Chapter 17 – Hells Bells Toll For Thee (Book 1 – The Angels Are Here)
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I can hear the shrill laughter of a child reverberate from my throat. An old man is cussing. Hens are clucking angrily in response.
My vision starts to focus and forms ghostly blobs of light and dark floating in front of me. Then color starts to filter through and the images become more distinguishable.
I hear feet running. Then I realize they are my feet, running weightlessly along a cobbled path. Someone rushes past me, more laughing. I feel the brush of their skin on my arm. Lose strands of hair tickle my face as I run. I giggle. My long skirt flaps around my legs.
“Wait for me.” I call out as I run. I run faster, gasping for breath, trying to catch up. I smash into the old man who is fussing over his clucking chickens.
He curses again. I don’t know if he is cursing at me or his squabbling chickens in their small timber crates.
Shame on him, he should know better. There is never a good reason for blasphemy on a day like today. What would God think about that! All hell would surely break loose to punish that man and his chickens.
He could curse all day long if he wanted at those bickering chickens – or me for that matter. I didn’t care, not today.
It was 1755 and Lisbon was preparing for one of the years biggest religious celebrations, All Saints’ Day. The city was alive with activity and preparation for this auspicious occasion.
A light breeze tousled my hair as I sprinted down the cobbled path after Leon. He was so fast on his feet; I didn’t think I would ever catch up.
The market place was a hive of activity, teaming with color, people, and livestock. All the usual festivities orchestrated for this day.
Papa used to say, “If you haven’t seen Lisbon, you haven’t seen beauty.” He was right about that, Lisbon was beautiful, especially on a day like today.
Papa is in church today, like so many others, but without mother. She is unwell with the fever and has stayed at home in bed. My sister Maria is taking care of her. She was a little annoyed to be missing all the festivities. And she wanted so much to attend the Holy Day Mass.
My mother had told her to go, but Maria, being the saint that she is, said that she couldn’t possibly go while mother was in such a state.
Not me, I wanted to be outside with my brother Leon on this glorious day. Even the earth beneath my feet moves and vibrates with excitement as I run. Bells rejoice without the touch of human hand from every Cathedral and Church across the land.
God is in his glory, marveling at his perfect creations on this extraordinary day.
I hold my arms out wide and spin myself around as I gaze up into the bright blue sky. I feel giddy with the joy of being alive. I am blessed, that is what my mother said.
“You are blessed little one to have such a wonderful life. We all are, now run off and have fun. Leon, take care of your sister.”
My mother was right. Mother usually was. Later, I will say a prayer for her in church.
“Come on Tareja.” My brother calls. “Hurry up.”
Suddenly there is a horrible noise, like an angry roll of thunder. Not from the sky, but from beneath my feet. The ground vibrated again, only more violently this time. Then nothing. But within moments it erupts again with a fierce intensity.
“Leon, Leon, something terrible is happening,” I scream.
He feels it too; I can see the terror widening his big green eyes as he runs toward me. I run into his arms and we stand there clutching each other as the earth trembles all around us.
“I want Mama,” I sob. “We have to find Papa, to take us home…”
Then the buildings around us start to disintegrate. Little bits at first then whole pieces of walls come down. Beautiful Cathedrals and churches fall too. The House of God becomes the House of Death. Death, fear, panic – condemnation is everywhere, stalking us.
Huge cracks beneath my feet split open. The bowels of the earth begin to swallowing up people, buildings – Lisbon. Nothing is spared.
Everyone starts running, pushing and shoving in a desperate fight for survival. I lose my grip on Leon’s hand. I have lost him. He has been shoved away by the swarming crowd. I see the old man and his chickens. He is being trampled to death by the hooves of a shiny black stallion. The stallion rears up and tosses his glistening head back and forth. His wild eyes bulge in shock at witnessing his own barbaric act.
The man’s chickens, freed from their crates are flapping madly around him in a panicked frenzy. Some are crushed by the stonewall as it splits in two and comes smashing down. Their round beady eyes pop out of bloodied eye sockets and hold on by just a thread. Some are headless and run around in a panic, in a desperate search for their heads I imagine.
Voices bellow and cry out in the escalating chaos. A massive church bell flips perilously down the narrow street, relentlessly crushing all in its path.
It reminds me of a parasol that I saw once being tossed down the street by the breeze. End over end it went, cart wheeling and bouncing, until a dashing young man snatched it up and returned it to his blushing companion.
The bell flips then hangs above me, vibrating. Everything around me seems to stop for a second then continues in slow motion. I want to scream but my voice is too slow to respond. I close my eyes and crouch into a ball and fold my arms protectively around my head and knees. It won’t help. I know that, it is purely a reflex reaction, but right now, that’s all I’ve got.
I wait for the crushing impact. I feel the weight of the massive bell get heavier as it slowly comes down on my back. I am paralyzed with fear.
