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art by Shothot Designs

The Piper

Mai is a working wife and mother who spends most of her free time either writing, reading, or trying to remember what she forgot to do while reading and writing. She loves cheese, chocolate and fantasy novels. Her greatest aspiration growing up was to find a unicorn, but becoming a writer was a close second.
The clock tower rises above the city, its bricks stained black. The hour hand rests against the curve of the eight, and the minute hand points due east, toward the wall where the forest creeps along the perimeter. The hands do not change. The cogs have long since melded with rust and rot, and the tower bells are silent.
Haunted, some say, as if it is an anomaly among the other buildings, the decay that reduces stone to dust and myriad cracks, thin like the legs of spiders.
But maybe they're right. Row likes to think so.
She watches the clock tower at dusk, watches the mist climb the walls and ripple across the weathered face. She sees how the hands gleam in the waning light, an illusion cast over discolored copper. At the crown of the tower, the mist breaks against the keel of a ship, plumes of gray that ride the hull and fill the phantom sails.
And she sees the boy. The boy who flits between the husks of houses, their jagged beams like the ribs of the city jutting out from its gutted earth, dry and cracked and hollow. She has only seen him in her periphery: the flutter of his coat tails, the impression of yellow curls, and a flash of silver in his hand.
"A healthy imagination, if nothing else," her father says, when she mentions the boy.
In the evening, her mother kneels at Row's bedside and cups her hands tightly. She says, "Don't look, Rowan. Please. For mama. Don't look."
Most others tell her she's mad, that her mind's gone rotten. Row spends one morning tossing stones over the wall, and when she considers climbing over to retrieve them, wonders if she should worry that they're probably right. She rubs the ache in her chest and doesn't let their words bother her. Row doesn't let a lot of things bother her.
Some believe her though. Some of the children have tried to see the ship, and they come to Row with questions, hungry for answers like beggars grasping at her pockets. They don't understand why they can't see.
It's simple really. They're doing it wrong. As soon as the sun touches the western hills, they scurry home like rats.
But Row waits. She waits and watches and is not afraid.
Row sneaks away from her chores in the afternoons. She follows the cracks that thread the cobblestones, toe to heel.
This one leads toward the square, at the center of which a hulking fountain sleeps, the stone green with mold. Several inches of murky water remain in the lower basin. On the upper tier, a wingless cherub balances atop a globe, its chubby fingers outstretched.
Jean, her little sister, traces Row's footsteps and hums a tune. Jean is only eight, three years younger than Row, and keeps to Row during the day like a second shadow. Row smiles and turns away from the breeze that stings their eyes.
"The sun is setting," Jean says. But she isn't watching the sunset. She's looking eastward.
At dusk, the mist crawls from the forest, heaves its bloated belly over the wall, and unfurls across the city. The dust rises and skitters beneath locked doors.
Her chest aches. She brushes her fingers along her collarbones and fails to contain the need to cough. Her entire body shudders; her throat feels raw.
"Row, we have to go." Jean tugs at Row's sleeve.
Row waves her off, the back of her hand against her mouth. She manages to say, "Go ahead. I'll be right behind you."
Jean bites her lip. Row can see it in her face, in her wild look and bloodshot eyes: she knows Row is lying. But daylight has dwindled to a glow on the horizon, and this is not the first time Row has stayed out after dark. Jean's footsteps echo in the empty street.
Row scuffs the toe of her shoe against the spindly path she'd been following, and watches the clock tower with wide eyes, not yet daring to blink.
The silhouette of a ship appears through the haze, sails billowing around a lonely mast. Above the stern, great cogwheels spin in languid rotation, the teeth winking in and out of focus like starlight. She squints, but the image blurs, shimmers once in the dying light, and then vanishes.
At the edge of her vision, the heel of a boot.
Turning, she scans the cobblestones, the buildings softened by the fog. She picks up her feet. Halfway back to her house, there is movement to her left. She stops. For a long moment, she doesn't turn, and the boy doesn't move.
"Hello?" she says. Her heart hammers in her chest, and she isn't sure why.
"Hello." His voice startles her. It resonates all around her, behind and above and below. But still he stands there, at the corner of her eyes.
