Original Fiction by
David C. Schwartz
O nce upon a time, there was in southern Italy a beautiful, spiritual, and music-loving community, Sant Cecilia. Despite the warmth and charm of the village, its residents confronted persistent and pervasive poverty. Then came a devastating earthquake, and the people were forced to live and labor with extreme difficulty.
The quake literally uprooted the townsfolk from their familiar ways of life. They struggled to envision and invent a new world honoring their history, while conceiving and birthing a more modern habitat. Theirs is a story, a fable really, that celebrates those who have buried their dead, but not their dreams; who have wept yet gone back to work, and have fought hard to become the people they needed to be.
Father Giovanni Bellini, only two years beyond his ordination, left Rome to become the parish priest at the Church of Saint Agatha in the Sicilian village of Sant Cecilia. It was not the assignment he hoped or prepared for at the Vatican, composing and playing holy classical music. But he was dutiful and spiritually inspired, and looked forward to whatever had been decreed for him.
Soon after his arrival, Father Bellini put down in his diary, his first impressions of Sant Cecilia—named for the patron saint of music-makers. “The village’s natural beauty engages the senses: the sunshine, music in the air, the sweet fragrances carried on prevailing wind currents down from the almond orchards and orange groves to and through the valley.”
He described the species of ponies found there but nowhere else in the world, and an equally unique kind of orange; how the tall trees under cultivation and the even taller ones in the forests beyond the orchards made for a wonderful aviary. “Eagles and other high flying birds find nesting places in and near the village,” he wrote. “Songbirds, nearer to the ground than to the mountaintops, combine with the church bells, the wind chimes and the rustling sounds of the leaves to make delightful and calming music.”
The people, he noted, lived in comforting rootedness. Theirs was a peace of place, a sense of extended family, a common destiny, an orderliness of existence.
Father Bellini found Sant Cecelia to be something of a world of its own—home to about 3,000 farmers, day laborers, shepherds, a few skilled craftsmen and their families. Despite the spirit and beauty of the village, though, the poverty of Sant Cecelia was palpable. Small, crudely crafted houses, some barely more than huts, stood on little plots of land that were under-irrigated and over-farmed, worked with ancient tools.
“I have come to know that the poverty is not attributable to any lack of ambition, diligence or skill in the people,” Father Bellini wrote in his diary. “Hard work, done well every day, starting in the predawn hours and ending in the dark, is the norm, not the exception, in Sant Cecelia. People labor with vigor but uncertain success in the almond orchards, vineyards, orange groves, sheep farms and in the fields of lettuce or artichokes.
“The reasons, I believe, are that the plots of land are too small to produce the quantity of salable products needed to live comfortably: the soil is too rocky, and more water is needed than the primitive irrigation systems can provide.”
What Sant Cecelia did have was a church, Saint Agatha’s, named for the patron saint of bell makers, and one school, San Gabriel, also named for a protector and producer of music. The church, several centuries old, was surprisingly large for a village of such modest size. In medieval times it had been a castle belonging to the barons who once ruled almost all of this part of Sicily. It had survived wars with invading forces from Arabia and Spain. The hand-set stone structure may have been built in the late 14th century or early 15th century but, later, about 1750, a bell tower of matching stone was added. The six-bell tower was used as an alarm system when attackers threatened the peace.
Although the people of Sant Cecelia had never been rich in money, they were always rich in love for each other and love for God. The church was the center of the town’s activities and identity. Prayers and services were emphasized, of course, but community gatherings of all types were held there. Mayor Niccolo Luciano had an office in the Village Square, but spent most days with Father Bellini in the church—discussing and debating anything and everything, playing chess, eating cheese, drinking wine.
Befitting its patroness, the village of Sant Cecelia was filled with music, music makers and musical instruments—some professionally crafted but many more homemade. The most commonly heard instrument was the human voice. People sang through their days and the events of their lives. Farmers had songs for ploughing, planting, seeding, weeding, watering and harvesting the crops. Shepherds sang to their sheep with different tunes for shearing and milking. The olive growers had melodies for pruning and picking and for pressing the oil from the olives. Winemakers had spirited songs for stomping the grapes into the strong wines for which the area was famous.
