by Kagamino Kage (鏡乃 影)
illustrated by susieoh
“Let’s go ghost-counting,” Jan whispers, close in my ear.
“You know we can’t go until evening,” I scold him gently. “Father would whip us raw if we left off work.”
“We’ll go just after supper. There’ll be time enough left. Be patient.”
He blows out a breath that rustles the wisps of curls on his forehead, and kicks his legs against his seat over and over. One foot grazes a table-leg each time. I bite my lip and try not to mess up my stitches; I don’t want to scold him again. I know how he feels. I want to go too.
‘Ghost-counting’, he calls it. The ghosts haven’t let go of that day, years ago. We can’t let go, either.
Today is the twenty-first; it’s getting close to the anniversary again. The procession happens more and more often around this time – sometimes rats, sometimes children. I can’t see them like Jan can, but I can hear them, sometimes feel a loose sleeve brush my arm, or little feet scurry across my toes. And the music. Always little stray strands of music, woven throughout.
Well, I guess Jan doesn’t see them, rightly speaking – he’s blind, has been since he was five years old. I don’t know what it is he does, exactly, but he calls it seeing. Whatever he does, he’s a little closer to them than I am, somehow; I can tell by the weird light in his unfocused eyes. It scares me a little, sometimes, even though I reach out for them too. Even though I know I must be glowing with that same light.
Some people say the fever that took his eyes took a little of his soul, as well, damaged his mind. They might be right. The ghosts are there, though. I hear them, I feel them.
Jan’s leg finally falls still, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Truthfully, I want to go as much as he does. It’s hard to keep my mind from wandering; I make mistakes easily when I don’t pay attention. I don’t know how I shall ever become a master, but since my older brother is gone, Father wants me to take over the shop. Jan would be better, if only he could see. Jan’s stitches are always perfect, his hands steady no matter what the distraction. He’s good with his hands.
Even so, Father doesn’t let him work out in the open, where the customers could see him – folks don’t want a blind boy making their clothes, he says. I guess I understand, but he can sew as fine a seam as anyone. He’s not good for anything fancy, though, and he doesn’t cut the cloth.
We don’t mind it, anyway. Father often lets me stay upstairs with Jan, since my leg makes getting up and down the staircase cumbersome and tiring. We can speak more freely here.
“Hey, Dieter…” Jan says. “D’you think he’ll come back this year?”
“Maybe,” I say, non-committal.
For the first few years we had hoped, almost believed that the piper would return for us. He’d taken the children in lieu of his promised payment; surely he wouldn’t stand for being shortchanged two children? We thought, irrationally, that he was sure to come back that next year, on that same day again – and when he didn’t, we looked for him the year after, and the year after that.
But he never came. He does not know of us, and does not care.
Down on the main street, I try to ignore all the furtive glances in our direction. People are distrustful of us. They say we went strange after the piper came.
I guess they’re probably right.
Most of them are on their way home; the curfew bell will ring soon. The ghosts are whispering, but no one else hears as they hurry away across the town square. Faint echoes of children’s laughter, of a trilling flute. It’s so loud tonight, so clear, and there are so many of them; I almost think I see a white fluttering on the air.
Maybe I drank too much at supper – I’m so lightheaded I feel like I could fall in with the ghosts and follow those traces of music, just like before, follow them all the way to the hill and disappear inside. I know it can’t work, though – we tried it once, tried following them out through the east gate, but there they dispersed, and before we ever reached the hill I got so tired and my leg hurt so badly that Jan had to carry me back, me guiding his way so he wouldn’t trip and fall.
I see Jan swaying beside me, a small, dreamy smile on his face. I grab his wrist to stop him – people are suspicious enough of us already.
“I can’t count them all,” he whispers, still grinning.
He’s right. I can’t see them, but I feel bodies brushing all around us in a stream, and they keep coming and coming, endless. More children than could have ever filled the street that day, more children than this town ever held.
I close my eyes and try to picture them, to remember how they looked. It comes to me easily, even though on that day I had only eyes for the piper, always too far ahead, his fleet feet dancing just a little too quickly for me to keep up. I see them now in a way I never saw them then; their eyes glassy with wonder, their faces shining in the sunlight, shouts of laughter bubbling out of their small mouths. Like tiny white moths all captivated by a flame. I can see my face among them, know it must look the same now, years later, years older.
