Between Worlds

With Graham Greene.

You wanted only something hard and certain to hold against the flux when the dark sky of your childhood pressed its wet lips against the windowpane. The heart of the matter, you suspected, was conflict: between this world and the next, sanctity and goodness, but the connection between these defied reasoning. Wanting nothing of the graceless chromium world, only sainthood or damnation interested you, with their questions about unknown and unobtainable Heavens on the other side of death. Yours was a world in slant, angled like the posture of  a desperate man with courage to frighten the flock, in clumsy prayer. 

***

Today is the birthday of English writer Graham Greene (1904-1991), best known for his novels, which often feature characters in states of existential and moral crisis. In honor of this day, I spent time this morning with these two articles: Graham Greene’s Dark Heart (by Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, March 2021) and The Two Worlds of Graham Greene (by Herbert R. Haber in Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1957).

On Ratcatcher’s Day

It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.

According to the Robert Browning poem narrating the legend of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the 22nd of July was the day that the children of Hamelin were led away by the Pied Piper, as revenge against the townspeople who refused to pay the sum promised for ridding the town of its rats. As a result, this day is known as Ratcatcher’s Day. Learning this, I had to follow what breadcrumbs I could find.

“And so long after what happened here 
   “On the Twenty-second of July, 
“Thirteen hundred and Seventy-six:” 
And the better in memory to fix 
The place of the Children’s last retreat . . .”
–    Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

The clothes alone, let me tell you. They must have been made of stripes of six or seven different colors stitched together. 

For real? 

Someone must have really loved what he did with that pipe.

Well, those people should have paid him. 

It was the plague. Everyone was scared. Grief-stricken, too, but there was no time for mourning, what with the bodies piling up. They got angry instead, mean and stingy.

Show us the bodies! They said. But he had none. He had led the rats to the river. 

No one paid. So he played for the children next. They followed him and were not seen again.

To where?

Some say a cave.

I heard it was a mountain.

I heard Transylvania.

I heard the river.

Oh no! I heard what happened was that they decided to pay after all, this time triple the amount, in solid gold, and he brought them back.

Where was the last place they were seen?

“Pied Piper Silhouette” by Miki Jourdan on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

It’s called the street without drums. To this day, there’s no music or dancing allowed.

Yeah, but where does this story even come from. I mean, really?

There was a stained glass window in The Church of Hamelin. It’s gone now.

The window?

The whole church. Anyway, a record from the late 1300s reads, It is 100 years since our children left.

It could have been disease.

The Pied Piper as the symbol of death, the Danse Macabre.

Could have been a landslide, a sinkhole.

Might they have been recruited or sold to the German empire, to work the land in what is now Poland?

​It’s possible. There are legends of those who would lure people away. Children of the town could be, after all, a term that applied to anyone, regardless of age. 

What about dancing mania? 

A well-documented social phenomenon, a relief from the stresses of poverty.

Ah, St. Vitus’ dance.

Or ergot poisoning from spoiled crops.

St Anthony’s fire.

Could be typhus.

Or an ancient ritual, long forbidden, disguised as illness.

Suggestions abound. Answers are few. But what is clear is that there were risks far greater and more mysterious than the more familiar illnesses of the body. There were diseases of spirit, of mind, and while it was common among those who preferred pretend certainty over more fluid depths of understanding, to minimize or dismiss certain risks outright, it is worth considering the costs of these errors, the sudden silence that must have blanketed the town like a stifling and otherworldly heat, when it was discovered that the children were all gone.