The people of Sant Cecelia sang at weddings, birthday parties, and confirmations; they sang at holidays and holy days, all through the year and the life cycle. Their repertoire spanned love songs, work songs, lullabies, and lively Sicilian folk music played on flutes, drums, accordions and shepherd’s bells. Central to all the singing was the vocal music made in church, whether accompanied by the old, wheezy organ, flute, or harp, or sung a cappella.
The community-uniting, village-defining tones of the town were the church bells of Saint Agatha. The bells in the tower sounded at least three times a day, whenever the Lord’s Prayer was said at church; a beautiful reminder to value piety, prayer, and charity throughout the day. Church bells called them to services, tolling on weekday twilights and chiming on Sunday mornings. The bells resounded triumphantly on holy days, joyously for weddings, and somberly for funerals.
There was also a centuries old, one octave scale of ascending notes to signal communal danger, such as in case of fire or storm. Though rarely heard, it was universally understood to be a call to come to the church to be informed and mobilized to action.
In every way, Sant Cecelia was a village of holy and human purpose, a community of beautiful church music. And nothing was more beautiful than the choir of Saint Agatha’s, called “heavenly” by one and all. The singers practiced twice a week under the energetic, serious-but-smiling direction of Deacon Dominick Mangini, an old, round, red-faced man whose hands trembled with what he called “a touch of the palsy.” Dominick was known to calm his trembling with a “sip of the spirits.” Teenagers in the choir good-naturedly called him “Deacon Methuselah,” but respected him for his religiosity.
While Dominick tended the choir, no one was allowed to touch the temperamental, enigmatic organ except Sister Victoria. The good sister had an enthusiastic pedal stomping, singalong style.
The children’s choir was called “The Cherubim” whose collective voice was labeled “angelic.” Whatever mischief they got into during the week was atoned for and forgiven on Sunday. “Beauty begets mercy,” was the often-quoted saying in Sant Cecelia.
There was another folk saying in Sant Cecelia: “If you don’t believe in miracles, you certainly won’t experience any or help God to produce them.” The people of the village believed in miracles: large ones and small ones. Life and love were miracles, as were babies and good harvests. All these things required human participation and heavenly action. “You have to work very hard to help God be good to you,” the people of Sant Cecelia were fond of saying.
The villagers were human, far from perfect. When Father Bellini warned in his sermons of the dangers of alcohol and adultery, there were many reasons for those warnings. “But people make many more mistakes than they commit sins,” he preached. “Be good, be real.”
Matteo, age 16, was the youngest of four teenage sons raised by Angelo and Carmella Carpini. The other boys, ascending in age in one-year steps, were Luca, Anthony, and Leonardo. Angelo operated a small farm and a handyman business with the help of his two older sons. Matteo wanted to help his father and brothers, but spent his days in a chair that kept him from providing much assistance. Most days, after school, Luca rode his pony around the village pulling Matteo in a rolling cart on which his chair could be belted down securely.
Matteo’s legs were proportionate to his body in size, but some malady made him unable to stand up for more than a few seconds. His condition, though, made him more concerned about the well-being of others. He befriended many of the very oldest of the town’s senior citizens, the troubled folks, and homebound children. He was a happy young man, with an easy smile, a musical laugh, a good singing voice, a treasure of folktales—and a passion for making wind chimes. He created all kinds and sizes of wind chimes, and reveled in the sweet sounds they made as he gave them away all across Sant Cecelia.
It was partly a religious matter for Matteo. When he was only 13, the teacher at school asked each child what he wanted to be. Most aspired to be farmers; a few to be doctors or priests. Matteo answered in a near whisper filled with purity and conviction: “I want to be a wind chime for the delight of God.”
Soon, Matteo’s fellow students and teachers asked him how he made all the different chimes he loved to construct, and often to build one for them. With his upper body strength, Matteo was skilled at working with hand tools, so it was easy and fast for him to build wind chimes with and for all the people who asked for them. He used metal tubes and pipes, wooden rods, spoons, shards of glass or porcelain, shells, keys, hand bells—all manner of objects readily found in the attics of San Cecelia’s farmhouses or near the handyman’s shop or around the farm buildings and sheds of Matteo’s neighbors.
