The Bell That Tolls Thrice in the Deep Dark of Night


This Hallowe’en, may all your spirits be benign, and if any of the other sort threaten, may your phone ring thrice…


Newly 18, newly graduated from high school, getting ready to take the great step into college–even though I’d be walking to the little private college where my dad worked, a college less than two miles from my parents’ home–I thought it was time to take some leaps in thought.  I was a timid soul: I knew this about myself, and I did not like it.

It was a summer for confronting fears, I thought, and one of my deepest fears was of that eerie spirit realm.  Catholic school bred until my junior year of high school–I’d had a tiny, successful rebellion then–, I had always avoided any hints of the supernatural.  Messing with that was a mortal sin, and it could only lead to trouble.

Tampering with that kind of power, the nuns assured us, was a way to give the Evil One traction in your life.

The thought of ghosts terrified me.

If someone pulled out a ouija board, I left the party.

But I had begun to see all this fearfulness as childish and reactionary, and so I set myself a reading list that included books like The Other and The Exorcist.  I went to see The Other in its film form with friends who teased me about my discomfort.  Just a story!  Just a story! they said.

I flat out refused to watch The Exorcist when it came to town–no head-spinning possessions for me.  I slept with my lamp on.  And I wondered–why do my friends–Dana, Deirdre Dawn,–get such enjoyment out of the creepy stuff?  Why aren’t they scared? Was something skewed about me?

Was I just, beneath a calm and sort of matronly exterior, a weak-kneed, whiny baby?

That summer, I dated Vincent, who was in my graduating class.  His best friend Joe had been my long-term steady; that was an ugly, spread out break-up, involving two or three definitive endings, then disastrous attempts at reconciliation which led to even greater angst,–the drama sucking up much of the joy of senior year.  Vincent had a similar up and down relationship with my bestie Deirdre Dawn; one or the other of them was always chasing a wandering eye.

Vincent worked during the school year as a DJ at a local radio station which gave him a sort of celebrity.  He had a beautiful bang of red-brown hair, shiny and straight, that he flipped out of his vision with a shake of his head.  He was well-read, kind, and funny.

At our friend Sal’s graduation party we were talking,—one further talk in a long, long series of talks, as we had helped and supported each other through rough relationships with our good, good friends,—we were talking, and we looked at each other, and it was like the curtain opened for us both at the same time.  That summer, we were an exclusive, devoted item.  I was working two jobs–a factory job at a vegetable cannery and a clerk’s job at a deli–and Vincent was a counselor at a residential summer camp.

Whatever time off we had, we spent together. And that became part of my summer’s learning curve.

Vincent’s family were practicing spiritualists, and we went, a time or two, to spiritualist gatherings at a sleepy, picturesque town a scant twenty miles from my home; it was an old gated village on a pretty little lake with gingerbread houses where mediums hung their shingles: invitations to get a reading, to connect with those on the other side.  I had friends who swore to the accuracy and veracity of many of those mediums’ reports; I, of course, had always been too terrified to explore.

So I was surprised by the calm and the reverence of the meetings we attended; his religion, Vincent explained, was not all that different from mine–it just had that added level of spirit communion. Was that different, really, than a belief in saints? Was some kind of intermediary necessary?

I pondered, skepticism and fear roiling.

We sat at a stump meeting where congregants stood as they were called by the spirit to deliver messages.  Touching was not allowed, we’d been told; Vincent and I hid our interlaced fingers between our chairs.

And then a medium stood up and said, “Someone is touching; my message is being blocked.”

We jumped and UN-laced our fingers, trying to look casual, trying to be cool.  A woman on one side of us grinned and winked (a romantic!); an old gent next to Vincent frowned disapprovingly. A grump, clearly.

The medium went on to deliver a message to a woman on a folding chair three rows ahead of us.

“I see a gray-haired man, holding a chicken,” he said.

“Poppy!” said the woman, and she began to cry softly.

“He says,” the medium, an average looking man in a golf shirt and stiffly creased jeans, said, “that you can rest easy.  It’s going to be all right.”

The woman slumped as if she was exhausted, as if all the air had been let out of her.  “THANK YOU,” she said.  “I know exactly what he means, and I’ve been so worried.”

She was convinced that her Poppy was reaching out to her, and I was not far off.  How could the medium have known about the gray-haired man with the chicken?  How could he have been so specific?  I began, reluctantly, to give the whole spirit world thing some credence.

But that didn’t make me any less terrified.

Vincent’s fellow Y camp counselors that summer were an interesting bunch of young people, patient, creative guys (“WHY camp in the woods??” was their unofficial moaning maxim) who lived too far away to get home when an occasional Saturday night off opened up.  On those weekends, Vincent would call and I would find some of our friends–Deirdre Dawn (in the light of our relationship, she and Vincent had reverted to warm friendly mode), Dana, maybe Terri, if she was ever free–willing and kind enough to brave a blind date.  It was fun, and the blind dates often turned into friendships and repeat outings.

And so, one cloudy Friday night late in July, a group of us went to an annual festival-fair called Brothweigh Gala Days up in the hills.  We ate fried dough, sipped beer (the drinking age, back then, was 18, so we were technically legal if not actually practiced), rode the Ferris wheel, played games of chance and skill with little good result, laughed and talked and people-watched. There was an interesting crowd, farm folks, some academics from the college, families with kids that whined and wheedled, and then regular people, we thought, like us.

Vincent was driving; when we piled into his van sometime after midnight, we were having such a good time, no one wanted to go home.

