Auntie Bells wasn’t really my auntie, or anyone else’s for that matter. I’m not sure she even had any real family at all. It was just what everyone called her. She’d been a fixture in the neighborhood since long before I was born and there wasn’t a single person who didn’t at least know of her.
She was something of a living legend; a crazy cat lady type without the cats. It wasn’t unusual to look out your window in the dead of night and see Auntie Bells shuffling down the street, big walking stick clutched in one hand, her tameless hair shining white in the moonlight. And if you didn’t see her, you’d hear her. Auntie Bells took her name from the bracelets she wore on both wrists, strands of twine run through a countless number of tiny bells that tinkled with her every movement.
The first time I saw her, I was still a small child. My family had just moved on to the street and I was playing in our front yard while Mom unpacked inside.
Tinkle tinkle tinkle
The sound, so gentle and enchanting, did not match its source. When I looked up, I found myself staring at what could only have been a wicked witch from one of my storybooks. Dressed in heavy swathes of black with small, beady eyes and a crooked nose, Auntie Bells had come to a stand still at the foot of our driveway and was just watching me, any expression lost in the heavy wrinkles of her face.
With all the certainty of someone about to be lured back to a gingerbread house and eaten, I started to cry, which immediately drew my mother out of the house. By the time she reached me, Auntie Bells had already toddled off further down the road.
When I heard the tinkle of bells through my open window that night, I threw my comforter over my head and kept my eyes squeezed shut until they’d faded into the distance.
We got our first real introduction to Auntie Bells at a block party a week later. She wasn’t invited, or at the very least, she didn’t attend, but we still saw her walking slowly by, her gaze traveling over all of the little children running about. Mom frowned and turned to our neighbor, Betsy.
“Who is that?” She asked, nodding towards the old woman.
“Oh, don’t mind her, it’s just Auntie Bells.” Betsy said.
“Family of yours?”
“No, that’s just a nickname. You know, I’m not sure I even know her real name.”
“Whatever you want to call her, she’s creepy!”
Betsy laughed. “She’s harmless, just a bit eccentric.”
“I don’t like how she’s looking at the kids.”
“We’ve never had a problem with her.”
Mom made a displeased sound in the back of her throat and ushered me away from Auntie Bells’ line of sight.
Despite my mom’s initial distrust of Auntie Bells, she really never did cause any problems. It still took a long time to get over being unsettled by her, but she never bothered us and we got used to seeing her around at all hours. As I got older, I even started to feel a bit sorry for her. Here was this elderly woman who never seemed to have any friends or family to take care of her, just wandering the same neighborhood she’d apparently spent her whole life in.
After seeing her pass by one morning and getting a pang of secondhand loneliness, I walked across the street to say hi to Ellen, our spunky grandmotherly neighbor who was kneeling in her garden.
“Morning, Ms. Ellen.” I said.
“Hi, Paul. You ok?”
“Yeah.” I said and then I hesitated.
Ellen sat back on her heels with some effort and tipped her wide brimmed hat back expectantly.
“You’ve been here a long time, right, Ms. Ellen?”
“Sure, probably going on forty-five years now.”
“And Auntie Bells, she’s been here even longer?”
At the mention of Auntie Bells’ name, the warmth faded just slightly from Ellen’s round face. “Yes.”
“How come you and her aren’t friends?” I asked bluntly. “You’ve both lived here a long time, shouldn’t you be friends?”
“Just never happened, I suppose.” Ellen said.
“She just seems lonely…”
“Yes, well, sometimes that happens when you get old.”
Something in her tone told me the conversation was over.
After that, I took it upon myself to try and be nicer to Auntie Bells. It didn’t seem right that she was always alone and I wanted to try and help. I’d say hi to her, ask her how she was doing, sometimes even walk a bit with her. She never acknowledged me much beyond a small nod and, at first, my presence seemed to stiffen her. I would catch her staring at me out of the corner of her eye, wary and suspicious.
Gradually, she started to relax and would allow me to join her without so much as a sideways glance. She still never said much, but she’d let me ramble on, which felt good to a twelve year old who didn’t often get the chance to talk to a grownup so openly. Mom still worried a bit about how safe it was for me to be alone with Auntie Bells, but since we never left our street and Mom could see me at all times from an upstairs window, she allowed it.
I continued my walks with Auntie Bells for a number of years. I learned little of her in that time, but I liked her all the same. There was something comforting about her quiet, steady nature. Although she never looked any less crone-like, any fear I’d once had of her was long gone.
“Why the bells?” I asked one day. It was getting close to my college departure and I figured if I didn’t ask then, I never would.
Auntie Bells, now more wizened and slow than ever, gave one of her thin, liver spotted wrists a gentle shake. “One for each.” She said.
But she didn’t answer.
And she never would; not directly, anyway.
Auntie Bells passed away less than six months later, while I was away at school. No one even knew until my mom realized she hadn’t seen her walking around for a few days. A wellness check found her sitting up in a recliner, already stiff and cold.
“Poor Auntie.” Mom said over the phone after the discovery. “No next of kin or anything.”
“What’s going to happen to her house? All her stuff?” I asked.
“I don’t really know. I guess they’ll auction it off.”
“Poor Auntie.” I repeated.
