This week, Enchanted Conversation Magazine would like to thank, Kiyomi Appleton Gaines, for sharing her photos and thoughts from her recent trip to Thailand. We hope Kiyomi’s art and words can serve as story-inspiration for our readers.The old city is in ruins, falling down, overgrown with trees and plants. The forest is taking it back. Yet still…
“It is 100 years since our children left.” Hamelin town chronicles, 1384
“Where did the children go? Where did he take them?” my great-grandmother asked. She was in one of her fretful moods, and we would try to calm her, but she would work herself up into a state for the lost children. Why did no one go to find them? Where were they taken?
We were all familiar with her queries and the best that could be done was to try to keep her in bed and stroke her hand until she eventually cried herself to sleep. Sometimes she would get up and start for the door, or we’d find her in the kitchen, packing food into a sack already stuffed with a change of clothes, a thin and faded old nightgown, a sharp letter opener. “Gran,” we’d say, “where are you going?” She would start on about the children again, always the children. Why had no one gone to find them? Where had they been taken? An entire village of children did not simply disappear.
Gran’s young brother had been among the lost ones. There were two brothers and a sister who were lost as well, as I recalled, but this brother had been her favorite. She had cared for him as a baby, her mother never fully recovering from his, the last and most difficult of nine births. Or was it seven? It was hard to say, as so many records of that time had been lost, or destroyed. Records of the lives of the lost ones. Gran was young at the time, fourteen or fifteen, and she had a sister just a few years younger, and an older brother who also survived. Had there been another sister? Nobody knew anymore.
They came from a small milling town up in the mountains. The man had come. There was a famine, and the goats were dying. Or maybe it was a drought? They were hungry, she said, when the man came. The village stores were low, and illness was high. The rats were everywhere, in the grain, crawling over the sick, sometimes attacking the very ill before they expired.
“I woke in the night, I couldn’t breathe. There was a heavy weight on my chest, pressing the life out of me, and when I opened my eyes, there was the beast. A rat,” here she would spread her hands wide to the size of a house cat, “standing on my chest, pressing my breath out, staring into my eyes! With no fear! It tried to smother me, that animal. My sister knocked it off of me with a skillet.”
Straw mattresses were dragged outside and burned. Thatching was replaced on roofs. Holes were patched in walls and floorboards. Still the rats came. Still they remained.
“People were dying. People were dying,” she would murmur, almost consoling herself.
The man came to town. He was older than Gran at the time, though not as old as her father. He wore a patchwork cape, and carried a flute; all the accounts agree on these points. “We were desperate,” she’d say, her voice pleading. The man came. He would get rid of the rats. His price was high. More gold than the whole village had. There was the gold in the church, the candlesticks and chalice and plates and censers, the gold flake on the saints, but that was not to be considered.
Where did the man come from? Gran would wave her hand and give no other answer.
He set right to his work. The elders told him to get rid of the rats, and he set right to his work. Before long he was strolling down the street with a staff strung with rats, and whatever plague had summoned them seemed to pass; they stopped coming. He sat in the middle of the square, where he made camp each night, refusing the hospitality of any of the villagers, and would flay and spit and roast the rats, and tear the flesh from tiny bones with fingers and teeth. Then he would sit and play his flute into the night, beautiful lilting melodies.
Was he a stranger? Had he come from a far off land? Again, the dismissive wave. As though it hardly mattered.
There was something disturbing and almost sensual in the way he ate the vermin, savoring every bite, and licking his fingers when he was through. And, just as terrible, young Gran sometimes felt her stomach rumbling at the scent of the roasting meat. She never ate it! No, she never ate it!
When the rats were gone, eaten or chased off, it came time to render payment. The man, as he told them, was ready to continue on his way, and would have what was owed. The villagers gave him what they had, every scrap of gold, save a wedding band secreted here, or a chain passed down through the family, or perhaps just a few coins pocketed against future calamity. The rats were gone, and the village would give all they could, and that would have to be enough. But it was not the price demanded, nor what was agreed.
“He would give us a week,” Gran whispered, her voice trembling.
The man seemed to disappear then, though no one saw him leave town. Instead, he would be spotted, just in the corner of one’s eye, staring out of the shadows when daily chores were done, or following along on the lane, close enough to hear his steps, too far for any proper greeting.
When the week had passed, he went again to the elders. Again they offered him all the collected wealth of the village, though not the full price set for his services.
“His face went strange like a demon,” she said, “that’s what my father said. A face like a demon. And when he left, the church bell rang once, though there was no one to pull the cord.”
The next day, when the villagers had finished their church services, the children were gone. All of them had disappeared, all of those weaned and walking, and so had the man. There were no signs of struggle, no tiny footprints in the dirt, no dropped toy or scrap of cloth. The village was in the mountains, yet no one saw that lone man leading an army of children down to the valley. None of the children was ever seen again — one hundred and thirty children — nor was the man.
