Author: Rosie Allen
Illustration: Christopher Harrisson
Darkness settled softly and sadly around the pair of brown shoes like dust descending on an old piano. The empty vessels had sat there, a ghostly monument to the missing, for seventeen years now. Seventeen stifling summers which made the leather pucker and curl in sweltering heat. Seventeen sombre autumns in which the desolate shoes had not kicked crispy leaves and weather-worn conkers. And seventeen unkind years had furrowed the brow of Sven Moritz, the grief lacquering each wrinkle into permanent residency around his eyes. Eyes which, by the tenth year, had stopped looking hopefully out of the window for his boy to return and turned instead to poring over the same few books every night by candlelight.
A well-thumbed calfskin anthology of Greek myths lay by his bed, words underlined and pencil marks annotated in the column. He was sure that if the creature had existed at all – if the children had been taken by him as all the villagers remembered and hadn’t been spirited away in a rapture as he had almost wished – then from the ancient depths of a vengeful legend he must have come.
Sven pushed his unfinished plate of bread and pork to one side and rested his head in his hands. He pressed his fingers over his closed eyelids, applying the heavy pressure which both hurt and healed him, and he tried to remember what he had said.
What he had said to those brothers who had visited the village several years ago, enchanted by the story of a mysterious piper and the missing children. Grimm had been the surname – both with sandy blonde hair and the palest blue eyes. One – Jacob was his name – had been sensitively inquisitive, placing a hand on the shoulder of the quivering residents, gently drawing the story from each like a doctor drawing pus from a wound. The other, Wilhelm was shrewd eyed with a sharp tongue and challenged the villagers with questioning like a county magistrate.
The published story that followed had not been favourable. But then the real story had not been either. Hamlin had betrayed their children. The Bauer brothers were beaten to within an inch of their lives by their father, turning up to school each day black and blue. Holly Konig was forced to care for her six brothers and sisters, living the life of a housewife of forty while her mother and father drank away the last of a once-healthy family inheritance.
Worst of all, they had robbed their children of a future. The coal mine at the centre of town was the industry to which the villagers had sold their souls few a few gold coins each and these had been hastily frittered at the village tavern. The sole hope of the village was that their new generation would one day venture down into the molloch’s jaws for coal, where some would return and others would not. It remained the only future, imprisoned as they were between impenetrable mountain ranges and wolf-ridden forests either side.
So they had made up a story of the man who had ridded the city of rats and then taken the children forcibly away under a malign enchantment.
They all knew the truth. The enigmatic stranger didn’t come for rats; and he didn’t have to steal the children away. They went as willingly as sheep to the pasture. With his white blonde hair and green eyes, the older girls didn’t need asking twice. He charmed them with a handsome face and a promise of the future. To the boys he described the world beyond Hamlin, places of exotic foods and lush jungles; tales of the orient with incredible beasts and beautiful women. But the lure for most, was when he spoke of a town just across the other side of the mountain, where they could become rich and prosperous.
So off they went one June morning, following the piper through the mountain where they were never seen by the villagers again.
And Sven’s heart longed. It longed with an intensity that escaped the fibrous muscle of his heart and seeped deep and blue as ink into the marrow of his bones. He expelled a sigh, watching the first crisp flutters of snow drift onto the village. How he wished he had had the courage to follow when the piper had come calling for him.