It’s been one hundred years since our children vanished.
I’ll be sixteen in three days, and safe from the curse, but I come early because I don’t think my mother will last so long.
The moment I step onto the cobblestones faces appear in the windows and doors overlooking the square. Whispers build like the wind on a stormy day, and I walk with my chin up past the well and the butcher-shop. Past the empty school. Past the pub and the mayor’s house with its red shutters. I turn where the two-story inn hunches at the crossroads, and there is Mother’s house at the edge of town. Candles flicker on the front windowsills, despite the sunlight. They mark the illness that seeps through the cracks in the foundation, between wall-boards, and up through the thatched roof.
I haven’t been home since I learned to walk, but I remember the way from the stories she told me when she came to visit every year. Came to tell my little brother and me stories from the year. About Master Lors the innkeeper, about Rudolf and Emily’s wedding, about our friends who’d turned sixteen and come home.
The door is open to let in clean afternoon air, and I stop on the threashold with my toes directly beneath the lintel, my hands out to clutch the jam. My feet, hands, and head are a five-point star, surrounded by the doorframe. I will protect this house from the curse, will ward the rooms.
Voices reach me from beyond the large front room. This house is only two rooms, with an upper loft. I push through past the kitchen table, beneath handing herbs and past shelves of pots and boxes and books, past the hearth, and into the bedroom. There lies my mother, face wan and thin enough I see the shape of her skull. Miss Maddy, our neighbor, sits beside her, a damp cloth held to Mama’s lips.
My heart thuds hard enough I feel the press of my bodice tighten around me. I open my mouth but no words pour free.
Mama opens her eyes. “Hanna,” she rasps, and Miss Maddy shoots to her feet. “Hanna, are you sixteen?”
Mama’s eyes are wild and her mouth stretches into a deadly smile.
I go to her, standing over her bed, and I lie. “Yes, Mama. I’m sixteen two days ago.”
All the children of Hamelin are sent away by the time they can walk, and never return until they’re grown. We live with relatives or serve strangers in bigger houses. Anywhere outside the town limits. It’s the only way to keep us from vanishing in the night.
The last child to disappear was my friend Lily’s older brother. Lily’s parents didn’t believe the curse still affected us. That what cursed us died with our grandparents, and we living now had done no harm. They believed so hard they kept their first son Karl at home past walking. All night long they watched and listened, and all night long nothing came. Karl slept in his cradle.
For nine nights they watched, and nine nights he remained.
On the tenth night there was a celebration. A fete unlike the town had seen in four generations. Lights were strung, sheep slaughtered, and all the old folks played their flutes and fiddles and drums until the darkest hours.
It was then, Mama used to say, a wind came through, singing with the voice of a reed pipe. High and haunting, it chilled all the dancers, and stole the air out of the flutes.
When the sun rose, and the town gathered again, nobody could find little Karl. And a year later when Lily first pushed off the earth to stand on her own two legs, she was sent to live with me at my Aunt Nandie’s.
I walk through town to the Ryson’s dairy, intent on bringing Mama home some of their mustard cheese. I’d melt it over the fire with toast and boil some tomatoes. Mama’s always loved that simple meal for her supper.
It’s quiet. I smell fire and metal as I pass the smithery, and hear the clang of Ellis’s hammer. The pub sounds like its well full for lunch. Someone is repairing a roof and the hiss of tall grass being bundled and laid out reaches me though I can’t see where the workers are. Sounds of a living village surround me, yet it feels quiet. Where is the laughter? Where the mothers calling their children in? Where the yelling as rules are broken in a game of ball the boys play?
All those noises I’m used to, and without them, the remaining usual sounds transform into a hush of tension.
The sun filters through thin white clouds, warming the back of my neck where I’ve pinned up my hair. I catch people I must know, but don’t remember, staring at me through open windows or ducking around the corner of buildings to run and spread the word I’ve come.
The town knows all our birthdays. They keep a calendar marked into the side of the inn, where longing parents may visit and count the days until their babies return.
