The Bell Tower by L. Breen


On cold winter Sundays, between sermons, he liked to climb up to the top of the bell tower. He bundled himself up in his winter gear, always sure to include the matching hat and scarf set that a parishioner had knit for him, and made his way up the old wooden ladder.

When he first came to the parish, the bell tower had been his refuge. As a 25-year-old man, he found that leading a church in this neighborhood had unforeseen and overwhelming challenges. It calmed him to go to the bell tower, to sit and watch the ringer throw his whole weight onto the thick ropes, causing the heavy bells to float back and forth. Nearly a decade ago, the bell ringer had died. No one volunteered to assume the role, so the church had decided to forego filling it and save the money.

A self-proclaimed old hat at the priesthood, he still came up to the tower between the months of November and February. There was no heat and no insulation at the top of the bell tower, and the cobwebs hung like curtains between the long silent bells with their frayed, useless ropes. All the window panes were coated with a thick paste of dust and lingering prayers except one, the window facing out to the street – His Window.

He had noticed the woman many Sundays before as he waited on the steps of the church, shaking the hands of his excited flock after mass. She stood across the street, hunched over an open subway grate, her thin blanket wafting in the rising steam, her hand only darting out into the open air to ask for change. Upon first seeing her, he couldn’t recall what he had thought, only that he could feel his facial muscles droop downwards into a long frown.

Several months later, when he surrendered to an odd urge to revisit the bell tower, when he saw her again from his skyward perch, he remembered exactly what he had thought. She had all the majesty and mystery of a snow owl, her protruding cheekbones casting stern, beak-like shadows across her face. However, if she turned her head to the side just slightly, the shadows disappeared and her face became nothing but sad blue eyes, reminding him of a neglected hyacinth. It was a balance of power and grace that he had only read about in the Bible. He sat in the window for hours, watching her transform back and forth, back and forth, his face so close to the pane that his breath fogged the  glass.

In the beginning, he thought about going down to the corner where she stood with a hot cup of tea and leading the woman back into the church. He thought about feeding her, cooking the meal personally, using only the freshest ingredients, nothing from the pantry, while she sat bundled in a new blanket. He thought about all of this because those were the thoughts he was taught to have. However, one can not only think the thoughts one is supposed to have.

He began to wonder what her voice would sound like. He hoped it would not be a thin whisper or a throaty gurgle, a deep purr or a high-pitched yip. Then again, could any voice truly suit that transformative creature he watched from the window? He wondered how her cheeks would flush when she ate his hot meal. He could tolerate some pink, he decided, but anything darker than a delicate blush would completely destroy her ivory complexion, the likes of which he had only seen in paintings of the Madonna herself. It was then that he decided he would never approach her because a fantasy like his was a gift he could not squander.

From time to time, he still thought about meeting her, about the way he could make her blue eyes sparkle with gratitude. He thought about that today for a fleeting moment, before the wind snuck through the cracks in the window, and he reached for his scarf. It was silly to think about such things, he reminded himself, for he was a man of God. And if he didn’t appreciate beauty above all else, who would?

February came, and March thawed the city. The woman went off to wherever she went in the warmer months. The first of November, as morning frost still clung to sidewalks and skyscrapers, the priest sat in His Window, and the woman stood atop Her Grate. The priest noted how her blanket looked thinner, as did she.

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