BURIAL OF THE BELLS • by Sarah Hilary

On hearing of the Japanese invasion at Simanggang in 1941, and remembering the scrabble for metal in the last war, Mathie hid every tool he owned behind panels in the roof of his home. This way he calculated he’d have everything necessary for the rebuilding of his Mission, assuming God wished him to survive.

From the jungle the day’s steam rose up to meet the bright drip of birds amongst the trees. Mathie rang the church bells for a last time. It was cool in the tower where the stone was thick. He waited for the ringing to stop then he took down the three bells.

It was heavy work and hard, the skin gone from his knuckles in no time, but he completed it alone. He had only recently arrived from Edinburgh and did not yet have a congregation he could trust or one which trusted him. The natives, in any case, were busy hiding their own possessions.

Mathie meant to save his Mission if he could. He left out the altar cloth and crucifix to appease the soldiers’ need to loot the little church; if they found everything gone they would know what he had done.

The tongues of the bells he wrapped in sacking tied with grasses. Their weight was reassuring. Mathie held each one in his arms like an infant before digging three holes as deep as he could in the baked earth, chopping through the roots of trees where he had to, carrying the sun on his back like a child which by midday had grown into a man.

He took hasty bearings from the trees in order to be sure of finding the bells again once the war was over. After this he waited with the natives to be taken prisoner by the invading army.

In the camp, the missionaries were put in charge of the children, their education and good conduct. Mathie worked hard in this role, feeling at first unsuited to it. He took care not to show favouritism, fearing it would provoke discord when the prisoners needed strength in numbers, but he was fondest of a boy named Tuanko, the youngest son of a native. Tuanko was not a natural student but like Mathie he worked hard to learn broken English and his letters, drawn in the sand with a stick.

After four long years, the war ended and those who had survived were set free from the camp. Mathie returned to his Mission, finding the tools safe behind the roof panels, only just touched by rust.

Two of the bells he recovered from their hiding places but the Japanese had felled many trees during the four years and, with his bearings gone, Mathie could not find the third bell.

He did not give up the search but as the days passed he spent more time with his new congregation and less looking for the third bell. The war had made many converts and the revived Mission was kept busy welcoming worshippers, Tuanko amongst them.

Mathie let the boy play in the shabby garden around the church: “But keep up your letters. Practice!” He handed Tuanko a stick like the one he’d used in camp to scratch the alphabet into the hard sand.

Tuanko scratched with the stick but he preferred to dig. Mathie did not press him, knowing that it mattered most for the child to feel free again.

“Ow, ow!” Tuanko cried one morning, hopping into the church with his foot clutched in a dirty hand. “I rang my toes!”

Mathie bathed the bruised foot, asking what Tuanko meant by ‘rang’, intending to correct the boy’s English.

“On the earth,” Tuanko pointed outside. “I kicked and it rang!”

Mathie asked to be shown the place. Sure enough there at the spot where Tuanko had been digging was the beam of the third bell, coming up from the earth in a curve.

Mathie took the discarded stick and scratched with it in the sand.

“Thank God,” Tuanko read. His grin was as broad as the bell’s beam. “Thank God!” and he ran circles around Mathie and the bell, shouting and jumping and grinning as he went.

Sarah Hilary is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, The Fish Anthology 2008, WigleaF, LITnIMAGE, Word Riot, The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. A column about the wartime experiences of her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in the Spring 09 edition of Foto8 Magazine.

Rate this story:
 average 4 stars • 5 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Debra

    Sweet story. A bit abrupt change in time periods, but over all, a nice story.

  • That’s lovely — near as perfect as you’d want to get. I liked the line about carrying the sun on his back.

  • Thanks, Debra and Clare, for reading and letting me know what you liked.

  • It’s superb, Sarah.

  • belantana

    Lovely rich imagery and an unterstated storytelling. Five stars from me – great to see you back at EDF, Sarah!

  • John Ritchie

    A lovely story about a dreadful time.