It isn’t until I’m at the dairy shop door that anyone calls out to me.
It’s Lily, and her feet slap against the dry wagon ruts. I wait with open arms and she rushes into them, grasping at me. Her arms push air from my chest and I laugh and gasp. “You’re crazy!” she says into my hair.
I hug her back and whisper, “I had to come for her.”
Lily, who turned sixteen last season and hasn’t seen me since, holds my jaw and kisses my lips and my cheeks and my nose. “I’ll stay with her, Hanna, and you come back in three days. She’ll hold on for you. I know she will.”
But I’ve seen Mama. The way her hands collapse onto the bed after she touches mine. So much effort for so little reward. “I’ve been to her, Lily. I don’t have time to leave.”
“But – ”
“And I’m no babe to be spirited away.”
“Karl – ”
“Nor,” I say, firmly removing her hands from my face, “am I afraid of rats.”
I’ve been home for three hours and lied to my mother and best friend. I’m terrified of the rats.
With mustard cheese and a glass of cream Mrs. Ryson gave for free, I return home. I cook for Mama and I. She smiles with me, and nibbles as best she can on the cheese. The toast is too much, and I pretend to eat it. But my stomach is ratted tighter than wind-blown hair.
She sleeps when I sing to her; soft lullabies she taught my brother and me, and my favorite harvest songs from Uncle Lyle. As the sun sets I climb the loft ladder, and out onto the roof. I kick down the ladder so no rats can follow me up, and with rope, I tie my wrist to the corner post. I settle to watch the nighttime approach, in a nest of thatch. I’ve asked Lily to come in the morning with a knife to cut me loose.
The sky turns pink and orange, then settles into cool gray. Stars press through a brilliant swath of blackness and there are lights in the town. Candles in every window. It isn’t a tradition I knew from Mama’s stories, and I allow myself to imagine they’ve put those candles out for me. Lily spread word, and I hope the town believes I’m brave for my Mama. Not foolish. Not doomed.
The rats come with the last of the light. Just enough to see the glinting of their tiny eyes as they swarm through the streets.
They come like a wave of dark water, a river that gushes between houses. Rippling against the earth, their eyes shining, their teeth chattering. I draw up my knees and wrap my arms around them. The pull of the rope cuts into my wrist, but I can’t relax. Thatching pokes through my skirts, and I’m glad of the discomfort. It’s something to focus on besides the thousand tiny claws running around my house.
My breath is hard and I’m panting like Uncle Lyle’s old hunting hound. The rats don’t climb up to me. They don’t enter the house. They only circle it, surrounding me. Some of them sit up on their back paws. Their whiskers twitch. One, directly below me, hisses.
I clamp down my jaw and try not to whimper. But I can’t stop the imagined sensation of all their little feet running over my body, sinking into my face and chest, finding the delicate skin under my wrists and beneath my ears. I don’t close my eyes, but I stare down at them as I imagine their teeth piercing my lips.
And then I see him.
He’s only a boy, my age. Standing in the middle of them. The rats swarm around his ankles, making a patch of earth for him to stand on. His hair is blacker than the night around us and his eyes glint the way the rats’ do. In one hand is a long reed pipe, and over his shoulders a coat of patchwork leather.
The Piper stares up at me, as I stare down at him. He lifts his pipe to his mouth and plays. I close my eyes and listen. It is the most beautiful sound, teasing me with longing and the promise of joy.
All night they surround me. All night I wait. I ache and burn from not moving, and my bones are cold as ice when the rats finally disperse. The boy vanishes, too, like moonlight.
The sun rises. I faint into a feverish half-sleep, and only wake when Lily comes. Her hands brush my face and I cry out, but I am alive. She unties me and helps me down. Together we heat broth for Mama, but my mother cannot eat. She twists her fingers into my hair and whispers, “I heard the music last night, daughter.”
Lily stays with me, and we take turns sitting with Mama. When it is Lily’s turn I sleep in the chair at the hearth. A burn wraps around my wrist from the rubbing of the rope.
