Read Breath (9781439132227) Online

Authors: Donna Jo Napoli

Breath (9781439132227)

Atheneum Books for Young Readers
An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2003 by Donna Jo Napoli

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

The text for this book is set in ACaslon.

Manufactured in the United States of America

4 6 8 10 9 7 5

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Napoli, Donna Jo, 1948-

Breath / Donna Jo Napoli.

p.   cm.

Summary: Elaborates on the tale of “The Pied Piper,” told from the point of view of a boy who is too ill to keep up when a piper spirits away the healthy children of a plague-ridden town after being cheated out of full payment for ridding Hameln of rats.

ISBN-13: 978-0-689-86174-1

eISBN-13: 978-1-439-13222-7

ISBN-10: 0-689-86174-5

1. Pied Piper of Hamelin (Legendary character)—Juvenile fiction. [1. Pied Piper of Hamelin (Legendary character)—Fiction. 2. Middle Ages—Fiction. 3. Cystic fibrosis—Fiction. 4. Magic—Fiction. 5. Plague—Germany—Fiction. 6. Hameln (Germany)—History—To 1500—Fiction. 7. Germany—History—1273-1517—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.N15Bt 2003

[Fic]—dc21   2002154921

For Brenda Bowen, who helps me breathe


I thank Krista Gigone, Thad Guyer, Richard Tchen, Luke Wallin, Jeff Wu, and Chandra Yesiltas for editorial help at so many points along the way I thank my family and Brenda Bowen for that and everything else.

Note to the Reader

The letter ß stands for


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. Cursèd, 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
, 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 Höxter 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.

“Gathering herbs.”

“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.

Kröte moves.

The man jerks to attention. “What's that in your pant leg?”

I unroll the right cuff gently till Kröte 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 Kröte 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. Kröte 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.

Kröte 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, Kröte.

“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.”

“Which bank?”

“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.”

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