Salz is a boy afflicted with cystic fibrosis -- though in the Middle Ages in Saxony no one can identify it as such. Instead he is an outcast, living with his unfeeling father and superstitious brothers in a hovel outside Hameln. His grandmother has kept Salz alive by having him avoid the mead and beer commonly drunk by all and by teaching him how to clear his lungs.
When the townsfolk of Hameln are affected by a mold that grows on the hops -- poisoning their mead and beer -- Salz is one of the few who are unaffected. The mold's effect is hallucinogenic, and soon Hameln is in the grips of a plague of madness, followed by a plague of rats. It is only Salz who can proclaim the truth -- although it might cost him his life.
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Atheneum Books for Young Readers
July 30, 2005
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Excerpt from Breath by Donna Jo Napoli
Text Excerpt 1
The beat is steady, unlike my own breathing. It draws me. And not just me: A hawk has come to investigate. Might the raptor think it's a heartbeat? Now squirrels are coming. And a badger. Creatures creep and hop from every direction, voles and rabbits and mice, creatures that normally hide when a raptor wing glides overhead.
This is new. Caution livens my skin.
My throat tickles. I fight the cough. Curs�d, thickened lungs that would betray me.
I grasp a sapling to stop myself. Time is short -- it shouldn't be wasted on satisfying simple curiosity. I'm supposed to be gathering the first wild herbs of spring for Grossmutter. She'll use them in a brew. Tonight the twelve of us -- one shy of being a full coven -- will take pots of the brew and go from field to field, sprinkling it on the earth before the farmers till and sow. The brew ensures a plentiful harvest. We do this every year, though no one outside the coven knows. Our coven of worshipers takes care of Hameln town in ways no one guesses. That's what I love being part of -- the beautiful mysteries.
I should seek out the herbs swiftly -- Grossmutter's waiting. I should avoid anything that deters me from my duty.
Instead, I let loose of the sapling and become one with the mesmerized creatures, following the beat, almost against my will. It's a hook in my chest, slowly dragging me in.
I walk quietly, stealthily. The woods can hide vagrants and criminals. They can hide knackers or hangmen or prostitutes -- the despised of society. The woods can hold danger.
But the beat insists; I walk.
He sits on a raised tree root, slapping his thighs rhythmically through green-and-yellow-striped trousers. Colors of the rich. His chest is white and thin. Not pasty like mine; he's not sickly. Rather, he seems spare. And ready to spring.
His shirt, red like blood, lies on a burlap sack on the ground. A pipe sits on top of the heap.
A music pipe.
Our coven needs a new piper. Then we'd be a full thirteen again. Our effectiveness would be secured.
Alas, a rich man would never consider a post so humble as coven piper. But a rich man isn't likely to be alone in the forest, either.
The beech beside me stands dead. I break off a branch. The crack brings the man to his feet. The animals scatter.
I step into the clearing before he flees too. The branch has become a cudgel in my hands. I am foolhardy enough to face a stranger alone, but not so much so as to do it empty-handed. One who lacks a means of defense is nearly as culpable as one who gives offense.
His skin pimples with fear. But now he squints in disbelief. "Has a mere boy come to pummel me?"
I've never pummeled anyone in my life, which I believe is twelve full years, what my priest, Pater Michael, declares a miracula, nothing less than a miracle. "I'm nearly a man."
"You have the arms to prove it," he says, noting the one part of my body that swells with strength. His arms, instead, are like his chest -- ropy. He holds empty hands up. "Won't you have pity, Master, on a simple fellow passing through?" He bows his head.
"Those aren't the clothes of a simple fellow."
He looks at my farmer smock and pants, and smiles just a little. He turns slowly in a circle, then faster. Then he's dancing, lifting his knees high, grinning like a fool. He twirls till he falls, laughing, on all fours.
I've never seen such a display outside of festivals and marriages and, of course, sacred ceremonies. It makes me think of our coven's jumping dance. The higher we jump, the higher the crops will grow. But we never dance without music; we don't do what this man just did.
