Fiction – “The Flute-Maker’s Daughter” by Jessica J. Lee
The flute maker was neither a young man nor an old man, neither a rich man nor a poor man, but he was a kind man, and he looked after his daughter, Alma, and their fat cat, Tambo, very well. They had a simple but comfortable life in a small cottage at the edge of a clearing in the woods outside of town. She spent as much of her time outdoors as she did in, washing their clothes in the creek bed, cutting wood to be cured, picking berries and herbs while Tambo crashed after a mouse or vole in the underbrush. The flute maker cooked for all three of them, and of course he made flutes – and panpipes, and pennywhistles, and once every year, a new toy for Alma. She had never known her mother.
After sundown Alma darned socks by candlelight, or combed the mats out of Tambo’s fur. She and the flute maker played the pipes together, or rubbed linseed oil into the drying wood of his latest instruments and set them by the window. Every once in a while they entertained guests in the evening; some came and went without looking at Alma, though one young man who wore a patchwork coat always ended his calls with some small treat for the girl and a twisted smile for her father. His visits left her feeling uneasy, and always afterward she dreamt of cold, dark places, of echoing cries and small, trembling hands clutching hers. She dreamt of tired legs and blistered feet, of strange, sweet music always in her ears.
On her sixteenth birthday, the flute maker sat down and held Alma’s hands in his. He said, “Alma, you have grown into a lovely young woman.”
“Thank you,” Alma said.
“I would very much like for you to be my wife.”
“But you’re already my father,” she reminded him, taking back her hand.
“No, Alma. I never was.” And the flute maker told Alma of how the young man in the patchwork coat had taken a rat-catching job in a faraway town, and how the townspeople had refused to compensate the young man for his work, and how the young man had taken their children as payment instead. How the flute maker had accepted payment in kind for the finely crafted instrument the piper played now.
“Still,” said Alma at the end of his tale, “you were as a father to me for many years. And I think it is about time for me to set off on my own.”
She said her goodbyes first to Tambo, then to the flute maker, then to the cottage that had been her home for as long as she could remember. The flute maker packed her a bag and held her too tightly before she turned away; he stood in the doorway with his hand upraised long after Alma stepped out of the clearing and into the woods.
In the woods there lived a witch, and it was to her that Alma went. She left a wedge of cheese wrapped in wax paper on her doorstep, then walked away to wait awhile. The sun had dipped low in the sky by the time the witch’s door swung open. When Alma went near again, she saw the cheese had gone. The witch’s hut was dim. Alma hesitated in the doorway, called out, “Hello?”
Someone whispered back, “Come in.”
In the corner there was a curtain laced with cobwebs, moth-eaten and worn. It billowed out with the words, as though from a great exhalation. When Alma pulled it aside, though, she saw only a full-length silver mirror so tarnished that her face reflected blurred.
“Where are you?” Alma called, softer still.
A tall dark shape shifted in the grime-streaked silver behind Alma’s form. “I am here.”
Alma whirled, but saw no one behind her. She turned slowly back to the mirror. “I’m looking for a piper. I don’t know his name. He wears a many-colored coat. He stole me from my family, a long time ago, from far away. He took others, too. I want to find them. I want to lead them home.”
“How do you catch a rat-catcher?” the witch mused aloud, her voice growing stronger. “You must play his tune. There is another flautist in these woods who comes from far away, like you, and it is the only tune he knows. But you mustn’t listen; he will kill you if he can.”
“Where can I find this flautist?”
“He will likely find you.”
Then Alma asked the most dangerous question to pose a witch, and the most dangerous thing to forget: “How do I pay for your help?”
The shape in the mirror moved again, faded and shrank, and Alma’s reflection became clear. “You already have.” And the witch smiled with Alma’s lips. “The flautist. He will need to be persuaded.” While Alma’s arm stayed still at her side, her mirror image reached up and traced an unfamiliar golden braid that lay across the base of her reflection’s throat. “It is slender, but it will hold.” Alma’s own hand encountered the same when she felt for it: its long lead dangled down her back beneath her dress, the braid hung around her neck like a noose. The witch said, “Good luck, Alma,” and watched her as she left.
