We’d heard of Hamelin of course.
We watched the piper come down the only road into town, watched for miles as he grew from a sliver to a splinter from the city walls.
His walk was uneven as if his feet pained him. As he drew near we could see where famine had pecked at him, rending his many-colored cloak in tatters. He begged us for work. If we didn’t renege, we had no need to fear his wrath.
We refused of course. Stoppered our ears and tied our children to us and drove him away with rocks and threats.
Our relief only lasted so long. I’m sure news of the rodent plague has gotten around. They got so bold they hunted the cats, bit the terriers until they collapsed. At night you couldn’t sleep for the sound of gnawing. The rye didn’t even get a chance to ripen. As we grew hungry, we grew desperate. As they grew hungry, they grew bolder. They seemed to multiply without aid of food, suckling pups by the hundreds. They ate the granaries empty. They drank the wells dry. A famine like none before or since descended on us.
And in the midst of all this, the piper came back.
He walked even slower now, for he had no shoes. He seemed humbled, by hunger or some other means. He said he would play for us for a single night’s supper. He bore no ill will to us, we had only to feed him and he would do whatever we asked.
We flung the gates wide and took hold of him. We had no blackthorne, for we had burned it all for fuel, and no rope that hadn’t been chewed through. So we took him to the edge of our barren fields and stoned him to death. His heathen songs had already been the downfall of one town, and obviously he had been the arbiter of our own plague.
A plague which did not lift with his death. In the end, it would have been just as well if he had piped the children away. They were bitten, scratched, plagued to death. We were a town without a future, and so we scuttled the town itself. We burned the buildings and in the flames we could hear the shrieking of a thousand mouths, a thousand worm-tails singeing like candle wicks. Come morning we stood in the ashes of our home, free and yet not.
In the end, who was better off? Was it Hamelin, who was left standing but without joy? Or was it we, who are masters of our own loss?