As he’d done on every morning since Barícolé’s curse fell upon the city, he first looked to the window on the opposite side of the street. Dark and empty, it brought a familiar worry about Galvea. They’d been friends all their lives. He couldn’t remember a day in those twelve years they hadn’t spent at least in part together — until recently. As he rubbed the blear from his eyes, the bellcart called again and fear chased away his drowsiness. Fear always followed the questioning bell.
Enoch reached for the silver handbell resting on the windowsill. Everyone knew by now: answer as soon as you hear. This was the only way to reckon the living from the soon-to-be-dead, because those unable to answer never had very long before they withered down to near nothing.
Again the approaching bell. Cling.
Enoch answered. Ting. From his parents’ room came two more replies. Ting. Ting. This had become the rhythm of their lives.
Cling. Ting. Ting. Ting.
The not-knowing was just as terrible to Enoch three months into the curse as it had been on the first night. At each ringing not knowing his answer to the question issuing from the metal of the bell. Waiting for the reassuring sound of his reply. And then the vacuum in which he waited to know his parents’ answers. The darkened window across the street was worst of all, never knowing whether Galvea’s handbell rang.
For the moment, the bellcart remained unseen. The buildings in Enoch’s district, oldest in an elder city, huddled together like conspirators. Before the Withering, Enoch had enjoyed living in the old city center, sensing history underfoot as he and Galvea adventured through their days. History had been his favorite subject when there was school to attend. He reveled in learning the stories of the buildings around them. Now he resented the structures for limiting his experience of the world to an eighty-foot stretch of cobbled street below.
His parents stirred. He imagined the sound of their movements rippling across the wallpaper. Eventually, they joined him in the living room, Mama’s disappointed sigh now a familiar ritual.
“Again?” she asked.
Enoch looked at her reflection.
“Have you eaten, at least?”
He shook his head no.
“Well, let’s see to that,” she said, motioning him away from his station.
He refocused on the narrow world outside and raised a dismissive hand, a gesture he’d picked up from Papa in recent weeks. “Maybe later, not very hungry,” he said.
The knot in his belly grew by the day, but he’d heard their hushed conversations. Though he never eavesdropped on purpose, his parents’ words found him, carried by the still air of the stricken city. He’d heard Mama plead they could stretch things a week longer, that Papa didn’t have to go out again so soon. Enoch understood the danger. He only had to look down as the evidence passed underneath each day, stacked together in the bed of the bellcart, carefully bundled in blankets and curtains and dining linen. Frighteningly small.
Each scavenging trip Papa took was a risk. In the time since the bell first rang its curse over the city, no one had learned how it spread, how it chose whom to take. Whether by touch or by breathing it in, whether it burned in your heart or in your throat before climbing on top of you, no one could say. The city quickly settled into voluntary quarantine, unwilling to chance exposure to these limitless possibilities.
Mama rested her hands on Enoch’s shoulders. Their eyes met in the glass.
“Why another night? Daytime, it’s Galvea, but she’s never at her window at night. What keeps you in this seat?”
“Watching for stars,” Enoch said.
She looked over the rooftops, into the featureless band above. “There’s been no sky since Barícolé’s Ascension. What will a night’s rest cost you? You worry me.” She held his head between her hands.
“What if I missed them?”
“Yes, what if? The sky will do as it wants, whether you sit or sleep. You’re exhausting yourself.”
“Well, would you look? Or Papa?”
“Stare at the dark all night?”
His eyes told her yes, that was what he meant.
“No, Enoch. Because we need strength, too, and we realize this. You’re the only one leaking sense.” She moved his head around, as though searching for the troublesome spot.
“See? If I don’t watch, who will?”
Her lips pressed together in what could have been a smile, or, more likely, a flash of heartache.
“We’d sleep through and never know if the curse lifted.”
Mama bent and kissed the top of his head.
“You’ll eat something today,” she said.
“I will,” Enoch said to the reflected shape of her retreat in the window.
Across the street the curtains fluttered. Galvea appeared. Enoch’s smile was an inbuilt response, a flower opening to daylight. He pressed a palm against the glass. Galvea matched the gesture.
Her mother came to stand behind, stroking Galvea’s hair. She attempted to smile at Enoch, but only appeared to wince in pain. Smiling had become a difficult thing to manage. She lingered a few minutes longer before receding into the darkness, leaving the children to face one another, separated by two panes of glass and twenty feet of once-busy avenue.
