Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Tale of the Large Bells

The bells were too large for the belfry, and in consequence never rang correctly. They had been installed by a drunken cross-eyed steeplejack with his mind on other things. The problem wasn't discovered until the day of the unveiling, a day that would forever be a black one in the town's history. The whole population had gathered around the town hall, everyone gushing with civic pride. The mayor took to the podium and made a dreary speech that failed to avoid making a weak joke about bats and belfries. Then the winner of the elementary school spelling bee recited Poe's "The Bells", stopping to spell out "tintinnabulation" in a moment of forced precocity that absolutely ruined the poem and set everybody's teeth on edge. Finally, the mayor pulled a cord and the cheap tarp that had covered the belfry gave way to reveal a lumpy piece of workmanship. The mouths of the bells flared out grotesquely, spilling out of the openings of the belfry and ruining its shape. Fortunately, an unaesthetic line or two didn't bother the mob, but when it came time for the inaugural bell ringing it was obvious there was a problem that couldn't be ignored.

"BONGKLAK-BONGKLAK!" went the bells, the expected rich deep bong abruptly cut off by the bells swinging into the interior walls of the belfry and each other. It sounded like a pair of very expensive buckets being bashed together, and the mood of the crowd began to turn ugly. Questions were shouted out, most having to do with the cost of these monstrosities and the exorbitant millage used to fund them. The mayor tried to lighten the mood by leading a rousing singalong of "God Bless America", but fumbled the words halfway through. This was one outrage too many and a bloodthirsty howl went up. The police had to be called in to disperse the crowd, who even in these modern times had a rope, a tree and a stool handy for a lynching. Throughout all this, no one thought to stop the bell ringers who kept the whole mess boiling with constant not-quite-bonging reminders of the disaster.

Things got worse when a summons was put out for the steeplejack to come and fix his mess, only to find he had fallen to his death in the interim (not while working, oddly enough). The belfry construction project had already had some fairly serious overruns, and there simply weren't funds left to hire a replacement, as even the least competent steeplejacks don't come cheap. Volunteers experimented for hours, trying to find a way to get some use out of the bells but were frustrated at every turn. If the bells were swung gently they didn't collide with each other, but neither did the clappers move enough to produce an audible sound. Lining the outsides of the bells with velvet produced an unsettling staccato noise which several townspeople decried as "the devil's hiccups". A grandiose plan was floated to install concealed speakers in the bells and pipe in a recording of the St. Marks Campanile. Unsurprisingly, no electrician could be found who would have a part of such an unethical scheme. One of them wrote a letter to the editorial page of the only local paper, containing the memorable phrase "a belfry full of discord and turpitude" (which was unfortunately misprinted as "a belfry full of disco and turpentine").

In desperation, the town tried to make the bells a quirky selling point for visiting the town. "COME SEE THE BIG BELLS THAT DON'T RING SO GOOD!" proclaimed the highway signs. The few tourists who did show up were inevitably disappointed by the hourly demonstration. Almost nobody bought the cheap plastic bell souvenirs, and further disaster struck when the t-shirts that were supposed to say "I the Awful Bells" ended up having "I ♥ the Awful Bells" printed on them. A few actually sold, but only to design geeks who found the error hilarious. Eventually the town council realized that they were throwing good money after bad and the tourism campaign was abandoned.

So the bells fell silent for several years. Then, one fateful night, they fell loudly. It was inevitable really: the yoke they hung from was never meant to hold such heavy bells, and was made of shoddy wood to boot. In a March windstorm it finally gave up the ghost, splintering into thousands of tiny pieces and setting the bells free. They tumbled out of the belfry and landed in the town square with a thunderous crash. The townspeople ran to investigate the noise and were absolutely thrilled to see that the bells had finally been dispatched. There was dancing and cheering: the town had never felt so united while the bells hung over it. In an inspired moment, an eight inch pit was dug and filled with cement. The bells were placed in it upside down, their mouths opening to the sky. The cement quickly hardened and the upturned bells became a permanent fixture of the square. Ever since, the bells are filled with lemonade during the harvest festival and other civic occasions. It tastes strongly of verdigris, but everybody in town has at least a small sip to prove a point. No one's quite sure what that point is, but tradition is tradition.

1 comment:

Julie Powell said...

You continue on brilliant.