Hansel heard the music. It was like someone whispering his name, someone in the distance, someone he couldn’t see. He lifted himself from his bed, planting his crutch under his arm and lurched over to the bedroom window. He couldn’t see anyone, but the music was still there. Above the bustle of the market place, the hubbub of the traders, the gossip of the housewives, and the rolling wheels of Hamelin commerce, the music reached his ears, like the aroma of a freshly-baked pie left on a windowsill to cool… It was delicious. It was irresistible.
He pulled a jersey over his pyjama top and a pair of breeches over his pyjama bottoms. He thrust his stockingless feet into his boots. There was no time to lace them up, no time to ask his mother’s assistance in that operation. At nine years of age, Hansel had yet to learn how to lace his own boots. He would rather let his mother fuss over him, fuss over his useless stump of a foot, that swollen mass of flesh with its squashed-button toes. Like an elephant’s, he always thought. Perhaps, when I’m older, I’ll go the whole hog, the whole elephant, and sprout a trunk and flappy ears and everything.
He tottered down the stairs, trying to make as little noise as possible. Mother was in the kitchen, making bread. He could hear her singing to herself as she pounded balls of dough on the floury board. Her song was soft and formless as idly she sang, and Hansel remembered the lullabies she would sing at his bedside when he was younger, or even now, when he was sick and febrile.
He unhooked his hat from the stand in the hall and let himself out, pulling the brim down low and hunching his shoulders. He didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want to be recognised. He kept close to the wall as he tapped his way around the perimeter of the marketplace. The music was faint, but it was still there, urging him on. Pulling him in the right direction. Through the market and out of the gates.
“Good morning, Hansel!” boomed the butcher at his stall. “Off to school?”
Hansel reddened and ignored the man. He quickened his pace. Behind him, the butcher shrugged and busied himself with wrapping sausage links for Frau Schnabel.
Outside the town gates, Hansel took the lane that led to distant hills. Atop the largest of those hills stood a lone tree, a giant of its kind, leafless and foreboding. But the music told Hansel to wend his way there.
He had reached the foot of the hill when the townsfolk caught up with him. They were angry and armed with farming implements and household knives, alerted to the disappearance of their children by the panicked schoolteacher who had reported an empty classroom.
“Where is he?” they roared. “Where is that pied bastard?”
“He’s up here somewhere,” opined the butcher, brandishing a bloodied machete. “I’ll shove that pipe of his right up his arse.”
“We’ll show him,” vowed several grim-faced traders. “Taking our children.”
“Do you think they’re all right?” fretted Frau Schnabel, her sausages forgotten, dropped in the dirt.
“I knew we should have paid up,” said the town clerk. “For getting rid of the rats. I knew we should have paid him what he asked.”
“And bankrupt the town?” scoffed the butcher. “His price was too high.”
“And taking our children? Is that a bargain?” Frau Schnabel gave the butcher a shove.
The townsfolk were arguing among themselves and getting nowhere, but Hansel could still hear the music. He continued on his way. The music was inside him now, steeling his nerves, strengthening his muscles. Even his useless foot was alive, with the music coursing through every nerve, every fibre. Hansel lumbered up the path that wound around the incline until, at long last, he reached the tree.
A door appeared in the trunk. Hansel pressed against it but it would not move. There was no handle, no knocker, not even a keyhole. Hansel collapsed against it and sobbed. Too late! Too late! Oh, it was just like the games in the playground! He was always left out, never allowed to join in with the races and running around. And now, all the children had gone into the tree, and he was left out, left alone, with his crutch and his useless foot.
And then he saw it. A button to the side of the door. A square, silver button with a picture of a stick-figure man in a chair, and the chair had wheels…
Hansel pressed the button, holding his breath. The door slid aside and soft light washed over him. The music drew him over the threshold and Hansel hobbled in, as the townsfolk arrived at the tree. The door slid shut, cutting off their commotion, leaving him with just the light and the music.
The townsfolk cursed the tree. They tried to chop off the silver button.
“You see? You see?” the butcher cried. “If we had given in to his wishes, this devilry would be everywhere. Silver buttons! Ramps! Doors that swing in both directions! Too costly, I tell you! We did the right thing.”
But Hansel’s mother, with flour up to her elbows, was not convinced. She flattened herself against the door, which was already fading into the bark, and wept.
The Pied Piper’s proposal would have meant her son, her sweet and lovely boy, would have stood a better chance of making a life for himself in Hamelin. And now he was gone, and it was all she could hope that wherever he was, wherever the mysterious Piper had taken him, the other children were at last letting him play.