THE CHRISTMAS BELLS
(from "The Caesar Tree & Other Tales")
Written by Jeff Koslik
It was just a few weeks before Merchandise Day that they found the bells. Thanksgetting had just ended, with all its turkey and trimmings, and now the approach of everyone’s favorite
hollowday saw the stores packed from border to border, and parents busy rushing around trying to find all the items on their children’s Gimme Lists.
In Malltown 28 it was just the same. Like every other Malltown in the United States of Finance, the city consisted of a great circle of homes whose windows and doors all faced inwards towards a vast central shopping plaza - a design meant to ensure the most efficient and productive shopping experience for everyone involved - which, of course, was everyone. Outside these congested rings was the old world, which few people any longer found much interest in, but it was precisely in this old world that the bells were discovered - quite by accident. For it was while searching hungrily for any last flake of precious material left in the ground that a work crew from the Valuable Metal Excavation Corporation turned their huge gold detectors onto a desolate patch of land not far from Malltown 28, and found buried there the six large, golden bells; each exquisitely preserved. It was a stunning discovery. People slapped their foreheads in amazement. For bells, you see, were a thing of the past; ancient history. Oh, of course, people still heard bells, but they were electronic ones, computer-generated sounds piped into the malls to announce special sales or store openings. To have unearthed six authentic, antique bells was something quite different. Respected archaeologists were called in and they soon verified the discovery as not only genuine and archaic, but of that type of ancient instrument known in its day as Christmas Bells. The word was strange to the general public, and historians had to delicately explain that the title derived from an early form of Merchandise Day, which the primitive world had believed to be the birth date of one of their most noted wise men - a man, research revealed, who’d been not only quite poor, but a shamefully inadequate consumer. Despite this distasteful side of the story, the people of Malltown 28, like those in Malltowns everywhere, were fascinated, and a strong, inexplicable curiosity took hold of them. They wanted to see the bells; they wanted to hear the bells; they wanted to buy the bells. Capilagut Johnson was quick to take note. He was the CEO of Malltown 28, and hadn’t been approved four terms running by being slow on the mark. He had dreams: big dreams of being more than CEO of a Malltown, but being CEO of the United States of Finance. ‘Why not?’ he thought. ‘I can do just as good a job as CEO Kennedy. He doesn’t even look good in a suit! If I could acquire those bells, and use them as a marketing gimmick, I could achieve more hollowday sales than any other Malltown in the country. That would gain me national attention for sure.’ And so CEO Johnson used his influence to get the bells brought to Malltown 28, and he had them hung in one of the tall security towers used for spotting shoplifters. And he went on live MesmerVision and announced to the citizens of his city that there was to be a great contest, and it would end three days before the hollowday, and that the six children who managed to get their parents to spend the most money before that date, would win the contest and be allowed to ring the Christmas Bells for the first time since their discovery. “And, of course,” he finished with a smile, “may you all have a Merry Merchandise Day and a Profitable New Year.” There was great excitement following this announcement and the contest had its desired effect, the shopping frenzy increased twentyfold. “Come see the bells,” screamed the ads, “and buy a blender!” Into the stores the customers streamed, more and more and more and more and more. A few days before Merchandise Day the winners were announced. There was much envy as the six children stepped forward and clasped the pull ropes in their hands. Everyone in the city had gathered round the makeshift bell tower to watch. ‘What would the bells sound like?’ they wondered. In all the delirium they had almost forgotten they hadn’t heard them yet. Following CEO Johnson’s cue, the nervous children tugged on the ropes and instantly the first, rich tones of the Christmas Bells rang out far and wide. To their own amazement - and with no prior rehearsal - the children found themselves pulling the six separate ropes in such a sequence as to produce a chiming of simple, yet incomparable, beauty. Jaws dropped. Not a word could the people speak. Never had they heard such sounds of utter sincerity. Here was no driving back-beat, no computer-manipulated sound effects, no fancy production, yet it was the most moving music they had ever experienced. A wave of soothing sublimity swept over them, not the numbing passivity of the MesmerVision, but something stunningly different, something that stirred profound emotions deep inside their chests. Wiped from their minds were the phony hollowday carols, the screaming sales pitches, the shoving and scratching of their fellow shoppers, and in its place was peace and tranquility. ‘What’s happening to us?’ they wondered. They felt loving and compassionate, caring and generous, wholly unlike anything they had ever felt before. One little girl was heard to ask if anyone was caring for the poor and the hungry, and a few of the children even began tearing up their Gimme Lists! CEO Johnson was horrified. This wasn’t what he had expected