And around their feet, a dark rustling, scuffling and squeaking; two processions melted into one.
I asked Jan once whether the ghosts meant the children were all dead, like the rats. “No,” he’d said, with perfect conviction. “It doesn’t mean anything. Haven’t you felt yourself pass by? And you’re still alive, aren’t you?”
“Then what are they?”
“Memories,” he said. “The street still remembers.”
There’s a tugging at my hand now as Jan starts to move with the throng. I open my eyes and gasp; I can still see the faint images of the ghosts, just as I imagined them in my head. I see faces I recognize and ones that I don’t. I wonder where the others came from.
I feel I should stop Jan, should remind him of the curfew, but somehow I feel myself following along. It feels so simple, so natural. Music slips by my ear, a tickle of gold and silver, a melancholy sweetness that makes me ache inside. I want to follow. Oh, I want to follow.
We’re halfway to the east gate when the bell rings, startling me out of my trance. Jan tries to keep walking, and I pull on his arm, shake it. He turns to me with such a crestfallen look I feel heartbroken all over again.
“The bell,” I say uselessly. “It just rang. We’ll get in trouble, and the gates will be closed anyway.”
I see the muscles in his throat working, his jaw clenching, and he lets me lead him back home.
Jan is not my brother, though everyone says we look so alike it’s a wonder we didn’t come from the same womb, both of us dark-haired and dark-eyed, round-faced and small-featured. Even the shape of our eyes and our noses are similar, and we are almost of the same height and breadth.
Jan’s mother was my mother’s cousin; she died giving birth to him. Her husband never remarried. When Jan was five, his father died of the same fever that took Jan’s sight. My mother insisted we take him in, and though my father grumbled, he is a good Christian man, and could not turn a helpless child away.
I was very young, of course; but I still remember what he was like when he came. He was all brittle and hollow; it seemed you could hear anything you said to him clang around inside, as though he were an empty vessel. He startled easily, and barely spoke.
They placed him in my room, since we were the same age. I recall sulking for days with my childish resentment. But he was so alone; I could not help but warm to him, but slowly.
I came to love him as a brother soon enough; but I did not really understand him, and we were not particularly close. Not until the piper came.
After that, we were the only two people left in the world.
Our memories of that day aren’t very clear. We remember the song itself most of all; at once foreign and achingly familiar, so clear and bright, like being burned right through by the sun. Jan speaks of it in colors, purple and red and blue and green, and every other color you could possibly think of painting his darkened world through with light. When he talks about it, I think I remember them too, those colors; but maybe I only imagine I saw them. When we’re out there with the ghosts, sometimes I see that faint glimmering in the air, but it is only a distant echo of years ago.
I remember strange, wild images in my head: a land bright as heaven, with houses grown straight from trees and fields that plowed themselves; the colors of the piper’s song weaving themselves into a rainbow, from which would be extracted its purest essences, distilled into the finest, sweetest wine, and we would drink our fill forever and ever.
I remember myself dancing, my leg straight and whole and healthy, and Jan’s eyes clear as the sky above.
I remember trying so hard to catch it, that song, that piper, hobbling along as fast as I could, but my leg wasn’t straight or whole or healthy, and my crutch kept sinking into the soft earth below, and the ground was so uneven and treacherous, and I was so tired. I don’t recall whether it broke, my crutch, but somewhere I must have lost it, for I remember crawling on my hands and knees, when the hill just opened up and swallowed them whole, piper, children and all. I remember the golden halo of the piper’s hair, shining white-bright above the children’s heads as he disappeared from my sight forever.
Later I found Jan with his ankle sprained and his leg bleeding. He’d gotten tangled in a thorn-bush somehow along the way.
I took his hand. It was all I could do.
Once, years ago, I asked him, “What if that hill really gobbled them all up?”
“You don’t suppose the land we saw was real, do you? He drowned the rats, after all. All that food, and no one had to work, and I could walk, and you could see – surely it was a trick.”
“Don’t care,” he mumbled. Jan’s face was curiously slack, but I took no notice. I should have noticed; I knew the signs of his moods. But I kept on, absorbed by my boyish imaginings.
“It might have been all full of teeth!” I grinned with a vicious sort of glee. “And as soon as they walked in, it closed up on them and chewed them up and swallowed ’em deep into the earth. What if -”
“I don’t care!” Jan’s voice raised to a near-shout as he slammed his fist on the table. A needle jammed itself into the side of his palm, but he did not seem to notice.
