In Sixty Years of Silence, a young woman, Sophie, risks all that she has to move to a new place, Grymsk, to play an instrument, the carillon, that has not been played there for sixty years. The instrument, however, probably won’t work.
Sophie Bellevedere was appointed carillonneur of the Grymsk Bells after sixty years of silence. A carillon is a set of bells in a tower, and the carillonneur is the person who plays them. For sixty years, there had been no carillonneur. There had been no music sounding over the city of Grymsk. The tower’s clock had stopped. It struck no hour; it kept no time.
On the day that she assumed her position, Sophie was led through the cathedral by a hunchbacked caretaker with cataracts in one eye. They walked down the aisle of the cathedral, passing dusty pews and the cracked altar. The stained glass windows which were unbroken let in a light of mostly reds and blues. The cathedral was completely silent, and Sophie followed a few steps behind the caretaker.
Sophie looked around wonderingly and with some apprehension. This was not her city. Grymsk was a northern town renowned for scarcely surviving the war. The city had been reduced nearly to rubble. Many of its homes had been torn apart. Then the war had ended, and winter had come. Many of the remaining residents had departed. The town became buried in rubble and snow. Strangely, one of the buildings that had undertaken the least damage was the Grymsk Cathedral, which housed the tower and the bells. But during the war, the carillonneur had died, and no one had come to replace him.
For some years an aging watchmaker had climbed the spiral stairs, and he had wound the Grymsk Clock. But then he had died, some forty-five or fifty years ago, and the clock had remained stopped ever since.
“It’s up here,” said the caretaker. His words jarred Sophie out of her considerations.
She looked. The caretaker was pointing at a cobwebbed door that sagged on rusted hinges.
“You’ll find it’s not working, I expect,” said he. “Hasn’t been played. I’m too old to go up there myself anymore. You’ll have to take the stairs on your own.”
He put a large skeleton key into the lock, and he tried to turn it. The lock wouldn’t budge. The caretaker cranked on the key. With a sound like a shot, the bolt popped back.
“Ha ha!” laughed the caretaker. “It works! Thought I might break the key! First time that door’s been open in ages!”
He turned around to look at Sophie. He had a wart on his cheek from which hairs sprouted, and a chin that curved up like the toe of a genie’s slipper. His one eye shined bright, and his face turned up in a horrible, but honest, smile. His teeth were carious, and many of them were missing.
“In you go!” cackled the old man.
Sophie poked her head through the open doorway. The air smelled musty and stale. Cobwebs hung from the corners, and they stretched across the spiral stair. The spiral stair itself was constituted of granite stairs that were chipped and cracked.
She entered the tower. She heard a sound behind her, and she turned her head sharply.
The caretaker was prying the skeleton key off a big ring which held many keys.
“Here you are,” said he. “It seems I put ten keys on this ring for every one I take off, so I’m always happy to see one go. Good luck to you, southern lady. Let’s hear those bells pealing again. It’s been so long since I’ve heard them, that I can’t even remember how they sound.”
“Thank you,” said Sophie, taking the key and pocketing it. “Is there a light?”
“Nah,” said the old hunchback. “You’ll have to just mind your step.”
“Mind my step,” muttered Sophie. “Very well then,” she said in a louder voice that she tried to imbue with confidence. “I’m going up to see my new workspace.”
“Well enough,” said the old caretaker, and with a wave, he left.
Sophie waved back, and she watched him until he was gone. She looked back at the spiral stairs, and she shivered in the sudden silence. It was a spooky place, this belltower.
She brushed the cobwebs away, and she mounted the stairs. Sophie took a deep breath, and she began to ascend. Bats fluttered away from her, flying up the spiral stair. Spiders scuttled into the cracked mortar. As she climbed, she passed the mechanism for the old clock.
The mechanism was housed in a dimly lit room a third of the way up the tower. Sophie looked for a moment onto its gears, cogs, springs, and steel. The mechanism had not yet rusted out, but certainly it had not been put into motion for ages, and she thought that it must be stuck in many places. Here again, spiders had made their homes. Sophie smelled the droppings of rats, and she heard their soft scurries.
Sophie continued up the stairs. Now and then she passed a small window which was really no more than a chink in the stone tower. As she rose, she gained views of the surrounding town, which seemed to become more and more beautiful.
