The Painted Bells

As we wander among the tents of the bazaar, the children grow so overstimulated and difficult that a separation becomes necessary. Without a word, Marcy shepherds the younger girl and boy away through the crowd and leaves David and I together. This isn’t unusual. On outings Marcy often fades into the background with the children, leaving David and I on what would seem like a date. Neither is that as questionable as it sounds because, as David has explained many times, his mode of dating is not at all romantic.

But today’s separation brings something new. Divina—David and Marcy’s oldest daughter—has succeeded in distinguishing herself from the other children by remaining attentive and agreeable all morning and has earned the privilege of accompanying her father and me through the bazaar. She follows just behind me now making a study of everything with her hands scrunched inside the sleeves of her sweatshirt.

As David leads, hawk-eyed and serious, Divina and I contort to fit ourselves through the shifting crowd. We hurry past displays of tattered books and frayed old maps, of jeweled eggs and stiff lacquered baskets, of an assortment of Tiffany lamps that look like smoked candy all melted together, and I think: How overwhelming. There are so many things in the world. All of them so certain of what they’re trying to be, so decided in their shapes, or—

I don’t know. I should have some feeling for these objects. It’s what David wants for today, for us to edify ourselves with the discovery of some rare or significant item, but it’s all Divina and I can do to keep up with him as he darts through the crowd surveying everything with the cold eye of a government inspector.

We come to an arrangement of hat trees hung with many kinds of hats where a young couple is taking turns trying on an enormous pilgrim’s hat and laughing at each other. David rolls his eyes.

“Costumes,” he says. “Actually, the only real hats here are these maritime ones. They’re surplus probably. Here—”

He sets a sturdy white sailor’s cap on my head. On his own he places a black skipper’s cap with a brocaded visor. Approving of our new look, he hands Divina the camera.

“Divina, take our picture.”

Divina sees funny hats hung all around, so many opportunities to be thirteen and silly, then looks back at her father. This is a test. She puts on a face of adult-like concentration and struggles with the complex, multi-buttoned camera and its awkward, heavy lens, rehearsing to herself all the ways she’s seen her father handle it and trying to imitate them. David offers no pointers. We stand there under our seafaring hats waiting for her to figure it out. At last, holding the camera to her face, Divina snaps the photo. David takes the camera from her.

“Ha! Marcy,” he says. “You blinked.”

On the rear panel of the camera I see myself standing beside David, my eyes shut like a sleepwalker. There but not.

“Well, that’s no good,” I say. “Let’s take another.”

“Nah,” he says. “I’ll just fix it in Photoshop. Marcy always blinks, too. I’ve gotten good at fixing it.”

He returns our hats to their hooks and leads on: “Divina, hold Marcy’s hand.”

To be clear, my name is Marcy, which is also the name of David’s wife.

Divina is thirteen and everyone says she will be pretty in a year or two. Recently she’s become excited about this future, if guardedly so. At the same time she’s developed a need to always be near her father, which annoys David, who prefers to go alone on his dates.

As Divina and I move hand in hand along the row I feel her pretty blue eyes on me. Her attention drifts from my slack brown hair to the plain white t-shirt tucked in above my hips and the pale pink camellias printed on my long black maxi skirt. I’m her mother’s age and I share her mother’s modest fashion sense, but unlike her mother I’m here for David, not the children. Divina hasn’t yet decided if this makes me an ally or a competitor.

“We girls have to stick together,” I say, squeezing her hand.

She returns a gentle, vacant smile, which dissolves as she sees her father shoulder ahead of us through the crowd.

Since Divina began craving her father’s attention, I’ve come to recognize the ways David keeps her subtly off balance, one moment insisting she be mature enough to handle the expensive camera, the next making her hold the hand of an adult. It seems effortless, how hungry he keeps her for his approval.

In the row across from us, among a press of bodies that hardly moves, I see Marcy watching over the younger girl and boy, her shoulder sagging with the weight of her enormous purse. She’s wearing a plain white t-shirt and a long black maxi skirt printed with purple crocuses—a flower I’ve never liked. She keeps her distance from the children, staying out of their child world until summoned by a potential commotion. Only then does she rear up with, “Stop that!” or “Put that down!” and her face becomes strained and ugly. But a moment later she has stepped out of this ugliness with uncomplicated ease.

