Long have I promised to share a bit of a story here on A Curious Thrill, and today I intend to honor that promise. Today’s post will feature the first part of the story with the second installment coming next week.
I wrote this piece this spring as the final project for my creative writing class. Short stories are difficult for me; my style and ideas are far better suited to long form. My stories must have context, they must have a world in which to reside. However, I sometimes get around my length difficulty by writing backstories for my full novel ideas. Piper’s Moon is one such example. This story is the background for a retelling or rather a continuation idea of “The Pied Piper” that I hope to write one day.
This piece is certainly not the final draft, but I enjoyed writing it and I think it is an exciting read. Enjoy!
Note: Please forgive any typos that I have missed. I lost the original document and had to retype it just now. :)
Thus says the LORD: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” --Jeremiah 31:15
The angel of death had come in the night. With neither sound nor sign it had stolen the children from their beds. It had not even had the cruel mercy to leave behind their bodies for proper remembrance and burial. It had come. It had gone. It had taken everything in the cold silence while he slept.
But the silence had long gone. Doors slammed; hurried footsteps pounded over hard ground and into the street; shouted names rang in the air—Franz, Gretel, Peter, Rosa—with only an echo for a response. The half-timber walls, the shuttered windows, and the latched door could not keep the din from infiltrating the cottage. It was there with him in the rumpled, empty beds where the twins had slept and in his wife’s frantic shouts for her children. It was everywhere, Absalom realized as he stood at the door trying to convince his shaking hand to free the latch. The angel’s visitation knew no bounds.
Absalom cast one more glance over his shoulder. His wife sat upon the floor in front of the abandoned beds, arms full of blankets and trailing bedclothes. All achingly empty. She turned her face towards him. It was red now, streaked with her tears, already so different from the pallor that had washed over her face when first she had come into the room and discovered the void.
“Do something,” she hissed. “Don’t just stand there, Absalom. I want my children.” Each word held a threat, but when she had finished she buried her face in the bedclothes and gave way to sobs that shook her body mercilessly.
“Alright,” he muttered helplessly, then forced open the door. Yet even as he assured his wife, Absalom knew with sickening certainty that he could do nothing. The children were gone. Maria, David, and all the other children in the village were lost—as good as dead. This nightmare had risen up out of a life long past, and the scene that now invaded his home was hauntingly familiar.
Absalom stepped into the road. The sight and sound of such heavy sorrow nearly overwhelmed him. Empty-armed young mothers wailed or sat on their doorsteps kneading their anxious hands. The old women lamented and consulted their old tales. The men, however, Absalom pitied more. Some stood by their wives, trying to console but instead looking dazed, as if a breath of wind might blow them to ashes. Others stormed, red-faced and wrath-filled. But all were lost, expected to protect their families yet utterly helpless. All clung to their sorrow and anger and, worst of all, hope. Absalom knew better than that. Hope had deserted them in the night.
Overhead the clouds bulged, shuddering as if they desired to weep upon the town. The chimneys were dormant, the building of the morning cooking fires neglected. Shutters remained locked tight, and the village dogs had retreated to their hideaways. Even in the deafening din hollow silence echoed.
The men had planned a search party, Absalom learned. After all, a town-full of children does not simply disappear. It is not the way of things. Absalom nodded his agreement to both. Yes, he would search. He would hack through underbrush and bellow the names of his little ones to the wind until he returned to dust, though he knew it would call come to nothing in the end. And yes, it was not the natural way of things. But Absalom also knew that there was nothing natural about any of it.
Absalom started towards the north as instructed, making for the distant tree line. First, he would search the fields, then he would seek sings of muddy footprints along the ravine, and last he would take on the boundless forest.
The first scream had awakened him, shattering the dim morning peace. He had started awake more due to the sudden chill that came over him when the first scream penetrated his sleep than the biting sound itself. It had come a second time. A long, high wail effused with a sorrow so keen that it aspired to sever soul from body. Even now, out in the air, Absalom felt the terror of that scream in his bones. He quickened his stride as if he could leave behind the terrible reality that the scream proclaimed.