Enoch and Galvea braided paths in their sprint through the bustling square, arms spread as wings in anticipation of flight.
“You never know,” called Galvea, “when things can change entirely.”
“One has to be ready,” Enoch began.
Galvea finished, “For anything!”
“Imagine, if we found ourselves flying through the air without our arms out like this,” he said.
“How embarrassing,” Galvea agreed. “Would we be birds, then?”
“You and me, birds?” scoffed Enoch. “Of course we would be angels!”
Galvea nodded, satisfied. “Nothing less,” she said. She stopped and pointed with her wing tip to the bell tower looming over them. “Two angels, one for each shoulder of Sainted Barícolé.”
“Good old Raving Sainted Barícolé,” Enoch said. They adopted solemn attitudes, clasping their hands together in pantomime prayer. Then they burst into a fit of laughter. Each put their arm around the other and gazed up at the new bell installed atop the tower only hours ago.
The hospital with its tower was the distinctive landmark of the district, and the Raving Sainted Barícolé its builder, a beloved figure of local fame. Born into wealth in an era when the city was crippled by disease, he had studied the medical arts and used his family’s resources to raise the building. His compassion and dedication earned him the “sainted” epithet. The “raving” came after he ordered the tower built and spent his final days atop it, cursing at any god who might listen.
“What must it have been like, seeing him up there?” Galvea wondered aloud.
Enoch tried to invoke the sight, Barícolé standing where the bell now hung a hundred feet above, screaming at the heavens. “Amazing,” he said. She smiled.
He turned to the blend of locals and tourists enjoying the centennial Ascension festival, dressed in finery beneath the afternoon sun. As he saw them passing through the square, browsing crafts and trinkets, goading performers with claps and whistles, he imagined Barícolé’s legendary rant showering down, losing clarity in its fall to earth, heard below only as echoes of indistinct outrage.
“And fascinating,” Enoch said. He looked again to the tower and pictured Barícolé, hoarse, exhausted, gesturing wildly and teetering along the edge of his platform as he stomped circles, eyes and fists raised. “And terrifying,” he added.
Galvea gave his shoulder a squeeze. “No fearful angels,” she said.
“Not a one,” Enoch said. They spun and flew back into the press of festivity. Their laughter left a wake like the stroke of a paintbrush, coloring all they passed. Smiles bloomed on the faces of festivalgoers who looked on. Enoch and Galvea might have noticed if they hadn’t been sharing a world of their own making.
The bellcart emerged from where the lane below curved out of sight. Its procession advanced by slow footfall. They moved together, a steady, graceful march: the bellringer to the side, a team of forward-bent drivers gripping the cart, and ahead of them the two who entered marked buildings to collect the withered.
The bell struck.
Cling. Ting. Ting. Ting.
Enoch saw Galvea turn as though her name had been called, then disappear into the room behind her. It had been the same since the morning he awoke to find a scrap of linen under her window, beckoning the cart to her door. And later the tiny bundle carried out of her doorway by the attendants, laid with reverence among the others. Since that day, Galvea’s older brother never appeared in the window, nor did her smile, and at every ringing of the bell she went to her mother, into the unseen.
Enoch tried to picture her through the walls, raising her handbell, reassuring him she was still very alive. He could do without food, without the freedom to step outside, could even do without a sky, but to imagine a world without Galvea? Impossible.
The cart drew closer. Enoch saw the drape of the robes wrapped around the attendants, too similar to the improvised shrouds of the dead they accompanied. Each was covered head to ground, only eyes exposed. Whenever he’d caught a glimpse of them, Enoch thought their eyes hinted at hidden smiles.
The two at the head of the procession scanned windows and doorways for signs of mourning. Those pulling the cart marched with lowered gaze, and the bellringer too moved with eyes cast downward, clutching the rope that raised the voice of the bell. Enoch knew from their bearing and delicate handling of the withered that these men and women acted as creatures of mercy, but to see them was no less horrible. Becase of their cargo. Because they carried with them that testing toll.
The bellringer took the rope in two-handed grip and heaved.
Cling. Ting. Ting. Ting.
Enoch produced for himself the sound of a fifth note, faint, coming as it did from across the street.
