Long ago, in a tiny German village, there lived two children named Amalie and Piper.
Piper had another name once, but his uncanny musical talent led people to call him ‘Piper’ so often that they forgot it. One day, two boys found Amalie and Piper as they played under an apricot tree.
“Hey Piper, I heard you were so creepy your own mom abandoned you!” one sneered.
“If it weren’t for Amalie’s parents, you’d be dead!” the other added.
Piper froze. Beside him, Amalie’s eyes flashed. “How dare you?!”
One boy flinched, then hung his head in shame. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Come off it Markus!” the other boy snickered. “You afraid Piper will call a rat to bite you?”
“Forget it, Anton,” Markus muttered. “Let’s go.”
But it was too late.
“Piper, no!” Amalie cried, but he’d already played a high, shrill melody. Suddenly, the air came alive with buzzing wasps. The boys dashed off, shrieking. Satisfied, Piper set his pipes back down.
“Piper!” Amalie sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t be so vindictive.”
“They started it.”
Years passed. One day, Amalie spotted her best friend in the doorway, dressed in his best suit and clutching a rose in one hand. “Hello, Piper!” Amalie smiled. “What’s the big occasion?”
“Amalie,” Piper said, “I’d like to ask you something.”
“Hmm?” said Amalie, not really listening as she swept the floor.
Piper took a deep breath. “Amalie, I was wondering… I mean…well, I was just thinking…”
“For heaven’s sake, Piper, what is it?”
“…Will you marry me?”
Amalie froze. “Oh, Piper,” she said after a pause. “I meant to tell you…Markus and I are engaged.”
“Markus?” Piper’s face darkened.
Amalie frowned. “Stop it, Piper. Markus is a good man, and I want you to get along.”
Piper paled. His hand convulsed, and the rose snapped. Without a word, he marched out the door.
“Piper, wait!” Amalie ran after her friend. But when she reached for him, he flung her aside.
“Piper! Please,” Amalie said. “You’re my best friend—”
Piper stopped. “No, Amalie. I’m nothing.” He tossed the broken rose on the ground and crushed it under his heel.
Time passed, and one day, Amalie gave birth to a baby boy named Hans. The child was perfect—except for his right leg, which was irrevocably twisted. Despite his disability, Hans’ parents loved him. Markus made him a cane for his leg, and Amalie sang to him every day.
Because of his leg, Hans couldn’t run and play easily, so he developed his musical talent instead. The other children sometimes laughed at Hans’ twisted leg. But Hans would only smile, then play so sweetly that they’d fall silent in shame.
One day, Hans came to Amalie with a question.
“Mother,” he said, “did you hear any strange sounds last night?”
“What kind of sounds?” Amalie asked.
“Pipes,” Hans replied. “They sounded…magical.”
“You were dreaming, darling,” Amalie replied. “How—”
They were interrupted by a scream. “Rats!” a distraught woman exclaimed, running past. “Hundreds of them are headed this way!”
Not far behind, a mottled sea of vermin roared down the street. In seconds, the rats converged on the village, and began eating everything in sight—nibbling on the fruit, the vegetables, and the toes of little children whose parents didn’t whisk them away fast enough.
By the end of the week, the villagers were desperate.
“Can’t anyone end this plague?” The mayor wailed at an emergency village meeting.
“I can,” said a voice by the door.
Everyone turned. The newcomer had blond hair and glowing black eyes.
“Piper!” Amalie cried.
Piper ignored Amalie. “I can destroy your rats,” he addressed the crowd, “If I’m paid.”
“Anything!” the mayor promised.
“Thirty thousand marks,” Piper demanded. “Or you will pay with something infinitely more dear.”
Everyone gasped. The entire village’s treasury did not contain that much. But they had no choice.
“Done,” the mayor said. Piper smiled as he reached into his pocket for a set of black pipes. Everyone fell silent, entranced, as Piper played.
Then someone broke the silence. “Look!”
Outside, a sea of rats scampered toward the ocean, leaping to their deaths amidst crashing waves. When the last rat had drowned, the villagers burst into applause.
Piper smiled again. “Thank you,” he said. “And now, my money?”
“Erm…” the mayor stuttered. “Well, the rats ate everything…it will take time to raise money…”
Piper’s face darkened. “You mean,” he said quietly, “that you won’t pay?”
“No, no!” The mayor cried. “Of course we will! But…”
Piper glared. “So be it!” Then he vanished.
