Jane lives in Hamlin. She has a small rat. The rat’s name is Broderick. Broderick’s fur is white. He has a red nose. He lives under her bed. She feeds him scraps.
It is the morning after the exodus. Jane flops on her bed, sideways, face down. Her skirt is blue. Her petticoats are white. Her head and shoulders extend off of one side of the bed. Her calves and feet extend off the other. She looks under the bed. Her eyes are bright but worried.
“Broderick!” she says. “Are you there?”
“Oh, good,” she says. She hands Broderick a piece of potato with her left hand. It’s from her meal. Broderick scurries forward. Broderick takes the potato in his clever little paws. He nibbles.
“All the other rats are gone,” she says. “You’re the only one left!”
Broderick frowns. He tilts his head to one side. He looks down. He kicks a dust bunny sadly.
Jane giggles. Broderick looks up sharply. Jane fishes in her blouse. She pulls out a small squirming rat. She pushes it under the bed.
“All the others . . . but one!” Jane says. “Her name is Meredith.”
Meredith makes an irritated face at Jane. Then she grooms herself ferociously. Only then does she look at Broderick. Broderick stares raptly at her.
“See?” Jane giggles, then hops to her feet. “Aren’t I thoughtful?”
Jane goes and peeks out the door. “There are no adults around. They must be at a meeting.” She giggles again, then drops down to lay on her stomach and elbows next to the bed. “We can have a secret meeting of our own.”
Broderick glances at her once, twice, and then a third time, distractedly. He chitters.
“This is no time for romance!” Jane exclaims. “This is a very important meeting.”
Broderick looks apologetically at Meredith. He shrugs. Meredith ducks her head and rat-grins at him. Broderick nods back and looks officiously at Jane.
“Now, Broderick,” Jane says. “You will be the secretary. And Meredith will be my vice-chair! Secretary, please read back the first order of business.”
Broderick considers. Then he poses, and chitters.
“Excellent point, secretary,” Jane says. “The matter is—”
Jane stops. She rolls over and sits up sharply. “There’s music.”
Meredith runs out from under the bed and stands between Jane and the door. She rises up on two feet. She chitters angrily. Jane steps over her and walks outside. Jane looks around. All the children of Hamlin emerge. All of them stand there. Then the music changes; and the children begin to walk.
Broderick nips Jane’s ankle. He chitters vigorously. Jane looks down. Then she blinks, and shakes her head.
“The music says that I want to go to the mountain,” she explains.
Broderick looks at the mountain. He looks at Jane. He rolls his eyes.
“Well, point,” Jane says.
Broderick pokes her with his nose.
“Yeah,” Jane says.
Jane sits down. She folds her arms over her knees. She watches the other children walk away. Then the piper comes into view; and he walks straight to Jane.
“Hey,” the piper says.
“Hey,” Jane answers.
The piper sits down. “Nice rat,” he says. His tone’s a bit ironic.
Jane sweeps Broderick into her arms and holds him protectively. She looks around for Meredith, but Meredith is hiding behind Jane’s skirts. Jane hugs Broderick tighter. He squeaks.
“It’s not my playing,” the piper says. “The music’s power comes from how people are.”
“I don’t want to go to the mountain,” Jane says.
“But it’s your nature,” the piper says.
Jane listens to the music. She thinks about that for a moment. Broderick bites down on her finger. Jane keeps thinking. Blood begins to run down Jane’s finger. Broderick’s eyes bulge. Jane keeps thinking. Then, finally, she says, “No. It’s not.”
Broderick relaxes with a squeak. He licks Jane’s finger unhappily.
The piper smiles wryly. “I’m older and wiser,” he says, “and someday you’ll understand.”
Jane holds Broderick up. “Broderick never tells me that he is right. He never tells me that he is wiser, or smarter, or better, or knows more. He never tells me he’s doing the right thing. But sometimes he is.”
Broderick wriggles and tries to escape. He does not like being a prop.
“He’s a rat,” the piper points out. “He can’t talk.”
“Can you just give me a good reason?” Jane says. “Without saying you’re right, without saying you’re better, without playing music, without knowing things, without being mystic and stuff, can you just give me a good reason?”
The piper frowns at her.
“I told Broderick yesterday that you couldn’t,” Jane says. “I told him that you couldn’t, and he huddled under the bed, and made noises I didn’t understand. And I went out into the rats and found Meredith, and caught her, and I think that was bad but it was also good. It’s funny when things are good and bad both.” She gives him an unhappy smile.
The piper sighs.
“So I hope you can’t give me one,” Jane says. “I hope you can’t give me one good reason, because if you do, then I guess Broderick’ll go drown, and then I’m off to the mountain.”
The piper shrugs. “I’m not a human,” he says, seriously. “I’m not a rat. I’m not about reasons. I’m about going to the river. I’m about going to the mountain. I’m about change.”
The piper stands up. “Once in a while, someone doesn’t. I dunno why. I don’t care. I suppose it’s heroic, in a way.”
He turns, and goes. The children of Hamlin follow him, save one. Jane watches them leave. She sits. She stays. She doesn’t listen.
It hurts more than she could imagine.