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I’d always known that my great-grandma was an orphan, but in late October of last year, she decided to tell me the truth about what happened to her family.
We were visiting her for her birthday. It was a tradition in our household; a road trip we knew in the back of our minds we’d take only a few more times. She was turning ninety-eight, so that was just the cold hard truth of the matter. In my childhood, the journey to central Iowa had been a fun and light-hearted affair, but now my brother and parents could only maintain strained politeness as we met up and hit the road together. Each of us knew that this trip might be our last.
For several hours, we drove through vast open farm fields that stretched from horizon to horizon.
My great-grandma’s house was down a narrow dirt road off a wide dirt road off a gravel tractor lane. As a city boy, it was, more or less, the most remote possible dwelling I could imagine. She was born there, had lived her entire life there, and would soon—well.
As we parked in an open muddy rectangle and stepped out to stretch our legs, the constancy of the place surrounded me. Every single year of my life, this house and its land had been exactly the same. The sky was open blue, the earth was a sea of waving gold, and the wind was a smooth river of cool warmth. There was never anything to mar those three pillars of sensory experience except the house, the barn, a defunct old tractor, and the bell.
The bell was a simple thing raised high on an old metal crook. It sat out in the fields about a quarter mile from the house, serving as a measure of the wind. If a storm was coming, the bell was supposed to ring, a necessary precaution in tornado country. The only problem was, the bell and its crook had rusted over long ago. Every time I got out of the family van from age five to age twenty-six, I glanced that direction and felt a sense of unease as my gaze fell upon that decayed artifact. This time, at age twenty-seven, I looked over and saw that the bell had been scraped and polished clean of rust. It glinted in the sunlight, practically daring me to look at it.
I followed my family inside while struggling with a feeling of dread that I couldn’t articulate.
Who had cleaned the bell?
I tried to stop thinking about it as we gathered in the kitchen and said our hellos. My great-grandma was making tea, and shooed off our attempts to help. She was a frail woman for whom movement was difficult, but she’d never let that stop her. “The Wi-Fi password is on a note in the living room,” she told us with unquestionable authority. “Go stare at your phones and the tea will be ready in a moment.”
My brother and I did as we were told, but my parents turned on the television instead of looking at their phones. For a few minutes, we stayed in our separate worlds, only returning to the present when my great-grandma brought in the tea.
And we had a nice time.
That night, when everyone else was long asleep, I happened to open my eyes and see a glow under the door of the guest room I shared with my brother. My parents were in a different room and would not see the same light, so it was up to me to investigate. Quietly, so as not to wake him, I crept out and down, finding my great-grandma still awake. She sat in her big jade-leather chair, her gaze on the television. She asked me without looking my way, “You don’t fall for this stuff, do you?”
“What, like ads?”
She pointed her thin little arm at the nearby couch. “Sit.”
“I’m going to tell you a family secret,” she said softly, finally looking my direction. “It’s for you, and possibly for your brother, but not your parents. Do you understand?”
I didn’t, not fully, but I nodded.
“You know I was an orphan for a time. Born in this house, lived with my family, but then raised by an uncle after it happened?” She didn’t wait for my nod. “I was ten years old that night. It was my birthday.”
My mother had gotten me a small cake about the size of your fist. I looked forward to that cake every year, since we didn’t exactly have sweets bounding about back then. It was eleven cents, so rather expensive, but my mother got one for every one of us on our birthdays no matter what she had to scrimp or save. All year long, I saw Mary get her cake in January, Arthur get his cake in March, Eleanor in June, Clarence in July, then Ruth a week after Clarence. Then it was months and months until me, the odd one out, on October 29th. I was so excited for that cake. As the days rolled closer, as the morning dawned, as the hours inched by, I hopped around the house like a bunny rabbit.
But I wasn’t allowed to eat it until well after supper.
I stared at the clock, so I know. Yes, that one on the mantle there, the brass and chrome one. Same one. But I stared at the clock, so I know: night fell at six forty-one. That was the moment bright orange stopped glinting off that clock and my mother rose to light a lamp.
I looked up at her. “Now?”