“Hist!” I covered his hand with my own, holding it still. “Someone might hear!” I glanced back at the door; but no one came. Carefully I pulled out the needle, and Jan sucked in a breath, as if he’d only just felt it.
I looked back at Jan; his face was set in angry, rigid lines, and I wasn’t quite sure why. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” I said. “I just…”
I just what?
“Hey,” I whispered, leaning close to him. “What if – what if he was the devil? Come to take us all to hell? What then? Do you still not care? Would you still go?”
“Yes,” he said, defiant. “Anywhere.”
And then I understood. “Me too,” I said, squeezing his hand, suddenly scared of what I was saying. “Me too.”
We had already left the world behind, just like that.
At night the dreams come. They are mostly all the same: there he is up ahead, shining in red and gold and blue, leaving his trail of glistening crumbs of song, us all following, straining for them greedily. I stumble, struggling not to fall, to keep up. Bodies press in on me hotly, a rustle of musty fur, threatening to knock my crutch out from under me. I wheeze, limping along as fast as I can, but I keep falling farther behind.
Sometimes that is all there is; sometimes the others turn upon me. The pain in my leg is their teeth, tearing it from my body. Their squeaking and shrieking drowns out that beautiful golden sound, and I hop forward pathetically on my remaining leg, trying to get closer, just to hear a little more; but I fall and they cover me like sheeting water. Their claws dig into my eyes, making me blind as Jan, and they wriggle their way into the sockets, into my mouth and down my throat, filling my belly until it swells out like a pregnant lady’s, until they burst through my flesh in a warm gush. And then I am shuddering, my body warping, my spine stretching and my legs shrinking, my fingers curling into claws, my face extending outward to a point as little fangs fill up my mouth; and I lie there squeaking helplessly in the dirt.
Once, the hills took life instead, pointed, whiskery faces emerging from their shadows, mossy fur rippling against a purple twilight sky. They moved, the rat-hills, and they scurried forth and devoured the city, its great stone walls and all its buildings, all the little rats and the little people and everyone and everything, leaving nothing behind but brick and mortar crumbs; and the piper danced off into the dusky distance, ever beyond my reach. That one wrenched me out of sleep gasping, with tears upon my cheeks; and then it seemed so ridiculous that I started laughing, and I couldn’t stop. I laughed and laughed until Jan awoke and became frightened, and shook me until I felt quite sick.
Jan has the dreams too – I know, because he climbs into my bed sometimes and clings to me shivering, as I do to him. There is nothing to say. We only cling to one another until the trembling stops.
Occasionally, though, the dreams are not nightmares – times when there is only sound, glorious, beautiful sound, and I can see all the colors in it clearly, as Jan can. So many colors, so much light. The notes flutter against my skin, powder-sweet and delicate as a moth’s wings; and there are hands, hands made of sound, for the music is the piper, all made out of glittering notes; and the hands touch me, coaxing me, spreading me open. I can do nothing but welcome him. How could I want otherwise?
On these nights, Jan and I will cling to one another as always, trembling from need rather than fear or grief. Our breath comes quick, a harsh panting, and we move our bodies together clumsily until we shudder with release, our lips hot on one another’s faces. We have to keep silent, and hide the evidence as best we can, for we know this must be forbidden.
It frightens me, this wanting; yet I never want it to end.
As the week wears on, we spend every spare moment we can find out in the street with the ghosts, trying to fathom how many there are, making a game of it. Three times we fall in with them again, once making it all the way to the gate before the guard warns us that it will be closing soon, that we shouldn’t leave the city walls. He looks at us strangely. And why shouldn’t he? What would a lame tailor’s boy and his blind friend be doing leaving the gates alone, much less so late in the evening? We turn back.
I grow more and more distracted. The afternoon before Saints John and Paul’s day, I cut the sleeves too narrow on a surcote. Father is furious. The garment was meant for a burgher, the fabric rich and costly; we can not afford waste, especially not since the piper came. Business has been bad since then. Many think the town is dying. Father has spoken of moving to Höxter, as many others have done, but we can’t possibly afford that.
And Jan and I couldn’t bear to leave this town, with all its ghosts and echoes of music. They’re the only connection we have left to that piper and his song.
