I arrived early at the meeting place, where the forest meets the swamp. While waiting for the others, I had time to think about the unlikelihood of our success. If only we could understand more fully what moves us, we might spare ourselves and others some suffering. Yet then again, wisdom might only ever be in endurance. Someday there will be a being of greater or more consistent wisdom, one with an open design. Humans are closed and rigid, and though the light pours in, we are grown to allow only so much of it inside. We have knowledge, but in the future, there will be a creature more open than us, as open as the Earth, and they will truly understand.
The year was turning downward and would soon reach the bottom and turn up again, with or without us. A forest, now there was a being with an open mind. We carry one inside our heads, always rerooting itself, but physically closed to others, and I think that’s the difference. Bodies must touch for understanding. Under the limbs, I started a fire and unpacked my knapsack. Three hours left, and I cooked potato cakes on the coals. It seemed so inane, so ordinary, that I could hardly eat. But what else was there to do? My appetite dwindled, and I waited, a half-eaten cake on my tin plate.
The other two arrived together. I knew where they came from, but little more about them. Antonov, from the Cabinet, and Limpak, a photographer and accomplished spelunker from somewhere out east. Antonov was a handsome man, but bitter around the eyes, bundled up twice his girth against the cold. Limpak, dark and mousey, had the audacity to arrive with tiny brass bells dangling from the hem of his jacket. They approached the fire, chuckling.
“Good evening,” Antonov said. “Some last meal.”
Limpak snorted, and I tried to smile. At least they were in high spirits.
The greeting was cold and awkward. I do not shake hands. I embrace friends and even casual acquaintances, but shaking hands feels somehow fraudulent, and Antonov struck me as the sort who might use the grasp as a test of willpower or confidence. We shared a greeting and exchanged names, and “quickly now,” we compared information on the bells. Antonov had a map dug up from a friend of an associate who once worked in one of the facilities like the one we sought. He was said they all shared a similar blueprint. Limpak had climbing gear, what looked like a mess of cord, buckles, and hooks. None of us knew where to begin.
I poured dirt on the fire and offered them the remaining potato cakes. Antonov refused, but Limpak put one in his mouth all at once. He stood with his mouth full, staring at us as if we were merely camping and the only decision to make was where to pitch our tent.
“The clock is ticking,” Antonov said. He produced with a flourish his Cabinet-issued pocket watch, pretentiously ornate. “Less than three hours now.”
I looked at Limpak, he swallowed and shook his head, and I looked back to Antonov. “We have to go down,” I said. “Through the water. They told me we could enter through any of the swamps around here, but I’m not sure he wasn’t guessing.”
Limpak walked a few meters ahead of me, and Antonov a few behind. The wetlands sucked at our boots, and one of mine nearly came free. I tightened the laces and buckle. Limpak began to sing a folk song about the reasons we get up in the morning.
He finished and said, “And for you, Mr. Antonov, where is your heart? Why do you wake?”
“Revenge,” he said, seriously at first, then he laughed. and Antonov joined him.
Limpak stopped and waited for me to catch up. He looked at me with his lopsided smile. “And you?”
“I want to see what happens next.”
Limpak nodded, impressed or in agreement. “There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there? No peeking. You just have to wait.”
We marched on, looking for the entrance to the depths.
He was right. Clairvoyance is not possible. Nothing travels faster than the arrow of time, which crosses the magic length of God’s body, and this is the reason I wake every morning and rise from bed: to see how the arrow flies, and if it might one day strike its target.
God is with those who do not have a worldview. Antonov would have followed the unbending logic of his law-abiding cosmos into darkness. He would have blinded us to the entrance, or at least the one we took.
The stairway in the swamp was covered only with our preconceptions.
“It is here,” I said with certainty. I crouched down and put my fingertips to a cold stone. Tiny black mites crawled around searching for leaf mold or refuge. The bells would shake them to pieces too. “Look.”
