In 1987, while visiting Austria, we were caught in a storm. Like our day in Austria we experienced the storm and the ringing church bells. The village and setting are real. There were cobbled streets and rain water flowing down the street and the fear and wonder were real. We were given this explanation for why they rang the bells…but the delightful interaction with the stranger is fantasy…or was it?
Have you ever had an experience that felt unearthly and ethereal?
Hofpgarten, Austria, 1987
The clanging church bells, crashing thunder and flash of lightning assailed my senses. Adrenaline surged through my chest like an electric current. Lightning lit the sky behind the church steeples across the street. Crashing thunder momentarily drowned out the clanging church bells.
Terror gripped my heart. Was I caught in a time warp of nature’s fury, transporting me to another place; magical, ethereal, and terrifying? How odd that I should feel such fear. Stay calm. It’s just a sudden summer storm. I stood transfixed in wonder as the elements crashed around me.
A torrent of water rushed down the cobbled stones, filling the gutters, threatening to flow onto my feet. Were the bells warning of some disaster? Have they declared war? Did someone assassinate the President? Does Austria even have a President?
I huddled beneath the narrow striped canopy of the clock shop. Cold spines of stinging rain drove against my face. Lightning flashed and I jumped at the next clap of thunder. The awning was pitifully inadequate and rain dripped from my hair onto my raincoat. Rain bounced off the pavement, forcing me closer to the wall.
And then, a man stopped beneath the awning where I shivered. “May I offer the shelter of my umbrella?” He tilted his umbrella, protecting me from the storm.
“Thank you, how kind.” His presence soothed my fears and my pattering heart slowed.
We stood side by side beneath the canopy, watching the ribbons of lightning zigzag across the afternoon sky.
“The storm came up so quickly, it caught me quite unawares.” I dabbed my face with a handkerchief and tilted my head toward the sound of the church bells.
“Sudden storms are not unexpected this time of year.”
“Why are they ringing the bells?” I tucked the hankie in my pocket. “Has something happened? Is there an emergency?” I gestured toward the deluge of water flowing down the cobbled stones, looking as though a river had overflowed its banks.
“They ring the bells to frighten the storm clouds toward another village.”
I struggled to suppress a smile, doubting the ability of the bells to drive away the clouds but pleasantly moved by his quaint belief in their magical power. “If that’s what you believe, I’m sorry to say, it’s not working. It’s been raining for half an hour.”
“Oh, it’s working fine.” His smile lit up his face. “But, the next village also rings their bells and the clouds are confused. They hear the other village bells, so they drift back here again. From village to village they drift. Soon they will find a quiet place where they can rest.”
We stood beneath the awning watching the rain and laughed, exchanging small bits of idle conversation. On the hillside above us, my pension looked down on the train winding through the valley and into the town. Cows dotted the nearby fields. The cow’s bells tinkled as they ambled across the meadows; the sound echoing from valley to hillside.
We stood so close to the stranger, I was warmed by the scent of him.
A whistle shrieked and he turned toward the train station. “I’m sorry, I must go. My train is coming. Perhaps you should seek better shelter?”
I nodded. “I’ll go into a shop as soon as the rain lets up a bit. Thank you again for sharing your umbrella.”
He caught up my hand and raised it to his lips. “It’s been a pleasure. I wish we had more time to…” His lips brushed my fingertips. “Good-bye.”
I looked deep into his eyes and in that moment, it felt as though I whirled through spasms of space and time. And in that instant, surrounded by light and the music of the bells, it was as though he and I had shared a lifetime together; infinite days and endless nights of love and hope. I heard the blare of 100 marching bands, saw the night sky explode in a cacophony of fireworks, felt the coolness of a 1000 springtime rains, the pink glow of 10,000 morning dawns and the wonder of a myriad of red and golden sunsets…
In those few seconds, it seemed we shared a lifetime. I shook my head, knowing it was a fantasy brought on by the magic of the bells and the storm.
He released my hand, waved a final farewell and strolled toward the train.
As he disappeared into the station, the blare of marching bands tinkled and became a warning bell, then silence. The music in my head became…a sparrow in a nearby tree.
The rain stopped. The sun cast sparkling rainbows through the dewdrops dripping from the shrubs. I touched the place where he had stood and his aura seemed to melt through my fingertips. “Wait! I don’t even know your name.” I ran toward the station, “Wait!” The whistle blew and the train clacked down the track. The magic spell was broken.
Years have passed. I’ve had a good life, all that one could hope for. Marriage, a satisfactory career and children. But, even now, when I hear church bells, I stop to listen.
Even now, the bells have the power to drive the storm clouds from my soul. I smile as I remember a summer storm in a faraway land. I close my eyes and relive the moments I shared an umbrella with a stranger. Were we caught up by a crack in time and space? In that instant, did we actually share a lifetime of love and laughter? Or was it only a dream that lasted for a second?
The bells ring on and I am reminded of that day when church bells echoed from one mountaintop to another, as the storm clouds scrambled from village to village in search of a silent peaceful place.
Finally in their frantic search, they drifted onto a quiet hillside where the only sound was the tinkling of cow’s bells, as they ambled through the meadows and disappeared into the mist.