Upon turning twenty-four, Peter returned to the town that he had so abruptly left while practically a baby in his nursemaid’s arms. He had then not even been called Peter; he’d been Robertus, but they’d altered so many things at that point – identities, possessions, habitations, vocations, towns – that a new name for an infant had been small change. He remembered nothing of that departure; his memories did not stretch beyond his turning three in their meager lodgings at Hanover, and his playing in the mud with irregularly-shaped beads of glass.

Robertus became Peter partly in remembrance of his elder brother. One oppressively overcast day in June, twenty-three years ago, the original Peter, then aged seven, had gone out to play with his friends and had forgotten to come back. ‘The rat-catcher is going to show us how he sets his traps,’ Peter had said to his younger brother’s nursemaid before scampering off down the alley to join Hans, the two Johanns and several others whose names the nursemaid did not know.

The journey from Hanover took an entire day and utterly exhausted Berta. Peter Robertus had suggested to his wife that she not accompany him, that she stay back in Hanover with her mother-in-law for the week or so for which he would be away. That Berta had steadfastly refused to do. She did not want to hurt her husband’s feelings, he being a good soul, but frankly his mother, with that perennially cloudy look in her eyes and her manner of chatting with her vanished eldest son, gave her, as she told her sister, the jitters.

‘Be very, very careful,’ Berta had been advised by her family and her neighbourhood. ‘Never forget how powerful a witch your mother-in-law-to-be is. That is why her cadet son did not disappear along with her first.’

Robertus, or Peter the Second, the good soul, having unexpectedly come into an inheritance, was returning to the town of his birth to claim it. ‘Must I go?’ he’d asked, because he did hate the disruption and discomfort of travelling. Besides, he was apprehensive at being stared at by strangers with whom he had shared an event in the past that not even God had been able to explain.

‘Nonsense, of course you must,’ his mother had retorted. ‘Six acres of prime land and a two-storeyed house just off Bungelosenstrasse, why should we give that up?’

‘But you’ve changed my name as a way of escape, I’m not who I was, maybe not who they think I am. Perhaps Aunt Clara has willed all that she had to Peter my elder brother and not me. And if he comes back to avenge my usurpation?’

Privately, he and Berta both believed that his mother fondly hoped that that was just what Peter the Original would do; indeed, that was why she insisted that her remaining son depart to claim his inheritance: to thereby – perhaps – lure back from the past a ghost or two.

A distance of some fifty kilometers between the two towns, there were no cities in those days. They changed horses once on the outskirts of Springe. Mindful of Berta’s condition, Peter Robertus twice told the coachman to take it easy because they were in no hurry; the coachman grunted on both occasions but seemingly not in response. To avoid conversation, Berta kept her eyes shut and pretended to doze while Peter looked out at the fields of rye shaven of their harvest and thought about things.

 

*

 

He was the one survivor who remembered nothing. About his past, he thus felt clumsy and incomplete; at the same time, he sensed that the absence of memory in one so young had protected him from harm. Of the others who had not been taken, he’d been told that one boy had been blind, another deaf and a third had felt too cold. Of course he had never met any of them in the preceding twenty-three years. And no girl had survived.

‘Had it not been for me,’ his nursemaid Else would drone into his ears practically five times a day for two decades, ‘why, you’d’ve vanished too, who knows. You were always crawling off on all fours after your elder brother, howling and screaming and biting and kicking when I stopped you from tumbling down the stairs or wallowing outdoors in horse manure.’ Else would pause in whatever she was doing – clearing the table, hanging up the washing – to check whether her charge, older now and independent but still, she felt, her charge, looked properly abashed. ‘In fact, had you not begun to choke on your porridge out of your usual willfulness and spite, we would not even have been out of doors that morning. The weather was freakish that day, the clouds so oppressive.

‘Nothing would’ve occurred had the adults all – each and every one of them – not been in church that morning. That in fact was the first freakish thing to have happened.’

She didn’t like it when he or anyone else commented on or analysed the incident of the Disappearance without acknowledging her – with a final phrase such as ‘Isn’t that so, Else?’ or ‘What do you think, Else?’ – as a superior authority on the subject. She was the vedette, one of the few eyewitnesses, and felt annoyed that people should forget that essential fact so quickly.

