They speak of siren songs, but none as strong as the one that wended its way through our town, charming the birds from the air, causing church bells to toll as if weeping for their song could not match that of the Piper.
Or, that is what I was told. I am deaf, but was not born that way. That was yet another story my grandmother told me through the careful motion of her hands, guiding me to understand what I could not hear. When I was four, my father, after drinking in the public house all night, toasting the health of the Piper after losing my older brother, came home and beat me. He probably cursed me as well, but when I asked, my grandmother's hands drifted to her lap and remained there, silent, like two butterflies resting on a daisy.
I am a woman now, marked by my moon blood for two years. I have sat by my window, darning, mending, watching the children of the village leave.
Once, a mother thought to stop her son, dashing out into the street to gather him up in her arms. The Piper turned back, playing a fine gigue, I am told, and the son clawed at his mother until she was forced to let him go. She is blind in one eye now, and begs at the street corner, for her eye and son were not all she lost. She lost her mind to the Piper's song as well.
No one attempted to stop the Piper after that, and no one has children anymore. I am the youngest in the town, sitting at my high window, a position of honour for I am the last vestige of hope. If he cannot take me, perhaps another, my own child, they say, might survive as well, forgetting that my malady was not received at childbirth, but doled out by my own father. It is a wonder that others did not take to doing the same to their own children, but perhaps, since my father soon took his life after he was finished with me, it is not such a wonder after all.
I have watched the Piper for ten years now. He arrives just before evensong on the same day every year, like the return of the swallows to the steeple of the church, wearing the same clothing, flute at his lips. The town dies a little each time he arrives. Everyone pulls their shutters closed, locks their doors, squeezes their eyes shut, and prays. I alone sit at my window, high up in my tower room, and watch his passage through the streets. He stops below me, gazes up, stops playing, and stares at me with his sharp jet eyes, a perplexed frown creasing his broad, fine forehead.
I wonder why he does not come for the women of the town, as handsome as he is.
On the eighth year, when the first drops of moon blood soiled my bedding, he brought me a caged songbird, set it at my doorstep, and left. My grandmother's hands said it was a lark and that it would sing at dawn.
I set it free the next day.
On the ninth year, he set a globe, cut of the finest crystal, full of fireflies, on my doorstep. My grandmother brought it in, placing it on the mantle while admiring how it set my eyes ablaze.
I broke it open the next morning and the fireflies, ugly worms without their incandescence, fled through an open window.
It is the eve of the tenth year. This year, I will present him with a gift.
My grandmother died during the winter, her soul stolen by the rime of frost that seeped under the windowpanes. There is no one to talk to me anymore, no one that speaks my butterfly language, so I will go with the Piper and beg for him to talk to me, use me as he will, so that the townspeople might have children again.
He does not bring me gifts for nothing. I might not hear, but that doesn't mean that I haven't listened all these years. I know how men look at women, how pupils dilate with the flush of longing. I smell the sea-change of scent when lovers stand together, hand to hand, burning with a lust that they dare not consummate for fear of conception. I smell it on him when he gazes up at me, that one day a year, before evensong, when the snowdrops have faded, when blossoms paint the cobblestones, and the scent trails after him when he leaves, my own siren song.
# # #
I stand on the doorstep as the approaching night dusts the sky with mauve. The Piper approaches, wooden flute at his lips, a sack bouncing at his hip. I am dressed in my finest gown - blush silk flocked with tiny butterflies.
His eyes of jet widen when he sees me. He halts, tucks his flute into his belt, and makes a leg.
I curtsy, and wait.
He approaches, slowly, but doesn't move his mouth. Instead, he unfastens the sack at his hip, opens it, and sets a necklace in my hand. I fasten it around my neck, my fingertips grazing the sharp diamonds, and when he sets off, flute back at his lips, I follow, thoughtless, soundless, mute.
As the moon spills her pale light over the hills, we leave the city, passing under the thick heavy walls that demark civilization from the wilds. The Piper does not stop, nor does he stop playing. I follow him across meadows and fields newly sprung with green. Fireflies dance before us. The Piper never turns to see whether I am following, or if I have fallen behind. His cape sways, his step is light, and I am certain I would follow him to the eastern sea and beyond, if he spoke the words that I cannot hear.
He leads me into the forest, pass poplar and yew, into a glade dotted by ferns and moonlight. Only then does he turn, kiss my lips with such passion as to leave them raw and split, and fastens a blindfold over my eyes. I am left with scent alone and in this new world, the bouquet is strange, bewildering. His scent, oh, his intoxicating scent, is all I have left until he takes my hand and leads me on.
When he draws to a halt and removes the blindfold, we are standing before a cottage that gleams an eerie white in the moon's watchful light. She is the sole witness of this choice I make.
The Piper opens the door, beckoning to me. Come inside, his hands say, but his are not butterfly hands, but of ravens' wing, a murderous fluttering. Darkness leers out at me and for the first time, I wonder at my decision to follow this man away from my home. He steps inside, leaving the door open. A breeze stirs the trees, sending shadows racing across the cottage so that I see its walls are of bones: rib bones, thigh bones, tiny, tiny finger bones for the sills, the walls, the windowsills. The roof is a kaleidoscope of hair: bright red braids, silky waves of flaxen gold, the curls of a tow-headed boy, all nestled together, slumbering the deepest sleep above the Piper and his flute.
I step across the threshold, and he takes me in his arms, pulling the blush gown from my shoulders, exposing me to the threads of moonlight that filters in through the bone walls. He takes me to his bed and spills his seed within me. If I gave birth to his child, would he take her too, I wonder, as, spent, he drifts into sleep. My soul is full, complete, and yet, the thought of new life, so fragile, so precious, stirs me. I followed him for one reason, and this was not it.
As he sleeps, one hand drifts down, landing on the shoes that rim the walls. Carefully polished, neatly mended, little shoes that no longer dance, row on row, the children of his music. Each shoe holds a tiny carved pipe that was played once, but no more.
I slip from his bed, stealing across the earthen floor to take his flute in my hand.
I take one end in each hand, my butterfly hands, and break it across my knee.
I plunge one shard-sharp end into my lover's throat.
I plunge the other into his heart.
My gift to him, and to myself.