    This is soul-strengthening reflection on the power of the human spirit to rise above the meanness of the unenlightened.

    I give it five shining stars


  • zillah975

    I really liked this — it has the quality of a fable, which is tricky to get, and has a lovely ending!

  • Thanks, everyone. John, yes it was a harrowing time. This was inspired by a true account of a missionary who hid his church bells when the Japanese invaded. The rest of the story is fictional but I was impressed by the true accounts written by missionaries interned under Japanese rule; they displayed a quality of quiet acceptance and a spirit of survival which was quite different to the accounts by military prisoners and other civilians. I’m glad you liked it. I wanted very much to do justice to the truth at the heart of the story.

  • Thank you, Zillah, for the comment about it being like a fable. I find that style hard to write but it’s the effect I was after here.

  • Very nice (what more need I say?).

  • Thanks, Jim, I’m glad you liked it.

  • Very well written story of a tragic time in history. I don’t think we realize just how many ‘heroes’ there actually were, and they weren’t just the ones in the military. Those who try to preserve the past, even knowing they themselves may not survive, have a quiet dignity about them that is truly heroic. This story depicts such an individual. Well done.

  • Thank you, Joyce. Yes that is exactly how I feel about it. I blogged about these “quiet” heroes and heroines over at Strictly Writing recently. You may be interested in reading the piece:


  • Very good, Sarah, especially for giving us the line, “chopping through the roots of trees where he had to, carrying the sun on his back like a child which by midday had grown into a man.”

  • Thanks, Walt, it seemed to me the way that Mathie would feel and describe the heat of the sun. I’m glad you liked it.

  • gay

    Okay. I’ve subbed a comment twice and it never shows up!! so the Dang. My whole comment disappeared. What I said was and I’m annoyed I have to retype this, is: I love your Bell story and maybe my mind is prompted by the word bell but your story is definitely of the caliber of John Hersey’s “Bell for Adano” one of my all time favorites. Excellent job, Sarah, so happy to read you back here at EDF. Hope this goes through this time!!

  • gay

    So was my first two comment too long, Steven? I made the one above shorter.

  • Jennifer Stakes

    Beautiful, quiet tone against such chaos.

  • Thank you, Gay, for your persistence as much as your lovely comment. I will check out Hersey’s Bell as it’s new to me.

  • Thank you, Jennifer, that was just the effect I wanted to create – the quiet narration of an unquiet period in history. I’m so pleased it came across that way.

  • Enjoyed this, Sarah! To echo someone’s comment above, I loved the line about carrying the sun on his back, how its weight turned from boy to man as the day went on. Just a perfect line and image.

  • Many thanks, Madeline, I really appreciate how many people are reading and commenting on this story.

  • I like it a lot, Sarah!

  • J.C. Towler

    Difficult to comment on the story itself when it is based on actual events. The telling of the story was well done.


  • Thanks, Kev.

    JC, it was only the act of burying the bells which was based on an actual event. The teaching of the child in the camp and the discovery of the bell by the child were the heart of the story, I felt, and these were entirely fictional. Thanks for reading, I do appreciate it.

  • Sarah

    Loved this beautiful story – thanks for the read.

  • Richard Todd

    Hi Sarah, I liked your true story. My mom hasn’t seen it quite yet, it’s good to know of your success. From one author to another, great work.

  • Thanks, Sarah!

  • Richard, thank you! Wonderful to see a comment from you here. How’s your writing coming along? Are you working on a new novel?

  • Mark Dalligan

    Hi Sarah,

    a beautiful story, not too sweet – not too bitter.



  • Thanks, Mark, I’m glad you said that. I struggled with the ending, wanted to strike that middle note you describe. I’m chuffed you think I succeeded.

  • Richard Todd

    It’s going quite well, my second book is with my publisher which is in production and I’m still writing articles for three web sites. I’m more than half way through the third book. First draft.

  • Excellent, Richard, kudos!

