Where Are the Children?
By Ivy Zhu & Kathleen Scheiner
We wrote stories based on old nursery rhymes, giving them a new twist. Ivy’s story “Where Are the Children?” is a reimagining of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” which Kathleen has illustrated.
Sam’s hometown of Hamelin had been overrun by rats. Rats in the shower, rats in the kitchen, and rats in the playground. It did not matter what anyone did. The rats would not go away.
All the adults did was moan and groan. “Someone get rid of these rats!” they cried.
Their prayer was answered.
The Piper came. With his charming smile and music, Hamelin was free at last. Sam was happy at first, caught in the joyous celebration of the townsfolk, but the novelty wore off. The absence of the rodents felt haunting. The scurrying that used to echo through the walls and streets at night now fell silent. The ghost towns in his storybooks did not seem so distant anymore.
And when the Piper played his music…it was horrid. Sam held his tongue when it happened, not wanting to displease his parents, but the sight of thousands of drowning rats still haunted his dreams. The rodents’ paws and tails jerked with the wailing tunes. Even when the water was littered with dead bodies, still the Piper played.
Massacre. That was the word that came to Sam’s mind. He pulled the word from a thick, old tome he found in the library. The word always came with pictures of men on horses and a field riddled with still bodies.
The Piper was a miracle at first. That was what Sam’s mother had called the musician. That was what everyone called him. Now, as Sam shivered in this city, far, far away from Hamelin, the Piper was more like a demon. Why else would he take Sam and all the other children away? Was it because his parents were hypocrites, turning back on the very lessons they parroted to all their children?
Don’t be greedy. Never lie.
In the end, it was the adults who broke this promise, and here the children were, left in this hostile, new town. Everyone talked and spoke differently. The air was humid and dry. Sand swirled in the breeze, stinging his eyes. Even the sun seemed to have betrayed Sam, beating down on his head twice as hard.
The biggest difference was perhaps the rats in Sunmu. Unlike the rodents in Hamelin, who were plump and comfortable with human presence, the rats in Sumu were skinny, short-tempered, and cunning. They stole meals from the children. Food that had taken a whole day to earn was snatched away.
When night fell, Sam and the fellow children had to hide their bloody toes under worn blankets to stop the rodents from nibbling at them.
And unlike the rats in Hamelin, these were ferocious. They knew how to fight. Jack had told him of the time he’d seen a rat tussle with a stray dog and win. The rats cleared out the bloody carcass of the canine in a matter of minutes.
Every night, the group of children huddled together. The desert city, while sweltering during the day, was cold enough at night to freeze. Warmth was prioritized over the stench of unwashed bodies. When the sun rose, they forced their tired bodies to get up. If they didn’t find enough treasures by lunchtime, they would not get fed.
Sam hated this new life. It was hard and tiring. Every day, he daydreamed of his cozy bed back home. His breakfast was always ready when he woke up; the table piled with toasts, fruits, and bacon. Here, he would be lucky if he got a strip of bread for breakfast. The soup resembled a muddy puddle and tasted as much.
Sam was not alone in this sentiment. The other children, when they woke up from the Piper’s musical stupor, were scared. They cried and demanded their parents back. Everyone quickly learned that the Hager’s temper was bad. He did not tolerate any tears. When punishment came, and it always did, nothing ever stopped at a small reprimand.
Hager was their new ‘dad,’ or so he called it. He bought them from the Piper, so they now belonged to him. He paid for them, and now it was their duty to be good kids and repay his kindness. They were to bring him scrap coins from the streets, precious jewelry dropped between pavement cracks, or anything that looked valuable or out of the place. What qualified as “valuable” to Hager was always unpredictable. Sometimes a shiny jewel was tossed aside with a swift dismissal from Hager.
“Useless,” he would grumble and toss the children’s lunch to the rats instead.
Sometimes a blunt kitchen knife would be looked upon with interest. Hager would grunt his approvals, and the lucky kid would be rewarded with a rare slice of ham. The others would stare in envy with salivating mouths. So when Sam picked up the little wooden flute, he had not done so out of curiosity—he was following his stomach’s primal urges. Music had brought him into this situation. Maybe music could at least give him his lunch for the day.
One of our favorite writing activities has been reimagining old nursery rhymes and fairy tales and giving them a twist. We’ve spent weeks writing and telling each other our stories, bringing some everyday magic into our sessions. We write for 15 minutes at a time and then share what we have, offering suggestions and asking questions. Sometimes we draw our stories too. The written piece is by Ivy and the cover illustration was done by Kathleen.
Ivy Zhu enjoys reading and gaming in her free time. Currently, she is struggling with new college life and juggling schoolwork with her part-time job. And her favorite dog in the world is Tofu. He is now nine months old.
Kathleen Scheiner is a medical editor and horror writer.