She smiled and shook her head. My brothers and sisters complained in a chorus in support of me, but she just shook her head at them. “Too soon, and she’ll ruin her supper.”
Father came in from the fields not long after that, dirty and tired as all get out. He ate in silence while we chattered endlessly about what type of cake it would be. Under the frosting, who knew? It might be raspberry, vanilla, or even chocolate.
We grew silent as father neared the cleaning of his plate, an event which would mark the end of supper. Four pieces of meat and bread remained, then three, then two… any moment now…!
He stopped at the last piece, holding it unmoving above the remaining dollop of gravy.
We turned our heads.
It was the bell. The bell was ringing out in the fields.
Father grunted, then put the last piece of his food back on his plate before rising. He opened the front door; we braced ourselves for the wind, but none came. He spat on and held up a finger to the night air, then shook his head. He moved back into our lamplight and sat.
Arthur asked, “Is it gonna storm?”
Mary asked, “Is there gonna be a tornado?”
My mother shook her head, smiled at us, and told us not to worry. No wind meant no storm.
But that bell kept ringing.
My father dipped his last piece of food in the gravy and prepared to eat it despite the constantly ringing bell—but then sighed and put it back down. He motioned to Clarence.
Clarence was the oldest, so he understood. He was nearly a man himself, and tying the bell would be no problem. He grabbed a candle, protected the flame with his hand, and headed out the open front door.
My brothers and sisters and I piled up to the window; opening it, we found nothing but absolutely still chilly air. We watched his little spot of light move out around the house and into the fields in the direction of the bell. The clanging metallic sound stopped, finally, and the candle’s little flame hovered next to it for a solid minute.
“Why’s he taking so long to tie it?” Ruth asked.
Eleanor suggested, “Maybe he’s having trouble making a knot. Knots are tough.”
We watched for another minute or two before—and I know how this sounds—the little flame in the distance began to rise. Slowly, smoothly, straight up. We followed it with our eyes, exclaiming the entire time, as it moved out of sight beyond the roof overhang.
The bell began ringing again.
“His knot must have come loose,” Arthur said.
Our parents came to look at our insistence, but there was nothing to see by then. Father motioned to Arthur. Happy to help out, Arthur grabbed a full lamp rather than a candle. He hurried out the front door, around the house, and into the fields while we watched from the window. The lamp was easier to see, and we were absolutely certain he reached the crook.
As the lamplight hovered there, the bell stopped ringing.
At that point, we had no reason to think anything was amiss. Maybe the wind had just blown a wisp of burning candle string up into the sky and Clarence had gotten lost in the dark. He would see the lamplight, find Arthur, and they would both come back. The rising little flame we’d seen had just been a fluke.
Only problem was, staring out into the autumn night, we still felt no wind at all.
We stared at that unmoving light for a strangely long period of time. What was he doing out there? Was he calling for his brother? Why couldn’t we hear him, if so? Our parents looked away for a moment, and in that instant, the lamp went out. We children bleated, but by the time they glanced back, there was nothing to see. There was only darkness.
The bell began ringing again.
My father began grumbling, but there were no more sons to send outside. He narrowed his eyes with thought, then handed Ruth, the oldest girl among us, our main lamp.
Our mother laughed. “Ruth, be a dear and go find your silly brothers.”
Ruth was a little hesitant, but she accepted the lamp. Leaving us in darkness without it, she headed out around the house and into the fields. This lamp was brighter, and we could actually see her carrying hand and her white pajamas in a small lit halo. On the way there, she regularly called out, “Clarence… Arthur… you two lost?”
About halfway to where the other two lights had stopped, her calls went instantly silent midsentence. “Clarence… Arth—”
It wasn’t that she’d given up yelling. The sound reaching us had simply stopped completely. We could still see her carrying the lamp, still see her hand and pajamas, still see her turning this way and that. She even raised the house lamp near her face and we saw her shouting into the darkness. We just didn’t hear anything—nothing except that constantly clanging bell, growing faster in pace and louder in urgency.
Mary, Eleanor, and I looked up at our parents with fearful gazes.
