Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
I fell in love with his music. I didn’t care if it was for the rats.
I’d always loved to dance, and he played the finest flute our small town had ever heard. We had folk songs mostly, and Jim Parsons playing the whistle at the dances we held in my father’s barn. But nothing like the Piper’s flute. But I am getting ahead of myself. That’s not where the story starts.
It truly began the day the boat came ashore near Adder’s Field. The river runs right by there, and though it isn’t on any trade route, and has no fancy dock, a boat landed there just the same. It was large enough to need a crew of at least five, but it came in with only one man aboard, and that man was dead as they come. Teddy Glipsby, sixteen same as me but much more trouble, was first aboard. He found the body. The way he told it, the man was chewed to the bone. Nothing but a lump of guts. And when he said it in front of his ma, she slapped him hard on the ear. Not very respectful to call a man a lump of guts.
I didn’t see it. A few of the village boys did. Called over by Teddy’s wailing. That was before my father told them to burn the ship and everything aboard; from the dead man to the barrels of oats, so spoiled and littered with rat droppings you could hardly see it for what it was. I was with my tutor, who is too severe to like, learning math when I could have been out enjoying the fire. But that is my lot in life as the mayor’s only son.
Everyone had hoped that burning it put an end to the bad luck the old boat brought to Thistleweed, but barely four weeks passed before people started to notice the rats. Black haired and ugly things, they were. Our town has no shortage of stray cats and dogs, so we didn’t fret too much over it. “Nature has a way of taking care of these things,” said my father to some folk who’d come by about the beasts. Only nature never got the message.
Nearly eight weeks went by before my father acknowledged Thistleweed had a problem. And by that time, it was too late to stop the first wave of young rats from taking over the granary. And the storehouse. And the bakery. Cats started disappearing off the cobblestones. Some said they left town, fearing the rats who were just as big as them. Others said they’d been eaten. I believed it when one evening I was walking home from the lake and found a dog picked clean.
My father told Teddy Glipsby and his brothers, Seth and Jacob, that he’d pay them a sixth a coin for every rat they killed. That was fine, and worked out well for everyone until Teddy caught a fever. “He’s worked himself into such a state,” said his mother. “There must be something you can do.”
But the mayor, my father, had no solution.
One day just past sundown, when the streets weren’t safe, and most everyone was in their homes but those who braved the rats for a drink of beer, a music came down upon the valley like fog among the tombstones. I was sitting at my writing desk when I heard it. It was so sweet it made me think of my ma, and how before she died she used to put honey on my biscuits every Sunday. I opened my window, and listened for a long time. It seemed the whole village held its breath while I waited. I felt like every living creature in the world waited too.
My father’s man answered the door when He knocked, and I soon heard pleasant talk coming from the parlor. Being that my father’s business is often my business, I pushed the door open, and went in. What I saw filled me with a fear like I had never known. Sitting on the coach was a man with a skull upon his shoulders. It grinned at me, dead eyed in the poor lamp light. I felt myself turn to stone.
“What’s the matter with you, boy?” said my father.
And then the shadows in the room settled into place and I realized it was not a skeleton there, but a man. A man so beautiful I couldn’t for a second guess how I had mistaken him for something so horrible. His fine golden hair was braided back and his features were almost feminine. Noble to be sure. He was dressed like a gentleman, and at his side was a leather pouch as long as my arm.
“As I was saying,” he said. “I can have the rats out tonight. As far as the mountains. For a price.”
“A steep price, it seems,” said my father.
“Shall I let you discuss the matter with your… son?”
The man looked at me in a way that called me close, but I didn’t dare take a step.
“Bram, this Piper fellow wants four hundred coin to rid of us of our rats. He says he is a magician,” my father said. He looked unsure.
I felt as if he badly wanted to believe in magic. Don’t we all? But everyone knows it is the stuff of fairy tales.
“Perhaps a demonstration?” said Piper, taking up his flute.
With a nod from my father, Piper began to play. And such beautiful music it was. He played for a good ten minutes. I had hoped he would play longer still, but my father interrupted, saying, “Nothing’s happening.”
The stranger looked at me and I swear, he winked one luminous green eye just as my father sat forward, and punched himself square in the face.
“What…” he sputtered, raising his fist again. “No stop!”
And Piper stopped playing.
“Alright magician, four hundred coin. But you only get half upfront. The rest you will get tomorrow under the condition there is not a single rat left in this town,” said my father, rubbing the spot between his eyes where he had abused himself.
“Agreed.” Piper held out his hand to my father, who shook it warily, but then could not seem to pull it out of the other man’s grasp. The magician looked him in the eyes, and with a voice that chilled me he said, “And don’t betray me or I will take more than your rats.”
And so it happened that when the moon was just over the village, full and high as it could be, Piper stood in town square, his purse two hundred coin heavier, with his flute upon his lips. My father had let me accompany him, being a godly man, and himself too afraid of the magician.
“Bram,” Piper said, and again I thought of honey. “Go through the village and make sure there is not a single person outside.”
I did what I was told, then came back to him eagerly.
“Everyone is inside,” I said.
“Everyone but you.” He tugged one of my curls, of which I have many, and I thought it odd for its not often a stranger would want touch me so. I wasn’t displeased though.
I had a mind to stay and watch him catch the rats, or even help him, but he told me I too had to go, else I be eaten. So off I went, back home to my writing desk and my tutor who is, as I’ve said, too severe to like.