A version of this story was originally published at firstname.lastname@example.org on November 8, 2016
I have a newsletter now! If you enjoy my stories, if you want to support my writing, please sign up. If you subscribe to my Tiny Letter, you’ll stay with me, wherever I end up writing in the future, and I’ll send you previews of what’s coming up here.
My lord, king and husband,
Though you have put me aside and confined me to these estates, know that I humbly accept your wisdom and obey your decrees in these, as in all matters. I pray only for your Majesty’s health and happiness, and hope that you may yet remember the happiness we shared together so recently. The love I bear you has never waned nor shall. In my clumsy seeking to know more of the young woman brought so recently to court, I wished only to please you, that I might love as you do and extend every warmth and welcome of the good charity that your Highness and your kingdom have always been known for, and in my meager ability, to extend that hospitality of your Grace’s court to all your favored guests.
I see that in your wisdom you have separated me now for this time, though in my smallness of mind I am unable to comprehend your noble thoughts. I mean neither to rebuke nor question your rights, and accept humbly your Grace’s command, but I beg you to educate me in where I have erred. I await your letter with eagerness and affection, and remain your most loyal and loving servant.
Most noble lord, my beloved husband and king,
I have heard strange reports of the young woman who so recently has joined the court. I do not say that I believe them nor wish to repeat any slander, but only to faithfully report to you and seek your good counsel in the matter.
It has been told to me that in your most recent and successful campaign your company came upon an abandoned tower, and in that tower found an entire court of lords and ladies at table, all in the deepest sleep, covered in dust, and cobwebbed. It has been said, that upon climbing to the top of that tower, one among your number did chance to find a little room, locked, and on opening the door, found a most beautiful young woman, also asleep. This man – it was said, and I seek your instruction on what I must make of these matters – this man was taken by the woman’s beauty and immediately fell upon her in the raptures of his great affection. He was as a man bewitched. No, I forget myself, my dear husband, and know that you will forgive me my feminine weakness. There was no witchcraft nor any mention of it. No, it was told me, though, that the man seemed not himself, and in a daze, and as if he too might slip into that deep slumber if allowed to remain in that tower, and so his companions withdrew and brought him out again.
It was said these occurrences were a year and more ago, as I said, in your last campaign. I humbly beg your advice and guidance in this matter. I ask also that you would have my furs and heavy cloak sent, as the cold is beginning to set in here, though I am ready at your soonest pleasure to return to court, and to your side, where it remains my fondest wish to be. Until then, I remain your most obedient servant.
My dearest lord and king,
I beg you to remember the friendship of our earlier days, and to recall the love you once bore me, that I continue unceasingly to have for you. You raised me from such lowly estate and laid upon me such great honors as to grant me titles and lands of my own – unsought and unrequested – and to call me lady and to name me queen, and most precious to me, give me the title of your most beloved wife. If ever you have loved the name of your forlorn and sorrowful wife, if ever any humble word or deed of mine has brought you any joy or bestowed any mirth to your noble personage, I beg you now to consider these ugly and vicious rumors in light of that friendship we so recently shared.
Any child of your Grace, even though it be not my own, is precious to me for that noble and beloved parentage. Yet I have not seen the young woman at all these long months of my seclusion, and certainly never have sought any harm or injury to her children. It pains me, I will not lie, to know that her children are also yours. Yet I love them for it, as I love you, and will welcome them at court with all the warmth and affection they are owed as your own when you will have me return, which it is my fondest wish to do.
I know that the tower happened upon by your company had a strangeness about it and I bare you no resentment nor reproach for any happenings on the occasion of battle. But what strangeness has there been here in our own country estates, where we have long walked side by side among our own beloved hills? What strangeness to compel any woman to order a child cooked as meat, as it is so cruelly rumored of me? In your recent absence, may I be judged if I write untruthfully, I never have set foot at court. And though I may have yet some few friends in your company, and though I pray they may remind you of our happier days, they do not write to me. Which I would never desire them to do if it might bring you the least displeasure, as surely their greater duty and friendship are owed to your Grace, whose love and generosity make all our joys complete.
I swear to you that I do not know what has become of the child. I pray for its safe and healthy return to you and to its mother. I pray you remember your faithful and loyal and loving wife, and allow me to return that I may defend myself against the slanderers who have sought to make me odious in your eyes. I pray you put aside the simple desires of the flesh and remember your true companion and friend.
I am ever your most loyal and obedient servant, and your most devoted and loving subject.
Most noble king and husband, dearest to me of all mankind, my good lord,
You know these things said of me to be despicable lies. You must know the impossibility of such cruelty to be in the nature of one you once held in such affection. Further, you must know the impossibility of my travel from my place here to court and back again, and to undertake such journey unnoticed, and to steal away and murder your young children in secret, and further to conspire to have them served at your table. Your Grace will know the utter impossibility of such an undertaking, even were such not abhorrent to me, and sickening even to write of.
