Three Bells

by Craig van Rooyen
Featured Art: Strawberry Tea Set – Childe Hassam

—after “Seven Marys,” by Li-Young Lee

I sit, Sister Mary, among the other relics
in the Mission courtyard—
a cracked vat for boiling blubber
into lamp butter,
a wood-wheeled cart to haul
bear carcass to the butcher.
Underneath the bricks,
all the smallpox bones.
And these three bells, Sister Mary,
named Joy, Sorrow, and Gloria.
What am I to do when they toll?
Cast before I was born, each sings
to me in a different key: G, E minor,
and Chumash. Joy weighs 279 pounds
and wakes roosting starlings,
launches them from the parched oak tree,
black leaves falling upward.
Sorrow makes the wooden Indian
in front of Founders Smoke & Tobacco weep.
Gloria, Sister Mary, makes me shake.
Sounding wilder as I grow old and tame,
they ring in three tongues:
red, wildfire, and October.
Three bells, Sister Mary, three roads back.
And one says you are the green-eyed devil.
And one says the bears are gone.
But one says, Glory, you are here,
open your green eyes.
There is a fountain, Sister Mary,
a fountain not deep or wide, and into it
tourists toss coins bearing the heads
of our fathers, white and solemn and gone.
A fountain with a bear and a girl and three fish
all bronzed and greening from the air.
Water spews from the paw of the bear,
and the fish leap on their metal spindles, always
inches above the troubled waters,
and the little bronzed girl sees nothing
with her blank Chumash eyes—not the fish,
the white fathers tumbling head over tails,
or me on my bench in the sun sipping
from a bagged can while three bells toll
their braided song. We are nothing to her,
because she is long gone.
And what am I to do?
Bells tolling my guilt, solitude, privilege, joy.
One, Sister Mary, sings the beauty of milkweed tufts
blown down dry creek beds.
One whispers to me the forgotten dreams
of steelhead trout, and the sins of the fathers
visited unto the third and fourth generation.
And one orders my fingerprints pressed
onto the black wings of starlings.
And I can’t tell, anymore, Sister Mary,
one from the other


Craig van Rooyen holds an MFA in poetry from Pacific University. He lives and works in San Luis Obispo, CA. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 32 Poems, Narrative, Rattle, Southern Humanities Review, Southern Poetry Review, Willow Springs, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2014 Rattle Poetry Prize, and he was runner-up for the 2018 Auburn Witness Prize.

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