The Bells of St. Vitus

In which Buzz's faher and sister attend Christmas Eve mass
in Prague a year and a half before Buzz is born


The memory was in the place. My father had carried some part of it half-hidden within him, but it was not until he stepped back into Svaty Vit for the first time in thirty-eight years that he remembered his own father's disappointment.

Construction on St.Vitus Cathedral began in 1344 and continued sporadically for over five hundred years until its completion in 1929. The lower stones are much darker with centuries' added accumulation of pollution--ash like black snow from the burning coaldust of breweries, crematoria, homes, and the odd martyr burned at the stake in Old Town Square--which give the stratified look of sedimentary rock, as though the church had been built up by a slow sifting of holy sediment in whose layers fossil clues to the spiritual life of Prague's citizens might be divined.

Through half a millenium it had attracted the faithful, who had taken communion in the rain before there was a roof, who had watched the clouds cross the cruciform gaps, who were warmed by shafts of sunlight unobscured by stained glass. After mass they'd stand among Sunday morning's silent stones in the courtyard of the castle, comment on the progress, secure in their belief that there'd always be something left to do that was worth the doing.

My father's father prayed that when the rickety scaffolding was removed the cathedral would crumble and the devout could spend another five hundred years rebuilding from the ruins. The work was completed with steam-powered cranes which condescended to cap the spires, the operators looking down on what only angels had been meant to see. It did not crumble and my father hadn't been back since his father, in his bowler and tidy suit, had turned them around when he refused to walk in the shadow of a crane which was taller than the cathedral itself.

He had rejected his father's religion and superstition long ago, but now that he was completing the cathedral of his own life--a testament to suffering festooned with more gargoyles and anatomically correct passions than cherubim and angels--he wanted to share some of whatever it was the place represented with his daughter; if nothing else this was a plot of earth to which people had been coming in times of need for over one thousand years. For the first time in his life he needed to believe there was something here, even if it was only the memory of a faith he never had.

She wasn't my sister yet because I hadn't been born, but there are things from before my birth which I remember as clearly as if they'd happened to me, I'd heard the stories told so many times. The church was so cold she could see her breath. She pretended to smoke. She kept losing her balance looking up at the ceiling. "Why's it so tall?" she wanted to know.

His father had told him the towers were fingers pointing to Heaven and if God heard enough prayers he might lean down to shake hands with the building, and now he told her the same. On certain days when the clouds were low over the hill it would seem as if the heavens had been snagged on the spires, a bridal train caught on a nail. But for all its upward sweep he could not help but think of sinking. Indeed, there was more under ground than above: catacombs which housed old bones and the Czech crown jewels in their room with seven locks; below that, fall-out shelters for the Soviet elite, deeper even than radiation could seep.

My sister thought that that was where the dead lived--the fall-out shelters the signs for which were in every Prague stairwell. Even at four years old she knew people went into the ground when they died and figured it had to something with those black and yellow signs which showed the way to go but the living never followed. She thought death was temporary, an underground room one could enter or leave, and she talked about the things they'd do together after our father was done dying. Her innocence was his only relief.

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