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the children of hamelin

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A retelling by J. Kearns

This story does and doesn't belong to "Once upon a time." It happened, supposedly, in a specific year. One thousand two hundred and eighty four. It happened, supposedly, in a specific place: Hamelin.

nce upon a time. That's how most stories begin. And when a story begins with "Once upon a time" what do you usually envision in your mind's eye? You think of people and clothing and houses and landscapes that belong to some vague past when magical happenings illustrated everyday lives with the fantastic. Rags become riches, and frogs become princes. Museums put facts on display, and if you went to a museum to look for what you see in your mind as belonging to "Once upon a time", I bet you wouldn't find it. The "Once upon a time" you see in your mind's eye is created by you. The picture you see in your mind of "long ago" is your creation and entirely different from what someone else might see, no matter how alike your ideas might sound if you described them.
What I mean is, let's say you and another person are imagining "long ago" people living in a prosperous "long ago" town which had a river on one side and a mountain on the other. If I could take a photo of what you were seeing, and a photo of what the other person was seeing, and put them side by side, you'd see that how you both imagined this town to appear would be different. As you sit and listen to a story of "Once upon a time" you are imagining a very different place than what any other person would envision. What you are imagining is your very own picture book, filled with all the different things you believe belong to "Once upon a time".
This story does and doesn't belong to "Once upon a time." It happened, supposedly, in a specific year. One thousand two hundred and eighty four. It happened, supposedly, in a specific place: Hamelin. Something like this story happened to people as real as you and me.
Before I tell you the fairy tale of Hamelin, I'm going to tell you a little story about the making of the fairy tale of Hamelin.


Hamelin still exists. If you went to Germany you would be able to see it. Hamelin is a city on the river Wesser and there are mountains nearby it. We know from this story that perhaps, a long time ago, many people left Hamelin and never returned. They went far away. Their loved ones, who were left behind, who couldn't go with them, were very sad. It was not an ordinary happening. People wanted to remember it. Someone inscribed, on a window in a Hamelin church, "On the day of St. John and St. Paul, 130 people left from Hamelin to Calvary and were led into all kinds of danger to Koppen and vanished." Over the centuries that followed, other people, attempting to imagine what happened, elaborated on the original story with their own explanations. In the year 1384 someone wrote about the disappearance of these people and that it involved a piper. In the year 1557, which was still a very long time ago, another person wrote about a catastrophe involving rats.
As you can see, there are a number of versions about what happened in Hamelin. This is another story of the children of Hamelin, based on other stories.
It was the year 1284. Life was very pleasant in the prosperous town of Hamelin. No one would have thought of moving away to a distant place because everyone in Hamelin had rewarding work and were part of a cozy community of friends and relatives. They believed that Hamelin was about the best place in the world to be. When where you are is a very, very good place to be, you might possibly think that anywhere else wouldn't be half as nice. This is how the people of Hamelin felt.
In China, different years are named after different animals. If you were born in the Year of the Ox, it is believed you will be somewhat like an Ox. Their years are named for twelve different animals. You can be born in the Year of the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog or Pig. In Hamelin, 1284 may as well have been known as the Year of the Rat, because that's when all the rats appeared.
Where people are, rats are. It is a fact of life, if an unpleasant fact. Rats are where people are because there is food to be found. If where you live is reasonably clean then you probably don't have to worry about rats, and a rat happens to move in you hire an exterminator to get rid of it. Still, in cities and towns, rats are an unavoidable fact of life, though you may not see them. I have observed the occasional rat running down a street, scrounging around a garbage can, or hiding in a sewer.


Rats. Ugh. The mere mention of the word makes one shiver. Your skin crawls. A big rat can squeeze itself through a hole the size of a quarter. They gnaw and gnaw and gnaw on things because their teeth, unlike people teeth, never stop growing. They are always gnawing on things because they must keep their teeth filed back.
Rats. No one in Hamelin guessed that something was amiss. Sure, they noticed an occasional rat running around, but they didn't think much of it. Hamelin, though a nice town, had its share of rats, like any other place.
There must have been something that went terribly wrong that year. It could have been the weather. Sometimes weather that's different from normal, and friendly to rats, can make for a population explosion of rats. Maybe there was a fire or a flood somewhere else, and the rats, fleeing it, descended upon Hamelin in such numbers that it seemed as if they were multiplying out of the thin air.
Rats. How can I describe it? Suddenly, they were everywhere, hordes of them. One heard them squealing. And then there they were. It was a swift invasion of rats. Had they been men, we would now talk about how in one great conquering horde their army had descended upon the unsuspecting people of Hamelin and possessed the town in an instant. But these were not men; they were rats propelled only by instinct and not intellect. They ran down the streets in a great grey tide so it seemed like a river had broken its banks. Men, women and children screamed and fled the streets only to find their homes already occupied by the scratching, screeching, plundering rats. Bold, unafraid of human, cat or dog, they gnawed their way into pantries and ate all the food. They made their nests in clothes, closets and beds. Bit babies in their cribs. The shops were filled with rats. The market was ruined with rats. Every table was filled with rats. Eventually it was clear that the rats weren't just passing through. They didn't go away. At first, in order to get from here to there, unable to walk about the floor, people moved about my means of chairs and other furniture. They'd stand atop one chair, move another chair in front of them and step over onto it, then take the chair they'd just left and move it in front of them and step on that. Slowly, you could get around that way, in a limited fashion, rats scuttling about the floor under the chairs. The day after the rats invaded, some bright individual was seen gingerly making his way through the masses of rats in the street, yet walking somehow above them, never putting his foot on the ground. How? Upon stilts, of course. By the end of the week, there wasn't a man, woman or child who wasn't stumbling about on a pair of stilts.