She doesn’t see me watching her. Among the crowd’s countless faces, hers is the one turned slightly away, alone in her thoughts. I think she must enjoy these moments to herself when David and I are together, but I can only guess. Of the time I’ve spent with David and his family, it’s she I’ve come to know least of all.

I feel Divina pulling me forward, trying to not let her father get too far ahead. We squeeze through a throng of Hindu women who are flocking the other direction. The bright, delicate fabric of their saris brushes against us, petting us with pinks and greens and golds. The aroma of fat and cinnamon from the churros they are eating with their henna-printed hands passes over me in waves and for a moment I become ticklish to the world’s tiny details—an unpleasant sensation, like when the hairs on your tongue stand on end from too much sweet.

Divina releases my hand. She catches up to David as he’s approaching a table laid with unusual devices made of brass.

“Wow,” she races to say. “These are weird clocks.”

The table, covered end to end with the devices, looks like the instrument panel of an old ship. Under each device’s glass face a delicate needle nods among a riddle of dashes and numbers.

“They’re not clocks,” David says. “They’re barometers.”

“They’re cool,” she says.

Divina believes she’s found an opportunity to score a point with David. After all, these barometers are exactly the kind of thing David likes—objects useful but arcane, that hearken back to an era more rugged and storied than the one he’s been forced to live in. Divina’s already developed a keen eye for David’s likes and dislikes, before she’s even come to know her own. But what she’s not old enough to understand is how swooping in to like what David likes before he’s had a chance to like it will ruin the discovery for him. David needs a moment, to feel that his attraction is spontaneous and original. But now David is more knowable than he prefers to be. He stands there scanning the table with annoyance.

“How do they work?” Divina asks.

“It’s very old technology,” David says. “It probably wouldn’t help if I explained it to you.”

Bending over the table for a closer look I say, “Wow these are cool.”

Divina again smiles blankly at me.

In each barometer a tiny crescent moon sits poised on the end of a needle, descending a slope of small, mathematical sky. Neither Divina nor I know what these strange instruments are trying to tell us and we wait for David to interpret. But looking at David, I realize it’s too late.

I’ve seen it before, how boredom weighs on David like thick gloom. It’s as though he’s just remembered an enemy he meant to vanquish who is still walking the earth somewhere.

He turns to me: “I have to go to the bathroom.”

He looks sour and uncomfortable. I believe him.

“We should go find Mom,” he says to Divina.

She swings a look of betrayal over the barometers. They seemed like such a sure thing. By “find Mom” she knows David means he’s ready to go home.

“But Dad,” she says, “You said we could see Miss C today.”

Miss C is Divina’s music teacher. I wasn’t aware she lived nearby.

“You don’t need to see Miss C today,” David says.

“But you said—”

She bites down on a whine. An impatient child flashes into view, then scuttles for cover.

“I really have to go to the bathroom,” David says to me.

“She’s expecting us,” Divina says, now trying to sound more reasonable, “and you said we could go. She was going to let me play the m———— today.”

I don’t catch her second to last word.

“Marcy,” he says, “will you take her? Her music teacher lives close by and I have to go find Marcy.”

Me? I’ve never been asked to watch any of the children alone before. It’s not my role.

“I thought you had to use the bathroom,” I say.

“You’re not going to come watch me play?” Divina says.

David’s arms are folded, locked in place. Divina and I are confused by his inability to answer our questions.

David looks me in the eye.

“Please,” he says.

I agree to take her.

As Divina watches David disappear into the crowd, her lips slightly parted, she breathes through a disappointment that has lost its audience and has nowhere to go. I see her grab hold of that tangle of emotion to keep it from spreading and stuff it into a secret place for later. Having only learned how to do this as an adult, I’m amazed.

“Does Miss C live very far?” I ask.

She turns to me and sweetens.

“Miss C is a great woman,” she says. “She’s one hundred years old and plays every instrument in the world.”

“Every instrument in the world?” I say. “She must be a great woman.”

Divina takes my hand and begins to guide me.

“She used to be famous,” she says. “She could make music on things that people didn’t even know were instruments until she learned how to play them.”

“She sounds like quite a lady.”

I know I’m speaking to her as if she were younger than she is, but it’s all I can think to say. She seems all the more mature for how easily she forgives this and leads me on.

We walk hand in hand down the row until we come to the edge of the bazaar, which ends at a chain-link fence and a cliff overlooking the ocean. Beyond the fence the ocean forms a wall of vast, impersonal blue.

