WHAT WE WOULD REMEMBER MOST ABOUT BEING CHILDREN WAS THE hunger.
I'm hungry, we were always saying, and we were, we were always hungry. Before the piper, before we changed, we had been known to pop clods of soil into our mouths, letting it crumble on our tongues until we gagged. We shredded stalks of dry hay, dragging them against our teeth; we tried bark, tried weeds, tried flower stalks and stems and petals. We remembered the tricks: Little Ennlin chewed her hair, Syele turned pebbles in her mouth, Jaro the butcher's boy saved bones that had once been given to the dogs and gifted them, with a lover's shyness, to Arna.
We remembered, too, the way hunger was not just an emptiness but an environment. We'd be mid-run, or stooping to adjust a shoe, or smacking a dandruff of dirt from our pants, and then we wouldn't be. Our knees went loose, our ankles liquid, our limbs shucked out from under us. We'd be sitting. We'd be breathing hard. We'd be chasing back the shadows that crowded our vision, blinking in wonder at the tremble of the landscape.
I'm hungry, we'd explain to each other, and the others would nod back: I'm hungry. We said it genuinely, but also conversationally, bemusedly, querulously, ponderously, teasingly, wearily. Sometimes we said it in a way that meant I'm tired, or It's hot, or Look at that deer, licking lichen from the stone.
I'm hungry, we said, and not without amazement. Because every day, it only grew. Every day we were again hungry, still hungry, more hungry.
Something would change, the tax collector said, taking dinner at our parents' tables. It would get better, he repeated, and kept repeating until his bowl had been filled and emptied, filled and emptied.
We watched, our eyes tracking his spoon, as he listed for us the bad luck stories that had been our birthright: the early frosts and long winters, the dry summers and drought, the rot of spring and fall, the pestilence and the sickness. And what of the ever-changing dukes and princes and lords that ruled us, won our land in faraway wars? What of Emperor Conrad, then William of Holland, Richard of Cornwall, Alfonso of Castile--each claiming fealty in our fathers' lifetimes, each demanding their dues, and each as distant and silent as the Lord God himself.
Hamelin has survived it all, the tax collector insisted. Something would change. He wiped his mouth on his shirtfront and left after drinking the last of our fathers' cloudy beer.
On Sunday, the perpetually red, sweaty face of the priest agreed with the tax collector, and gave us answers that were equally useful. After the incomprehensible ribbon of Latin unspooled over our heads, we were told that the Lord had sent our hunger as a reminder of our baser nature. He suggested, always, that we repent, pray for redemption, and...