They looked to where I pointed but could not see the stone nor the steps, nor the opening at first. “Where is it?” they asked. Antonov was the last to see it, but he didn’t let us know that.
Once they saw the first stone step, then the stairway became real.
What if we had walked by it? Is this why we were chosen? Why I was chosen?
“We have to go down here?” Limpak said, his little bells ringing as he crouched beside me. “This looks like the entrance to a witch’s house.” Already he had begun to move his hand to the seven sacred windows of the flesh, not eyes and mouth, but the points aligned with the phases of the Moon. Antonov scoffed, but when Limpak’s fingers touched each window in his flesh, they sang, for him, like struck glass.
I became glad for his company when he found the post and the rope nearby. The ancient algaed iron post anchored in the swamp, wrapped with the gnarled head of a rope thicker than my neck. The taut rope extended from the post straight down into the earth, disappearing into a depth we could not imagine.
Antonov tugged at the rope, maybe we could take it with us. But it held fast. Limpak's bolt cutters couldn't fit around the bulk of it.
“So much for shortcuts,” Limpak said.
We started down the stairs and turned on our headlamps. Swamp water trickled down the steps and dripped onto our heads from the heavily eroded ceiling. Antonov counted the steps. “Sixty. Sixty-one. Sixty-two.” The stairway turned to the right once, and then again to the left. Bugs colonized my scalp. Limpak wrung out water from his little brown cap. A half-meter-long centipede slipped over my boot, and I could smell it in the musty air, I could hear the movement of its legs. Later, at the bottom of the stairs (“Two-hundred-six”) we saw many more. Antonov caught one and bagged it, chasing its life with a pill of toxic gas. The centipede bit through the bag and escaped.
“Let’s go,” I said at the bottom. I was constantly urging them onward, for they either grew weaker or more apprehensive the closer we came to our destination. “Faster,” I said. “Don’t slip. Come on.”
The corridor ahead was all stone and black wires crossing the path at all heights. Limpak’s foot tangled in them as soon as he took a step, and Antonov cut him free.
“Should we begin cutting the cords now?” he asked, the points of his cutters black and gleaming moist in our headlamps. “These might hold the bells some way along the line. They might be part of it.” He began snipping the wires, almost delicately, as if he were pruning an ivy.
“Wouldn’t it be rich,” Limpak said, “if this was all that needed to be done? A little trim. And we could return to the surface and not gone any further after all.” He chuckled and brought his camera level with my face. The flash went off. I forgot to blink, and mercury suns hung above the wires. “We could return home and be happy. As happy as we were before anyway.” He laughed again, and Antonov squeezed his shoulder as he caught up to us.
“Let’s go,” I said.
• • •
Down here below the swamp, we were closer to the primordial silence than I have ever been. The drippings of the swamp ceased. We could no longer hear birdsong or the sky tearing of planes. Even our footsteps fell hushed, muffled by a carpet of mushrooms. The spores glowed green gold in the light of our headlamps, and we tried not to cough. We breathed slowly and without sound, so as not to wake the silence into creation.
But Limpak tripped and his camera tumbled from his hands. It crashed into the wall of the corridor and broke in two, each piece breaking the calm with its own clamor. Limpak cursed, rushed ahead, and then he was gone.
We found neither the camera nor Limpak nor his little brown cap, only two holes in the floor about an arm’s length apart, their edges perfectly carved. Our light didn’t reach to the bottom of either. Antonov bent over and called into the pit, and I almost told him to shut up. Echoes answered him, and then a long whine that may have belonged to an animal as easily as some engine or generator. When it faded, we were left with the fact of Limpak’s sudden uncreation.
“What a coincidence,” Antonov said.
I sighed and began touching the seven sacred windows, as many as I could remember, in memory of Limpak. I got to five before Antonov tossed something into the hole on the right. He then rummaged in his backpack.
“You don’t like me because I’m a Cabinet man,” he said. “But I don’t dislike you. Not because of a little difference in theory.”