True to the witch’s word, the flautist found her a few days thereafter. It was noon, and Alma sat with her back to a tree, dozing in the broad bands of sunlight that found their way to the forest floor beside the stream. He made no sound when he approached her; the first Alma knew of him was when he pulled the wad of cotton from her ear. “I played for you, but you never came,” he said softly. His breath smelled of copper and rotting meat. Alma stirred and looked at him. He lifted the ends of her hair, idly, with a gnarled horn flute. His skin was dusky, and his teeth were very sharp. “What are you?” she asked him.
He looked at her with hungry eyes. “Why, I’m a unicorn, pretty girl,” said he. He grinned and leaned in toward her throat.
“I’d love to hear you play,” she said loudly, over the drumming of her heart. He hesitated, his breath tickling her skin. “One moment. Let me get this,” Alma said, and moved as though to remove the wad of cotton from her other ear, but instead took the braided lead from around her neck and looped it swiftly around his.
He snarled and reared back, stamping his hooves, but the rope did not snap. He shook his knotted mane, but the lead stayed fast. He gouged chunks of bark from the tree by Alma’s head with his horn, but she sat firm, and her grip on the end of the rope did not loosen. Eventually he calmed, and eyed her with grudging respect. “Well played.”
“I think so, too,” she said. She stood, brushing off the back of her skirt. “My name is Alma. I want you to play for the piper, to bring him here. Please,” she added, because it never hurt to be polite.
“Why should I do this for you?” the flautist demanded.
“The piper is bigger than me,” Alma said. “He has more meat.”
He looked surprised, for a unicorn. “And after I do it, if I do it, you will release me?”
“Yes,” Alma said. “I will release you.”
“I won’t promise not to kill you,” he warned her, “and save you for a later meal.”
“I didn’t expect you to.” She looked him over. “You look more like a deer than a horse. Even more like a little goat with just one horn.”
“I’m not from around here.” He sounded grumpy. After a while he said, “I am called Shadhavar.”
Shadhavar led Alma to the crest of a high hill. He tried to yank the lead from her hands a couple times along the way, until Alma finally tied her end around her waist. He speared a rabbit on the end of his horn and brandished it at Alma, seemingly just to spite her, until she pulled it off and laid it aside on the ground. He stamped on the broken carcass, staring at her, until she dragged him away.
“Do you have something of this piper’s?” Shadhavar asked at last. “Something that he’s held?”
Alma drew from her bag a colorful necklace of small fabric flowers that the piper had left for her once, and wrapped it twice around Shadhavar’s horn. It looked as though it had been cut from the piper’s pied clothes. She wondered suddenly if the necklace had once belonged to anyone else she’d known, and didn’t know where the thought came from.
On top of the hill Shadhavar stood tall, his neck outstretched, and when the wind blew, it brought music. His horn was hollow, Alma realized, and perhaps because she held the golden lead, though the sound was beautiful, it did not move her.
She saw the piper’s coat first, moving between the trees. He climbed the hill without a word, his face blank, his pipe hanging from its cord around his neck. Then the wind stopped, and the music stopped, and the piper stopped too; he shook his head and looked at Alma in surprise.
“The flute maker’s daughter.” He smiled when he said it. “What are you doing so far from home?”
Alma noticed, not for the first time, that though the piper’s face was unlined, his eyes were very old. “I know what you did,” she said. “I know I’m not the flute maker’s true daughter. I want you to call all the other children, like you did when you stole us from our home, and I want you to take us back. He’ll kill you if you don’t,” she added, gesturing to Shadhavar.
The piper looked unworried. “Can’t do it, I’m afraid,” he said. “Most of the others died long ago. How many years do you think have passed since I left Hamelin? You were one of the last I brought out from under the hill. Do you think this is the first flute I’ve bought from that man? Do you think you are his first child?” He cocked his head and smiled sadly. “You speak of a home that no longer knows you. You want to return to a village that couldn’t even pay its rat-catcher his due. Those of you still living — who’s to say that your lives would be better there? Who’s to say I didn’t save you?”
“You hadn’t the right,” she whispered.
“But I did,” the piper said. “I don’t begrudge you for trying, Alma. And in a bit I’ll take you back home to your father, or to your husband, or to whomever he wants to be now. But that’s a dangerous friend you’ve made, and we’ll have to take care of him first.” He lifted the pipe to his lips.
