The sun fell on the town in patches around the clouds. The town was neither small nor large but it felt larger or smaller depending on the season. The air smelled of red and dirt and sweat and the ground was dark from the previous night's rain. Younger people, mostly girls, huddled like clumps of hair on the edge of town and quickly shut their mouths after each shared secret. Urbanites who saw the huddled bodies on their way out that day fiercely regretted leaving them behind and the comfort of the heavy burly trees that canopied the road.
Sara did not huddle with the other girls. She was lying on her bed waiting for Mary to call. But she didn't. Mary was a flame of a girl. The ends of her chartreuse hair jetted out into space. Sara thought of her when she saw a large barn owl, an owl that sinks into the night like mud. After they were done being together, Sara was never left with a swelling feeling in her stomach. From Mary she learned how to read stars, how to dance. She taught her how to find fun in a town riddled by the monotonous drone of balloons and deaths. She walked awkwardly, her hips too small to support her. "I swear," mother had said once to a friend, "Sara and Mary do everything together but have sex."
When the group of girls on the edge of town released a collection of balloons, Sara moved to the chair by the window. As sun leaked through the bottom portion of the glass, Sara trailed the pink and blue balloons across the sky. She liked the way the balloons wiggled and rocked back and forth like boats. She watched until the balloons offered themselves up as black pupils for the white of the clouds' eyes. Sara looked at the phone, at her book collection, at her shaking thigh, and then climbed down the ivy trellis beneath her window on the side of the grey house. As she descended, she fingered a couple of leaves, feeling for remnants of dew. She nearly smashed a yellow caterpillar. It moved seductively on the edge of a dying strip of vine. Sara paused long enough to watch the trail it left behind draw the speckles on the leaves together like Orion's belt. She thought of last February when in the middle of a thick snow Mary had forced her to lie on her back. "Look at them!" Mary had said, pointing to the wire-trap of stars.
"I am cold as shit," Sarah replied, angrily balling up her fists.
"Look, there's Andromeda."
"I can't see it."
"Right there, follow my finger with your eyes."
"Oh, okay, maybe I do."
"You know right now we are looking out, not up."
"That's hard to think about."
"It's not so hard."
"Yes, it is."
"No, it isn't, just try."
After that, Sara went outside at night to try and see what Mary had. That was around the time when Sara had wished to be small enough to hide behind the ivy leaves. As Sara thought about the small of her palms, closing then opening then closing, a pathetic voice turned from dull echo to roar. It was her mother. Sara had a tunnel behind the eucalyptus tree. It was created out of necessity, a relic from a relationship with the olive oil colored boy down the street. Sara hopped off the trellis and burrowed.
Sara's mother was proud of her because she didn't know about this hole. Even so, this ignorance and Sara's bright caramel-green eyes did not incite a lasting feeling between them. They did not possess what others had. Sara later determined that this something was not necessarily unconditional love. She saw it as a body, a blob of light, standing at the opening of a garden. What in Sara's mind limited this welcoming was her hair that fell immutable and dark like fossils from her head. Ringlets and lightness never took hold, despite her mother's efforts. Her body was also, "vandalized," as her mother said. Her upper thighs were covered in angles. Sara connected her freckles together repetitively with permanent marker.
That afternoon, she was supposed to have met her mother to collect the yellow caterpillars that chewed pebble-sized holes through the tomato plant's leaves. Sara could never remember a damned thing. The teachers in school agreed with her mother. They said, "Sara you will never be anything." Each morning the teachers reminded the class to keep Sara in their prayers. What Sara resented most about school was not this public damnation but rather the sweat that collected under her thighs when her legs were properly crossed. To distract herself from the hellfire of the teachers, Sara thought about how large her tits were becoming and how splendid her funeral would be if she ever decided to off herself.