Now Papa crossed the living room hugging a blanket around himself. The months of attrition evident in Papa’s face stirred a sickness in Enoch. Papa squinted from pools of fatigue at the procession.
“Recognize any today?” he asked.
Enoch said no. The likelihood of identifying anyone from only that sliver of eye was poor, but he would never say so, because Papa obsessed over who these attendants were, and also because Enoch was the boy who sat up nights waiting for the stars to return. They observed a gentleman’s agreement to let each other’s fixations be.
Papa shook, tugged the blanket tighter.
“I can go out if we need firewood,” Enoch said.
This wrenched Papa’s gaze from the attendants. “No need, Enoch. We’ve a good amount.” He tried to sound offhand and confident, but the words came too quick. “Let me worry about supplies, hm?” He tousled Enoch’s hair and gave a drowsy wink. “Now, who do you suppose they are?” Papa ran through his usual questions: From the city or from outside? How can they be out there unclaimed, unafraid? An immunity?
The only hope of learning would be asking face to face, an occasion no one wanted. The attendants only mingled with the grieving and the dead.
The bellcart passed directly below. The memorial bell swung under a sturdy support mounted to the cart. The figure of Raving Sainted Barícolé rose from its surface, back arched and eyes skyward, arms raised in passionate anger. Enoch felt the emanation reaching up from the bell and right down his throat, clutching at some central part of him.
Barícolé’s question was there, even if unspoken.
While Papa tried to guess the identities of the living, Enoch fixed on the pyramid of bundles arrayed in the cart. He counted at every passing, keeping a rough tally of the Withering’s claim. Twenty-three today, a steady number that told of no slowing. Fear was as alive as ever.
Twenty-three people, stacked like dolls on a toyshop’s shelf. He remembered the one and only time he’d seen it happen, the very beginning of the epidemic all those months ago. He shivered. Papa rubbed Enoch’s arms, coaxing warmth.
“Turn your thoughts away,” he said.
Enoch breathed deep, swallowed down the sick nervous disquiet. He looked away until the sound of wheels rolling on brick faded. Papa gave him a reassuring grip and went back to the couch.
When Galvea later reappeared, Enoch felt the last bit of tension go. He thought he saw apology in the slight upward arc of her eyebrows.
He bent to retrieve his most cherished possession: a thick, handcrafted sketching notebook, bound with waxed black string and covered over in the raised weave of natural cloth. Inside, a medley of pages varying in texture, color, and size. He shuffled through used pages with his thumb, past early illustrations of fish-drawn undersea chariots, flocks of firebirds bursting from the mouths of erupting volcanoes, buildings strolling through countryside on four legs. He shuffled past the more recent drawings, all variations of one image, rendered smaller and smaller as Enoch became increasingly aware of the finite number of pages between the covers of his book.
He settled on a clean page and took up the pencil. He looked at Galvea with an eye considering proportion, contour, shade. Enoch made his first mark and gave over to his daily pursuit, bringing Galvea into the room with him the only way he could.
Enoch and Galvea found their families resting beneath the shade of a plum tree, one of many lining the perimeter of the square. Mama and Galvea’s mother sat against its trunk, smiling between bites of the tree’s fruit. Papa was lying on his back, looking up through the branches. There came a rustling in the boughs above, and Enoch and Galvea looked up to see her brother clambering through the limbs.
“That’s the one. What a prize!” Papa called to the canopy.
Galvea turned to Enoch. “We’ve been abandoned,” she said.
“Left to fend for ourselves,” Enoch nodded.
“It’s the way of the world,” she said.
Their mothers shared an amused glance.
“But what’s this?” Galvea pointed upward with an expression of discovery. “A tree of plenty!”
Enoch stepped closer to her, moved her pointing finger to rest on the shape of her brother. “But guarded by a strange beast.”
“Strange indeed,” she said.
“Hey!” her brother yelled from the tree.
“Have you formulated a plan, Sir Enoch?” she asked.
“Certainly, Sir Galvea. Leave it to me,” Enoch said.
He climbed the trunk to the second tier of branches where he grabbed a young offshoot above him and shook. Leaves fell twirling, catching in Galvea’s hair. After several heavy thumps she called up, “Success!”
He dropped down. Galvea scooped up two of the plums, tossed one to Enoch. They sat across from their mothers and ate.
