Chimes to Flutes
By Samuel Brase
“Storm coming,” Ordman said, rubbing his short grey stubble as the church’s chimes echoed into the background.
“Used to always happen when the chimes rang,” one-eyed Bison appended. “Ne’er a clear day when the chimes rang.”
Old wisdom that touched Ordman with its familiarity. “Too true, Bison, too true. Fifth time this year they rang them chimes. Twice more than last and we’re only seven months through.”
“A bad year,” Bison concluded. “But it should get better, what with --”
“Bison, hush your mouth,” Mama Elaine chastised, stomping onto the wooden porch where the two men were sitting. Her round body was draped with a dress and apron, white on top of green. “You don’t know what you’re talking ‘bout.” She handed the two men glasses of tea.
“I like to think I do, and I like to think I know that man brought us bad luck.”
“Well he brought it on himself too, can’t you be civil until the flutes blow?” Elaine harrumphed.
Bison sipped the tea and squinted. “I suppose I can. Can’t hurt nobody no more.”
Mama Elaine accepted his reversal and made her way back to the kitchen, close to the rear of the house. The food she had spent the morning preparing confronted her, sassing No, you don’t get to escape this mess, not for a few more days at least. She threw two casseroles in the oven after moving a blueberry pie to her windowsill. She mechanically picked up a cigarette and sat down next to the pie, studying the clouds rolling over town.
“Mama ‘Laine! Mama ‘Laine!” A small voice wailed from outside. Elaine peered out and found the elfin Sandy Watkins patting the wooden walls of the house. Sandy’s eyes lit up. “Mama ‘Laine! How you doing!”
“Sandy-dear, I’m well. How’s by you?”
Sandy clapped her hands and shimmied down the wall. “I’m good! Smelled your pie there. Is it for the funeral?”
“It is, but Sandy-dear, it’s poor form to be anticipating a funeral.”
Sandy stopped shimmying. “Sorry, Mama ‘Laine.”
“Don’t think twice about it, here, this’ll keep it our secret, huh?” Mama Elaine passed the leftover innards from the blueberry pie to the girl.
“Thanks Mama ‘Laine! You’re the best,” Sandy chirped, already hopping away.
“Don’t eat it all at once! It’ll make your tummy hurt,” Elaine tried to caution, but Sandy was already past the corner of the house, skipping away the warnings, excited to show off her prize. She soon found the other kids playing jacks outside the abandoned wood mill, two dusty blocks down from Elaine’s house. The mill hadn’t been abandoned for lack of lumber, which surrounded the village in plentiful droves as the North Woods of Wisconsin, it had been abandoned for lack of power: The northeastern shoot of the St. Croix River had ceased flowing the past year.
The children huddled around Sandy, their pudgy fingers swooping up globs of blueberries. Without blinking, the white bowl was depleted and their clean faces were replaced by blue smiles.
Sandy was the hero of the hour, and as such, she determined the subsequent conversation. “Bison says that man brought us bad luck, I think he’s glad he’s dying.”
“My mom said the same thing,” Gary added. “The man came here, the Croix dried up.”
Doreen nodded, “And without the Croix, we’re nothing.”
The kids continued to replay wisdom they had picked up from the adults, putting the pieces of conversations together like a puzzle they built every day. Names and places connected the ideas until a portrait of the town in decay was before them. They couldn’t see it, though; the dried river meant only fewer bugs this summer, the abandoned lumber mill was only a new hideout.
A shadow fell across the group. The children peered up: Doreen’s sister was surveying them. “Come on, Dor, pastor needs you.”
“What for? I’m busy,” Doreen tried to escape.
“You’re about as busy as One-Eyed Bison, now get. Yancy got sick and can’t play flute, so you’re in. And wipe your face, bag-a-bones.”
Doreen brushed away the blue and followed her sister’s shadow over to the church. A volcano of giggles could be heard behind them but neither looked back.
Her sister broke the stalemate. “Pastor’s gonna be sick that you’re wearing jeans, Dor. Don’t know why you got to be such a tomboy.”
“Ain’t trying to be a tomboy. Just trying to fit in with my friends.”
“We were ladies when I was a kid,” her sister sniffed.
“You couldn’t spell ‘ladies’ when you were a kid,” Doreen mumbled. They arrived at the church and her sister sent Doreen inside. She scurried under the large stone columns, humbled by the mute stained glass. Maybe she should dress like a lady more often. The pastor greeted her with a smile and a pat on the back; he didn’t give a damn if she was wearing jeans, but God might. The pastor dispatched her to the fourteen flutists on the top level of the church and mopped his brow.