She compartmentalized the funeral attendees by their relationship to her. Authority figures inhabited one pew, a line of grey faces. Next came the boys, who were very vocal in their grieving. They lamented her death, but also, to the pride of Sara, the body they'd never get to press into. Sara, in moments of panic, briefly told herself she didn't really want to die. Then she accidently prayed. A short bout of an Our Father or a Hail Mary fell out of her, before a request. "God," Sara said, the word almost drooling out of her mouth, "Please, if I am to die tonight, make my funeral large and full like the moon."
The tunnel had made Sara's linen dress damp and smeared with brown. The wire fencing had scratched the back of her neck. She walked on the periphery of the road. It was good to be outside, the heavy air coated her skin. A deep, warm feeling resounded within her when her feet made contact with the damp earth. Once before the sanctuary, she paused. She wondered if Mary had called by now. The sanctuary was on a flat, dried piece of land next to a hill. Arsonists, of the teenage realm, had taken to burning things near the building. The hill was a victim, and nothing remained but the plague of burnt trees hanging around like cast-off cigarettes.
The sanctuary had been there, according to Mr. Charlie, since the beginning. The chatter that followed discussion of the beginning was tinged with contempt and authority. Sara, being a fan of neither, spoke little to Mr. Charlie. A sweet "Mhm," lolled out of Sara's mouth after his declarations. The task of pacifying him depended on this, but also on the sweetness of her caramel eyes, a slight opening of her pink mouth, and a full devotion to her chest beaming outward, welcomingly. Despite the complacency of Sara's deportment Mr. Charlie had managed to lecture her on many important things.
The whole of the town gathered to hear the bell ring, but no person was permitted to enter the chapel. Nobody was really sure why, but warnings were always bestowed with such meanness and paired with such a dramatic crinkling of the eyes that not even the arsonists dared to defy the common law. Only the clergy entered it. Because the priest slipped in and out of life, Sister Patricia was bestowed with the honor of ringing the bell. Mr. Charlie loved to discuss the sanctuary and the bell's clapper. He told Sara (and Sara had told Mary) "the position of the bell's clapper represents the bodies that used to hang from the gallows."
The "o" sound in "gallows" provided an opportunity for the extra saliva in his mouth to slosh audibly. Upon hearing such a claim, Mary responded, briefly, poetically, "that's fucking bullshit." Unlike the girls, most others agreed with Mr. Charlie's explanation. Mary blamed this on the folds in his face. As he galloped around Sara with his lashings of statements: devoid of poetry, imagination, and worth, she wondered about the time he spent in the bathroom. Did he have to clean out his folds with q-tips?
Sara liked to come to the sanctuary. When they were younger, depending on the solemnity or celebration of the occasion, Sara and Mary were dressed in either blue or black pinafores. It wasn't until last year that they had found a way to go inside. The decaying priest and sisters trusted too much in the fear of the town and they had started to leave the heavy, dark wooden door open.
Sara liked the cold stone. She liked how her nipples looked when erect. The high, arched ceiling felt to her like another night sky. Of the once ornate paintings, only the fading nose of St. Francis de Assisi was visible. A patch of the chapel was cracked to expose earth, and tufts of grass and dandelions were thriving in the cracks; there was mud in the pools of holy water. The pews were marked by the bottoms of centuries. Mary stood on the altar one day and pointed.
"Let's go up there," she said, hardening herself to the idea and its heat. Mary looked at Sara like Sara looked at older women. In her body language was an obvious yearning for a tenderness that would never come.
"What if they catch us, what will happen?" replied Sara, her eyes wandering.
"I don't know, but it doesn't much matter, I want to see the bell, the clapper."
"I do too, but, but still...It's a silly thing to commit to seeing, if we get caught who knows what will happen."
"All threats are empty," replied Mary.
They had imagined what it would look like. They had dreamt of it. They had drawn pictures and whispered in hushed voices, in the crevices of the green, moss-covered town. They'd had sat by the edge of the river, stacking stones, watching them teeter, whispering. In Sara's mind it was black and glossy, the tip of it as spherical as a moon. Mary challenged her. She was convinced it was deep blue in color, the tip of it like a drop of rain. They felt as if it was the only thing they had yet to see. They liked the idea of something housed under brass and age.
