It’s time to ring the church bells. I’m waiting for my turn and I’m starting to get nervous. I’ve been coming up with excuses not to climb up the tower. It’s gloomy, and I’m afraid of the dark, because it’s in the dark that I see things I don’t want to see. I’ve watched Tony and Abel trade insults over the last few weeks, needling each other about which one of them makes the bells sound best. Where I live even the church bells sing to the sound of the drums. I laugh every time I hear them. It’s a sound that I’m sure only happens in Cuba.
Tony, Abel, and I have been altar boys for a few months now. They took over for two older boys who had to go away to do not so voluntary work: pick coffee with the rest of their classmates for six weeks in Matanzas. It’s how our young Revolution intends to make ends meet. Eventually we’ll have to go too. I wouldn’t mind so much but that’s not what I would have told my father. Either way, it doesn’t feel like the Revolution that The Beatles are singing about.
I joined the two of them after they told me that altar boys could drink wine during the service. At thirteen none of us had ever tried alcohol but we’d talked about it. Tony claimed his father drank every day. I don’t say anything about mine.
The church is an old Spanish brick and mortar building with thick walls and wide arched doorways on all sides, except behind the main altar where a large wooden sculpture of Christ on the cross hangs from the tall ornate ceiling above. It’s an image that often makes me think about pain and deceit and I wonder how that’s supposed to give me hope, especially when I think about my father.
The heavy timber doors remain open during mass to allow the daylong heat trapped inside to escape. But even in early evening it still means relentless blasts of hot air running through unless it rains. Rain cools and makes it much more tolerable. Every now and then bats fly and shriek through the church at dusk, even during mass, somehow finding their way through. To me, it’s no coincidence that bats are blind. It’s their faith that helps them dodge the people, the cross and the walls. That’s what I figure. Maybe going through life blind is not as bad as it feels to me, because it’s at night, in the dark, when I try to sleep, that I imagine what it’d be like to be blind. It’s then that the memories of my father come back.
At first Father Prieto, the pastor, might as well have been at the altar alone since none of us knew what we were doing. I remember the first time we served together. During the sermon, we sat behind the main altar and watched as Father Prieto waved his arms incessantly which tended to pull his frock up and spread wide, making him look like a kite about to take flight. His deep, bassoon-like voice echoed inside the old church. He led the mass and guided us altar boys. He pointed to the chalice, then the offerings and then nodded in our direction when it was time to chime the bells during the Eucharist. We could see his patience waiver as he waited for us to understand his subtle clues.
But we know what we’re doing now. We’ve learned the routine.
The mass is long though and it causes consternation among the faithful. The pews creak as they shift in their seats, hungry for not just the body of Christ. The bakery across the street bakes fresh bread every Sunday evening, right around the time the mass is supposed to end, if it ends on time that is. The line starts to form a good hour or two before the end of the Liturgy.
I know this because, visited the bakery years back, on a Sunday, when my father was around. We stood and watched as people left of the church and raced to get a spot in line. My father kept a straight face, nervously leaning outside the line now and then to look towards the front. “It’s only bread, how long can it take to pay for a loaf?” he said and shifted side to side as if ready to bolt at any moment. It seemed to me that the church was just a building to him. He barely looked that way. Long after the mass was over, as if it had been on his mind, he said, “Praying isn’t going to help. This whole place is going to shit.”
My mom was the patient one, especially with me, maybe with my father too. I was restless in line (there was always a line), as I often was. That day my father wrapped his hand around my shoulders so hard it felt as though he was trying to squeeze something out of me. When I cried out, my mother pulled me away from him, “Stop,” he said in stern voice. “You’re hurting him. He’s a child.”
He apologized to her. He squatted to look at me eye to eye and held me by the shoulders, gentler this time. He had a look I’d never noticed before, his eyes narrowing into thin lines as if trying to keep out the light. “I’m sorry son. Sometimes I just…” he said. He couldn’t finish the sentence. He stood and retreated to the line with a deep sigh, not the type that signals relief, but one that signaled defeat. It wasn’t the first time that happened. I didn’t quite understand his exasperation. It was as though he’d lost the ability to understand himself, what was happening to him, to us. For me, standing in line was fun. There were other kids in line, and I played with them while we waited. My mother’s soothing touch caressed the same shoulder he’d held, making me forget the pain. She seemed to know more about my father’s frustration than he did, reassuring him with her calm demeanor. Her face, framed by her short dark curls, seemed to always be on the verge of a smile. I remember my father smiling, one of the few times he did, when we finally got our warm loaf. He cut the end of the loaf and hand it to me. “It’s the best part,” he said. We climbed in the car; the loaf half gone by then. My father drove, silent, all the way home.
