Let the world tell all the lies it wants; I was there in the Year of the Children, and I know the truth.
This is how it happened.
We don’t know when or where the singing started, but the earliest written record I can find points the finger at Michelle Pierce, of Crows Landing, California. She was eleven years old, blue eyed, red haired, and full of wonder at the world. Her father found her standing barefoot in the backyard on the night of January 8th, with her face tilted up towards the cloudy winter sky.
“She was smiling like she had some sort of secret.” That’s what the article says, a grieving father’s words preserved on microfilm. He was right. Michelle had a secret. We all did. It just wasn’t shared until it was already too late.
I like to think he stepped up next to her, squinting up to see what she was looking at. That’s how I picture them, father and daughter, standing side by side. “What are you looking at?” he says.
Michelle casts a glance in his direction, the little cat-and-canary look that all girls know from birth, and she says, “Nothing.”
“Let’s get inside. It’s cold out here.”
That’s how I see it, anyway. Their feet leaving glittering trails in the evening dew as they walk together through the grass. Her father tucking her into bed a little later, and Michelle already half-asleep, mumbling to herself. “I thought she was saying ‘moon,’” he’ll say later, when the truth comes clear. “She’d been looking at the sky, and . . . and it didn’t seem like anything important.”
“Soon,” says Michelle, and drifts away to dreams.
It took a month for the curious communion of children and the sky to become a global phenomenon, with children as young as two and as old as fourteen standing transfixed in backyards and in front of windows. There are dozens of articles about it, all of them treating it as a funny little fad just a bit more incomprehensible than most. They asked us why we did it. If anyone told, it didn’t make the papers.
Things changed again two weeks later, leaving behavioral scientists and child psychologists at a loss. There are articles about that, too. It wasn’t so much that we’d started humming. Children have always liked to hum.
It’s that we were all humming the same song.
I celebrated my fifteenth birthday by counting the candles on my cake and breaking down in tears. It left my parents frantic. I don’t think they’d seen me cry since I was six. But I’d been spending an hour a night standing in the yard with my sister, humming at the sky, and I knew what that fifteenth candle meant.
Torrey was the one who broke the code of silence we’d all shared until then. She never was much of one for rules. “He’s too old now,” she said. “It’s not so bad for most of them, but Danny almost made it.”
“Too old for what?” asked Mom.
Torrey looked at her, brown eyes wide and solemn in her narrow face, and said, “He’s too old to go.”
From the look on Dad’s face, he liked those words even less than he liked my tears. “Go where?”
She looked at me. I nodded my agreement, and neither of us said anything else. Torrey went outside alone that night, and I went to my room and cried until I fell asleep.
Everywhere there was, the children hummed, and still no one guessed what was coming, or how little time was left.
They started singing at the beginning of April, although for some reason, no one could ever quite figure out the words. Parents pressed for details, and got none; just silence and cat-with-canary smiles.
I never knew the words, and I never asked Torrey to tell me. It wouldn’t have been fair. So I let it all go, all the games and songs and sisters. I threw myself into schoolwork, graduated college, and grew up to be a solid, respectable sort of man, the kind whose colleagues say makes up for a lack of imagination by being totally reliable. Besides, some of them had been young enough to hear the singing, even if they were left behind.
Some of them understood why I had to forget where the children went after they told me I was too old to go with them.
It happened on May 9th, and it happened at midnight. New Zealand was the beginning, thanks to the International Date Line, but it wasn’t the end. Midnight swept the globe, carrying the children with it. They slipped quietly from their beds, tiptoeing down hallways and through living rooms as they made their way outside. Their parents would wake the next day to find unmade beds and empty bedrooms. There were no signs of struggle, of course, because there hadn’t been one. The sky called and the children went. That was all.
Not all the children disappeared; maybe two in five were left behind. They were the ones who’d been the most willing to abandon their communions when the air was cold or their mothers called them in to dinner. The ones who were the last to start singing.
The news started to spread as more and more countries woke and found their children gone. Most parents had been warned by the time midnight reached North America. They knew to lock the windows and guard the doors, to keep their starry-eyed children tucked safe away until the unknown threat had passed. It didn’t help. America’s children went like the others, somehow slipping out through unseen cracks and out through secret doorways to vanish into the night.
I held the window open for Torrey as she shimmied down the drainpipe. I saw her wave goodbye as she ran across the lawn. And I never saw her again.
