The Piper of Rats

My Dearest Virgilia,

I cannot tell you how delighted I was to find your letter dated 13 September in yesterday’s post. I am so glad to know that you are settling in well at Miss Warner’s Academy, and that you have already made new friends among your sister scholars. I was sorry to learn, though, of the forthcoming retirement of Professor Bettelheim. I urge you to pay close attention in her course, as she has much to teach you about the old ways.

Your Uncle Albert and I are currently enroute from Salzburg to Athens. We have received some most distressing news out of that city: our compatriots suspect that a nest of lamiai have taken up residence there and are preying on women in their confinement, and newborns. The Orthodox priests, of course, have proven hopelessly inadequate in dealing with the matter — after driving our compatriots from the scene with curses and guns and threats of arrest! The arrogance! It frustrates me to no end. This is something you must take care to remember, my dearest Virgilia, in your own dealings with outsiders: they have forgotten so much of the old ways and what they remember they treat as children’s fables or as delusions or as the work of the wrong Power, and then assume that they and they alone know how to handle the matter.

Bah!

This reminds me of a story your Uncle Albert and I were told some months ago. It was while we waited at the train depot in Kryczwk, some miles to the east of Warsaw. We were reading and comparing notes on the events in Vilnius, and enjoying a light repast of biscuits, jam, bacon, and tea in the depot’s small waiting room. Elsewhere in the room lingered the station manager (a most unpleasant man, as you will see), a young woman selling flowers and fruits, and a few farmers and businessmen, also awaiting the train. The weather was cool and crisp, and the sky sunny — had it not been for the occasional gust of wind, which threatened to tear our papers from our hands, we likely would have chosen to eat outside on the platform. As it was, our heads were bent together in conversation (your Uncle Albert still insists that we should have allowed the imprisoned laumé to take her revenge, while I argue that would have compromised the very essence of her being — but more on that in another letter) when the door was suddenly flung open, the wind blowing a whirlwind of leaves and dirt into the station, carrying along a hunched figure in a traditional bright red and yellow and white vest and full skirt, a white kerchief around her hair, a battered bag in her hands.
When the station manager spied her, he immediately began to shout in Polish and gesticulate in agitation, indicating that she should leave the depot post haste. She glowered at him for a long moment, rheumy eyes narrowed. The manager’s voice trailed away and the station was silent. Then, with a loud snort, he stomped away, slamming the door of his tiny office behind him. The old woman chuckled — cackled, really — and settled down on the bench across from us, her bag at her feet.
Now that she had moved closer, I could see that she was, indeed, old. Likely the oldest person I had ever met: deep lines carved her face and her eyes were red-rimmed and sunk deep in her skull, and the knuckles of her hands were painfully large. Nonetheless, her gaze was intelligent and her smile mischievous. I liked her immediately.

I offered her one of the biscuits and a flask of tea. She accepted them graciously, considering us while she chewed. After taking a long drink from the flask, and returning it to me, she introduced herself as Duša Szczur Falibor, and inquired as to our business and travels. We told her (as we do all outsiders upon initial introduction) that we were scholars of language and folktales and song, traveling the backroads of Europe collecting such and writing articles for academic journals, and so on. She nodded politely and, in a mixture of Polish, Russian, German, and English, indicated that she had a tale which might interest us. I relate it to you here, as I transcribed it into our journals.

***

Once, there was a village called Słodki Chleb far to the south in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains. It was so called for the wide fields of golden wheat which grew up around it, and with which the villagers made rich loaves of sweet, warm bread. The fields were fertile and the orchards were thick with fruit and streams of cold water ran down from the mountains and the sun shown in the sky, such that even during the harshest of winters, their pantries and their bellies remained full.

Then rats descended upon Słodki Chleb. Only one at first, then two, then a dozen, then a hundred. And the rats were hungry and began to eat the grain and the bread and the fruits of the field. The villagers despaired, fearing that they would go hungry. And they prayed to God to save them from this plague of rats — but it was not the God of the high heavens who answered, but the God Under the Earth.