Alma didn’t remember taking the meat knife from her bag, or unwrapping the burlap sheath from its blade. She didn’t realize she had walked toward Shadhavar until she felt her hand wrap around the base of his horn, covering the hole the wind could whistle through. She brought the knife to his throat, and she could feel him straining to pull free. But he couldn’t stop her without hurting her, and he couldn’t hurt her while the golden braid bound them together.
She remembered this feeling. Her hand was not her own. She thought, stop, and it kept moving. Then she thought, move, and the knife dipped a hair, though it still swung forward. Her hand could not disobey the command the piper played, but it could work around the details. She dropped her hand again, and again, and a final time before the blade was at Shadhavar’s throat, but the lead was between the two, and the knife sawed through it before it nicked Shadhavar’s skin.
He shouldered past her and bounded for the piper. The young-old man in the patchwork coat managed a final shrill, startled blast before the sound cut short, and he tumbled backward down the hill. Alma’s ears rang, and something warm trickled down her neck. She reached up with hands gone shaky from their white-knuckled grasp; her fingertips came away red. Below her, she could hear the piper screaming. The sound was still faint. She snatched his instrument from the grass and without peeking over the hill, took off running in the opposite direction.
By the time Alma reached her cottage, her hearing had returned. She stood at the edge of the clearing for some time, unable to step forward, unwilling to step back. She hadn’t known where else to run, but she knew she wouldn’t stay. Alma toed the grass, looking for a shadow in the windows. He’d been the only father she had known; she could at least look in on him one last time. She could at least pet Tambo, and give him a final scratch behind the ears. Alma hesitated at the door, her hand halfway to the knob. She decided instead to knock. There was an approach of light footsteps, then the door swung wide.
“Hello, Alma,” said the witch in Alma’s voice. “Your father went to town. He should be back by dark.”
“You!” Alma breathed, startled out of originality.
“Me,” the witch agreed, and shrugged, and had the grace to look apologetic. “You had a nice life, Alma. I wanted it. You’ll have to fight to take it back.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “You don’t want to fight me.”
“No,” Alma said slowly, “you can have it. I wanted to leave. I still do. But why… Who are you, really?”
The witch smiled again, and this time it brightened her whole face. Alma wondered if she had ever looked that happy. “I’m the flute maker’s wife.”
Shadhavar met her in the woods outside the clearing. His mouth and hands were stained. Alma tried to pretend that he’d gorged himself on berries.
“Running away again?” he asked, walking on two legs alongside her.
“Running toward,” she said shortly. “Are you going to kill me now?”
“Not hungry. Not yet.” He glanced at her slantwise. “You could have cut my throat. He would have let you go. You wouldn’t be in danger now.”
She shrugged, irritated and not knowing why, and slapped some brambles out of her way with the dead piper’s flute. “I made a promise. I try to keep them. Are you going to follow me until you get hungry again?”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Hamelin,” she said, but she didn’t sound certain even to herself, and the name left a sour taste in her mouth.
“You could follow me for a change,” said Shadhavar.
She looked at him, curious. “Why are you being nice to me?”
He looked straight ahead. “Perhaps I love you.”
“That was quick.”
“Life is short. And I said ‘perhaps.’ I may still eat you.”
Alma shrugged. “Lead on, then.”
“Maybe I should braid some twine together, and this time you can wear the chafing thing around your neck.”
She ignored him. “Where are we going?”
Shadhavar turned and offered her his arm with a half-smile. It might have been a princely gesture if it weren’t for the blood on his face. “Let’s find out.”
About the Author
Jessica J. Lee signed on as a navigator aboard a flying frigate before the crew noticed that she had no sense of direction. Disgraced, she was marooned in the American Midwest, where she read a lot of books and raised a lot of rodents and slunk away from the University of Iowa with a degree in English and a bunch of nerdy tattoos. She dropped her heart while backpacking through Europe, and because she neglected to sew her name into the side, hasn’t seen it since. But she finds that the hollow space it left behind is especially useful for storing keys and contact solution.
She currently resides in South Korea, and has a Twitter, http://twitter.com/noctilucalee. It is super fascinating.