The Bell

Another cold and snowy night was descending on the mountain village. It was winter now, almost Christmas, and the wind blew cold, swirling the light snow in the street lights of the village. All the shops were closed, the only establishment still open was the bar on main street.. A few trucks were parked outside, but all was quiet.

At the edge of the village, up on a hill, sat a cabin, a few dim lights shining out onto the snow, smoke curling from the stone chimney before the winter wind caught it and feathered it Eastward. An old pickup sat quietly outside, an inch of snow covering its dents and patina. It looked as though it could have been sitting there for twenty years or more, though it still occasionally ran, on good days. A large stack of cut wood was piled by the door, further evidence that someone was living there.

The inside of the cabin was warm and inviting, if not neat and especially stylish. The entrance and hallway were manageable, as long as one could step past the heavy coats, hats, boots, and winter trappings of skis, tools and severaxes axes. The hallway led to a small kitchen on the left, and a living room on the right, with the stone fireplace at the end of the room.

The rooms were well-lived in, most of the spaces taken up with a wood stove, couch, big leather chair, book shelves and a writing desk. A baby grand piano sat against the far wall, looking almost out of place in the log cabin. The room was quiet, save for the crackling of the fire. No music, no electronic devices to break the warming silence.

An old man sat in the big leather chair next to the fire. A man of 80 years, he was mostly bald now, with laugh wrinkles on his weathered face, eyes partly closed, perhaps now permanently tired from a long life of endless activity. Those eyes were steady, however, with the hint of a twinkle, and his hand was still steady as he lifted the glass beside him.

He sat quietly, sipping his Jameson’s, thinking. It was so easy to just sit and think on these dark, winter evenings. He knew he had nothing but time to think, to think about anything that might creep into his old brain. He enjoyed the quiet, the seemingly timelessness spent by the fire with a good book. Thinking and remembering had somehow become his favorite pastime.

For some reason, this night felt special. He chuckled softly. Hell, at this age any night felt special. Perhaps it was the coming of the Christmas season. Yes, yet another Christmas. Might it be the last one? Eh, probably not. He still felt good, though tired and occasionally achy. Probably a few more Christmases left in these old bones, he thought.

A Sip of his Jameson’s, which tasted exceptionally smooth and welcoming this night. He looked into the glass, resting in his old  and wrinkled hand . So this is where I’ve come to, he mused. This is where I’ve ended up. Here, by the fire, alone, with a drink and a heedful of memories. Was it all worth it? Did I have any idea, as a younger man, where I would ultimately end up? Oh god no. No clue whatsoever. Hell, come to think of it, I never thought about “ending up” anywhere. Never thought I’d live this long. I guess the idea of becoming an old man was not on my radar at all. Probably too busy just living, to give it much thought. Heh. I guess most young folk are like that.

He got up slowly, moved to the fireplace and placed two more sticks on the fire. It warmed his face and hands, and he paused there a moment, enjoying it, thinking how important these tiny, simple things had become. Easing back down into his big chair, he felt lucky to have nothing more to do right now than enjoy the warmth of the fire and his drink. Ah, the beauty in simplicity, he thought. Why was that knowledge so illusive for most of my life? Didn’t I think through things, contemplate them deep enough? What the hell was I thinking most of the time, anyway? And look where all that rushing around and wheel-spinning got me. He chuckled quietly and sipped his Jameson’s.

He supposed he was like the adults in that show, The Polar Express… those grownups who could no longer hear the bell… that bell of youthfulness, hope, and belief. Yes, that was it. If you believed, you could hear the little bell. And as you grew into an adult, you slowly stopped hearing it. All that assuming that as an adult, one stopped believing. Believing in what? Well, Christmas, I guess. And Santa Claus? Heh, yes, probably Santa Claus, and the birth of Jesus, the manger, the wisemen, the angels, the whole deal. Well, so what? No little bell could signify all that. It’s just a good story. Hm. But what if it could? What if it could signify the belief, or lack of belief in the whole Christmas story?

Hm hm. He stroked his beard. Well, one thing’s for sure. He didn’t believe in any of it, hadn’t for a long time. He supposed he probably couldn’t hear the bell either. Jesus, who cares, anyway. But he wondered if there might be a bell for other reasons, other beliefs? If there were, might he be able to hear that bell? He tried to imagine the sound of a tinkly little bell, then found himself wanting to believe he could hear it. But why? Why did he want to, almost need to hear that little bell?

Another thoughtful sip. The fire crackled. He wondered if the human condition doesn’t need to believe in something, perhaps almost anything, if only to find some peace, some invisible certainty that everything would be all right, that some power out there beyond our grasp could make everything all right… if only we believed. But was belief necessary for peace, for contentment? And did he believe in anything? Well, even better, has he ever been able to have any sense of a deep peace and contentment without believing in anything?

A good question. After considering it for a minute, he realized he didn’t really know. I guess I probably believe in something, he mused. But he wasn’t really sure what… certainly no spirituallity devised by man. And yet he felt peaceful enough. Then what, he wondered… no belief, no bell? No contentment? What bullshit! A nice enough Christmas story, yes. But no lasting substance for a meaningful spiritual revelation.

He had long held a belief of sorts, probably more of a theory, that the idea of Santa Claus was manifested as a diversion of the story of Christ, as if to slyly tell the world that ultimately, Santa Claus was a myth, but the Son Of God born in a manger in Bethlehem wasn’t. Same with Easter… the Easter Bunny was invented to turn out to be a myth, but that Jesus returning from the dead wasn’t. He had often laughed about the idea that, for much of his life, he had found it easier to believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny. And yet all those countless works of incredible art and music throughout the centuries were seemingly inspired by the artists’ belief in christianity. Knowing that, as children grew into adulthood, they came to accept the fact that a “Santa Claus” didn’t exist… that it was simply an idea of unselfish giving. Same with the Easter Bunny. Why didn’t people also grow up and realize that those Christian holidays were no different? Well, he knew why, and the answer always bothered him. My god, what a whacko world.

At that, he slowly got out of his chair, went to the kitchen and put a piece of bread in the toaster oven to toast, a bedtime habit he had formed years ago. Back to his chair to finish his drink and watch the fire die, he thought how contentment was so subjective anyway, it was a shame to put the pressure of peace and contentment on any sort of spiritual belief. There is simply no foundation for that, especially for a person of rational thought, which he thought himself to be.

He finished his drink, and was thinking about what a doubting old curmudgeon he had become, when the the toaster oven clicked off, with a little “ding.” Ha. Hahaha! He laughed out loud and shook his head. Well, at least he could still hear the goddamn bell! Even if it was only the bell of toast… and with that, he slowly rose from his chair, retrieved his toast, ate it, and hobbled off to bed.

Steve Hulse

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