It’s Time to Pay the Piper



Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.

Pied Piper illustration by Kate Greenaway

It’s time to pay the piper. We gather around the old wooden table. No one wants to pay, but it’s time. It’s one thousand o’clock. Everyone is here. The living and the dead. My grandparents, my mother, my father, my sons, my husband, the rabbis, even the president. You are here, too. Your teachers, your neighbors, your long-lost friends. Everyone you know is here. We put what we can on the table. Everyone must add to the pot. My sons leave wildflower seeds, my husband leaves a rose-colored pendulum, the president mutters and leaves ash, the rabbis leave ink marks scattered like sewing needles, my father leaves his stethoscope. I leave this essay. I leave my favorite broom. My grandfather leaves a small black key. My grandmother leaves her radiance. My sister leaves her hair. “I’m not paying,” says my mother. “I’ve paid enough.”

The earliest known version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is not a fairy tale, but a stained glass windowpane from a church in Hamelin, Germany, that was destroyed in 1633. Only a shard remains, which my nine-year-old son, Noah, pulls from his pocket and holds up to the light. It’s the piece of glass with the piper’s magical flute. The flute is bronze, and the light catches what’s left of the piper’s hands. Noah adds the shard to what we’ll use to pay the piper.

We miss the old sky. We think if we pay the piper now, the wildfires and the wind and the virus and the floods will swirl back into their wellspring, but the piper is missing. In a large dark sack, we drag our payment through the streets calling the piper’s name. Our heavy debt. Our hands are blistered and hot but we must pay the piper. We look for his red and yellow striped scarf and the pipe that hangs from it. We should’ve paid him long ago, when he emptied our town of rats “who bit the babies in the cradles … and made nests inside men’s Sunday hats, / And even spoiled the women’s chats / By drowning their speaking / With shrieking and squeaking,” as Robert Browning writes. We should have paid him before the sea levels rose and the polar bears thinned. We should have paid him before the first man was shot for the color of his skin, before the first wire barbed. But we didn’t pay the piper, so the piper made a new song for the children that promised “a joyous land … where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew.” We didn’t pay the piper, and so the children merrily followed him into a mountain, and a disappearing door shut fast when the last child was inside. Now there are no more children.

Now there are no more children, except for one hobbling boy left behind, who couldn’t dance into the mountain fast enough. There is always one hobbling boy left behind, to describe the song the children followed. He is the poet. And there is always one rat left behind to describe the song the rats followed. The rat is the poet, too.

On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar one hundred and one times. The blasts alternate between broken howls and long moans. According to the Talmud, the shofar should be a ram’s horn because it is hollow and recalls Abraham’s near sacrifice of his only son. It recalls Abraham’s blind devotion, which blurred only when an angel showed him a ram whose horns were caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham was ready to overpay the piper, but paid with the terrified ram instead.

The shofar we have is broken. My sons take turns blowing it, but all we can hear is silence. It is a beautiful silence. One day, when there are too many of me, that is the song I will follow into a mountain. We add the broken shofar to the missing piper’s payment.

“Do you ever feel like you’re dreaming while you’re awake?” asks Eli, my seven-year-old. “Sometimes,” I say. “Do you?” “Of course,” says Eli. “We are always dreaming. I am a dream and you are a dream and Papa is a dream and Noah is a dream. Our house is a dream and the earth is a dream.” I add Eli’s words to the piper’s payment. Into the sack it goes, instantly doubling its worth.

When the piper arrives in Hamelin he seems to have walked from his “painted tombstone,” like an ancestor rising on the “Trump of Doom” (or Judgment Day) to rid the town of a plague. “There was,” writes Robert Browning, “no guessing his kith or kin.” He is the Godot we barely had to wait for and then when he arrived he was the Godot we didn’t pay. Or is he God, or Guru, or Go? What was his name?

I do not consider myself a follower even though I have followed things up trees, into rivers, and across bridges. I have listened carefully. I have taken notes and memorized. I have followed instructions, and I have been obsessed. I have been indoctrinated as often as I have pulled up roots and left behind a trail of soil. Once, when I was nine, I was about to follow my father into a mountain when my mother held me back. “Your father,” she said, “is brainwashing you.” I had never heard that word before, but it sounded like “bewitched” and I liked it. “Look,” said my mother. And I looked. My father dipped my brain into a bucket, and sloshed it around in lavender suds. The water was cool and fresh, and it felt like heaven. He folded my brain over a clothesline to dry in the motherless sun. Over my father I was gaga. Over my mother I was un-gaga. “See?” said my mother. I didn’t see. Ideology is made out of appetite, and sometimes we are hungry to be famished. For a long time I followed my father’s hum. It never wasn’t love. All over my heart are still-glittering flecks from that song I followed. If the piper ever comes to collect payment, I’ll put the glittering flecks in the sack, too.

Not once have I seen my son Noah walk in a line with his schoolmates without falling behind or straying, without looking up at the clouds or studying the ants. For better or for worse, I remind myself, he is the poet.

How do we choose what to follow? Or what not to follow? How old is this song we’re now following, with its cracked notes and strange ways of stopping and starting? Are we, I wonder, like lemmings to the sea? “That’s a myth,” says my husband. “What is?” I say. “Lemmings to the sea,” he says. “Lemmings don’t march blindly to their deaths.” “But it’s an idiom.” I say. “If it’s not like lemmings to the sea than what is it like?” The news is on. The same president who added ash to the piper’s sack is rising in the polls, or pretending to rise in the polls. “Like humans,” says my husband. “Like humans to the sea.”

In 1958 Disney made a documentary called The White Wilderness to prove that lemmings commit mass suicide by jumping off seaside cliffs. But lemmings don’t. The documentary shows hundreds of lemmings jumping into the Arctic Sea, except they are not jumping and this is not the Arctic Sea. The filmmakers purchased lemmings from children, brought them to the Bow River, and placed them on a turntable to create the effect of a frenzied death march. The lemmings are falling but they do not want to fall. What is happening is not what is actually happening. The film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

I wonder what it must feel like to be one of those lemmings. I wonder what it feels like to have been caught and brought to a precipice to perform the myth of yourself. Or maybe that’s exactly what we are doing day in and day out. Maybe what we are doing is performing the myth of ourselves on a cliff to the tune of a missing piper’s song.

If you see the piper tell him we have his payment ready. I’ve added the dreams of a lemming and my favorite orange sweater. This sack is getting heavier and heavier. Tell the piper we don’t know how much farther we can carry it while calling for him by a name we’ve never known. It’s now one thousand and one o’clock. It’s now later than we ever thought.


Read earlier installments of Happily here.

Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim TsumWild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.