“Quasimodo.” Judge Claude Frollo’s deep baritone voice rings out across the cavernous bell tower. The young boy, in the midst of washing his face in a bucket of cool water to begin his day, straightens (as much as his contorted spine will allow) at the sound. The day has only just begun; his master doesn’t often come to visit so early, his time occupied with other, more important matters.
Reaching for a stained rag to wipe down his face, Quasimodo turns and hobbles towards the imposing presence. He is still a child, but even if he were older he is certain he would still feel small and insignificant in the presence of the Minister. “Yes, Master?” His voice has a certain trepidation to it, a worry that any one wrong word may upset the man who raised him.
“Quasimodo, come here.” Frollo extends his right hand towards the hunchback, beckoning him forward. The boy hesitates for a long moment, then moves towards his Master. Frollo places his hand upon the boy’s hump, long fingers curling deftly around the deformity that forces Quasimodo to live so sheltered from the rest of society. “My dear boy, I come bearing terrible news.” The man’s voice seems to change very little in tone, despite his words. “Last night our dear friend, Roland, passed on to the next world.”
The young boy’s face falters. Save for Frollo and Notre Dame’s Archdeacon, Roland is the only other person that Quasimodo knows. The man was old – older than even Frollo himself – but his age was easy to forget. He lit up the bell tower with each visit to ring the masses or the vespers, unafraid of the deformed monster that was Quasimodo. His face was always present with a smile, his eyes winking a goodbye to the young boy at the end of each session. “Why?” he asks, his voice quivering. He’s been raised on the word of God, on the idea that the Lord punishes those who deserve it and spares those who worship Him with their whole being. Roland was a pious man, a foundation of Notre Dame herself. His death seems cruel and unfair.
“Our Father works in mysterious ways,” is Frollo’s simple reply. “We are not made privy to the Lord’s decisions.” He removes his hand then, shifting to fold them in front of his dark robes. “It does not do to dwell on tragedy, Quasimodo. There is work to be done.”
“Work?” He cranes his neck to get a better look at his Master, unshed tears gleaming in his green eyes. “What do you mean, Master?”
“Why, someone must ring the bells, Quasimodo.” Frollo turns, his robes rippling around his thin frame. “You must have seen Roland perform the task enough times to be capable of such a simple thing.” His words have an underlying tone of malice, a suggestion that even someone as monstrous as Quasimodo could figure out a task of such simplicity.
“Y- yes, Master.” His words seem to catch in his throat. He’d seen Roland ring the bells every day since his mother abandoned him on the steps of Notre Dame, but he’d also seen the brute strength it took. Roland’s hands had been strong, his back rippling with muscles built up over years of tolling the bells. In comparison, Quasimodo felt small and frail, his abnormalities doing little to allow him the same kind of strength.
Frollo speaks without even bothering to look at Quasimodo. “Well, what are you waiting for?” He reaches into his cloak to retrieve an encrusted pocket watch. “The morning bells are meant to ring.”
“Yes, Master.” He nods, once, before hurrying off to the upper level of the bell tower. The brass looms above his head, the sight alone weighing heavily upon his shoulders. He walks with an uneven gait towards the largest of the bells, the one that Roland had always referred to as Big Marie. It’s the one meant to signal the morning mass, and Quasimodo cranes his neck upwards as much as it allows to gaze upon the sight.
The rope to toll the bell hangs in front of him. Quasimodo reaches out, hands curling around the rough braid. He falters, standing there for a long moment without moving. “All of Paris is waiting, Quasimodo.” Frollo’s voice rises from below. The young boy nods, inhales deeply, and then pulls upon the rope with all his might. His muscles are weak from years kept inside, his meals few and his only form of exercise the small climb up to the bells. He pulls, his body straining against the heavy weight of the bell. It shifts, ever so slightly, but not enough to ring in the morning with its beautiful song. The bell tower remains silent.
Dropping the rope, Quasimodo falls to his knees. “I can’t, Master.” He is greeted with silence. As he sits there, head hung in humiliation, he almost wonders if Frollo has left the bell tower.
But then the floorboards squeak, and he realizes that the Minister has joined him on the upper level. “Can’t is not an excuse.” His voice is cold, and harsh, and before Quasimodo knows what is happening, Frollo grabs him by the collar of his tunic and pulls him to his feet. The young boy’s eyes open wide with fear. He’s always known his Master to have a temper and thus has always done everything in his power to not rile the man’s anger. “Do it.” His lips curl into a sneer his he shoves Quasimodo towards the bell. The young boy stumbles, catching his balance against the polished bronze.