He turns and drops onto his bottom. "Simple enough for you?"
I'm smiling at his wordplay. Puns confuse the devil, so they keep him at bay. From this man's behavior, though, it would seem he's not exercising prudence, but merely playing the jokester. "So, you're passing through, witty fellow. From where?"
"Most recently, Bremen."
Bremen is one of the largest cities in Germany, with more than ten thousand people. It's a week north of here, for those strong enough to walk all day. Nearly to the great North Sea. I've never been there; just the exertion of going to the healing waters at Bad Pyrmont is enough to bathe me in sweat, and that's only a half day south of here. But I listen well when travelers talk, and the images that fill my head bless me with the illusion of experience. My ears itch to hear more. "Tell me about it."
"A moat surrounds the whole town, right outside the massive wall."
I know what a moat is. The nuns in H�xter talk only of the cathedral school in Bremen. They say that's all that should interest me, a future cleric, if I have a future, which no one but Grossmutter believes. But everything interests me -- everything. My ears filter out nothing, no matter who is talking.
A moat. Enemies. Battles.
"Our town is nearly surrounded by water too," I say, "but from natural rivers -- a natural moat. And we have walls against enemies."
"Really, now?" He looks amused. "And who attacks?"
My cheeks got hot. I shouldn't have boasted, for I don't know of any attack.
An infantry passed through Hameln town once, when I was but five or six years old -- when Mother was still alive. It wasn't a Crusade. The most recent Crusade was a couple of years before my birth. No, this was just some sort of display. The soldiers wore iron helmets with neck guards and cheek guards. Metal scales of armor protected them from shoulder to midthigh. They carried wood shields covered with leather that was gilded or silvered and had bronze decorations. Father said they were all dressed up with nowhere to go, and he laughed like I believe this stranger would laugh. But my brothers and sisters and I watched intently, and Mother squeezed my shoulder as she stood beside me in the crowd. All of us wanted to fight the infidels. What better way is there to show your love for Jesus Christ? For years after that we boys made helmets out of old leather scraps and marched in the woods behind our farmstead.
I place the branch on the ground and drop beside it. I sit with my arms around my raised and spread knees, careful to cross my legs only at the ankle so that the rolled cuffs of my pant legs hang free. "Forget Hameln. Tell me more about Bremen."
"There are peat bogs outside town. And farmers have built dikes to steal marshlands from the sea. Willows and poplars sway in the winds. Boats go in and out the harbor." He puts his hand above his eyebrows, as though he's screening his eyes from the sun as he looks across a vast harbor. Then he lets his hand fall and grins. "Lots of boats. More than a boy like you can count."
"I can count high," I say.
I could start counting and continue till he tells me to stop. But I lose my breath so easily. Pride isn't worth it.
"What are you doing in these woods?" asks the man.
"A girl's task," he says.
I could rise to that insult; I could tell him it's my job for the coven. But just hearing the word can make people grimace in fear, for words can empower evil. Many people know only about the wicked covens. The ones that bring trouble and promote Morth deeds -- death deeds. They are rabid and wrathful. Their neighbors get worms or epilepsy. These covens bring on lightning and tempests. They cause hailstorms and ruin crops. They make men sterile and women deliver stillbirths. They are nothing like us.
I won't risk scaring him off. "There are no girls left in our family," I say reasonably, "and I'm the youngest."
His eyes flicker past me and back again. "Did they marry?"
"One. The others were sold."
"Ah, sold." Melancholy tinges his voice. His shoulders curl forward. "Some people don't deserve children."
The harshness of that thought shocks me.
The man jerks to attention. "What's that in your pant leg?"
I unroll the right cuff gently till Kr�te is in the open. He blinks, then hops to the ground beside my foot. He's dusty black, nearly as dark as the rich dirt.
"Do you always carry a toad on your person?" asks the man, his face relaxing again.
I nudge Kr�te just the slightest with my big toe. The toad makes a single hop.
