People of the Book

By Laura Blumenfeld
Sunday, September 28, 2008

THE STORY IS OVER, A MAN HAS DIED, AND IT IS UP TO ED NASSOR TO TOLL THE LAST NOTE. Ed is the bell ringer up in the church tower, but now he lies in his bed at sunrise. On his nightstand rests his red book of Psalms.

Notes steal into his sleep: re, do, ti, la, so ... The bells chime in Ed's mind, mingling with the urgent chirp of a cardinal at his window. It pecks Ed awake.

"How long do I have?" is Ed's first thought. How long until the funeral? In four hours, Ed will play the carillon at Washington National Cathedral to mark the death of a man he never met. Ed has sounded the death knell for senators and presidents. But today feels different, he will later recall, edgy and questioning, like the cardinal's song.

A carillonneur friend close to his age died recently, suddenly, "a shock." Ed's father died when Ed was 2. And, lately, Ed, 50, finds himself losing his breath when he climbs the church's spiral stairs, a lingering symptom two years after near-fatal pneumonia. On a whim last week, as worshipers strolled below, he pounded out "St. Patrick's Breastplate and Deirdre," the requiem he has chosen for himself.

Ed's instrument is 63 tons of bronze. The audience doesn't come to it; it comes to them. The bells mix and blend in the tower chamber and fly out to the street, unsettling the air with ancient, clanging questions, waking the neighboring houses of God.

The peals trail buses as they rumble half a mile up Massachusetts Avenue to the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the capital's first temple, where a Jewish man, Josh Burrows, unscrolls the Torah, and asks, Who am I?

The peals chase taxis as they drive a mile down Massachusetts Avenue to the Islamic Center, the capital's first mosque, where a Muslim woman, Toni Kakeh, bends over the Koran, and asks, How do I live?

And they resonate inside Ed, a Christian who plays hymns from the scriptures where the gargoyles and stone crosses crown the National Cathedral. Ed asks, How do I face death?

Ed, Josh and Toni tremble at these questions, unknown to each other and alone, until they find their answers in the pages of a sacred story. The characters they read about emerge from the text to show them the way. And so, the People of the Book are guided by the People in the Book. The chimes are destined to fade, but the characters live on.

"You can't keep it," Ed says of the bell tower's song. "It's just going to go."

Ed lies in his bed in the pale light that morning, his blue blanket pulled to his shoulders, his brown hair sticking up in cowlicks. Katherine, his wife, is downstairs brewing coffee. Resting on his right side -- the pulmonologist says it will help him breathe -- Ed imagines the steel clappers striking Bach's Sonatina. Perhaps he should perform it for the grieving family. Or perhaps for the dead man's soul, like a medieval bell-ringer banishing demons. Or perhaps, as he does when the streets below are empty, Ed will "play for the angels."

Ed flexes his fingers. Two tiny puncture marks swell on his neck, where a spider bit him while he was weeding. The death of Ed's friend presses on him. It adds urgency to his days. "I can't say I'll learn this hymn next year. Better start learning it now."

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