“A feast,” Galvea said.
Enoch added, “Hard won.”
Galvea’s mother cleared her throat. “Galvea?” she said, hinting with her inflection. She tilted her head toward a bundle next to her, tied with string.
“Oooh!” Galvea said. She covered Enoch’s sight with her palm. “Close your eyes,” she said.
“Just do it.” She spread her fingers to verify he listened.
Enoch felt something land in his lap. He looked down at the gift and scowled. “I told you not to get anything for me,” he said.
“I didn’t,” she said.
Enoch pinched the string and pulled the bow apart. He peeled back the layers of fabric until the glorious notebook was revealed. He ran his fingers along the weave of its cover, beaming. He opened it and saw that each blank page was unique, that when full, no two drawings could be the same.
“Like it?” she asked
“Of course! It’s incredible,” Enoch said.
“She made it herself. She’s been at it for months,” Galvea’s mother said.
Galvea reached back to the tangles of her hair and pulled free a pencil she’d concealed there. She presented it to Enoch with ceremony. “It’s for both of us,” she said.
His smile stretched further with understanding. He took the pencil with a bow. Galvea gathered up the fabric the notebook had been wrapped in, and covered her head, knotting it beneath her chin. Enoch opened to the first pristine page.
“I’m very old now,” she said, “but when a young lady, I lived under the sea. I traveled the watery kingdoms in a conch shell coach, drawn by a school of seahorses.”
Enoch began to sketch as she spoke, elaborating her vision with familiarity and skill. She crouched behind and watched with her chin on his shoulder. She conjured the image, he provided its form. Together, they brought dreams to life.
The day elapsed in the usual way.
He drew Galvea in the window while his parents whispered in the living room, Papa drifting in and out of unwanted naps. The milk grey of the daytime sky loomed over them. Faint edges of a silver halo creeping over the rooftops were the only clue a sun floated free of the horizon. Enoch took it on faith that beyond their dull curtain the heavens remained unchanged, that it was only down low in the realm of their lives where things had gone wrong. He trusted in a golden sun and added depth to his drawings with its imagined light.
Movement on the lane below tore away Enoch’s focus. A man stumbled along on Galvea’s side, keeping balance by placing a hand against windows and doors. He shouted, but Enoch couldn’t make sense of the words. Galvea saw him, too. The man fell to his knees and stayed there, panting.
“Someone on the street!” Enoch called over his shoulder.
“Mm, what’s it?” Papa mumbled, startled from sleep.
The man went to his haunches and howled at the air. His clothes were soiled and torn, and hung loose. When strings of hair fell away from the man’s face, Enoch recognized who it was, despite the change.
“Bufo! It’s Peer Bufo!”
A lecturer at the district’s secondary school, in his own words a “Purveyor of Historical Lesson and Insight.” Bufo had always been a squat, round man. Students often commented in hushed tones on a certain likeness to a bullfrog, because of wide-set, slightly bulging eyes and a dour, downturned mouth. His habit of puffing out his chest while lecturing did no favors. But here was the bullfrog deflated and filthy.
Papa rushed over, Mama close behind. She gasped at the sight of him. Papa didn’t say a word, but spun and marched through the living room, tossing his blanket onto a chair.
“What are you doing?” Mama yelled, chasing after.
“Getting him off the street,” Papa said. He was already at the door, sliding an arm into his wool overcoat.
“You can’t go out there,” she said.
“I have to.” He had the other arm in, took up the scarf Mama had knit for him long winters ago. She clutched at his coat, trying to pull him from the door.
“We agreed, only when it’s absolutely necessary. You promised,” Mama said. Her voice didn’t waver, despite the tears.
Papa calmly put both of his hands over the clench of hers.
“I’m not going to leave him out there,” Papa said. He held her eye. “I’ve gone and come back before. The man needs help.”
Enoch saw her grip slacken. He glanced back out the window and found Bufo crawling a bewildered path over the stones, mouth rattling away.
“He’s moving again,” Enoch said.
Papa wrapped the precautionary scarf around his mouth and nose and opened the door. As his hurried footsteps on the stairs faded, Mama rejoined Enoch at the window.
