I could have followed. The road to the mountain, made by so many feet, was obvious and wide enough. When they passed through the forest, they hewed a straight path over grass and through streams where none had been before; however, wherever the first untrampled flower stood proudly by the side of the road, I paused to admire it. In the middle of their passage, whenever a stone was kicked over exposing a wriggling earthworm beneath it, I stopped to watch it seek a different sanctuary. I was a distractible child, but I committed to memory each thing I witnessed in the forest that day.
Teachers ignored me while they had an opportunity to do so. I could not blame them--my attention was all about butterflies through the classroom windows that vanished whenever we took recess. When the schoolmaster pulled me to the front and swatted me while my peers laughed, I could only look at my situation with a dissociated anger--why is this happening, I would wonder, finding it hard not to blame the chipped edges of the wooden floorboards I was looking at while bent over the man’s knee. Classmates, their parents, teachers, and the master all expected the same end result from me--failure.
All of them are gone now. Providence was kind to me eventually; I’m a warden of this forest now. An influx of new neighbors made me essential. The trees are so dark at dusk, and no one can discern north from south in this part of the country. My memory of the path, a route of several hours heading southeast from town in nearly a direct line, made me best suited to the task of finding lost souls.
Until today, I did not dare linger on or re-enact the path made by the children. I always clipped it while navigating to quickly discern the cardinal directions, but I never walked it for long. A distraught parent, frightened by our town’s history and the absence of their seven year old daughter called for me. I found the child an hour away and an hour down that trail, even though the path was overgrown with vegetation from the first moment I dawdled along it as a child. I remember glancing back where more than a hundred bare feet had flattened the grasses, watching them bounce up again and rapidly mend broken stems.
I’m asking the flowers now whether something still calls to young children, but I know that the way is shut at Poppenberg. I watched my peers, always separate, always special, vanish into the mountain’s stone before I could reach it.
The flowers say nothing, of course. They only guide me. No one else is allowed to feel the pull of the mountain song.
I was nine when I walked with bloody feet back to town the night after, stumbling out of the trance. No one believed me, of course, even though they had scoured the countryside and found no other trace besides me. The prevailing opinion was that the children had, while the adults were in church, mutually decided to wade in the Weser but were swept away with a strong current. When they saw me and no one else, they knelt on the cobblestone streets and clutched their mouths and held their garments to their eyes, screaming through the fabric.
Around that time, I nearly died. The community held me responsible. My mother, a widowed woman, bolted our door and moved her bed against it to bar entry to the groups of men and women who waited with torches each night. I had thought that the cruelty of children was an isolated blossom, but I learned well that it grows from a sturdy branch on a stronger trunk. I don’t remember the faces of my peers as they taunted me--I do remember the expression on the man’s face when he broke the door of my house with an axe and reached through to grab my mother’s sobbing body.
Now, as I was then, I find myself drifting between the trees, lulled by a subaudible song played on pan pipes. This time, I am prepared. At a good pace, it takes less than a day to reach Poppenberg. I move through the forest with keen insight, crossing several new roads with an insatiable need to follow this one, rugged course to the end.
Eventually, the townsfolk believed me. The man responsible was differently garbed in my account than in their recollection. He wore a red hat, hunter’s clothes, and a tight lipped smile as he danced away from town with an entire generation of children--his pipes made the shrillest sound I had ever heard, but it didn’t hold me as firmly as other children once I started following him. Even with that trance, I could not stay focused. I had to touch every flower in the forest. After I was found, I told the warden where to go and he found the threads of shoes that fell to pieces on the trail, leading right to the mountain.
When I mentioned the pipes, adults shook their heads and mumbled about debts unpaid, growing pale. Young families started to move away, afraid that the town itself was cursed. The mayor died pining for his lost daughter, and most of the teachers and the schoolmaster left to seek employment elsewhere. Older teachers who could not survive travel became my tutors. It was then that I excelled as a student. Left alone, I ascended beyond my ascribed destiny.
My tutors are all dead now. My mother is dead. Nearly the entire town has either uprooted or perished, leaving behind empty houses for newcomers. I let them know about the Mayor’s last decree when they profess to know little about our small town’s grim history: in memoriam of vanishing children and young adults, there is to be no music, whether pipes or drums, on a street five minutes from and parallel to the Weser.
I make camp not thirty minutes from the foot of the mountain. In the night, as I drift into sleep, I can hear the crescendo of shrill piping as all other natural sounds leave my mind.
When I wake up, I’m there already. Even in a trance, I’ve still packed my bag. Now I produce my pickaxe and attack the stone. The pipes are strong. The trill of airy pitches in the instrument reverberates through my bones. Sliver and chunk of stone crack away from the rock as my blows fall upon it for each day of a severed youth. Providence was kind to me, but Providence left me behind.
I work without exertion. I was destined for this. Hours or days later, a hollowed sound begins to emanate with each strike. Finally, each crack of the pickaxe begins to reveal a cavern beyond the stone. The door to the children is ajar, at last.
Cautiously, I break enough rock to move easily in and out of the cave before proceeding. If I am to face the demon who danced into the dark, I must be cautious.
I move through the cavern holding a torch. It is dry enough that I can still see the undisturbed footprints in the dirt. I carry the flame at my side so that it doesn’t blind me to this and what lies ahead. Eventually the cavern narrows into a slim passage too tight to squeeze through. I reach for my pickaxe again but stop and listen. I hear, through the passage, something more than the throbbing pitches of the piper. There is a shuffling sound.
Leaning into the crack as far as I am able, I can see a faint light. I put out my torch to see it more clearly.
There is a man in hunter’s clothes and a red cap dancing while playing the pipes. He has two braziers burning dimly at his feet, and the light produced by these flames is terminated by hundreds of shadows that move in a circle around the dancer. It is hard to get a good glimpse until they slow their rhythm as the pipe pitches drop into a low, raspy moan.
The shadows slow to a stop and turn towards me. One face is illuminated across the fire. It is the skeleton of a young child with an extra row of undeveloped teeth visible in a brilliantly white skull.
When the piping ends, the shuffling recommences towards me. I can hear the sound of bones scraping against rock, squeezing and clamoring through the crack to grab at my cloak and clothes. The trance snaps away, and I run even though I have no torch.
The caves smash against my body again and again, and the sound of dead children scuttling across stone drives me harder. I see the light of day and lunge for it.
I return to the forest. The sounds do not abate in spite of the daylight. I begin running but quickly realize that nothing is familiar anymore. When the piping stopped, though it was always in my head, so did my memory of the path. No need for the piper to play when the last of the children has come to join the dance, I think, as I flee deeper into the forest.
If some traveller should happen upon this record, they should know that I eventually died. Where it’s found is a good indicator of how much I managed to travel before I was caught. Maybe I was lucky and died of exposure or hunger. Even so, even in a city when I can beg for an innkeeper to let me in for the night, I hear the rustling of bones in the alleyways outside the windows; my exhausted, fearful breaths play the pipes of death in my chest.