‘It was St John’s and St Paul’s day that day, of course everyone would’ve been in church,’ she sniffed at his obtuseness. ‘I would’ve been in church myself had you not been so cranky that morning.’

‘And where were they, St John and St Paul, that they saw nothing? In church too, is it? Or bathing in the river?’

 

*

 

It was dark when they crossed the Weser but the coachman seemed to know his way. The clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, loud in the dusk, prevented thought and instead aroused in them a nameless anxiety. A mist had followed them from the river. It being cold, there were fewer people about in the filthy, congested alleys. The horses took forever to draw up at the inn recommended by the senior assistant of the apothecary at Hanover. Hanover itself seemed so far away. The thought that, on hearing his name, the innkeeper would instantly know who he was and why he was there made Peter Robertus uneasy.

It started badly; the coachman was not happy with what they paid him. They reasoned with him for a few minutes and then, leaving him to his grumbling, entered the inn to ask whether rooms were available and whether someone could be sent to help with the luggage. The innkeeper looked them over, nodded and – there didn’t seem to be any boys available, at least, they didn’t see any – sent out with them a tall, taciturn young man strong as a stallion and more silent than the dead. In the forecourt, dimly lit by a single lantern, the young man heaved the two trunks off the ground without uttering a word and stumped off to the room on the first floor that had been allotted to Berta and Peter Robertus.

Its fire made it feel warm and welcoming; it was otherwise simply furnished. Berta lay down and said that she felt too tired to descend for dinner. ‘If they can send up some soup, cheese, bread and milk – would be nice,’ murmured she sleepily to her pillow. ‘If not, we won’t die.’ She was sturdier than a sturdy ox, a little plump and on the side of life.

‘I’m hungry, I’ll go down, I think.’

But she was fast asleep by then and even gently snoring.

Carrying a taper, careful not to stumble, hoping to eat a quiet dinner and go early to bed, Peter Robertus went slowly down the steep and narrow wooden staircase. He liked food, he liked eating, he didn’t think much of conversation at the dinner table and was fervently hoping that there wouldn’t be any. Chatter, he felt, distracting the humours from concentrating on the stomach, dissipated them instead through the mouth into the air. His heart sank when he saw the long dining table, for it looked surprisingly crowded for such a modest inn. He then noticed that none of the dozen-odd men in that tiny hall was eating; all conversation stopped, all heads turned towards him when his foot touched the bottom step.

‘Robertus Heimric, welcome back.’

‘I’m Peter now. Have been for over twenty years.’

‘For this town, you’ll always be Robertus Heimric. There’s no getting away from it.’

Peter smiled appeasingly at the blur of faces and moved towards the soup tureen. A middle-aged man with red hair and close-set blue eyes abruptly asked, almost politely, and in a soft voice, ‘And your mother? All well with her? Still feeding you rats’ kidneys to ward off the evil spirits? You won’t get any here, I can tell you.’ Someone snorted. A second voice asked the red-haired man to shut up. The innkeeper’s wife took off the lid of the tureen. How they all stared.

There was no sound save for the clicks of the ladle slushing about in the soup, and beneath it the chirpy crackling of the fire in the grate. Peter Robertus contemplated going upstairs again with his bread and bowl and returning for a second helping when the townsfolk had dispersed, and then wondered why he was eating when he wasn’t hungry in the least, indeed, when he even felt a little queasy. The dog sleeping on the hearth suddenly sighed loudly in his dreams.

‘You don’t know me but your mother will remember me,’ continued the red-haired man, stepping up within striking distance of Peter Robertus. ‘When you meet her, you tell her, “Oh Mother, I met Kurt Weisser, and he sends you his regards.” And she will exclaim, “How kind of him! Of course I remember him: he’s the one who never gave up searching for our children.” For months on end, through rain and sleet and snow, with lanterns and flaming torches, we – your father and I, all of us – searched the entire region, town, hill, vale, village, field, borough, province, digging in ditches and hacking through underwood for leagues in every direction, rooting about for any sign, any remnant, of his Peter and my Maria, my Hedwig and my Georg and all the other young’uns. All day long and far into the night, we shouted out for them and for almost a year the hills and woods and lanes about the town resounded with the names of the lost children. It seemed then to some of us that Nature was looking for them, too. We gave up everything else, farming and milling and our shops, to search, to understand.’