My father shook his head, speaking for the first time that night. “So there’s wind out there after all. The air is like a river inside an ocean. It’s movin’ fast out there, carrying her voice away. But we can’t feel it here.”
My mother seemed worried, but she nodded and accepted that. We saw her accepting it, so we gulped and believed it, too. We all glued our eyes to that open window.
Ruth reached the bell, and, in that stronger light, it entered our view unmoving at the exact same time we heard it stop ringing. Ruth looked this way and that, clearly concerned. She seemed to silently yell a time or two before moving closer to the motionless bell. A half-tied rope hung from the crook, an indication that someone had attempted to tie it, but we couldn’t see Clarence or Arthur anywhere near her. She put the lamp down on the ground to free her hands for tying the rope the rest of the way, but that mostly hid the light among the low-lying recently harvested stalks.
We waited, breaths held.
The air held in my lungs started to burn.
At long last, we were forced to breathe again.
Ruth’s light continued to sit there, barely visible between the broken plants.
“What’s taking so long?” Mary asked.
Eleanor said, “I hope she’s alright.”
Father told us, “She’s fine. Damn kids are just playing a game with us.”
Our mother nodded in agreement. “Eleanor, go fetch your sister, will you?”
Eleanor shook her head. “No way! It’s scary out there!”
“It’s just a game. You’re not playing a game with us, too, are you?”
“No.” Eleanor gulped.
“Then go get your sister and brothers. Tell them to come back in.”
It was pitch black out there, and almost the same inside with us, save for one lone candle. Trembling, Eleanor took our last candle and crept out into the night, scooting along the side of the house to stay as close to us as possible. Shakily, she called, “Ruth? Arthur? Clarence? This isn’t funny anymore.”
Now it was we who sat in the dark. As Eleanor began to move further away with the last of our light, we tensed. Father eyed the open front door, and mother softly moved to close and latch it. I wondered what they meant by that move, because how were the others supposed to get back in? But I supposed they’d unlatch it if anyone came back and knocked. Mother moved away from us in search of more candles. Through it all, the bell kept ringing out in the dark.
Increasingly scared, I held Mary’s hand tightly and yelled out the window, “Be careful, Elly!”
She must have happened to cross that invisible silent threshold at that moment, because she turned around in surprise and stepped closer. “I heard your voice go quiet, but there’s no wind! Papa’s wrong!” She stepped away again. “See, when I pass this point, my—”
She held up the candle to show us that her mouth was still moving, but we heard nothing. Come to think of it, her hair wasn’t moving, and we hadn’t seen Ruth’s pajamas billowing in any wind. I asked father, “What’s doing that? What’s making it quiet out there?”
“It’s just a game,” father insisted. “They’re all lying. She’s just pretending to make noise so it looks like she’s being silenced.”
Eleanor reached the bell; father’s grip on my shoulder squeezed to nearly painful.
She reached down for the lamp Ruth had left; lifting it with one hand and holding the candle with the other, she approached the clanging bell.
“See?” Mary whispered to father. “The candle’s not going out even though she’s not protecting the flame. There’s no wind out there.”
“But the bell is ringing,” he said gruffly. “So there is wind.”
Eleanor kept looking left and right as if she’d heard something; slowly, she reached the bell, which was hanging unmoving from the crook.
But we could still hear it ringing.
Next to me, Mary began to cry.
“It’s a game,” father said angrily. “It’s just a game they’re playing.”
Eleanor threw the lamp at something in the darkness. We saw the lamp crash, shatter, and go dark, but heard nothing. She raced toward us, candle in hand, but the flame went out because of her haste. We waited to hear her approaching or screaming, but nothing followed.
The bell continued to clang.
We waited in terrified silence.
Mother returned with a candle for each of us, and we sat vigil at the window. Nothing and no one moved. For hours, the bell clanged without wind. The night remained pitch black. The bell clanged, and clanged, and clanged, driving deeper into our ears with each passing minute.
Near midnight, we broke.
Father was beyond agitated. “Mary, go find your brothers and sisters.”
“No!” she cried. “I’m not going out there!”
Mother glared at her. “You have to. This game has to stop.”
