|Writing Prompt #35|
The Tower has always been here.
Our village on the side of the lake had many different tales of how it came to be; any structure sticking straight out of a lake would. Some were silly, like legend of the giant who had gotten bored halfway through the destruction of a castle and wandered off with one of the towers, dropping it in the lake without noticing. Others were laughable, like the explanation that it had grown up out of the middle of the lake like a living thing. Most of the villagers accepted the idea that the gods themselves had built and placed it there. But I had always wondered if maybe the Tower was the topmost portion of an ancient cathedral, which had been built at the bottom of a valley before the lake moved in, and was now too deeply buried underwater for anyone to see.
Tradition was very important to us, and many of the things we did were done because “it has always been this way.” One thing was the after-harvest celebration, when the tired workers were treated to a feast from the fruits of their labor, and sat up late into the night, lounging around bonfires, watching the Tower from the shoreline and telling stories about it. One of my favorite myths was the one about the changing of the seasons. I never tired of hearing it.
My uncle would half-close his eyes and lean back in his seat. “We have a unique privilege,” he would begin huskily, and point across the lake. “That Tower is on this earth to change the seasons. When its bell rings, spring becomes summer, summer becomes autumn, autumn becomes winter, and winter becomes spring.” He would then shut his eyes completely and take a long drink of his home brewed ale. “Our yearly pilgrimage to the Tower when the lake is frozen over keeps this world from freezing in everlasting winter. We have a tremendous responsibility, and we get no thanks for it.” He would put down his ale and seem to fall asleep; it was as much a part of the tradition as the story itself.
But when I was seven, and everyone else had gone off to continue the festivities elsewhere, I stared at my uncle’s face and wondered aloud, “Who rings the bell to change the other seasons?”
I almost fell out of my seat when my uncle suddenly sat up, his eyes flashing under thick brows. “That,” he said, “is a very useful question.” His gaze fixed me to my seat; even if I had wanted to, I could not have moved. “Have you ever heard it?” he asked in a low voice.
My eyes were wide in surprise and apprehension, but I could not speak. I shook my head.
“I heard it once,” he took his eyes from me and gazed out at where the Tower would have appeared had it not been for a sudden fog over the lake. “I was seventeen, and I was taking late evening walk at the end of summer, right before harvest. First, I thought I saw a light in the sky. Not a star,” he said, abruptly looking back at me. “It was a lantern. I know it was. And then, a few moments later, I heard it.”
I stared at him, mesmerized.
“It was quiet,” he said, his voice a similar hush. “Not like the Winter Pilgrimage. On the day winter ends, you can hear that bell from the other side of the mountain. That night, I could barely hear it, as though only one set of hands was at work at the pull.” He put his hands on his knees and closed his eyes again, summoning the past through the sheer force of his will.
“Who rings the bell at the change of seasons?” my uncle whispered. He leaned close to me, looking into my face. “Be careful when you ask that question, girl,” he warned, “if they know you’re curious, you may never have a chance to find out.”
Then he got up, and went into the house, leaving me to see that the fire was put out safely.
It took me some time to process what my uncle said that night. Years, in fact. I never mentioned the Tower bell to anyone, but near the end of every season I would stay up late, gazing out my window at the Tower, hoping to see the light and perhaps hear the sound of the seasons changing. I would gather with my friends every winter to watch the village elders pick four strong adults and one young person to make the Pilgrimage across the lake. The youth carried and held a ladder for the adults to enter the high door to the Tower, then waited outside while the adults entered to ring the bell.
I was sixteen when I stood at the edge of the frozen lake and watched my uncle’s face as he was passed over by the elders. One of our close neighbors had been honored as a bell-ringer for several winters, and that day as I saw a spark of hope leave my uncle’s eyes as he was passed over yet again, and his fight to keep the disappointment from showing on his face, I realized something important. My uncle was the strongest man in the village; he should have been picked numerous times to end the winter. But never, in my entire life, had he waved goodbye to my aunt and I before starting across the lake to ring the bell. My uncle had never been chosen.
That evening we watched the bell-ringers start out for the Tower. I received my aunt’s permission to stay out as late as my uncle; my best friend had been chosen to carry the ladder. We kept our eyes on their position, watching as the light from their lanterns grew smaller as they trekked across the lake.