This man couldn’t die soon enough, Lord forgive him but it was true. The clouds above looked full to burst and the town needed that water more than anything. The Croix needed to flow again, the lumber had to be milled, money in the town was drying up. They would do everything they could for this man because they weren’t sinners but Lord above he needed to go.
The pastor passed by the pews and descended a discreet spiral staircase into the basement. Flying through the subterranean rooms, in no time he came upon the dying man, who was stored at the end of the church’s tunnel. This final room was encased on the slope of a hill just outside of town. The passage had been constructed as an escape route from lurking Indian tribes to the north. It saw little action these days.
“How is he?” The pastor asked one of the three nurses.
“The same,” she answered without taking her eyes off the man.
“Has anyone been here besides me?”
The three women shook their heads.
“Has he said anything?”
The three women shook their heads again and the pastor let out an audible sigh. This crisis might actually be averted. Then one of the nurses lifted up her curious face. “Why do you keep asking us that?”
He froze. “No reason. Just want this kept under wraps. I have to, uh, prepare for the, for tomorrow’s sermon. Let me know if anything changes.” As the last words fled his mouth, the pastor disappeared.
The nurse who had questioned him, Francesca, returned to preparing some gruel for the dying man. Another nurse, Sara, sat back, exhausted. “Something is not right, Frannie.”
“I know it, but I also know that I’m supposed to just take care of this man. Every time I try to get an answer out of someone, I might as well be speaking French.”
Sara giggled. The third nurse, Hannah, timidly propositioned, “I’m gonna go get some more water. Back soon.”
Francesca smirked. “Try not to sway your hips too much.”
“I do no such thing!”
“It’s all right honey, I think he’s interested.”
“He’s a man of the cloth, he would never --”
“He’s a pastor, darling, not a priest. He can and he would,” Francesca assured with rosy smiles. Hannah became indignant.
“We shall see who’s right. I’ll be back in a minute,” and she twirled into the tunnel.
Francesca gossiped, “So glad I don’t have to worry about dating anymore, Doreen and Georgina are all I have time for --”
“Kill me,” the man croaked.
The two nurses swapped confused faces. Francesca fumbled back, “What? Kill you? That’s crazy --”
“Has it rained yet?” He coughed.
“Well, no, not yet.”
“I needta die!”
“I could never!”
“You got to. Once I die, the flutes can play and the rain’ll start.”
Her voice caught for a second. “How do you know that? No outsider knows about our union with the storms.”
“I ain’t no outsider,” the man throttled. “Looks like we’ll get our wish quick enough….” He eroded into hacking.
Francesca swept her dress to the side as her searching eyes challenged the dying man. “Who are you?”
“It don’t… matter….” The detritus commandeered his throat; he barked and whooped until his face was red and blue his hands punched the air and his legs seized up the sheets scattered like pigeons and the man’s torso tried to flee but gravity held him back as his chest barricaded itself from air holding his life hostage and executing it before the police could save the day. The man’s body toppled onto the bed.
Sara ran out. Francesca stayed still, icebound.
The mayor of town walked in from the hill slope. Francesca looked up at him. “How long were you out there?”
“Long enough to know it wasn’t your fault. Thank you for everything, Francesca.” The mayor left into the tunnel; she caved against a wall in fatigue.
Entering the chapel, Mayor Johnston found a scene of chaos. Sara was raging against the pastor, demanding to know who the dead man had been. Her husband tried to extract her. Hannah sat in a nearby pew, nibbling fingernails. Sara hushed when the mayor moved into view.
“He was my half-brother,” Johnston murmured, reaching into his suit jacket for a cigarette.
“There you go,” the pastor sighed frustration. “Don’t smoke in here, please, Mayor,” he supplemented and went upstairs to find the flutists. Hannah followed him. Irked but considerate, Johnston went outside with Sara and her husband to smoke. He lit up and Sara allowed him a few conciliatory drags.
“How did your brother incite this storm?” She questioned softly.
“He brought it with him.”
“From where he’d been.”
The sound of the flutes wrapped the town in a warm blanket.
“How’d he bring bad luck with him?”
“Couldn’t help it, Sara, that’s who he was. He brought drought in life and he’s brought rain in death. Let’s let the man rest in peace.” The mayor threw his cigarette on the ground and left it to smolder. Her husband took Sara’s arm and they strolled home.
The rain, beginning to fall, put out the cigarette. The children hid inside their homes as the Croix awoke. Ordman waved goodbye to One-Eyed Bison as he ran off to start the mill. Mama Elaine put the finishing touches on the funeral feast. Doreen played her flute and Georgina gave their rattled mother a hug; this town runs you to your last drop, but just when the reserves are emptied, the ground cracked dry, business evaporated, this town rewards diligence and remedies ailments. All it takes is a little patience.