“Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” John Donne.
The clock showed an eerie, green two a.m. as Charlene sat up in bed. Something woke her, a noise? She listened but heard nothing but a train whistle in the distance; that was not what woke her. Her little Yorkshire Terrier Leo was curled up in his basket beside her bed – he looked up at her and gave a small “woof” of acknowledgment, then tucked his head back under his leg for more sleep. She agreed with him and lay back on her pillow. If there was any need for her to get up and investigate, Leo would be barking at the window or door. Composing herself for sleep, she began to make a mental list of what she had to do tomorrow. She had reached ‘vacuuming’ when she nodded off.
“Clang, clang, clang,” the ringing of the church bell across the street startled Charlene, “what on earth…?” she asked. But Charlene lived alone except for Leo, so it was a rhetorical question and she got the answer she expected. She knew immediately this was what had woken her earlier. She had lived in her little house across the street from the church for fifteen years and had never heard the bell ringing in the night. Could there be someone in the church who was in trouble, ringing the bell to call for help? “That only happens in old movies,” Charlene told herself.
“Clang, clang, clang” tolled the bell again. She got up and peered out of her front window at the church: no lights were on, no cars parked at the kerb, and no people. So she went out her front door and stood on the steps looking across at the church and gardens: all was quiet. She turned and walked back inside, but before she could close the door, the bell rang again, “clang, clang, clang,” a pause, then “clang, clang.” Charlene yanked open her door and marched down her path staring over at the church. But still no lights and no movement. She tried to calm herself, there was no use getting irritated, but she was also quite puzzled. Back indoors, she picked up her phone to call the police, or should she call the pastor? No, not the police, they would think her a silly old fool and she probably was. Reverend Baker was a nice, kind man, but he was so young. She couldn’t face the pity that she would see on his face; he would think she was suffering from dementia. Charlene is in her late seventies and has a few health issues; well, who doesn’t at that time of life? She values her independence and would fight to keep looking after herself in her own little house. “I’ll call Reverend Baker in the morning,” she decided. But she found it hard to get back to sleep.
The following morning, around eight o’clock Charlene could wait no longer and called Reverend Baker, who was about to leave home to cycle over to his church office. He listened patiently to Charlene, and promised he would look into it right away. He suspected Charlene had been woken up by a dream, but was good at dealing with the old folks and loved them. He checked the bell ropes in the sacristy, put up the ladder and climbed into the bell tower. Even with a good flashlight it was pitch black in the bell tower, it smelled dank and was full of cobwebs. Nobody liked going up there to clean or make repairs, especially Tom Baker, who was a bit claustrophobic and not too keen on spiders or bats, and, of course, the church had bats in the belfry! But neither spiders nor bats could ring the big church bells, and he couldn’t see anything wrong or what had caused them to ring.
Reverend Baker was a kind man and crossed the street to personally assure Charlene that all was well in the church. But he also told her he would be calling the church wardens, the organist, the choir director, and the altar guild, to ask if anyone was in the church last night or if any keys had gone missing. Charlene was grateful. He did check with all those who regularly spent time in and around the church and not one could explain the mysterious bell ringing in the night. But Tom suspected that a door had been left unlocked accidentally, and some neighborhood kids had come in and had some late night fun. It had happened before, when some boys had found the door unlocked and had sprayed the contents of two fire extinguishers over the pews. The grandmother of two of the boys had got them to confess and come to Tom to apologize, so Tom had decided not to prosecute, but asked them to help clean up the mess. It was hard work, but the boys were grateful to Tom and began coming to his weekly Youth Group. The church members were all good people who gave a lot of their free time to the church, but they worked hard, had busy lives, and were sometimes in a hurry, which can lead to carelessly leaving a door unlocked. Tom decided he must do a thorough check before leaving each day. He double checked that evening.
Tom knocked on Charlene’s door as he was about to cycle home, told her that he’d checked everything but asked her to call him if anything happened during the night, or at any time. Charlene agreed. She also kept more of a watch on the church. She was the only member of the church who still lived within the sound of its bells, most had moved out into nicer homes in new developments, and some had died. But Charlene’s neighbors on both sides had heard the bells ringing last night, and she made sure to mention this to Reverend Baker.
That night the bells waited until three thirty a.m. to ring, and rang only a few times. Charlene sat bolt upright in bed when it started and Leo jumped up into her arms, as she had spooked him. Although she hesitated a few minutes, she picked up her phone and called Reverend Baker, who sleepily answered. Tom and his wife Becca, who was intrigued by the mystery of the bells, drove over to the church to investigate. Tom quietly let himself into the church and Becca crept up the back stairs to the sacristy. They found absolutely nothing. Saw nothing. Heard nothing. They checked all the locks and walked out to their car, where they were greeted by Charlene and her neighbors, two older couples.
“What’s goin’ on in there, Reverend?” asked the neighbor who lived directly across from the church bell tower, “we were all woke up last night, now again tonight?”
“I know, and I’m really sorry, but we don’t know what’s causing the bells to ring like that; there’s nobody in the church. I think I might try to set a little trap for our bell ringer. We can’t have you good folks disturbed in the night like this. Say a prayer for me, if you will.” They grumbled a bit, but thanked Tom and went back home to bed. Tom and Becca walked Charlene back to her door and wished her goodnight.
“Tom, do you think the church is haunted?” asked Becca on the way home.
“No, I don’t sweetheart. It doesn’t feel like a spiritual mystery to me, I think there’s some ordinary explanation we can’t see yet.” Becca kept quiet but didn’t agree with her husband. She thought the bell was a sign of something not quite right.
The next evening, Reverend Tom said Evening Prayer in the church with Becca a few parishioners, including Charlene, who loved the ancient and beautiful language of the prayers; they helped her settle for the night and she had been unsettled by the tolling of the bell the past few nights. Tom stayed when they all left and settled into the sacristy where he had set up a sleeping bag, a thermos of coffee and some sandwiches for his supper. He kept as quiet as possible after eating and didn’t turn on his flashlight at all. Tom planned to finish writing his Sunday sermon in his head, and then to think about ideas for the Youth Group and what they might do at Christmas. But after a couple of disturbed nights, he kept dozing off.
He had his old wristwatch with the luminous dial inside a pouch, where he could peek in and keep track of the time. He had dozed off but woke hearing a shuffling, snuffling sound, which sent chills running up his spine. Oh, how he wished Becca was with him – she knew a lot about mysterious happenings and the supernatural. Then the bells started ringing, scaring him half to death, but not before he turned his flashlight on the bell ropes and to his amazement saw the bell ringer – a big mother possum with what looked like a dozen babies clinging on her back and sides, climbing up the rope to the bell tower. She froze in the bright light, so Tom turned it off. He didn’t want to hurt her.
The mystery was solved, but there were arguments about what to do with the possum. In the end Tom insisted that the problem be handled in the most humane way possible. One of the wardens was a farmer who was willing to humanely trap the possum, and any other critters living in the belfry, and take them to live in one of his barns, out in the country and next to a National Forest area. This was taken care of in the next two days, and mother and babies were safely transported to their new home. Tom’s sermon that Sunday was about the mysterious bell ringer who had been attending church secretly. To silence those who had wanted to kill the possum, Tom preached that she was one of God’s creatures, to be cared for, not hurt. He told how helpful possums are to us, killing and eating insects, rats, mice, and snakes, even poisonous ones.
Charlene and her neighbors caught up on their sleep.