The Cabinet of Nihilists, weaving meaning from meaninglessness, proving yet ignoring their own self-constructed absurdity. He was right, and though they did good work sometimes, they went too far. They fetishized abstraction. They cut life into pieces until they could no longer see the whole. They abused semantics. In short, they were always missing the point.
“What are you doing?” I nodded at the machine in his hands.
“Nothing.” He put it away in his backpack and sniffed. “I think Limpak found us a shortcut.”
“He could still be alive,” I said. “Water at the bottom. Anything.”
Antonov nodded once, very slowly.
• • •
“One hour, two minutes,” Antonov announced.
We walked on bare stone now, or perhaps a floor that had once been tiled, since worn over centuries. I could still see a few bits of mortar, now chalk dry and scattered. Ahead I saw water.
“Did they tell you why they gave us so little time?” Antonov asked.
“They gave us all the time they could.”
“That’s good enough for you? I’m—”
“Watch your step. Those are deep puddles.”
“No they’re not.” And then he was up to his waist in water, cursing. “Makes no sense. The floor. Water can’t pool here.” He began muttering, calculating.
“We’ll have to get wet anyway,” I said, pointing ahead, where water covered the width of the corridor. The surface twinkled in the light of my headlamp, and something floated there, a kind of fungus or lily, and then more ahead, dozens of them. We climbed into the water, slightly warm and clouded. It reached my chest in most places; Antonov was in up to his neck.
“Why do you think they chose us?” he said. “Out of everyone? Did they tell you that much?”
I felt a softness with my boot and stepped around it. “Aren’t you supposed to be a brilliant scientist?”
“Well. Okay. But you? Limpak?”
I sneezed. “I don’t know. Limpak was a professional photographer. He shot the Weregild Wars. The image of the girl dwarfed next to the throne of conches, staring up? On the beach? That was him. His people probably paid for him to be here.”
“Yeah. They can work a deal.” Antonov slipped and dunked under for a moment, the available light suddenly halved. He sputtered and coughed. “And you. You’re the campanologist. The last one, they say.”
“Not the last,” I said. I hate exaggerations. “They never needed me before. They gave my trade to machines, and I don’t begrudge them, only their masters. It’s been a long time since I founded a bell. Or tuned one.”
Or rang one at all. When I was a boy, every bell was made of fire. No ceiling, no steeple or belfry could contain the ringing. I felt myself fly off with the sound and vibrate across the sky, beyond it even, into the stars. Watching my father and mother work. Watching the first bell being born. I wanted to be melted down myself and poured into a mold so that I might ring one day. I got as close to them as I could until they were no longer of any use. My parents were working at a dead art. Silence returned to the workshop.
“Anyone could have gotten this far,” I said. “Anyone can stumble around in the dark and slice a rope when they see one. Dismantle a bell housing.”
I don’t know what Antonov would have said had we not then entered a large chamber where the water level dropped to my navel. I had the feeling he didn’t believe me, that he didn’t believe just anyone could have made it this far. Or maybe I didn’t believe it. Six unlit chandeliers in Old Pangaian style hung from the ceiling, and shaggy streamers of moss hung from their scrolls and arms, and a small fire-eyed marsupial hung from the moss, its body no bigger than my fist.
Standing there, I felt nostalgia where before I had felt only a bone-deep urgency. Nostalgia is not a sensation to hurry through. It’s a place to linger.
“Two doors,” Antonov said. “The water is leaking out. Maybe there’s a tide, but it might be automated. Let me look around.” He began untangling some instruments from his backpack. I saw the Cabinet’s insignia on the back of his coat.
“Hurry,” I said, but what I really wanted was to remain there and sink into the nostalgia. It was warm and filling, and strange thoughts began to rise. There is a book in the traditional culture of my people that tells a story about an innocent whale who ended up in the belly of a man, even though he did no wrong. The parable is meant to teach us about perspective: every act of suffering and destruction is simultaneously an instance of nourishment and creation. But since the story is told from the perspective of the whale, most readers gather the wrong lesson: that bad things happen even to good people. Anyone can figure that out. They miss the untold story, but all the holy books of our people are living books and are capable of change.