When midnight came to Crows Landing, California, Robert Pierce took his daughter’s hands and asked her a question. Just one, the most important one of all:
He listened to her answer. Then he stood, unlocked the front door, and let her go.
The world has done its best to forget about that night. Maybe that’s for the best; maybe forgetting is what lets people keep going. Still, it happened, and it should be remembered somewhere. Just in case. In case this wasn’t the first time. In case the story of the Pied Piper was another form of forgetting, covering another, deeper truth.
Just in case.
I didn’t want to let my sister go. I would have held her back . . . but she told me to look at the sky, and I looked, and I saw. Pirate ships floating on the air, crewed by children in storybook motley and held up by tattered sails that glittered golden in the moonlight. That’s when I let her go. How could I keep her from that? I loved her. That meant I had to lose her.
The ships appeared all over the world, seen by all the parents fast enough to follow but not fast enough to keep their sons and daughters home. Their crews steered them deftly to hover a few yards above the ground. They lowered rope ladders and lifeboats, and the children of the world ran to them. They climbed into the sky, singing all the while, and they were gone.
That’s the first thing.
The second thing came later, when the shock faded enough for grief to settle in and distraught families started to clean out rooms and box things away. In every bed they found a golden coin, one for every missing child. One side was stamped with a moon and two pinprick stars, the other with a shape something like an island viewed through half-closed eyes, a place existing on the borderlands of sleep.
Ships used to pay a fee for crewmen. No nation has ever stepped forward to claim that blazon . . . but people around the world have looked at it, remembering a dream, and cried.
My story is almost over, and so am I. I’ll lock this in my desk with Torrey’s letter, and I’m sure my grandchildren will marvel at it when I’m gone. “He never told us stories,” they’ll say. “Who could have guessed he’d tell one about a tragedy like this?” They’ll see this for fiction, because we’ve forgotten the singing of the children. The history books say it was sickness, a plague that came from nowhere. They excuse the lack of bodies by claiming they were cremated for reason of quarantine, they call the articles and news reports about the event a form of mass hysteria, and they move on.
For a long time—a very long time—I did the same. It was easier to forget. But I sang with the rest, even if I turned out to be just half a year too old. I sang.
Maybe that’s why she came to me.
The knock at the door was unexpected. I get few visitors since my wife passed on and my children moved to warmer climes. Maine is in my blood, always will be; I was born here, lost my sister here, and I’ll die here when the time comes.
On the porch stood the cutest little button of a girl I’d ever seen, all tousled curls and big blue eyes and all of eleven years old. She was dressed like a storybook pirate, even down to the jagged treasure-map scar that ran the length of one dirty cheek.
“Daniel?” Her accent was strange, half-foreign, half-familiar, like the island on those coins.
“That’s me,” I said, trying to sound jolly, succeeding only in sounding old. I think I knew already. I know I didn’t want to. “What can I do for you?”
“These are yours,” she said, and from behind her back produced a bag of those golden coins and a fat envelope with my name across the front.
She held them out so imperiously that I took them without thinking, turning the envelope over to read the message scrawled on the flap—“Do Not Open by Penalty of DEATH Unless You Are My BROTHER,” and a looping signature that I determined, after a moment’s study, read “Tore the Bold.”
For a moment, I stopped breathing. How many left-behind brothers and sisters have received similar letters, I wonder, and never said a word? How many of us?
How many of them?
“What happened?” I asked, in a voice not quite my own.
“She fought brave,” said the girl, and smiled, and said the thing I needed most to hear: “She died singing.”
Then she was gone, back down the path to whatever vessel brought her to my door, the promise she made to my sister fulfilled to its end.
In the letter that was her life story and final farewell, Torrey said the things she’d left for me would be carried by Black-Hearted Mich, her best mate on the strange sea they sailed on, the strange and distant sea I was forbidden.
Michelle Pierce had blue eyes. And she was all of eleven years old.
What Michelle said to her father, on the night the pirates came:
“Away. It’s going to be an awfully big adventure.”
And then she ran, singing, into the night.
There’s just one thing I wish I’d asked her, that impossible little girl who brought me the story of my forever-young sister’s life. The life she led out there past the second star, on her golden-sailed ship, on that everlasting sea. There’s just one thing.
The children who choose to leave us, one at a time or all at once, the children who choose to be lost, rather than to be found . . . do they ever have regrets? Do they ever wish they’d stayed behind? I hope not. I hope they’re free, and lovely, and unafraid.
I hope they fly.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire
Originally published in Ravens in the Library.
Reprinted by permission of the author.