"My name is Row," she whispers, and shivers. Chilled air breathes goose bumps up the skin of her forearms; it slides beneath her sleeves to brush the insides of her elbows. The nights are always cold. Not the brisk kind that encourages her to tighten the buttons at her collar, but the kind that reaches into her lungs and rattles her insides. And the dust. The dust is cloying, gathering in her nostrils and at the corners of her lips.
"Yes, I know," he says. He shifts. Something in his hand glints metallic in the dull light of the nearest lamppost. She wants so very much to look.
"May I--"
"Rowan!" Her mother's cry intrudes on the silence.
Row's gaze darts first to her mother and then the boy, who has vanished. She spins, searching, even as her mother drops down at her side and grips her shoulders, nails biting like the cold.
"Rowan," she says. Her voice shakes. "What are you doing?"
The ache in her chest tightens, claws up her throat. She averts her face and coughs into her shoulder. Her mother's lips flatten, and she pushes to her feet, pulling Row along behind her.
Her father is in a rage, but that's nothing new. Far less interesting than flying ships, to be sure. Row waves to Jean, who watches through the sliver of her open door as their father hauls Row down the hall, and their mother weeps in a pile by the front door. He shoves her in a dark room, steps in and turns the lock.
Row stares down at her knuckles, listens to her father's heavy breathing as he slides the belt from his pants.
She isn't afraid.
Everything corrodes in the dust that blackens the walls of the city, the dust that coats their mouths and turns their food bitter. The spreading decay that burrows into their eyes and ears like worms, eating through fibrous membranes and bubbling the soft tissue of their brains.
The city is dying. Everyone is dying.
No one in the city remembers a time before the clock tower fell silent, but there are stories. When Row was younger, her mother used to plait Row's hair, black and thick like her own, and tell her about a time when the forest beyond the wall was young, little more than a grove of saplings. The road, she said, had once led through to a castle with white banners and glass towers that disappeared into the clouds.
Like most tales, inside the castle lived a prince, beautiful and sweet and lonely. Row knows the story and nearly every variation of it. In her mother's story, the king was mad and had locked the prince away, letting the kingdom fall to ruin. Others tell it differently, insisting that it was a sorcerer who imprisoned the prince. Still others say it was the other way around, that the prince had gone mad with loneliness and the king's sorcerer locked the prince away, the prince's bitter hatred cursing the kingdom and its people. Some even say the prince and the sorcerer were one and the same.
Either way, Row knows the tales. She imagines the road before it was closed, before the forest overtook it. She imagines the wagons that roll across the cobblestones with the quiet tick-tick-tick of inner workings, the name of a distant city painted along its sides. She imagines the clock tower as it might have been before its repair had been forgotten like the city. She imagines climbing it, scrambling up to its roof and boarding the ship, which would sail her away to glass towers and castles in the sky.
"May I look at you?"
The boy laughs. It's a lovely sound. "Do you know what you're asking?"
"Just a look. I promise I'll be quick."
"You're limping."
She smiles. It pleases her that he notices. Her legs smart, but no more than her chest. "It's nothing."
"Does it hurt? Shall I play you a tune?"
There it is again: that flash of silver in his hand. He's moving, but she doesn't look lest he disappear again. She only realizes what he's doing when the first note hovers in the quiet night. The mist sways around her, cold fingers smoothing along her wrist, as if asking for a dance.
"A flute," she says.
He continues playing, the melody slow and lilting and as clear as if he stood directly at her side. It wards off the chill, conjures smoky images of turning cogs and ticking clocks in the mist.
"It's beautiful," she says. It's also familiar.
In the morning, after their parents have left, Jean is in the sitting room wiping away the dust that has slipped in overnight. She is humming.
Row crosses the room and slaps the rag from her sister's startled hand. "You've seen him, haven't you?"
Jean shakes her head, hair falling into her eyes. When Row reaches for her, she shuffles back and stumbles against their mother's rocking chair.
"Don't lie to me! You were humming his song just now. And the other day as well."
No one else is meant to have seen the boy. No one but her. He is her secret, her wraith, her only sanity in a city gone mad. Him, and the ghost ship, and the crumbling clock tower that shines like polished metal at dusk.
"I swear, I haven't seen him!" Jean says, cowering behind their mother's chair. "I... I only heard the song. It was so very lovely."
Row digs her fingers into her thighs, the wide-eyed fear in Jean's face enough to rein her anger even if her entire body trembles from the restraint. She has never felt such fury before, not even at their father.