Father sends us both to bed early, to have us out from underfoot. He’s on edge, as most of the town is. The Saints’ day has become less a celebration than a memorial. Folks are tired of mourning, yet they can’t forget. I think it’s because the town itself can’t forget; even though the others don’t hear the ghosts, don’t feel them, their hearts still shudder as they pass.
Jan and I sleep badly. Old hope is rekindled in my breast despite my efforts to let it go. I want it to be morning; I want to go and follow the ghosts.
We wake early the next morning to a world holding its breath.
The house sits empty, mother and father nowhere to be found. All sits just as it did last night before bed – father’s tools arranged for work on Monday morning, mother’s mending lain across her chair in the common room, even a candle burning on the table. Surely if it had been forgotten, it should have burnt down to nothing by now.
A curious stillness lies over the whole, unnatural and profound. I wonder what might happen if I moved something, but I am irrationally afraid to try.
All is silence within and without. It is early still, but surely there should be some sound from outside, of the town waking up?
Down in the street we find it just as deserted. Nothing moves. A strange-smelling misty fog lies low over all the roofs, little patches of it rolling through the streets, transforming the morning into a soft, red twilight. The scent is an alien thing, sharp, cold, and metallic.
We check everywhere, the church, the shops, the houses. All deserted, nothing changed from the day before. We return to the main street. Even the ghosts are silent. It is this that frightens me the most.
I grip Jan’s hand tightly, more for my own comfort than anything. “Is anyone here?” I call out loudly, my voice cracking.
“It’s no use,” Jan tells me quietly. “I can’t hear anything. Not anything.”
I swallow hard. “What should we do?” I ask.
“Maybe…” Jan extends his hand before him, his brow creasing as though he’s bemused by the emptiness of the air. “Maybe we’ve gone to where the ghosts are. Maybe that’s why we don’t see them, or anything else.”
It makes a strange sort of sense, though I’m not sure how or why. “D’you think we should follow their path, then?”
Jan squeezes my hand and starts to walk. Patches of mist roll by as we walk. Our footsteps, the clack of my crutch against the ground, they echo oddly around us, the sound flattened and muffled by the fog.
As we reach the east gate, I catch the faint trilling of a flute.
I freeze for a moment; Jan gasps beside me, so he must have heard it too. We quicken our pace, and stray little strains of song float by as we cross the bridge.
Over the fields and hills the fog lies even thicker, the smell of it biting in the back of my throat. It isn’t unpleasant, but it’s so strange. I look automatically toward that hill, toward Koppelburg.
The song comes, faint but clear. The song from that day.
“I see it!” says Jan. “I see it!”
My eyes go wide, and I start to tremble. “I see it too,” I whisper. Like gems strewn all through the air, it sparkles, a swirl of cool greens and blues, dark reds and purples, more colors than I’ve ever seen before, than I even knew existed.
Jan pulls at my arm, and I follow. I make my way across the grass but slowly, though I struggle to keep up. The grass is damp and soft, and my crutch keeps sinking and slipping. Jan lets go of my hand, moving faster, the distance growing between us.
“Jan!” I call, frightened. Please, don’t let me get left behind again.
He turns, looking startled, as if he’d already forgotten I was there. It isn’t his fault. The music is like that. He walks over and kneels down beside me.
“Here,” he says. “Climb on my back.”
Relieved, I let my crutch fall, and throw my arms over his shoulders, and he hoists me up. Then he takes off at a run that nearly dislodges me, and a startled shout escapes my chest. I cling to him desperately.
“What are you doing?” I cry. “You’ll fall like this!”
“I won’t!” he insists, breathless. “Can’t you see it? Can’t you see the path?”
I stare. All I see is a beautiful but aimless swirl of colors. I close my eyes, trying to see like Jan; the colors are still there, perhaps even clearer, but they are no more a path than before. But Jan’s right – he doesn’t fall. He skirts the underbrush, the trees, the rocks, his feet fast and sure.
I guess he’s just been listening for it so hard, for so long; I’ve been listening too, but I haven’t been listening in the dark. I haven’t been listening to see. I am still half-afraid he will run right into the river Weser, but he turns, following the same path that the piper followed all those years ago.
The music grows louder and clearer, and as we near the base of the hill, we make out a shadow in the clouds of mist. Jan’s footsteps slow, his shoulders heaving with exertion.
