Read an Excerpt
A Note to the Reader
I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me “son.” And I
called him “father.” On the rare occasions when someone dared to ask for clarifi cation, he simply laughed as though the questioner were being obtuse. “Of course he’s not my son!” he would say. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
But whenever I myself gained the courage to ask him further of our past, he just looked at me sadly. “Please, Nicolai,” he would say after a moment, as though we had made a pact I had forgotten. With time, I came to understand I would never know the secrets of my birth, for my father was the only one who knew these secrets, and he would take them to his grave.
This aside, no child could have wished for more. I accompanied him from Venice to Naples and, fi nally, here, to London. Indeed, I
rarely left his side until I entered Oxford. Even after that, as I began my own, unrelated, career, at no time were we ever more than two months absent from each other’s company. I heard him sing in
Eu rope’s greatest opera houses. I sat beside him in his carriage as mobs of admirers ran alongside and begged him to grace them with a smile. Through all of this, I never knew anything of the poor Moses
Froben, but only of the renowned Lo Svizzero, who could make ladies swoon with a mere wave of his hand, who could bring an audience to tears with his voice.
And so you can imagine my surprise, a week after my father’s death last spring, to fi nd among his things this stack of papers. And more, to fi nd within them all I had sought to know: of my father’s birth and mine; of the origin of my name; of my mother; and of the crime that had kept my father silent.
Though he appears to have had me in mind as his reader, I cannot believe he did not wish these words for other eyes as well. This was a singer, remember, who practiced with an open window, so any man or woman passing on the street would have the chance to hear an angel sing.
London, October 6, 1806
First, there were the bells. Three of them, cast from warped shovels,
rakes, and hoes, cracked cauldrons, dulled ploughshares, one rusted stove, and, melted into each, a single golden coin. They were rough and black except along their silvery lips, where my mother’s mallets had struck a million strokes. She was small enough to dance beneath them in the belfry. When she swung, her feet leapt from the polished wooden planks, so that when the mallet met the bell, it rang from the bell’s crown to the tips of my mother’s pointed toes.
They were the Loudest Bells on Earth, all the Urners said, and though now I know a louder one, their place high above the Uri Valley made them very loud indeed. The peal could be heard from the waters of Lake Lucerne to the snows of the Gotthard Pass. The ringing greeted traders come from Italy. Columns of Swiss soldiers pressed their palms against their ears as they marched the Uri Road. When the bells began to sound, teams of oxen refused to move. Even the fattest men lost the urge to eat, from the quivering of their bowels. The cows that grazed the nearby pastures were all long since deaf. Even the youn gest herders had the dull ears of old men, though they hid in their huts morning, noon, and night when my mother rang her bells.
I was born in that belfry, above the tiny church. There I was nursed. When it was warm enough, there we slept. Whenever my mother did not swing her mallets, we huddled beneath the bells, the four walls of the belfry open to the world. She sheltered me from the wind and stroked my brow. Though she never spoke a word to me,
nor I to her, she watched my mouth as I babbled infant sounds. She tickled me so I would laugh. When I learned to crawl, she held my foot so I did not creep off the edge and fall to my death on the jutting rocks below. She helped me stand. I held a fi nger in each fi st, and she led me round and round, past each edge a hundred times a day. In terms of space, our belfry was a tiny world— most would have thought it a prison for a child. But in terms of sound, it was the most massive home on earth. For every sound ever made was trapped in the metal of those bells, and the instant my mother struck them, she released their beauty to the world. So many ears heard the thunderous pealing echo through the mountains. They hated it; or were inspired by its might; or were entranced until they stared blindly into space; or cried as the vibrations shook their sadness out. But they did not fi nd it beautiful. They could not. The beauty of the pealing was reserved for my mother, and for me, alone.
I wish that were the beginning: my mother and those bells, the Eve and Adam of my voice, my joys, and my sorrows. But of course that is not true. I have a father; my mother had one as well. And the bells,
too; they had a father. Theirs was Richard Kilchmar, who, one night in 1725, tottered on a table, so drunk he saw two moons instead of one.
He shut one eye and squished the other so the two moons resolved into a single fuzzy orb. He looked about: Two hundred men fi lled Altdorf’s square, in a town that was, and was proud to be, at the very center of the Swiss Confederation. These men were celebrating the harvest, and the coronation of the new pope, and the warm summer night. Two hundred men ankle- deep in piss- soaked mud. Two hundred men with mugs of acrid Schnapps burned from Uri pears.