My uncle had not spoken since we had left the house that morning, and when most everyone had gone home to rest, he cleared his throat. I took my eyes off the lanterns and looked up at him.
“I was twelve,” he told me, “When I asked one of the village elders about the change of the seasons.”
I said nothing, feeling as though any interruption would keep him from further information. I watched him quietly as he watched the lanterns.
“As soon as I asked, I knew it was wrong. He gave me such a look…” My uncle shook his head. “Your aunt thinks that if we gave more into the village surplus, that I would be chosen as a bell-ringer, but it’s not wealth that’s important.” He looked toward the dock where the Pilgrims had departed. “It’s that they know… they know that I want to know. And they will never give me a chance to find out.”
“I will, uncle,” I told him. I could feel his gaze on me as I looked out across the lake at the Tower. “Someday, I promise, I’ll find out who rings the bell to change the seasons.”
The Tower’s bell tolled across the landscape, and my uncle and I put our hands over our ears. It didn’t help to deafen the sound much, and I wondered how Lena could bear it, standing on the ice at the base of the Tower with the ladder, all alone.
As the throb of the fourth chime faded, I felt my uncle’s hand on my shoulder.
“Thank you,” he said.
At the end of spring when planting was finished, Lena and I took a long evening walk by the edge of the lake. I had never asked her about the Winter Pilgrimage, but that night, she told me.
“I didn’t hear the bell at all,” she said, “I felt it. The Tower shook, and the ladder fell over. By the time I got it back up, everyone was at the door, ready to climb back down.”
“How can that be?” I wondered, without realizing I was speaking my thoughts.
“I don’t know,” Lena replied, shrugging. “Maybe we’ll find out if we’re ever chosen for the Pilgrimage as adults.”
I waved goodnight to my friend as we reached her home, then turned back toward my own. I couldn’t help but continue to think about what she’d told me, and wonder about my uncle’s experience as a young man. As I reached the door of my home, I decided that what Lena had said was probably true: I was just going to have to wait to find out when I was older and got to go to the Tower to ring in the spring.
That was when I saw it.
I stood still and silent, irrationally frightened that if I moved or made a noise, that the light I could see would go away. When it did a few moments later, I let out the breath I hadn’t known I was holding. What had the light been? The first rational thought I had was that it was some from nocturnal sojourners on the far mountain… but the light had been much too near to be on the other side of the lake. Then I thought perhaps it had been the first firefly of summer, lighting the night to welcome the new season… but the duration of the light had been much longer than a flashing insect. Finally, I looked up at the clouds covering the sky, wondering if perhaps they had parted for a moment and one of the lights of the heavens had reflected off of the water.
Then my uncle’s voice reached me in my memory: “I thought I saw a light in the sky. Not a star… It was a lantern.”
If I hadn’t seen that light, I would not have thought anything of the sound that reached my ears as I stood that evening and witnessed the seasons change. It was so quiet, I could have taken it for an object being dropped on the floor in a nearby house. I gazed out toward the Tower, wondering if seeing the light was part of hearing the bell when spring changed to summer.
The nights were much cooler than the days of summer, especially when harvest time was nearing. Most evenings were fine, and after dinner many in the village often sat outside their homes to watch the stars, enjoy the weather, and chat with their neighbors. My aunt had gone to swap some of the fish she had caught that day for some eggs, and my uncle and I sat out to wait for her; it was very stifling in the house, even with the windows open. We joked about slinging hammocks in the trees and waved to those we saw talking walks in the night air.
Finally, my aunt returned, and scolded my uncle and I for not going in to sleep earlier. Then she sighed. “I knew I’d forgotten something,” she said. “I meant to fill up our water jug at the well so that you won’t die of thirst in the fields tomorrow. Fyn, would you mind running over to get some?”
I stood obediently and went inside for the water jug. “Don’t be out too late,” my uncle called with a smile as I hurried away.
I hadn’t ever told him about the night I saw the seasons change. I knew he would have liked to hear about it, to compare my experience with his own. But I didn’t want him to get too excited. I knew how much he wanted to know the secrets the Tower held, and that he would never get to find them out himself. Despite my uncle’s stoic facade, it was quite difficult for him to hide what he was feeling. If he was nervous and enthusiastic and paying too much attention to me when it came time for the elders to choose Pilgrims in the winter, they would never pick me to go, and his disappointment afterward would give them more reasons to not choose me in the future.
