Wondering what will become of Absalom, Hanne, and baby Liesl? Here is the conclusion of “Piper’s Moon.” If you missed the first installment, you can catch up here.
Nothing in Hanne’s previous tirade could have been more horrible. Absalom’s heart crashed like a boulder into his stomach; his chest seemed to cave inward until it had squeezed every bit of air from his lungs. He had sworn years ago never to uncover those memories, never to let them once again romp through his mind wreaking havoc as they went. But the memories, he reminded himself, had not stayed memories.
The girl waited. She looked younger than ever now, Absalom thought. Hardly more than a child herself. How could she understand? She would call him a liar at best, declare him a lunatic at worst. Regardless, if he told her she would never let him come near Liesl, much less allow him to save the child. Exhausted, Absalom sank into a rickety chair, rested his elbows upon the table, and covered his face with his broad hands. “It’s my fault.”
He did not have to see to sense how Hanne shifted away from him, readjusting her hold on the baby in protection. “What is?” she asked, but Absalom did not doubt that she knew quite well what he meant.
Absalom hadn’t realized how his hands still shook. But now he did, with them pressed over his forehead, his large and calloused fingers upraising his grey-tinted hair. “I should—should have stopped him. I should have killed him when I had the chance.” He looked up and found that Hanne sat across from him, fear shining in her eyes. The already sparse light in the room had dimmed. The candle flames that only moments ago danced on their wicks now seemed to have collapsed in upon themselves. Shrinking away from him, as anyone should.
“Who is coming for Liesl?” Hanne asked again, her voice strangely calm
He could sit still not longer. Not under Hanne’s gaze. Absalom started upward and his turbulent motion upset the chair, sending it clattering backward. They both jumped. When he had caught his breath again, Absalom began. “He is the piper. Long ago I knew him,” he said, waving his hand through the still air. “It was a different time, but I knew what he had become. Yet I did nothing. So you see that I am to blame.
“This piper came in the night. He played his tune and wove his magic. You cannot hear the tune that he plays unless he wants you to hear it. He plays with enchantments, bending them to serve his purposes.” Absalom paused and gulped for air, but it tasted too thick, swelling until his mouth and lungs ached as though filled with cotton. “But he probed too far, incurred a debt, and so became enslaved to the magic. He turned on all of us, everyone he knew. His desperation soon turned to madness. I tried to defy him, but he had grown too strong. He defeated all but one—my father. Then the piper went away. Foolishly, I thought he was gone forever. I had hoped that he had forgotten me as I tried to forget him.”
Absalom paused before the door. How thin the wood of the door and the plaster of the walls seemed all of a sudden. How very little lay between him and anything that might wait in the night. He found it hard to swallow. “But he’s back now. He’s back and he’s trying to pay his debt. Who know what becomes of the one’s he takes?” He passed his hand over his eyes. “I’m never going to see my children again. But at least I can give Liesl a chance. Please, let me save her, Hanne.”
The girl stared in the wavering candle flame. “How?”
Leaning against the table, Absalom lowered his voice. “Only one man an protect your daughter now. I can take you; I have made arrangements, but we can’t delay any longer.”
“Because the piper is coming?”
Absalom nodded, and then moved to stand beside Hanne. “Liesl was born under the moon’s blessing. That is why he missed her, but he would never leave behind so blessed a child.”
She chuckled. “Blessed?” Hanne blinked through glassy eyes at Absalom. “She has no father and I can give her nothing, yet you call her blessed.” She smiled and gently trailed a slender finger over the fuzzy tufts of hair on the child’s head. Then, in a quivering voice, she said, “It is the only way?”
The baby stretched in her sleep and the mother smiled fondly. “Then I suppose we should leave,” Hanne said and her voice caught.
They took the north road. Absalom pushed them at a swift pace until they had reached the cover of the trees and the village fell out of sight. Hanne moved like a phantom, clutching the bundled babe against her breast and never once turning to glance back. Whenever the child waked and whimpered, Hanne would shush gently and sing softly a lullaby. As they went along, Absalom listened closely to the air, searching for a trace of pipesong. The forest, too, listened. No breeze moved to stir the air or rustle the leaves.
The moon slid across the vaulted sky. They followed the road for miles, but at last they turned away, into the heart of the forest. To Hanne they seemed to be striking out blindly. Dry leaves and bits of branches and needles that the trees had cast aside crunched beneath even the girl’s slight tread. Absalom, however, moved without a sound and seemed to follow some hidden path.
“Absalom,” Hanne whispered uncertainly.
He halted and held up a hand. “Shhh. Listen.”
Hanne clamped her mouth shut and her heart banged against her ribs. She did her best to cover Liesl’s ears. She listened for the music that Absalom had warned her about, but heard nothing. Only crickets and the distant trickle of water. Absalom straightened and hurriedly guided Hanne onward. Soon they emerged into a clearing. In the dim moonlight Hanne could just make out a glassy pond and a tripping stream that lead out of it and disappeared into the forest. Dried leaves collected between the moss-blanketed stones that lined the stream. A large cottage stood just beyond the pond, ancient trees soaring upwards behind it.
An aged man with a patchy grey beard, thinning hair, and a face full of wrinkles greeted them at the door. “Absalom,” the old man nodded, and then smiled at Hanne.