But hardly had we begun our studies when the music came through the open windows. I was caught up in its rhythm, and found myself quite unable to think a single thought. My tutor hollered and beat his chest but it didn’t matter. I went to the door and threw it open. I didn’t risk stepping out. From every garden to every dark corner, and even the cracks in our neighbor’s wall, a black river of oil spilled into the street towards the square. Rats! Shining black rats! One pushed past my foot in the doorway and leapt into the grass. More were scrambling up from the foundation of the house. They fled towards Piper who’s music was starting to grow quieter as he moved towards the village gate. I listened until I could hear no more and knew the rats were gone. Up to the mountains, just as the magician had said.
And that’s how Thistleweed gained and lost its rats.
But that’s not the end of it. For the day after the rats had gone, Piper did not return. My father said the beast’s must have eaten him, but should he return he thought it only fair the village pay his remaining two hundred coin. After all, it was them complaining. So, because the town was greatly joyed to be rodent free and the air was full of good spirits, even among Teddy Glipsby’s family who had just lost their son, he decided it was high time for a good old country dance.
We gathered in the barn that night though there didn’t seem to be as many folk as we were accustomed to. It seemed every family had someone at home in bed with some ache or pain. And not a single soul wanted to put a coin in my basket when I came around to collect for Piper.
“The rats have eaten everything. We need our money to buy food,” said some.
“I could have gotten rid of those rats myself,” said others.
By the end of the night, when my father saw that I had collected nothing he was quite upset, and not even Jim Parsons could calm him down. He said right there in front of everybody that he didn’t intend to pay Piper the two hundred coin he owed him.
That’s how it came to pass, that just the day before yesterday, the magician came around wanting his coin, and my father threw him out. Though I was feeling poorly that day, I heard the argument from my room and went to see the commotion. My father was yelling in Piper’s face, but the mage was silent, just smiling ever so slightly at my father in a way that worried me. I stepped in the room and took my father by the arm.
“Get him out of here” said my father to his man, who tried to put his hand on Piper’s shoulder then quickly learned it was a mistake when he got a flute to the wrist.
Piper turned and walked away, but as he neared the door he said, “I hope two hundred coin was worth it.”
With those cryptic words he left.
Well, that was two days ago, and my father is still in a rage over it. I sorely wish he’d paid the magician for I’d so love to hear his music now as I lay in bed waiting for this fever to subside. I adjust myself in bed and wait for the doctor to arrive. Father is worried, but I think he is worrying for nothing. Yes, I am uncomfortable, with a tenderness beneath my arms and along my thighs, but I am well enough to read still.
When the doctor comes, he lances some boils that have grown upon my back but stops just short of bleeding me. The room smells like burning herbs by the time he leaves. I feel tired so I take a nap.
When I wake it’s to the music I so longed to hear. A sweetness fills my belly, and I push myself up on my arms. My armpits are quite swollen now so I treat them gently. Piper’s melody swims in my head. I feel drunk and giddy. The way it wraps around me makes me want to dance. It makes me want to see Him. So, I stand and go to the window. From there I can almost see through the darkness down into the town’s square. I imagine I can see Piper playing. Though the moon is high it does not give much light.
Through the door. Into the yard I go. My feet moving in rhythm. I step into the street and a child of three joins me. We move in pace with one another. My legs hurt and my groin feels bruised where it has turned dark and puffy. As the child and I walk past the Glipsby house, Seth and Jacob come out, their eyes fixed towards the square. Their mother comes after them. She grabs Seth’s arm and pleads. She sobs. She tries to stop him by putting her whole self in his path.
Seth’s fist, holding a flaming torch like a cudgel, comes down hard and fast. It strikes his mother on the head, and when she gets up, reaching for him, he hits her again. Her fingers grasp his heel as he walks on, and he turn and beats her about the head. Raining down blows upon her face until she stops moving. Then he is up and walking towards Piper.
When we reach Him, I see all the children coming. Those who can walk, walk, and those who cannot, are carried by those who can. Seth is the eldest at eighteen.
Piper looks at me over his flute and winks, then begins to lead us toward the village’s stone gate. We follow Him like the rats had, through the fields, across the valley. We wade through streams and climb steep rocks. As the day breaks, we enter the mountains.
I can’t seem to get a breath. I cough up great globs of phlegm, barely able to spit them out keeping up with the children. My muscles feel like jelly. I can feel the boils on my neck rubbing against my shirt; pus seeping into my collar.
All the while Piper plays.
Our torches create ghoulish shadows within the mountain’s caves. Piper looks like a god and a monster. His beauty is cruel here. As we get deeper into the earth, I feel so weak I am not sure I can walk much longer. The music stops. We slow down.
The ground is cold. One by one the children start to sit, many are sobbing. Some are just lying on their sides, eyes blank and staring, breaths shallow. I can barely keep my lungs going. I suddenly find that I am terrified and look around for Piper. There he is. He comes near me, a rat on his shoulder. He feeds it a child’s finger. No… a piece of bread.
“Bram,” he whispers. He shares a smile with me. A secret smile.
I try to speak, but there is something acidic and frothy bubbling up out of my throat and choking me.
“Bram,” he says again.
And as I lay here, fever slick and foaming, awaiting that sweet embrace I have so longed for, I finally feel his rotten lips upon my own and know that Death is serenading me home.
Credit : Katrina Slater
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