‘And then my father died.’

‘Yes, and then your father died,’ repeated a short, bald man with a high-pitched voice, moving forward to the table and sitting down on the bench, ‘but he was neither the first nor the last in the town to succumb to a broken heart.’

With Peter Robertus’s single utterance, the ice seemed to have been broken; everything suddenly appeared less menacing, and a couple of townsmen, muttering something about having to tend to their horses, even tramped out of the room. Slowly, the remaining locals, keeping Peter Robertus as the nucleus of the group, arranged themselves in various positions about the hall – on the bench at the table, against the stair rail, on the steps, by the wall alongside the fire. Peter gingerly began on his soup while they – individually and contrapuntally, in ruptured sentences, muttered oaths and lamentations left dangling in the air – started to reconstruct a narrative that they had evoked ten-thousand times before. Yet each retelling seemed to ease the load accumulated since the last narration, and even stirred a faint, fresh ache akin to hope. Maybe they would get it right this time, perhaps they would resolve the riddle of imprecision; and so they should go over the whole thing most, most carefully, with the finest of toothcombs, because once they got it right, the mystery doubtless would dissolve into the clear light of day, a key would turn somewhere, something would click open and at last the children, excited, laughing, at last they would return to Hamelin.

‘On that day of St John and St Paul in June twenty-three years ago, the church service took longer than expected. Robertus’s mother came out from it all wrought up because her husband made such a pother if dinner wasn’t on the table at twelve noon sharp and she was sure to be late. They said their goodbyes to everyone at the church door and she scurried off home. At a quarter to twelve, just when she thought that she would be ready in time, she noticed the absence of her elder son and snapped with annoyance at Else, “I thought you were to keep an eye on him and see that he doesn’t wander off with that Johann. Rush and fetch him from that rascal’s house so that I can give him a piece of my mind before we sit down.”

‘Else returned at twenty past twelve to find the master of the house glowering at the meat that he was about to carve. Robertus’s mother sat opposite him, in nervousness nattering away about the church service and complimenting herself, since her husband clearly wasn’t, on how well the potatoes had been done. Else, a little flustered too at returning mission unaccomplished, brought the news that Johann wasn’t at home either and she was late because she had gone on to Hans’s house only to find his mother peeved and waiting for her son at her doorstep.

‘Lunch was a silent and ruined affair and at two o’clock, the father was more cross than ever because he couldn’t settle down to his afternoon nap till his son returned. At three o’clock, the mother told Else, “Put Robertus to sleep. Stay with him. I’m going to take a round of the town to get to the bottom of this not-very-entertaining game.”’

 

*

 

‘She didn’t have to go very far. She turned the corner into Rathausstrasse only to bump into Paula’s parents. She didn’t know them very well, Paula being a couple of years older than her elder son, but the expression on their faces, mirroring so acutely her own anxiety, obviated the social niceties. Paula hadn’t come back home for dinner either. And neither had Willie.

‘Feeling more sure of themselves in a group, they returned to the Heimric home to collect the father; he was at the front door, they didn’t have to go in. As uncertain of where to head for as of what to do – silent, bewildered, angry and at last openly apprehensive – they slowly moved off towards Market Square and the Rathaus. Their progress was not free of incident; it seemed that the entire adult population of the area – parents, elder siblings, aunts, guardians, grandparents, nursemaids, manservants – had foregone their afternoon naps to take to the streets. Their differing physiognomies were rendered similar by variations of one single expression of befuddled fear; across it, when they posed their questions, flickered a sort of hope in darkness. “Have you by any chance seen my Maria today?” “Joachim isn’t at your place, is he?” “Wasn’t Eva going with the others to see how the rat-catcher sets his special traps?”

