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Leading the Children out of Town

Child silhouetteBy Jill Christman

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side, A wondrous portal opened wide, As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed; And the Piper advanced and the children followed, And when all were in to the very last, The door in the mountain-side shut fast.

            ~ The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning

On a bluff above Lake Roosevelt, the streets in my mother’s tiny northeastern Washington town are named after apples—Rome Beauty, Northern Spy, Delicious, and so on. One summer afternoon, we tucked my one-year old daughter, Ella, into her stroller and headed out for a walk. A quarter mile down the road we passed a yard containing a ride-on toy and a car seat cast by the driveway like a beetle on its back.

The house looked like a place where a child used to live, but then a kid Ella’s age, maybe a tad younger, tumbled out across the stubbly grass wearing gray fleece pajamas and filthy socks. I stopped the stroller, resisting the urge to block this sweet-faced boy from touching my shiny daughter with his grubby hands. He veered to the left, grabbed his rolling toy with both hands and careened down the sidewalk and into the road.

If this kid had been a dog, I would have, at this point, started to look around for his owner. The house he must have run out of was set far back from the road, maybe thirty yards or so, and the curtains were drawn tight.

Gape-mouthed, my mother and I stared at the tumbling baby in the road. He couldn’t keep up with the spinning blue wheels and every six feet or so he tripped on the black scraps of sock dangling at the end of his toes and skidded forward onto his face, but he never cried.

“Be-bee,” Ella commented, pointing. “Be-bee.”

“Yup,” I said. “That’s a baby alright. A little baby playing in the street.”

We stood there for a while, prepared to run into the street and stop oncoming traffic—Marcus boasts a population of just 160 people, but there is some traffic, often teenagers in giant trucks—but no caretaker emerged. The baby made another run at the blue-wheeled toy and lost it again. Again, no tears.

We waited. Ten minutes passed. My mother is quick to defend “different methods,” like the parents I’d criticized when they pulled up next to our parked car at the laundromat with a toddler and an infant strapped into the back seat, windows rolled up without a crack, both of them smoking. In fact, the smoke was so thick I didn’t even see the babies until the two adults opened their doors, crushed out their cigarettes and walked, both of them, into the laundromat. “Maybe she needed to get her laundry and she knew it would be easier if the kids waited in the car,” my mother said later.

“Mom,” I had countered, “there were two adults. One of them could have stayed in the car. They were babies.

“Well-ll,” my mother said, with toe-curling inflection, and ended the conversation. We let it rest with a difference of opinion.

But this time, even my mother was stymied. Here was a toddler, a barely toddling toddler, playing alone in the street. We weren’t sure what to do. I suggested we stroll ever so slowly up and down the sidewalk, watching for cars, of course, and always keeping the wordless, running kid close. The baby pushed along behind us with his toy, eyeing Ella.

What I wanted to do was march up to the house with the baby in my arms and bang on the door: “Hello? Is this your baby? We found him running in the street. We didn’t want him to get hit by a car. . .” At this point, the baby had been alone—or, rather, with us, the strange strolling ladies and their own well-padded baby—for fifteen minutes. Then a man with scraggly hair, glasses, and a flannel shirt appeared. He loped out of the house, scowling, and scooped up the kid without a word to us.

This is when I surprised myself. What should I have done? What would you have done? Should I have yelled? You irresponsible freak! You let your kid, your baby, play alone in the street? But I didn’t. The moment was so uncomfortable, so weird, a kind of joke came out of my mouth, an excuse for this poor excuse of a father. I laughed, I laughed, and I said, “I guess we were kind of like the Pied Piper, leading the children out of town!”

The man didn’t answer. He didn’t make eye contact. Instead, he swung around and strode back to the house with the kid hanging in his arms like a load of firewood. Maybe he didn’t hear me. Maybe he was ashamed. Maybe he didn’t know who the fuck the crazy lady with the fancy stroller was talking about. The Pied friggin’ Piper? What the hell.