He came to the people of Słodki Chleb, in the garb of a musician, a koza* slung over his shoulder. He came before the elders and all the people and their children and promised them that he would rid the village of the rats. And when the people offered him coin for his work, he declined. Instead, he said, you must build a shrine to Weles and keep a holy day in his honor.

And the people readily consented. But among them was an old man, old enough to remember the days before the priests of the God of the high heavens came, old enough to remember the God Under the Earth and the Star Sisters who guarded the sun and the Mother of Winter — and he knew that the man before him was no ordinary musician.

At dawn, the koza player stood in the square beside the fountain in the heart of the village. He put his mouth to the blow stick and began to play, and the music flowed through the streets and the buildings and under the ground. The elders and the people and their children watched in amazement as first one rat, then two, then a dozen, then a hundred came crawling and scuttling out of the ground and out of walls and attics and stables. And soon the streets were filled with a writhing, chittering black mass.
The musician began to walk, and then to skip, and then to dance, leading the rats out of Słodki Chleb, still playing his koza. Through the streets then up into the foothills and high up into the mountains, where they disappeared. The people cheered and applauded and, that night, held a great celebration, feasting until nearly dawn.
But the people forgot their promise to the musician — all except the old man. When the elders and the people of the village failed to build a shrine to Weles and to a set aside a holy day in his honor, the old man reminded them of their promise. But they just laughed and went on about their lives. So the old man built a shrine in his own home to the God Under the Earth, and taught his sons and their wives and his grandchildren the old rites and the old words, and every day they offered grain and beer and dance to the God Under the Earth.

A year passed, and, one day, the koza player appeared in the square beside the fountain in the heart of the village. He asked the elders and all the people and their children: where is your shrine to Weles? Where are the offerings of beer and bread and song? When is your holy day in his honor?

The people shrugged and made excuses, laughed at him or ignored him. All except the old man. When the musician saw that the old man had a shrine to Weles in his home, that he and his family kept the rites and knew the words and honored the old ways, he gave the old man the hide of a rat, thick-furred and black, and told him to nail it above his front door.

The old man hastened home, gathering his sons and their wives and his grandchildren as he went, and nailed the rat hide above the door. And he locked the door and the windows and closed up the chimney, and sat down to wait.

With the setting of the sun, the koza player appeared again in the square in the heart of the village, and he began to play. But this time it was not the rats who were drawn by his song, but the children of Słodki Chleb. They came out of their homes and the stables and the fields and the church. They came dancing and singing. When their parents and grandparents tried to stop them, the children slipped away, bit and scratched and snarled.

The musician began to walk, and then to skip, and then to dance, leading the children out of Słodki Chleb, still playing, always playing his koza. Through the streets, then up into the foothills and high up into the mountains, where they disappeared.
In their grief, the people renamed their village Złamane Serce** and in their anger they drove away the old man and his sons and their wives and his grandchildren, who fled far to the north and east and took the name the God Under the Earth had given them***. And though the people of the village built a shrine to Weles and covered it in offerings of beer and bread and held a holy day in his honor every year, their children were never returned to them.

***

So you see, my dear Virgilia, why it is so important to keep true to the old ways and, just as importantly, to keep the promises you keep. The oldest of Powers still walk the world. Sometimes they are friends and mentors to us, sometimes they are enemies, sometimes they are merely different — but those who are friends can quickly become enemies if we do not treat them with the respect and deference which is their due.
We are drawing near to our first stop, in Zagreb. I shall post this letter there, and hope that it finds you in good spirits. And I shall, of course, write you as to what transpires in Athens.

Faithfully Yours,
Aunt Lillian
12 November 1857

PS If you have not discovered it already, go to the linguistics section in Tatar Library. Look for a small door on the eastern wall. It sticks so give it a good shove. Go up the stairs, where you will find a small room. The wards I set in place should still be there. You will find it a safe place to practice the many, many Latin incantations which Professor Zipes will require you to memorize.

A koza is a traditional Polish bagpipe, of which there are five basic types. The koza is recognizable for having only three drones (monophone harmonies), unlike the more well-known Great Highland bagpipe of Scotland.
** Złamane Serce: broken heart.
*** Szczur, Polish for “rat.”

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of EHS.]

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