The next morning, wailing filled the air. “My children! My children!” mothers cried as they searched in vain for their missing offspring. But every child under eighteen had disappeared. Amalie, too, panicked when she could not find Hans.
“It was that Piper!” someone accused. “Let’s find him and make him give us our children back!”
The men organized a search party. But there was no trace of Piper or the children anywhere. They searched all day and night, until, around dusk, the searchers bumped into Hans.
“Hans!” one man called. “Where are the others?”
Hans was weak with exertion. “I don’t know,” he rasped, leaning on his cane. “They were too fast for me.”
“Where were they headed?”
“I don’t know,” Hans repeated. “They were following the piper. The music…”
“I knew it!” One man groaned. “He enchanted them. But why?”
The men returned sadly home, carrying the exhausted Hans. When the women saw them coming, they raced to meet them, and Amalie eagerly took Hans. But the women’s excitement turned to disappointment when they realized that the rest of the children had not been found.
That night, a familiar haunting melody awoke Hans. He quietly picked up his cane and stole out of the house. After walking for hours, Hans spotted a tall, lanky man with ebony pipes. The music stopped.
“I know you,” Hans said. “You’re my mother’s old friend, Piper.”
“At your service,” Piper acknowledged with an ironical bow.
“You sent the rats, didn’t you? So you’d have an excuse to kidnap us.”
Piper laughed. “Clever boy!”
“Where are the other children?” Hans demanded.
Piper smiled. “Come.”
He led Hans to a large boulder at the base of a mountain. Piper played a complex melody and the boulder cracked open. When they passed through, Hans saw the children huddled inside, cold and hungry.
“Help!” They cried, reaching out.
Piper grinned maliciously, and played his pipes, sealing the crack.
Hans whirled on Piper. “What are you going to do with them?” he demanded.
“It’s not as if I want them, the spoiled brats,” Piper said.
“What do you want?” Hans asked.
“Yes. Amalie and I were best friends. If things had gone as planned, you’d be my son. But I was discarded.” Piper spat. “This past decade, I’ve been learning black magic from a brilliant sorcerer. But I’m getting old. I want to pass on my wisdom to someone. And who better than my dear Amalie’s only son?”
Hans said nothing.
“Of course,” Piper continued, “your disappearance will break your mother’s heart. But no matter. My heart was broken once, and I survived, didn’t I?”
Piper shrugged. “Still, I cannot teach an unwilling student, so: Will you come with me? Or do I have to imprison you?”
Hans looked down. “I will come.”
“…if you let the children go.”
Piper laughed. “Impossible! Their parents hated me…” he trailed off. “In any case, I won’t do it.”
“Then you’ll leave them to die?” Hans said, horrified.
Piper tapped his chin. “Hmm…yes, I suppose I will. Come, we must be off.”
Hans drew back. “Not until you free them.”
Piper sighed. “I told you. If you won’t come voluntarily, I’ll leave you with them.”
He raised the pipes to his lips…
…and Hans struck him. Lifting the stout walking cane his father made, Hans swept Piper’s feet out from under him. Piper hit his head against the ground and fell unconscious.
Hans grabbed the pipes, playing from memory what Piper had demonstrated. As music filled the air, the boulder cracked and widened. The children, weak with relief, scurried quickly through the opening. But as the last child stepped outside, a voice arrested them.
Piper limped toward the opening, holding his bleeding head.
“Stop!” he cried again. “I can give you power, riches. I can heal your leg!”
“That’s right,” Piper coaxed. “Give me the pipes. I will heal you, and no one will tease you for your differences again!”
Hans closed his eyes. When he opened them again, they were full of pity…and resolve. “That’s where we differ, Piper,” he said. “Because my difference isn’t my weakness. It’s my strength.”
Then he brought the pipes to his lips and played.
Everyone wept when the children reunited with their parents.
“Piper’s still in there,” Hans said once the sobbing subsided. “He’s trapped in the tunnel.”
“Let him rot!” someone growled.
Hans shrugged. “If you won’t go, I will.” Markus and Amalie hurried to follow their son as he limped away. The other adults looked at each other in consternation. Then one child broke away from her father and followed Hans. One by one, the others followed, their perplexed parents in tow.
But when the villagers reached the tunnel, Piper was gone. Confused, they turned to Hans.
“Where do you suppose he is?” Amalie asked.
“I don’t know,” Hans mused. “But wherever he is, Mother, I hope he’s learned to let go of his hatred and be happy.”
Amalie smiled and hugged her son. “Me too.”