When I was a child a mendicant man came to our village.
He wasn’t old, but everything about him was gray. His hair was the shade of dirty ashes and his skin greasy as old tallow. He wore weathered clothes washed of all color. All his possessions fit in a small shoulder bag that was as tattered as he was. My heart sank to look at him.
At that time my father was entering his dotage. A lifelong martyr to kindness, he was delighted when the mendicant man knocked at our farmhouse door to beg a bed of hay in the barn.
“Of course! Rest, by all means. I’ll bring you some bread and cheese.”
It was I who took the platter, of course. I found the man sitting against the barn wall with his feet resting on a sack of grain, a small wooden fife in his hand. He wiped a tear from his cheek as I entered, and gave a weak smile.
“Thank you, lad. You and your father are very kind.”
I nodded. “I’m Klement. Father says you can stay for a few days if you need to. Are you headed somewhere, sir?”
“Joachim,” he said. “And no. Not specifically. I’m looking for something that I can’t seem to find.”
“Treasure?” I asked.
He grinned as though I’d said something wonderful.
“Not quite. A tune.”
He raised the fife to his lips and blew a few sweet notes that made my chest swell with joy. Father played a lute sometimes, and we all sang as we worked in the fields, but this was different. This was divine. When he stopped playing my eyes filled with tears of disappointment.
“You like it?”
“Of course. It’s wonderful.”
“Yes. One day I’ll have it right, I think.”
“Then what will you do?”
“Entertain people. Children, like you. There’s a town on the other side of the mountain and I promised everyone there I would come back one day and give a performance they’d never forget.”
“Is that your hometown?”
“No.” He winked at me with one grey eye. “Not my hometown.”
He blew a few more notes and to my surprise I gave a little jig, feet scuffing the packed earth of the barn and raising a little cloud of dust. Up in the rafters, a mouse scampered.
“Perhaps when you have finished your chores you would come talk with me? I can play you something and you can tell me what you think.”
“Yes,” I said. “That would be just fine.”
I left the platter and returned to the house. Father was already asleep, our old mouser Grizzle curled atop his chest.
* * *
That evening I made my way back to the barn. Joachim had built a small fire in the yard for warmth and sat before it, the fife between his lips.
He smiled as I approached. Then he sent a few notes into the air, creating such a moment of elation for me that I gave a little skip and turn. Another trill and I was lightheaded, prancing dreamily over to the fire.
He looked pleased.
“Tell me,” he said, “what comes to mind when I play this.”
He piped, and it was as if I were slumbering amongst the roots of a riverbank tree.
I told him.
Another tune, and I was striding amongst the night-time clouds, able to reach my hand to the stars and pull them to me as I desired.
I told him.
“Good.” He stared into the flames, an odd smile on his face.
Grizzle came sniffing around and I scooped her into my arms, gray as she was, and beyond mousing.
“Fine old thing,” said Joachim.
“Yes. We need a new cat, really. There are more mice than ever around the farm these days. Rats, too.”
Joachim’s eyes sparked in the firelight.
“Perhaps I can help with that.”
He raised the fife and played a tune that was both lively and sad. It didn’t move me quite as much as the melody he’d played earlier, but it was still beautiful.
After a moment the night came alive.
A large brown rat ran across the yard and sat before Joachim, watching him carefully. Grizzle perked up, eyes wide, but I held her tight. Another rat came and then a half dozen mice, running together from the barn. Within a few dozen heartbeats there were scores of rodents pouring from the shadows and sitting by Joachim. It must have been every mouse and rat for a mile around.
Once they’d stopped coming, Joachim stood and, still playing, began to parade around the yard. The rats and mice followed him, a long column of them snaking in his footsteps. He led them round in a circle twice and then cut towards the fire.
He cleared the blaze in one long stride and without missing a note of the beautiful tune. The rodents, either unknowing or uncaring, dove straight into the flames. One by one they emerged, wreathed in fire, shrieking and bolting for the darkness. The yard was soon covered by smouldering lumps of scorched flesh.
Grizzle thrashed her way free from my arms and fled.
Joachim returned to his place by the fire.
“Now you have no more rodent problems,” he said. “And I’ve repaid your family’s kindness. It’s very important, young Klement,” and he winked again, “to pay your debts.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. I hoped Grizzle might come to rest against me like she sometimes did, but there was no sign of her. I consoled myself with the thought that the mendicant man would leave soon. He’d paid for his room and board, after all.
* * *
I tried to avoid Joachim the next day, but father insisted I take him a bowl of porridge for a late breakfast. I shut my eyes against the dozens of tiny corpses still littering the yard as I crossed to the barn.
Joachim leapt to his feet as I entered.
“I have it, thanks to you! All last night I was experimenting, composing, looking for the right combination. Every creature is different, you know?”
He raised the fife and played the most heavenly music I’ve ever heard, each note more perfect than the last. I sometimes hear it even now, faintly, its faded memory catching me at odd moments and bringing tears to my eyes.
I don’t remember what happened while he played to me that day in the barn. I know he left, and that I followed the piping, and that I danced because while the music lasted all the world was wonderful and perfect and right.
When he stopped, I was on the bridge over the little stream that marked the edge of the village. Joachim was on the other side, his tattered bag across one shoulder. He gave a bow and flourished the fife.
“Thank you, Klement,” he called. Then he dug in his bag and tugged out a coat stitched from many bright colours and slipped it around his shoulders.
I watched as he walked towards the mountain. I longed to hear the fife play once more, but somehow knew that if I did, I would never see my home or family again.