‘The group of citizens that gathered at the steps of the Rathaus that afternoon numbered over a hundred.’

 

*

 

A ripple, a murmur, amongst the townsmen sitting on the steps in the hall of the inn caused the narration to cease. Berta, surprised at seeing the number of people in the room, had halted halfway down the stairs. Heads turned. The innkeeper’s wife took a couple of steps forward to welcome her. Without getting up from the bench, Peter Robertus said, ‘Come come Berta, we’re all friends here having a chat. The soup is delicious, sit down and have some.’

Berta’s face was puffy and her eyelids drooped with the need to sleep. Her hand slithered up and down the handrail of the stairs even though her feet didn’t budge on the steps. ‘Some cheese and bread, if that’s possible,’ she asked hesitantly, first of the innkeeper’s wife and then, turning a little, of the taciturn odd-job man who had taken the trunks up. ‘And some milk please.’ The odd-job man didn’t seem to have heard, for his expression didn’t change and he didn’t move from the door that led to the kitchen.

‘Your husband is right. The broth is just the thing for you,’ beamed the innkeeper’s wife, ‘in your condition.’

 

*

 

Berta slept badly; all night long, she seemed to hear behind the headboard the rustling and squealing of rats and was annoyed that Peter Robertus’s deafening snores did not intimidate them. She got up twice, candle in hand, to check the dark corners of the room but saw nothing save dust. At nine in the morning, when Peter was ready to present himself at the Town Hall to initiate the process of conveyancing the inheritance – he was a little nervous – Berta felt swollen and exhausted and ached all over. To her husband, she suggested, ‘You go on ahead. By God’s grace, everything’ll be fine. Perhaps later in the morning if I feel better, I’ll visit the church to see the new stained glass window that they talk so much about.’

Even though the day was cold and gusty, Berta felt better outdoors. She exchanged greetings and smiles akin to grimaces with the few citizens whom she met while crossing Weiss’s Common. For twenty-three years, the town had seen no births; how could any of its inhabitants look happy? There had been miscarriages, stillbirths and departures; bereaved parents had committed suicide and expectant mothers had left to have their babies elsewhere: in Luneburg, Springe or Braunschweig. After the deliveries, they had found it impossible to return to the town from which had vanished, that day in June, without a word of explanation from God or anyone else, a hundred and thirty of their children. How could they be happy? How could they breathe and talk and eat, sleep and buy and sell and go about their business without breaking, without buckling and disintegrating into lifeless flesh on the floor? How ever had they withstood the despair, borne the inconceivability of what had happened?

That June afternoon before the Rathaus twenty-three years ago, Peter Robertus’s mother at first had been befuddled by the sheer number of her fellow citizens milling about in search of meaning, then she’d been extremely vexed. Did they think that the Mayor, the councilors and the bailiff had nothing better to do that afternoon than to demarcate some boundary between the plots of their houses or adjudicate upon the course of a water channel? Then she’d slowly become bewildered again, and even calm in her bewilderment, when she’d realized that all her neighbours and fellow-townsmen, all those good churchgoers, had children who had forgotten that day to return home.

Save for the fact that the children seemed to have vanished, nothing was clear. And that discovery was so enormously incomprehensible that it seemed to paralyse all of them; while waiting for the Mayor, the bailiff and other authorities, they gazed at one another’s faces, looked away before their eyes locked and offered titbits of information to the general mass of unknowing. One coachman said that he’d seen a group of kids going off laughing and chattering in the direction of Poppenberg Mountain. An ostler contributed that he’d overheard a dozen of them planning to bathe in the Weser, and Hans’s uncle, still wearing his leather apron, repeated the story of Else the nursemaid, namely, that his nephew and some of the others had been nattering away that morning about seeing the rat-catcher set his traps.

For Peter Robertus’s mother, the rest of that day became a blur; and to that indistinctness, that dusk was added, fuzzy film upon film, each succeeding day of the next twenty-three years. Search parties were organised and sent out to the surrounding hills, to the villages across the countryside, to the river. With lanterns and torches, horns, kettledrums, axes and spades, spears, swords, butchering knives and the Bible; on horseback, in wagons and on foot they left as on a crusade, fanning out, once clear of the town, like the clumsily spreading fingers of an impotent hand. The teams of searchers looked determined and filled those left behind with a sort of hope.