These things rolled around in my head as I walked to the well and drew the water. I had just finished and turned to pick up the heavy jug when I thought I saw something out across the lake.
I looked at the Tower, and for the second time in several months, saw a light shining there. I stood silently, waiting, and a few moments after the light disappeared, I heard the bell.
There was no mistaking it this time; it was louder and floated clearly across the water and into my ears. Someone was in the Tower, striking the bell to change the seasons. And I was going to find out who it was.
I picked up the jug and went home.
My uncle told the same story of the changing of the seasons after harvest. He sipped his ale and sat back in his seat when he had finished, and many of his audience wandered away. My aunt stayed next to him, talking to a friend about the best way to pack the surplus away for the winter. Lena had come to hear the story as she always did, and when she stood to leave, she beckoned me to come with her.
“You know,” she said, when my uncle and his fire were out of earshot, “Derrek’s brother likes you.” Derrek was Lena’s intended. They had danced together at the first dance of the Winter Pilgrimage Celebration, which, in our village, was the same as announcing your engagement.
“Derrek’s brother?” I echoed, unable to process the information. Lena had not talked of much else but Derrek for quite a while, and one of the tidbits about him must have been that he had a brother, but I could probably have been considered quite a bad friend since I often stopped listening whenever Lena began a conversation with the word “Derrek.”
“That’s right,” she replied.
“But… why does he like me?”
“Fyn,” Lena exclaimed, as though I were missing something obvious. “You know you’re the prettiest girl in the village, don’t you?”
I frowned at her. “I thought that was you,” I said with some confusion.
“Well, maybe,” she said modestly, “but I have Derrek.”
I made a face and stopped myself from saying something like, ‘so I’m the next best choice?’ because Lena was grinning a grin that used to get us into trouble when we were children.
“What?” I asked suspiciously.
“Fyn!” Lena cried, and grabbed my arm, giving it a squeeze. “Think about it! We could be sisters!”
I tried to smile. I had always felt that we were close enough to be sisters as it was, but never thought that we might actually be family someday. I didn’t know how I felt about this revelation. I didn’t know how I felt about Derrek’s brother. I hadn’t even ever really looked at him. Why did he think that he liked me? We’d never even spoken!
“What’s wrong?” Lena asked in a tone that told me she was annoyed. “You don’t like him?”
“I don’t… know,” I replied. “I’ve never really thought about it.”
“He’s very nice,” Lena began, her voice the same as the time that she had coaxed me to climb the tallest tree in the village when we were ten years old. “He’s an extremely hard worker. He brought in the most grain out of anyone in the village this harvest, if you don’t count your uncle.”
“Why would I not count my uncle?”
“He’s been at it for a lot longer,” she replied snappishly, then her tone changed back to the persuasive Lena I knew and loved. “Don’t you think it’s amazing that he could almost measure up to your uncle? It means he’ll be a good provider.”
I wasn’t really sure what to say, but I knew that Lena expected a reply.
“Well?” she said when her patience had run out.
“What do you think?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, knowing that wouldn’t satisfy her.
“What’s not to like?” she demanded.
“I…” I began.
We had reached Lena’s home, and I was glad to be saved from answering by the appearance of Derrek. “There you are, Lena my love,” he called, holding out his hand to her. She immediately released my arm and went to him, and I turned around, meaning to wave goodnight and melt into the shadows before Lena could realize we hadn’t quite finished our conversation.
I was just about to slink away when Lena renewed her grasp on my arm.
“Fyn, you’ve met Derrek,” she said unnecessarily. I had indeed met Derrek many times.
“Hello, Derrek,” I said with a polite smile.
“Fyn,” he said, “Have you met my brother Corrin?”
I opened my mouth to answer and found Lena’s glare warning me not to say anything that might ruin my chances. I forced another polite smile in response. “I haven’t.”
“He was right here a moment ago,” Derrek said. He turned in a circle and called, “Corrin?”
Derrek’s older brother appeared from the direction of the lake. Derrek had no time for an introduction, because Lena interrupted with, “Well, Derrek and I are going to go for a walk. You don’t mind walking Fyn home, do you, Corrin?” She then made it clear that her request wasn’t an option by pulling Derrek away as fast as she could.
Corrin and I looked at each other.