The town of Grymsk was situated in a valley. On this day, the sky was overcast and grey. Many of the small cottages, those that had not been rebuilt, looked like ruins up close. But from a distance, from her height, the cottages, and the holes in their roofs and walls, took on a nostalgic, picturesque appearance. They looked like quaint ruins. Beyond them were long meadows, then there were the hills of green grass dotted by white wildflowers. In the distance, veiled in haze, lay the striking fjords for which this northern land was famous.
Sophie next passed the carillon’s enormous programmable wheel. When working, this drum shaped object went round and round like the wheel of a water mill. In it were metal pins. These pins could be moved about to create different melodies. Sophie stopped here, and she went into the chamber where the programming drum was housed. She blew some dust off it, and she examined it. Its steel cables were still attached to the clock mechanism, as appropriate. The pins were bolted into the wheel, as appropriate.
Here, too, were housed the Grymsk Bells. The bells, much like handbells in a choir, were of different sizes so that different octaves could be played. The bigger the bell, the deeper the sound. The bells’ wires, which were used to ring the bells, appeared intact.
Sophie looked up. Still more steel cables ascended up into the highest part of the tower, where she knew that the keyboard itself, from which music could be manually played, would be kept. These wires, too, seemed in order.
Sophie gasped, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. This was her first musical job, her first time in her desired career since graduating from university, far to the south in Brendenia, the university city on the sea. There, in Brendenia, it was warm, and there, too, it was a haven for the fine arts. Brendenia was a place known around the world for its culture and cuisine. But there were no jobs to be had for a poor, young lady without social or political connections in Brendenia. The jobs in Brendenia went to the wealthy, and, through a system of patronage, they were passed from one noble family to the next. She’d been working as a clothes-washer when she had overheard a customer speak of the blighted, blasted Bells in the shattered city of Grymsk. He had mentioned its carillon. Sophie’s ears had perked up. It was not often that a person heard of a carillon. She had timidly asked the customer for details. He had readily supplied them.
One week later, Sophie had written to the city of Grymsk, asking whether they might have a job for her. She had waited more than a month for their reply.
When Sophie had received the city’s letter, she opened it very carefully and with a heart that beat like a tambourine.
The city of Grymsk’s reply was pleasant, polite, and practical. First the city had thanked Sophie for her interest. They then wrote that they would accept Sophie, but that they had very little money. The city of Grymsk wrote that Sophie, if she wished to take the job, must work without pay, but that they would provide her with a furnished room and board. Furthermore, the city wrote, they had doubts whether the carillon would work at all. And if the carillon did not work, then the city did not have the money to repair it.
Sophie found herself facing a terrible choice. If she took the job in Grymsk, she would make less than she did in Brendenia, for a post that likely would amount to nothing, because everything depended on the carillon and whether it would work. If the carillon did not work, then she would use up her savings in getting to and from Grymsk.
But Sophie was desperate, and she hated the idea of living her life working at the launderette. After a week of consideration, Sophie sent the city of Grymsk a letter accepting their terms. In a part of her mind, her anxiety increased. She felt frightened and afraid. Yet, as she prepared to leave Brendenia, the idea of playing music in a town that had, for sixty years, gone without the sound of its bells, became more and more romantic and attractive to Sophie.
One cold fall morning, Sophie took her luggage aboard a train, paid the fare with the few coins that she had left, and she steamed north, to a country unknown to her, to a city that she had never imagined, to be the carillonneur for a carillon that might not work for a job that did not pay.
Now she found herself examining the very heart of that great and powerful musical instrument, the carillon, and finding it to be in far, far better shape than she had dared to imagine. Perhaps, she thought, it was even in working order.
Sophie’s hopes surged as she re-entered the spiral stairwell and climbed higher. She climbed the last three hundred stairs, and she emerged in the uppermost landing of the Tower of Grymsk.
This was the room which housed the keyboard, the space from which she could play the carillon. Around the room were many windows, so that the room itself was flooded in light. Whereas the other chambers in the passage had been lit solely by holes in the tower’s sides, this room’s windows held glass. The panes were very small and square, and Sophie found them charmingly reminiscent of the glass panes on a greenhouse.
