PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH

April 6, 2002

The Bellringer

James Petras

Ibrahim woke up before dawn as was his habit for as long as he could remember. He slipped his feet into the slippers by his bed, picked up the matches by the side of the bed, lit a candle and then ignited a small kerosene stove. He stood up and stretched but he did not look out of the window, as was his custom, to check the weather. The thunder of exploding shells and the teeth jarring machine gun fire dissuaded him from his usual practice. He looked at himself in the mirror, close up and then turned on the faucet - there was no water. He dipped a cup in a bucket and washed, drying his face on the towel hanging by the side of the wash bowl. He looked at the disheveled towel, picked it up again and placed it back in its place perfectly folded. He took off his pijamas and folded them under his pillow, pulled up the blankets and covers, tight and neat. He went to the small gas burner and started his coffee. He took the stale brown bread out of the cupboard and cut two slices and returned it. He opened the refrigerator, it was not cold, took the soft butter and cheese and spread the butter on the bread and sliced the cheese, which he proceeded to cut into uniform bite-size pieces. He served his coffee in a blue mug and carried the cheese and buttered bread on a flowered plate to a small wooden table. He turned on the radio - but there was no sound. A shell fell nearby causing the building to shudder and the candle almost blew out. Ibrahim cupped his hand around the flame, as if to protect it from the violent intrusions. He dipped his crusty bread in the coffee and ate it with a piece of cheese. When he finished he picked up the plate and cup and took them to the sink, turned on the faucet but no water flowed. He took another cup of water from the bucket , washed and left them to dry on the dish holder. He took a cloth and wiped the table and counter of any crumbs. He took his watering can and with the last few drops he watered his plants. He furtively glanced down the back window at his garden: the rose bushes were trampled and there were soldiers everywhere.

"Today I cannot water the flowers," he said to himself. "The branches are broken but perhaps the roots are protected and the flowers will blossom again, when the soldiers are gone." He spoke more to himself than to anyone else. He lived alone for the last decade, after his parents died. He reached under the bed and pulled out his shoes and a small smile crossed his face. " She tried to help but she made a mess of everything. I was mad because she put everything in the wrong place." Ibrahim was talking about his sister-in-law, who had tried, several months before, to clean and re-order the apartment. She put his shoes in the closet and the knives and spoons in the drawer and pulled the covers to air them out. Ibrahim was unhappy and put everything back in its place.

" You need a wife - a woman - to take care of you," his brother told him years ago.

Ibrahim had not answered even though he listened respectfully.

"Who will take care of you when you are old, or if we move away?"

Ibrahim had looked away, perplexed. " I am not old," he told himself later, as he looked in the mirror.

Just as he stood up from the bed, there was a tremendous explosion almost beneath his apartment floor, window shards flew into his apartment, the curtains blew in and the very floor shook under him.

Ibrahim crept along the floor picking up the broken glass, and then reached up and put the cutting board over the window frame. He glanced out the window looking into the plaza of the Church of the Nativity and saw a monstrous tank, the huge barrel pointing at the Church door. Ibrahim sunk to his knees, fear struck his heart, he prayed in Arabic and then pulled the cross out from under his shirt. He looked at it: 6 o'clock mass begins shortly. There was constant machine gun fire, the shouts of soldiers, the cries of the wounded. He put on his coat and cap and wrapped the scarf around his neck. He look down, a black and white cat was rubbing against his leg. He cut some bread and soaked it in milk and put it in a bowl. He went out the door and down the stairs. All the doors were closed but he could hear the sounds of crying children and the hushed voices of their parents. When he got to the bottom of the stairs, the apartment door swung open and an old couple stood facing him.

"Ibrahim, where are you going?" They were small people, their hands shaking and their eyes were full of fear.

Ibrahim nodded toward the Church. " I am going to ring the bell in the Church. Is there anything you want me to get for you on my way back?"

"Ibrahim! There is no mass today. The stores are closed. There is no food. Today the soldiers have surrounded the Church. No one can leave their house. They are killing anyone in the street. You must go back to your room and wait."

Ibrahim frowned. He opened the door. In front was the iron monster. The old couple quickly closed the door and spoke to him from inside.

"Ibrahim, don't show your face! They are murdering all our people. If you are shot in he street no one will help you. They are shooting doctors. You will rot where you fall because not even priests and undertakers will take your corpse. They will kill them too."

Ibrahim hesitated. But everyone in Bethlehem knew him. In the gray dawn every day for the past 25 years he would rise and walk to the small door at the side of the entrance to the Church. He would enter and cross himself at the Holy site of Jesus' birth and climb the stairs to the bell tower. Six rings for early mass, eight pulls for morning mass, four rings for a wedding, three rings for a baptism, ten rings for a funeral. What with all the recent killings, it seemed the Church bells were always ringing. Ibrahim's callused hands were clenched. He started down the street and looking straight ahead as if to convey a message to the marauders that he was just looking for the side door, he was just going to ring the bell to summon the faithful as he had done everyday for the past quarter century. Just six pulls of the bell. No gun, no trigger, his empty hands opened by his side. He walked by the tank and felt the heat of the metal, the odor of burnt diesel burned his nostrils. To his left by the entrance of the Church was a body without a head, and blood splattered on the pavement and the door. Ibrahim was suddenly struck with fear, he started to walk faster, he was but ten meters from the church when a shot rang out and then several more.

Ibrahim spun around, his eyes full of the fear of death. His mouth was moving. "Why me? I only want to ring the bell for morning mass."

He fell dead. The bells did not ring for the bell ringer. He was a Palestinian in the land of Greater Israel.