“You don’t have to…” I began, “I’ll be fine.” I turned and started back in the direction I had come.
“It’s all right,” Corrin replied, falling into step beside me. “I don’t mind.”
Instead of walking straight home, I found myself being led along the edge of the lake. It may have been meant for a romantic scene, but though the view was lovely, the lake never smelled that way.
“What are you thinking about?” Corrin asked suddenly.
“Oh,” I said, not sure if I should be honest or not. “Uh, well, actually, I was thinking that I’m glad my uncle lets me work in the field with him instead of making me catch fish with my aunt.”
“Why is that?” he asked, sounding genuinely interested.
“Because…” I paused for a moment to try to find the right words. “As much as our village needs the lake, I’m not sure I would enjoy working next to it all day.”
“You don’t think it might be cooler sitting next to the water than working in the field?” he asked.
“I don’t know about that,” I said, “but it stinks of fish.”
His laugh surprised me. It wasn’t unpleasant, and from what I had seen, neither was he. There was certainly nothing unpleasant about his looks. And I had to admit to myself that it was a bit flattering to know that he admired me, whatever his reason may have been.
“You’re not anything like I expected,” he said. “I thought you’d be one of those girls who does nothing but giggle.”
“Why would you think that?” I asked.
“Most girls your age are that way, aren’t they?”
“Not all of us,” I said, a bit annoyed. If he thought I was just a silly kid, what reason did he have for his high regard of me?
He seemed to realize he’d said something wrong. He sounded confused when he asked, “What else was I supposed to think after my brother told me that you couldn’t stop talking about me?”
I stopped walking. “I think your brother may have been misinformed,” I said frostily.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Lena told me of your affection for me when I was walking with her earlier.”
“My affection for you?” he repeated.
“How wonderful that the lake smells so foul tonight,” I continued, “Otherwise we may have found out that we didn’t care for one another at all about five years into our marriage.” I stopped to groan. “It must just be one more of those ridiculous things that deliriously happy people do,” I growled. “They’re happy and they want everyone else to be happy.”
I was startled again by his laugh. “I think they chose well for me,” he said, smiling at me. “You’re funny, straightforward, and you don’t giggle. I like you already.”
“Excellent,” I said angrily. “You be the one who treats it as a joke, and I’ll be the incredibly embarrassed one.”
“It was nice to meet you, Fyn,” he said, taking my hand and dropping a gentlemanly kiss on it. “I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.”
As soon as I was sure he was out of earshot, I threw my head into my hands and moaned. “I’m going to kill Lena,” I vowed. After a moment I reigned in my embarrassment, pushed my hair out of my face, and looked out over the lake.
Somehow I knew that I would see a light shining in the Tower. It was almost as though I had a standing appointment to see the seasons change. The light vanished at almost the same instant that I heard the bell. It was much louder than spring becoming summer and summer becoming autumn. Autumn becoming winter sounded like the strike of a hammer on an anvil.
I wondered what my experiences during the past year could mean. My uncle, as far as I knew, had only seen the light and heard the bell once. Perhaps the fact that I had witnessed the all the seasons change meant that I was fated to find out about who it was that tended the Tower between the Winter Pilgrimages. But how?
I walked slowly home, completely absorbed with my thoughts, completely forgetting to be angry about Lena’s attempt to marry me off.
“Who do you think will be chosen to go on the Winter Pilgrimage?” Derrek asked.
I rolled my eyes at Corrin, and he smiled at me.
“I don’t know,” Lena purred affectionately, “who do you think will be chosen?”
Over the last months, Derrek and his brother had been spending more time with Lena and I. Corrin and I had become friends. That is, after we had made it clear to the other two that there was nothing between us and if they ever tried to trick us into something like that again we would not speak to them for the rest of their lives (at least that’s what I said to Lena. I’m sure Derrek and Corrin settled it in a much more brotherly fashion; or I assume they did, by the state of Derrek’s face for several weeks after the end of harvest).
It seemed that Derrek and Lena were merely happy to be able to spend more time together since Corrin and I were there to chaperone.
The happy couple continued discussing the village’s current favorite topic, a subject that would thankfully be dropped after the Pilgrimage the following day.
“I’ve never really seen much point in speculating about it,” I told Corrin as I moved a little closer to the fire.
“Why is that?” he asked.