Matteo never asked for money for his wind chimes. Satisfaction came from the work of building them, from their sweet sounds, and from feeling useful and needed. Soon, people from all over the village approached Matteo to make wind chimes. Then he and his brother, Luca, would go to their gardens, houses, farms and orchards to hang the chimes.
Powered by the winds sweeping down the sloping topography, the chimes could be heard all over the village. The music of the chimes and the church bells resounded separately and together. The softer tinkling sounds of the chimes came first, preparing for the majesty of the church bells, then the melodious undertone for the pealing of the bells, and finally a continuing echo or after sound. The effect was divine.
The island of Sicily has been plagued by earthquakes for all of recorded human history. The people of Sant Cecelia knew this history, this litany of horror, as well as most Sicilians did, although they considered themselves far enough away from the Straits of Sicily to be safe from undersea tremors or onshore rock slides and flooding. And their location in western Sicily was outside the zones where quakes occurred most frequently.
It happened just after 9 p.m. on a Sunday night in January. The world shook, the planet trembled, the very ground wobbled and seemed likely to cave in. Some folks in the hills on the outskirts of town were thrown out of bed. Closer to the Town Center farm buildings collapsed, roofs crumbled, livestock was lost, and houses toppled. Trees fell in the orchards and forests. Half of the Town Center was completely destroyed, the other half largely undamaged.
The church and the school were spared. Not a pane of Saint Agatha’s marvelous stained glass windows was broken, not a stone of the church’s edifice came loose. Even the fencing around the school was largely undamaged. But the Bell Tower was gone, reduced to ugly mounds of rock. Like much of the village, the bell tower had been torn apart and silenced. Rubble and rubbish remained.
At that moment no one knew who was homeless, who was hurting, who was dead, or how many there were in each category. Rightly sensing that their small houses were vulnerable to aftershocks, a good many people came into town—heading, of course, for the church.
They arrived with tears on their faces—tears of joy that they had survived; tears of gratitude that their neighbors, church and school had survived; tears of worry and of anticipated grief for those not there (or not there yet).
The school’s gymnasium housed those who were without homes. Father Bellini prayed fervently, reassuringly. The men who needed the comfort or courage of their silver flasks gathered around the corner away from the church. Mayor Niccolo Luciano, deeply moved but already out of touch with the mood of the people, announced that “the reconstruction of Sant Cecelia will begin at dawn.” That announcement was met with universal, but unspoken, incredulity.
That’s when Father Bellini spoke up. “Faith shaken, but restorable, can move mountains.”
The mountains had already moved. Now it was up to faith to do the rest.
The life that went on in Sant Cecelia after the quake was robotic and joyless. A few families made plans to leave, but most were too numb to plan much of anything. There was scarcely enough energy for the day-to-day, neighbor-to-neighbor home and farm repairs. Barn raisings and house raisings were few. Collective work to restore the town did not happen. At length, it was decided to hold a series of meetings discuss the future of the Village Center.
At the first meeting, some little and some grandiose plans for the reconstruction of the Bell Tower and Village Center were put forth. None had realistic cost estimates or plans for fundraising. Father Giovanni sent a request to the Pope for help but had not yet received a reply. The national government in Rome offered a little humanitarian aid, but no money for reconstruction.
The second meeting, a week later, was pretty much a rehashing of the first, with one exception. Matteo Carpini suggested that a lot of the rubble from the Bell Tower and the Village Center could be salvaged for rebuilding, with the rest of the debris used to construct the world’s largest wind chime.
“Then we would have some kind of holy music here,” Matteo said.
A few people nodded, a few more nodded off. The meeting was adjourned.
At the third meeting, after few new suggestions were brought forth, someone called on Matteo to tell them why they should build a wind chime and how much it would cost.
“It will cost nothing,” he said. “I will design the wind chime at no charge, and my brother Luca and I will supervise the volunteers who will build the chimes. I’m sure that everyone for whom I have built a wind chime at one time or another will volunteer. But as to why we should build a wind chime, I could say it would be nice, it could bring us together, it could attract some visitors who might provide plans or money for our recovery. I could tell you all that but, instead let me tell you a story.”
And so Matteo told his tale, of how once upon a time in Heaven, the angels debated which were the holier musical instruments, wind chimes or church bells. One group of angels believed that chimes were holier because they represent a more complete partnership between humans and God. “Once humans construct the chimes out of materials provided by God, the Lord sends the breezes to create the music” they said.
This group argued that while church bells were God-inspired because they call people to prayer, humans are the ones to construct the church and bell tower, cast the bells, and ring them. “Church bells involve much more human action than heavenly intervention.”
But the other group of angels believed church bells were holier because they were louder and more diversified in religious purposes. “Church bells change the moods and memories of place,” they said. “Church bells, being hung higher off the ground than wind chimes, are holier because they are closer to heaven.”
The first group countered, “But wind chimes are accessible to more people, more individuals, even to children, than church bells.”
“Exactly,” the second angelic contingent said. “To have church bells the people of the village must come together. That’s a holy thing.”
The archangels stepped in and ended the debate. “Be still and know that God loves all people, all prayer, and all holy music equally. Now hear the pure tones of worship.”
There was silence for a moment after which the skies were symphonic with prayer-filled music—church bells and wind chimes, harps and flutes and trumpets and drums, and all people singing harmoniously in hundreds of different languages….
After he finished the story, Matteo looked around at the faces of his fellow villagers. “If real funding for a Bell Tower is made available to Sant Cecelia—from the Pope or any other legitimate source—I will cease working on the wind chimes and remove it from Village Center.”
Every person in the room leaped to his or her feet. The standing ovation for Matteo lasted several minutes. And, as he predicted, virtually every family in town volunteered to help—and actually helped.
Matteo’s design was a giant heart-shaped metal frame with thousands of narrow wires, so thin they were almost invisible, crisscrossing the frame in every direction. On the wires were placed tens of thousands of heart-shaped objects made out of metal, glass, rock, and porcelain.
When the wind below, the music was magnificent.
The people loved the design and the work. In a year, Matteo, his brothers, and their fellow villagers built the wind chime, while also healing the spirit of their community. On the first anniversary of the earthquake, there were prayerful ceremonies celebrating the chimes, while hoping for a bell tower.
(In time, a high-quality sound system, advanced for the period, was installed to broadcast the ever-changing music of the chimes throughout Sant Cecilia. This led to radio broadcasts to bring the music to more of Sicily, and then a recording industry developed to make the music available to a wider world…but that is getting ahead of this story.)
As Matteo had predicted, visitors found their way to Sant Cecelia, some of them on pilgrimages of faith. There were stories of health being restored by the music therapy of the chimes. A Papal representative came to see the chimes and to bless them, the village and villagers. A wealthy doctor who heard about the Papal blessing came from Palermo and offered to raise money to rebuild the bell tower. The doctor also told Matteo and his family that he knew of a medical procedure and a therapy that might enable Matteo to walk.
Now, in Sant Cecelia, there was much hope in many more hearts than ever before, evidence of the healing—and some would say miraculous—nature of the wind chimes. Father Bellini said it best in one of his sermons: “Where hope exists, there is always the potential for humans to partner with each other and with God.”
Two years and three surgical operations later, Matteo took his first steps—and later walked down the aisle of the church to be married. Ten years later, a new Bell Tower was built in Sant Cecelia. And, the new Bell Tower, by unanimous decision, was so constructed in the Village Square as to keep in place the magical, miraculous wind chimes of Sant Cecilia.
David Schwartz is 76 years young and the author of 19 poems and stories published in U.S. and Canadian literary journals. Paula Smith is co-author of 5 short stories and a novel: A Dynasty of Love, Power and Purpose.
Image credit: “Piero, sant’agata,” (C. 1460-1470), Source (book): B. Laskowski, Piero della Francesca, Gribaudo. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.