“Hey,” Antonov said, “Hey!” He shook my shoulder, and I felt a shiver down my arm. For once I was glad to have him there. I had gotten lost. We contain multitudes. I am one and many, and there is no urge or sensation I experience that is not me. There’s very little outside that isn’t part of myself as well: all the strange things I have done and seen. We are stardust, yes, but we are starlight too.
“Here,” Antonov said, pulling me closer to one of the doors. He had a strip of paper in his hand, a readout from one of his devices. “We’ll go through here.”
He had measured humidity or pressure, I didn’t quite catch it, but I trusted his judgement, and we went right, through two additional doors, and into another corridor. Our boots sank into sand. I could smell cinnamon, maybe cloves. Farther on, I felt the floor begin to decline. Gradually at first, and then more noticeably, the passage tipped forward. Soon we were jogging. The sand tumbled before us. It felt as if the entire place were in motion and not just the two of us, as if we were inside a giant hourglass.
“Time!” I asked, almost out of breath. We were finally going as fast as I liked.
“Forty-five minutes,” Antonov said.
The sand slid beneath us and we fell into a cavernous space that yawned beyond the reach of our lights.
Sometime later we landed on dry ground. We stood, surprisingly unharmed. Antonov lit a flare that briefly lit the honeycombed ceiling that housed thousands of bats. Occasionally, one dropped into a quick flight like a black rag blown by the wind and then clung to the distant cave ceiling among its people.
“Oh no,” Antonov said.
The damaged heap on the floor was difficult to discern even in the light of our headlamps. Until we found his face. Limpak’s limbs were contorted and bone had torn through his pant leg. Antonov searched him. I heard the crunch as he stepped on a piece of Limpak’s camera.
“There’s enough sand here,” I said. “We could bury him.”
“There’s no time. Ah.” Antonov held up a piece of cloth or paper in his light. “It’s not right. There’s water damage?” He seemed distracted.
“We could bury him.”
Antonov approached me, showing me the paper. Limpak had borrowed his map. “It’s not sad, really,” he said. “When you think about it.” He pointed to the body. “There’s barely such a thing as life anyway. Limpak was just a lot of stuff animated because it happened to be arranged a certain way. He only thought he was alive. He only thought he had thoughts and feelings. Let’s not get sentimental now. He’s just stopped working.”
We used different words to mean the same thing, and drew different conclusions. We are both lesser and greater than most people believe. We are not the center of all things, but we are large enough to contain it. Being a self at all is miracle enough to me, proof of an exception to all ordinary laws, but I didn’t want to argue. I wanted to continue. “Come on. We don’t have time. You were right about that. Look.”
Two wells stood in the center of the room, their blue gray bricks contrasting with the white sand. One nearly overflowed with water while the other was seemingly empty. We studied them a minute. I dipped my hand into the water and wondered how many microscopic creatures were cupped in my palm. Life is held in such delicate yet robust suspension between all layers: between the inside, the outside, between time and the sum of life’s events, between matter and belief. Being is a dance on many floors.
“What are you thinking?” Antonov asked.
“That we take a lesson from Limpak and take a shortcut.” The diameter of the empty well was the right size for a person to shimmy down, back to one wall, feet to the other. Antonov considered it for a moment and dropped a stone down the well. We heard a faint impact. He lit a flare and we watched as the little sun tumbled into the darkness and disappeared.
“I think it must turn part way down,” he said. “Maybe it’s not a well at all, but part of some kind of delivery system. Maybe there was a ladder at one point. Why don’t we swim down that one?”
I swore with a little too much passion behind it. I think Antonov was already becoming uncomfortable in my presence. “There’s no time to deliberate.”