His body already feels weak from his first attempt, but he knows it is best to try and appease Frollo. Blinking back tears, Quasimodo throws his whole body into the task. Big Marie seems to quiver, but her clapper remains still. The city is silent. Quasimodo pulls until his body gives up, and he collapses onto the floor.
“Pitiful,” Frollo spits. “I should have known an abomination like you would never be capable of anything useful.”
“I- I’m sorry, Master.” Tears well in his eyes, dripping silently on to the wooden floorboards. He covers his face with shame.
“Sorry does very little to appease the situation, Quasimodo,” the man replies, his words seeming to shoot daggers into the young boy’s thin skin. “I will return with someone able to complete the job, for it is what our Lord would want. But this is not the end, boy. I expect you to be able to ring those bells, and prove to us all that you are more than a monster.”
Quasimodo nods slowly, his head still hanging in shame and defeat. He listens carefully as Frollo descends the platform and leaves the bell tower without another word. The sound of the door locking behind him is the one thing that causes Quasimodo to sit bolt upright. Wiping at his eyes, he hurries down to where the Judge has just exited. His large hands curl around the brass handle and he gives as strong a tug as his exhausted body will allow. The door remains closed. “Master!” he calls helplessly, a closed fist banging against the wooden door. He turns, then, to survey the small table where the pair are meant to share their morning meal. Frollo’s usual basket of day-old baguettes is absent as well. Quasimodo’s stomach rumbles, the previous evening’s meal having been smaller than usual and leaving him craving sustenance. But there is none.
“Master!” he calls again, collapsing to his knees. Even being a monster, Quasimodo has never felt so alone in his entire life. The open space of the bell tower, once so freeing, suddenly makes him feel insignificant and small. The young boy leans forward, sobbing into his open hands. If Frollo can hear him on the other side of the door, he doesn’t make his presence known. And for some long minutes Quasimodo cries, all alone.
And then, a voice. It’s not one he recognizes, and Quasimodo knows many of the voices of the Parisians. He can hear them singing during mass, hear them praying in the cathedral after the formal ceremonies. This is not a sound he’s ever heard before.
“Chin up, kid!” the voice says, and Quasimodo peers up through his mop of tangled red hair. He turns his head, wondering if perhaps the speaker is being obscured by his one bad eye, but there seems to be no one in the bell tower with him.
“Who- who’s there?” His voice is still choked from the sobbing, and he wonders for a fleeting moment if so much crying has driven him mad.
“Why, it’s me of course!” the voice responds, although that does little to answer Quasimodo’s question.
Sucking in a deep breath, he pushes himself back up to his feet. If this person wants to play a game of hide and seek, he’ll bite. “Where are you?”
“Over here!” The young boy turns rapidly, only to find nothing but one of the cathedral’s gargoyles. His brows crease and he walks slowly towards it. He can almost swear that the thing seems to move… “It’s time to be properly introduced, Quasi!”
The boy gasps loudly, stumbling backwards as the voice, the mysterious voice he’d been hearing, seems to come from the gargoyle itself. He clutches at his chest, landing with a resounding thud on the wooden floor. The gargoyle snickers with amusement.
He’s always spoken to the gargoyles as if they could hear him, but never before had they spoken back. It’s lonely up in the bell tower, and with his human interactions being few and far between Quasimodo has always sought friendship wherever he could find it. But stone can’t really talk – can it?
“Y- you’re not real,” he sputters out, wiping at his eyes with the backs of his large hands.
“I’m as real as you need me to be, kid!” the gargoyle replies, hopping closer to the boy sprawled out on the floor. “And like I said, it’s high time we properly met. Name’s Hugo!”
“Hugo?” Quasimodo repeats, shifting so that he is sitting upon the floor rather than simply lying there.
“You got it, kid! Now, don’t wear it out!” he winks.
Quasimodo suddenly feels very self-conscious, and he brings one hand up to shield his face from the stone creature. “Aren’t you afraid to look at me?”
“Why would I be afraid?” he asks, peering in a bit closer at the young boy.
“I am a monster,” Quasimodo replies, matter-of-factly. It’s easy to say, when it’s all he’s ever known, all Frollo has ever taught him about himself.
“So am I, kid! Just think, at least you don’t got horns!” Hugo gestures up to the two thin protrusions jutting from the top of his head, before turning and hopping over to the door. “Old man Frollo locked you in, did he? Guess we’ll just have to find a way to bust the door down!”
Quasimodo’s eyes open wide. “Oh no!” he replies, turning to face Hugo. “We could never do that! What would my Master say?”
“You just tell him it’s an accident,” Hugo replies, waving away the boy’s worries with a three-fingered hand.
