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Edju 29 - He Arrives at St. Bibiana's


by RW Spryszak


29.

It was a geometric thing. Low boxes and a stubbed tower with four windows, one on each side. I could see the bell. The bell. A single bell somewhere amid the angels and the low rolling clouds. The clouds swept across the sky, escaping. Running from this place. A chill escaped from out of my collar. It laughed as it turned the corner. Glad to be rid of my river. Everything was trying to run away.

This was the famous place where the believers came to escape the hounds. The hounds let loose by the hunter of souls.  To save oneself it was only necessary to be here. To get down on one's knees and wish for the end of the world. As the ancients did. As your grandparents did. As the true believers taught. But that was ages ago.

Ages and ages in an age in which men believed these things. Believed in cardboard. Believed in plaster and lath. Eyes painted on where the sculptor failed to bring the light to the face of the statue. We cheat like this.

There were streams of pilgrims in the old days. I stood beneath the tower and the low rolling weather. Only then did I remember the pictures in the newspapers. Pictures of thousands touching the hem of Bibiana's robe. The white statue patient and waiting as the flock went by.

All this returned to my memory as I swooned and lost my balance, being too close to the clouds. But the martial orders and sounds of work woke me back to my feet. I didn't falter like an amateur sculptor who can't make eyes or hands. Or the impossible feet of Catholic statues. The shock of a hammer and the whisk of a bricklayer's trowel. All around me in a spinning circle men clung to ropes and scaled ladders. Pointed at places and struggled to measure. To even. To lay one atop another. Wood. Frame. Brick and mortar. The walls.

They were erecting walls everywhere. Setting them in the old foundations uncovered by the experts. Everywhere along the road and out in the fields. This was how they bolstered the economy. These were the jobs. The unemployment cured. Busy hands and simple minds. The socialists, they tell us, want to share the misery. The capitalists, they won't tell you, want to concentrate the misery on the same people, generation after generation. Now we build a maze, or rebuild one, as it was in the days we defeated our invaders.

And in the middle of this hive, the stone church dedicated to the patron saint of the insane. The drunkard. The victim.

This was my home. I readjusted Alice on my shoulders and went to the only door in the building. Direct under the steeple.

The door was once painted green but that was long ago, by the look of the patches of paint that remained. I couldn't help think about a door I saw once… was it yesterday? Someone kept knocking until it turned bright red.

I tried the knob but the door was bolted solid. What is it with the locking of churches, I remember muttering into my shirt. I made a fist and struck the wood. It splintered under the force of my hand. A barrel of water burst at the staves and dumped the contents on the barren sand. There was a crow. A clock. A cock struck one then the hen chased him away. Above the door turned empty space a small shutter creaked open and a bald headed man appeared. There was a shock of blonde hair in a thick curl coming straight out of the top of his head. He wore thin glasses and smelled of turpentine. He squinted to see me and couldn't.

The door won't open that way, he said, irritated. Knock first. How else am I supposed to know you are here?

The Central Committee of the Provisional Government sent me, I began.

I know, I know.  Amendment Seven. The Provisional Government requires all citizens to follow the orders of the Provisional Government. He seemed proud to say it. To have the ordinance memorized so soon.

Something like that I suppose. They've assigned me the bellringer's position.

The bellringer for the apocalypse?

No. Nothing that grand. Just the bellringer for the church.

That's good. The whole town needs the bell to work again. It's how we tell time, you know. It's been impossible to tell time since they took the clocks away.

Who took the clocks away?

The Provisional Government by order of the Provisional Government.

I didn't know that, I said. So how am I supposed to know if it's time to ring the bells if I don't have a clock?

There's only one bell.

I began again. How am I supposed to ring the bell, then, if I don't…

I wasn't allowed to finish. He pulled himself back inside and slammed the hatch. It looked smaller to me than it did before. I waited for the door before me to open so I could go inside, but nothing happened.

Within a few seconds I became aware of a terrible humming sound behind me. Mechanical. Distant but getting closer. Louder. Grinding. And men shouting, or trying to shout, over the noise.

The thing on the faraway road was just emerging from over the horizon. I could see the men rebuilding the maze at various points around me stop working. They waved their caps and shook their shovels. They made all the movements of men who were cheering something on. But I couldn't hear them for the noise of the thing approaching.

It was a machine with tall metallic arms waving around from a colossal body. And its body seemed more like a gelatinous blob than wrought steel or any metal. But it was iron to be sure. With great black rivets holding it together. It clanked and whirred and pounded from some unseen tangle of ungreased gears somewhere inside. A man in a blue coat was using a whip on its backside, as if it were a living thing he was droving to market. And two iron panels flapped the monster's sides. Rising and falling like futile, clumsy, clanking wings. And with every clank a blue puff of exhaust came out the back end.

A train horn went off in an air pulsing blast. I could see the men at the walls tossing their hats to the sky. Waving their arms like lunatics. The thing went past the church, keeping to the road. It was as big as the church itself. Maybe bigger. There was a driver in a cockpit smoking a cigar and two soldiers sitting behind him firing rifles into the air. But the racket from this monstrosity drowned out the gunfire. I held my hands over my ears but I could feel the sound in my bones, beating in time with my heart. It became me. It was impossible to resist. And I do believe, to this day, nothing was ever the same since.

It puffed and cranked and rattled, belching its exhaust behind as it went. In the exhaust fumes and smoke a small boy followed. He kept six ducks on the road with a stick and tried to keep up with the mechanical beast for reasons all his own.

I watched it move like a menacing turtle down the road. And when it disappeared around a bend the men at the walls took a few minutes to retrieve their hats and went back to work.

The church door opened and the man who was once above in the hatch waved me inside. It's all clear now, he said into my ringing ears. What are you waiting for?

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