
“You thought that if you had your bell, you could avoid a similar fate.” When Luke nodded, Marius smiled. “You don’t need your bell for that, Luke.” He approached and placed a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Your heart will tell you anything that your bell could. You don’t have to be able to hear your bell. As long as you can hear your heart, it’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
Accepting that didn’t come easy to Luke, but he nodded again anyway. “What about my brother’s bell?”
Marius turned to the trellis behind him and plucked a fragile ceramic bell off a hook. It fit in his palm, was a deep red, and had a crack running up the length of it — a sign of the bell’s final knell. He gently placed it into Luke’s hand. “A reminder. That you are not your brother. That your heart is louder than any bell.”
And Luke did keep the bell as a reminder. A reminder of Lane, of Marius, of his journey to the field of bells. He spent his life listening, imagining his heart as his own bell. He found love, built a family. He missed opportunities every now and then, let beginnings pass him by, didn’t always know when an ending was upon him. But he lived with no regrets.
And when Luke Barlow died, his bell rang.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Chelsea Thornton (website / Twitter) is a neurodivergent writer from Texas. She is an editor for The Aurora Journal and a reader for The Forge Literary Magazine. Her short fiction has been published in Maudlin House, Bewildering Stories, Idle Ink, and elsewhere.