Two hundred men as drunk as Richard Kilchmar.
“Quiet!” he yelled into the night, which seemed as warm and clear to him as the thoughts within his head. “I will speak!”
“Speak!” they yelled.
They were quiet. High above, the Alps shone in the moonlight like teeth in black, rotting gums.
“Protestants are dogs!” he yelled, raised his mug, and nearly stumbled off the table. They cheered and cursed the dogs in Zu rich,
who were rich. They cursed the dogs in Bern, who had guns and an army that could climb the mountains and conquer Uri if they wished.
They cursed the dogs in German lands farther north, who had never heard of Uri. They cursed the dogs for hating music, for defaming
Mary, for wishing to rewrite the Holy Book.
These curses, two hundred years dull in the capitals of Eu rope,
pierced Kilchmar’s heart. They brought tears to his eyes— these men before him were his brothers! But what could he reply? What could he promise them? So little. He could not build them a fort with cannons.
He was one of Uri’s richest men, but still, he could not afford an army. He could not soothe them with his wisdom, for he was not a man of words.
Then they all heard it, the answer to his silent plea. A ringing that made them raise their bleary eyes toward heaven. Someone had climbed the church’s belfry and tolled the church’s bell. It was the most beautiful, heartaching sound Richard Kilchmar had ever heard.
It resounded off the houses. It echoed off the mountains. The peal tickled his swollen belly. When the ringing ceased, the silence was as warm and wet as the tears Kilchmar rubbed from out his eyes.
He nodded at the crowd. Two hundred heads nodded back at him.
“I will give you bells,” he whispered. He sloshed his drink at the midnight sky. His voice rose to a shout. “I will build a church to house them, high up in the mountains, so the ringing echoes to every inch of Uri soil! They will be the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever!”
They cheered even more loudly now than they had before. He raised his arms in triumph. Schnapps washed his brow. Then he and every man plunged their eyes into the bottom of their mugs and drank them empty, sealing Kilchmar’s pledge.
As he drank the fi nal drop, Kilchmar stumbled back, tripped,
and fell. He spent the rest of the night lying in the mud, dreaming of his bells.
He awoke to a circle of blue sky ringed by twenty reverent faces.
“Lead us!” they implored him.
Their veneration seemed to lift him to his feet, and after six or eight swigs from their fl asks, he felt more weightless still. Soon he found himself on his horse leading a pro cession: fi fty horses; several carts fi lled with women; children and dogs darting through the grasses. Where to lead them he did not know, for until that day he’d found the mountains menacing and hostile. But now he led them up the Uri Road toward Italy, toward the pope, toward snowfi elds glittering in the sun, and then, when inspiration took him, turned off and began to climb.
Up and up they went, almost to the cliffs and snow. Kilchmar now led fi ve hundred Urners, and they followed him until they reached a rocky promontory and beheld the valley stretched before them, the river Reuss a thin white thread stitching it together.
“Here,” he whispered. “Here.”
“Here,” they echoed. “Here.”
They turned then to regard the tiny village just below them, a mere jumble of squalid houses. The villagers and their scrawny cows stared back in awe at the assemblage on the rocky hill.
This tiny, starved village I write of is Nebelmatt. In this village I
was born (may it burn to the ground and be covered by an avalanche).
Kilchmar’s church was completed in 1727, built of only Uri sweat and
Uri stone, so that, in the winter months, no matter how much wood was wasted in the stove, the church remained as cold as the mountain upon which it was built. It was a stocky church, shaped something like a boot. The bishop was petitioned for a priest well suited to the frigid and lonesome aspects of the post. His reply came a few days later in the form of a young priest scowling at Kilchmar’s door— a learned father
Karl Victor Vonderach. “Just the man,” read the bishop’s letter, “for a posting on a cold, distant mountain. Do not send him back.”
Now the church had a master, twelve rustic pews, and a roof that kept out a good deal of the rain, but it still did not have what Kilchmar had promised them. It did not have its bells. And so Kilchmar packed his cart, kissed his wife, and said he would undertake an expedition to St. Gall to fi nd the greatest bell maker in the Catholic world. He rumbled off northward to patriotic cries, and was never seen in Uri again.
The building of the church had ruined him.
And so, one year after the last slate had been laid on its roof, the church built to house the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever did not even have a cowbell hanging in its belfry.