Every member of a coven has a familiar -- an animal through which we have our magic powers. A dog, a horse, a hen -- any black animal will do. When it dies or goes astray, another takes its place. Kr�te is my familiar.
"It seems he doesn't want to leave you." The man reaches forward a hand. His confidence almost offends me.
I tense up: People don't always treat toads kindly. "I wouldn't touch any black toads around Hameln town if I were you. Any one of them could have been rolled in my pant leg."
He blinks and sits on both hands, his face a mask now. This is a prudent man, after all. I shouldn't have made my words sound so threatening.
Kr�te hops off among the sparse underbrush. These beeches offer their flat leaves to the heavens, like upturned palms; little sun can penetrate to the forest floor. But he's a smart toad though; he'll manage. Godspeed, Kr�te.
"So, you came from Bremen," I say in a light tone, eager to get the man talking again. "And where are you going to?"
"But you've strayed and gone too far."
The man jerks his chin toward me. "How's that? I followed the river."
"The left as the river flows. They told me the Leine runs in from that bank."
"It does. But from the left bank of the Aller, not the Weser." I stand and draw a map in the dirt with my branch. "See? You followed the Weser, so you walked almost due south to Hameln town." I draw a deep star. "But the Aller comes into the Weser from the east, and the Leine runs into the Aller at least a day's journey later." I draw another star where Hannover lies. "The Leine goes to Hannover; the Weser doesn't."
The man stares at my map. "So I'm past where I want to be?"
"Not by much." I sit again. "You're still in Saxony. You could be in Hannover by the day after tomorrow."
"Even crossing these hills?"
"These are nothing. Be glad you won't have to cross the Harz Mountains. They're to the southeast. You'll go northeast."
"You're a veritable geographer," says the man. He pulls his hands out from under his bottom and brushes off the dirt, looking at me the whole time. He tilts his head, sizes me up. Then he rubs the side of his neck. "But I wager you haven't seen the Aller or the Leine or even the Harz Mountains, have you, now?"
The challenge stings; I hate being judged by my body. I take up the stone again and quickly draw hills into my map. I add the Harz Mountains. "There are evergreens there," I say, "not just beeches. Most of them are pines." I outline a castle. "That's where Herzberg should be." I extend the Weser south. "And this is H�xter." That town I can mark with complete assurance. I throw the stone past his cheek, close enough that I'm sure his ear felt the air move. It strikes a tree trunk. I wince in apology to the tree. "I've seen lots of the world. In maps and drawings and stories. I study."
He touches his ear lightly and gives an exaggerated whistle of appreciation. "At the monastery of Sch�nau near Sankt Goarshausen, I wager."
That famous monastery is far. I realize I don't even know where it is -- I couldn't place it on a map. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and back. "Don't mock me. I read works from Sch�nau -- I read everything. I've read the letters of the Benedictine nun Elisabeth von Sch�nau. I've read about her visions and ecstacies. She rails against the corruption of the church. I know her work as well as if I had the good fortune to listen to her directly. You can believe me on this. I study with the priest in H�xter once a month because our own priest can hardly see anymore. I go by boat up the Weser. After my birthday in autumn, if I live, I'm going to the town school in Magdeburg, where the bishop himself teaches." And now the coughs come. I talked too much, too fast. I fold forward over myself, coughing and gagging.
"What is it, boy?" The man claps a hand on my back.
The mucus presses in my windpipe, threatening to clog it. I get to my feet with difficulty and wave the man aside. Then I stand on my hands. Gobs of muck fly from my mouth onto the dirt. The coughs scrape the insides of my lungs, thinning every part, forcing a path for air. Coughs and coughs. Gradually they subside. I right myself to the sweet pleasure others enjoy without thought, the sweetest pleasure of all: breath.
The man gapes still. "How long can you stay up on your hands?"
"As long as I need to. Grossmutter taught me when I was younger than I can remember. She says it's why I'm still alive. She says I can't die if I'm standing on my hands."
"You have a cunning grandmother." The man looks contrite. "May you live past your birthday. May you study wherever you like. Even at the Fulda monastery down in Frankish lands. May you study arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music -- whatever you want."
