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The Silent Bell

Shunning evokes religious and medieval images, hints at disconnected connections. It smacks of righteousness: moral, intellectual, emotional. It’s all around us in its many forms with its many names, and it boils down to two simple words: silent treatment. It happens when we can no longer abide. And abide is one of those verbs whose nouns hide in shadows: the people, places, and things of the damned.

No matter what fuels silent judgement, agony results, a ringing from life’s carillon with its cast bronzed bells suspended in the air, and the dolorous, transgressional clanging.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, chant the bells.

Years ago. It’s the sixties. It’s my birthday.

What does a child want with an antique brass bell, one used to summon servants to the table, when she sets and clears the table—and sometimes cooks—for her family? Lest you think this girl, myself at age ten, was in some way impoverished or abused, allow me to say that my family ran on honor, loyalty, respect, responsibility, obligation, manners, and gobs of unspoken love. With four kids on the run, we all had a role to play, and as the oldest, mine was to be mother’s helper. But I was also my paternal grandmother’s oldest grandchild, and she heaved attention on me, lavished me with little gifts, groomed me for the spot I was to take in her clan as her legacy.

Until she gave me the antique brass bell for my tenth birthday.

Although I knew plenty about my grandmother’s family history, and sometimes reveled in the stories I heard, my true attention was elsewhere when I was ten. That year I wanted a transistor radio, one that played all the hit songs I was bopping to along with my passel of friends. Sunshine pop it was called. We’d ride our bikes around town, singing songs, playing jacks and tag, singing songs, smacking tennis balls against the all-brick back wall of the elementary school, singing songs. You get the picture, and it hardly jives with the moniker my grandmother gave me, HFG for Honorable First Grandchild. It embarrassed me even as I took pride in it.

My grandmother approved none of my behavior with my friends; she was of the “young lady” school. My play jeans and blouse with the Peter Pan collar brought on furrowed eyebrows and a frown, and a click and snap of her dentures as her mouth tightened. I loved my grandmother. I feared her. I did as I was told. I was seen and not heard, and when I was out of her sight, I went my merry way, knowing exactly how to snap back to being a young lady when necessary.

So when she appeared at our front door two weeks after she gave me the brass bell, I stepped to the side to let her pass into the foyer. But she didn’t move. Instead, she held out a small card-sized envelope in her white-gloved hand. “Grandma,” I said. “Please come in.” She snapped the envelope, and as she had addressed it to me, I took it. I looked at my grandmother and she nodded, chin up in the air, indicating I was to open it. Inside was a letter requesting the return of the antique brass bell, in its original box, and in heightened prose, laden with exclamation points and question marks, she proclaimed foolishness for thinking a child would want or appreciate such a thing, for I had not written a thank you note.

She wasn’t wrong.

My apology, my sorrow, and my tears meant nothing. She stood in silence on the porch and finally raised a dismissive hand, making it clear I was to retrieve the bell. I stumbled up the stairs to my room, wrote a belated thank you note, re-boxed the bell, and stumbled back down the stairs. By then my mother was in conversation with my grandmother, and all I heard was “She must learn.”

Pint-sized terror flooded through me as I handed my grandmother the bell and my note. She turned and left, and did not speak to me for a year, and in that year of the silent treatment my heart ticked from love to childish hate. But I also learned the power of silence, how it crushed and wounded in its severe ostracism, how mental anguish begets physical illness. That was the year I developed migraines, although nobody called them that back then. I became hard as a rock outside while in my heart auras of fear squeezed me.

The headaches subsided when my grandmother thawed out, deciding that I’d learned my lesson. I was pathetically grateful to be the recipient of her attention again.

My grandmother died some thirty years ago, and I did not go to her funeral service; in fact, I’m not sure there was one since everyone in my family was on the move during those years. Curiously, she was also on the move as she went from her apartment to one in a retirement village, where she had a heart attack and died before spending a single night in the carefully furnished condo. I have no idea where she’s buried, if she’s buried. I mourned her at the time and I mourn her now.

A year after my grandmother’s death, I offered to help her daughter, my aunt, go through my grandmother’s papers. A prodigious writer and early feminist—a fact I never did square—the cartons, and boxes were mountainous. My aunt met my suggestion to torch it all with stony silence.

It did not surprise me to find a box with my name on it. In the post-bell years, my grandmother had returned to heaving love and attention at me, lavishing me with gifts. Voluminous letters trailed after me wherever I moved. Money appeared when I least expected and most needed it. In those years, talking on the phone was a luxury, so there were annual phone calls. Sharply inquisitive, she wanted to know everything, and I never told her more than half. The power of her judgment hung in the air whenever she appeared: in person, by mail, by reference, or by phone. I had learned my lesson.

But in the bottom of that box, which was loaded with letters and cards from me, photos of me, tchotchkes and magazines tear-outs I’d sent, was that damn antique bell along with the original gift letter, the letter requesting return, and the belated, scribbled thank you note I’d written as a ten-year-old. I might have been able to attribute their presence to the packing and moving had it not been for the label on the box with its bell and notes.

Save for HFG, it said.

Death is the ultimate in silent treatment. What was shadowed is exposed while the dead take their place in the great Comedia, should it exist. What remains is what the living take up.

As I held the bell those many years ago, I paled with childish shame, a feeling akin to running over a hapless squirrel with a two-ton car. I looked closely at the bell. Its pops and curves, its crown, waist and shoulder, and its dark, musty clapper that smelled like burned wax and incense. The hammer, wrapped in tissue paper, secured with tape, listed to the side like a dead thing. I shook it.

I took the bell, along with other small antiques my grandmother left for me, and dotted my home with them. The sarouk hangs on the wall, as does the framed drawing of her family’s homestead. There’s even a picture of my grandmother, in a roaring twenties pose, in the back hallway. I pass these items every day, often not giving them a second thought.

But the bell is different. I couldn’t quite place it, so it moved in silence from room to room, me leading, it following—or maybe the other way around. The tissue paper on the hammer loosened with time, and on one move the hammer hit the clapper with a muffled strike followed by a low hum. I almost saw the musical staves as the percussion vibrated in the air.

I gave the bell a good swing, and it near thundered. Bright, pure noise filled the high-ceilinged room. I rang it again. And again.

And again.


Catherine Parnell is an editor, educator and co-founder of MicroLit Almanac and Birch Bark Editing. She’s the Director of Publicity for Arrowsmith Press and she also works with Florida Center for Government Accountability. Her publications include the memoir The Kingdom of His Will, as well as stories, essays and interviews in Mud Season Review (story and interview) Switch, Emerge (ELJ), Cult, Orca, Grande Dame, West Trade Review, Tenderly, Cleaver, Free State Review, Barnhouse, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Southampton Review, The Baltimore Review, and other literary magazines.

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