“It doesn’t really matter about the gossip,” I replied. “The elders choose, and there isn’t any way to know how they will beforehand. It was a surprise to me, Lena’s being chosen last year. The only thing I do know is that my uncle won’t go.”
“Are you sure?” Corrin said, sounding surprised. “The butcher is sure your uncle will be chosen this year.”
“That man talks more than he works,” I snorted, repeating a phrase I had heard my aunt use many times.
Corrin smiled. “How can you know your uncle won’t be a bell-ringer? Didn’t you just say that there isn’t any way to know how the elders will choose?”
“I…” I frowned. I didn’t want to mention to anyone how I knew, in case it would ruin the chances of being chosen myself. “He just… never has been chosen before,” I said lamely.
“Well then, all the more reason for him to go this year,” he replied. “He’s still young and fit. The village could use his help to keep this world from freezing in everlasting winter.”
I smiled and said nothing.
Corrin mirrored my smile and gave up the subject. “I guess we’ll see in the morning,” he said.
The weather did not look favorable for the Winter Pilgrimage that year. Snow had not stopped falling for several days, and though high winds kept it from piling up, the village elders had decided that it would not be safe to hold the Pilgrimage at night, as it was traditionally done.
We all gathered in the morning around the dock: the adults on one side, the youth on the other. I kept an eye on my uncle and aunt as I stood with Derrek, Lena, and Corrin. My uncle’s face looked more determined than I had ever seen it at the choosing, and I thought he must have heard that gossip had chosen him to finally go to the Tower and end the winter.
One of the village elders began the choosing ceremony. It was a long speech, and I was respectfully paying attention when Corrin distracted me.
“Fyn,” he whispered. “Are you going to dance tonight?”
I shot him a glare. “I wasn’t planning on it,” I whispered back.
“Oh,” he replied quietly. “Well, if you change your mind, save a dance for me, will you? It doesn’t have to be the first dance; any dance will do.”
“Corrin,” I hissed, “any dance would be my first dance.”
“Would it?” he murmured with grin. “I hadn’t realized.”
I tried to get a better look at his face without betraying the fact that I was paying no attention whatsoever to the Elder. “I thought we were just friends,” I said, trying to make sure my voice was still quiet. “Are you telling me, now, that you want to dance with me?”
Corrin made no effort to pretend that he was interested in the choosing. He looked me in the eye and said, “What if I am? What would you say?”
I looked up at him, completely uneasy. Ever since we had discovered that it was Lena and Derrek who were trying to push us together, I had never once thought that Corrin might have feelings for me. He was my friend. I had no idea what to say, but I knew I needed to say something.
I opened my mouth.
And Lena elbowed me in the ribs.
“Fyn!” she breathed. “What are you doing? Get out there! You’re a Pilgrim!”
I tore my eyes from Corrin’s face and looked first at the elders, and then at my uncle. He was glowing with pride, but he still stood next to my aunt. He had not been chosen.
I walked out to the edge of the lake and took the heavy ladder from one of the elders. Then I looked back at Corrin.
For the first time, I didn’t want to go to the Tower. I wanted to stop everything and find out if he was serious or if he was just joking. I wanted some time to think about how to reply if he really had just asked me to marry him.
The elders were charging us with the task and speaking a blessing over our pilgrimage. Corrin was smiling at me. He waved, along with everyone else in the village, and called, “We can have a long talk when you get back!”
But as I stepped onto the frozen lake, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to have a long talk with Corrin when I got back, because I wouldn’t be coming back.
I waved at my family and friends. “Goodbye,” I called to Corrin. I glanced at Lena; I would miss her. I grinned at my uncle, trying to conceal the regret I was feeling: I would never be able to tell him who it was that rang the bell to change the seasons.
But I thought perhaps, when I didn’t return, he might figure it out on his own.
I hefted the ladder onto my shoulder and struggled through the snow with the adults. It took less time to reach the Tower than I had thought it would. The butcher and one of the women who worked with my aunt helped me set up the ladder, and I held it steady while they all climbed up.
They disappeared through the entrance, and I reflected that my presence as a ladder-holder hadn’t really been necessary. The snow was deep, and the way we had wedged it against both the Tower and the ice on the lake would hold it until the thaw. There was no reason for me to wait outside in the cold.
So I climbed up.
