The Mouth of the Bell
Saturday, November 9, 2013, 8:03 p.m.
It’s too sentimental to admit to having watched. There are deaths, tragedies. The majestic soundtrack promises that these are noble sacrifices for the sakes of those who remain, those who keep the peace, who persevere week after week as others drop around them. Could this be a lesson that some lives are more valuable than others? And if that is the case, then whose are which? Does it depend on when the trumpets come in?
Now that the orchestra has turned in for the night, a mask has been removed. Outside, in the distance, there are bells. It is eight o’clock plus three minutes. Did it begin on the hour? Usually I hear the carillon at six in the summer (an hour earlier in winter), and while the archaic method of calling out to a congregation is enchanting in principle, over time the daily hymns have begun to grate as I’ve found myself singing along mindlessly with the secondary dominants. They always fall in the same places, and they always go exactly where expected. They’re too much like music.
I’ve never been entirely sure where the carillon lives, though I think it is across the cemetery on Witherspoon Street, to the west, and I consider setting out some evening at 5:45, hunting my prey, but I always forget to go, and once “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” begins, I’ve missed my chance yet again. I wonder where tonight’s metal is striking, and from the front walk I think it may be at Saint Paul’s—that’s south. At least I think it is. One or several centuries ago, citizens would have known which direction was which, would have known from how far the bells sang and shook and rattled, would have known which faith the metallic voices called out to, would have been able to interpret their language. The bell was, along with thunder, one of the loudest sounds many generations ever heard.
I wonder what the typhoon sounds like. I have only heard a little bit, from a distance.
Two notes: they seem to call out that something important is happening, right this moment, even as they make time stop. Staying put while moving forward: the two sounds alternate, but the rhythm is always changing, and it’s much more interesting than downbeats and measures and chord progressions. It takes me a moment even to wonder about the source: there was a time when certain sounds always signaled agency and effort, someone or something making it happen, whereas now, it can run on automatic. There is something alluring and hypnotic about the irregularity, which keeps me listening for whatever might be new within the repeats. Are there two people? Are they pulling big ropes like Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, using their whole bodies in an inefficient economy to make just one sound each? Are they trying to stay together, or are they aiming to strike in one another’s silences? Either way, they’ve got it half right in their lopsided diligence. The mouths sing, together and apart, meeting up and swinging away from one another again. Two voices make a duo. They need only one note apiece.
What important message am I hearing? A storm? A funeral? An observance for veterans a day and a half early? Without knowing what I am being told, I am unable to craft a response. Should I be heading south, or in whatever direction the bells live? Am I needed at the church, or somewhere, and if so, for what?
Only later, when I hear the familiar neighborly train whistle, will I wonder whether the tolling might have masked something too. What did I miss once the trumpets gave way to the bells?
I’ve left the door open to listen. The heat kicks in. Warm breath takes over, the outside fades, and the bells are quiet again. I’ll remember them for days, trying to imagine not knowing that together they sang a major second.