As we come closer, the shadow’s form solidifies into a man perched upon a rocky outcropping, a long, brightly painted flute held to his lips. The very image of a dandy, dressed all in red and gold and blue, his clothes as colorful and gay as any jester at the fair. Long curls of hair like white-gold fire adorn his head, the diffuse light making it glow like a halo around him. His eyes, with their foreign slant, are half closed as his fingers dance across the surface of the flute, his strange, smooth features relaxed into a dreamy countenance.
Jan halts a few steps away from him, his arms going lax, and I slip gracelessly from his back. I can’t blame him, though; my own legs won’t even support me, and I plop to my knees in the grass beside him.
Oh, Lord, I think, please let this be real. Don’t let this be a dream.
The piper holds out the last note of his melody, and it vibrates through the very marrow of my bones until it fades away. He lowers his flute, his eyes opening slowly. His face turns to gaze down upon us.
“My…” he murmurs, with a voice like the river’s current, slow and irresistible. “I seem to have caught something interesting.”
He has enjoined us to sit just below him on the hillside, he lying on his side on the outcrop, chin propped in his hand, his flute at his elbow. His blue eyes are lit with amusement.
“Are we dreaming?” I ask, my head light, my skin strangely numb and tingling.
“Far be it from me to speculate,” he answers with a smile. “And shall you tell me now just who you are?”
“Don’t you know us?” says Jan.
“Know you? Should I?”
“He wouldn’t remember, Jan,” I tell him. “He probably never realized he’d left anyone behind.”
“Then why did he come back?” cries Jan, and I am taken aback by the wrenching pain in his voice. “After we’ve waited so long, wanting nothing else, why now!”
The piper lifts his brows in surprise at this outburst, and reaches out to grasp Jan’s chin. Jan gasps, falling silent, his lips parting. “Of what do you speak, boy? Tell me.”
Jan’s voice seems to have failed him, so I speak in his place. “You took all the children away from this town,” I explain. “All except for us.”
“Ahh,” the piper murmurs. “I see. But… Though you are still smooth of cheek,” he says, stroking one finger over the side of Jan’s face, “you are not children.”
“Sir – it’s been – it’s been five years since then,” I tell him.
“Oh? Has it, now.”
I can only stare at him, dumbfounded.
“Well… To answer your question, sweet Jan,” he says, “I am here because two little ghosts kept squeaking and squealing my name like desperate rats, and I wondered why.”
I start in surprise at the word “ghost”, remembering Jan’s words earlier: Maybe we’ve gone to where the ghosts are.
“Ah, but now that I look closer…” the piper murmurs, leaning toward Jan’s face. Jan makes a small sound, his eyelids fluttering. “You are still children, aren’t you? Your bodies may have grown, but your hearts have slipped out of time.” He tilts Jan’s face up, gazing into those blank eyes. “You’re blind, aren’t you? And you,” he says, turning to me, “That leg is malformed. That’s why the two of you fell behind, yes?”
I nod, not trusting my voice.
“And I suppose your little heads were filled with visions of dancing, your leg hale and whole, and this one’s eyes clear as pure, still waters… Yes?”
I nod again.
“And is that why you’ve been squeaking and squealing all this time, then? You want that world my song wove for you?”
I shake my head, and I open my mouth to speak, but no sound comes. To my surprise, Jan answers for me, this time. “That wasn’t real. Even then, we knew it wasn’t real.”
“Oh?” he says, arching an eyebrow. “Then what is it you wanted?”
I stare at him blankly, bemused by his question. “I – you, of course,” I blurt, without thinking. I feel my face color, but continue anyway. “What else? You, and your song. I only wanted my leg to work so that I could keep up with you.”
The piper’s lips curl up at one corner. “And you?” he asks Jan, hand still cradling his face.
“I only wanted to see your face,” Jan answers. His hands are trembling in his lap.
The piper’s laughter is the music of sunlight dappled by the trees. “How delightful. But what, pray tell, makes you think that I am real?”
My brow wrinkles in confusion. “You were real enough to drown the rats, and to steal away the children, weren’t you?”
“So that’s real enough for you then? Such curious little creatures you are.” He lets go of Jan, and leans close to me. A strong scent of cedar and crushed herbs washes over me. “Very well. But what do you want with me?”
“To follow you. Anywhere. To hear you play. That’s all.”
“I see…” He smiles, flashing small white teeth. “Well. That might be acceptable… However, if you were to come with me, it would not be as payment received, but as travelers from whom payment must be collected. Do you understand?”