Yet still if I am indeed guilty of such heinous crimes as I have been accused of, let me be brought before the open court and have my guilt laid plain before all. Let the evidence against me be made clear, and my guilt be made known, or let my innocence be proven! Your Majesty will show yourself a just and evenhanded ruler, as I have always known you to be, and either you will see my innocence, and expose those who have slandered the name you have raised up, or my guilt will be established for all to see. I will accept any lawful ruling, only let me stand trial as any faithful and loyal subject might expect. If ever my name has brought you joy, or if you have gained a moment’s comfort from my company, I ask you to grant my humble request.
Only if your heart has been so turned and hardened against me in these long – few though they have been, to me they have been long – months, I pray only that you will not be held to full account for the grievous sin you commit in such cruel usage of your pitiable wife. I am told the young woman seeks my death at the stake. I will not curse the name of Talia even now, for your sake and for the sake of the love we have shared. Only let an archer be brought that my suffering may not be prolonged. On behalf of my household, I seek their wages, and release or good references, as they may prefer.
I await your word, and remain your most faithful, loyal, and obedient wife.
March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day. This month we will #readmorewomen!
Right now, I’m alternating between Julie Dao’s darkly sparkling fairy tale Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls, inspired by true stories of the horrors of Ravensbruck. Both are tales of strong women learning and navigating that strength, and finding their way in a world that seeks to overpower them.
We live in Cameroon. And it sucks. But it’s good.
I’m on an interminable bus ride, trying to meditate. Make productive use of the time, I figure. Turn a frustration, or at the very least a waste of time, into something useful, beneficial even. I try to take in the verdant landscape, the subtle grace and strength of the mama we zip past with a huge sack on her back, the simple elegance of the mud brick homes. I will achieve zen by Yaoundé. I outline the entire article I will write about this, turning a bus ride, a necessary evil, into a meditation that will make all more peaceful and productive.
We stop and are surrounded in seconds. It’s the third or fourth stop of the day. “Sheeps! Sheeps!” a woman screams through the windows, previously closed against dust, now shoved open, arms and sometimes half-bodies pressing in on us, dangling bags of plantain chips, peanuts, cut fruit, things I can’t name. I breathe, undisturbed. Shake my head, “Non, merci.”
A sway-backed girl is watching through the window, her mouth undulating vigorously around a sucker, obviously one of many from the shape of her teeth and the pinky-orange scum clinging to their surface. She waves her wares and we shake our heads no. Still she stays. Then, like a hit and run, her hand is through the window, swiping down my husband’s arm, and gone again. She stands, staring at us, giggling. I am indignant at the rudeness.
Deranging is my favorite frenglish word. It captures so exactly what it means: harassment stemming from a basic lack of regard and respect for another person. The shouting and lip smacking and hissing I generally can ignore, but breaching the barrier of physical touch still gets my Irish up, and I don’t mean potatoes.
I give her a dirty look, grumble, “How rude,” and breathe. I will be unmoved. The bus sits. We’ll be going soon though, I’m certain. The sway-backed girl giggles and drags her friend over, pointing as though we are the first volunteers ever to appear on a bus through this town. As though our fair skin somehow makes us a spectacle.
Landscape. Subtle grace. Elegance. Breathe.
Giggling, she weaves her hand through the window and swipes her fingers down his arm again, quickly as though snatching away something precious, something she knows she shouldn’t take.
“Notice: Our volunteers may be cute, but they will bite! Please do not put hands inside the enclosure.”
I can feel my temper flood up in me like water in a glass. “Touche pas!” I shout.
She and her friend giggle hysterically, and still the bus sits.
“It’s not rudeness,” I can hear our training director saying, “they just want to know you.” No, it is rudeness. We’re not zoo animals.
Determined not to be bothered anymore, I glower at the back of the seat in front of me.
A boy walks up to see what the commotion is, waves his wares at us, then looks me in the eye and addresses my husband. “I’ll trade you, this one for yours,” he gestures at the sway-backed girl. Deux, deux cents.
I try to murder him with only my gaze and my mind. He doesn’t even shift his weight back from the window.
The sway-backed girl somehow extends her bust and hips even further from her waist. Still, the bus sits.
“It’s a bad trade,” my husband says.
The girls giggle maniacally.
“No, it’s good,” the boy says, “I like her.”
“Bad for me,” my husband clarifies.
“No, one for one,” the boy explains the math. “It’s good.” The sway-backed girl twirls her sucker, like there’s only the details to work out now, like there’s some possibility of me getting off the bus and she taking my place.
Finally, the bus inches forward.
“No, she’s too good for you,” my husband calls as we pull away. In what sounds to me like flawless French.
The woman seated in front of us laughs and nods.
He is relaxed, laughing, unperturbed, and throws an arm easily across my hunched shoulders. “That was fun,” he says, giving me a squeeze. There are so many reasons why I love him.
“I hate this place,” I mutter, beginning to consider the possibility as the little town fades into the horizon and memory, that I might have over-reacted.
At this rate, I will not reach enlightenment on a bus.
He smiles and everything shifts a little toward its proper place. “Nah,” he assures me, “it’s good.”
I breathe and somehow, it is.
I served in Peace Corps Cameroon from 2011-2013. Zen by Yaounde was first published during my service on 2/21/12. Happy Peace Corps week!