My father was a bell maker. Bells of all sizes crowded his workspace, rows of molded crowns. Curved shoulders ranged across oiled parchment. The yokes, scrolled oak or simpler design, were fitted to the bell bodies, sonorous clappers tested repeatedly for the best sound.
We kept no roosters. Before dawn, my father emerged from his shop, yawning, eyes rimmed with sleep, to clang the bell hung from the side of the barn. Its peal, a monstrous jaw shaking us awake, snuck under my grandmother’s quilt and mawed at my neck.
My father’s favorite bell was of miniature size. My mother wore it around her neck on a string of twine. It was hammered copper and hung between her breasts, chiming as she walked.
While my father made his bells, my mother tended the bees. A veil shielded her face though she often kept her arms bare. The anthophila swarmed up and down her arms, over her gloved hands. Sometimes one left a welt and she would hiss, a tight string of air breaking through the hum and sweat of honey-work. Worse than the sting, which I would soothe, running to soak a rag in the well bucket, were her tears.
My mother and father spoke in a language all their own, bell peals and tangs of honey. When he wasn’t striking the anvil of his anger on me, his words rang true.
The morning of my mother’s thirtieth birthday, the land was quiet. My father rang the bell late. At breakfast, pouring honey over freshly made biscuits, my mother’s eyes were guarded. She barely looked at me. My father was jovial, his mouth creaking with laughter, hand staining my head with his heavy palm.
At school they spoke in twitters, the schoolmarms whispering behind closed doors of my mother’s condition. I hovered near the doorjamb, my breath rattling loudly in my ears.
“Strange, that Campano woman. She ain’t never spoke, though her boy talks a blue streak.”
Several classmates wandered by, their eyes wide at my impropriety. They hurried on, unwilling to be an accomplice.
“In a family way again, I heard. Don’t seem too happy about it.”
My palms began to sweat around my books.
“Maybe a girl this time. Bring some more quiet to that place.”
A pencil slipped free from my grip and clattered to the floor, mercifully in time with the claxon of the bell. I fumbled to pick it up, and hurried to class. Under the weight of arithmetic and geography, thoughts of my mother faded into silence.
For a time, while her belly swelled, my mother grew almost talkative. Not that she spoke, but her hand gestures flourished and she made small sounds against my father’s neck as they stood in the doorway watching the sun spill purple over the garden.
The wind licking against her, the copper bell jangled beneath her shift dress.
“I’m making a new bell,” my father told me. I was playing with a bit of bee’s wax, making shapes; at my father’s stern glance, I smashed my work and listened.
“What’s it for, Papa?”
“For your little brother.”
Choosing a small rubber mold, my father encapsulated a bee’s wax model of the bell. Molten metal, hung in a copper kettle over the fire pit, waited to be poured over the wax casing. I raked the foundry sand until it was flat, drew my initials in the corner and raked again while my father waited.
“Move out of the way, boy.”
After rubbing slurry and grit into the casing, my father pulled on his leather gloves and carefully poured the molten iron into the bell form.
I held my breath, waiting for the shell to crack, as it sometimes did. My father’s brow furrowed, his cheeks grimy with sweat.
The bell was not perfectly cast. An indentation marred the left side of the bell’s waist.
“Do you want to keep it?” My father’s words were as loaded as his double-barreled shotgun.
My mother touched the bell and nodded.
Father frowned. The work was imperfect.
“Won’t make a proper sound, honey.”
Mother shrugged, pushing the bell back towards my father. The hollow place glinted in the lamplight.
My father attempted to reshape the malformed bell. He molded wax into the indentation, smoothing it over with a rough thumb.
“It won’t strike a proper tone,” he advised me, “but the shape’s not so poor now.”
Though a small bell, it hung heavy in my father’s workshop. He tried three clappers before settling on a fourth. The chime was high-pitched like a rat squealing when caught.
“Don’t touch that bell, boy,” he warned me, mouth dark.
My hand hovered over the newly covered indentation.
“Why don’t you make a bell for me, Papa?”
His nostrils flared like one of our horses before a storm. His cuff, ringing my right ear, was not friendly.
“You don’t need no fucking bell.”
I was old enough not to run, but my hands balled into fists. His eyes warned me so I spat on the sawdust ground and stalked out of my father’s workshop.