Whenever questions of the sanctuary, the bell, the bell's clapper, were brought up, parents shushed their children, their eyes favoring the upper corner of their sockets. Mr. Charlie owned most of the town.
The stairs were smooth and slippery in the center, as if someone had rigorously rubbed them down. Sara liked to be there and to be alone. But her tongue began to swell. Mary was supposed to have been there. She was happy she wasn't. The whole of Sara's body: the back of her neck, the edge of her collarbone, her kneecaps, were overwhelmed with a sense of roundness. Climbing the stairs indented with divots of use, she passed the baby blue stained glass that seemed to hang on the wall of the chapel, instead of being integrated into it; she went up and up and up. It was cooler in the winding staircase, and at points Sara felt her chest heave from the narrowness of the stone, windowless walls. Her nipples began to sting through her dress from the rubbing of the dirt and the wetness from the earth.
Sara knew a baby had been born last night because of the hysteria: the piling up of cars, the shooed children, the men sitting in circles with their eyes drooped downward. But she had not remembered. Unlike Sara, other people had remembered things that day. Jerry remembered that he left his knapsack at the café next to the small bridge that burned in a triumphant blaze years ago. Ms. Monroe remembered that she still hadn't bled. Jeremy remembered that his girlfriend left two hickies on the space that kissed the edge of his collarbone. Luckily, Sister also remembered that she forgot to say three Our Fathers before she ate her breakfast of poached eggs and smoked salmon, so as she repented, Sara had time to see the clapper in peace.
She made it to the top. She giggled at the stone arches that had been boarded up with wood, and at the exposed cracks, left open to allow the sound to escape. She followed the rope up to the clapper, which was neither dark blue like the crust of night or black like the middle of it, but bright orange like dusk. The clapper in shape was like a raindrop, except the end of it suddenly became cylindrical and straight.
The old of the brass was unlike the old of the sanctuary. Despite the light green washy color that tinged the outside of the bell, there seemed something more lasting about it. She could not imagine the earth reclaiming the bell as it did the sanctuary. The inside of the bell was shiny and reflected the cracks of light tendrils that snaked into the top tier of the sanctuary. Sara was filled with good feeling. It was a feeling that forced the edges of her hair up and prickled her skin. She decided to do it. She pulled on the rope, and the bell swung violently back and forth, like the balloons released that day, like meteors moving across the sky, like the people who remembered pacing in their rooms, like Sara's mother waiting for her in the garden, like the way Mary moves in times of heat.
It was on the eighth swing of the bell that Sara remembered what the ringing meant. The town was going to gather. She almost shit her pants. On her way down the steps she threw her body, banging into the narrow walls, clamoring to make her way out before people arrived. Sister Patricia was the first to see Sara, who was belched out by the building like a calf. Sister noticed that Sara wasn't wearing anything under her dress and tried to ignore the tightness she felt growing inside her. Sara looked at the clouds, then at the sanctuary, then at her feet, ignoring the first set of eyes that were touching her wet, dirty, lanky body. Their eyes, Sara noticed, were not filled with horror, but curiosity.
What a silly, silly, silly girl the small, green pupils of her community seemed to say. Sara's mother, however, was filled with absolute disdain. The word 'cunt' clung to her mother's breath. As the father brushed the dirt from his loafers, the mother bunched up the end of Sara's dress, and after several tugs managed to peel her away from her frozen position in the front of the crowd. "What the fuck," her mother screamed, "Sara, what is this?"
"I'm sorry," she muttered, while trying to avoid the stinging eyes of mother.
And as her mother marched her home, the contact of her feet against the earth growing in intensity, Sara thought of Mary, her stars, and the clapper that was neither black nor round but bright orange like dusk. She smiled as she passed Mr. Charlie and his saliva-filled mouth. Once at home, she sat down and folded her hands gingerly in her lap like an infant. At night, Sara called up Mary. She told her, in hushed tones, that the position of a bell's clapper represents all that hangs between heaven and Earth. "I think," Sara, said quietly, "this establishes a relationship between them."
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