The Old Bell-Ringer

It was growing dark.

The tiny village, nestling by the distant stream, in a pine forest, was merged in that twilight peculiar to starry spring nights, when the fog, rising from the earth, deepens the shadows of the woods and fills the open spaces with a silvery blue mist. … Everything was still, pensive and sad. The village quietly slumbered.

The dark outlines of the wretched cabins were barely visible; here and there lights glimmered; now and then you could hear a gate creak; or a dog would suddenly bark and then stop. Occasionally, out of the dark, murmuring forest emerged the figure of a pedestrian, or that of a horseman; or a cart would jolt by. These were the inhabitants of lone forest hamlets going to their church for the great spring holiday.

The church stood on a gentle hill in the center of the village. The ancient belfry, tall and murky, was lost in the blue sky.

The creaking of the staircase could be heard as the old bell-ringer Mikheyich mounted to the belfry, and his little lantern, suspended in mid-air, looked like a star in space.

It was difficult for the old man to climb the staircase. His leg served him badly, and his eyes saw but dimly. … An old man like him should have been at rest by now, but God spared him from death. He had buried his sons and his grandsons; he had accompanied old men and young men to their resting place, but he still lived on. ’Twas hard. Many the times he had greeted the spring holiday, and he could not remember how often he had waited in that very belfry the appointed hour. And now God had again willed that…

The old man went to the opening in the tower and leaned on the banister. In the darkness below, around the church, he made out the village cemetery in which the old crosses with their outstretched arms seemed to protect the ill-kept graves. Over these bowed here and there a few leafless birch trees. The aromatic odor of young buds, wafted to Mikheyich from below, brought with it a feeling of the melancholy of eternal sleep.

Where would he be a year hence? Would he again climb to this height, beneath the brass bell to awaken the slumbering night with its metallic peal, or would he be lying in a dark corner of the graveyard, under a cross? God knows!… He was prepared; in the meantime God granted him the happiness of greeting the holiday once more.

“Glory be to God!” His lips whispered the customary formula as his eyes looked up to the heaven bright with a million twinkling stars and made the sign of the cross.

“Mikheyich, ay, Mikheyich!” called out to him the tremulous voice of an old man. The aged sexton gazed up at the belfry, shading his unsteady, tear-dimmed eyes with his hand, trying to see Mikheyich.

“What do you want? Here I am,” replied the bell-ringer, looking down from the belfry. “Can’t you see me?”

“No, I can’t. It must be time to ring. What do you say?”

Both looked at the stars. Myriads of God’s lights twinkled on high. The fiery Wagoner was above them. Mikheyich meditated.

“No, not yet a while. … I know when. …”

Indeed he knew. He did not need a watch. God’s stars would tell him when. … Heaven and earth, the white cloud gently floating in the sky, the dark forest with its indistinct murmur and the rippling of the stream enveloped by the darkness—all that was familiar to him, part of him. Not in vain had he spent his life here.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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