Round like a melon, mother moved among the hives. Her dark eyes grew strange as her belly grew larger. Sometimes, she’d dip a finger into a skep and suck on the honey dripping from her hand.
I watched her, the girth of her hips, uncertain how she’d carried me, all nine pounds of squalling flesh. Mama didn’t talk, but when she ate the honey, the hives seemed to sing.
Hopping down from my perch in a pear tree, I asked her, “Mama, can I help you?”
She turned and looked at me for a long moment. Then she smiled and pointed to her veil. I pulled the veil over my face and shrugged my hands into gloves too large for me. Mama disappeared into the house while I opened the nearest skep and ladled out a spoonful of honey into an opaque glass bottle for supper. The bees dripped over my arms, their wings susurrating in the fine summer air.
I was due back at school when mother caught the fever. There wasn’t anything that could be done.
My father buried the baby under the oak tree behind the barn.
The wind howled through the pines that night. My mother lay curled in bed, her silent shaking terrifying.
After school, that third day of September, the sky was cerulean. White clouds meandered. The farm was too quiet.
From the bell forgery, I heard a voice I’d never heard before speaking to my father. It was high-pitched, a tight squeal like a piglet being strangled.
“I told you not to get me pregnant again, Johnny. You keep me controlled well enough, but what did you expect to do with two of us?”
“Well, there ain’t two of you now, are there?”
My father’s tight voice thundered; in it something hitched, a bell being struck to test its strength.
When I crept around the corner, they were squared off, my mother’s dark hair wild around her pale face. In her left hand, she clutched the fouled bell my father had made to welcome the new baby. My father, still as a millstone, watched her, guarded.
My tennis shoe scuffed some gravel causing my mother to turn. Her eyes flashed amber. I fainted.
I woke to the taste of honey and rosemary dribbled against my lips. I swallowed, the viscous liquid coating my throat.
My mother’s face grew before my opening eyes; sweet, her hair tamed back. I tried to speak, but no voice escaped my throat.
The hairs on the back of my neck pulled as I slowly became aware of a weight on my chest. A cord, similar to the one my mother wore, wound around my neck. The iron bell, heavy, nestled below my ribcage. When I moved, the taste of honey still thick in my mouth, the bell made no sound. My mother smiled sadly. The clapper had been removed.
Papa leaned in the doorway, tall and dark, his strong hands dangerous.
Honey harvest. The bees sang for my silent tongue.
We sold honey by the jar, townsfolk stopping to buy wildwood honey from the bell maker’s beautiful wife and son.
“Same fever that took his brother took that poor child’s voice,” they said, buying an extra jar for our troubles.
My mother smiled, placing each bill into a cigar box, giving correct change.
When no customers were around, we passed notes back and forth to each other.
How come you could speak to Papa the day I got sick?
Mama wrote choppily, her letters curved.
You’ve seen hurt animals strike out even when they’re normally sweet?
I nodded, thinking of the neighbor’s placid cow, the chunk she took out of a man’s leg when she was branded.
Same way, I found my voice for a bit, she scrawled in response. Her hand moved against the clapper on her bell. It comes when needed.
My tongue hung heavy as strong wood in my mouth. Even the honey I ate couldn’t make me feel better, my own bell voiceless around my neck.
In his workshop, Papa toiled over a new bell: fully formed, copper to match my mother’s.
When it was finished, and hung around my neck, the iron bell was given to the oak. When it rained, the bell, dangling on a branch like a heavy fist, cast somber shadows over the small grave nestled beneath.
Listen to the bees, baby, Mama wrote to me, my father watching from the forge.
They sing for being owned all the louder.
My father’s hammer struck heavy on the anvil.
Alicia Cole is a writer and artist in Huntsville, AL. She's the editor of Priestess & Hierophant Press, the Interviews Editor of Black Fox Literary Magazine, the Smashwords Manager of Femspec, and an intern at 256 Magazine. Her poetry has been both a nominee and finalist for Best of the Net, and she won Honorable Mention in Hermeneutic Chaos' Jane Lumley Prize for Emerging Writers. Her fiction has recently appeared in Breath & Shadow. You can find more of her work at www.facebook.com/AliciaColewriter and on Twitter at @AColeWrites.