Through the seventeenth century, Europeans believed ringing church bells would intimidate storm spirits, whether of thunder, hail, or wind. Priests in their towers tugged at bristly, rain-soaked ropes and expected the clamor of bell-metal to part the clouds. Many died of electrocution. Those who survived the lightning strikes claimed that the hair on their arms had risen in anticipation. In the instant before the strike, did the priests believe they were in the presence of God?
A law still forbids outstripping the tallest church steeple in Charleston. The Holy City, they call it. I live here, up the block from St. Michael’s Church. The oldest clock tower in America, its bells were shipped from England in 1764. Every day at noon the ringers at St. Michael’s sound off. I’m not a believer but I’ll show my respects, remove my ballcap when a funeral procession passes. In wartime, the bells could be used to signal attack. In times of profound desperation, the bells could be melted down into cannon. Some believed those cannons to be the most powerful by way of their holy purpose, and like the hopeful priestly bell-ringers, those soldiers died from excessive confidence.
Humanity has yet to invent that which we cannot subvert by idiocy. Think of Benjamin Franklin inventing in Philadelphia while priests across the Atlantic played inadvertent lightning rod. Ben was an enema addict with a penchant for French prostitutes, sure, but he said a smart thing or two while alive. One thing he didn’t say but that people say he said, as good as having said it, if you ask me: Too much of anything is bad. Too much pure oxygen will cause lung edema, filling your lungs with fluid until they burst like water balloons stuck on a spigot. One woman died from drinking too much water in a contest for a Nintendo Wii. Daryle Singletary, a country singer famous for the hit “Too Much Fun” died at forty-six of unknown reasons, which, close enough.
We get the term bellwether from the sheep that leads the herd. A bell hung around the sheep’s neck, the rest of the herd will follow. Shepherds are warned of danger by the frenzied, unmetered clop of the bell, or worse, by the pronounced silence. The bellwether is a castrated male—wether, the Middle-English for castrated sheep, but don’t quote me. There isn’t a scrap of knowledge in the coffers of history that survives unquestioned. We still argue over whether Shakespeare was a single person.
Early in the Civil War, the bells at St. Michael’s were taken to Columbia for protection. Charleston was the spiritual capital of the Confederacy, and if the Union managed to occupy, Sherman would make the razing of Atlanta look like a grease fire. The reverse happened. Columbia was torched. The bells survived but lost their tune, became half-ton paperweights. Later, the bells were taken to England for repair and they returned with clearer, more dulcet tones. Unlike people, bells can improve with advanced age.
As the holidays approach, handbells follow me in grocery store parking lots like shadows. I tried to show a Salvation Army Santa the proper way to use a handbell, first a handstroke (forward), then a backstroke (backward). He said to make a donation or leave. I wanted to rub my face in his white cotton beard. He looked bursting with wisdom. Instead, I blasted Mariah Carey in my earbuds the whole way home and still heard Santa’s jingle.
It’s the bells that tell me what I cannot understand. Their chime is ineffable. There’s no mistaking the St. Michael’s Church at noon. The bell rings the city through, from Fort Sumter to North Charleston. My head moves in rhythm with its swing. I picture the sway of each bell in the belfry. I feel the force of its movement against my skin. The hairs on my arm raise. They point upward, as straight as a steeple.
In Liverpool, P.T. Barnum saw a group of Englishmen performing with handbells. He brought them to America but they were boring, colorless. So, Barnum bought lederhosen and renamed them the Swiss Bell Ringers. They became a national sensation. Handbells were quickly produced and brought over to satiate the public. I wish bells were heard all through the streets, swung around by joyous children at dusk, drunk obnoxious men leaving the pub, families strolling together through a city park at mid-day. If only we wore bells from our necks, the tone of each ringing out with the spirit of our souls, attuned to a frequency that belonged to us and us alone. We might lean out the window and listen intently for the treasured sound of a loved one. We might hear them headed toward us and rejoice.