Human nature not only struggles to survive the worst conditions, it also becomes accustomed to them as if they were everyday and usual. Only a few people left town. Most remained. They had grown up there, their parents, and their parents' parents had grown up there. And the parents of their parents' parents. How could they abandon the lives which they and the generations before them had built, the fruits of which were quickly being whittled away by the rats. A week had passed since the siege had begun. Certainly, there was still time to do something. But what? They couldn't share their prosperity with the rats much longer. The rats would consume it all.
What to do? What to do?--they said, back and forth, at the town meeting hall. What to do? What to do? And, finally, who to blame? When it seemed there was nothing they could think of to do about the rats, the talk turned around to who to blame. Who had laid this curse on them. What if something even more severe lurked in their midst even now, for rats carried fleas who were hosts of a menace even more terrifying. The weak-hearted fainted at the mere mention of it. The Black Death. Bubonic Plague.
Why sustain suspense any longer? "I can rid you of your rats," someone said.
Not everyone heard the voice, but those who did turned in its direction. Whatever they saw must have riveted their attention in a dramatic way, for others noticed and turned to look in the same direction, which caused others to take notice, look in the direction of their neighbor and fall silent.
"I'm a rat catcher. I can rid you of your rats," the person said again.
What a peculiar looking individual this was who had seemed to mysteriously appear out of the aethyr. He wore a pied coat, which is to say he wore a multi-colored coat, full of color as the rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and maybe even more colors could be counted in his coat. It stunned the eyes. It flashed as many colors as the garment of Joseph the Israelite, who invited the Hebrews into Egypt so they could escape famine.
There was something about the man's attire which was antiquated, old. A later poet described him as having the appearance of someone's great-grandfather starting up at the Trump of Doom and walking away from his tombstone.
"I can rid you of your rats," the stranger said.


"We have rat catchers, and they have failed," the townspeople, dubious, replied.
"If I fail, you don't pay me, you lose nothing," the man told them. "But if I succeed--and I will--I must be paid. I must be paid well."
"Anything! We'll pay you whatever you ask," the townspeople said.
"I don't want just anything," the man told them. "To promise anything is likely a promise that can't be fulfilled. My charge is this," and he quoted his price, to which the townspeople agreed.
The deal struck, the stranger went out.
Without a shade of fear or disgust, he waded through thousands of the milling rats into the town square where he took out a pipe and began to play upon it.
What was this? Hadn't he promised to rid the town of the rats? Why this frivolity? But look!--for as the piper played, rats had begun to leave the houses to join with the rats already in the streets, and as if all of one mind, they turned their noses to the town square. Through the throngs of rats, the piper began to slowly walk toward the river. When he reached the river, he waded into it. The rats which had been immediately around him all followed him to the water's edge, then into the water itself where they drowned. And still the rats kept coming, even though they had certainly observed the fate of their brothers and sisters. There was no stopping them. The rats flowed on and on, out of the houses, out of the streets, for hours it seemed, they kept coming, they followed the tails of those who went before them into the river and drowned.
The rats had been a horror when filling the town, but there was something equally gruesome---even though their siege was ended--with how they filled the river in their drowning.
"Now," the piper said, "if you will pay me my fee, I'll move on."
The townspeople should have been glad to pay. Instead, now that the plague of rats was over, their worries turned to how they would have to replace all their goods that the rats had spoiled. Why, they wondered, if it was that easy for the piper to charm the rats into drowning, then maybe the service he'd provided wasn't worth that much. On top of which, who was this man? What strange magic had he just worked? A stranger like this one shouldn't be paid, he ought to be chased away. "He's king of the rats, the way they obeyed him," the townspeople joked amongst themselves. "He said he'd get rid of all the rats, but there's still one left, the rat king himself. Why should we pay him?"