The bats flew and talked above our heads as we situated ourselves inside the empty well. Antonov decided to go first. We wore our backpacks on our chests, and I drove a few spikes from Limpak’s equipment into the soles of my boots. We tried to rig up his climbing gear to save us from a fall, but neither of us knew the first thing about it. We didn’t have time to learn.
The bricks were damp, but not slick, and the mortar was rough enough to give us tiny footholds all the way down. I was sweating under my coat, but the extra layer protected my back from being sliced open by the uneven surface.
We shimmied down. Antonov moved deliberately, and after a few minutes I wanted to kick his feet off the bricks and send him tumbling down, wiping out all the white mushrooms that crossed the well’s interior like cobwebs. Another part of me felt pity for him. I knew he had been chosen for this because he was expendable. He was brilliant, but his pet theories were out of fashion, and even if I disagreed with him I still raged against those who were afraid of dissent. I almost wanted him to make some discovery here that might whiten the faces of the Cabinet.
“Antonov,” I said.
He looked up. “Yeah?” Beneath the fatigue and fear, I saw he was handsome, calm, inquisitive. In another permutation of life we might have been friends, or even more than that. But in that claustrophobic well, with death below us—or at least a painful fall—I felt more intimate with him than I imagined ever being in another life.
“Can you go faster? Just a little?”
“Sure.” And he did.
• • •
We dropped into a wet, warm chamber full of ropes, cords, and pulleys, but none of it looked immediately familiar, and there were no wheels or levers that might have had the power to ring the sorts of bells I expected to find. Antonov brought out his cutters again, and a pulley dropped like an anchor very close to my foot.
“Enough,” I said. “This isn’t it.”
He was visibly irritated by then. He doubted me. He felt he should be in charge. I led him into a corridor with another ceiling higher than our light could reach. Ropes hung from the darkness.
“If they hang from above,” Antonov said, “could it be we’ve gone below the bells now?” He was checking his map.
“That’s not how it works. There’s should be a short rope attached to the wheel and the whole—” but he wasn’t listening.
“There’s a door right here on the map, and this goes back up. Look at these symbols. We went too far.”
“Not nearly far enough. What’s the time?”
“Your watch is off. It could be any moment now.”
“It’s not broken. This is the door.” He was examining the wall where the door should have been, trying to find a seam.
“I’m going this way,” and I went on without him. I was almost relieved. But a few minutes later I heard him jogging to catch up, his backpack rattling. “We can’t split up,” he said. My heart felt suddenly heavy and soft.
“Hold on!” I held him back.
Our feet perched on the edge of the ground and open darkness. Hundreds of sturdy bell-ringing ropes hung suspended between an invisible ceiling and an invisible floor. They seemed to stand, straight and taut and perfect, as if enchanted by the music of a flute. I heard the murmured song of water below. Antonov lit and dropped another flare, and we watched it bleed light all the way to the bottom, where it showed us the flowing river in a rose and garnet glow, before it extinguished. The ropes descended into the water.
I heard a distant chiming.
“Down,” I said. “Now.”
I threw my coat and it broke the silence of that gulf like a bat in flight. I pulled on fresh gloves and took to the ropes. I wondered if Antonov had ever climbed before. He was clumsy and slow, and as I watched him I was back in school, a test of my fitness. The teacher held down the free end of the rope with his foot. My grip was weak. I tried over and over, but slipped off. Climb the rope, not my leg, he had said, frustrated with the pudgy weak little boy before him.
Later, I climbed to the bell chamber of St. Ourania’s and touched my forehead to the Jade Bell of Reconciliation.
“Who sent you?” Antonov asked from above, a little too loudly, as if he had to repeat himself.
“What do you mean? The same as hired you.”
“Yes, but who? What was their name? What did they look like? Did you recognize them?”
“Yes,”I said. “They knew where to find me. I wasn’t hiding. It was no one important. Just a messenger.”
