It’s early morning, four o’clock. The stars glitter across the dark sky. The roofs of the village sleep quietly, almost hidden by the persimmon grove. On a hill outside the village stands a little church with a little bell tower.
The fresh morning winds race around the mountain ridge. Then quietly, quietly they gather around the church, as if dancing a gentle dance. They are waiting for the bell ringer to start ringing the bells, so that they can carry the sound of the chimes out into the world.
The bell ringer grasps the bell rope and, soo-ook, pulls it downward.
With a resounding clang, the first chime is born: Deng!
This first chime, I’ll admit, is a mischief-maker and rascal. It flies down the hill to the little hut where Grandfather and Grandmother live, right on the outskirts of the village.
Grandfather is hard of hearing, so the first chime doesn’t bother him at all. But Grandmother’s ears are still as good as ever, and although she works hard all day, she’s a light sleeper. Every morning when Deng! rings out, she wakes up with such a frightful start that her liver almost falls out.
Even so, Grandmother doesn’t dislike this mischievous little chime. Not at all – in fact she always says, “A hundred thanks, a thousand thanks!” Then she gets up, wakes Grandfather, and goes with him to the church for morning prayer. And that’s the way that the first chime, which rings out exactly at four o’clock, fulfills its duty of waking Grandmother in the little hut.
Now the bell ringer pulls down the rope again, lets it go, and watches it tumble upward. The second chime rings out: Deng!
The second chime tries to wake the miller who lives in his mill on the low rise near the stream. But the miller just makes a face, closes his eyes, and rolls over. Soon he is snoring again – he has always been a lazybones. Every day, the second chime’s hopes are dashed: “I go to so much trouble to wake him, but he never gets up for morning prayer. What a good-for-nothing!”
While the second chime is trying to rouse the miller, the third and fourth chimes fly out, one to wake the woman in the date-palm house and the other to the cigarette-store man. Mrs. Kim, the woman in the date-palm house, is the church’s deaconess. As soon as the third chime visits her, she turns on the light in her room. Then she straightens her clothes tidily, finds her Bible, and gropes her way hurriedly along the dark path toward the church.
The cigarette-store man, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the church. When the fourth chime wakes him, he rolls out of bed, lights the fire, and starts preparing for the day’s work.
Now the fifth and the sixth chimes ring out, echoing through the village. These and all the rest of the chimes go to different houses every day. Sometimes they visit the elder’s house, and sometimes they visit the house of Pyongchan, the Sunday-school student. To be perfectly honest, they do whatever they please. They ride around excitedly on the cool morning wind, and wherever they feel like it, they go into a house and wake the family.
But there’s one person the chimes almost never reach. Grandma Guema is always complaining that she never hears them, even though she lives in the middle of the village. At first, the chimes blamed themselves for this and rallied together to try harder. But the real problem is that Grandma’s house is tucked behind a ridge in a deep part of the valley. Although the chimes fly as far as they can, they usually flop down partway, too tired to go on. Even when they get to Grandma Guema’s house, by the time they tap on her ear they are so weak that they sound like someone eating runny porridge. To make it worse, Grandma Guema is deaf, and she sleeps very soundly.
That’s why the people in the church eventually agreed that something had to be done. In the end they bought Grandma Guema an alarm clock as a gift from the congregation. Otherwise she would hardly ever wake up in time for morning prayer, despite being a true believer in Jesus.
On a few days each year, though, the Deng! of the chimes reaches even Grandma Guema. That happens when the wind is blowing exactly right. On those days, the chimes travel on and on, over the mountain to the neighboring village of Tangdang-gol. They arrive in the village exactly together with the whistle of the early-morning train. When the children in Tangdang-gol hear the chimes and the whistle together, they are so excited that they talk about it for the rest of the day.
Every morning then, the bell ringer for the church on the hill pulls the bell rope – down and up, down and up – and the chimes ride out on the morning winds to all the houses. But they don’t just visit the houses where people live. They also go to the homes of the owl, the magpie, the wild boar, and the wolf.
When the chimes visit the wolf, he’s so lazy that even though he badly needs to pee, he just keeps lying there snoring loudly. Only when he hears the chime does he open his eyes, stagger to his feet, and slowly relieve himself. Afterward he lies straight back down to sleep again.
The wild boar opens his eyes. The father magpie opens his eyes. The other animals also open their eyes. Then they all decide that it’s still too early and go back to sleep.
Although the bell ringer always tries to count how many times he rings the bell, he often gets confused. Sometimes he rings sixty-one times, sometimes sixty-five times, and once he rang seventy-one times. Although he doesn’t know it, the owl is in the oak tree listening to him every day, keeping count. Since the owl has been up all night, he’s always wide awake and can count the exact number of chimes.
“Sixty-one . . . sixty-two . . . sixty-three times? Oh dear, the bell ringer has got it wrong again!” When the last chime stops ringing, the owl cries Boo-ong!
Some days the bell ringer oversleeps. Then the owl flies over the roof of his house crying Boo-ong! Boo-ong! The bell ringer leaps up, startled by the owl’s hoot, and sees that he’s already five minutes late. Barely pulling on his trousers, he dashes out and starts yanking on the bell rope. The owl alights on the roof of the bell tower and calls to him: “Bell ringer, if you had gone on sleeping it would have been a disaster!” Then the owl takes wing, flying back toward his home on the mountain.
The bell ringer gratefully calls after him, “Thank you, Owl, thank you!”It’s in this way that the chimes fly out every day without fail to the stars in heaven, to the village, and to the mountain peak. And so the people, the animals, and the birds all become one family. When the chimes ring out, the windows of the church on the hill shine brightly, and the people from the village gather there and sing beautiful hymns to praise God.
Today the chimes from the church go especially far, as far as Tangdang-gol. They fly over the mountain, ringing brightly to wake the sleeping villagers.
They swoop down from the sky and chatter like little angels to announce a new day. It’s a day for living kindly and honestly. It’s a day for giving thanks to God.
The original Korean of Kwon Jeong-saeng’s story “The Bell Ringer” is copyright © Kwon Jeong-saeng Culture Foundation for Children.
Translated by Won Maroo, Illustrated by Kang Woo-geun