“Oh pretty!” Divina says. “Take my picture.”

“Unfortunately your father has the camera,” I say.

“With your phone,” she says.

“Oh, right.”

Lately I’ve been having trouble with my phone. Some messages don’t get through. Important to-do lists vanish. Sometimes I take photos and when I go back to look at them they’ve become so corrupted I can’t open them or even delete them. They just collect there, all these irretrievable images, filling up my memory. But I’m flattered Divina would invite me to document her dawning beauty, to share in it. This is ‘girl stuff.’ I search through my purse—my heavy purse where every item has its own compartment so I can never remember where I put anything—and find my phone. On its screen I compose Divina against the chain-link fence with the ocean behind her. Chirrup goes the artificial shutter.

It’s hard to see the photo under the direct sunlight. We follow the fence, which runs between the edge of the bazaar and the threshold of the cliff, until we reach a wall of rugged sandstone. Here people are emerging from a rock.

“This is the way to your music teacher’s house?” I say.

“Don’t worry,” Divina says. “It’s not far.”

We enter a tunnel and descend a flight of rough-hewn steps. The dark is cold and sits icily on my cheeks. On the other side of the cold bar that divides the stair, silhouetted figures climb and puff out large clouds of breath that unravel over their heads.

I can see the photo better in the tunnel. She’s already learned how to smile, how to call on her best features and present herself as prettier than she is. In the photo, her young cheerfulness is complicated by a tiredness that’s wind-blown and tranquil, nearly sensual. She looks much older. Over her shoulder, in the upper right quarter of the frame, a dark vapor menaces the horizon.

“We probably shouldn’t spend too long,” I say. “I think a storm might blow in.”

I try to say this like a girlfriend and not a parent.

“It’s not too far,” she says.

By the time we reach the foot of the stair there are no more people coming the other direction. We step out of the tunnel, alone in a scabbed-over landscape of dun and yellow sandstone. Divina takes my hand again, her favorite new thing to do, and we crunch along a gravel path, sinking into a narrow channel between the bluffs. Eddies of wind rustle on the peaks above. Divina hums and swings my hand to assure me we’re going the right way.

“How long have you been taking music lessons?” I say.

“Not long,” she says. “I’m still in a test period.”

“A test period?”

This doesn’t sound like her word.

“Dad says I have to show that I’m really serious about it. He says you have to do music seriously or not at all.”

“Do you think you’ll want to study music seriously?”

“I think so,” she says. “Miss C says I have potential so I should try to go as far as I can while I’m young.”

“It can be hard to make a big decision like that when you’re young.”

She cheerfully accepts all my pronouncements and I note how well Divina and I are getting along now. There’s nowhere to turn right or left on the path, but I dare say we prefer the comfort and safety of the channel to the winds prowling the peaks above.

Finally we come to a small clapboard cottage wedged between the bluffs like a raspberry seed between two giant yellow teeth. Murmuring wind chimes drowse in the recessed porch.

Divina knocks on the front door and I stand listening to the languid chimes. Divina says we’re to go in.

Inside, the cottage is dim. The air is lukewarm and overused and I feel like I’m breathing under water. We pass a kitchenette where on the burner of an electric stove a small, rusty kettle creaks and mewls with thoughts of boiling.

We pass into the main room. The large picture window, centered between two heavy green velvet curtains, has fogged over, transforming the ocean view beyond into a gray-blue smudge. A harp leans against the wall, its strings sagging together. Its figurehead, a woman made of brass, faces a corner to which her head has become connected by a veil of cobweb.

Around the room, above dust-ruffled furnishings on squat Queen Anne legs, hangs an assortment of odd, bygone musical instruments, instruments that appear to have been concocted by peasants before music was fully invented. They’re layered with dust and many appear damaged or incomplete.

Divina climbs onto the overstuffed couch opposite the picture window and begins to twang an instrument hung on the wall, a kind of heart-shaped wooden box whose metal strings have blackened with age. The box thrums quietly in no recognizable key.

“These instruments seem very old,” I say. “Be careful not to knock them down.”

As I step towards Divina something in the opposite corner recoils. A small pair of legs quickly crosses ankles. I startle and back away. It’s the horror you feel when you don’t realize how close you’ve been standing to a spider until it jerks away on its web.

