A little bell is called tintinnabulum; a small shrill bell, squilla; a big one in the shape of a wide-brimmed hat, petasius; codon for a hand bell; nola for a bell that swings on the necks of dogs and the feet of birds and the houses of horses; nolula and dupla for a bell in a clock; campana for a large brass bell; signum for a bell in a tower; lebetes for a bell that’s really a cauldron.
At dawn, I imagine waking to the bellow of a bell outside my window. Its toll knocks my eyes open, spreads me evenly with vibration, hums in my finger and toe tips until the next toll knocks me open again. I crawl out the window and into the tower, pulling my body up into the body of the bell. There’s dew on the cold metal, on my hands, on the bare scoop of skin between my shoulder blades. I curl like a comma in the bell, duck my head in the small of its crown and wait for the next hour to arrive.
There is no belfry in my neighborhood, no tower’s strike at break of day or bellman marking hours upon the street at night. Even with the windows cracked open or an ear to the ground, time does not call us here but is kept by us. We wind the dials and push the buttons until the numbers match the corner of our computer screens and the bottom of our TVs. We try and fail to stay in sync with time, losing seconds by worn batteries and wasted eyes, in rounding and estimation. We end up deviating tocks and ticks, minutes apart. Between us, by this loss of seconds, some break in correspondence, too.
This is why I’ve been thinking of bells. I’m tired of the winding and the pushing, tired of deciding when to go where to do what for how long. I want to rise and fall out of duty, according to custom or by decree like a rooster or a monk. I want to synchronize, to move by swell and hum through the day with you and you and you.
Clock is related to the Latin word, cloca, meaning bell. The clock, the bell, and their meanings still share the same word in several languages, the same shell. Theirs is an ancient coupling. Plato had a clock with a striking bell to signal the beginning of his lectures at break of day, and the Egyptian inventor, Ctesibius, made water clocks with pebbles that resonated against gongs and bell jars that, when submerged beneath the water, clamored and rang. Not long after man first held the hours and watched their minutes pass, he pushed and prodded time to speak, made the bell its voice.
My desire for bells has everything to do with my desire to be ceaseless: to move forward as time does, to go with purpose from one second to the next in some greater agreement.
A couple hundred years ago, on any given day, the bell said to the child: wake up, pray, breakfast’s ready, school’s started, lunch is served, school’s out, it’s dinnertime, past curfew, time for bed. It told the man: wake up, pray, breakfast’s ready, the newspaper’s here, the train is coming, the factory’s opening, it’s lunch time, work’s out, dinner’s served, put the fire out, go to bed. And to the woman: wake up, pray, it’s breakfast time, there’s the muffin man, school’s started, there’s the postman, it’s lunchtime, there’s the ragman, school’s out, the train’s arrived, it’s past curfew, gather the children, it’s dinnertime, put the fire out, go to bed. A bell was made for telling. And it’s a relief to be told.
Satis N. Coleman, a music teacher and scholar, writes that our earliest ancestors must’ve worshipped bells as the voice of God and invested them with “sacred character.” We have no way of knowing how exactly the bell first came to be or where, but there’s evidence from China that bells have existed for at least forty-seven centuries. Scholars believe the discovery of the earliest forms of the bell happened far earlier, by cavemen and women, and during that insoluble time beyond proof. They imagine that some happy accident, like a knocked stick on a stone or log or piece of metal was responsible for that first rich, sonorous sound.
I imagine the discovery was made by restless, not bumbling, hands; the hands of some earthly adventurer, some explorer of matter and lover of form; hands that would rather traverse a stone than a continent and preferred the shape and weight of a thing to the surrounding expanse; hands that settled upon the kind of catch or find they could carry; callused and curious hands that struck the thing to see its matter resist, bend, or break open; trembling hands that held, in the substance of the bell, an instrument and sound that did all three.
According to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the bell’s sound owes its godliness to its complexity and its complexity to its varying frequencies. These frequencies may or may not be harmonious with one another, but it’s the sound of the upper partials that gives the bell’s timber the “vibrant attack” that arrests us. Whether we are the ringer or receiver and no matter how many times we’ve heard a bell before, its note enters and covers us without warning; we’ve no choice but to submit to the second and the sound.
Certain pitches, tones and harmonies have always satisfied us the way food or sex does. Not by aiding our survival or reproduction, but because we long to be spoken to. Some days, the earth must have spoken to our ancestors often, in the howling cave bear and cracking lighting, in the echo of the screeching bat, in the river rushing. Other days, the earth’s air would have been quiet and its creatures still. It must have been a day like that when these men and women, bodies aching, asked the hollow wood to speak, felt the answer humming in their limbs, accepted this primal reward.
The gush of pleasure, the sighing relief, the looming quiet, and the humble desire for more. If the sound satisfied them, it must have been the sound repeated that brought them comfort. For when they struck the substance of the bell once more, its tone was there like the night and more beautiful. And unlike lightning or thunder, the substance of the bell was theirs for the taking. While its tone appeared unearthly, the bell’s singularity relied upon a mortal refrain.
If I had bells to myself, I would harbor them: slip them in the shoeboxes beneath my bed and put them in the drawer of my nightstand with all my unmentionables.