Ella lunged forward to get a better look at the disappearing pair and I checked the five-point safety harness—again—not sure whether to feel responsible, self-righteous, or sad. Pushing Ella away, I thought about the way I care for my daughter, locking locks and buckling buckles, and how different it is from the way kids are raised where I come from—the way I was raised. For reasons I can’t quite pin down, this disconnect pisses me off. Is it because in the hormonal flush of my own cautious parenting I reject this laissez faire approach as nothing short of neglect? Maybe. Or is it because the last I will see of this baby boy—ever—are his feet disappearing into the dark house before the door slams shut, those blackened socks swinging from the end of his toes like storm-beaten pirate flags.

I know what can happen when kids are left behind, and this knowledge wounds like a cutlass to the heart.

I remember my first Halloween on the mountain when I was a thirteen. A trio of men in the holiday spirit piled hay bales and about ten of us kids in the bed of a pickup and bounced us around the mountain to trick-or-treat caramel apples and homemade hot chocolate from far-flung homesteads; when the beer cans of our escorts were empty, they tossed them in the back with the kids and the hay. It was a blast. Back then, I owned a thick-coated quarter horse named Moona and rode bareback to school on frigid winter days. In the summer, she carried me down to the river, hooves clicking on the shale-covered slopes, and we spent long days alone with the other teenagers and their horses. Sometimes I took Moona right into the river and clung to her mane, laughing and scared, when she started to swim and the current pushed my thighs up and away from her heaving muscles.

We mountain kids fended for ourselves, and maybe we’re better people for it. Self-sufficient, my mother says. Full of character. Resourceful.

Trust me: these are not parenting strategies I recommend. It’s amazing you survived, my mother says defensively, and I snort in derisive agreement. And yet, most of us did survive. Just like most of the kids on my middle-class street in Muncie, Indiana survive.

“You think you’re better than they are,” my husband says, calling me out.

Do I? Do I tell my Pied Piper story because it makes me feel superior, more confident in the parenting decisions I make every day? Okay, so I fed my kid a hotdog (cut into teeny tiny pieces) for lunch two days in a row, or I plunked her down in front of an extra thirty minutes of Sesame Street so I could finish grading a stack of papers. Probably not ideal choices, and yet I can direct attention to this let-the-toddler-play-in-the-street man, and say: Look. Look at him. That’s bad, right?

Goodie for me. Mother of the year.

The man was long gone before I knew what I wanted to tell him, so I would have told my mother instead but she would have said I was exaggerating as usual, being over sensitive, and I didn’t need the denigration, the rejection of my rejection. Why am I so intolerant? So judgmental?

I said nothing. After the silent man disappeared into the house with the dirty baby, I gripped the padded bar of Ella’s stroller and we walked on. There was nothing to see once the door slammed shut. We turned on Minter, and then strolled down Jonathan. In the park in the middle of town, ravens complained to us from the tops of the Douglas firs and chipmunks scattered like tossed pennies into wild rose bushes. Ella was asleep before we reached Rome Beauty, and home.

In truth, I had nothing more ready to say to the man or my mother. “You know,” I could have shouted, “in the original Pied Piper, the villagers never saw their children again. They never came out of the cave. They followed him in and they never came out.”

The Pied Piper wasn’t the playful, musical clown our cleaned-up editions might suggest. Folklorists date the story’s roots as far back as the 13th Century and the core tale casts the colorfully dressed Pied Piper as a rat-catcher. In many versions, the Piper leads the rats down to the river where they drown, but the villagers renege on his full payment and the Piper returns for the children in retaliation. Sometimes the children are drowned, sometimes led into the cave to be either held captive or killed.


Trust me: these are not parenting strategies I recommend. It’s amazing you survived, my mother says defensively, and I snort in derisive agreement. And yet, most of us did survive. Just like most of the kids on my middle-class street in Muncie, Indiana survive.


The Pied Piper narrative was constructed to explain something, to use storytelling to find meaning; in this case, a large population of children disappeared in Hamelin, Germany. Nobody knows why. A natural disaster (landslide?), famine, or plague may have wiped them out, and here, the Piper is a figure of death—all fluting metaphor. Or perhaps he is a remaking of a real person, a character who led a kind of Children’s Crusade and took the young ones away in a mass emigration.