Give us this day …
About halfway through the mass, the churchgoers turn their heads to look out the open doors at the bakery to gage the line of people outside. I can tell they’re always nervous that they will have to wait too long or worse yet miss out on the bread altogether. It isn’t unusual for a person to leave the mass early to hold a place in line. They try to be as quiet as possible when they stand and snake their way to the end of the pew, but the aging wood floor strains under them to the point where Father Prieto often stops mass until the person leaves. After communion, of those who remain almost no one returns to their seat but instead head for the doors and hurry across the street. By the time mass ends, Father Prieto turns to leave only to see an empty church, everyone already gone to the bakery. Faith is good, but these days warm bread is better.
My mother gained religion only after my father died. Before that, we rarely went to mass, not even during the holidays. I did my first communion mostly because, like baptism, it’s what you did. But first, I had to go to confession. My worst sin being that I enjoyed masturbation. The dark shadow behind the screen whispered my penance: six Hail Mary’s and was given the advice and admonishment to never touch myself that way again. When I thought about it, I wondered why I’d need to pray to Mary for my penance? She was a virgin. What would she know? The whole thing made little sense to me. I just did them anyway.
The Hail Mary part was easy, but it wasn’t enough to stop my sinning, which went on without delay, especially every time I got an eyeful of Alicia Gonzalez Guerra. She was a couple of years older than I was, already in high school. The middle school I attended was next door to the high school – I always waited outside school just to see her walk past. She wore her pleated skirts well above her knee When she arrived early, she normally sat on the steps outside the school to wait for her friends. When she crossed her legs, her skirt would slide up, revealing a little more of her meaty thighs. I would feel my heart beating in my loins. I was so taken by her that I even missed the bell sometimes.
I could tell that the whispering voice behind the screen that reprimanded me was Father Prieto’s. I wondered if he knew that it was me that confessed to such a heinous crime. My guess was that it wasn’t him, since there had to have been some sort of rule that didn’t allow certain type of sinners, my type, from participating in the Sunday rituals. Yet, there I would be serving mass and he didn’t so much as look at me once. He spoke and prayed with his eyes cast down over his giant red book. Occasionally, he’d put his hand out for me to hand him his water or wine, or to close the book after he was done with his reading. I did as I was told and assumed that all was forgiven.
For my mother, going to mass was more of an act of defiance. My father hadn’t been a believer in the Revolution. He died in an accident. The car hurled off the road to a rock outcropping on a beach below. He was the only one in the car. They told us he’d been drinking. Maybe he drank like Tony’s father, but I wouldn’t know. I never saw him drink. Maybe he did it when I wasn’t looking. I never asked my mother about it because in a way, I didn’t want to know. Or maybe, I just didn’t want to remember.
The Revolutionary government was closing the churches, but she remembered this one in Wajay, across from the bakery. “They don’t want us going to church,” she told me. “Your father wouldn’t want us there either but praying is all we got left.”
Those who trespass against us…
Wajay is a little town with one narrow cobblestone street intersected by two paved ones and getting there is difficult any day, but worse on Sundays when the miserable bus is never on time. Well, the real reason the bus is late, is the driver, Adalberto. He makes it a habit to stop along his route in front of Alina’s house in Alta Habana to have coffee. Everyone on the bus understands he is there for more than that. I am on the bus one time when he pulls up to her house and tells us that he’ll be right back. Everyone grunts his or her discontent. Still, we have little choice but to wait. He opens the bus doors and runs out to her house. After a single rap on her door, he pushes it open and steps inside. Not a minute later, he comes running out of there holding on to his pants at the waist and jumping over the half wall that encircles Alina’s front porch, sprinting back onto the bus. Everyone laughs out loud, clapping and yelling, “Apurate muchacho que te matan!!!” He slams the door shut, drops into his springy seat, and presses his foot down on the gas. He turns the giant horizontal steering wheel faster than I’d ever seen him do. He merges the bus onto traffic as the sound of car horns scream by.
He pulls away just as Alina’s husband, shirtless and barefoot, runs after us waving a knife in his hand. Everyone watches the husband from the rear window. “You better consider switching routes Adalberto,” says a deep voice from the back of the bus. It’s Sebastian, “El Negro,” an appropriate name for a man that was dark as night. I think he lives on the bus. I’ve never been on it once that I haven’t seen him sitting in the back. His long legs stretch out in front of him into the aisle. His gray, thinning hair is cut close to his scalp and he’s always biting down on an endless cigar. I can never tell whether it’s lit or not.