I would put some in the creases of the couch and on the top shelf of the linen closet, tuck one behind the oatmeal and behind each of the salad dressing bottles and between the spaces of my toes.
I’d stow them in best hiding places in my childhood home: under the hats of the dolls in the china cabinet and on the ledges of the laundry chute and ceiling fan panels and under the rocks in the crawlspace, and I’d hide enough that I could forget about some.
I’d keep the dearest ones close: in the palm of my hand and under my tongue. Between my breast and my ribs, behind my eyes, stacked between the vertebras in my back.
I’d show my nephews how I could pull them out from behind my ear, left and right, and from my sleeves.
I’d put the littlest ones in the tops of my pens.
And my dog would swallow a bell.
And never mind the shape. Never mind the consequences.
My dog would swallow a bell, and everyone would know she was on her way.
In the earliest records, bells were worn. Moses wrote of “bells of gold” that dangled on the robes of high priests. When the congregation heard them, they knew the priest had reached the sanctuary. Another record tells of bells attached to the clothing of ancient Hebrew women, virgins, and boys. Persian royals wore bells. Bells were fastened to the necks of horses and donkeys and decorated the hats of fools.
Ancient Greek Warriors held bells in their shields, and mystics and babies held them in their hands. In the Life of Brutus, Plutarch wrote that when Xanthus was attacked, its people dove into the river in their attempt to escape and were caught with bells. Their enemy’s nets were lined with them, and every capture was an announcement. Medieval falconers tied bells to the legs of birds that, if lost, might then be found again. Bells announced that the train had arrived, that an heir was born, that a war had begun. For centuries, curfew bells extinguished light and fire in every home in England.
In some parts of Europe, bells were placed at the bedside of a woman giving birth. These bells were an aid to delivery: the woman’s girdle set atop the bell and struck three times to transfer its power to the girdle and then to the woman through vibration. The bell also asked the neighbors to pray for the woman in pain. Other prayers were placed onto bells by the touch of a hand and traveled outward with the sound.
Men and women returned to the body of the bell when their own figures failed them. Legend had it that if a bell was placed on the head of a mad person and she drank a potion, she’d be well again. The bell appeared indomitable, with its hulking, shining body and its clamoring, far-reaching voice. At the bed of the sick, men and women lifted the bell, steadied the hammer, pressed its smooth, round mouth atop the patient’s head and held both as the potion went down.
A few years ago, I was making my way down the aisle of a church in Texas when I noticed a slight woman in motion near the exit. She was reaching up and pulling down on a thick, white rope. Over and over, her body was stretching toward the ceiling, grabbing the rope and tugging down to her knees, which were bent and inches from the ground. She was smiling and I was smiling. She looked every bit a woman designated to supplicate in prayer. By the might of her tugs, all of Austin heard.
The total movement of the bell is called its duty. And this duty is of the ringer. The body that moves before the body of the bell. Each pull of the rope like a link and an opening.
I listened for the sweet assault, strained my ears and craned my neck and held my breath. All I could hear through the thick stucco walls, though, were the people in front and behind me, intent on one another. No one, I suspect not even the slight woman, could hear the bell ringing from the inside. The walls were built to keep outside sounds out and inside sounds in. They weren’t made for the sounds between.
To cast a bell takes careful preparation. First, the founder builds the core, a foundation of bricks coated in clay and grease, and sets it on a spindle to dry. Next, the founder makes the false bell with plastic wax and places it on top of the core. He or she greases the false bell to keep the next layer from sticking then smoothes some fine clay over the grease to fill in any holes. After that, the founder spreads a coarser, thicker layer of clay and smoothes it until the cope forms.
When the core, the false bell, and the cope are dry, the founder sets a fire beneath the bricks and bakes the mold until it hardens. While baking, the grease falls away with the steam and leaves two thin contours of air between the core: one between the false bell and the core and the other between the false bell and the cope. In these tight spaces, the founder loosens and lifts the false bell out from between the core and cope, leaving a fat empty curve. He or she takes the bell metal, a mixture of copper and tin, and pours it through a hole at the top of the mold to fill the bell-shaped hollow.
If the core or cope is wet or the wrong temperature, if there is too much tin or the bell-metal is not hot enough, if the gases cannot escape, if the clapper is too heavy or the ringer too clumsy or boisterous, the bell can crack. Once a young girl was swept off the ground by the weight of the bell and the force of the rope she was swinging. The girl, who was not a skillful ringer, fell on the floor of the bell-chamber and died. The cracked bell, though, was likely recast—broken into pieces and set on fire. Poured into the shape of a bell again.
In the end, better to be the bell—the instrument, the tool, the vessel—than climb one or keep one or ring one.
Years ago, I went to a doctor with a bad case of nerves. When I sat down, he asked me to close my eyes, to think of a liquid and warm it up. I saw gold and melted it in a kettle in a cave in my mind. Then, he filled me up, toes first, with the molten stream. The liquid pooled in my toes, rose to my calves and up my thighs. It moved bit by bit to my abdomen and chest, spilled into my arms and into the tips of my fingers, surged in my throat and lips. By the time it reached my cheeks, I was replete: solid and sailing, backward and forward, backward and backward again.
Finalist in 2014 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize