The Bells

The Witches’ Bells started to toll as the Senator entered the parking garage under the US Capitol. The Bells were loud today. They had been tuned to the Capitol building.

“It’s the speed of sound,” one of her staff had explained, back when the Witches had first started ringing the Bells. It reminded her of her father teaching her as a child to count off the seconds between a lightning flash and the thunder. He’d explained that it takes sound about five seconds to travel a mile, but light travels almost instantly. So if the lightning was a mile away, you would see the flash the moment the lightning struck, but the sound wouldn’t arrive until a full five seconds later.

There were thirteen Bells located around the Capitol area, and a master computer program timed them all. One stroke every five seconds, but rung at slightly different instants so that the sound would arrive at a location of choice at exactly the same moment. People called it “tuning” the Bells.

When you were at the tuning-point, it was an uncanny, disturbing sound. It seemed to come from everywhere, and nowhere, almost like you were inside the bell. It also seemed impossible to block out the sound. The thick walls and bulletproof glass of the Capitol building only muted it. If you used earplugs, you could still feel it in your chest and belly. The relentless five-second peal got into your head, into your heartbeat, and rubbed you raw from the inside out.

But it wasn’t merely an annoyance. The Bells carried a moral burden. A curse, in fact. An actual curse.

She remembered the first news item she’d seen, five years ago: an unsteady iPhone video from a bystander watching a street-performance, accompanied by the usual snarky commentary from celebrity newscasters. The video showed a portion of the Supreme Court building in the background, and three women, pushing a long cylindrical wind chime that hung from a wheeled framework. All were dressed in full-body leotards, with hooded cloaks: one wore white, one wore black, and one wore scarlet. Their faces were painted in the same colors as their clothing, with stylized features: the woman in white had a cold, pitiless face, like a porcelain mask; the woman in black wore an expression of permanent anguish; the woman in red had the appearance of a vengeful demon from Hell. The women gathered around the wind chime and stood motionless, facing inward. A small crowd gathered.

Then the woman in white pulled a large book from a pocket inside her cloak, and a large feathered quill. She opened the book, and wrote in it with the quill. She raised her face, and called out in a loud voice.

Allison Sue Baker!

The woman in black drew a black stick from her inner cloak pocket, tipped with a dull black rubber ball, and struck the chime. It was surprisingly loud and faded slowly, as the woman in black crouched and threw back her head, hands raised in supplication to Heaven, teeth bared in a grimace of pain.

The woman in red whirled, her cloak spreading out like wings, and she lifted her hands toward the Supreme Court Building, fingers twisted into claws. She called out in a loud voice.


Then all three women screamed.

The women had powerful voices, trained voices, opera voices, and the long shriek they produced caused the entire crowd to surge backward. It seemed to go on forever, then cut off instantly. All three turned back to face the chime.

Nine times they repeated this ritual, each time calling out a different woman’s name, and cursing another of the nine Supreme Court Justices. Then they wheeled the garden chime away, separated, and vanished into the Washington crowds.

The Senator pulled into her assigned parking spot. She knew the tolling of the Bells would continue for at least another hour, perhaps two. That was the real genius — the cruel genius — of the Bells. Each toll represented one young woman’s life lost to a botched self-administered abortion.

Statistics were just numbers. Six hundred thousand abortions per year, before Roe v. Wade was overturned. Divide by 365, and you have 1600 abortions per day. Roughly half of those were now classified as homicides in states around the country, so that’s 800 per day done with a coat hanger or knitting needle, or using deadly poisons. If only half of those resulted in a fatality, that was four hundred deaths a day. Four hundred out of a population of 300 million. Negligible.

But four hundred deaths, measured by slow bell, is 33 minutes.

Every. Single. Day.

And that isn’t counting the suicides.

The Senator gritted her teeth. She threw open her car door violently, dinging the car next to hers, and found she didn’t care. She closed her door partway, and then slammed it into the other car as hard as she could. It made a satisfying scraping sound.

She got out, slammed her car door shut, and strode toward the elevator. The tolling of the Bells echoed in the concrete cave of the parking garage. A curse, a scream, a death, every five seconds.

The Witches’ Bells were all owned by the Church of the Three Sisters, a new church that had registered as a tax-exempt religious organization shortly after the Three Witches had staged their street theater a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court building.

The Church had immediately begun to preach in favor of a national law codifying a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, medical care, and privacy. There was serious money behind the movement — they had been able to purchase the thirteen properties in DC where the Witches’ Bells were located, as well as create a national network of churches throughout the country. Those churches offered places for parents who had lost daughters to come together and grieve and speak freely. That had created a powerful political coalition that had put a lot of pressure on her party to pass today’s Women’s Rights bill.

The Senator was still a freshman Senator, only two years into her first term, but she’d been hand-picked by the Majority Leader to play hard-to-get on today’s vote. It had been a key role in ensuring that today’s vote would fail. She’d felt honored, and flattered.

