Jack sits in a dusty room in a corner of the museum, close to the basement and far from its visitors. The room is the museum’s stack, the last place an artefact is stored until it is catalogued and put away forever. He sits in the cavernous room, among cracked brown skulls and moth eaten creatures with frozen snarls, for eight hours a day, six days a week. Discarded museum exhibits line the deep shelves: ocean-soaked champagne bottles from plundered shipwrecks, sixth century Persian salt bowls (worn to nubs, now), dirt-caked glass jars and boots from the beginnings of a city.
The room (and Jack, for that matter) are long-forgotten by almost everyone. Everyone but the rats.
For weeks he’s known that the rats are there. He hears them as they climb in the walls and scuttle in the cellars. They nest in musty books. They breed. And as time goes on, they get bolder: some days, it’s a swift movement in the periphery of his vision. Others, a patter of tiny, dirty feet across his toes. A nibble at the corner of an old tome, an 18th century costume, an ancient painting.
The ratty sounds nibble at the edges of his patience and fray his nerves. Management won’t do anything about them and he has no resources to resolve the situation, though he sets traps and baits in a vain attempt to stave them off.
But he won’t leave, for Jack’s job is to catalogue all those items into the museum archive. Match the tiny, time-worn cards to the old ledgers, enter into a database on the creaky laptop, file, number, forget. Jack loves his job.
With the shadows of late afternoon creeping across the room, Jack leans over a sixth century mariner’s map, tracing its lines with a gloved hand. He mutters a little and smiles, engrossed in the impossible journey unfolding before him. One day, perhaps, when his job here is done, Jack will take a journey and explored unchartered territory.
There’s a scuffle and a swish of a long, thin tail in the dust. Startled, he looks down, a fraction of a second too late as the yellow-eyed rat sinks its teeth into his boot.
“Fuck!” He kicks out, his foot flinging the rat across the room. It glances off a table, scattering the contents in a cloud of dust. Squealing, it disappears through a hole in the wall. Then Jack realises the map has torn, its corner held fast in his balled-up fist. The sight nearly defeats him, then he sighs and smoothes it out, places it gently on the desk.
The sunlit dust above the disturbed table is beginning to settle. Jack wanders over and begins to pick up the objects from the floor. A tiny green stuffed bird, a porcelain candle snuffer, a pipe. The last is an innocuous looking thing, long and bell-shaped at one end with finger-holes running down one side, its sepia-tinged surface scrimshawed in strange designs that may once have been language. No-one has looked at the pipe for a very, very long time.
He rolls it about in his hands. It is lighter than it looks and feels warm. Swinging from one end is a small tag; in perfect script it reads “The Rattenfänger’s Pipe”. His knowledge of languages is passable, thanks to years of handling objects from all over the world. It’s German, he thinks. When he realises what it means, Jack smiles at the irony – “The Rat-catcher’s Pipe,” he says aloud.
Without really thinking about it, he lifts it to his lips and plays just a note or two. But those notes are enough to make him put the pipe down very quickly. It is not a pleasant sound.
He hurries from the building. As he leaves, he thinks he hears a panicked scrabbling in the walls. Stopping still, he thinks of the strange notes of the Rattenfänger’s pipe and he wonders. But nothing seems out of the ordinary and he heads for home.
The next morning he smiles as he looks at the map. It can be restored, he realises. In the right hands, rarely is anything damaged beyond repair. His are the right hands: today he will mend, not catalogue. He loves everything about all these objects. They don’t cry out for attention; they just lie waiting for someone – anyone, they aren’t fussy – to discover them. They don’t need.
Jack feels unsettled as he works; after a few moments he realises that the rat noises have abated. Not a scrabble, not a scratch disturbs the morning. Looking across at the little table, he sees that the pipe is lying exactly where he left it. And yet…
The boxes of cards are ordered alphabetically, then chronologically. It seems as though it takes him no time at all to find it, the little card that matches the pipe’s swingtag.
“THE RATTENFÄNGER’S PIPE. A relic that has survived since the thirteenth century, the pipe was previously thought deliberately destroyed by fire in the seventeenth century. It was acquired from Professor Edward Ackerley in 1892 in exchange for molten gold harvested from an undersea volcano and was subsequently recognised as the pipe used in 1284 to lure the children of Hamelin from their village after Professor Ackerley and his children mysteriously disappeared, only to be discovered floating on the Baltic Sea in a rudderless boat with ratskin sails. Contrary to popular belief the pipe is not made of silver, but carved from a child’s tibia.”
A bile of panic rises in his throat and he is frozen in fear, as the pipe rolls gently from the table and over to the wall like a pet that has been beckoned by its owner.
The shadows on the wall shift and darken and resolve themselves into the shape of a tall, lean man wearing an old rat-catcher’s hat. The shadow-hand reaches down, scoops up the pipe and begins to play.
It’s like no other music Jack has ever heard; discordant, sad, mellifluous all at once. It makes him shiver. It makes him scared. The shadow slinks towards the door and Jack, horrified, finds himself walking after it. It is the music that moves him, now, and he is as powerless as the children of Hamelin to do anything but follow.
The hallway beyond the door has disappeared. Instead, Jack is somewhere far away and bitterly cold, climbing into a small boat with no oars and no rudder. It is as though the music has wormed its way inside him and is moving him against his will. He curls into the bottom of the boat and peers over the edge as it drifts from the winter-bitten shore. Although there’s no wind, its grey ratskin sails billow and it cuts swiftly through the dark, brackish sea. Jack feels like he is a boy again, terrified and alone. He began to wail, high and thin and piteous, like a child.
The Rat-catcher stands on the shore, among the bare trees and the ruins of an ancient city no-one remembers. He is an insubstantial creature of mist and shadow and smoke. As the shore recedes, the music begins again. But this time Jack hears the music as though it were words whispered right into his ear.
It speaks to him of all that the things that the Rat-catcher remembers across the centuries. Rats jumping from cliffs by the thousands to their deaths on the rocks below: parents trading their children for gold: the lame and the sick left behind as a testament to their folly. More, Jack? the music asked. Very well.
Women following shadows in the deep of night, into caves filled with bones and unspeakable terrors that begin with a whispered taunt. Babies left on the doorsteps of deserted houses in exchange for fame or love that never quite arrives. New betrayals for old, Jack. It’s all the same to me.
The piper has been paid: no more dusty museums or shadow-walking, the music says to Jack. The Rat-catcher begins to tap his foot, then to leap and jig and dance, as though to the merriest tune in the world.
Suzanne J. Willis is a graduate of Clarion South 2009 and her work has appeared in AntipodeanSF, Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi and anthologies by Fablecroft Publishing, Kayelle Press and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. She works full-time and writes in the spaces around it, inspired by fairytales, ghost stories and all things strange. Suzanne lives in Melbourne, Australia with her patient partner and pampered pooch.