King Rat (Continued)

by Karen Joy Fowler

The stories in Castles and Dragons are full of magical incidents. Terrible things may happen before the happy ending, but there are limits to how terrible. Good people get their reward, so do bad people. The stories are much softer than Grimm and Andersen.It was many, many years before I was tough enough for the pure thing.

Even now some of the classics remain hard for me. Of these, the worst by a good margin is "The Pied Piper of Hamlin." I never liked the first part with the rats.I saw King Rat and all the others dancing to their doom with their busy noses and worried eyes. Next, I hated the lying parents. And most of all, I hated the ending.

My father always tried to comfort me. The children were wonderfully happy at the end, he said. They were guests at an eternal birthday party where the food was spun sugarand the music just as sweet. They never stopped eating long enough to think of how their parents must miss them.

I wasn’t persuaded. By my own experience, on Halloween there always came a moment when you’d eaten too much candy. One by one the children would remember their homes.One by one they would leave the table determined to find their way out of the mountain. They would climb the carved stairs up and then down into darkness.They would lose themselves in caves and stony corridors until their only choice, eventually and eternally, was to follow the music back to the piper. It was not a story withan ending at all. In my mind it stretched horribly onward.

Shortly after I met Vidkun, I wrote my own book. This was an illustrated collection of short pieces. The protagonists were all baby animals. In these stories apig or a puppy or a lamb wandered inadverterntly away from the family. After a frightening search, the stray was found again; a joyful reunion took place. The stories gotprogessively shorter as the book went on. My parents thought I was running out of energy for it. In fact, I was less and less able to bear the middle part of the story.In each successive version, I made the period of separation shorter.

I can guess now, as I couldn’t then, what sorts of things may have happened to the monkeys in the pssch lab. I suppose that the rats’ lives were not entirely taken upwith cheese, tucked into mazes like Easter eggs. As I grew up, there were more and more questions I thought of but didn’t ask. Real life is only for the toughest.

My brother went away to college, and I cried for three days. In his junior year, he went farther, to the south of England and an exchange program at Sussex University.During spring break, he went to Norway on a skiing vacation. He found himself alone at Easter, and he called the only person in all Norway that he knew.

Vidkun insisted my brother come and stay with him and his wife, immediately drove to the hostel to fetch him. He had wonderful memories of our family, he said.He’d spoken of us often. He asked after me. He was cordial and gracious, my brother told me, genuinely welcoming, and yet, clearly something was terribly wrong. My brother had neverimagined a house so empty. Easter dinner was long and lavish and cheerless. Sometime during it, Vidkun stopped talking. His wife went to bed and left the two men sitting at the table.

"My son," Vidkun said suddenly. "My son also took a trip abroad. Like you. He went to America, which I always told him was so wonderful. He went two years ago."

Vidkun’s son had touched down in New York and spent a week there, then took a bus to cross the country. He wanted to get some idea of size and landscape. He was meeting up with friendsin Yellowstone. Somewhere along the route, he vanished.

When word came, Vidkun flew to New York. The police showed him a statement, allowed him to speak to a witness who’d talked with his son, seen him board the bus. No witness could be found who sawhim leave. Vidkun searched for him or word of him for three months, took the same bus trip two times in each direction, questioning everyone he met on the route. No one who knew the family believedthe boy would not have come home if he were able. They were all just so sad, my brother said.

So often over the years when I haven’t wanted to, I’ve thought of Vidkun on that bus. The glass next to him is dirty and in some lights is a window and in others is a mirror. In his pocket is hisson’s face. I think how he forces himself to eat at least once every day, asks each person he meets to look at his picture. "No," they all say. "No."Such a long trip. Such a big country. Who could live there?

I hate this story.

Vidkun, for your long ago gifts, I return now two things.

The first is I will not change this ending. This is your story. No magic, no clever rescue, no final twist. As long as you can’t pretend otherwise, neither will I.

And then, because you once brought me a book with no such stories in it, the second thing I promise is not to write this one again. The older I get, the more I want ahappy ending. Never again will I write about a child who disappears forever. All my pipers will have soft voices and gentle manners. No child so lost King Rat can’t find him and bring him home.