“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 email@example.com 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.