I feel Jan clutching at my arm. “But,” I say, “we don’t have any money.” And we could never even dream of having the kind of money he demanded for the rats.
The piper laughs again, the corners of his eyes crinkling as though I’ve said something very funny. “And what use do you think I have for money?”
“But – then what did you take the children for?”
“Because a promise was broken,” he answers. Seeing my confusion, he only reaches over and weaves his fingertips through the curls of my hair. “What is your name, boy?”
“Dieter,” I say, fighting the urge to lean into his touch.
“Well, sweet Dieter… Do you honestly think I believed for one moment that your fat burghers would pay me such an absurd sum as one thousand guilders?”
“He meant to have us all from the start,” said Jan, quietly, as if he’d known all along. Maybe he had. I gasp as the understanding finally sinks in.
“Just so,” says the piper, his smile growing sharper. “And aren’t you even going to ask what I did with those children?”
I think of my older brother, lost on that day. He could only barely be considered a child anymore, and yet still the music swept him away with the rest. My mother wept for weeks, fell ill with her grief; for a while we had feared we would lose her as well. My father has been cold and withdrawn ever since.
I look at the piper’s eyes, so blue, bluer than the sky. “No,” I say. “It doesn’t matter.”
The piper grins wickedly. It seems I’ve pleased him. For a moment guilt grips my gut; but it’s only the truth. I cannot deny it. Did we not decide long ago that we didn’t care if he were the devil himself? As he may well yet prove to be.
“‘It doesn’t matter’?” he echoes. “Are you certain? I might have sold them all as slaves.”
“Then we could be your slaves,” I offer.
“And what if I cooked them all and ate them?”
“Then at least,” says Jan, “we wouldn’t have to leave you.”
The piper laughs; oh, I could listen to that laugh forever. “Very well,” he says. “But will you pay my price?”
“Anything,” I say. “Anything at all.”
“Well, then.” He sits up. “I shall require three tokens of you each. Firstly, I shall require your strangeness.”
“Our… Our what?” I ask, baffled.
“Your infirmities,” he clarifies. “Let me see your leg.”
I am sitting on my knees; I get to my feet unsteadily.
“I need to see it uncovered,” he says with a smirk.
My face colors, but I obey him, clumsily removing my shoes and trousers. The piper leans forward then, stroking one hand down the length of my left leg. I suck in a breath and hold it for a moment, my heart banging against my ribcage.
My leg below the knee is small and underdeveloped, the foot curled inward on itself grotesquely, the toes folded under and lifeless. If I put my full weight on it, my heel rolls under and I bear down upon ankle. I fear to see the piper’s face contort into revulsion; but he only looks, and touches, making my knees so weak it’s hard to keep standing.
“I,” I start, and my voice fails me. I swallow. “I don’t understand. How is this payment?”
“Such small, rogue strangenesses as this are more valuable than you could imagine,” he tells me. He looks up at me through a fringe of pale hair. “Are you willing to pay?”
“Of – of course.”
He purses his lips and whistles one long, shrill tone; and I fall to my knees, screaming.
A hot lance shoots through my marrow, my bones grinding, my muscles tearing. I feel something wriggling inside me, working its way from my foot on up through my leg. Dimly, I hear Jan calling my name; see the piper slip an arm around Jan’s waist and pull him back, whispering something into his ear.
I moan, collapsing onto my side, curling in on myself. My body convulses so violently I fear I will vomit, the wriggling working its way up into my belly, into my chest, into my throat. Now I can’t breathe; I gag, coughing and sputtering, until it swells up into my mouth, horrifyingly alive, and I spit it out into the grass beneath me.
A small, quivering thing, black with matted fur, and a pointed face and hairless tail.
I stare at it, gasping for breath. In a few seconds it finds its feet, and darts off to the side. The piper’s hand swoops down and grabs it by the scruff of its neck. “Ah, ah, none of that,” he says, and he throws the squealing, struggling thing into a pouch at his belt.
Jan shivers, still in the circle of the piper’s arm. “Go on,” he says, though his voice quivers with fear. I want to take his hand in mine, but it wouldn’t help. “Take mine.”
The piper’s brows lift in surprise. “As you wish,” he says, and whistles again.