So we went to my house.  My parents always said they’d rather have me bring a crowd of people home than wonder where I was in the wee small hours.  We tumbled into my family room; I went upstairs to the other side of the house and poked my head in my parents’ bedroom to alert them.  My mother sleepily muttered about frozen pizzas. I went downstairs and turned the oven on, broke out beverages, perked some coffee. My dog, Bowtie, had woofed a few times, definitively, when we first came in, then curled up in her bed in the corner.  She was out, snoring, in moments.

We sat on the early American furniture–maple-framed, with tan upholstery, stitched with horse and buggy scenes; my older brother Jack, who was away at college, (Jack would probably would have been diagnosed with a touch of ADHD had he been a child today; he was both edgy and overly concentrated) carefully unpicked the stitching as he lay and watched TV.  To my mother’s great chagrin, whole sections of the scenic pattern had disappeared.  The furniture was fashionable but awkward; we threw the cushions on the floor, sprawled, watched the end of a movie, ate the pizza, talked.

When the movie wrapped up, we girls decided to play a silly game Dana’s mother had showed us once.  It was a riff on hypnotism; Dana prepped by holding a china plate over a candle.  The bottom got sooty; she’d let it cool, then hand it to an unsuspecting ‘victim.’  She held a matching, unsoiled china plate, and she would ask the victim to do everything she did, just as she did it. Gamely, that nice person would agree, just slightly tantalized by the thought that he or she might actually go into some sort of hypnotic trance.

They’d sit, eyes locked, left hands holding the plates, right hands resting beneath.  Dana would caress the bottom of her plate and intone, “Umm gaballa gonda way.”

“Umm gaballa gonda way,” the victim would parrot, straight faced, and then Dana would take her free hand and trace lines on her cheeks and forehead.  The victim would mimic her tracings…but theirs would leave sooty patterns.  We’d go on for as long as the market would bear, and then, laughing goofily, take the poor unhypnotized soul to the mirror in the lav, where wet wipes and “Sorry!!!” awaited.

Giddy, grade school-y stuff; Vincent’s friend Rob had cheerfully been victim.  When he came back, fresh-faced, from the bathroom, in the newly quiet of the night–TV off, everyone kind of settling into a pleasant, half-sleepy haze,the nattering snores of the dog a background singsong–Vincent said he’d like to try something.  Lay down, he directed Rob, and Rob stretched out on his back on the nubby beige-flecked nylon carpet. Vincent talked him into a serious mood; he was going to try, Vincent was, to connect to spirits who wanted to speak to Rob.

Rob grew very still; then he said his grandpa had died that spring.  There was a little catch in his voice.

Vincent nodded.  “Let’s just reach out,” he said.

It was the deep quiet of the night, way past the shrill of the crickets; we were tired, the beer buzz long faded.  We had lit a couple of candles; their light bounced and flickered on the paneled family room walls. I felt, suddenly, cold tendrils of fear.

Vincent must have felt my flinching; he looked up at me reassuringly.

“It’s safe, it’s all safe,” he said.  “I’ll draw us a circle of protection.”

I shivered.

Everyone was hushed; Rob lay very still.  And Vincent raised his right hand and scribed a large oval, large enough to surround and encompass Rob’s entire body.

“If there is any reason,” Vincent intoned –BowTie, in her sleep, began softly to growl–“any danger in continuing, spirits, please advise me. Stop me now.”

My sleeping dog jumped up, barking.

In the still, aging neighborhood, where no babies lived, an infant’s piercing wail screamed out and was silenced.

And my phone began to ring.  I was frozen.

It rang once.

It rang twice. I found my feet and dashed to the kitchen to get it before it woke the family.

The phone rang a third time.

“Hello?” I breathed into the receiver.

But there was no one there, just the buzzing of the dial tone.

We were all on our feet; the party was over.  Even Vincent looked shaken.  People scrambled for jackets and purses.

Vincent grabbed me by the forearms.  “Are you OK?” he asked.

I turned on the lights and blew out the candles, and I looked at him steadily.  “I guess you’d better get everyone home,” I said, trying to be strong and worldly, but my voice quavered.

He hugged me.  “It’s okay,” he whispered.  “The protection kept them out.  This is a very safe place.”

Why didn’t that feel better?  I took the dog upstairs with me, snuggled her in my bed, and tried to read as I waited for the sun to rise.

The next morning, as was part of the household rules, I got my butt out of bed despite a very limited sleep, and showered and dressed in time to make noon Mass.  Even if it had not been part of parental policy, I think I would have run to church anyway, trying to escape the whispers of spirits who call on the phone in the dark of the night.

I prayed…oh, how I prayed. I prayed to be forgiven for tampering with portals best left untouched, for inviting things into my home that had no place or reason to be there. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…

I emerged from the dim church, where candles reassured instead of inspiring flickering dread, to find Dana waiting for me.  She was sheepish.

“That phone call?” she said.  “That was my mother.  She rang three times to let us know it was 3 AM.”

Oh, we laughed at ourselves.  How gullible we were!  What a bunch of maroons! And we walked home together, laughing, trying on relief.  We passed the word among our friends–just Dana’s mom!  What a hoot!

It was only later, as the day began to gray into night that I thought, Was that timing coincidental? But what woke up the dog?  And where was that baby?

The summer faded. Vincent and I went on innocuous, light-hearted dates, had parties at the beach with our friends, crashed into each other, laughing, in bumper cars at the county fair. In August, he went off to college.  We wrote for a while, but, pulled in other directions, the thread loosed.  The summer became a hazy, warm memory.

But I never did answer those questions, never came to a comfortable resolve about the waking dog and the mysterious crying baby.

And you know what?  I still won’t touch a ouija board.