Then I am free. Leon has seized my elbow and pulls me out from under it.
I hear the sound of the bell as it smashes to the ground behind me. The cobblestones erupt from the massive impact and explode into shards of flying missiles.
Leon keeps a tight grip on my arm as we run into the charging crowd. We run as hard and as fast as we can.
“Run,” voices scream out… “Run to the harbor, away from the buildings, hurry…”
If we hadn’t run, if we had just stood there, we would still have been swept up, or drowned, by the swollen river of human bodies as they fled.
We cling to each other desperately when we reach the safety of the harbor. I stand trembling in my brother’s strong arms as chaos shakes, screeches, and crashes beneath and around us.
Then the earth stops. And one by one the bells stop toiling as they too sit broken and spent on the ruptured earth.
Dust and smoke billows high in the sky, obscuring the sun, turning the beautiful blue sky into a deathly grey ghost. I cling desperately to Leon slender body as tears forge a muddy stream down my face.
The grey cloud slowly disperses, exposing the once beautiful city, obscured now by the ugliness of destruction and death. Giant flames jump and lick hungrily at the heavens like ravenous demons aroused by the suffering.
I hear cries and gasps from the living. Painful moans from the dying float aimlessly in the smoldering remains.
I worry about Mama, Papa, and Maria, what fate has befallen them? What sounds are forthcoming from their lips, if any, I wonder. My heart breaks. My legs crumble. I sob unashamedly at my brother’s feet.
The crowd, exhausted and dirty falls to their knees too and give thanks to God.
“O God, our Father and Savior, who of thy goodness has watched over us and protected us against the hatred of evil. Let us give thanks and pray.”
Then instantaneously an eerie hush descends, and everyone starts pointing out to sea.
A young man jumps to his feet.
“Look, even the ocean runs from death.” He calls out boastfully.
He was right; the ocean, and all that sat upon it, was running away too. Like it was being sucked down a giant plughole faraway at sea.
“We must go find Papa,” Leon said pulling me to my feet. We had barely escaped the clutches of hell, and now we walked hand-in-hand toward the Devil’s new playground – Lisbon.
But the Devil was not done, not by a long shot.
Within minutes giant waves spewed from the harbor. Few escape the fury of the massive waves as they surged forward, devouring the city as it lay beaten and burnt in its path.
Leon holds me tight; I hold him tighter as the wall of water pushes pulls and slams us into walls, bodies. I take a breath of air – and saltwater. I gag and throw up. A fist of water smashes my body against the side of a submerged building then pushes me down. I felt Leon’s hand slipping from mine. I try frantically to hold on. I see the sorrow in his pleading eyes, asking me to forgive him. Forgive him for not being stronger, for letting me go.
I search in the water kicking and grabbing with my outstretched arms calling for Leon. But only bubbles rush out of my mouth and Leon does not answer. Leon is not there. Just more debris and a mountainous wall of seawater that propels me further away.
I panic, as I fight for breath and voice. I receive neither.
My lungs are filling with dirty, salty water. I don’t mean to, but I gulp in more water, eager to find oxygen – life.
Dead broken bodies with faces frozen in terror float grotesquely past me. I feel my soul fighting to escape the confines of my drowning body as it gulps painfully for air. I kick and struggle to hold on to every last moment of my dissipating life.
Images and memories of being a fetus in my mother’s womb wash over me like a warm stream.
I see a girl, an Angel I think, with the most beautiful blue eyes. She is swimming toward me, and I knew then that my time on this earth had come to an end.
I let go of my body and allowed it drift silently away, it rocks to-and-fro gracefully in this watery grave. I thought how peaceful I looked in death. How beautiful, as my hair falls free and hovers placidly around my face. My colorful skirt billows out around me like a flower coming into bloom. My arms are open wide, longing for a nurturing embrace.
I keep watching my body drift further away as I float up. Up toward the bright light that illuminates my heart, my eyes, and my soul. I am gone now I suspect forever from this place, this family.
But I am not alone; I see the faces of thousands of lost souls, young and old, that have also perished on this day. We are immersed in a mass of glistening bubbles. Like a bouquet of rainbow coloured balloons held together by a long golden thread.
This day would be recorded and forever remembered as the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.
I can still recollect this life, this death, as if it was yesterday. I taste the rancid seawater as it filled my mouth, burned my lungs, and choked me to death. I still feel the weightlessness of my soul as it separated and drifted away.
The elements, Earth, Fire, and Water had indeed been unrestrained when they unleashed their fury on their unsuspecting victims.
Astonishingly, the only remaining element that could have assured my survival on this day – was absent.
Tomorrow, on All Souls Day, the Faithful will pray. They will pray for the dead seeking sanctification and moral perfection, prerequisites for Souls seeking entry into Heaven. They will kneel, bow their heads, and say a prayer for me.
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