“Hello, Father,” Absalom said, and his voice fell away under the weight of weariness.
Hanne’s heart had begun to thud ominously. She tightened her grip on the bundle in her arms so that Liesl squirmed. The interior of the cottage was dim yet friendly. A fire crackled on the hearth and sweet-smelling bunches of herbs hung suspended from the ceiling. Hanne blinked quickly to clear her eyes. In a corner a shadowed staircase rose to the upper level. It seemed a nice enough place. Far better than she might provide. Hanne stroked Liesl’s cheek. The old man, who said his name was Anaias, smiled softly at her and offered a cup of tea. She shook her head and swallowed. Her mouth felt gritty like sand, but she couldn’t think of eating or drinking anything at this moment.
“May I?” the old man asked and reached out a hand to stroke Liesl’s downy head. “Such a beautiful child,” he murmured. “She is like you. Very like you.”
Looking into Anaias’ bright, old eyes, Hanne knew that he meant it. She tried to hold back the welling tears, but they rebelled, slipping down her cheeks. “You will love her?” she asked.
“Like my own flesh.”
“You will tell her about me?”
“We cannot stay long,” Absalom offered. Hanne bent over Liesl and sobbed quietly.
“Please,” she gasped and then could speak no more.
“Take as much time as you need, my dear,” Anaias agreed. Then he stepped toward his son and the two of them went out of the house.
Absalom stood with hands clasped behind his back, staring into the deep, reflective blue of the pool.
“So it has begun,” Anaias said, coming to stand beside him. “We knew someday it—he—would come back.”
“But not like this, Father, I never thought—” Absalom rubbed his broad hand through his hair and over his face. “He took Maria and David.” His breath came long and hard. “If I could get near enough, I would wring his neck like he has wrung everything from me.”
“We may yet see them again. It is not impossible.”
“You know as well as I that they belong to him now. They followed his song; they walked in his footsteps.” The night should not rest so still, so quiet, Absalom thought. The stars should not wink, the stream should not gurgle, and the moon should not follow its course. Tonight should not be like any other night. “You will protect the child, won’t you?”
The old man turned his face towards the moon. “So long as I breathe he would not come to this place.”
They both turned at the creak of the opening door. The girl emerged, her eyes clear, her face streaked, and her arms empty. Then addressing Anaias, she said, “My daughter is yours.”
When they emerged from the forest the moon hung low in the western sky. Tension prickled across Absalom’s skin as he noted its size. It was huge and luminous. Obese. In contrast the surrounding sky bore a green tint, hovering over the deeper shadowed green of the fields, the ravine, and the forest. When they reached the center of the stone bridge’s span he heard it at last. Pipesong. Absalom froze. And turned. There, atop a ridge and silhouetted against the mammoth, milky moon, danced the piper.
“What’s the matter?” Hanne asked as she stopped beside him, but her words slipped out of the grasp of his consciousness like a mist.
Absalom’s gaze fixated upon the piper, how the black shape of his body twisted and leaped and frolicked. As if he had not just snatched away the lives of an entire town. As if Maria and David slumbered safely in their beds. As if he had never done a thing to Absalom.
Absalom’s hands folded into fists; his muscles tightened. It was not so far a distance. He could see the path would take now. Over the edge of the bridge and the short drop into the ravine. Charging through the underbrush would be no difficulty, not with his eyes focused on the piper. Up, up, up the ridge he would plow. He would snatch that foul, enchanted pipe away from the piper’s lips. The tiny carved fingers on the side would call at him in their lilting voices, but their words would have no sway over him. Not this time. He would crush it until only splintered shards remained.
Then he would turn to the piper. Absalom would wait until the piper’s cerulean eyes glimmered with recognition. How he would relish that moment. He would stretch out his hands, and they would wrap around the piper’s neck. It would be no trouble; Absalom had always been the larger of the two. No magic would save the piper this time. No magic, not even the powerful enchantments of years long ago, could fend Absalom off now, not when the piper had Maria and David and threatened little Liesl. He wouldn’t stop until the piper’s body lay limp upon that very ridge where he now danced.
“Absalom?” Hanne’s prodding voice scattered the image.
Absalom blinked. When he looked again it had all changed. The moon was of an ordinary size, the sky velvet midnight not green, and the ridge empty. No sign of the piper. A ragged breath slipped past Absalom’s lips and sawed at the air.
“What’s the matter? What do you see?”
“Nothing,” Absalom finally replied and turned away towards home.
The gold of dawn edged the horizon when Absalom entered the house. Already the reminders of the angel’s visit had begun to wear away. He couldn’t quite decide which was worse. Absalom had hardly removed his boots before he stretched across his bed, slowly so as not to wake his slumbering wife and suddenly aware of his exhaustion. As he lay there, watching the currents of darkness float above him, he thought of the piper dancing along the ridge top and of the little girl tucked safely away at the mill, out of the piper’s grasp. Absalom had finally, at least in this small way, beaten him. Deep inside the caverns of his chest, Absalom’s cold, dead heart sputtered. Cough. Then it beat. Once. Now twice, and the slightest hint of hope began to pump through his veins.
Copyright © 2014 Rebecca Fox. All rights reserved.
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