Aurelio brooded as he swept the church floors. From what he had heard from rumors, Manila had suffered tremendously in the three years of the Occupation. People killed and were killed just for a handful of rice, or so they said. Now the Americans were taking Manila back. He wondered how his brothers were doing, whether they were standing in the streets watching the American and Japanese fighter planes battle it out in the sky, or whether they were crowded into a dimly lit room, hiding from the Japanese Army. The Army that would be marching northward very soon.


He looked over to where Narcisa was polishing the pews, and realized that this was the first time she had spoken since Padre Mateo had admonished her about her language. Her eyes wide and dark in her thin face, and for a moment Aurelio thought he saw someone else looking at him through those eyes. "You're leaving tomorrow, aren't you?"

He nodded and she bit her lip, then proceeded to rub a spot on the pew until it nearly caught fire. "Eliong?" she said after a while. "Tell me the story of the bells again."


"The story of the bells. The one Padre Mateo told you. Tell me the story."

He rolled his eyes. "You're such a baby, Narcisa. You've heard the story a million times."

She raised her head and with a look silenced any other remark he might have made. His mouth fell open. He hadn't known she could do that. "The story, Aurelio. Please?"

He relented with a sigh. "Long ago, an old Spaniard came here searching for his long-lost daughter. His daughter had fallen in love with an indio but his wife opposed the match. So the daughter and her lover ran away, got married in secret, and disappeared. When his wife died, the Spaniard traveled throughout Luzon searching for his daughter. He found the girl here living like an indio in a bamboo hut. He wanted to take his daughter away, but she challenged him instead to live for three weeks among the villagers. If after three weeks he was happier than he had ever been, he would agree to let her stay. If not, she would go back with him to Spain. He did, she won, and she got to stay."

Narcisa was frowning at his barren rendition of the old romantic tale. "And the bells?"

"The Spaniard lived here for a long time, until his daughter and her husband died in an epidemic. Then he went home to Spain, but he promised to give back something to the village in return for all the kindness he'd received. When he died, the village discovered that he had willed three copper church bells to them. In return, the villagers named the village after his daughter, Catalina."

Instead of the starry eyes and heartfelt sighs that usually ended the tale, Narcisa was quiet and pensive. It was so unlike her that Aurelio had to stop and stare to better observe this rare phenomenon.

"Bells are wonderful things," she murmured as if to herself. Then she glanced up at him and smiled. "You're right, Eliong. You've always been the one telling me stories. Now let me tell you a story. Long, long ago, on an island in the south, there was a village with a church, just like ours. A church with bells, just like ours, except that theirs were made of gold. The villagers were very proud of the bells. One day, Moro pirates came and raided the village. The people escaped to the mountains but when they came back, the bells were gone. A few days later, a tree grew in the village, with fruits the shape of bells. And that's where the macopa tree came from."

Aurelio frowned a little. "The what?"

"The macopa tree. You know…" She trailed off, then shrugged. "I only heard the story from Nanang, who heard it from her sister in the south. She said macopa are little red fruits the shape of bells. I just thought of the story because of the bells," she added a little defensively, but when he continued to look blankly at her, she seemed to sag. "You don't like the story, do you? You tell better stories than I do."

He shook his head. "I liked it. You tell a story just fine." Her face brightened, and he added quickly, "I just don't know what the fruit looks like. We don't have trees like that here in Catalina."

"I'll show you. I'll ask Tia to bring some, I promise. Nanang says they taste good."

For once, instead of annoying him, her enthusiasm made him smile. She smiled back, a little shyly. "But Eliong? I liked your story better," she said, before ducking her head.

They worked in silence, each one caught up in their thoughts. Aurelio wondered briefly if bells were Narcisa's new fascination. It wouldn't be unusual, although he dreaded to think what sort of trouble she'd get into over her new object of worship. He still remembered the time she stayed in the river until close to midnight to collect water in pots, believing that water touched by the reflection of the full moon had special powers. He'd had to fish her out and practically carry her home, and she'd gotten sick and had to stay indoors for the better part of a week. Enthusiastic as she was, sometimes Narcisa overdid it, but she'd have picked a fight with him first before admitting it.


