Frank had never known shape articulated as well as a bell.
The phenomena of a bell’s cold ting gently massaging itself into a wider kinetic girth seemed, to Frank, to undergird the cellular construction of the world.
When his mother, for instance, slammed her car door shut, the vibrations shook the hairs on his foremost knuckles as if perception were spiders alerted to the presence of his finger shaking their web. From this sensation, he thought of his first sound experiment: the time he punched the right incisor out of his brother’s mouth after a bout of playful flailing in the front yard. Frank apologized to his brother profusely and picked up his mother’s rusty pitched bell from her music chest and, out of guilt, rang it next to the bloody indentation of his brother’s missing tooth, hoping that the vibrations would bring to the surface the pink adhesive scaffolding of his brother’s gums so Frank could reinsert his tooth.
“Bells is not building,” Frank’s mother told him and taped all of her bells shut. Despite his mother’s assertion, Frank thought to himself, years later, his botched attempt to mend his brother did result in his brother’s interest in sound production, because in pain his brother discerned the shape of the pulsing sound waves from the way the bell’s decay vibrated the raw nerves under his teeth. “If I were to reverse the polarity,” his brother told Frank months after their initial scuffle, “of the convex indentations my knuckles are leaving on your jaw, it would look like your face is as tumescent as your soul.”
Not one to tolerate convictions as serious as tumescent souls, Frank hit his brother back. His brother ducked, and Frank’s hand broke on impact and broke a hole through the particle board wall. This was the first of the breaking of Frank’s hand and, feeling idled and agitated by his pain, while one handedly eating a bowl of cereal, Frank rang his mother’s bell softly, squishing balls of cotton thinly over the interior of the bell to dampen its attack so that no sharp ping woke his mother.
Frank obsessed with bells. He picked up a paper route to save money to buy more bells. He began a bell collection that blossomed into a rotund army of bells. He bought bells with blue bows, bells with lavender bows, bells with yellow bows, green bows, chartreuse bows, bells of all notes and octaves, of all thicknesses and sizes, with various engravings, from the wombat (his high school’s mascot) to one special bell with an English military insignia and words above it, in Latin, believe in the weight of the world. Frank wasn’t sure of this translation.
Frank was sure of the weight of his bells though: 286 pounds, not including the various boxes and chests he kept them in. Fortuitous Frank thought it when his bell collection reached that weight, exactly twice Frank’s weight, exactly 1.5 times the weight the dense matter of Frank’s spirit would weigh if it filled his body to the brim. Frank did not think his spirit filled his body to the brim, that he was mostly full, but empty from the ankles down.
Admiring his ankles’ subtle soulless beauty, Frank decided that even things without souls could be complicated: look at the wrinkles on his big toe, look closer at the small sheet of skin hanging off of his right foot’s pinky toe. Frank looked closely at that small flap of skin and saw a pattern that looked like a bell, and so decided his bell collection should be in tune with the markings on the flap of skin on his large toe, and so in tune outside with the world. They would bring the house more joy that way than by sitting in his chest.
Perhaps he would even impress his mother, though she did not think bells built anything.
He tied the bow’s to the pots of each of his mother’s plants, over the front door of the house, inside the door of the refrigerator, onto the inside of the garage door, on the small latch on the top of the outside of his bedroom window. His tiniest bell went to the collar of his mom’s cat Rodrigo. His largest bell he tied to the front grill of his father’s lawn mower.
His favorite bell, a large C bell with a long gossamer decay, he hung in the middle of his room like a boxer’s punching bag in a gym. Frank imagined walking into it on an early morning before school, how the sound would feel if he held his arm just underneath the bell’s mouth. How useful these vibrations would be when he was feeling particularly rushed in the morning, when all the pieces of his house felt conspiring and itchy, like an empty candy bar wrapper which mocked him both in its emptiness, no longer containing any chocolate, and in the tinny crinkly sounds it made when touched, pathologizing his secret confidences in chocolate.
