Ilse had never heard her mother cry, but she always knew when she was crying. When Ilse and Liesl were children, their mother never cried. There was no reason to, for she had two happy, beautiful girls. But when Liesl was taken by the Piper, it seemed that that was all she did.
Ilse often thought it unfair that Liesl was the one who’d gone and left Ilse behind. Liesl was more beloved—beautiful, golden, happy. Ilse was dark, and she made people uncomfortable. They said she was cursed; the other children mocked her, not that she could hear their hurtful words. The only people who were kind to her were her family—Mama and Papa and Liesl.
Mama baked bread and sang to them, though Ilse never knew what was being sung. But her mother placed Ilse’s little hand over her chest as she sang so that Ilse could feel the vibrations, and that was good enough.
Papa carved little wooden figurines for them and swung the girls up high in his arms. His beard was full and scratched at their smooth faces when he leaned down to kiss their cheeks.
Liesl was her twin, her partner in crime. The two girls would sneak tarts from the local baker and hide away in the outskirts of the woods to eat them, talking to each other with their hands in a language that only they understood. Liesl was the only one who understood Ilse. That was why it was so hard when she went away.
Ilse started at the tap on her hand. It was her mother, face streaked once more with dried tears. She tried to not cry in front of Ilse, but Ilse always knew anyway. Her mother never smiled, not since Liesl was taken and Papa went after her and never returned. It was just the two of them, Mama and Ilse. Ilse had soon stopped referring to her mother as Mama.
Her mother held up the water pail and motioned for Ilse to take it. She hadn’t realized that it was already time for her to go get fresh water, but she got up anyway and grabbed the bucket. Quietly, as she always did things quietly, Ilse put on her wool cloak and left the house.
Walking through the village was always an unpleasant experience. Before, when there were children, they would tease her by mouthing words like slow or freak or by making faces at her. Now, though, there were no children, only the parents who blamed Ilse for being with her family when their children were not. But they blamed the other ones, too, the other ones who didn’t follow the Piper.
There was Florian, who was born lame with a crippled foot. Both his father and mother fell sick the winter that he turned eight years old; they were dead before the snow dried up. When the Piper came, Florian was just a boy with a crutch who slept in the church’s doorway, a child that the town pitied but never cared enough to help. When Florian was found not even a mile from town, covered in dirt and his own tears, the pity turned to hatred, for why was this unwanted child saved while the town’s children were not?
Then, there was Abelard, who came down with scarlet fever when he was four that left him blind.
Abelard’s mother had died giving birth to him, so his father treated him like a lifeline, the only link to his lost love. Before, no one had dared lay a hand on the blind boy, fearing his father’s wrath. But when the town heard him calling out for help—for the Piper—and the other children were long gone, not even the threat of his father could keep him safe.
Ilse, however, had it the worst. They had found her sleeping in the forest, in a clearing. There were dried tears on her cheeks, and though her father had been grateful that she was safe, wicked things began to grow in the others’ hearts. For the townspeople knew that she had seen what happened, that she had followed even though she hadn’t heard. They hated that she had come back.
Ilse gathered the water rather quickly, for she was quite used to the burn in her arms as she methodically lowered and raised the bucket. She set the bucket down from its latest venture and wiped at the sweat gathering at her brow. She glanced around her, taking in the schoolhouse that had since fallen into disrepair. The wood was rotting, and it had turned into a grayish color all over. The windows were busted, and the front door hung off its hinges. Nevertheless, Ilse was thankful for the schoolhouse; it was the only reprieve that Florian got from the weather.
As Ilse examined the old schoolhouse, Florian hobbled out, his crutch underneath his arm. His gray eyes caught on hers, and he gave her a brilliant smile. Despite herself, Ilse felt her stomach flutter. As Florian made his way over to her, Ilse examined the boy who had somehow grown into a young man. His curly black hair was a mop that fell into his eyes, in desperate need of a haircut—she should have brought her scissors. He had grown tall and broad-shouldered; in spite of his lameness, Florian fought for work and did whatever came his way, no matter how difficult it was. Still, he was almost painfully skinny, subsisting off of the few meager meals that he earned and the ones that both Ilse and Abelard managed to sneak him. Neither of their families had much in the way of food, but they weren’t about to let their only friend starve.
Almost as if he had heard his name, Abelard came into view. Ilse watched his mouth move, most likely shouting something to Florian. Florian turned from her to yell something back and stood there, waiting, as Abelard used his walking stick to find his way to his friends. Where Florian was dark, Abelard was brilliant gold. His hair was like sunlight, and his eyes were the blue of the sky, though they were slightly clouded over, the only indicator that something about him wasn’t quite right. Everywhere he went, he lit up the room. When he was a child, before the Piper, he was the joy of the town. He was exuberant and bright and radiant. It broke Ilse’s heart at the way the town treated him now. She could handle the stares and the jeers, but Abelard was too kind and had lost too much for that.
Abelard reached Florian and gripped the hand that his friend held out. They moved slowly to Ilse, who smiled and sat down on the ground. Abelard reached a hand out to her as well, and Ilse took it, drawing a squiggle as a form of hello. Abelard and Ilse had the hardest time communicating, but that was also what made them the closest—they had both lost something, and that something caused judgment from others.
Ilse let the boys sit down beside her and drew her legs up under herself. They sat in silence for a moment, though every moment was silent to Ilse. Florian turned to her.
Today, he mouthed.
Ilse bowed her head. Yes. Today. There was a reason that her mother was crying.
A warm hand touched her arm. Ilse looked up to see Florian staring at her in concern. She bit her lip and shook her head.