Someone is sitting in the armchair in the corner of the room. The upper part of her body hides in the shadow between the velvet curtain and the wall. The light from the gray picture window slants over her lap where her two rumpled hands encircle a mug, its rim caked with fuchsia-colored lipstick. She wears a gray woolen skirt and her legs, wrapped in nylon stockings, end in a pair of wicked black shoes. I don’t like her.

“Divina’s here for her lesson,” I say. “It has to be short today—” and add, because of a glaring silence, “—if that’s okay.”

I drop into a chair on the other side of the room, angry at myself for asking permission like a child.

“What’s this instrument you were going to play?” I ask Divina.

“Oh, the m————!”

I still don’t catch the name of the instrument. The word zigzags around my mind like an injured butterfly and flits away before I can get a good look at it.

“Can I?” Divina says to the corner. “Can I, Miss C?”

“She said you were going to let her play it today,” I say firmly. “That’s why we came.”

It would only be polite if she welcomed me to her home or engaged me in a conversation about Divina’s recent progress as a student. Instead she sits in her corner, smug and pedagogical. Likely she thinks me too insignificant to explain things to—I didn’t start young enough at anything so I just stayed young forever. The mug rises, disappears into the dark corner, and returns to her lap. As the kettle continues to sputter and groan in the kitchenette I think she could at least offer me some tea. I would love to refuse a cup of tea from her.

Divina knows right where the instrument is kept. She goes to the credenza beneath the window, opens the center compartment, and removes a burlap bag and a small wooden frame. She unfolds the frame and stands it on the carpet, a spare, knee-high assembly of sticks in the center of the room. I don’t know what kind of instrument this could be.

“Maybe Miss C should help you with that,” I say.

“I know how to set it up,” Divina says.

Kneeling on the floor, Divina reaches into the bag and removes a bundle of rough material that looks like a balled-up bandage. She unwinds the bandage, searching for something hidden in its coils. Finally she cups it in her hand, swaddled in the last lengths of the material, and extracts it with her fingertips: a small porcelain bell.

The bell is hand painted and resembles a tiny doll, like a matryoshka. She wears a neat little wimple head covering and frock with a floral motif painted minutely in fuchsia, gold, and teal. At the line between the wimple and frock the pattern becomes inverted, trading white for color and color for white. The doll’s face, in contrast to the dress’s intricate brushwork, is a simple oval with pink blushing cheeks and small round eyes.

“Oh, Divina,” I say, “please be exquisitely careful with that.”

“I am,” she says.

She threads a strand of twine through the loop at the top of the bell and laces it to the frame. Digging again through the burlap bag, she leaves her—the bell—dangling there, as though strung to a miniature gallows.

I don’t understand. The little porcelain bell doesn’t appear to be made for playing music. It’s a bell to be looked at, to be kept reverently on view in a special cabinet.

Unraveling another long bandage, Divina reveals a second porcelain bell, which is every inch as ornate as the first and painted to match it exactly.

“They’re beautiful,” I say.

She begins lacing it to the gallows. She’s right, she knows just how.

“Have you played this before?” I say.

“No,” Divina says.

“Then how do you know how?” I say.

“I just do,” she says.

“Maybe you only think you know how,” I say.

“No,” she says, “I know.”

“You should let Miss C help you.”

Before I know it the second painted bell hangs from the gallows. Divina removes another bundle from the burlap bag and unwraps it, unveiling a bell identical to the other two.

Realizing that the bells will all be meticulously the same, I resettle in the old chair and let out an irritated breath.

Their dresses, grazed with countless touches of a fine-bristled brush, are flawless. In flagrant disagreement with the dolls’ placid painted faces, the ornate dresses speak of worry and toil. The dresses are mortified at the thought of making a mistake, paralyzed at the thought of having made one already. Why? Why all the same? Why so much gratuitous adherence to one special pattern?

And now three painted bells hang from the gallows.

They look so fragile, the little painted, porcelain bells. One hard look and they’d just shatter. And I suppose that’s the thrill, the risk of seeing all that worry and toil go to pieces. But as Divina rifles through the burlap bag in search of the next bell, for me a question has begun to grow sharp and insistent like a cramp: What’s happening here?

Miss C sits in the corner drinking her tea. Will she say nothing? Doesn’t she know that a girl Divina’s age is incapable of being careful? Doesn’t she understand how it might injure a young girl to damage something so beautiful and irreplaceable? Why, the evil old has-been! But this is exactly her plan! What has she been doing in this murky den but hatching some hurtful little self-satisfying scheme against the world? More and more I think her capable of anything.