He started guiltily, wondering if she'd read his thoughts. "Hmm?"

"Let's go ring the bells."

He blinked, then hid a smile. Unexpected, but predictable. "We still have a few minutes."

"No, let's ring them now." She ran up to him and grabbed his hand to drag him to the bell tower. They clattered up the choir loft and out through the little opening in the wall that led to bell tower that stood beside the church. Aurelio shielded his eyes from the shaft of sunlight streaming through the wide windows, and noticed that Narcisa had stopped and was looking thoughtfully up at the spiral staircase that led to the bells. She hadn't let go of his hand, and he noticed something else: Narcisa was growing taller. He looked down at where the sunlight glistened like tiny rainbows on each strand of her hair, where the bones of her shoulders poked against the thin cloth of her dress. Was it him, or was she a little less bony than before? Her hand held his in the firm, warm grip of a child, but her skin was soft and her fingers graceful and her hand was small in his—what was the matter with him? His cheeks flushed when he realized that he was thinking…strange thoughts about the girl he had known since she was still wetting her bed. He began to pull his hand from hers, but then her grip tightened and she began to pull him up the spiral staircase. "Come on! I want to see the bells."

She let go of him and clambered up the staircase, and he was left to stare at the space in front of him that she had recently vacated, feeling foolish enough for the both of them. You're such a baby, Narcisa, he thought, torn between annoyance and resignation.

She was touching the bells reverently by the time he got to the top. Up close the bells were massive, made of burnished copper and embellished with vines and leaves along the bead lines. To his amusement, he noted that Narcisa could easily fit inside one of the bells, although he doubted she could ever sound better than the copper clapper. He was picturing her hanging upside down inside a bell and banging at it with her head when she turned to him and declared with the solemnity of a priest celebrating Mass: "These are Catalina's treasures."

His amused grin grew. "No. These are Catalina's bells."

She frowned at his irreverence. "Think about it, Eliong. Our town was given a name only when the bells arrived. For more than—what? Fifty? Sixty years? For more than sixty years, these bells have called our people to worship and to give thanks to Our Lord. These bells have announced every birth and wedding and death in this town. Our lives are guided by the ringing of these bells—every morning, noon and evening. Can you imagine what would happen to us if these bells were taken away? Why, these bells are blessed by God! If Catalina's soul—the real Catalina, the girl who loved an indio—if her soul could stay forever in this village she loved, it would have stayed in these bells. Maybe that's why they called our town Catalina."

He watched her as she prattled on about souls and bells. Her eyes sparkled and her pale little face was flushed with emotion. Her hands fluttered at her sides, touching her heart and touching the bells with delicate motions, and he watched them and thought about how her hand felt in his. Like a baby bird. Then he realized that she had stopped talking and was looking at him expectantly.

"Do you know," he began slowly, carefully watching her face, "Padre Mateo told me that these bells are our town's most prized possessions? He called them historic artifacts. He said they were exactly as you said: Catalina's treasures."

Narcisa's smile nearly blinded him. "You see? They are treasures. And I promise that I will protect them and keep them safe for as long as I live." The formal quality seeped back into her voice, as if she were pronouncing a sacred oath. "These bells are Catalina's soul, and she was happy here, as I am happy here. Keeping these bells safe will be my duty, just like ringing them is yours. So now I have two promises, one to show you macopa and the other to be guardian of the bells and keep them safe."

"What about the Japanese Army?" he asked, humoring her. "Will you keep these bells safe from them?"

She looked at him for the longest time, not saying anything. For some reason, Aurelio forgot what he was going to say next. When she whispered, "yes," he felt again that the person speaking before him was not just the child he had known forever, but someone else entirely.

Then her grin flashed and she was running down the staircase, down to the second level of the tower, where the ropes hung. "Let's ring the bells, Eliong!" she cried happily. "It's time to call the people to Mass. Let's ring the bells!"

She pulled on the ropes exactly as he had taught her before, and the grand, melodious tones of the bells vibrated through his body and echoed through the unmoving air. Aurelio stood and listened, and he saw that even the three Japanese soldiers standing in front of the municipal building looked up as the bells tolled.