The view was extraordinary. She could see for miles in every direction. She spent time walking around the room, savoring the glorious views, imagining herself dusting the sills, painting the flaking wood, and having the broken panes replaced. She dared not look too closely at the keyboard in the center of the room, at the controls of the carillon.
If the programming wheel and bells were the carillon’s heart, then the keyboard was its mind.
Sophie willed herself into low expectations. She told herself that when she examined the keyboard, she would find it broken, with a year’s worth of work necessary to repair it. She dared not hope at all. She reminded herself that Grymsk had been bombed heavily during the war. She considered the cobwebs, the bats, and the traces of rats that she’d seen on her way up. She looked at some of the panes of glass in the windows, panes which were smashed and broken. Nature and animals would have destroyed the keyboard. Birds would have made their homes in it for decades. There was really no use hoping for anything more than a keyboard which would, ultimately, need to be completely replaced, an action which the town would not have the money to even begin.
Sophie drew a deep breath.
She looked down at the carillon’s keyboard.
The keyboard was wooden, of white oak, with conical wooden keys like lathed staves. There were forty-eight keys, one for each bell. There was a wooden bench.
Sophie touched the bench, and it wobbled but held. She sat upon the bench, and she looked beneath the keyboard. The steel wires, save one, were connected to the keys. These wires, she knew, led back to the bells.
The moment she’d been waiting for had come. It was time to test whether the carillon worked.
She set her fingers lightly over the wooden keys, feeling anxious and nervous.
She drew her hands back. They had been shaking. Sophie drew a breath to calm herself. She stood up, and she walked in a small circle around the room.
She’d given up her life in the south for this job. She’d traveled across the continent. She had no friends here. Little money. No salary. And for what? For the chance to play a rare, unpopular instrument that might not work—that might not ever work. She might be a fool, she thought, looking out the window.
The Bells of Grymsk.
Grymsk: a small, bombed out city in the north, where the winters were so cold that people dashed from the shops to their homes to avoid freezing. Grymsk: a city where there were eighteen hours of darkness when winter came. The people here, she knew, owned fur cloaks and sleds with runners.
Sophie had never even seen snow.
What was she doing here?
She sighed, and she shook her head. She looked thoughtfully out the window, over the broad meadows and pretty land. It was very quiet up in the tower, and Sophie appreciated the silence. It gave her peace and tranquility.
Sophie realized that she had to know whether the great instrument worked. She’d given up the life that she knew to be here.
Sophie sat down again on the wobbling bench. She straightened her back. Her long auburn hair fell to the middle of her back. Her delicate hands touched the keys. She set her feet on the pedals.
She thought of what she’d like to try. A song by the Brendenian composer Itelo Vesperelio.
Sophie struck the keys, and the bells began to chime.
A thrill shot through her.
Throughout Grymsk, villagers looked up at the tower in wonder. They stopped the things that they were doing. They stared.
Sophie didn’t stop at the first notes. She continued straight through the song, her heart hammering in her chest, more powerfully, she felt, than the sound of the bells. The bells clanged, and their overtones hung in the air. The song lasted for three minutes, three minutes of glory and ecstasy for Sophie, for she had proven for a moment, to herself, at least, that she had made the right decision. That not everything she’d striven for was in vain.
Out in the streets, an old lady, so shocked to hear the Grymsk Bells again, a sound she had not heard since the war, broke down and wept. The last time that she had heard them, she had just been married to a young, handsome man named Francko, and then he had gone off to war. There he was shot and killed. The bells, shortly thereafter, had gone silent. The sudden, unexpected sound of the Grymsk Bells brought the memory of him flooding back, and she wept in the middle of the street. Her groceries, from which a baguette stuck out of the bag, lay beside her. Her knees were on the hard cobblestone of the streets, and her face was in her hands.
When Sophie was finished, she went into another song, and then another. And then another after that. The music was triumphant, joyous, the jubilee of smashing sixty years of silence.
And when she’d finished playing, and while the overtones of the music still hung in the air, Sophie stood from the old wooden bench, and she went to one of the windows of the loft, and she opened it wide. She put her head out, and she looked over the scene. The streets were dotted with people standing stock still, looking up at the tower.
Sophie gave them a wave.