“I couldn’t.” Defying Frollo has never been a task that he’s felt up to attempting. He’d seen the disappointment in the man’s face only minutes earlier, and it wasn’t something he ever wanted to experience again.
“Well then, Quasi, you’ve only got one other option.” Hugo closed the space between the two of them with a few small jumps. “You’ve got to ring those bells!”
He nibbles anxiously on his bottom lip, shaking his head. “I can’t. I already tried.” His body feels sore, and he wishes he could just climb back underneath his rough covers, fall back to sleep, and forget that any of this ever happened. He hates disappointing his Master and, worse of all, he hates disappointing the people of Paris.
“But you haven’t tried with me.” Hugo jabs a finger towards his own chest before hopping off to the second level of the bell tower.
Quasimodo stares silently after him for a moment, before pushing himself to his uneven feet and following after the gargoyle. “Wait!”
It’s unclear if Hugo is ignoring him or simply doesn’t hear him, but the stone figure moves ahead without stopping. He scales the small wooden ladder with ease, and it takes all of Quasimodo’s remaining energy to keep pace.
“Listen, kid.” Hugo has stopped in front of Big Marie, one arm outstretched and leaning against the large bell. “I’m here to help you be a better you. Like a guardian angel, or something.” He shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing to understand, kid. You’re just gonna get over here and pull that rope like your life depends on it!” And then he adds, almost inaudibly, “Because it probably does.”
Quasimodo gazes again upon the polished brass of the bell, and his stomach twists in a way that can only resemble fear. Every muscle in his body seems to ache from his earlier attempt, and any semblance of hope that he’d hung on to earlier seems to have been shattered.
As if Hugo can sense his anxiety, he moves to the back of the young boy and nudges him forward. “C’mon, Quasi! I know you’ve got it in you!”
The boy takes one small step forward, but his arms remain at his side. He remembers the strain that it put on his body earlier, and it’s not a sensation that he wants to repeat. But maybe the gargoyle’s right – he has a companion in this now, and perhaps that will be enough to bring success. “Hugo,” he turns to look behind him. “Will you help me?”
A large, stony grin breaks out across the gargoyle’s face. “I thought you’d never ask, kid.” He hops forward, closing his fists around the thick rope. “Ready whenever you are, big guy!”
It’s perhaps the first time that Quasimodo has smiled, really smiled, in the many years he’s spent in solitude up in the tower of Notre Dame. Roland may have been a comforting presence, a welcome reprieve from Frollo’s stoic nature, but Quasimodo had hardly considered him to be a real companion; they’d barely spoken, their interactions mere exchanged looks. But Hugo, this gargoyle that can inexplicably talk and walk, is treating him like a true friend. Or, at the very least, what Quasimodo has always imagined a true friend might be like.
He closes the space between him and the rope with two long strides, raising his arms up above his head. “You can do it, kid!” Hugo says from below him, and Quasimodo is instilled with a sense of confidence he’s never felt before. Frollo has never been one to praise; his words are typically thinly veiled insults. Hugo is a welcoming, optimistic presence in comparison. Quasimodo closes his bright blue eyes, grits his teeth, and pulls.
His whole body seems to shudder from the exertion, but on the opposite end of the rope he can feel the bell begin to give way. It’s not just a small quiver this time, but actual movement. He scrunches his face and pulls harder.
“C’mon, Quasi! You’re almost there!” Hugo’s words of encouragement are enough to keep him going. He peeks one eye open to see the gargoyle tugging on the rope with his own small might, a partner in this endeavour. Every muscle in his weak body seems to scream out in pain, but Quasimodo endures, pushing past all of it.
In an instant his arms come slamming down, nearly knocking the breath right out of him. The rope is no longer taut as the bell swings hard, the clapper ringing with a resounding reverberance as it knocks against the shell. Both of Quasimodo’s eyes fly open with shock, his jaw dropping. “I did it! Hugo, I did it!” The next pull is much easier, the momentum of the bell leading way into the next swing.
“We did it, kid,” the gargoyle replies. His arms are wrapped fully around the rope now and he seems to be going for a rider more than actually assisting. Not that Quasimodo really cares. That isn’t what matters right now. What matters is that he’s done it.
“Wait until you meet the rest of us!” Hugo yells above the ringing of the bells. “Victor’s a real piece of work!” Quasimodo laughs in reply, his heart swelling with a sense of belonging for the first time ever.
The young boy continues to ring in the morning of Paris with his new friend by his side. And if anyone were to peer into the bell tower of Notre Dame that morning, they would see a lone hunchbacked boy, ringing the bells and smiling with contentment.