  • Karen

    I love this story. The simplicity and the practicality of the people, and the reality of living in/through such a situation. This was an esepcially wonderful line:

    “…carrying the sun on his back like a child which by midday had grown into a man.”

    Bravo, Sarah!

  • Pilgrimage

    This was heartwarming. I can see it as the seed of a much longer story, but I like it as it is. I especially liked the descriptive of carrying the sun on his back, and ‘ringing’ the boy’s toes. Nicely done.

  • A very sensitive story Sarah. It also made me smile with the ‘ringing of the toes’ line.
    Well done

  • Elin B.

    I’m not loving this story, but I’m glad it got a lot of compliments. The sense of place was quite nice. As for me, I’m not sure why the bells are so all-fired important — the most important part of his ministry, he seems to feel. Why? We don’t get much on that. And why did he feel ill-suited to teaching at first?

    Tuanko’s role was predictable and not really necessary, I thought. Also, this line is a bit confused but if developed it could tell us more about Mathie: “Tuanko was not a natural student but like Mathie he worked hard to learn broken English.”

    How has Mathie changed after years in camp? How has it affected his sense of mission? These are some of the things I wanted more of.

  • Nice story, Sarah!

  • Nice work. I enjoyed the honesty and simplicity of the telling, as well as the language and the tone.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Although this is a well-written, workmanlike (workpersonlike) piece, the story felt somewhat condensed.

    Like Elin, I felt Tuanko’s part was predictable.

    Also, living in the Middle East, I often switch off once a story involves a ‘conversion’ to put its point across. It kind of cocks a snoot at those not belonging to the converted to faith.

  • Thanks, everyone. Paul and Elin, I see the real conversion in the story to be Mathie’s. At the outset he is too focused on the bells, Elin, you’re quite right. I believe they are his “voice”, the way he hopes to call to the congregation he hasn’t yet got. He is putting probably too much faith in their power. Perhaps he’s not enough of a “people person” to connect to the real “mission” he is on? Later, when he connects with Tuanko, the lost bell is less important. By freeing Tuanko from his lessons (from his conversion, if you like, Paul) and allowing the boy simply to play – this is how the missing bell is found. It is Mathie who has changed, not Tuanko. I agree, Paul, that had the story insisted on Tuanko’s conversion for its core that it would be mildly offensive. But it is in effect Tuanko’s lack of conversion that brings about the finding of the final bell.

  • Margie

    A lovely idea for a story, and I especially liked the main character. However, in my opinion, the introduction of the boy ruined it for me and seemed to go off on an altogether different story. I would have liked it better if the focus had stayed on the MC with a bit of a back story explaining why the bells were so important to him. . .over the crucifix which was a major symbol of his religion. The abrupt time change was choppy and I did not feel that this was a very good examle of ‘Flash’ but, would love to see it in a longer story, with the ‘fluffing’ I suggested. Keep writing. . .you have talent.

  • Margie

    That should say e-x-a-m-p-l-e 🙁

  • Thanks, Margie, for reading and letting me know what you thought.

  • Claudia

    Beautiful story, Sarah! I agree with what another commenter said above – it does have the quality of a fable. I thought it was quite different from your usual style, but I liked it. And, as always, your descriptions are wonderful. I love this line: ‘From the jungle the day’s steam rose up to meet the bright drip of birds amongst the trees.’

  • Thanks, Claudia, yes it was definitely a departure from the style I’m fondest of, but I’m glad you liked it.

  • Jon Gibbs

    Nice one 🙂

  • Thanks, Jon!

  • Celeste Goschen

    Hey Sarah, really a lovely story. Well-constructed and delicately written, as ever! I really enjoyed it.

  • Thanks, Celeste! I’m really pleased you enjoyed it so much.

  • Pingback: Confidence and the Writer » Flash Fiction Chronicles()

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    A native working hard to learn, like Mathie, broken English? A grinning native, no less. Hmmm.

    Two stars.