Her role was to pretend to be on the fence, to act as a honey-pot to attract the attention of the other side. Several of her party had already defected, and if she joined them, the other side would be able to pass the bill directly. That was the honey: the other side knew they only needed one more vote, and she courted their attention. There were other members of her party far more likely to defect under pressure, but she’d managed to draw attention away from them by playing the second-year ingénue. Her vote with her party line today would not only scuttle the bill, it would bring substantial rewards for her.

A sudden instant of overwhelming panic and doubt almost made her stumble.

Am I ready for this?

She took a deep breath, and then continued toward the Senate chambers.

The Majority leader glanced up as she entered, and he immediately moved toward her.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” he said quietly.

“It’s an important vote,” she said.

“It is,” he said. “But you’ve already done your part, and done it well. We could have managed without you today. You should be home.”

“I need to see this through,” she said, her jaw tight.

He gave her a strange look. She broke eye contact and headed toward her seat.

She paid little attention to proceedings until the Majority Leader raised the Women’s Rights bill, S.12. She stood.

“Majority Leader, I wish to address the Senate,” she said, her voice firm.

He looked up, sudden alarm in his face. This was not any part of the script they’d discussed. She waited.

After a long moment, he said, “The Chair recognizes the Senator from Texas.”

She looked around the room.

“Some of you know that my husband and I have very recently suffered a terrible loss. The rest of you should know, as well. We lost our daughter over this past weekend. She is dead. What most of you would never learn is that she died by her own hand. She was a suicide.”

There was a stir of movement around the chamber, but now she had their full attention.

“She was also pregnant.”

The room became deathly quiet. Every eye was on her.

“My husband and I are devout Christians, as you all know, and we are deeply involved with our church in Texas. We have always believed that ending a pregnancy is a sin against God, and we celebrated the overturn of Roe v. Wade five years ago. I entered politics to ensure that abortion would never again be legalized, because we believe that there is always another way, a way that does not end an innocent life. We supported our daughter. We knew her boyfriend, and we felt he was a good young man. We were disappointed that they weren’t willing to wait, but we were more than willing to bless their marriage. 

“She refused. My daughter refused. She said she would not marry her boyfriend, and she would not give birth to the child. She demanded that we take her out-of-state to abort the child.

“We didn’t understand. We tried to reason with her. We told her that we would be there for her, that we could make it work. We counseled with our pastor.

“She finally told us that her boyfriend was not the father of the child. But she would not tell us who had fathered the child. We … we still didn’t understand.”

Her breath caught. She looked down. A tear ran down her face. She straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath.

“My daughter left a note. She explained in writing everything she could not say to us.

“She wrote that her boyfriend was not the father of her child. It was her boyfriend’s father who had sired the child. It was rape. A forcible rape by a man my husband’s age.

“Had our daughter bent to our wishes, she would have quietly, obediently married her boyfriend, and would have lived the rest of her life in the terror of another rape by her father-in-law. Of another child that was not her husband’s.”

The Senator took a deep, slow breath.

“HOW IS THIS JUSTICE?” she screamed.

A babble of shouts and arguments erupted.

“I. STILL. HOLD. THE. FLOOR.” the Senator shouted, each word like a gunshot.

The babble subsided. The Senator waited for complete silence.

“I set my sights on preventing the death of an innocent life,” she said, quietly. “I destroyed two innocent lives. Not one. Two.”

She paused for a moment.

“You do not set a bone before you straighten it. You do not give birth to a child — a precious child — before you at least try to straighten the life that will raise it.

“And there are times when you must amputate a limb to save a life.

“The criminalization of abortion is wrong. It is vicious, it is arrogant, and it is wrong.

“I will vote in favor of S.12. I urge all of you to vote for it as well.

“I yield the floor.”

She sank into her seat as an uproar rose around her. She ignored it. She lost track of time.

When she returned to the room, she found the chamber empty, except for the Majority Leader, who stood in front of her.

“What will you do?” he asked.

“What will I do?”

“Your career here is over. You’ve done some damage. No, I’ll be honest. You’ve done quite a lot of damage. But it won’t really change anything.”

“Oh, that,” she replied. “Yes, once the vote is taken, I’ll step down. Health reasons, probably. I haven’t really decided. I won’t look back. You needn’t worry.”

“So what will you do?”

She thought for a long moment.

“I think I might join the Witches,” she said.

She stood and left the Senate chambers.

She did not look back.

This entry was posted in Fiction.

2 comments on “The Bells

  1. Annie Stratton says:

    What can I say that isn’t a cliche? Powerful. Moving. Beautifully written. I am sitting here breathless. I am angry. I am afraid. I am part of a movement that is setting up to provide information, financial support, and transportation for women in need of safe abortion. Your story validates me. Thank you.


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