Urners are a proud and resourceful folk. How hard can it be to make a bell?
they thought. Clay molds, some molten metal, some beams on which to hang the fi nished bells— nothing more. Perhaps God had sent them Kilchmar only to set them on their way.
God needs your iron, went the call. Bring Him your copper and your tin.
Rusted shovels, broken hoes, corroded knives, cracked cauldrons—
all of these were thrown into a pile that soon towered over Altdorf’s square on the very spot where Kilchmar had sealed his pledge three years before. Crowds cheered every new donation. One man lugged the stove that should have kept him warm that winter. God bless her, was the murmur when an old widow tossed in her jewelry. Tears fl owed when the three best families gathered to contribute three golden coins. Ten oxcarts were needed to transport the metal to the village.
The villagers, though they had little metal of their own to offer,
would not be outdone. As they minded the makeshift smelter for nine days and nights, they contributed what ever Schnapps remained in their fl asks at daybreak, plus a full set of wolf’s teeth, a carved ibex horn, and a dusty chunk of quartz.
Twelve men were scarred for life with burns the day they poured the glowing soup into the molds. The fi rst bell was as round as a fat turkey, the second, large enough to hide a small goat beneath it, and the third, the extraordinary third bell, was as high as a man and took sixteen horses to hoist into the belfry.
All of Uri gathered on the hill below the church to hear the bells ring for the fi rst time. When all was set, the crowd turned their reverent eyes to Father Karl Victor Vonderach. He stared back at them as if they were merely a fl ock of sheep.
“A blessing, Father?” one woman whispered. “Would you bless our bells?”
He rubbed his temples and then stepped before the crowd. He bowed his head, and everyone else did the same. “Heavenly Father,”
he croaked through the spittle gathered in his throat. “Bless these bells that You have—” He sniffed and looked around him, and then glanced down at his shoe, which rested in a moist cake of dung.
“Damn them all,” he muttered. He stalked back through the crowd.
They watched his form until it vanished into his house, which had glass in its windows, but no slates yet on its roof.
Then the silent crowd turned to watch seven of Kilchmar’s cousins march resolutely into the church— one to ring the smallest, two the middle, and four the largest bell. Many in the crowd held their breath as, in the belfry, the three great bells began to rock.
And then the Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever began to ring.
The mountain air shuddered. The pealing fl ooded the valley. It was as shrill as a rusty hinge and as rumbling as an avalanche and as piercing as a scream and as soothing as a mother’s whisper. Every person cried out and fl inched and threw his hands over his ears.
They stumbled back. Father Karl Victor’s windows cracked. Teeth were clenched so hard they chipped. Ear drums burst. A cow, two goats,
and one woman felt the sudden pangs of labor.
When the echoes from the distant peaks fi nally faded, there was silence. Every person stared at the church as if it might collapse. Then the door burst open and the Kilchmar cousins poured out, their palms held to their ruined ears. They faced the crowd like thieves caught with trea sure in their stockings.
Then the cheering began. Hands rose toward heaven. Fists shook. Tears fl owed. They had done it! The Loudest Bells Ever had been rung!
God’s kingdom on earth was safe!
The crowd retreated slowly down the hill. When someone yelled,
“Ring them again!” there was a collective cringe, and soon began a stampede— men, women, children, dogs, and cows ran, slid, rolled down the muddy hill and hid behind the decrepit houses as if trying to outrun an avalanche. Then there was silence. Several heads peered around the houses and toward the church. The Kilchmar cousins were nowhere to be found. Indeed, soon there was no one within two hundred paces of that church. There was no one brave enough to ring the bells again.
Or was there? Whispers fi lled the air. Children pointed at a brown smudge moving lightly up the hill, like a knot of hay, blown by a gentle wind. A person? No, not a person. A child— a little girl— in dirty rags.
It so happened that this village possessed, among its trea sures, a deaf idiot girl. She was wont to stare down the villagers with a haunting glare, as though she knew the sins they fought to hide, and so they drove her off with buckets of dirty wash water whenever she came near. This deaf child was staring at the belfry as she climbed the hill,
for she, too, had heard the bells, not in her vacant ears, but as we hear holiness: a vibration in the gut.
They all watched her climb, knowing that God had sent this idiot girl to them, just as God had sent them Kilchmar, had sent them the stone to build this church, and the metal to cast the bells.
She looked upward at the belfry as though she wished that she could fly.
“Go,” they whispered. “Go.”