at all. Perhaps his heart was too set in its ways, perhaps he had too much wax in his ears, whatever the reason, he remained one of the few listeners unmoved by the pealing of the bells. “I must do something,’ he exclaimed, “before this goes too far!” With great swiftness he climbed the interior steps of the bell tower and soon arrived at the top. CLING CLANG went the bells, DING DONG DING: ringing loudly as they swung back and forth, back and forth. Far below he could see the six children, still tugging on the pull ropes, their boots lifting off the ground when the bells swung high. Pulling a wrench from his pocket, CEO Johnson began savagely loosening bolts. A moment later the bells were falling. Down . . . down . . . down they plummeted. Only by the briefest of seconds were the six children yanked safely away. There was a great crash, and the six Christmas Bells lay cracked and ruined on the ground, sounding no more. CEO Johnson hurried back down from the tower. “How horrible!” he gasped, standing before the twisted heaps of metal. “What a terribly unfortunate accident.” The people stood a moment in silence. Their heads felt odd, as if they were drifting away from a golden vision. The crowd began pushing from the back to get a closer view. There was shoving and swearing, scuffles broke out. Children began looking for the torn halves of their Gimme Lists and piecing them together once more. There was whining and crying, and the PA systems started again. As one, the crowd headed for the store entrances, and all seemed back to normal. But CEO Johnson lurked behind. He didn’t trust the Christmas Bells, not even in their current state, and he was determined that they’d never ring again. Calling his underlings, he had the twisted remains brought to a steel factory and melted down. ‘But what a shame to waste such gold,’ he sighed, and so recognizing the bells widespread popularity, he had the molten remains cast that same night into six thousand miniature replicas, quite harmless he believed, and quite profitable too, for the entire stock sold out before noon the next day - at prices far beyond their cost. “I am a clever soul,” he grinned. “My sales will now be triple those of the next closest Malltown.” Cash registers kept ringing all the way up to Merchandise Eve. But then the doors closed and people went home for the night. They crawled wearily into their beds, all in order for the Great Unwrapping the next day. Tick! Tock! Tick! went the clocks in the darkness, while the people slept and the children dreamt. Little mice came out of little holes and scurried about. Outside, the snow lay deep and still. But then midnight struck, and with such a ruckus as had never been heard before, for from every one of those six thousand Christmas Bell replicas - sitting upon hearths and desktops, on table tops and wrapped in boxes - there rang out the same stirring chimes that had so moved the city just a few days earlier. Awakened by the sound, the people blinked at each other in amazement. They put on their boots and hats and coats and walked outside, holding the ringing bells from the little bits of twine they’d been sold with. Into the town square they filed, nodding at friends and neighbors. They huddled round the empty bell tower and let the six thousand bells ring out loud. Like before they were moved, only this time it was less strange, for they welcomed it and were not afraid. A fire was started, its flames flickering warmly. No one said a word, they just listened to the tolling of the bells. Children once more pulled out their Gimme Lists, and one by one threw them into the fire. CEO Johnson awoke in his mansion. He thought his ears were ringing till he realized what was happening. He ran out in his robe and slippers, calling on the people to come to their senses. The crowd grew larger and larger. “I’ll not lose!” he screamed, shaking his fist. “I’ll not lose!” He hurried to the steel factory and emerged again, dragging behind him a small, portable furnace. From its mouth belched white fire and heat. Quickly he hauled it through the crowd, snatching the little bells from their hands and casting them into the furnace. With sparks and fizzles they melted down, while the crazed CEO tossed in more by the dozen. One thousand, he destroyed! Two thousand! Three thousand! Sweat rolled down his face from the heat, the collar of his robe was singed. Four thousand, he destroyed! Five thousand! Finally, with great glee, he tossed in the last of the replicas. But still the tolling could be heard. “Were there some I missed?” he asked. “No! No! There were six thousand, I counted them all.” He cocked his head and listened, and then he realized - as the rest of the crowd already had - that the ringing of the bells was coming now from the heavens, and this he was powerless to prevent. “Don’t listen!” he shrieked. “Don’t listen! We’ve worked too hard!” And he clamped his hands over his ears so tightly that he soon pressed his head flat as a bank note. But the people weren’t paying attention to CEO Johnson anymore. They were peering into the sky, watching as a small flock of doves descended, carrying between them a new set of bells, which they hung deftly in the bell tower. Then these bells rang out, and with each peal they sent forth a golden shaft of light, which shot over the city of Malltown 28, illuminating section after section. And then the people could see with new eyes how they’d been living, and it was as if they were emerging from a dream. And as the Christmas Bells rang about them, the people smiled wide, for they knew they were being given a chance to dream anew.