“Divina, I just—I don’t feel right about you playing this instrument without help,” I say.

But Divina doesn’t answer. She continues to build the instrument, her hands repeating the same motions as though under a spell. The mug rises to the shadow and returns. And now four painted bells hang from the gallows. I could nearly scream.

When Divina laces the fifth and final bell to the gallows, the instrument is complete. The bells hang there above the unraveled bandages on the floor, blushing like five strangling sisters. The delicate edges of their porcelain skirts graze each other and the bells titter like nervous school girls. I can’t bear it.

Divina digs deep into the burlap bag, searching with young, unselfconscious excitement for the final piece. With her face aglow, she removes a small iron mallet.

“No,” I say.

“What,” she says.

It’s a plain iron mallet. Crude and hard. It looks more like a surgical tool than part of a musical instrument.

“No,” I say.

“This is how you play it,” she says.

“Give me that.”

I spring from my seat and grab for the mallet. She jolts away from me.

“Divina,” I say.

“She said I could,” Divina says.

She swipes the mallet towards the bells and I block her, feeling the mallet strike the knuckles of my left hand and a rush of tingling numbness. I grab for the mallet again and Divina leaps up. I chase her and pin her against the seat of the overstuffed couch.

“She said I could!” Divina sobs.

“But I say you can’t,” I say. “These aren’t playthings. You’re not old enough to know how fragile they are.”

God, I sound just like David.

I clutch her wrist and remove the mallet. She mashes her face into the seat of the couch.

“I am old enough,” she says, muffled.

“Not while I’m here you’re not.”

I snatch my purse from the chair, take Divina by the hand, and we formally present ourselves before Miss C. I hold the mallet in front of the old witch like an accusation.

“I don’t know what your plan was for today,” I say, “but it’s time for Divina to go. Furthermore, I will be telling her father about what’s happened here and advise him to hire a different music teacher.”

The old woman’s black shoes have retreated entirely under the chair and the teacup is pressed hard against her belly. She has fit herself as tightly into her dark corner as her dimensions will allow. The room, lit by the picture window, has tinted dark yellow.

“I have more influence in these decisions than you’ve given me credit for,” I say.

Stepping over the bells and dropping the mallet among the bandages on the floor, I lead Divina out. On the way past the kitchenette I note that the kettle is still spitting and hissing and droning but hasn’t boiled. I’m sure we have narrowly avoided something.

Outside the sky is black. The wind has infiltrated the sandstone channel and comes howling towards us. The chimes on the porch sing out in alarm.

Entering the channel we’re caught in swirls of rain and grit and I hug Divina close to me. On the way here there was only one path to the cottage. Now we come to a crossroads.

“I don’t know the way back,” I say. “You’re going to have to help me.”

But Divina seems to have become many years younger. She can’t help. She leans into me, hiding her face against my breast.

I go left and come to another crossroads and then right. I’m guessing. The path narrows and crawls upward and suddenly we’re standing on a ledge, looking down on a white clash of waves on dark rocks. I scream and grasp Divina to me. My horror is real but my scream sounds pre-recorded, as if it had come from elsewhere.

Cold blows relentlessly into my face and I don’t know where to go next.

I trace the line of the cliffs and see, in the distance, the tented stalls of the bazaar flapping in the wind. There, behind the chain-link fence on the edge of the cliff, are David and Marcy. They’re waiting for us. Though they are far away, I can make out every detail. David is slurping a soft-serve ice cream cone—the soft, sweet lump of cream has taken the shape of his mouth. He stands looking through the fence and out to sea with the steely expression of a ship’s captain. Marcy is busy behind him zipping jackets onto the children.

I take my phone from my purse and turn it on. What appears on the screen I’ve never seen before. It’s a plain white screen with the words “Verifying Connection . . .” Under the words an hourglass spins in place, a motion that appears to trap the sand equally in both sides of the hourglass instead of letting it move from one side to the other.

The storm will soon be on us. Things are about to become unpredictable and dangerous. Without her father being here, I know I have a duty towards Divina. I feel I should say something memorable to her that will fortify her against what’s coming.

“Divina,” I say, “In a year or so you will be beautiful. You must remember to be utterly ruthless. Never let another woman come between you and what you need to feel secure in the world. If you’re truly beautiful, no one can lift a finger against you. No one.”

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