Jan’s eyes go wide, and he lets out a high pitched sound the like of which I’ve never heard from him before; then his eyes fill with thick, black tears, spilling over down his cheeks and onto the ground. He reaches up, clawing at his own eyes, and the piper grabs his wrists, restraining him from hurting himself.
The tears collect into a puddle, forming yet another quivering little rat; I wonder if Jan can see the thing growing at his feet. When it is over the piper snatches the thing up and throws it into the same pouch as before. Jan collapses against him, his eyes rolling back into his head.
I push myself up to a sitting position and look at my leg. The muscle in my calf looks strong and well-formed, my left foot as straight as my right. I flex my toes, and feel tears sting at my eyes.
“Dieter…” Jan’s voice murmurs. “Dieter, is that you?”
I’m so weakened by the pain that I have to pull myself close to him. He touches my hair, my face, my lips, wonderingly. “You’ve changed so much,” he whispers. “You’ve changed so much since we were little.” He looks up at the piper beside him, and now tears streak down his face again, this time clear and silent.
I lay my head upon the piper’s knee. “What else do you want?” I ask him. “Anything. My soul, if you ask it.”
He chuckles, and cups my chin in his hand, tilting my face up. “That won’t be necessary, at least at present,” he says. The pad of his thumb brushes lightly over my lips, and the curl of his mouth takes on a certain mischief. “Secondly, I think what I should like is to taste your years of wanting for myself.”
He whistles three notes in succession now, and suddenly I hear the sound of his flute, though I can see it still lying on the rock by his side; and it seems to envelop me from all sides, coming from everywhere at once. Then suddenly it is rushing up against my skin, all around and up between my bare legs, caressing my lips, my neck, slipping beneath my tunic and rolling down my spine.
I gasp, and Jan’s hand reaches up and clenches my shoulder. Blurrily, I see the piper nuzzling his lips against Jan’s neck, his hand sliding down his waist and over his hip. His other hand cradles the back of my head, and the music is touching me, touching me – and the colors, oh God, they bleed out from behind my eyes and stain the whole world like I’m lost inside the panes of stained glass in the windows at church.
Everything blurs together, and I lose track of the sequence of things. Somehow Jan and I are naked, pressed against one another. It is as I thought all along, as it was in my dreams; the piper and his music are one and the same. I can’t keep straight where his hands touch or where the music touches. I think I feel his lips upon me, his tongue against my flesh, but then I see that it is Jan his mouth is tasting; and then there are hands rolling me over, his hands, and my legs are pushed open. His music is slipping inside me, he is slipping inside of me. I feel Jan’s chest heaving against mine, his cock hard against my thigh, his whimpers echoing my own.
I cry out, my back arching, and I see the hill before me; my eyes must be confused, for the hill has gone crystalline and sparkling, colors glittering throughout – a mountain of stained glass.
The music thrusts deeper and deeper inside me, trembling right through my spine. A shudder runs all the way from my scalp to my toes, and I throw my head back, a scream ripping out of my chest as my body releases. Jan arches up with me, and the warmth of our seed rushes between us.
I blink. Somehow, it is nighttime, and the stars glitter above. I sit up abruptly, remembering. Jan sits up more slowly beside me, fully clothed; I pat my chest compulsively, finding not a stitch out of place. I look up to find the piper sitting before us as earlier, lying on his side on the outcrop, a lazy smile upon his face; and behind him towers up a mountain of glittering colored glass.
Jan and I gawp at it, speechless. I had thought my eyes were playing tricks when I saw it before. A great cave in the center of it yawns open to an otherworldly light. I smell that scent from earlier, metallic and sharp.
The piper hops lightly to his feet, and extends a hand to both of us. We take it, and he pulls us up. I feel unsteady, the sensations of my new leg strange and unfamiliar. Jan’s eyes look like they might pop out of his head, they are open so wide.
“I think,” the piper says, and there is no mistaking the mischief in his countenance now, “that I shall require you to follow me through, before I give you my third demand. Will you come?”
I glance at Jan. It is one thing to desire something so badly you think you would walk into hell just to look upon its beauty; it is yet another to do so. It’s true that he might be a beast in human skin waiting to devour us, might be the devil himself. And if we leave, my mother and father will lose the only children they have left.
Guilt grips me again but briefly. I take Jan’s hand.
“We’ll come,” Jan says, and I nod.
His smile turns fox-like. “As you wish,” he says.
We follow him into that light.