And so they didn't. "You took advantage of us in our miserable situation," they accused the stranger. They said, "How do we know you didn't somehow bring the rats here, if they so easily followed you into the river? If you don't make yourself scarce, we'll arrest you."
The Pied Piper did leave, but not for long. On June 26th, Saint John's and Saint Paul's Day, some say he returned at 7:00 in the morning. Others say it was at noon. Still others say it was instead on June 22nd. Whatever day or hour it was, when the Piped Piper returned he was wearing a hunting outfit, and on his head was a red cap, which did cause some to seriously wonder if he was a magician, for wasn't it rumored that magicians wore red caps?
At the boundary of the town, he played his pipe. Every single child in Hamelin, from the age of four up, heard. They went out of their houses into the streets. They tumbled over the roads of cobblestones and earth to the town's edge where the piper stood playing. Laughing in delight, they ran to follow the piper as he backed away from the town's gate and continued up a mountain road away from the town. They clapped. They danced. All the four year olds and five year olds followed the piper. All the six and seven year olds. Even the young teenagers followed the piper. Had the adults been paying any attention they would have been astonished, but you know how adults can sometimes be when they're busy. Mothers didn't notice that their children's hands had slipped out of their own. Parents, doing their chores, going about their work, didn't notice that the precious laughter of their little ones was no longer heard in their houses. Finally, one mother woke up from the hypnotic lull of her tasks. From far off, she heard the piper, and the children singing. Their lovely voices seemed like a soft, light cloud drifting away from the village, over the horizon. She ran to the town's gate in time to see the piper, with the children, pass Calvary, and approach the foot of the mountain some think may have been Koppen. She screamed so that all the other parents heard her and came running. "The children!" she screamed. "Bring us back our children!"
It was too late, of course. As the piper played on, a cleft in the mountain opened. He went into it, and the children followed. Then, the mountain shut. Rock grinding against rock--it shut fast. No key in the world could have opened Koppenberg, because there was no lock to be seen, there was no ordinary door.


Against the mountain's face, the mothers and fathers flung themselves, scratching at the stones, yelling for their children. Then, "Hush!" one parent cried. The crowd grew quiet. Could they hear, as if deep, deep in the mountain, the songs of their children? Their laughter? All day and all night the parents stood there, at the mountain's face, listening to the voices of their children grow softer and softer, further and further away. Finally, they could hear them no more.
They never heard from them again. The children were gone. The littlest ones, who had been in their cradles, unable to follow the piper, would grow up and into the clothing of their absent brothers and sisters. "What happened to them?" they'd ask, as their mothers dressed them in the clothes their brothers and sisters had left behind, as they played with the toys their elder brothers and sisters had tossed away in order to follow the piper. These, who had been the littlest ones, and so unable to follow the piper, would ask, "What happened?" when their parents heard their play wander onto a particular road and rush, frantic, to grab them and carry them into their homes, away from the street down which their elder brothers and sisters had followed the music of the piper. That is why this street came to be known as the bunge-lose, which means drumless, soundless, quiet. No dancing or music was allowed there ever again. When bridal processions crossed the street, on their way to the church, the musicians would stop playing.
History writes she might have heard the children again, that they may have come out of the mountain into Transylvania. History reports that a strange group of people appeared there, who wore clothes different from their neighbors, and had customs different from them. They were believed to have emerged from some subterranean prison. Could it be true?
If only the mountain could answer us, into which the songs of the little ones disappeared. What had the children heard in the tune of the piper which caused them to follow him into the rock? What wonder had so delighted their ears that they would be so willing to leave the laps of their parents? Some now say that two children who'd followed the piper had been left behind, and were able to tell us what their companions heard, because they'd heard it themselves. One was a child with a lame leg. The other child was blind. They said they'd heard a land where there were no arguments, no quarrels, where there was no contention. It was a land where no one wept. There was no reason to be sad there, ever, all painful memories were wiped away. The bees didn't sting when you took the honey from their hives. All the sick were healed there. The blind could see, and the lame dance.


Two stone monuments in the form of crosses were erected at Koppen, one on the left side, and one on the right. The citizens of Hamelin recorded the event in their town register, and dated all their proclamations according to the years and days since the loss of their children. A new town gate was built in 1556, 272 years after the event, and on it was written the history of Hamelin's horrible loss. The mayor, in 1572, had the story portrayed in the church windows. The accompanying inscription, however, is nearly well illegible now. So I hear.

Retold by j. m. Kearns based on older versions of the tale.

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