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Chapter 3: Cobwebs
I held a strawberry in my hand, the vivid colour of its skin making my fingers glow. It was freshly plucked from a small ring of blushing fruit that grew in a perfect circle at the peak of the hill in the centre of the lake. Each strawberry was almost identical in shape, a tiny heart to be held in the palm of my hand. As I cradled it loosely the fruit pulsed, throbbing against my smooth skin, a reminder of its vitality. It seemed cruel to even touch it, let alone let it pass my lips. I never ate the fruit here and I had never tasted any from the rest of white world either. I knew it was dead, everything here was, but I half held onto the hope that something remained in the white world, something alive. It was written in the way the wind whispered and the trees swayed, how the lake encircling the stoic hill; hidden behind the colour and silence was something resolutely alive. That thought kept me from losing myself to loneliness.
One day, perhaps, I would learn to accept that it was the curse of the guardian to be lonely. Keeping my distance from those who briefly passed through the intermediate world sheltered my soul from destruction. Death was harsh and all too frequent; I was surrounded by it here and it was something I couldn't escape from. The dead met me, questioned me, left me and that circle never ended. Every time I held my hand to their weakened hearts, I took a piece of them with me, feeling their nostalgic last pulse in the palm of my hand. Breaths were discarded and blood was stilled until all that was left of a person was their mind and spirit, wandering around the white world until they found themselves again.
The Orchard, where most departed souls found themselves, was always empty when I chose to visit. The path I wandered was always solitary until I was needed. I was their first contact, greeting them with infinity and waiting lifetimes just to bid them goodbye.
Placing the strawberry close to where I had plucked it from, I watched as a bright green stem shot from the ground and glowed as it found the stalk of the strawberry, the colour fading as the small fruit nestled itself into leaves and grass. Things here had a habit of healing themselves, with or without my intervention and I liked it that way. I had always preferred to let time take its own course, though I could barely fathom the hidden workings of this world. People came and went, young or old for their age, fixed in one form yet I weathered, aging as though I had never left my earthly body. I had grown up in a strange world, more startling than the one I had left, gaining an accelerated wisdom. Death had given me many unexpected things.
Shaking my head, I stroked a perfectly straight blade of grass, my fingers turning green momentarily before the colour faded. I had made a promise to myself not to think about the past, something so far away and distant that I should really bury it or tuck it neatly away. Besides, there were other things that had much greater need of my attention.
The grass was no longer a vivid green; blade by blade, the green turned white in a circular motion, the colour fading in ripples from where I sat. The white spread, erasing all trace of colour before I was forced to close my eyes; the whiteness itched at my eyelids and attempted to crawl under my lashes but they remained tightly shut, unsurprised. The white world was predictable in its unpredictability. Quite often I found that objects and other things simply melted into nothingness at my touch, whether I meant to do it or not. The white seemed to live under my very skin, leaking every once in a while to spread amongst my surroundings.
As the whiteness beyond my eyelids fade slightly, I opened my eyes, adjusting to the new light. The white sky was eclipsed by dense canopies, leaves and branches weaving together like clumsy cobwebs, letting in diamonds of white every now and then. Beneath my feet the ground was earthy and shaded, a dusty path stretching out in front of me with every step forward. The air was cloying with fruity scent, sharp and lemony.
Leaning against a tree to my right, her face shrouded in kaleidoscopic shadows, my mother was waiting. I sighed, leaving the path, avoiding the lemon pulp rotting on the orchard floor and approached her, my eyes warily taking in her wane features.
“Mother,” I said stiffly as I reached her. She didn’t look surprised to see me, a frown preparing to make its way onto her stubborn brow.
“Ariana,” she responded, her expression even. “I wondered when you’d be back.”
The first time I had found my mother here, I had fled to the safety of my hill and wept for a very long time. All I saw in her face was unanswered questions, my own bitterness reflected there and an uncertainty of truth.
I didn’t want to see her here, somewhere where I thought I was safe. This place was mine, I protected it and it sheltered me from what I had done. To her, I had died a long time ago. We haunted each other; me and my condition, her and the death I caused. I saw the hardness behind her eyes as she faced me now, a steely accusation.
She could see me grow up here in a way I had refused to when we were both alive. I was stilted, afraid and restricted, her shame never allowing me to flourish into the girl I could have been. Scared as I had been, my mother never learned who I was. Here, fifteen years later, she and I were equals. With equality came the uncovering of secrets we had both buried long ago.
I shrugged. “I think we both know I’m not going anywhere.”
My mother nodded. “You’ve grown again,” she observed, referring not to my physical height, but to something else. One day, I would overtake her in age and maturity alike.
I brushed some loose strands of hair from my face, knocking a low branch next to me. A lemon dropped from it like a stone, bursting when it hit the ground in a splash of yellow, the colour seeping into the earth and reaching far beyond its pulp. The yellow glowed in my mother’s cheeks, the first sign of warmth I had seen there.
“Why are you still here?” I asked, my voice sharp and stony. Naively, I had once thought she would be gone quickly like the rest of them, staying briefly in this place of awe until they dispersed into the mist, finished. My mother, frozen in her form, never left me in peace.
“You’re the one with the answers, it seems. Why don’t you tell me?” Her lips were pursed, her eyebrows slightly cocked. She seemed to enjoy my irritation.
“If I knew that, you wouldn’t still be here,” I retorted, pacing in front of her.
My mother sighed. “Perhaps if you stopped being so angry with me, you might think more clearly.”
I kicked a loose lemon angrily, colour and scent exploding onto the white earth. “Don’t you think I have a right to be angry?”
“Not particularly,” she spat. “Not after what happened last time.”
My fists clenched, the ground beneath me shook. Above us, the canopy rustled noisily. “That wasn’t my fault.”
Saying nothing, she stood up straight, looking at me with disappointment before turning her back on me and walking away into the thick of the trees. It was a long time after she left that I was able to relax my fists and walk away into the white mist, my bitterness and regret seeping away into the white horizon to create a scarlet-dappled sky above me. The mist faded, revealing Strawberry Hill at the centre of the lake, its waters rippling. I lay down in the grass, letting the hill sooth me and comfort me. I was in control here; my magic couldn’t hurt me anymore.
AN: Thank you once again for the lovely reviews. I've had a sudden burst of inspiration, so hopefully I'll be writing much faster from now on. If you have time and feel so inclined, please leave a review!