‘They’re in hiding, it’s a practical joke,’ said Erich’s elder brother to the group around him. ‘They want to frighten us. Wait till he gets back, he’ll get such a good hiding that he’ll wish he’d remained on Poppenberg till next winter. He’s gone off, I told you – ’ turning here to his beer-quaffing companions ‘ – to impress his friends by wearing my new boots for wherever they were tramping off to. Nothing doing, get out of my sight before I wallop you, you fool, I’d told him straight off. And yet he took them. Can you imagine, my new boots.’

 

*

 

On that first day, the search parties trickled in well after midnight, bone-weary and ready to drop, almost emptied of distress by their exhaustion. They slept for three hours, ate and left again at dawn. For half the town, that became the diurnal rhythm of their lives for the next several months. They dredged the river, scoured the woods, explored the fissures and caves in the hills; they dug in ditches, sniffed around in graveyards, poked the roots of trees, excavated the boundaries of fields, they beat the vegetation to death. They enquired of the citizenry of the surrounding villages, they enlisted their help. They interrogated innkeepers, farmers, shepherds, fowlers, stablehands, ostlers, coachmen, vagabonds, journeymen, soldiers on the road, homeless wastrels and God. Before Him, as the weeks turned into years, they lit candles, kept vigils, whipped themselves, fasted, prayed and wept.

In a couple of months, the several search parties, wandering further and further away, had cumulatively covered the diocese of Minden, all of lower Saxony and finally stretched out beyond Westphalia; as far east as Moravia, East Prussia and Pomerania they’d gone, and a hundred and fifty kilometers north towards Hamburg, and north-west beyond Bremen to where the continent was stopped by the North Sea. The Duke of Braunschweig came to know of the baffling disappearance, or at least his retinue was informed through the appropriate administrative channels. The Church too had to be told, particularly since the children had vanished on the day of St John and St Paul.

‘And that rat-catcher?’ asked the Bishop of Fulda. ‘Where is he?’ And when no one answered, he continued even more irritably, ‘And the survivors? Don’t they have anything to say?’

 

*

 

Berta was perspiring a little by the time she arrived at the church; the walk, even through those filthy alleys, had done her good. She was surprised to see, standing alongside the path that led to its doors, shifting sacks of meal from a barrow to a cart, the silent odd-job man of the inn. ‘Good morning!’ she greeted him brightly; he smiled uncertainly but somehow not in response. ‘Would Father Josef be here?’ continued she, ‘I received word this morning at the inn that I should find the time to drop by during the day.’

That was not entirely true. The innkeeper’s wife had told Peter Robertus just as he was about to leave for the rathaus that the priest would be delighted to see him if he could find the time. ‘I’m not going to the church, I won’t, you know that,’ he in turn had told Berta in the privacy of their room. ‘You go. If he asks, tell him I’ve gone to the devil.’

The odd-job man, appearing not to have understood Berta, continued to bend and lift and dump, raising in the process dust that in the light enclosed him like an effulgence. But she turned her head away because just then the church doors groaned open wide.

She watched the priest, hugging his arms as though he felt cold, pick his way through the pigs in his path towards them. He was a small man, Father Josef, and she was surprised by his comparative youth; she’d expected someone venerable, but he looked as though he couldn’t have been more than thirty. He displayed no surprise at seeing her alone; amidst the carts of hay, the snorting horses and the hubbub of the crowd headed back from the market, he was all politeness. He began to speak even before he reached her, and did not stop till she had understood the burden of what was expected of her. All the while his cloudy, unfocused eyes, staring at her, seemed to see something else in her place.

‘You know that your visit, Frau Berta – yours and your husband’s – assumes enormous significance for our town. Late last night, Otto –’ The priest raised a limp hand in the direction of the odd-job man ‘ – brought me the news of your arrival. And I said to him, Do you think she’ll visit our church? Or is she like her husband and her mother-in-law? They have not stepped inside the house of God in the last twenty years, is that not so?’