Frank worried that if he felt like an empty chocolate wrapper, and an empty chocolate wrapper wasn’t a chocolate wrapper because there was no chocolate in it to wrap, that an empty chocolate wrapper, a Frank, could slip into a being, into a something, no longer recognized as wrapper or non-wrapper.
Frank or Non-Frank.
When the bell hanging in the middle of his room rang after he ran into it, Frank stopped wondering like the vibrations filled out the wrinkled nooks and crannies of the empty candy bar wrappers, saturated it with life like water, filled it with chocolate once again. A candy wrapper having chocolate made it wrapper again, made it all resonate in the key of the effable, and the better Frank could eff his uncomfortable feelings, the better he could then carry them in a place like his pocket.
* * *
The bell outside his window rang hours after Frank had fallen asleep.
It was a bitter Saturday evening somewhere along the path to becoming a smug Sunday morning, and Frank was not happy to be up, to not be thinking about God, thank you very much, but still, he really wondered why his bell rang. He put on his favorite pair of plaid slippers and left to investigate.
Outside, there was an almost-daylight level of moonlight on the ground, enough to make individual blades of grass visible if inspected within three feet. An ideal night for searching and seeing, from a medium distance, creeping anything creeping.
Frank saw nothing by his window nor under it. His stomach muscles eased; he rang the bell he attached to the latch and heard a rustling in the bush by his house and saw a yellow Frisbee leaning out of the bottom of a bush by the trees outside of his house. For luck, he grabbed his bell off the hook in front of his window and walked tentatively to the Frisbee. It was made by NFAUS, the Northwestern Frisbee Association of the United States, decorated in the center with a bearded man wearing a tie-dye t-shirt with a peace sign on it.
This confirmed, for Frank, all the images of the citizens of the Northwest United States he saw in advertisements and television shows; why, wondered Frank, anticipating his brother’s protestations, would Frisbees lie?
Frank walked to the bushes toward the trees to peer in and spot the owner of this Frisbee and inform her about the missing Frisbee, hoping also to discuss with her the appearance of Northwesterners, hoping further that she corroborated his assumptions about the appearance of Northwesterners.
The Frisbeer wasn’t there.
Frank, who was afraid of the woods in the daytime, admired his own courage in checking them. Tonight, he thought, he was comfortable in the wood’s presence. The deeper he got in, however, the more his stomach tensed, the more his heart beat, not from fear, but because of the plethora of textures he heard in the forest: the scraping of leaves against tree bark, the creak of the shifting limbs, the rubber soles of his shoes wiping softly against the wet tips of the grass, the rivets of his unwashed jeans rubbing up against each other.
Five feet into the clearing, Frank recognized its clearness because the trees stopped creaking.
There was a thump.
Like a gavel hitting a wet patch of dirt.
Frank felt the thump on the bottom left corner of his heels. Though he felt it, Frank feared he imagined it. He remembered what the students in his English class said when he commented on the sound of the voices in the audio adaptation of Romeo and Juliet: sound doesn’t matter they said.
His teacher agreed, and when Frank wrote about it for his term paper, he got a D+. A D, his teacher scribbled sloppily in a rhombus shaped note at the bottom of his paper, because, while your discussion of the sound of the words in Romeo and Juliet is interesting, the character’s language, what they are actually saying, is what, as scholars, we really care about. + for your enthusiasm and impressive vocabulary.
Frank does enjoy the sharpness, the unencumbered utility of a good sharp plus sign, but even now occasionally slips into thinking of his ears as D+ ears, and now, having felt a vibration after the thump, wonders if the thump wasn’t just a mistake of his D+ feet.
There was a period, shortly after that test, that Frank started carrying a bell in his backpack. One day after school, a mugger attacked Frank only a few blocks away from his high school. He rabbit eared his pockets and shook his head back and forth, too jittery to say he had no money, but the mugger still held his knife out at Frank, his hands shaking out little jagged lunges.