Papa appeared below, jogging toward the deranged schoolteacher. Papa bent down, placing a hand on the man’s back. Bufo twisted all at once toward Papa and grabbed his coat. They saw Bufo’s wild eyes, chattering jaw. Papa’s head moved as though he were speaking with soothing rhythm. Bufo’s face turned up to the window, the movements of his mouth slowing. They saw him nod. Papa tugged him to his feet, supported him as they walked toward the doorway.
Bufo’s voice grew in the stairwell. Enoch couldn’t decipher the words, only heard them billow and surge against the walls. Enoch and his mother walked toward the door, but when Papa appeared in its frame with Bufo draped on his side, they stopped.
The way his eyes roamed the room reminded Enoch of summer flies. The grime that covered Bufo spoke of long neglect, and the swollen features Enoch had known seemed to have melted away in a terrible droop of hunger.
“That’s it, Bufo, almost there,” Papa said.
“All want to know: where does it come from, where does it grow?” Bufo said. He issued a sharp, two-note cackle and licked his lips. “Forming like condensation. Drip drop in the presence of animal heat…” he said.
Papa pulled out a chair. “Go on. Have a rest.”
Bufo dropped and sat splay legged on the floor.
Papa crouched beside him. “Tell me what happened. Why were you out there?”
“Pushing through the piney wild. Altogether, all together follow,” Bufo said. He relayed this happily, slapping at his thigh, looking squarely at Papa.
“Listen, Bufo, I don’t follow,” Papa said.
“Lay the chase away. The wandering words will find you. Hear ye, hear ye!” he yelled.
“Is it…is it the Withering?” Mama asked.
“Barícolé’s Withering? Ah.” Bufo cleared his throat, a signal Enoch knew preceded an oration. “Let us address your fear. Esteemed colleagues, I hereby pro-prippity-pose the Withering finds its way in through the self, the itty bitty self. At the door fear tap, tap, taps. ‘Little lamb, don’t you look lonely all alone.’ And the self searches, for the first time truly finds itself alone. It lifts the latch. The fear glides in and speaks glissando, and gives before it gouges. It tucks the itty bitty self in for a nice nighty night, then it lifts a smothering pillow. I submit empirical evidence for your review! It, uh…it…it…it…”
Bufo lifted a trembling hand, regarded it as though a foreign object. A groan escaped his motionless mouth. The tremble intensified until his whole arm shivered. Then the skin began to convulse in waves.
Mama had been right.
Papa scooted back quick as he could. Enoch felt his stomach churn. He’d hoped to never see this again.
Bufo made a pleading noise. His skin rippled as though made of water. He began to recede, fingers drawn into the hand, hand into arm, arm into trunk. His head and neck sunk into his chest, and his chest slid down his core. He withdrew into himself, dwindling before their eyes. He spoke, the same over and over, “Alone.” As his vocal chords shrank, the word climbed in pitch.
Enoch struggled to maintain control.
Bufo’s size was halved. His clothes began to pool. As he grew smaller his mouth and throat seized, the repeating words now only whines. He was finally so small that his clothes fell away. His legs curled up and he toppled over. He shrank and shrank until no bigger than a newborn. When at last still and silent, his flesh appeared to harden into a shell.
Enoch thought of the moth pupae they had once examined in school. He gagged.
That night, he slept in his bed.
Enoch and Galvea looked skyward as their families walked toward the bell tower, where a crowd gathered for the ceremony.
“I don’t see it, yet. Do you?” Galvea asked.
He examined the constellations. “Not yet.”
“We’ll know it,” she began.
Enoch finished, “When we see it.”
Galvea’s mother tugged Mama’s elbow. “What is it they’re after, now?”
“Just the right star on which to live,” Mama said with raised eyebrow.
“Ah. So hard to keep up.” The mothers laughed.
Peer Bufo stood on a platform beneath the bell tower. He lifted his arms, beckoning attention. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please,” he called.
They joined the circle around the platform. The crowd radiated excitement. In everyone’s hand was grasped a silver handbell, a festival tradition going back generations. Every child in the city received a bell of their own which they rang on every Ascension celebration for the rest of their lives. They were treasured items, reminders to everyone of the noble ideals Barícolé represented. As Bufo waited for stragglers to fall in, Enoch spied an especially bright star peeking over the roof of the hospital. He nudged Galvea and pointed. She found the star and nodded approval. That was that.
Bufo cleared his throat. He clasped his hands behind his back and puffed out his chest. He began speaking in his slow, precise, lecturing voice, head tilted so that his vision slid down his nose.
