The Half-Finished Belfry

She was in the strange and unusual position of being one of the only female bell-ringers in Europe. And one of the only bell-ringers without a bell to ring. For her belfry had been compromised. It was a small but important church in Paris that had, like most things in the city, burned. The fire was traced to an electrical short-circuit near the organ, which was located directly beneath the belfry. Anne-Sophie had always hated that damned organ player, so pompous. And now his “instrument” had cost her a job. He, on the other hand, could get work elsewhere in the interim (there was a surprising number of churches in need of organ players as most people had latently gotten the idea in their head that in order to be one, you had to be a phantasm à la Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls). Contrastly, as Anne-Sophie quickly came to find, the availability of bells in the city was not exactly burgeoning, for the profession of bell-ringer didn’t have a high enough turnover for anyone in the field to ever give up their job short of moving to Italy, where the belfry scene was at its most robust. But Anne-Sophie couldn’t fathom leaving France, let alone Paris. She was too French for the Italians, and it would be about as good of a fit as Jesus and the Jews.

So she struggled. Because a bell-ringer’s salary wasn’t really much of a salary at all. She was getting so desperate that she even thought of going to California for a spell, where the average salary for a bell-ringer was $13.78 an hour, a whopping twenty-one percent over the average $10.38 an hour in the rest of that supposed “land of plenty.” But the bells in the U.S. would never be worthy of ringing. They couldn’t compare to the ornate and majestic belfries of France, hers in particular being her most treasured. Now it was nothing but cinders. The archbishop had expressed his deepest condolences to the parishioners of the church, asking them for their kind donations as a means to gather the funds to rebuild the church as soon as possible. Of course, none of them were willing to open their wallets when push came to shove, instead trickling over to other nearby options in the sixth arrondissement. So much for God’s subjects being loyal. To anything other than God Himself, Anne-Sophie supposed.

That was the trouble with worship–you could do it anywhere. Thus, when one was trying to make an industry out of it, that fact could tend to bite one in the arse when geography suddenly didn’t matter. The parishioners could go to any church to pay their respects to God “or whoever.” But Anne-Sophie would never turn her back on her own House of Worship, least of all the belfry that was its crowning jewel. She had spent years up in that tower, day after day, night after night. It had been like more of a home to her than the small apartment she had in the nineteenth, worlds away from the blissful peace she experienced while in her bubble of a bell tower. Of course, there was no denying that being a bell-ringer was a lonely existence, and briefly dating a campanologist named Gerard had only scarred her on relationships as he turned out to be a fetishist, only getting erect if he could simply masturbate in front of the bell while she rang it–what kind of sex life was that? At that rate, she preferred to be alone and eventually told him so, though he stalked her for several months after the breakup until, she assumed, he found a new bell to access and splooge on.

What’s more, most men didn’t understand her profession, thought it was, in point of fact, “rather odd”–and yes, the cliche Quasimodo jokes abounded every time she told a potential suitor what she did for a living. Once that hurdle was crossed, they would then become squeamish over the idea that she was probably some sort of religious zealot, married to Jesus, hence unlikely to want to engage in anything worth a damn in sexual clout. Usually, before she could explain to them how she got into bell-ringing in the first place–that it had nothing to with God or religion or any desire for a life somehow associated with celibacy–they tended to ask for the check. They swung away from her as fast as any bell ever could.

Gerard had been the only one interested in hearing how she came to hold the position, and so she told him–since she didn’t yet know that his earnestness in finding out stemmed from his objectophilia. The intensity of which everyone somehow assumed Anne-Sophie possessed thanks to that accursed running gag brought about by Victor Hugo. Who clearly saw fit to make all bell-ringers come across as just as big of freaks with passages like, he “caressed them, talked to them, understood them. From the carillon in the steeple of the transept to the great bell over the doorway, they all shared his love” and  “Claude Frollo had made him the bell ringer of Notre-Dame, and to give the great bell in marriage to Quasimodo was to give Juliet to Romeo.” Jesus Christ. No wonder Anne-Sophie was doomed to be classified as some sort of mutant with a trope like that constantly casting a dark, disfigured pall over her. Anne-Sophie, however, did no such caressing of or talking to the bells. She simply enjoyed the ritual behind them, and she told Gerard as much as she explained that her initial fascination with the ringing of bells came when her father had taken her to see the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Although America had no grand churches or belfries to speak of in comparison to Europe, there was something about the bell that called to her. Maybe it was the fact that it was purely for decoration–a so-called symbol of freedom–as opposed to actually being ringable. It was in that moment that Anne-Sophie wanted to ring bells for the rest of her life, accordingly becoming fond of playing Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” on repeat after that trip to Philadelphia.

Her mother finally rued the day she had ever bought a 70s compilation CD and snapped it in half after the umpteenth play. Anne-Sophie’s determination to become a bell-ringer subsequently augmented tenfold. If she didn’t get to ring a bell–and soon–she might be driven mad by curiosity. So it was that she enrolled in a course for bell ringing at, where else, Notre-Dame. Her “instructor” was a harsh man who criticized her at every pull, accusing her of having no technique, no rhythm and, in short, no future whatsoever in the art of bell ringing.

On the way home from the lesson that evening, she stopped into the church that would ultimately employ her to find refuge. All at once overwhelmed with emotion as she sat in a pew toward the back, she began to sob. Quiet sobs that trembled her to her core, and caught the notice of the deacon, who sat beside her and asked if she was all right. When she proceeded to tell him the whole spiel about her quest to become a bell-ringer, he stared at her serenely and returned, “Well, my dear child, it just so happens that our current bell-ringer is looking for a new pupil to train. I feel as though God Himself has brought you to us. Would you like to start under his tutelage tomorrow?”

It was in this way that the job had practically fallen into her lap, making her believe, for once, that the universe was not indifferent. That it truly, as she did, believed this was her purpose. But with the uncertain fate of how long it would take to rebuild the belfry in the wake of the fire, she was left, once again, feeling faithless. Worse still, there was nowhere in all of Paris that she could go without hearing the sound of a bell somewhere. Taunting her, reminding her of what she had lost and might never regain again.

Forced to tide herself over with a soul-sucking job as a cashier at Monoprix, she bided her time as the clergy scrambled to gather the necessary funds to rebuild. The organ, of course, was replaced instantaneously. She wanted to strangle that arrogant organ player all the more not only for being loosely responsible for the fire in the first place, but for being deemed a greater priority than the bell. The bell which was the crux of any truly holy place.

Each day, she would ensure taking a route back from Monoprix that would allow her to see if any significant progress had been made on her beloved belfry. And each day, she would remain disappointed. She feared she was growing too out of practice, that she would never again be able to ring with the same sonority. Then, one day, as quickly as her bell had been plucked from her, so, too, did it return. Albeit in a mangled state. It was an amalgam of scrap metal plopped into a half-finished belfry, one that, it appeared, the church would not be bothering to ornament with any frills–at least a frieze, for God’s sake (literally). The bell alone in a bare bones structure would have to suffice for Anne-Sophie, they declared. For the funds were being appropriated to other “important” changes to the building as well. What goddamned important changes? she seethed internally. What could possibly be more important to the church than the heart (she) and soul (the bell) of the edifice? To them, the answer seemed to be funneling the donations into their own robe pocket.

Even so, she couldn’t deny that it felt amazing to quit Monoprix and return full-time to the alternate pittance she was provided. And yet, although she rang it with all of the love left in her heart, the bell would never ring as loud and true as it once had in that newly half-finished belfry.

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