An older lady that I’ve never seen before, proper looking (I assume she’s proper because she wears stockings and really who wears stockings in the stifling Havana heat, unless they mean to make a point) with her hair up in a bun, sits and stares out the window without cracking a smile. She holds her purse tight on her lap and shakes her head in disgust, “How in the world did we get here?” she says out loud. “It was never like this before.”
My mother told me the same thing once. She told me the buses used to be on time and that people had genuine respect for others. Things were civil. We were all Cuban after all. Not any more she’d said. I had no choice but to believe her. My mother also told me, “Cuban men cheat, but as long as they’re discreet about it and come home to their families, it doesn’t amount to much.” The discreet part I had trouble with. Some of my friends, for example Tony, told me about how he and his family went out to Rancho Luna for dinner once and ran into Abel’s father with a tall, elegant woman that wasn’t Abel’s mother. Tony told me that he could see under the table where Abel’s father slipped his hand under her skirt. That doesn’t sound very discreet to me.
I’m about to climb the bell tower when Abel and Tony tell me that I can’t go up with them. One of us needs to stay down below to assist Father Prieto. I feel relieved. I stand under the wooden stairs in my frock. Looking up and I watch the two of them climb the creaking wooden stairs that spiral their way up along the tower walls. I can hear the two of them laughing and talking. Their voices echo up and down the tower.
I look around and I don’t see Father Prieto anywhere. It’s still light out. I figure sooner or later I’m going to have to do it. I can’t go through life scared. My heart wraps hard inside me making my entire body pulsate. I yell up to Tony and Abel, “I’m coming up.”
“No, stay down there, you’re going to get us in trouble,” they say.
“He’s not around. It’s okay. I’m coming up.”
I can’t hear them anymore, but I can hear the low clang of the bells as they position themselves to start their musical ritual, discordant, random sounds, like musicians tuning their instruments before a performance. I start my way up the steps, wooden planks soft and springy underfoot even under my light, skinny body. I don’t look down. I’ve never been up this high. I’m afraid if I look down, I’ll realize that I’m afraid of heights too. I can see bats at arms length, clinging upside down to the crumbling brick walls. I look at a couple of them to see if their eyes are open. I wonder if they need to close their eyes to sleep, like I do, they’re blind after all. How can they go a lifetime without seeing? I consider for a second about what happens when I close my eyes to sleep, and I stare at the dark. I see things that I’m afraid to think about in the light, and I keep dreaming of my father. It’s when I’m awake that I can’t think about him. Maybe my own version of blindness happens when my eyes are open.
About halfway up the tower I hear a loud bong and I cover my ears. The sound of the bells is deafening and practically knocks me down the steps. I reach for the timber handrail to steady myself and pull it up off the post. The post and rail are rotted. I move to the middle of the steps and continue my climb. The sound grows louder as I approach the top. Finally, I reach it. There are four bells in the square tower. A single bell hangs from an arched opening on each side. Abel and Tony lean back-to-back against each other. They each hold two ropes tied to the bell’s tongue and are banging out the beat with nothing less than joyous ferocity.
They turn to see me and shake their heads but continue with their tune. I can see past the arches. The bells silhouetted against the darkening orange sky beyond. It’s the time of year when the sun sets much earlier. I fear that the bats, which fly around at dusk, will invade the tower on the way down but I’m too taken by the clanging of the bells. I cover my ears, but it does little to mute the sounds of these massive metal cones. I wonder how old they might be and imagine medieval blacksmiths banging the metal into the shape of a bell.
The ringing stops. Abel and Tony let go of the ropes and turn to look at me. I can see their mouths moving but I can’t hear a thing. They look angry as they shake their heads. I give them the finger. We all laugh, I assume outloud, but I can’t really say. The ringing in my ear continues. I can see the bats stirring and making the walls look like dark water simmering just before boiling. I must run down the steps to avoid them. They’re good about not running into things, but sometimes they do. I suppose faith can only take them so far. I tremble at the thought of getting smacked by one of them on the way down.