The thought of strangers rifling through Auntie Bells’ things rankled me. What if she had something private or personal that she didn’t want just any old Joe to find? It wouldn’t be right to let strangers just stomp through her home and rifle through her belongings. I realized that Auntie Bells and I hadn’t been close in a traditional sense, but I was the nearest thing she had to “next of kin”. I felt a responsibility to her.
I left university that night after sending an email to my professors, letting them know I’d had a death in the family. It was a long three hour drive, but when I pulled into the dark driveway of what had been Auntie Bells’ home, I felt like I’d made the right choice.
Better to have someone who cared about her making sure her memories were preserved than some stranger just dumping them all in the trash, I reasoned.
Auntie Bells’ house was as old and tired as she had been. Years of poor upkeep had left it sagging and rotting in numerous places. I’d never been so close to it before and had never known how deeply the disrepair ran. Even knowing she’d lived in less than ideal conditions hadn’t prepared me for this.
Getting inside was easier than I’d expected. The lock on the back door was broken, I assumed from the wellness check, and I let myself in. The smell wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced before; a cloying, rotten stench that embedded itself in my nostrils. It was death, I realized, and garbage and decay. I gagged, but put an arm over my nose and pushed onward.
With my phone held up like a flashlight, I picked my way carefully through the kitchen, stepping over mounds of trash and junk. The living room was in a similar state; a hoarder’s paradise of discarded containers and the kind of riffraff you find on the side of the road. The air felt heavy, greasy, and I found it difficult to breathe.
“Jesus, Auntie.” I said and my voice was swallowed by the dark and the dirty.
Everywhere I went was just more of the same until I began to think there really was nothing that Auntie Bells would have treasured. Her bedroom, the bathroom, the small guest room, all told the same, sad tale of an unhealthy woman who had let her mental illness run her life.
Until I got to the attic.
I tugged down the ladder, half expecting to be enveloped in a shower of trash, but it only opened into quiet darkness. With a deep breath that I immediately regretted, I climbed up and poked my head into the small room.
To my surprise, it was impeccably tidy. I finished ascending and flashed my light around with some confusion. Maybe she’d been too old to climb the ladder and it had escaped her hoarding, I thought, but there was no dust up there, no spider webs or animal droppings. It was the only clean room in the house.
It was also the most unsettling.
Shelves lined every wall and, upon each, rows of dolls sat. Hand stitched with big button eyes and wirey stalks of hair, they stared at me from every inch of open wall space. With my heart beat quickening, I slowly approached the nearest doll and crouched to get a better look at it. Although made of crude, rough material, the stitches were placed so neatly, so lovingly, that I knew Auntie Bells had done each by hand.
A little tag tied to its leg read “Lyle Girl, 1943”.
The next had a similar tag, “Flannigan boy, 1943”.
Down the row I went, reading each inscription, one for each doll. When I reached the end, I gently picked up the last one in line.
“Pierson girl, 1947.” I read.
I weighed it in my hand, giving it a little squeeze. Inside, something small and hard rolled between my fingers. Curious, I began picking at one of those carefully crafted seams until it fell away and the doll split open.
Wrapped in its stomach, partially obscured by a wad of cotton, was a tiny skull.
I yelped and dropped the doll. It fell to the floor and the skull poked out of the slit in its side, its two black eyes staring up at me.
I stumbled away from it, making it all the way across the room until I slammed into an antique desk tucked against the far wall. From inside one of its drawers, I heard the familiar, faint tinkle of bells. I turned to it slowly, like I was afraid Auntie Bells would come rising from the drawer along with that sound, but of course, it remained shut until I opened it.
Her bracelets, wrapped in thin tissue paper, were sitting on top. Below them, a leather bound ledger book and what appeared to be old surgical tools were likewise wrapped. The sight of a pair of rusted clamps peeking over the tissue paper nearly turned my stomach. Shaken and desperate for answers, I pushed the bells, which tinkled in protest, aside and threw open the book on the desk.
The pages were full of precise, neat script, each one detailing names, dates, marital statuses, and “months”. It took me a moment to realize each name belonged to a woman.
“Ellen Hardowitz.” I ran my finger over the name of my spunky, forever gardening neighbor and remembered how cold she’d seemed when talking about Auntie Bells. “January 13th, 1956, married, four months.” Beside it, Auntie Bells had added, “Girl.”
I turned again to face to room of button eyed dolls and slowly approached the one lying on the floor. I knelt next to it and scooped it up again, careful not to touch the bones within. I had never held anything so tiny or fragile in my hands before.
One for each, Auntie Bells had told me once, but she hadn’t ever said each of what. Now I was beginning to understand. I could see Auntie Bells so clearly, standing on the edge of crowds and watching the children so full of youth and life, never bothering anyone. Auntie Bells, who had lived her life alone, quiet and private.
The exact kind of woman others would come to when they needed discretion.
I replaced the doll on the shelf and stepped back.
An entry in her ledger for every woman she helped escape a motherhood they didn’t want. A doll for every tiny body that would never draw breath. A bell for every baby so that Auntie would never forget any of them.
I burned them all that night; the dolls and the ledger. I knew Auntie Bells wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know what she had done. I kept the bells, though, tucked away in an old shoe box in the back of my closet. I liked to think she would have wanted that, for someone to keep on remembering in her place.
Whenever I hear similar bells now, I think of her.
Auntie Bells, who had no children of her own, or any family, really, except those that she kept after their own mothers couldn’t.