“Friends and neighbors, we gather on this day to celebrate one of the city’s most iconic citizens, a renowned figure of compassion, a man famed for his generosity and dedication to easing the pain of those around him, the legendary Raving Sainted Barícolé.” Cheers rose. “It is my honor to conduct this ceremony, the inaugural striking of a new memorial bell, to commemorate his final Ascent.” More cheers. Bufo raised for one second to the balls of his feet, a pompous grin etched into his ample cheeks. He held out an open hand, asking silence.
Enoch rolled his eyes at Galvea. She bulged hers wide and ballooned her cheeks in a fair rendition of their teacher. The snicker escaped him before it could be stifled. He felt a corrective swat on the back of his head. Then it was Galvea who fought to contain her laughter.
“If only for the benefit of the travellers among us, I remind you that on this very day one century ago, Barícolé’s life came to an end due to his tragic final madness. After seven decades of tending an endless stream of the city’s ill and infirm he broke down, raging atop the tower behind me for days, cursing and striking out at the heavens, until finally he issued a demand to the crowd below. ‘Answer me, do you even live?’ he screamed, ‘Can you tell me you are anything more than suffering and death?’ With these words, he stepped off. He landed right where I stand, dying hours later within the hospital walls. Incredibly, he took his own life in one of the very same beds next to which he’d attended countless patients, using a pen slid into his hand to sign a waiver. Travellers take note that even this final madness ultimately sprang from a well of benevolence, and this generous spirit is what we pay annual tribute to.
“Now, from the place where the man issued his infamous rant hangs a glorious tribute, generously commissioned by the city regents to mark this anniversary. Our artisans scoured the hospital for authentic materials from which to cast it. Think of it, bolts and hinges from doorways Barícolé passed through, bedframes he knelt beside, instruments likely held in his very hands, including, and to this I can personally attest, the final pen. We must thank the executors of Barícolé’s estate, who provided this gift with great enthusiasm. The bell should practically sing out with his very own voice. And now, let us ring the bells in his honor. Let us remember always our Raving Sainted Barícolé!”
Bufo signaled and the bell atop the tower gave its first ever toll. The handbells rang in return. It sounded as though the entire city were present, answering, raising a blanket of tinkling notes.
The bell called again, and again Enoch joined confidently in the reply. The chiming was dying down when he heard a single voice in the crowd.
“What’s wrong? Ring your bell!”
The bell struck, the response followed.
“Why aren’t you ringing? Something wrong?”
The bell struck, the response followed.
Enoch noticed the stars disappearing one by one behind a spreading creep of low-hanging cloud. There were complaints as someone pushed through, a man who clutched his handbell against his chest with shivering arms. He was covered in sweat, and as he swept the crowd with crazed eyes his skin began to swim.
Enoch woke to the distant call of the bellcart and shot upright. His handbell rested beside him, placed there in the night by his parents. He snatched it, only realizing he held his breath after he answered.
Two notes from across the hall.
He dressed quickly, anxious for his station at the window. On his way there, he slowed only when he saw the bundle on the dining room table. Peer Bufo, respectfully wrapped in one of Papa’s shirts. Enoch swallowed with effort and averted his eyes. Papa would finally have his chance to interrogate the bell’s attendants.
He reached his chair, stooping to collect his notebook. He plopped down and found the page he’d been shading with false light before the awful events of the previous evening. When he looked up to compare his rendering to reality, he saw it. Hanging under the crack of Galvea’s window. A long strand of torn cloth.
Enoch’s chair flew backward as he sprang up, adding to the clamor of his handbell and notebook crashing to the floor. Only two possibilities, Galvea or her mother. The window offered nothing but dense black.
Enoch only partially felt his feet carrying him toward the door or heard Mama coming down the hall, calling his name.
“What was that?” she said.
He ran. The sound of the door opening would bring them hurrying. He flung it open and bounded down the stairs. He hadn’t been on them since the quarantine began. He heard feet pounding across the dining room.
Papa yelled his name.
At the door, Enoch looked through its small square panes to the street. If he didn’t go now, Papa would have the back of his shirt. He knew this. But after so many months confined to the rooms of their home, looking down on the street as a cursed thing, he hesitated.