Five years. It had been five years since she had lost her sister, since the town had lost its children. To her surprise, Ilse felt a tear form in the corner of her eye and leave a warm trail down her cheek. Florian reached up to swipe it away with his thumb.
Ilse. She watched his mouth form the words. She closed her eyes against his worry, against the sympathy radiating from Abelard. They both knew how hard this was for her—mourning her sister while staying strong for her mother, while being unable to show weakness in front of the town.
Florian’s hand left her cheek and moved down her arm to her hand, twining her fingers through his. Abelard took her other hand and held it to his chest, letting her feel the steady beat of his heart. Ilse took a shuddering breath and opened her eyes once more.
Fine, she told Florian silently. She watched as he repeated the word aloud to Abelard, who nodded and smiled once more. Abelard repeated the word as well. Ilse smiled slightly. She knew that they were all lying.
Ilse didn’t know how long the three had sat there on the ground, in the dirt, but eventually, she got up to return to her house with the pail of water. Her mother wasn’t home when she arrived, and Ilse knew that she had joined the vigil that the townspeople held every year on this night. Ilse’s mother never stayed with her on the night that Liesl disappeared, and Ilse was fine with that, for she had her own tradition. Ilse set the pail down next to the fireplace and left the house once more. She snuck past the church, where candles were lit and the townsfolk cried. She snuck past Abelard’s house, the one house in the village that had a fire going as Abelard and his father were not welcome at the vigil. She snuck out of the village itself, following the long path that led to the forest.
It was past dark now, the stars in the sky the only small source of light available to her. But Ilse didn’t need light for this part in her journey; she knew the way in her bones. It would forever be seared into her, like the scar in the palm of her hand from when she grabbed the wrong end of the fire poker as a child.
Ilse felt her way through the forest, letting the scratch of the bark against the sensitive skin of her hands keep her grounded in reality.
You’re safe, she told herself. You’re safe. You’re safe. You’re safe.
But Liesl’s not.
Ilse stopped cold in her tracks. She had reached the clearing. Her knees went out from under her. But Liesl’s not.
Ilse dropped her forehead to the ground and cried.
They had been playing when Liesl went suddenly, deathly still. Her eyes glazed over, her lips parted. She dropped the doll she had been holding and stood up.
Where are you going? Ilse signed. But Liesl didn’t respond. She turned and began to leave the house, Ilse trailing behind her on hands and knees, tearing at her skirts.
Liesl! Ilse wanted to scream, but she couldn’t. She simply stumbled after her sister as she left the house, joining a line of children that all had the same expression as Liesl.
Ilse whipped around wildly, searching for an adult, but they were all at the church for the town hall meeting. There were no adults to be found. And all of the children were following a man—the Piper, Ilse realized, the one who had taken his flute and made the children dance and the adults clap. Ilse never heard his music, but she knew it to be beautiful. He was beautiful. But now he was scaring her, and she couldn’t reach her sister.
Ilse trailed behind the line of children as they were led out of town, the Piper standing tall and proud at the front. She kept Liesl in her sights, her blonde head bobbing near the back of the group. As they walked, Ilse watched as first Florian, then Abelard fell behind. She watched as they opened their mouths and wailed, reaching for their quickly vanishing comrades. Ilse didn’t stop to help them, too intent on following her sister.
Ilse didn’t know how long they walked for. Her feet ached, and she wished to stop and go get her parents, but something told her that if she left Liesl now, she would never see her sister again. So Ilse continued forward, the world silent all around her.
She was surprised when the line began to slow and disappear into a darker part of the woods. She paused, hesitant, then marched forward as Liesl went into the veil of darkness. It was dark then, night having fallen quickly. Ilse couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, let alone the shine of her sister’s hair. Then, in the distance, there was a soft light. It was low and warm, yellow. It looked like a hearth, like the fire that Mama would make before setting the twins in front of it fresh from the bath. It was comforting.
And then it wasn’t.
As Ilse moved closer to the flame—for that’s what it was, the warmth flickering throughout the woods—she began to notice shapes. Rising, then falling, falling to the ground. Ilse could feel the thumps through her feet. It took only a few more steps before she realized what was happening, just as Liesl reached the fire and threw herself into it.
Ilse froze, still in the shadows. She watched as fire consumed her sister, burning through the ends of her hair. She had always compared Liesl’s hair to sunbeams, but now it was fire. Her skin melted and burned, blackening. Her body fell. The next child stepped forward.
Ilse threw herself forwards and heaved. Bile came up and tears stung the corners of her eyes. Liesl, Liesl, Liesl. Never in her life had Ilse wished more that she could hear, that she could speak, that she could scream. But she was as silent as ever. She picked her head up as the last child threw themself onto the pyre. The Piper walked a slow lap around the flames, coolly surveying the wreckage that he caused. Then, he left.
Ilse curled up on the ground and sobbed. When she finally managed to muster the strength to get to her knees, she found that the clearing was empty. There was no fire, no bodies—no evidence that anything had ever transpired. Heart empty, Ilse collapsed back onto the grass and closed her eyes.
Later, the adults would find her. Papa would pick her up and crush her to him. And he would mouth a word to her: Liesl? But she couldn’t tell him—she was forever silent. Perhaps that was the Piper’s final plan, to leave behind a select few children. The ones the world didn’t want.
Florian, the lame boy, who heard the siren call but couldn’t keep up.
Abelard, the blind boy, who heard the Piper’s song but lost his way.
And Ilse, the deaf girl, who didn’t hear the children scream but watched them burn.