The three of us stand on the top and look down. I feel faint and I hang on to the rail. Perhaps I am indeed afraid of heights. I decide to look straight ahead instead of down and measure my steps until I slowly gauge the distance from step to step. Tony goes first. He always goes first. He’s always been the most decisive of us three. He doesn’t seem to fear much. Abel opens his eyes wide and motions me to begin my descent next. He follows behind me. He keeps a hand on my shoulder as we walk down. I can feel his hurried breath on the back of my neck.
A bat shrieks and like a gust of wind that appears without warning, we’re engulfed in a nest of black shadows flying back and forth, up and down the bell tower. I duck into a crouch and Tony starts to run down the steps, two at a time. The flapping of the bat wings stirs up a musty, humid smell and I sneeze over and over again. I hear Abel’s voice yelling at me to get moving over the lingering hum of the bell in my ears. I sit down and pull my frock over my head, wrap my arms around my knees and bury my head down. Abel runs past me, following Tony down the steps at a frantic pace. Something bumps against my back and arm more than once as if trying to wake me.
Underneath my cover, I close my eyes, and I see my father. He is sprawled out on the couch. His dinner is half finished. His breath smells of rum. I can hear my mom weeping softly in the next room. My father never said much to me. He seemed somber all the time, as if he’d given up on something. I walk to the next room and my mom looks up to me “He wasn’t always like this,” she says. “He used to be happy, until this Revolution came. It changed him. It changed us. It changed everything.”
“It hasn’t changed me,” I say.
She nods. “Not yet,” she says.
He’s in his car. I’m standing in the front porch, and he waves at me with a half smile. He drives away and I chase after him. I wake to silence. The shrieks and the flapping of the bat wings gone. Evening is settling in; the tower has grown darker but I’m no longer afraid. I pull my head up and look around. I can smell the bread from across the street.
Deliver us from evil….
I hear Father Prieto’s booming voice echoing through the church. In the darkness inside the tower, I think of Alicia Gonzalez Guerra. Her last name means “war”. It makes me wish I could tell my father about her. When his car turned the corner that day, it was the last I saw of him. Then, after he died, I wasn’t allowed to see him in the casket. I was told that the crash had been too gruesome. Maybe he’s still driving, looking, searching, escaping. And I wonder why he didn’t take me with him.
The smell of freshly baked bread fills the air. I can hear the chimes during the Eucharist. I look down and now in the dark I can’t see the bottom so I descend into the shadows without fear, no longer dizzy or faint, but without any sense of how far I might fall if I were to trip.
I reach the bottom and exit the tower by the church entrance just as the mass is ending. Father Prieto walks down the aisle of an empty church. Tony walks ahead of him holding the bible out with his outstretched arms. Abel leads the way holding a long brass staff with a small cross on top. They look at me and open their eyes wide. Father Prieto approaches and says, “Son, what were you doing in the bell tower by yourself all this time?”
I said, “Thinking I guess.”
“What about them?”
“About how they can fly and live without seeing.”
“They have a gift,” Father Prieto says.
“Radar,” he says.
Abel and Tony laugh until Father Prieto gives them a stern look before he continues. “I suppose it’s a form of faith.”
I shrugged. “How so?”
“Well, their radar works when they emit a sound and they then gage the distance between them, and any obstacles based on how long it takes for the sound to rebound.”
“Is that how faith works?”
“In a way. When we pray, we never really know if God hears us. But he always answers. It’s just a matter of whether we’re able or willing to hear it”
I take a deep breath. I can see across the street and the bread line has started to move.
“But if there is no one there to hear you, or an obstacle stops the sound from rebounding, it never returns,” I said.
“God always answers,” he says.
“I call for my father everyday Father, in my sleep, and he hasn’t answered.”
“Maybe you just can’t…”
“I can Father, I can hear fine,” I interrupt. The din of the bells seemed more distant now. “He’s not answering. He’s not coming back.”
I pull off my frock and run out of church to cross the street. The line runs from the bakery all the way up the street and around the corner. My mother waves at me. She’s leaning against a wall holding a loaf.
“Hey, I didn’t see you serving mass today, where were you?” she asks and rips the end of the loaf and hands it to me.
I turned to look at the bell tower, a darkening silhouette rising tall above Wajay. The hum in my ears is fading. I’m going to ring the bells next week. And tonight, I’ll close my eyes and I’ll sleep, eager for the sun to rise and tomorrow to come, when I’ll wake to sit beside my father as he turns the corner and drives.
Jesus Francisco Sierra holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. He had attended residencies at Mesa Refuge, VONA Voices and he is a current member of The Writers Grotto in San Francisco. He is also a licensed structural engineer.