Something twists in her chest, pain sharp and agonizing as if her ribs have collapsed. Perhaps they have, she thinks as her shoulder collides with the floor. Perhaps her innards have deteriorated, reduced to so much bile and pus by the poisoned air she breathes every night. Someone is shouting her name--Jean? Or maybe it's the boy, whose disembodied voice still lingers at the back of her mind even after he has gone.
All is silent. Except for the sweet tune of a flute, barely audible.
Seven nights later, when the house and the city have fallen silent, Row climbs from her bed and puts on her shoes.
Music floats up from the street outside her shuttered windows, faint and reedy like wind whistling notes in the slivers of withered eaves.
She drapes her mother's shawl around her head and shoulders, and steps out into the night. She picks the nearest crack in the road and follows it north, away from her house, away from the fountain and its lonely cherub, away from the aging wall and everything it keeps in.
When the music fades, she stops. She stands at the border of the city, where the dirty cobblestones segue into simply dirt, clumped and ruddy like clay. Here, the weeds have overtaken the path, so dense that it has become a single entity, a hopelessly tangled net stretching up the path to grasp at the tired wooden doors of the clock tower.
To her left, she is given the brief impression of yellow hair and the curve of a pale cheek before he steps out of sight.
"Are you angry with me?" His voice flutters around her, quick and elusive.
"Yes," she says, because she has kept to her room for a week and doesn't know if, in the end, it punished him or herself. "I thought you were mine. You're not supposed to play for anyone else."
He laughs. It's still as lovely as the first time. It makes her want to forgive him. "I'm sorry."
She toes the curling tip of an overgrown weed. "Are you really?"
"Of course."
His immediate response makes her smile, in spite of her desire to remain upset. "I'd be willing to forgive you... if you showed me your face."
The silence stretches on for so long that she fears he's left. Perhaps she shouldn't have pushed the issue. Disappointed, she tightens her mother's shawl around her face and begins to backtrack, when his voice sounds again.
"If I show you my face," he says, and Row goes completely still. "Then you must come with me."
She waits for him to clarify. When he doesn't, she says, "Come with you where?"
"I would have shown myself to you, Row. Very soon, in fact," he says. There is a buoyant quality in his tone, as if he is pleased with something. "But you've made it easier."
"I don't understand." Her chest is beginning to ache again. She tugs the shawl over her face, but it does little against the frigid air seizing her lungs.
"I think you do," he says.
And then he begins to play; the dulcet notes drape around her like a cloak, casting the chill from her bones. Before her, the mist parts, drawn back like curtains.
The weeds at her feet shrivel and unwind, reeling back into the earth. At the crest of the hill, the tower stands proud, its handsome brick walls adorned only in the ivy crawling up from the hedges. The clock face reflects the glow of an invisible moon and, above it, the slanted roof serves as a dock for a massive ship, its tall white sails and glittering clockworks illuminating a night sky clearer than any she has ever witnessed.
Then the music stops, and the mist snaps back like shutters slammed shut. Everything returns to dust and decay.
Row turns to look at the boy, but he's gone.
Her father catches her sneaking back in. When she sees him, she pulls her mother's shawl from her head, folds it on the rocking chair, and lets him wrap a fist in her hair. She doesn't cry.
She spends the rest of the day in bed, curled around her pillow and the sharpening ache beneath her ribs. She dreams about a ship with a figurehead in the image of a girl, flowing hair and feathery wings extending back to frame the base of the bowsprit.
Her mother coaxes her to eat, but she has no appetite. Jean sits at her bedside and reads aloud, but Row allocates her voice to background noise and stares without seeing at the slate gray sky beyond her window. In her head, a flute's song plays on repeat, the vision it reveals to her caught in her mind's eye.
When night falls, she realizes she's ready.
After her parents and sister have gathered themselves for sleep, she climbs again from her bed and reaches for her shoes. It's amazingly simple to leave the house. Perhaps her father believes she wouldn't be foolish enough to try again so soon. Perhaps he believes she is unable to move.
Her legs tremble with cold and pain, but they carry her all the same: down the narrow streets and past the fountain where the cherub watches her pass with envious eyes and small fingers pointing her north. She stops in the same place she stood the night before, and waits.
"Hello, Row," the boy says, a moment later. She smiles, although the effect is somewhat spoiled by her chattering teeth. She forgot her mother's shawl.
"Show me your face," she says. So he does.
