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The Bell Tree

By Celia Chung
9.29.03

Early morning was her favorite time for exploring the outer playa. There were still traces of desert night cool. The light was ideal for photography, the winds light. Discoveries on the playa were usually a luxury to have to herself and not have to share with others. Most folks were still asleep. The few others she did see at this hour often carried cameras too.

Aimlessly cruising on her bike, she caught an intriguing sight, a tree laden with bells. A young man had just settled into a chair under the bell tree. He must have arrived only moments before. His red basketball jersey was emblazoned "No. 30 Wallace." She hesitated, not wanting to disturb his solitude. After all she knew if she been there first, she would have resented his arrival.

But mentally shrugging her shoulders, the playa and its art was open to all. She approached the tree to examine it more closely. The trunk and branches had been joined together, held by screws. The bells were handspun ceramic, like upturned Japanese tea tumblers, with little unglazed nubs for chime. No two were alike. "Shake boughs gently to ring the bells," invoked the handwritten sign. The set-up was so sturdy that human intervention was needed for the tree to sound, unless there were strong winds. Sensible engineering on the artist's part. On this playa, tents had to be staked with rebar, lest they blow away in the 50 mph gusts that passed through.

There was one other chair, set at 120 degrees next to Wallace. Silently seating herself, she drank in the emptiness of the immediate playa, the stillness of the mountains beyond, and the swath of turquoise sky above. Yet it was harder to tune out the presence of her noiseless companion than the artillery beat of the techno clubs defying daylight on the suburban fringes of BRC.

A motorcycle roared in approach. An older man with a scruffy beard encased in a black and fluorescent-green leather suit dismounted like an animated beetle. "I am official Burning Man photographer. I come from Italy. Please, stay as you are. I do not exist." His shutter snapped in staccato.

As the beetle man packed his camera away, Wallace called out, "Hey what's your name?"

"Mauricio."

"Mauricio, I have something for you."

"Ah grazie."

(It is a common and encouraged custom to give little gifts to people you meet at Burning Man. People come prepared with little tchotchkes to hand out: stickers, temporary body tattoos, earrings, postcards.)

As Mauricio tucked away his gift, Wallace unpacked a trumpet, and began to blow.

Mauricio stopped, and took out his camera once again, snapping the trumpet in action and the bell tree. Finally, he packed the camera away for the last time and sped off until he became a silent speck of playa dust.

"I only played because he was here," he said, in intimate conspiracy.

She smiled. Ivory teeth gleamed at irony.

"Is it alright if I continue?"

"By all means." The notes were organic, breathed alive, unlike the synthesized sonics emanating from the techno clubs.

She had not stirred since she sat down, still poised, seemingly meditative and relaxed behind her sunglasses. But it was impossible to disengage her attention from the trumpet. She listened for snatches of melody to be picked out from the random cacophony. A toddler could more easily be distracted from a tricycle under a Christmas tree.

He paused. "Let me know if you want me to stop. It sounds jarring, I know."

"Is it because your instrument is playafied?" she couldn't resist wondering. Nothing could stay free of the alkaline dust at Burning Man.

"No, no, I'm just warming up. My lips are bit stiff."

Musicians in evening dress black, instruments of brass and varnished wood, under bright lights. Pre-performance notes swirling in frenzy on stage at the San Francisco Symphony. So this is what it sounds like if a trumpet is extracted out of that.

Then she heard herself ask . . . "Would it help if I kissed you?"

"Yes," he exhaled, stunned. "It would," more firmly immediately, before she could change her mind.

He put down his trumpet and they shifted in their chairs inwards towards each other. He was also wearing sunglasses so she couldn't see his eyes either. His jaw was covered with stubble, probably hadn't shaved since arriving on the playa, but her alarm was too late.

Only their lips met, mutually soft, sweet and gentle. He had gallantly avoided brushing his bristles against her face.

Oh dear, I hadn't brushed my teeth this morning. I hope I don't have morning breath.

The trumpet resumed warm-up mode, for quite a while.

Oh dear, I hope I haven't given him performance anxiety instead.

Deus ex machina in the guise of a very genial cowboy. "My girlfriend made this. Last year she said 'I've got to make a tree with bells for Burning Man,' and took up pottery again. She made all these bells herself. Where are you from?"

"I'm from Mountain View," she said.

"Bend, Oregon," said Wallace.

The cowboy scribbled into the guest registry for the Bell Tree.

She lifted a bell to examine the glaze. Inside it was inscribed 'Sara 03'. "So your girlfriend is named Sara."

"It doesn't ring easily. Maybe the bells are too heavy. Maybe next time she needs to add little sail below the nubs to catch the wind."

"Perhaps she made them to withstand the winds on the playa."

The conversation had shifted the dynamic, releasing her to her bike. She retrieved two gifts for her companions. "Here. I'm sorry, this is not for you, but for your girlfriend, for having created something so wonderful. Scout's honor you'll pass it on to her?" she said to the cowboy.

"Of course."

"This one is for you," extending her gift to Wallace.

"It's beautiful." He reciprocated with a miniature portrait of Shiva, overlaid with the burning man logo, framed in a bottle cap. "One more kiss?"

A smile bloomed over her face. Their torsos bridged over the rear of her bike, a tender kiss of conclusion.

Then she took out her camera to capture: a cowboy, the Bell Tree and Wallace who played trumpet.

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