Absalom cursed himself. He had allowed the passing of the years to dull his senses and slow his wits. He should have known, should have read the warning in the sky. The thought had occurred to him as he sealed the shutters against the night that the moon appeared larger than usual. Swollen. But he had thought nothing of it and kissed the smooth foreheads of his slumbering children. Now he recognized it for what it was. A piper’s moon. Swollen and pulsing with fear. Absalom knew because he had seen it before, yet now—when it mattered—he had failed.
How it had taken a scream to wake him, how he had not recognized the emptiness of the air, Absalom could not comprehend. As he walked, Absalom sensed the ubiquitous remnants of the angel’s visitation. In the air there hovered an Emptiness so deep that it felt like a presence. The presence of nothingness. The presence of the residue of magic which, as far as Absalom’s experience extended, was synonymous with the residue of death. He could hear it too. Silence. Yet Silence different from ordinary silence, in the same sense that the Emptiness was a different sort of emptiness. This Silence was laced with the remnant of a sound that haunted like pipesong.
Yet when he reached the town’s edge, a noise intruded upon the Silence, shattering it. Absalom caught the unmistakable sounds of an infant’s plaint. Faint and pitiful, certainly, but it was a sound that did not belong. No child, regardless of age, should have escaped the lure of the pipesong. But there it came again, and a thudding, aching drumbeat carried through his body in response. Turning aside from his course, Absalom came to a door, tucked between the shadows of the surrounding structures. He pressed his ear against the wood and once more heard the baby’s cry, now followed by a hush and a faintly hummed lullaby. Absalom lifted his fist and the door shivered under his knock.
“Absalom,” he replied. When the door remained shut before him, he continued. “The matter is urgent. I must see the child.” He looked up and down the street.
The midwife opened the door. Dark blotches cupped her eyes and her greying hair frizzed. She offered an annoyed greeting, but stood aside so that he might pass inside. Absalom shut and latched the door behind him, then waited for his vision to adjust to the swirling, dim interior. It was little more than a hovel, and Absalom had to duck to avoid the slanted roof. Upon a pallet piled with mismatched blankets rested a tired-looking girl. Beside her stood the cradle where the newborn child squinted and stretched wrinkled limbs, exploring the newfound space.
Absalom recognized the girl, though he did not know her name. She had appeared in the law village months ago, her slight body already swollen. No one knew her or from where she had come. No one particularly cared. She was a stranger, she was penniless, and most importantly, she was unmarried.
“What do you want, Absalom? Neither one of us has had much sleep and I haven’t go the patience—”
Ignoring the midwife, Absalom moved quietly across the room until he stood over the cradle. “Does it have a name?” he asked the mother.
“Liesl,” the girl said. “Her name is Liesl.”
Absalom knelt and held out a large finger. “Good morning, Liesl.” The babe cooed and reached out a hand to grip his finger. For a moment Absalom remembered the first time that David had gripped his finger and Maria had opened her blinking blue eyes to him. He almost jerked away.
“Please, sir, what’s all the commotion about?”
Absalom turned to the girl. Although her face was pale, her eyes shone with a trace of spirit and the bit of candlelight settled on her brown hair in an ethereal crown. “The children are gone,” he answered.
“Whose children?” The girl’s brow wrinkled.
“All of them. All except your baby here.”
“By heaven!” the midwife exclaimed, whirled, and fled into the street.
The girl stared at the cradle with both terror and wonder. They listened to the sounds of sorrow that filtered in from the outside.
“Who did it, sir?”
The sound of tears in the girl’s voice struck Absalom, tears for the children of people who had only ever snubbed her. Yet he ignored her question. That answer he would keep locked up inside him even to his dying breath. “When was your child born?”
“Just at midnight,” she said and the trace of a peaceful smile played on her lips.