He's beautiful, his face as sweet as any angel's. Short yellow hair curls against his temples and around his ears. His eyes are dark, the color indistinguishable in the poor light, and his lips are pale and full and smiling. Lace gathers beneath a sharp chin and spills over a short waistcoat, over which he wears a fitted jacket with rows of shiny buttons down the front. In his hand is a slim, silver flute.
He raises it to his lips. She thinks, surely, she must love him a little, because the sight of him makes her breath catch and her knees wobble. She watches him play, his nimble fingers dancing along the length of his instrument. Warmth settles around her shoulders and wraps around her throat like a scarf. When he turns, she follows him up the hill where the weeds have given way to a neat dirt path framed in grass and small flowers.
The clock tower's doors are thrown open. She has never been inside before, and she hesitates briefly at the threshold before stepping in after him. The stone is cool beneath the worn soles of her shoes. A wooden staircase spirals upward. The music beckons her forward, and she obeys without pause, trailing after him in her nightshift. The boards beneath her feet are steady and thick, not like the houses in the city, eaten through by insects and dry rot.
She wants to pause and take in the wonders around her, but she can't stop looking at him, now that she is allowed. Her gaze is drawn to his bright head, haloed by the light flooding down from above them, by the sheen of well-oiled cogs that churn and revolve on silent joints.
When they reach the landing, she presses a hand to her collar and realizes there is no pain. He smiles at her from behind his instrument. She closes her fist around the front of her shift, feeling curiously lost without that ever present ache at the center of her chest. Before her, through the dark glass of the clock face, she can make out a mottled view of the city.
His song carries on for another few measures, and then, after the last note fades to silence, he returns the flute to his side and steps away. In the wall adjacent to the clock face is an open door. A sconce just above the frame highlights the wooden plank that extends from the floor out to the deck of a ship.
A deep, resounding clang startles her. She looks away from the door, alarmed. It continues to chime, loud and rhythmic. The entire tower vibrates with it. The clock, she realizes.
"Are you ready?" the boy asks. He stands beside the open door, one hand extended.
She takes his hand and steps ahead of him, before bracing herself in the doorway. Leaning forward, she looks out at the city below. The sight leaves her breathless.
The city glows, as if alive. The streets, illuminated by rows of tidy streetlamps, gleam white from between the buildings that rise from their foundations, sturdy and whole. At the center of the square, the fountain glitters with the flow of water streaming down into the heavy basin. At its peak, the cherub is perched with its hand outstretched, as if waving at her.
"Row," he says.
She looks at him, looks away from the city and what it might have been. His eyes watch her, dark and deep and endless.
Row nods and steps aboard the ship. She feels his hand slip from hers, and she glances back to see him standing just inside the clock tower, the wooden plank drawing back into the ship's side. He smiles at her and waves.
"Aren't you coming?" Row shouts across the gap.
He says, "Thank you." And then, "I'm sorry."
The clock tower continues to chime, and she looks from the boy's apologetic smile back to the city, where time seems to have spilled forward, the buildings withering away to dust. The cherub's hand is still outstretched, reaching.
Row returns home before dawn. In the morning, he helps his mother and Jean with breakfast and smiles when she runs her fingers through his golden hair. Her hand catches for a moment, something like confusion wrinkling her brows, but then it's gone, and she moves away to open the oven and check the bread. Jean lingers at his elbow, ever his shadow, and asks for a tune from his flute.
"Of course," he says, because he is a good brother. The sound of music draws his father from his room, and they eat together at the breakfast table after Row has wiped the dust from the wood.
His mother opens the window for the first time in Row's memory, and sunlight spills into the room. In the distance, they can hear the clock tower chime the hour.
"It's going to be a good day," his mother says.
By popular vote, the city decides to rebuild. The forest has no shortage of lumber, and the buildings are in desperate need of repair. Row helps out where he can, but he is still only a child and can't yet carry more than the tools.
At dusk, they return to their homes and their dinner tables and speak of their day in low, content voices.
At Row's side, Jean whispers to him of how, sometimes, she thinks she sees a girl in her periphery darting between the buildings, never more than the impression of dark curls and a flowing nightshift just beyond her vision. She whispers of a phantom ship that beckons to her in the waning hours of daylight.
Row smiles and pats her head and tells her not to look. Then he plays her a tune on his flute.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 19th, 2010

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