“C’mon, you gotta have an iPod or laptop going to that private school and all,” the mugger said gesturing to the Wombat on Frank’s uniform shirt.
“I got into Summerton on a merit-based scholarship,” Frank said.
The man grabbed Frank by the back of the neck and Frank froze, goosebumps growing on his arm from the feel of the knife sliding up the pores of his uniform shirt. There was a slight wheeze in the back of the man’s sour breaths, Frank noticed, and what Frank wondered was how the man got his wheeze and what it meant when a man was not just a thief, but a wheezing thief that robs people younger than him. He felt guilty for not being scared in this moment: he is fifteen and this is an older man with a knife to his neck. Frank should have been scared. This man had the power. Frank wondered what it would be like to be in his shoes, if he could someday be a thief stealing from a kid who has nothing of value and isn’t even scared of him, then Frank remembered.
“Wait.” Frank said.
“I know what you can steal from me.”
“What?” the man said, momentarily disarmed, allowing Frank to slip from his grip and push the knife away. Frank raced to the ground and dug through the medium sized pouch in the front of his backpack for the bell he took to school. It was the one with Latin on it. Frank held it in the tips of his fingers then swallowed it in his palms, and turned and held it out to the thief, still kneeling, allowing the bell to sit flatly on his palm, imitating his memory of the three kings that knelt and held gifts on their flat palms to give to baby Jesus in his mother’s nativity scene.
“The words in Latin mean believe in the weight of the world,” Frank told the man.
“Are you sure this isn’t French kid” the man asked, scoffing. He took the bell anyway. It was probably made of silver.
A crackling dragged Frank out of his memory, too airy and soft to be a crackling of trees. Frank looked out again to the saturated light, searched the bark of the trees surrounding the clearing to find it.
WHO WHOOO WHO WHO WHOOO WHOO WHOO. WHO, WHOO WHOO WHO WHO WHOOO WHOOO WHO. WHOOOWH WHOOHW WHOOOWH WHOO WHOOO WHOO WHOOOWH WHOOOWWHOOOWHOOOWHOWHO WHOOO WHOOO WHOO WHOO WHOOO WHOOO WHOO WHO WHOO WHOO WHOO WHOO WHOO WHOO WHOOO WHOO WHO WHOOO WHOO WHO WHO WHOWHOWHOWHOOOWH. WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Frank wondered. Wondered where the owl was coming from. Wondered why the owl’s last hoot was so long, why it trailed off, and where it trailed off to. He bowed his head low to the ground and listened for another hoot. Again. It was nauseating, sounded like the owl was gurgling. He wondered if he was reading too deep in. He dug his D+ ankles deep into the dirt to ground himself, and thought what finds owls and thought trees trees trees.
But how to be tree? To be tree is not to be wordy, Frank told himself. To be treey is Non-something, Frank told himself. Maybe to be tree is to be simply Non, but the clumped fabric of the voice was too present in the forest, in Frank’s head. There are times when you cannot be Non, Frank thought to himself.
He knelt down and searched the ground slowly for an owl-like contrast, a small patch of white feathers glinting amidst a pattern of brown feathers, a sharp speck of moonlight in the pin-prick point of a talon. Though Frank could hear the direction of the owl, the silence was loud in his moment of intense want. He heard the owl again and it sounded weak, its hoot a brittle balcony collapsing, overcrowded with spectators, but the sharpness of this balcony breaking helped Frank make out the direction of the owl. North-Northwest. Frank didn’t want to risk stepping on it or kicking it, so he took off his shoes. Frank walked slowly, hardly and laboriously dragging his feet across the skins of the large blades of wet grass which gave him uncomfortably large goosebumps. A splinter of wood hiding in the grass dug into his skin between his big and middle toe. The hoot was fading but he was getting closer. He walked even more carefully now, able to discern his path better from the pain of the vibrations of the hoot resonating in the splinter, but also pained to move any way but lightly. Frank wondered if this is what it’s like to have animal senses when injured.
