Years and miles away there was a boy who sat behind an inn in the town of Hamlin. He had just been booed off the tiny stage. Tonight he had no food in his belly, nor a roof over his head, for he had agreed to play through to the closing of the bar in return for these things. It was raining a fine mist and though hungry and damp, there was a third thing he craved above a full belly and a dry head. He wanted recognition and remembrance.
Hamlin was the third town in which he had failed to play in the last week. This was not the first week he’d been trying and failing to make a name for himself. And maybe his ends were the problem. The other musicians and entertainers he’d encountered had advised him not to worry about fame or fortune until he’d gotten his feet under him. Find an inn where folks don’t care how well you play and get used to working a crowd, they said, but the boy did not listen. He would go to the nicer inns and speak to the proprieters, telling them the ever lengthening list of venues he’d played. If he had any talent that showed he was in the wrong business, it was his aptitude for evading questions about how his performances were. Never did he fail to find a place to play, of that there is no doubt. Keeping the stage once he’d attained it was another matter entirely.
And so he was out back of the inn in Hamlin, ignoring the complaints of his stomach and the rain on his head, when a man in the garb of a tinker passed him by. The tinker was of a creed not well respected in Hamlin, which is why he was sticking to the back streets instead of parading down the main boulevards crying his wares. Not being from Hamlin himself, the boy returned the tinker’s nod and did not turn away when the old man stopped and lit a cigarette.
“You look like a boy who is down on his luck,” said the tinker. “Or perhaps one who never had much to begin with.”
The boy nodded. “It’s not that I can’t play. I just can’t ever play what the audience wants.”
“Ah, well that’s always the trick, isn’t it. If you have any coin, I can sell you something to eat on the cheap. I’ve never taken charity, myself, and I don’t like to encourage it in others.”
“Thank you, no,” replied the boy. “I have a bit of bread still.”
“Very well,” the tinker said, bowing his head. He took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette. “What do you play, anyway?”
“I play the flute,” said the boy.
“A fine instrument to be sure. May I see it?” The tinker held out a hand. The boy looked at the hand for a moment, but though scarred and stained, it was otherwise clean so he handed over his instrument. The tinker took the instrument and examined it. He held it up to the street light to get a better look through the rain. At that moment he flinched and cried out, jerking his hands and tossing the flute into the air. As it fell, he shook his leg, yelling, and the boy saw a dark shape fly from the tinker’s ankle into the shadows. He heard the rattle of his flute hit the ground and then a crack as the old man stepped on it. The flute caught under the old man’s heel and shot out from under it. The old man fell to the ground. The boy looked from man to where he thought the flute had gone and back. Then he rose and helped the old man to his feet, scarse waiting for him to get stable before he was bent over and peering in the shadows for his instrument.
He found it with a rat attached. The boy flailed, flute clenched tight in his first until the rat was flung away. He moaned at the sorry state of his only possession of value. There was a deep crack running lengthwise along it, dirt rubbed into the holes and the rat had left deep teeth marks near the mouthpiece. Had he any skill with wood or money to pay someone who did, it would not have been the end of the world. Lacking these things, he perceived that it was and tears began to blend with the misty rain.
The tinker rummaged in his sack. “I’ve always heard the rats in this town were a plague, but never thought it was true.” He straightened, holding an oblong case. “How’s the flute, boy?”
“It’s ruined!” sobbed the boy.
“Now now, let me see,” said the tinker. “Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. I can fix this up a treat.”
“Really?” asked the boy.
“Yes, but you’ve already said you’ve not money.”
Had the boy said that? He didn’t remember.
“I’ll tell you what. I have here a flute that is, point of fact, better than yours. Since I am responsible for damaging your flute, I will trade you mine in exchance. What do you say?” As he spoke he opened the case to show an ornate flute. There was a stylized snake burned into the wood, whose head encompassed the mouthpiece and whose tongue tickled the end of the flute beyond that. As the boy gazed in wonder the tinker cleared his throat. “The, eh, the case isn’t included,” he said.
“I’ll take it!” exclaimed the boy and his thrust his flute forward. The old man took the boy’s instrument and swapped it in the case with the snake-flute. He handed it to the boy with one hand and extended the other for the boy to shake. Had the boy noticed how hungrily the old man waited for him to shake and seal the deal, he might not have accepted the snake-flute and saved everyone a whole lot of trouble. However that was not the case, and he shook, becoming the proud owner of a very fancy flute.