Urged on by both of them, Mary burst into tears and climbed out the window. Holding her small candle, she inched out into the fields. Her sobs went quiet as she passed that same point out in the darkness; her flame reached the bell, and the ringing stopped.
Her flame snuffed out.
We held our breaths.
The bell began ringing again.
Father clenched his fists. “Go.”
I turned and saw he was looking at me. I suddenly realized I was the only child left in the house, and I felt horribly alone. Everything in me shrieked against the thought of going out into that cursed night. “No.”
My mother wavered in place. No longer adamantly in line with my father, she began to cry, too.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “It’s just a game. There’s nothing to be scared of!”
She screamed and demanded, “Why do you keep saying that? Why have I been helping you do this?!”
He grabbed her and shouted in her face, “Because we haven’t been sending our children to their deaths! That’s not what’s happening!“
She pushed his hands away and ran for the window. Pushing past me, she tumbled out and ran screaming toward the still-clanging bell; not out of fear of father, but out of terror for her children. “Arthur! Clarence! Ruth! Eleanor! Mary! For God’s sake, where are you?!”
He growled and leapt out after her, yelling, “We didn’t kill them! Everything is fine!“
They both continued shouting until they passed that point in the dark—and all went silent.
Except for the bell.
Twice more, it stopped ringing, and twice more, it began again.
In panic and terror beyond reason, I closed and latched the window and pushed all of the furniture against every entry to the house. I curled in a cupboard holding the last candle up to my face as it slowly melted its way down toward my fingers. I was alone. Somehow, I was alone. We’d all seen the danger and stared right at it as it happened, but one by one they’d all gone out there anyway. I’d been surrounded by a full band of siblings my entire life, and now I was completely and utterly alone in a house in the middle of nowhere.
By the length of my candle, it was three in the morning when the knock came at the door.
I trembled, but did not make a sound.
The knock sounded again forty heartbeats later. It was louder this time.
I shook, holding my candle tight.
The third knock was more like a tremendous crash or kick, and I heard the door explode inward.
Sixty heartbeats of silence passed… and then the floorboards creaked.
Something in me told me to put out my candle for fear of it being seen through the cracks in the cupboard, but I didn’t dare. Not darkness. I couldn’t handle darkness. I would scream if I did, so I kept it lit.
Slow quiet steps moved through the house. Whoever it was seemed to be pausing and listening at times; at others, they would rush forward to a random spot in a sudden frenzy and then stop abruptly.
Four hundred heartbeats after that, the bell began ringing again.
But this time, it rang from inside the house.
It rang from the kitchen.
It rang from near the bed.
It rang outside my cupboard. Clang, ten feet away, clang, five feet away, clang, right up against the cupboard door—
And then it opened.
I sat expectantly, mouth open and eyes wide, as I waited for my great-grandmother to continue. After a bit, I realized that was it. “But what’d you see?”
She shook her head. “That’s not the point. I’m here, so obviously I survived, and a young man like you doesn’t need to know what horrors walk this world outside the paved cities of man.”
Gulping, I asked, “You’re not just pulling my leg? This really happened?”
“Yes.” Her gaze went distant by television light. “But here’s what I want to tell you, and what you should tell your brother. The thing that opened that cupboard door and stared at me from the dark—the thing that hoped to wait out my candle before the coming of dawn—had a bell tied to one of its teeth with a blood-soaked rag, such that it would clang when its mouth was opened for hunting. Somehow, some way, some heroic poor soul managed to tie a warning bell to that thing before they died. We heard that warning bell all night long, and yet my entire family walked out there one by one. We didn’t listen because we didn’t want to listen. My father knew what he was doing halfway through, but he didn’t want to accept what he’d already done, so he did even worse to continue living the lie.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What are you saying?”
She grabbed my hand briefly. “Fear will tell you to put your candle out, but your head will tell you to keep it lit. Don’t give in to fear. You keep it lit, you’ll get through this.”
Turning my head, I became aware of a sound in the distance. “Is that… is that the bell? I was so caught up I didn’t notice. How long has that been ringing?”
She just clenched her fist and turned back to the television.
CREDIT: Matt Dymerski
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