Walter Cornwall Quaid, at just sixteen, was a young man who had become fascinated with both the practice of bellringing and with churches in general.
For a while there had been no churches, neither in England nor anywhere else, that had bellringers. Not since the twenty-first century.
Despite the fact that the world had moved on, technology now employing more people than it had initially displaced; there began a movement, roundabout 2400—it’s hard to say exactly when—of people interested in bringing things from the past into the present.
What was once a fringe group that the majority tried to dismiss as Luddites were firmly entrenched now, such that Walter never hesitated in pursuing his interest. Not that Luddite was ever an accurate label, these people did not abandon all the comforts the world now took for granted: ubiquity of renewable energy, so-called perpetual motion transport, and elevated dwelling places (for the reasonably well off), but things that struck people as more soulful, tactile, better—for lack of a better word, if not more practical and efficient—made a return to permanence in the societal fabric. After a few generations professions such as drivers, tailors, purveyors of physical media (printers, bookbinders, film preservationists, etc.), and yes, even things such as bellringers—such was Walt hoped to be—were no longer unheard of.
The older the space of worship the more he wished to visit it. He’d been to many in his young life. He’d also made trips to foundries, most defunct, where bells were cast.
When Walt heard tell of a place called Rundown Road in the quaint village of Cordelair (founded in the twenty-second century on the outskirts of what used to be Stratford-upon-Avon), he had to go.
Why he needed to get there was to see St. Dunstan’s Church. It had been in its present incarnation in its current location for nigh on three centuries. However, it had been cobbled together, quite literally, from the ruins of no less than five churches. The cornerstone was the bell tower of a church which was estimated to have been erected in the 12th century. The exact date and what it had previously been called had been wiped from history in the combined calamities of the Midland Floods, The Bishopton Blazes, and the Web Darkening, a series of Internet outages and cyberattacks that had purged untold amounts of data that was stored only digitally.
The tower was said to be a beacon of hope, a ray of light in a now-tenebrous world. Walt had learned of St. Dunstan’s online as the web was being rebuilt from the ground up by those who could recall any little thing. But being at St. Dunstan’s, being anywhere, going places, stepping out of your vehicle—for as long as you could in the extremes of the weather—was more tolerable and more common than it had been in centuries.
Coming upon Cordelair, seeing its verdant canopy, its dirt and cobblestone roads, it looked Dickensian—and thus, unreal. Walt was taken aback by its beauty. There were black steeds tied to hitching posts. Aside from that agrarian touch, the street neither new nor preserved but naturally worn, was packed with Victorian row houses.
Seated upon stools hunched over a chessboard, he saw two elderly men. One white, one black playing pieces that were the inverse of their complexion.
“Gentlemen, how goes it?”
Clyde, the black man, took a black pawn with his white one and then gazed at Walter.
“Help ya, chap?”
“Am I correct, is this Cordelair?”
The pale, bald-pated man stopped considering whether or not he ought to castle and looked upon the young man for the first time.
“’tis. Why do you ask?”
“I wanted to have a look at St. Dunstan’s if I might. Is it far from here?”
As an unease fell upon the gentlemen, a dense ground-fog seemed to swell. It had been a fairly bright, mild morning, so this unsettled Walter.
“Ye’ve never been here I suppose.”
“Locals forget that,” Clyde added. “Rundown Road earned its name because it’s just that. Slowly, surely, everythin’ down that way burnt, inundated or was abandoned.”
“No one there, then?”
The two men shared a silence and look that seemed awful long and conspiratorial for such a straightforward question.
They didn’t volunteer more. Walter decided not to prod.
“How would one get there?”
“Can’t take Bradwell Bridge. That collapsed. Eased the abandonment of it.”
“Only way most would go.”
Old folks tell things in their own good time it seems.
“Just a nature trail. Not sure it’s passable. Over the years silt, gravel, rubbish, bramble, underbrush, and felled trees have choked it, they have.”
“If it can be walked, how long is it?”
They were quiet.
Clyde moved a white bishop.
Walt was about to ask again.
“Five miles,” Clyde said.
“I’d recommend ye not go,” Clark said.
“Do you have the time?” Walt asked, ignoring the elder’s advice as youth often do.
“Ten of ten,” Clyde said.
“Don’t encourage the boy.”
“Clark, I can’t remember when I last downed the brown but I remember being—how old are you, boy?”
“Sir, he says—anyway, would you have listened to us at sixteen?”
“I wouldn’t listen to meself now.”
Clyde laughed. Walt couldn’t help but join in.
“That makes two of us,” said Clyde to finish their repartee. He turned to the boy. “It’s a slow go, so get movin’. You don’t wanna be there after dark.”
“Is it haunted?”
“Ya just don’t,” said Clark dismissively.
“It’s a slow walk,” Clyde repeated undeterred. “Head straight down the High Road. You’ll see—hopefully—an old hand-writ sign that says ‘Nature Trail’ when a copse of trees pops up. It’s right where the High Road bends a sharp right.”