That was all it was, twenty feet to her door. All it ever had been. But every step carried possibility of that littling death. He’d seen as much last night. He pictured himself chattering, shuddering himself to almost nothing. His legs nearly buckled. But she could be gone, he thought.
Papa yelled, appeared at the top of the stairs.
Enoch gulped air, held it, then twisted the knob and rushed into the street.
The outside air felt alien as he sprinted. And the quiet…He was used to the quiet of their home, but to be outside in the city and hear this vast silence…
He was across the lane in seven strides, positive Papa would have him at each one. He grabbed the handle and shouldered Galvea’s door. Unlatched, it gave easily, spilling him onto the floor of the entranceway.
“Galvea!” he called, scrambling to his feet and up the stairs. No answer came. “Galvea, please!” he said.
Enoch turned the corner from the stairwell into the dark of Galvea’s home, and saw her on the floor. Sitting next to a small, lovingly wrapped parcel.
She looked up at Enoch, and even in the dim light he saw her eyes were brimming and swollen. She lifted her arms to him. He rushed over, sank to his knees and wrapped himself around her. Galvea surrendered to her grief. Enoch felt the breath of her sobs, felt the pain in her groans resonate in her chest against his stomach. It crushed him, the dampness of her tears soaking through his shirt. He wanted to enfold her, quiet her pain, soothe away the ugliness of hurt.
He said nothing, just clung to her, as though she were the only thing with weight enough to keep him from falling off the face of the earth. They stayed that way until she subsided. He relaxed his hold and she sat back, wiping at her eyes with her arm. They looked at one another, without words. The corner of Galvea’s mouth turned up, ever so slightly.
Then the bellcart called. Cling.
Enoch realized all at once he didn’t have his handbell. It was lying on the floor by the window. Across the street. The bell questioned and the not-knowing stirred. A panic flooded through, hollowed him out. His body felt as if it were dropping. Is that it? It that how it feels? His mind careened, circled, drawn to the visceral realization that there was an end to everything. There was an end to him.
Galvea struck a quick note from her bell and handed it to Enoch. He did the same, but when the crisp ring of her bell came it did nothing to quiet the question. His mind turned around uncertainties. Yes, he’d answered, but how did he know it was true? How could he really know the answer to Barícolé’s question unless it came totally from himself, from his own bell?
He made a pathetic moan and found his feet, pacing. Frantic. No control, his body was acting of its own volition, driven by fear. There was an end to everything. Everything. The cruelty seized his heart, wrenched it. To see and think and feel. To be capable of love, and have it all just slip away, turn ugly, a trap? He felt very cold. There were final things. Final sights, final sounds. And no choice in it, set down on this track to walk in one direction until you reached the one door, alone. Alone. And when it swung open, the ending. Of me. Me. Nothing left of me. He felt his face twisted up. He felt small and selfish and petty, clinging to his own self. He felt ashamed, but he dug in, because it was all he had, all he knew, ever could know.
Shivering, he heard himself saying no, no, no.
So small, clinging. So totally afraid. Afraid of being nothing. Not being. He felt his tears convulsing him, like he was becoming separate from his skin. The room looked like it was beginning to grow, and he felt an enormous final NO! swelling from the deepest part of him when…
He felt a pull, gentle.
A tether to warmth, coaxing him out of himself. He searched it out. It pierced through the panic and he held fast, letting it draw him to the surface. The point of warmth chased away the shivering cold. The world around him came floating back, making sense again to his eyes.
He saw Galvea. Galvea who ruled him, heart and mind. Galvea who linked him to the beautiful possibilities of life, to shared dreams that burned with guiding light. Galvea holding his open hand in hers and kissing his palm.
Erasing the fear.
Since the day they had watched Enoch and Galvea walk out of her doorway to meet the bellcart, holding hands, Enoch’s parents went to the window at each of the cart’s passings.
There were two new attendants in the procession, slightly smaller than the others. Enoch’s parents waved as they passed. They knew the eyes gazing up at them, just as they knew the two small attendants were smiling under the drape of fabric covering their faces.
Sometimes they walked with their arms out to the side, and in the long robes their feet were invisible. They appeared to float over the stones.
Freed from fear, Enoch and Galvea could have gone anywhere together, walked until they finally saw stars peeking through the grey veil above. But they returned, like saints to the suffering, day after day. Floating hand in hand.