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.

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