I knew what I would find at the top: a stone platform. Previous pilgrims hadn’t been forbidden from sharing what they saw in the Tower, so I knew that the stairs on my right went up another level to the massive rope attached to the bell. Soon, the four adults who had braved the snow and the icy lake along with me would pull the rope, ringing the bell four times, and marking the beginning of spring.
What I didn’t expect to see was a light shining to my left. Nor did I expect the staircase that led down as far as I could see. I glanced up the stairs to make sure no one would see me, then started down the stairs to the left.
I climbed down for ages.
I found myself thinking as I descended that if the gods really had built the Tower, that I could end up anywhere, but the most likely place for my final destination, as far as I could tell, seemed to be the underworld.
I gave up counting the steps somewhere soon after three thousand. After what seemed like an age, I heard the echo of a bell chiming four times. I looked up, unable to believe that I’d only been going down the stairs for such a short time, but as my eye stretched upward, I could see that I had come quite a long way, and when I looked down, I saw just as many stairs below as I had seen above me.
Maybe time stretched on the staircase. Maybe I had dreamed my previous life as I had been descending, and there had never been anything else except the stairs, and I had never been doing anything but going down them.
My thoughts drifted away from me, and I climbed down. I focused on the light coming from below, which looked as close as it had when I first saw it at the top of the stairs. I wondered if I would ever reach it.
I kept moving forward.
I didn’t notice when I reached the bottom; perhaps I had fallen asleep. I became aware that I was no longer traveling toward the center of the earth when I found myself in a comfortable study. Bookshelves full of tomes lined the walls, and there was a cheery fire, cushy leather furniture, and a big mahogany desk, where a little man was sitting.
“Ah, I wondered when you would get here,” he said, looking up from the book he was writing in.
“You were waiting for me?” I asked, when I could find my voice.
“Of course,” he said with a smile, snapping the book shut and standing to place it on a nearby shelf. “After all, it’s not every day one’s replacement arrives.”
I nodded. “What do I need to do?” I said, surprising myself with the calm in my voice.
“Come,” he said, motioning me over. “Let me show you.”
When I was a child I had always wondered if the Tower was part of a large structure. Sometimes I would daydream about how big the cathedral it topped could be. Nothing I had ever imagined could have prepared me for what was actually there.
Endless libraries and corridors and bedrooms; workrooms and laboratories and recreation rooms; bathrooms and dining rooms and leisure rooms.
My guide was silent, simply throwing open doors and giving me a few moments to glance around. I never wanted to linger, and somehow knew that I would have more than enough time to examine each and every room at my leisure. Finally, we returned to the study I had first entered.
“Any questions?” the little man asked.
“Just one,” I replied. Of course, I had more than one, but I was sure I could figure out the answers to the others eventually, on my own. “I notice we didn’t pass through any kitchens.”
The man smiled. “Everything is provided,” he answered. He leaned down to open a drawer in the desk and lifted out a tray of cakes, one of my favorite kinds.
“That’s not mysterious at all,” I found myself saying.
He laughed. “We have an important job. The least our employers could do is make it a bit more bearable for us.”
“Our employers?” I asked.
He glanced at me over the top of his spectacles. “I thought you said you only had one question.”
“All right,” I conceded, “how about this one: what is this place? Is it the underworld?”
The man frowned and looked around at the ceiling as if the answer to my question was written there. “You know,” he replied, “I’ve never been able to decide. Other caretakers have been sure they knew the answer to that question, and few have been humble enough to admit that after all their years here, they still don’t have a clue.” A small smile stole across his face. “I am not too proud to admit that I fall into the latter category.”
“How do you know what other caretakers thought? I got the impression that you’d be leaving me soon.”
“Eager to get rid of me?” he asked.
“No, I just… felt that…”
“You’re right,” he said. “It’s been some time since I’ve had a conversation with a pretty young lady, so you’ll have to forgive my teasing. This room is the caretakers’ study. The books you see here are their writings.”
My eyes attempted to follow the wall up to the ceiling, but got confused somewhere and the room warped and shifted. I withdrew my eyes, rubbing them with my fists.
“You may find that this room is quite a bit bigger than it looks at first,” said my predecessor. “I would advise you not to think about it too much.”
I blinked and looked up at the ceiling, and it had returned to its previous position, eleven feet up. I focused on the books on the shelves instead. They all looked well worn, but in good condition. “I can read any of these?” I asked.