She glanced at him to see whether he expected a reply. But with his gaze moving from the cross on her necklace to a waggoner grumbling to himself about the quality of hay through the whinnying of horses, grunting of pigs and the hubbub and confusion of that overcrowded lane, he continued, ‘Your husband and I have met before. He won’t remember. Neither do I. He must then have been less than a year old and I, in the April of that year, had just turned seven.’ He suddenly hugged his arms again at that memory and, in a gesture uncharacteristic of a priest, kicked a pebble in his path. He seemed to address his next remark to the departing stone. ‘He and Otto and I are to be counted amongst the survivors.’

 

*

 

There had been just three of them.

By the evening of that June day twenty-three years ago, when the town lost a hundred and thirty of its children, it had become clear to its citizens – and yet at the same time the discovery had befuddled some of them even more – that not all the children had been taken; the infants and toddlers, those, like Robertus Heimric, too young to be left unattended and those who’d remained indoors or had attended church service with their parents, they had survived. (For several days thereafter, their mothers did not let them out of their sight even for an instant; they followed them to the privy and in bed at night tied one of their mutinous limbs to the corresponding arm or leg of some willing elder.) And of those young ones not taken, some were totally unaware of what had occurred, and others – like the infant Robertus in his nursemaid’s arms – remembered nothing. In fact, there had been only three boys who had seen the different groups of children, their playmates and schoolfellows amongst them, gambol off out of the gates of the town never to return. Blind Franz, deaf and mute Otto and little Josef who always felt too cold, they were the true survivors.

How they were interrogated, as by an inquisition, for weeks on end.

 

*

 

What exactly did you see? What did you feel? Naturally, Little Josef bore the brunt of the examination, having to respond even when he did not know the answers; each time, the questions stopped only when he broke down sobbing or started to shake violently as a prelude to his epileptic spasms. The councillors’ men waited patiently before continuing. Was it just Peter who said that the rat-catcher was going to show them his traps? Or did others say so too? Think carefully. Which group of children did you follow? Why? Blind Franz says that he heard beautiful music from a wind instrument and that that’s what tugged him forward. Did you not hear it too?

You say that on the road to Poppenberg, you realized that you were in your shirtsleeves and so you turned back to fetch your coat. That is not quite clear to us. Were you cold? Or were you scared? Of what? And then you say that you were following Johann and Hans and the others. Why following? Why were you not with them? We put it to you that you might have been aware that they would not return. What did you know that they did not?

Inexorably, without believing his answers because they did not know what to think, day after day the councillors’ men went on with their questions. So you went home, put on your coat and scurried back to the road to Poppenberg. And then what?

‘Nothing! There was no one there!’ replied Little Josef, in tears again at seeing the sustained befuddlement on the faces of his interrogators. ‘My friends and the other groups had all disappeared, maybe into that cave on Poppenberg, I don’t know. But they weren’t there, I swear! It’s true!’

What cave? There’s no cave in Poppenberg.

Without wanting to, without even quite realizing what they were doing, the councillors’ men were remorseless in their interrogation of all the three witnesses. Hour after hour, for weeks without end, they hovered and buzzed like flies around that one agonising question. Those three boys had experienced the event and yet they lived on; how had they done it, what did they know that the others hadn’t known? Whenever Little Josef was beyond their reach, either in seizure or delirious with sorrow in his mother’s arms, the investigators, with desperate lack of focus and crueller than they wanted to be, recoiled on mute Otto and blind Franz. That music that only Franz seemed to have heard, yanking him onward, tugging him, tugging him out of the walls of the town, infuriated them beyond bearing because even Otto, who had lived since birth in black silence, confirmed, with loud, inarticulate groans, furious nods of the head and frenzied mime, that he too had felt it, that celestial music, on his skin and like a vibration in the core of his skull.

‘Celestial?’ in a murmur demanded Father Landl of his flock. ‘Or music infernal?’

It was only natural that, in their darkness and dolour, the good citizens turned to their church for succour. ‘Save our son, Father,’ begged Josef’s parents when at their wits’ end. ‘If he has sinned, it must be venial, why is he being punished so?’