“Thank you kindly, gents.”
Walter walked off.
“We just gonna let him go?” Clark asked when Walt was out of earshot.
“You wanna follow him? Trip over the undergrowth?”
“I don’t see ye goin’.”
And with that the two old blokes forgot about Walter except for sharing the silent hopes he’d return with his mind, body, and spirit all intact.
Fortunately, Walter was prepared mentally, and in terms of footwear, for the path ahead. To call the nature trail choked off was understating it; and to still call it a trail at this point was generous, it was more akin to an obstacle course. Undergrowth scratched at his ankles, Walt had to constantly pick up his knees to clamber over felled trees. The day, now overcast, was made drearier by the bare tree limbs reaching for the sky. Overhead the disembodied chirping of birds, seeming to warn of creeping fog on the horizon lent an eeriness to his surroundings.
In the knapsack slung over his shoulder he had what he could parcel out into a late lunch and dinner. Despite its weight he was glad for the excess of water he had brought, for a sheen of beaded sweat on his brow seemed to be a permanent fixture. The humidity clung to him steadily, intensifying only from the occasional ill-begotten gust of wind. It was the kind of day where one might pray for rain and be bitterly disappointed when the prayers went unanswered.
Neither his pedometer nor his phone could get a signal. 5G was relic of the past with no successor and it abandoned the Western Midlands.
He was, therefore, incredulous when he saw a limestone obelisk standing amidst a grove of trees.
Can’t be, he thought.
Walking toward it he saw it clearly marked: 3 MI.
It was a milestone. Looking upward he could barely make out the heavily diffused sun. It was about noon. His timepiece was right, and his walk was slower than expected—High Road must’ve been a longer drag than I thought.
He moved on suspecting this trail, which still held moisture from rain a week prior, would be a longer, muddier slog than he anticipated.
Walter’s love of bells, and the ringing thereof, began in a rather unintentional way with his mother’s assistance. Many lifelong obsessions have similar origins.
He had grown up on a hillock. Whenever his parents had a bit of extra money they did what many of the so-called middle class did in this day and age: they used it trying to add height, length, and earth to their property. Many houses were now Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stilted, supported structures, with added platforms that allowed children artificial, flat play surfaces. Additional funds would allow for earth, sod, stone, moss, and the like to be added. In short, nature propped atop an artifice. In total they had about an acre that they had added to their less-than-quarter-acre lot over the years. To give Walter a bit of freedom and not have him worried about time his mother found a dinner bell in an antique shop to signal him home.
Later on when he had fallen in love with the written word, his father took him to a bookshop. A bell at the door alerted the proprietor to the presence of new customers.
All over again he became enamored of the form and sound of the instrument. When learning of the other uses for bells, he was amazed anew.
“Mum, isn’t that a bell?”
“But I don’t see one.”
“Did churches have real bells, then?”
“Yes, rather large ones.”
Which led to Walter acquiring more books, listening to bells in music, buying his first audio recording. It was something from the twentieth century that was made popular in something called a film.
“Carol of the Bells” had just finished playing on the iPod he’d saved up to buy himself as a birthday present. Because of the song, he thought for a moment that his ears deceived him.
Removing his earbuds, he listened and it was definitely—
—there. No mistaking it.
All that remained—
—was to discover: how far away it was,—
—what prompted it,—
—and who was doing the ringing.
When he reached milestone number five he didn’t even notice the ringing anymore. Walter’s mind was occupied by two tracks of thought: one, he was counting his strides beyond the five-mile marker; two, trying to figure out what sort of ringing this was.
One ring per three strides.
How many strides since I first heard it?
Maybe I only heard it when my playlist ended, but it started sooner.
There was no point in debating that. St. Dunstan’s was where he was headed.
Traditionally this parish tolled bells called its faithful to matins on weekday mornings and rang each hour. The matins were revived a century—or two centuries—ago. No one knows why they stopped anew. The passing bell was played until the Age of Enlightenment when death was nigh. Usually this was as last rites were administered. But it couldn’t be the corpse bell—rather, the funeral toll or death knell, Walter admonished himself for using the most frightening version of the term.
If it was a death knell, how many deaths were being tolled?
Was St. Dunstan’s a parish that tolled a person’s completed years? I think so. What’s happening? I haven’t seen a soul. Dead or alive.
He broke out in gooseflesh.
A thought occurred to him, more terrifying than the throngs of the recently deceased.
Perhaps the bellringer is mad.
By Walt’s estimation the exit to the clearing was more than a half-mile past the last marker. There was a patch of grass he trod through. It was flat, even, and dry—in short, it seemed like a trap he might fall into.
The bell’s cacophonous ringing, the din of the reverberations, still pounding into his skull, creating chaos that belied his tranquil surroundings.