“You can,” he replied. “And the best part is that you can also contribute.” I turned to find him holding out a book with a light red cover. It seemed quite small and thin, but just like the study, the stairs, and the rest of the structure, I tried not to think about it too much; I was merely sure that it had the potential to be much bigger than it looked.
I put the book down on the desk, where his book had been when I had first entered the room. When I looked up, he was pulling on a jacket and lighting a pipe. He stepped over and held a door open for me. “Shall we?” he asked.
I followed him up the stairs I had just come down, and along the way he produced a lantern. Going up didn’t seem nearly as endless as coming down. I felt as though we climbed three levels and gained the platform that shared the villagers’ entrance. Three more levels up was the bell itself.
“The pilgrims from your village only see what they have been taught to see,” said my predecessor, answering the question I had been about to ask. “Though they have climbed to the top and touched the bell, they have never noticed these.”
Four hammers hung in the four corners of the Tower. The hammer in the northwest corner was the smallest, the southwest corner held a slightly larger one, and in the southeast corner hung a hammer so big I wasn’t sure I could lift it without help.
My predecessor indicated the smallest hammer and said, “This is used to bring summer in the spring.” He turned to the medium sized hammer in the southwest corner. “This will make autumn out of summer.” And when the hammer hanging in the southeast corner was used to strike the bell, “the autumn will become winter.”
My eye had been drawn away from the hammer that stood in the northeast corner while my tasks were being explained, but now that I understood what was expected of me, I began to wonder.
I opened my mouth to ask the question, extending my hand toward the object of my confusion.
“That,” thundered my predecessor, “is not for our use.”
I withdrew my hand and closed my mouth, suddenly understanding.
It was the last. That hammer would never be touched until the bell would ring for the last time. It was why the Winter Pilgrimage was so important; without the villagers, winter would stay until the ending of the world. It was a unique privilege to change the seasons, whether you were chosen for the job once or twice in your life or just once… for the rest of your life.
The little man gave me a nod and reassuring smile. He buttoned his jacket against the cold.
“Well,” he said, “it’s about time for me to be going.”
I accompanied him back down the stairs to the entrance. The ladder was gone and the wind had blown enough snow to obliterate any of the footprints from the villagers who had come to the Tower with me. In fact, a big snowdrift had pushed itself up against the side of the Tower.
“Wait,” I said. “How will I know when it’s time to ring the bell?”
He smiled. “How did you know you were coming here to stay when you stepped off the shore this morning?” he asked.
“Thank you for your help,” I said.
“You’re welcome, Caretaker,” he replied, and shook my hand. “Good luck!”
Then he leaped out the door and into the snow.
It’s impossible to feel bored in the Tower. There are too many books to read, with too many interesting ideas to think about (and sometimes test for myself, in the workrooms or laboratories or recreation rooms).
One thing it’s impossible not to feel is loneliness. Mine began several minutes after my predecessor disappeared. Many of my first days were filled not with exploring the many rooms below, but with sitting next to the bell at the top of the Tower and watching the village. On those first days I brought two books with me: my predecessor’s and my own. His was inside a deep blue cover, and without it, I would not have been able to learn to live with my loneliness. While I had left behind an uncle and an aunt, friends, and possibly a man who loved me, he had left a loving wife and a house full of children. I sometimes wondered if he had returned to them.
More often, I wondered what my uncle had done when the pilgrims had come home from the Tower without me. And I wondered what Corrin felt when I didn’t arrive with the others, excited to have participated in the Winter Pilgrimage, ready to have that long talk, and perhaps, that first dance.
I never expected to see my family or friends come to the Tower for the Winter Pilgrimage, but for quite a while I daydreamed about some way to get a letter back to them. It was a silly daydream, since I knew it could never be. Instead I would climb to the top of the Tower early when the time of year called for the hammer in the southeast corner.
I would watch the bonfires being lit and the workers enjoying some well-earned rest after a long harvest. I would gaze at the shore, knowing that those who sat there were gazing back at me. I would watch the one fire on the beach that I was sure was my uncle’s, and if I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the story he was telling.
“We have a unique privilege. That Tower is on this earth to change the seasons. When its bell rings, spring becomes summer, summer becomes autumn, autumn becomes winter, and winter becomes spring.”