There were bells above the clock in the tower. A tiny room above that, with blue shutters that could close themselves to everything or open to the four corners of the world. A taller turret still above it, its naked windows whistling in the wind. And over that a peaked roof with a metal creature perched wide-winged, inviting lightening.
To Clara, this was home. The keeper of the hour and the minder of the rectory below, she was forever scaling spiral steps and ladders.
Up and down the narrow stair that spun inside the tower to the clock-room, then up and down the ladder that hiked along the breezy bell balcony to her room, and up and down again on the metal rungs that climbed the room’s wall to the turret and the vast horizons beyond.
Father Brown used to climb up and down, too, though thankfully he’d grown too corpulent to lift his body up so many stairs or hoist himself up the ladder. She did not think he would even fit through the entrance in her room’s floor anymore.
For he was never meant to fit into any of her entrances anyway.
She was better off with him too fat.
Fearless, they said she was, to live so high above the village, buffeted by winds half-way into the sky, not to mention, in total loneliness. Unnatural, they called her, to prefer the company of birds and clouds to that of other people, or a man.
They were right. About the latter.
Birds did not raise a hand to her. The clouds did not box her ears or pull her hair or force themselves inside her.
There was solitude in the small room where the air was clear and the noises of the village did not reach. Just the swish of the wind and the clarion sound of the bells and the heavy heartbeat of the clock, ticking like the heart she’d almost forgot, the heart inside the chest she must have laid a head on in the first weeks of her being and before her mother – and her life – turned cold.
Through years of misery in the orphanage, with cruelties of every kind meted by the nuns and priests and older children who sought to repay their own experienced agonies onto those smaller than them, she gazed at the part of the clock-tower she could see, and dreamed of heartbeat.
When Father Brown came to the orphanage to pick a new housekeeper to “serve God” in the rectory adjacent to the church (and tower), they lined up the girls for him to choose from. She trembled with both hope and horror.
Perhaps he liked seeing both feelings warring in her, for he let his eyes travel the length of her body before curling his finger in her direction and telling Mother Superior that “this one would do.” She had just turned thirteen.
She kept house and cooked and cleaned and tried to keep away from his fondling hands and pinching fingers and the parts under his robes. She wondered if the former housekeeper had wished to ail and had welcomed the opportunity to die.
Then again, perhaps the previous girl did not know of the tiny room above the bell-tower. She herself only found out about it when Father Brown twisted an ankle and she was required to complete a few tasks there on his behalf. She was immediately entranced. By the openness. By the freedom. By the possibilities.
The next day she went to see Mother Superior under the pretense of needing salve for Father Brown’s leg but with the real aim to have someone clothe her request in piety. “It is but a small room, but I feel nearer to God there,” she told the nun, hoping to mask her awe as faith.
“And,” she whispered, “it could be more proper for Father Brown, too, to have me in separate lodging.”
The head nun frowned in reproach then tented her fingers to consider. The rectory had only the one sleeping room, and so housekeepers slept on a pallet by the kitchen stove. Even the most pious man may need a drink of water in the night. Best to put away any Eve where she could not lead a man to sin.
“You are wicked to even have such thoughts,” Mother Superior admonished. “Perhaps it would be best to remove you to the tower.”
Clara lowered her eyes in relief.
Father Brown was farthest from enchanted with the new arrangement, but he could hardly argue with Mother Superior’s suggestion. Nor could he claim that a woman should not scurry up and down the tower ladders in her skirts when he himself had sent Clara to do so.
Oh, he made sure to let her know there was no sanctuary from him in the tower. But she focused on the heartbeat of the clock and let it speak louder than his thrusting, and she bade her time, and fed him.
He grew fat. And old. And rheumy eyed.
She grew taller. And confident. And limber in her climb. She became the sole caretaker of the timepiece, the sorter-out of the bell’s ropes, the heartbeat of the tower.
Clara of the clock.