‘He – all three of them – have been saved,’ repeated Father Landl, ‘I see in their eyes the look of Lazarus.’ His next suggestion had the approval of the Bishop of Fulda. ‘Give them to me. It is time that this godless town surrender its sons to the Lord and His church.’

‘And that rat-catcher?’ demanded for the hundredth time the good Bishop of Fulda. ‘Has he returned to the nether world without leaving behind him even a hint of a trace? Or are we too scared to confront him face to face?’

 

*

 

He was an itinerant, a journeyman, the rat-catcher; wearing a coat of many colours, he’d arrived from the East. Yes, a funny foreigner from Moravia or Pomerania, no one knew for sure. For a couple of days he’d been spotted amongst the down and out, the seasonal labourers, the vagrants and vagabonds who inhabited, around Sedemunder Gate, the filthiest, most insalubrious part of a poor and overcrowded town. Then suddenly one day in the middle of June, there he was in the market square fawning and proposing that, for some absurd sum of money, a guilder per head or something, he would rid the town of all its rats.

How they all laughed at him. ‘A guilder per head!’ chortled the Mayor, renowned in the entire district for his wit, ‘That would make our rats more expensive than our children!’

The rat-catcher’s blue eyes twinkled at the remark, his long nose twitched, he scratched with his pipe the lice in his blond hair, he continued to smile and persist with his offer. At last Mr Heimric, the father of Peter and Robertus, said in his no-nonsense manner:

‘Look, Mr Rat-catcher, we are fine with the rats, and the rats are fine with us. If they are gone, how will our cats and dogs amuse themselves?’ Mr Heimric was not a particularly religious man but something in the personality of the other pricked him into adding, ‘Symbolic of procreation and the fertile earth, rats too are part of God’s creation. We may let them be.’

‘They are too fertile,’ responded the rat-catcher, never ceasing to smile. ‘I could restrict them, say, to half a dozen per household. As many rats as children. What do you say?’ He continued to look amused even when his offer was firmly turned down, and he melted once more into the mire around Sedemunder Gate.

Only to reappear a week later on an oppressively overcast morning towards the end of June; he’d at last changed his clothes, and was dressed as a hunter with a strange red hat. He chose the hour carefully; being the day of St John and St Paul, the elders were all in church listening to Father Landl. The rat-catcher wasn’t alone; a group of adolescent boys from Sedemunder Gate arrived early in the morning and fanned out into the town. They were to rendezvous at eleven on the road to Poppenberg. They were paid for their pains.

For weeks thereafter, while day and night the search parties scoured the countryside of lower Saxony and beyond, some of the clearer-headed investigators, led by Mr Heimric, went ferreting around in the filthy alleys of Sedemunder Gate.

He didn’t behave like a rat-catcher, we have our own, he didn’t know the rates, what was he doing here? Surmise, rumour, suspicion. Where did he stay? For how long? Whom did he meet? What was he up to for almost a week before popping up in the market square with his offer? What are you hiding from us in your heads? Come on come on out with it. His outlandish proposal must have been directed at distracting us from his real purpose. How many of you’ve known that from well before? You want a hot rod on your genitals to jog your memory?

Threats, inducements, recriminations, rewards. Amongst the labourers, journeymen, coachmen, stable hands, scullions and tramps, the investigators concentrated first on the families that had not lost any children. Why hadn’t they?

But they made little headway. No, so many riff-raff come and go, we don’t remember any long-nosed rat-catcher. Yes, didn’t I see him chuckling and filling Karolina the Free up with tankards of ale one evening? Or was that someone else? Maybe. Maybe I saw the rat-catcher and maybe I didn’t. Maybe he gave me a guilder to keep my mouth shut and it will need two to get it to open. Maybe.

Perhaps, mused Mr Heimric a couple of weeks before his death, we should look more carefully at those families that have lost their children.

 

*

 

In this long and sad history, the rest is conjecture.

But first the facts.