Music. "I heard your beat."
"I know. It brought you to me. Just like the animals. You're a funny boy, to come to animal music, and mere beats, at that. But I saw it in your eyes: You couldn't help it, could you? All of you, fascinated."
There's that cockiness again, like when he thought he'd touch Kr�te without my permission. But we're becoming friends now, so I let it go.
"I like almost anything rhythmic. I always have." I don't tell him how many times I've fallen asleep to someone pounding in regular beats on my back.
His pipe tantalizes me, perched on the heap of his red shirt. "Have you studied music?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "It comes naturally. That's why I'm on my way to Hannover -- for the apple blossom festival."
Musicians that learned on their own make the best coven pipers. "We have an apple blossom festival here, too," I say encouragingly.
He smiles. "Hannover is big. They set up platforms in the town square so everyone can see the actors and musicians."
"It sounds like the new Easter passion plays."
He laughs now. "Not so elaborate, I'm sure. But it lasts two days. And it pays. There are festivals all through sowing and reaping. Then the saints' days follow. I can stay busy till the end of autumn."
"If you're looking for work, our farmers can always use an extra hand. Everything grows in the loess of our plains."
"I'm a piper. Festivals in little towns like yours are too brief and far between to keep me happy."
"Exactly. You could farm for money and pipe for joy. The life would be a lot better than that of an itinerant piper. And those who listened would be far more attentive than your usual audience."
"You'd have to give up your dandy clothes and don all black."
"All black?" His voice hushes to a whisper. "You mean be a devil's piper?"
"It's not shameful."
"So, that toad really was your familiar."
He shakes his head. "I'm just an ordinary Christian piper. And what about you? You said you study with a priest, so how can you belong to a coven?"
"We're papists in our coven -- we follow the pope. We practice the good magic of the old religion, merging it with the enlightenment of the new religion." I stop for breath. "We are soldiers of Christ."
"Christians can't abide pagan ways."
"Why not? Pagan ways with nature do no harm. No one has reason to fear us -- no one decent, at least."
He shakes his head harder.
"Even the priests consult us, I swear. When things go really wrong, they come to us. Don't be fooled by black clothing: We wear it only out of tradition." I don't even know if what I say is true. I'm not sure why we wear black. Many things about the coven are secrets from me, for when I ask, the supreme head says I'm too young to know. He let me join when Grossmutter asked, because she's the oldest member and, as such, commands respect. And because he doesn't think I'll be a member for long.
"You risk your soul," says the piper.
"That's the one thing I don't risk. My name is Salz."
He pushes his bottom lip forward in confusion. "They named you after food salt?"
"Not originally. I was christened Siefried." I wipe the sweat that remains on my brow and hold out my hand. "Lick it."
He pulls back slightly in surprise. But then he licks. He wrinkles his nose. "You could salt a vat of gruel."
"The priest at H�xter renamed me. He says it's better to face your afflictions than to pretend they don't exist. So I'm S-A-L-Z. S for soul's salvation; A for activity and ability; L for loyalty and light heartedness; Z for zeal in making money. The letters A, L, and Z are wishful thinking. Other children salty like me die before they're useful. But the letter S was in my christened name too. It belongs to me." I wipe my hand on my smock. "So you see, my soul is guaranteed salvation."
"I don't know anything about letters," he says softly, "but I pray you're right."
I step closer to him. "Play your pipe for me. Please. Let me hear a little melody." I smile in a way I hope is winning, for I am warming to him more and more. "A simple tune."
"Best to change my tune," he says, and this time I'm sure of the intent of his pun. He picks up the pipe and tucks it in at the waist of his trousers. He slips his shirt on over his head. "If you pass through Hannover on your way to Magdeburg, listen for me."
"I might," I say, a little hurt. "But I won't stop."
He laughs. "If you hear me, you'll stop. I'll be playing people music this time. No one will be able to resist." He throws his sack over his shoulder and walks through the forest, out of sight.