In my research, I find a linguistic note with the unsettling information that some psychologists have a term to describe the capacity of some pedophiles to relate with and seduce children: the Pied Piper effect. This gives me the chills. The reckless freedoms of my own childhood came too soon, and I know this is why part of me is still mad.

As usual, I’m afraid, the story of the careless flannel-shirted man with my Pied Piper framing is really a story about my mother. Not because she was there with me when we found the unsupervised baby, but because she did not always protect me when I was a kid.

I have long forgiven her. I may also have come to understand why she did what she did when she was raising my brother and me—mostly alone: money was tight, she needed to work, and there was nothing left over for a babysitter even if she’d thought such a precaution was necessary. After all, wasn’t my brother around if I wanted something cooked in the oven? It was a different time, she tells me. We weren’t so aware.

I know it’s bad form to throw this bomb from the margins near the end of the essay, and I didn’t set out to mention it, but here it is: before we moved to the mountain in Washington when I was thirteen, I was sexually abused by a neighbor, starting when I was just six or seven. I have healed. I can love and be loved. As a teenager, I was pretty messed up, but now I am better—mostly.

My daughter Ella, the baby in this story, just turned seven. I look at her perfect forty-eight pound body, stretched out in sleep, lightly concealed by thin white ballerina pajamas dotted with tiny pink hearts, and I can’t imagine. The horror. Ella is the reason I keep returning to the story of the running child. She is so beautiful. When I tiptoe into her room at night to check on her and see her sleeping in the crack of light that shines out of her closet to help her feel safe at night—she has never liked complete darkness—her innocence stops my breath. The Pied Piper story, in the end, reminds me of the girl in me who never made it out of the cave. She’s back there still. When she was set loose in the street in her dirty socks, no well-meaning strangers happened upon her to block the random chance of an approaching truck. Her mother is at work, she’s on the top bunk of her bed, and there’s a much older boy slipping his rough hands under the covers to touch her. She doesn’t speak. He does what he will do and she keeps their shared secret.

Rejecting the tyranny of silence, I have told the story of this abuse. The secret is out. My mother knows and she is sorry. She is terribly, terribly sorry. She laments that she cannot go back and change this scene.

What would I have my mother do? I guess I want her to agree with me about the babies left alone in the smoky car at the laundromat. I want her to point a judgmental finger at the flannel-shirted father of the baby in the street. I don’t want her to accept these displays of neglect as different methods. I need her to join me in my righteous anger.

But that’s not the kind of woman my mother is, and anyway, maybe there’s nothing to be done. Maybe this is something my mother and I live with between us, with my anger rising up unbidden and randomly, like a sharp thistle in the garden of our deep affection. I guess that’s okay. And maybe the girl in the cave is not so much a whole girl, but a ghost girl, a simulacrum still gritting her angry teeth.

Maybe I can’t scoop the girl I was out of the dark cave with all her living parts any more than my mother can make that trip back in time to save her before it’s too late, but I can let her and all the children like her know that I remember. I can use her story to protect my own sweet Ella and others I find along the way who might need someone big to stand between them and danger, and maybe, if I keep telling and telling, I can use her story to pry open the side of that sealed-up mountainside, releasing the lost children into the light.

Author’s Note: I write nonfiction to figure out what I don’t know or can’t see. Working with language, scene, and character, I try to locate patterns and make connections that might help me figure something out. The genesis of this essay was in fact the first scene: the dirty-socked baby playing in the street. I wrote down this bizarre interaction that very day because I was so upset and worried, but for years, I had nothing to say in the essay beyond the generally accepted opinion that we shouldn’t let our babies play alone in the street. As my own daughter grew up, shifting into a new kind of vulnerability, I started pulling on the thread of the strange and creepy Pied Piper tale (I really had alluded to the Piper in that moment on the street—but why?) and I ended up—seven years later—writing an essay about the dangers of my own childhood. I didn’t intend to go back to the cave, but the story led me there.

Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, & River Teeth. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely.

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