By early August of that year, what remained of the families of Karolina the Free, Widow Elisabeth and at least nine other inhabitants of the alleys of Sedemunder Gate, were hounded out of town. It was never established – and forever remained rumour – that for want of money they had sold, for the price of two guilders per head, their elder offspring to a recruiter – a child-catcher, if you will – from Transylvania; and that the recruiter in turn hired the bolder of those adolescents to inveigle, induce, incite as many other children as they could to join them on a long, long journey to a better life elsewhere. No, that was never established; had it been, those vendors of the young would have been lynched, impaled, burnt instead of being hounded out.

And the children, it has been speculated, would have led that better life – into which they could have been sold – almost anywhere in the known world; toiled in the warehouses of the port of Hamburg, laboured in the docks at Bremen, settled newly acquired lands in Pomerania, sweated blood in some distillery in Braunschweig, scavenged as scullions in some mansion beyond Cologne, drudged in the mercantile houses of Lübeck, set sail as deckhands for distant Constantinople. The vastness of that known world was forbidding; in it, nothing was certain save the emptiness, the numbness that the children had left behind.

What does it mean for the children of a town to vanish, for nature to lose its continuity? Empty rooms, silent spaces around one’s heart, no chatter from the commons, no laughter in the streets. Because it didn’t end there, with their vanishing; the childhood of the remaining children went with them. And with time, those left behind grew up into a sort of hollow adulthood; others left the town, some, like blind Franz, died.

Two years after the disappearance, almost to the day, he slipped into the Weser for a bathe and forgot to emerge. Mute Otto, who was with him that afternoon, explained, by means of his frenzied moans and incomprehensible gestures, that Franz had been unable to bear any more that music in his skull. Because they all believed him to be not quite right in the head, no one accepted Otto’s story; they concluded that Franz’s death was an accident, a footnote in the tragic history of their town.

 

*

 

In that walled silence bereft of music and festivity it was deathly, at the age of ten, to ache day and night for one’s lost companions, to see them in nightmares being fed upon by ghouls, to feel ancient with fear, incomprehension and sorrow. Little Josef was not alone in believing himself to be going mad. With the passage of the months, the wildest theories, the most outlandish suppositions, kept gushing – like blood that would not be staunched – out of several minds unhinged by grief. In May of the following year, for instance, Mrs Heimric asked Clara, Josef’s elder sister, whether she had noticed that the population of rats in the town had declined significantly.

Yes I have. For Nature too is in mourning. So many rats drowned in the Weser, remember, just a few days before Easter. Why should they wish to drown when they can swim?

Nature in mourning manifests its formidable and complex force in ways as unexpected as God; it is as frightening and difficult to read. Impossible to tell when it is sorrowful or malicious or angry. And over what? These notions surfaced to torment the town anew in September of the following year when a shepherd’s dog, rooting about, found, beneath that magnificent oak at the fork of the path at the base of Poppenberg, a child’s skull.

Identity unknown and impossible to establish, but the moss on its bone was fresh and living; it detonated once more into vibrancy all the nightmarish befuddlement, the affliction and agony that, exhausted, had for some months begun to droop into some sort of death.

There is not much more left to tell.

Mrs Heimric, after her husband’s death, packed up and departed with her household and remaining child for Hanover where, in memory of her loss – and in hope of starting anew – she rechristened her son after his lost brother.

Twenty-three years later, Clara, Little Josef’s elder sister, left, upon her death, and at the suggestion of her brother, her considerable property to the only son of her first cousin.

The lost children passed into legend. They have remained alive, in song, fable, fairy tale, myth and poem, for over seven-hundred years. Rats were directly connected with them for the first time only a full two-hundred-and-fifty years after the event. The children deserve better.

And yes, Berta Heimric liked both the house just off Bungelosenstrasse and the personality and persuasions of little Father Josef. Overcoming her own trepidation and sustained by her mother-in-law’s nervous, enchanted support, two months later she gave birth to twins in that very house. The babies, a boy and a girl, hale and hearty and screaming from moment one, shattered forever the silence of the town, and thus it was that, slowly and laboriously, in ones and rare twos, the children returned to Hamelin.

 

Cover image a detail from Poznań, circa 1617, by Frans Hohenberg and Georg Braun

The Landlady
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