Absalom nodded. A strange child, a miracle child born at midnight of a piper’s moon. He closed his eyes, at last allowing the pieces to fall into place in his mind. The piper would return for her, he realized, and the piper—that angel of death—would want this miracle child most of all. When he opened them again he found Liesl’s blinking blue eyes turned to him and his determination solidified. He turned to the girl.
“When I leave, latch the door behind me and open it to no one. Keep the babe as quiet as you can. Do you understand me?” She nodded. Without another word, Absalom took himself to the door and left, waiting for the sound of the latch clicking into place before turning and striding away.
Absalom did not return until after nightfall. The village lay quiet as death. While the men searched, the women waited in silence. His own wife was waiting, he knew, but he did not return to her.
Absalom went to the hovel and once again knocked, but softly this time. “It’s Absalom,” he said, just loud enough to be heard. Light footsteps followed a pause before the door cracked open and a sliver of light fell at his feet. The girl’s face peeked through the opening. Satisfied that he was who he claimed, she pulled the door just wide enough for him to enter. Inside, the child slept peacefully in the crib, and the girl—whose name, he had learned, was Hanne—had donned an ill-fitting gown and swept her hair into a bun, although thin wisps had escaped to float around her youthful face.
“Any sign of the children?” she asked as soon as he had entered and the door locked firmly behind him.
Absalom shook his head and Hanne immediately sank down into a lopsided chair. “I fear they will never be found.”
Tears clouded the girl’s eyes as she gazed at her own sleeping baby. “Why did my Liesl escape?”
“Because the Fates have seen fit to smile upon you—,” he hesitated, “that is, they have given your daughter a chance at life.” Absalom glanced at the door. There was no time to spare. Each second they dallied would give those same Fates another second to change their minds. “But you have to understand,” he continued, “that your child cannot stay here. He will return, even tonight, to claim her, and nothing that you or I could do might stop him.”
“Who?” the girl said. Her hands curled and fidgeted in her lap.
Again Absalom ignored her inquiry. “I can show you to someone who can protect her, far from this accursed place.” Here he spoke more gently and slowly. “But once there you will have to give the child to him. She can never leave that place or he will surely claim her.”
A change came over the girl then. Although Absalom towered over her, he suddenly felt the smaller of the two. Hanne’s face did not go ghostly white or irate red, as he might have anticipated. She did not scream, did not even move. She stood, still as if she had grown roots, and stared at him with eyes so hard that he felt a tangible weight press against him.
Once spoken, the two small words grew to be enormous. Having said this, Hanne turned her back to him, knelt beside the cradle, and hummed a tune to her baby.
“Hanne—” Absalom began.
“I told you to get out,” the girl replied firmly.
But he couldn’t, not when he could still do something to save the child. Everything had been arranged. He had to do this for his wife, for Maria and David, for himself.
“You must trust me. It’s for her—”
Hanne flew to her feet and whirled to face him. Now her brown eyes flamed. “Stop it!” she shouted and Liesl whimpered. “Stop lying to me. I know what you want. You’ve lost your own children, and you can’t bear that whoever did this spared Liesl.” She took a menacing step towards himand her voice lowered. “Well, you can’t have her.” She lifted her hand and slapped a stinging blow along Absalom’s cheek. “Now get out.” She scooped the now wailing Liesl up into her arms, holding the babe to her breast, daring Absalom to test her.
Absalom stared at her, watching while the tears flowed unchecked down her cheeks. He met Hanne’s feral gaze. “No child should suffer for the sins of its parents,” he said. “No child.” Then Absalom made for the door. Let what would come to pass fall upon her own head. At least in this he would remain guiltless.
He threw upon the door, half expecting to hear that guileful music curling toward the hovel. The night gaped in silence, sucking at the orange light of the interior, when Hanne spoke.
The word was bound in tears and hardly intelligible, but Absalom knew what it meant. Silently, he shut the door again and returned.
“Why should I believe you?”
The story continues here.
Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Fox. All rights reserved.