As the day wanes, I send Lily home to her family and curl beside Mama on the bed. I tell her what I saw, because she is asleep and her breath so shallow I feel certain she’ll never wake.
And for the second night I climb onto the roof and tie myself there. I wait as the rats come with the moon, and I watch the Piper approach on silent feet. He watches me back and plays his song, and tears drip down my cheeks. I don’t recognize the emotion he invokes. I don’t know its name, but I feel it.
Just before he leaves, he tucks the pipe into his coat and says my name.
It is like leaves crunching and the whisper of winter wheat. It’s like empty walnut shells and the clatter of a bone chime.
Lily unties me at dawn. We go inside and she chatters about what the town is saying. They’re indeed judging me both brave and foolish. None of them willing to risk a babe to change the curse, but a girl near-grown none of them have seen or loved in fourteen years is a different story. Lily has a basket of charms and cookies, sent from nearly every mother and sister in town. They’ll leave the candles burning until I’m of age.
I’m sitting with Mama in the afternoon, and she pulls me down so her mouth is at my ear. “I knew that song last night,” she whispers, and the word rattle inside her chest.
My hand between her thin and sagging breasts rubs tiny, soothing circles.
“It was love,” Mama says.
And she dies with that word hanging in the air between us.
I have time to leave. I could easily go to Aunt Nandie’s for my final night as a child.
Women from town arrive when Lily spreads the word. They bake and clean, they help with Mama’s body. They push me out the door and tell me to come back tomorrow. Everything can wait until then.
I go to the square and stand at the well. From here I can see the calendar etched into the stone wall of the inn. Names. Dates. Year marks. Marring the stone like a thousand years of weather. But it’s only one hundred years of sorrow.
And I don’t leave. I wait as the sky changes, as the candles go up in the windows.
I wait until the darkness is all around me but for the flickering spots of candlelight. I wait until the rats come, and when I hear their tiny claws on the cobbles, all I do is press back against the well.
The rats spill into the square. They flow around my legs and I push my tongue to the roof of my mouth. I look up at the stars. There are more stars than there are rats, and I wish the stars will give me strength.
All around me they move, a teaming blanket of tiny teeth and fur and pairs of eyes.
“Piper !” I call.
The rats freeze. And the boy walks through them. He is shadows and starlight at first, movement where my eyes expect none. And then he is solid. A boy my age in the patched coat with a reed in his fingers.
I hold myself still, with one hand on my chest making small circles over my heart.
He stops an arms-length from me. His coat is made of a hundred rat skins, gray and white and red and black and brown, all sewn together. The stitches are like yellow teeth holding it all together.
“Hanna,” he says.
“It’s your fault I didn’t have more time with her.”
His head tilts to one side and black hair falls over one shoulder. “I did not make her die.”
“You made her send me away. I should have had sixteen years and instead I had two days.”
“I should have had a lifetime, too.” He lifts the pipe.
I reach out my hand, but don’t touch the instrument. “I don’t care. It was a hundred years ago, and all the people who hurt you, who let the rats hurt you and your family, they’re dead and gone.”
The Piper is still. More quiet and unmoving than the moon in the sky. He regards me, and I step forward. Recalling Lily, I take his jaw in my hands. I kiss his cheeks. I kiss his eyes. His skin is freezing.
I kiss his mouth.
For a single moment, I am warm. I am floating and it is wind around me, a summer breeze, not rats. I spin in the warm embrace of a brother. Of a husband or father. Of all the things he might have been.
And then I am on my feet again, cold as the night wind flutters my hair and the hem of my skirt.
The rats are gone. The boy is gone.
But in my hand I hold his reed pipe. The mouth piece is warm, the wood smooth from a hundred years of touch.
In my heart, I feel his song again. And this time I know its name.
note: I would totally have been done with this hours ago, but Maggie "I’m on a European Tour" Stiefvater came online for the first time in like 10 days and we went a little nuts. Um, sorry!