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.  

Phobias

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.

One of the books I keep on my nightstand, within easy reach of my morning-coffee perch, is The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. There’s a prompt for every day of the year. Four out of five times I may read the prompt and go, “Huh. That’s cool,” and move on, and I keep checking. While not all prompts will resonate at a given time, all are technically doable, and there’s a wonderful variety. It is from this book that I developed the habit of checking to see what happened on this day in history when I’m looking for a practice exercise, and also of checking Craigslist for ideas. It’s a gem with a beautifully simple format. Today’s prompt is to consider the theme “phobias,” which is something Aimee Nezhukumatathil does so interestingly in her poem, “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.” That sounded like something I could do today, so here it is.

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.
Not the car exactly but riding in one.
Those figures that look human, but
aren’t. Thunder, of course, and lightning.
My grandfather, anticipating this fear, would
announce, when a storm came, Angels! They
were bowling, he told us. 

Some fear books; others, amphibians.
I sometimes have nightmares about steep
slopes. Time itself, the mirror, ridicule. I
can’t help but think these go together. The
confined space. Knees, even. Whole groups
of others: men, women, beautiful women,
teenagers, children, clowns. The ill, and
doctors. Touch itself, the color white, the
color black; small and large things. Death
and dead things; the figure 8. Weight gain,
paper. School seems like an obvious choice;
I hadn’t considered the color purple. Sleep,
holes, speed.

I read the list, impressed with the specificity
of options. Admiring, even, but I wonder,
what is the word for this ever-present knot,
this constant quaking from the inside out,
easier to hide than to still? When small, I
was not afraid of most grownups, only of 
having to become one, because while it
was clear that there would be expectations,
it was not so clear what they were. A common
concern was driving, how it was that my mother
could remember every turn, mostly, to all the 
endless places we went, and still get back home.
It saddened me to know that when my turn came
behind the wheel, I would probably disappear.

Unless! I brought breadcrumbs to leave a trail,
but consider Hansel and Gretel. They were careful,
but the birds ate their intentions home. The fire
of the oven, waiting in the dark woods, this is
what kept me in knots, the way I could stumble
and be cooked alive. But it wasn’t on the list, 
so maybe I dreamed it, as with other things,
Just butterflies, the growns would say, as though what
was happening was the flutter of iridescent wings
of a colony of new-transformed lives, ready to 
fly from this body’s own dark.

The Large Bathers

I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

A person much better schooled than I am in the subject of art history recently observed that Cezanne was obviously frightened of women. I thought of his large nudes and my first impulse was disbelief based on the forms he painted; based on The Large Bathers alone, but then I looked again and saw what might have been immediately apparent, had I been less than thoroughly schooled in the superiority of binary notions. As in, an idea that the beautiful and the terrifying live in opposite poles; an idea that an artist’s preoccupation is the familiar and never the unknown; the idea that knowing well somehow cancels the haunting aspect of mystery. 

Schooling in the superiority of one thing over another is a very different thing from being schooled properly in the anatomy of a body of interconnected parts, in which even the poles of a supposed binary are reliant on one another for existence. For example, it is possible (and even likely) to be raised Catholic and read very little of the Bible beyond the red words. But then you look more closely, and you see how he was with the women and with the sick and the dead and you learn much later – by this time, you are actively looking, following a hunch and the wisdom of scholars who have managed not to sever their minds from their hearts–– that the most concise truth in Biblical letters is: Jesus wept. This at the death of Lazarus, when he knew he would raise him–– or perhaps he came to know this in weeping for his friend. You look at this liberator, his patience with the lepers and the new-dead sons, the accused whores left for dead and the tax collectors, and the Roman soldiers, and even Pilate himself who had little choice, and you think, here is a capital-M man, in an actual body, bound to be hunted for execution by the forces feeding on obedience of the same lowercase men holding a jagged rib like a shiv at Eve’s naked throat, and the fact that this was obscured so thoroughly hits with all of the imagined weight and pressure of the first nail.

Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers,  Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, posted by jpellgen on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license. 

Then I look at the nudes again, and I see it, the way that naked truth becomes the terror in the night, how most of the time someone claiming to want it is just dropping coins by mouth into a coffer at an expected time, a fee more commonly known as lip service, which might be more aptly described as the words spoken in the name of an embodied mystery which has been bound and gagged prior to the press conference. I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.