He saw a small canyon in the tips of the blades of grass in the clearing, and he watched for a moment before he moved toward it, fearing accidental killing, fearing his own clumsy feet protruding into the opening splinter first, slipping too quickly through the air between him and the injured owl, turning its already broken neck broker, separating stem from spine, his clumsy heavy feet that have killed before turning clumsy guilty heavy feet that have killed again. Feet that have once stepped on his mother’s bare toes and killed her toe nail, made her collagen producing glands work extra hard, her toes older now, from his clumsiness, than her face. Feet that have killed entire units of life: grasshoppers and beetles, slugs and cockroaches. Feet that once stepped into the squeaking night and a moistening carpet, onto his brother’s pet gerbil.
Frank hears the dampened tink of the beater inside his A7 bell beating its own waist to the slow rhythm of Frank’s step. Frank takes the bell out of his pocket and holds it just under his nose. He smells the copper and hears his breath scraping against the polished silver side of the bell. Frank licks the lip of the bell for good luck and rings it. The owl hoots again, hoots like it has the last little bit of a sand sandwich stuck in its throat, but it’s loud enough to find, Frank thinks, if he keeps on ringing.
He rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks and rings and looks again, and he finds a small clearing, not a foot around, and he sees a darker patch in the brown underbrush.
Frank can’t make out the owl’s eyes, and that’s where his mom says the life is. He needs to know how alive this owl is. Frank bends low, very low, his nose beginning to smell metal as he notices his silver bell, its purple ribbon wrapped around the owl’s left wing. This is what brought him down. This is what brought him down, Frank thinks, as he hurries to unwrap the wing, the owl screaming a muted scream, ants pillaging the owl’s soon-silent body, biting Frank as he works to rip the knot off the wing without breaking the wing. The owl is heaving now. His breath looks painful. Frank puts his face so close to the owl’s body that he can see ants climbing out of his beak. Frank scrapes up the ants off the owl’s tongue, getting bitten on his fingers, feeling countless ant legs like vibrating hairs as they scurry across the roof of the owl’s mouth. Frank is forcing the owl’s beak open to scrape the ants off the owl’s tongue. The owl, doing his best to scream with such a full mouth, sounds hauntingly funny—almost huluting rather than hooting, his screams pinched closed with a tight frictive by the reflexive closing of his beak around Frank’s hands, the tip of the beak carving bloody little divots into Frank’s flesh. Frank takes his hand out of the owl’s mouth and panics like he’s never panicked before, hears a high pitched feedback swallowing the sound of the owl’s loud fear and the muted thud of Frank’s big dumb arms slamming into the ground to kill the ants. With rasping breaths, the owl takes flight, and Frank loses the night’s light from the outside his vision, darkness digging in. The owl turns a deeper shade like a black snake with wings, flying and falling to the center of Frank’s vision. The bell, still knotted to the owl’s wings, rings on impact. Frank remembers when he was robbed, when he had only one thing to steal. Now, Frank, robber of the owl’s flight and life, bows deeper, puts his lips to the owl’s beak, feeling what that man must have felt, his wheezing thief, the inevitability of theft. Frank has been him and will be Non-him. Frank reverse steals breath into the owl’s beak. He feels the ants crawling into his mouth and biting the pink insides of his cheeks, he gags and can’t help but wheeze between breaths. In panic, the owl slashes Frank’s face, and the blood falls like a warm recognition. He hears in his head his mother’s chorus “bells is not building” but he’s losing the sound of the b’s to the ringing in his ears. The useless letters taking over the sentence, making the phrase meaningless and sharp, language, Non-language, the sounds useless and harsh, cutting without meaning. Frank keeps breathing.
Ryan Bollenbach is a writer with an MFA from University of Alabama’s creative writing program where he formerly served as the poetry editor for Black Warrior Review. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Timber, Colorado Review, smoking glue gun, NightBlock and elsewhere. Find his tweets @SilentAsIAm, more writing @ whatgreatlarks.tumblr.com.