After the patch of grass he found the other end of the High Street continued as if it had never been interrupted. It went straight before for only about 100 years before splitting into two forks. While there were errant cobblestones here and there, the road was mainly dirt.
Each fork seemed as well-travelled as the other. “Taking the road less traveled by” was not an option. Looking left and looking right offered him no street signs that might offer guidance.
Using a phrase every bit as lacking in logic as the last tiebreaker he was prepared to try this—“seated at the right hand of the father”—and turned right.
On either side of that road were empty houses and closed establishments. At last he saw the church. Before it was a square with a small park in the center of it. Surrounding the park were rows of benches.
Walt decided to approach the holy site near the overgrown park, approximating himself to nature.
When he entered the park he saw a plaque describing St. Dunstan’s Church. He knew all the facts upon it before embarking on this journey, except for the last line.
“Its bell has divinely rung since 2020.”
He never read that. Had they kept that tidbit off the Internet? Were others ignorant of that fact as well or just him?
He looked up at the bell tower to see where the holy racket came from.
It was wrong. The bell was immobile. Yet for over 300 years it had rung. Walt now doubted what he’d taken as a given. If this was a parish that had rung off years completed upon death, what was being counted off during his walk: victims of the Seven Plagues? Gun violence? All of mankind?
Approaching St. Dunstan’s, despite its being to churches what Frankenstein’s monster was to humanity, it was in good shape. It was dirty and obviously deserted, but Walt didn’t fear stepping over its threshold. All he wanted to see was where the remaining electronic equipment and how it was still running. There were none to be found, nor was there any proof that the pulley system was mechanized, still the bell rang.
In frustration, he exited the building. He started walking aimlessly, at first, just for a change of scenery.
Coming around the rear of the church, he saw a man clad in religious habits. He recognized the all-brown attire as following the Hieronymite tradition based on his readings. The man was kneeling in prayer.
Far be it from Walt to disturb a man, woman or child in the midst of devotion, he gave the monk a wide berth and then turned his attention back toward the church.
The man crossed himself. Walt began to see more clearly now. A rosary dangled from the man’s fingers, he reshuffled them back to the beginning.
The bell gonged. The monk crossed himself, his lips fluttered lightly in quasi-silent prayer. Something on the ground in front of the monk’s knees caught Walt’s eye.
He saw it was a voluminous ledger open at about the middle, both the verso and recto sheets were filled.
Walt remained silent. As the bell’s clangor went dead, silence descended.
“Have the bells brought you here, wayward brother?” asked the monk after nearly a half-minute of silence. Walt was shocked. He had been debating whether or not this monk had taken a vow of silence. Far be it from Walt to ask of course.
“Yes,” Walt said when he had regathered himself.
“Did the bell’s fame bring you or did you hear them by chance?”
“Anyone can hear the bells,” said the brother cutting him off. He grabbed a pen lying on the ledger and scratched off a name from the list: HENRIETTA MATHIS, AGED SEVENTY-SEVEN YEARS. “But to come here is to dedicate one’s life to eternal veneration.”
Walt had a momentary vision of Clyde and Clark. Their warnings made more sense now, but how much did they actually know?
“Who does the bell ring for, hardly anyone—?” but Walt would not finish the question.
The monk teetered and collapsed aground. The rosary fell from his hand.
Three years ago Walt’s grandfather had begun to choke on a sushi roll. Without hesitation or fail he’d run and performed the Heimlich Maneuver on him. So, it wasn’t that Walt didn’t know CPR or thought that he couldn’t save the monk, something told him the man’s time had come.
Walt reached for the rosary beads—they had been jarred from the monk’s grip when he had hit the earth—when an antique (nineteenth century by Walt’s guess) fountain pen rolled off the book. A gust of wind that came as if from nowhere and disappeared just as mysteriously flipped the ledger to it final pages.
An unseen hand holding an invisible writing implement crossed out the name SILVANUS SIMMLER IV and wrote WALTER CORNWALL QUAID.
Stunned for a moment, but when Walt saw that the top of the page read VENERATORS it had an oddly calming effect on him.
He clutched the rosary beads now. A passerby would think Walt a grave-robber as he stripped the late Silvanus of his hooded scapular, mantle, tunic, and rope. But said passerby would now become venerator—If they answered the questions correctly, right? Walt didn’t know the answer to that but knew what he must do.
Now decked in the proper vestments Walt saw something that was previously not visible to him next to Silvanus’s name: AGED SIXTY-SIX YEARS.
He thought at first the habit made him see it. Then the bell started to ring.
Walt started to pray.
Bernardo Villela has published a novella The Isle of Helyr, and three short story collections, The Bloodmaster Trilogy and Teenage Death Songs, Vols. 1 & 2; and has short fiction included in stories in Coffin Bell Journal, The Dark Corner Zine and forthcoming in 42 Stories Anthology, Rivet and Page & Spine. You can read more about these and various other pursuits at www.miller-villela.com.