For Whom The Last Bell Tolled

I’ve traveled a lot of roads, sailed on a few boats, found a lot of strangers in a lot of strange places. Henry Piggott is one I will never forget. Read his story from The Man Who Talks to Strangers.

HENRY PIGGOTT STOOD, straightened his cap, and glanced at the calendar on the bare and weathered wall of his pink Portsmouth home. The house should have been yellow. He had ordered yellow. Lord, how he did love yellow.

When the paint arrived by boat, it was pink. He could have sent it back, he guessed. He probably should have shipped it back.

But Henry Piggott was in the mood to paint, so he pried off the lid, grabbed an old brush, and when he finished, he found himself living inside the pink walls and pink facing of a pink house.

The color didn’t look particularly bad, he told us as we wandered among a town where only ghosts and memories resided. It kind of matched the innards of the seashells scattered and broken down on beaches. Besides, it wouldn’t take long before the rains and winds–the salt spray and sea squalls–would sand the wood down to an ashen gray again. Always did. Between now and then, whenever then might be, pink would work just fine.

He always checked the calendar in case he might forget, and Henry Piggot could not afford to forget, not with all of Portsmouth depending on him, at least not the ones who remained.

Sunday was a special day.

Henry waited all week for Sunday, and it seemed to come around a lot sooner than it did when he was a kid running barefoot in the sands, waiting for the ferry and fishing boats to reach shore, and wondering why they even bothered when few strangers ever stepped on the island  and nobody else had any interest in leaving.

This was where they were born. This was where they died.

Not a lot happened in between.

Crawford and I had traveled down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and grabbed a boat to Portsmouth, a ghost town locked away within the mist of a ghost island. Once upon a time, as many as five hundred had lived back among the dunes, but the number had been withered by the passing of time.

“Where did everybody go?” I asked Henry.

“Folks died,” he said. “No one came to replace them.” He gazed off into the distance.

“The names are still here,” he said.

Henry shivered in the morning chill.

“We keep them on tombstones,” he said.

Henry Piggott shuffled out the front door of his home and walked down past the sea oats to the little wooden Methodist Church. The clock on his wall said it was five minutes to ten. He should have little trouble making it on time.

A five-minute walk and he would ring the bells, just as he had done for as long as he could remember.

Always at ten o’clock.

Precisely at ten o’clock.

Never early.

Never late.

“Don’t want to wake the Good Lord too early,” he said.

The bells chimed loud and clear, the only sound on the island, not counting the frantic rush of the surf as it tumbled recklessly toward the dunes.

He rang the bells again. They sounded like a prayer. “Prayers aren’t words,” Henry Piggott said. “Prayers are feelings.” The bells were filled with feeling. Their echo didn’t fade away until Henry Piggott was halfway back up the path toward his home.

The pink had turned a pale shade of pale.

Another rain or two, and he would have to paint again.

Maybe yellow this time.

By now, however, he had grown accustomed to the pink and hated to see the storms rip it away. Henry Piggott shrugged and grinned. He would simply order paint and splash on whatever color they sent him. An old man, he said, didn’t care anymore. He had other things to worry him–like tomorrow and whether it would show up on time. Tomorrow wasn’t promised him, he said. Tomorrow was always a surprise.

Henry Piggott was the descendant of slaves who worked the farms and handled the offshore fishing boats of Portsmouth before and after the Civil War. Free men and women could have packed up their ragged belongings and left.

The Piggotts remained.

Theirs was not a great life, perhaps, but it was a good life. They were among friends on the island, and Portsmouth depended on them. No one ever paid much attention to the color of Piggott skin. They only knew that Rose, his grandmother, was a midwife who served as the only doctor and nurse in the village.

For years, she and her sister Leah fished the surf and dug oysters to scratch out a meager living. But, alas, Rose was burned to death one evening down on the beach while roasting oysters. Maybe she could have been saved.

No one knew. She was the doctor and beyond her own care.

Henry Piggott paused and stared toward the surf. He nodded toward the home of Frank Gaskill. “He could smell mullet coming long before they got here, “ Piggott said, “and he could pole a skiff through the water without making a sound. Didn’t know Frank was on his way until he was already there and gone.”

The old post office had served as a community store, which sold needles, thread, canned goods, cheese, salt pork, molasses, oil, and kerosene. With a good vegetable garden and a sea to fish, nobody on Portsmouth needed much of anything else.

On every weekday afternoon, while counting the sunrises and waiting for Sunday, Henry Piggott wandered down to the dock and waited with Miss Dorothy Salter for the mail. She was unmarried and proud of it, the island’s postmistress. She sorted the envelopes, placed them neatly into pigeonholes, and by four o’clock the community had gathered on the front porch of the post office to pick up their mail.

There was more gossip than letters to go around. Those were the good days, and those were good people. Henry Piggott had not forgotten a one of them and knew he would never see any of them again. He saw their faces still, laughing. Nobody, he said, laughed at the end. He knows. Henry was sitting with them and holding their hands when the soul departed. If they lived a good life, he said, they stayed on the island. God help the souls that went to the mainland. He had been there once. He knew what hell was like. Even when a man was broke he had his memories.

 

Henry Piggot paused long enough to wave at Marian Gray Babb and Elma Dixon. They, too, had grown older. They, like Portsmouth itself, were changing with the passing of time. Couldn’t stop it. Might as well go with it.

“Not much else to do till Sunday,” Henry Piggott said.

“How about the mail?” Crawford asked.

“Boats don’t come anymore.”

“How about the post office?” “Closed.” He shrugged. “Only thing open for business around here is the burying ground,” he said.

“But you still ring the bells at the Methodist Church.” “Have been for years.”

Henry Piggott glanced over his shoulder. “The Good Lord sure did take a liking to that church,” he said. “Back a long time ago, even before I was born, the summer had been severe–dry and hot. Crops burned and withered in the fields. Then when it turned winter, the days were cold, and the waters of the sound were frozen. Nobody was fishing at all. The minister stood up in that pulpit, and he began to pray. He said, ‘If it is predestined that there be a wreck on the Atlantic Coast, please let it be Thy will that it happen here.’ A few days later, a ship loaded with flour was cast upon the sands by the sea, and the famine ended.”

“Divine Providence?”

“Don’t know. I wasn’t here.” “

So you keep on ringing the bells.”

“They sound real pretty, don’t they?”

“I guess the bells call the congregation to Sunday morning service.”

“There ain’t no Sunday morning service,” he said.

Henry Piggott gazed toward the church.

“There ain’t no pastor,” he said.

His eyes were moist.

“There ain’t no congregation,” he said.

He paused and turned away from the wind blowing in from across the sea.

“There’s just Henry Piggott the bell ringer,” he said. “There hasn’t been a service held in that church for going on twenty years.”

On a cold, blustery day in 1971, seventeen good men and four women braced themselves against the chilled winds with the rain spitting ice, and gathered inside the church to hear those final words prayed over the casket of Henry Piggott.

He had been the last man in Portsmouth.

When the funeral procession sailed away, Marian Gray Babb and Elma Dixon, boarded the boat and went with them.

Portsmouth was empty and alone, a ghost town with more memories than ghosts. In the distance, the church bells were ringing.

Everyone smiled.

“You think it’s the wind?” Crawford asked.

“I think it’s Henry,” I said.

Henry Piggott had rung them for the last time.

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