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Chapter 2: Penance
Clouds swirled in kaleidoscopic patterns above my head as I lay amongst the lush grass of Strawberry Hill. I often enjoyed watching the space above me when I was at a loose end, letting the whiteness above tinge with blue as someone, somewhere, spilled a pot of ink whilst writing their tragic tale. Sometimes I imagined that it was me who caused the sky to fill with such beauty, that I could influence the art with my eyes. At other times, I invented characters who toiled away at night only to have their masterpiece ruined by a careless hand. I envied them, with their hopes and disappointments, with their decidedly human emotions.
Eventually, the ink seeped away to other parts of the white world and the clouds separated, leaving behind a brilliant white sky. I sat up, brushing stray grass from my hair. A small object marring the perfect surface of the circular lake around the hill caught my eye, a pale shape against the dark blue. Approaching the water's edge, I leaned forward, reaching for it. I lost my balance, my feet slipping from the bank and into the icy water. The current was strong beneath the surface; where the object stuck above forever, beneath it the forces were too strong for me. I let myself be dragged in, my hands clasping for the object before I was sucked under, water rushing loudly past my ears as I was carried.
My shoulder reached the bank at the other side of the lake first, burrowing into the hard surface as the water spat me out onto the shore. As I stood, I was already dry, with the small object trapped in my spindly fingers. It was a leaf, crisp and auburn, vivid and bright against my pale skin. Dark veins ran through it, a network of life hidden in its dead case.
I turned, sensing footsteps behind me. "Who are you?" a quiet voice said as I faced her.
Peering down, I inspected the little girl who had spoken. She was most likely short for her age, shorter than I had been, and she had large, terrified eyes framed by soft curls. "The question is," I began curiously. "Who are you?"
I had not been in the white world long when I had encountered my first dead. I, a child, turned and ran, leaving the poor soul calling after me in desperation. I had run and run until I reached the other side of the hill, beyond where he could reach me. They always found me first, the dead, and they wanted answers that I couldn't give. Their demands were high, their expectations low but I could not help them then. I knew no more than they did.
The little girl frowned up at me. "I asked first."
I sighed, wondering if I should have considered running after all. "I live here." I gestured towards the lake. "But you don't. You're new, aren't you, Elizabeth?"
"Yes," she said after a thoughtful pause. "I am. How did you know my name?"
I smiled at her curiosity, looking down briefly at the leaf in my hand, where the veins formed her name. "I was expecting you," I offered. "How did you die?"
She appeared to contemplate her answer, before shrugging. “I suppose it was pneumonia in the end,” she said mildly. “But I had cancer from a very young age.” She peered at her reflection in the lake. “From about this age, I’d say.”
We walked along the shore in silence, allowing her time to adjust to her new surroundings. It must have seemed a strange place, this world, with its abstract horizon and colour-speckled landscape. I had misjudged her from the moment I’d seen her, assuming her age was all that she was. It was easy to take people at face value, to look upon their unblemished souls and think that I could read them. I had assumed she was no older than eight or nine years old, when this sharp young girl held wisdom beyond her years in her sparkling blue eyes. When I looked upon my own reflection, I saw only a young woman, my eternal inner-child trapped behind bars of aging skin. Nothing was as it seemed here, and I would do well to remember that.
Elizabeth stopped as we drew closer to the edge of an orchard. She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply, as though a heavy perfume was wafting on an imaginary wind. “What’s that?” she asked curiously, her feet shuffling towards the trees of their own accord.
I looked skywards, admiring the splay of giant trees in front of us. I could not smell the scent she had found, but I knew it was there nonetheless. “This is where I leave you,” I said with a small smile. I stepped back, watching as a dirt path spread into the trees from where her feet touched the white earth. She began to wander up the path, forgetting me. “These are the orange trees.”
I avoided the orchard as much as I possibly could; I did not belong there with the rooted dead as they awaited their fate. I showed them where to go, but that was the limit of my guidance. I did not have the answers they sought, and it was best that they forgot about me completely. I needed to be the outsider, for that was what I was. That was what I always had been.
My own company suited me best and I relished it. I did not need to be ashamed of my solitude here, because we all were lost, in one way or another, waiting to find ourselves amongst the fruit trees. I had yet to discover what I was looking for; I had only ever known what it was to be alone, to be ashamed and afraid.
As I returned to the lake, I considered what I had told Elizabeth; I had picked the leaf with her name on it, but where was my leaf? Who was expecting me? I had nothing to rely on, nothing I could trust. I only had myself.
Mist hid the lake from my view as I walked closer, growing denser and denser before it completely engulfed me. I closed my eyes and let it support me, almost enjoying its light caress. White light grew brighter until it seeped under my closed eyes and I winced.
When the light subsided, I found myself where I always ended up when the mist took its hold on me. Godric’s Hollow had barely changed since I left it that fateful day, my only marker of time being my own age. I placed my hand gently on the garden gate and looked up at the house I had called my home. Ten years ago, I had died here.
My family, what was left of them, no longer lived here. My visits were usually solitary, allowing me to wander in my thoughts without interruption. The living could not see me or sense my presence; not that this was an unusual feeling for me. I was used to being invisible.
There was a light on in the front room and through the window I could see the young family that lived there now; they were laughing at something or other, but I couldn’t imagine what. I hadn’t done a lot of laughing in my time. Sighing enviously, I turned on my heel and walked the same path I always walked when I came here. It was a set rhythm, as though I was a small drop of water in a strong river; I could not stop myself. One foot in front of the other, I meandered towards the church and the graveyard that surrounded it like leaves fallen from a tree.
I knew what I would see, no matter how much I could stop it. Aberforth, my poor brother, my dear friend, knelt in front of a headstone, clutching a chipped vase. That vase used to sit on my windowsill, hosting dead flower after dead flower; they never survived long in my presence. He swept his hair from his face before removing the dead flowers from the vase, draining the dirty water before placing fresh flowers in the vase. His wand provided fresh water. I had no doubt that these flowers would be dead within a week, only to be replaced by him once again with sinful diligence.
I wished he wouldn’t come back here. Ghosts of our terrible past hid behind every corner, contaminating the air and the ground beneath our feet. He was paying a penance for the crimes of others, for sins he had no control over. In my early days in the afterlife, I had tried calling to him. I had tried touching him, but my efforts were futile; I could not reach him. Perhaps he hoped that this atonement would bring me the peace that I had never had, but it merely tormented me as I watched him in the graveyard.
He looked too old. It alarmed me how he had changed since my death, how little he had achieved in that time. An old man in a young shell, his body ached with a weariness fifty years too old for him. He seemed closer to death than I was.
As he wiped a tear from his cheek, he began to fade as the mist crawled across the land to reclaim me. I closed my eyes once again, surprised to find that my lashes were wet.
Author's Note: Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed the prologue - it's lovely to be writing in this universe again.