I thought the truth, that I could not remember, would only slow us down when we were so close to the end. The memory was hazy, like a sunbeam below water. Someone came for me in my little house by the sea. They hadn’t knocked, I remembered that. They must have told me where to be, and when. That was all.
“Come on,” I said. “We’re almost out of time.”
The water at the bottom was ankle deep and warm as bathwater. Antonov dangled somewhere above, cursing. He dropped his backpack, I caught it and set it down gently in the water. Most of the ropes ended here, bound to shackles in the floor, but one went farther down through a hole large enough for me to squeeze through. I became the sensation of standing above the abyss. Our goal was on the other side of the floor, down through the hole. I got to my knees and stared into the water.
And I saw Him, Father of the Bells, the one for whom I had learned the art. The dance of life goes beyond good and evil. In its endless playing, it creates a role and fills it in one ecstatic moment, rewriting the grammar of our bodies. Every cell dances to the music above and the music below and it will continue so long as it is different and so long as there is time and it will end only when every permutation of life has been lived.
I looked down into the abyss, I looked up into the abyss, and followed with my mind the course of that single rope, from the iron post we had seen aboveground to its terminus somewhere below. I sat down and slid my legs in the water. “Antonov! Hurry!”
He was right behind me, panting. He looked haggard and wretched. A leech had attached itself to his neck and lay there like a birthmark. The bells would shake it to pieces.
I pointed down.
Antonov began assembling his oxygen tank and breather. “There’s no time,” I said and knocked it from his hand.
He stood slowly and backed away, holding one hand behind his back. “Who sent you? Who?!”
It was the first time I had heard him raise his voice. I thought the stress of the journey had finally gotten the best of him. I shook my head. “Quit it, let’s go.”
“No one sent you,” he said. He had my backpack. I must have left it lying around. He was holding it open. “Where are your tools? How will you dismantle the housings or take the clappers down?” He thrust his fist into the opening and pulled out a clump of moss. “I know why you’re here.”
I turned away from him, intent on the mission. Then something struck me in the side of the head, tearing my ear and blinding me for a moment with my own starry interior. I wanted to dive, but he was dragging me and reaching into his own backpack, probably for a weapon. I smelled smoke. I grew faint, almost unconscious, and I saw suddenly the green distance between all the parts of myself, vast and empty yet near, inconsequential, and if you had looked into my body, if you had been able to see into my cells, you might have seen words written on their walls in the language of time, the time of my death, and it was not now.
When I came to, Antonov was slumped forward, his face underwater, gazing into the dark hole. But he released no air bubbles, and the only movement was that of his left hand bobbing on the water’s surface.
I checked his watch: eleven minutes.
Then I dove past him into the abyss.
I no longer needed my headlamp to see. I no longer needed oxygen to breathe. The bubbles were luminous and nourishing. The leviathan my Father danced in the green and gold and blue water, threading among ribbons of weed. I could see the flowers multiplying, as if ready to inherit the earth. His great scales sung against the current.
At last the tower came into my view, the campanile, filled with the engine of ringing: the wheels, ropes, and levers. I entered with joy.
Twelve bells hung in the deep. I rang the full peal.
I rang all 479,001,600 permutations of the bells, not one repeated; truth is essential, to repeat a sequence would render the ringing false. I was everywhere at once. Flesh confounds cause and effect. The peal rang true out of the depths and across the land, and cats caterwauled, hounds howled, deer bolted into the forest, birds shot into the sky, engines failed, ships groaned, doors opened, cities shook, and the people dropped what they were doing and stood, for once, still and silent.
The sound of a bell is the sound of striking emptiness. We ring the bells not against the void, but against the filling of the world, against completeness and the end. We ring the bells to make room for more life. And sometimes I ring them just to hear the sound they make, the clang and clamor that burned into me as a child, the ringing arrow I can ride into the miracle of the sky and down again into day after day.
© 2019 by Kyle E. Miller, all rights reserved