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Chapter 3 : Skeleton Wood
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“How long will spring last?” I asked Beth, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground next to me.
She smiled serenely and shook her head, as if she knew some secret that I didn’t. Her blonde curls bounced as she spoke. “It’s not spring for me. I’m enjoying autumn.”
There was something so honest about the girl in front of me that I had no choice but to trust her. It had never occurred to me that what I saw wasn’t what was visible to everyone else. I wondered how a girl so young could be so full of wisdom. It seemed to exude from her very skin.
I stood up, leaving Beth to her thoughts. My eyes found the Potters, who were sitting under a small orange tree. Well, I say small, but this tree was bigger than any other orange tree I’d ever seen. It was just small for the Orchard, and it was not nearly as large as the orange tree in which I had made my home. I joined them where they sat.
'How did Beth die?” I asked quietly, checking that she was out of earshot. James looked slightly abashed by my question. Obviously, newcomers didn’t often ask for details of others’ deaths. Lily’s green eyes flickered over to Beth, who was now being joined by her grandson, Jam. I followed her gaze, and I had to think twice; how could an eight-year-old have a grandson?
“She had cancer,” Lily murmured. I briefly envisioned a lot of crabs swarming the young girl’s body; Luna had been fascinated by astrology a couple of years before I died. Then I remembered that cancer was a Muggle disease, and my heart filled with sorrow. That still didn’t solve the mystery of how she had a grandson at eight years old…
“She was diagnosed shortly after her eighth birthday,” James elaborated, shaking his dark hair out of his blue eyes. “But she lived until her late twenties… it kept recurring. The Muggles haven’t found a cure yet.”
My eyes widened. The poor girl… There were some things in life that would always be there, but the concept still seemed awful. “I take it you’ve had a long time to get to know each other?” I asked cautiously, wondering if they felt the same way about killing time in this miserable place as I did.
“Beth was here when we died,” Lily said in a hushed voice. “Jam didn’t arrive until recently.” I understood that there was no way of describing time; it was as if time in the white world was at the mercy of time in the living world.
“Have you seen Skeleton Wood?” James interrupted our conversation.
My eyes flickered between the pair. I wondered what kind of place had such a name; what horrors lay in store for me there? Even the name gave me the creeps. I had a terrible fear of skeletons ever since I came across one during my trip to Africa. The thought of the yellowed, brittle bones haunted me in my darkest nightmares. “Where is it?”
“It’s not far on from the Orchard,” James said, his dark hair falling across his eyes.
“Ask Beth to take you,” Lily said softly. Beth seemed to be the one we all turned to with questions about the white world; she had been here long enough to know many of the answers that we craved.
“What is it?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.
James sighed and looked pensive. “It’s hard to describe. You need to see it to understand it.”
I frowned, and thanked them. Although I didn’t understand, I knew that they were only trying to help me. I needed all the help I could get if I was to adapt to this strange way of being. I looked over to where Beth had been sitting moments before, but she had left the clearing and was walking down the path into the trees.
“Beth!” I called, barely needing to raise my voice because there was no other sound.
She turned slowly on the spot and waited for me to join her. “Hello, Aurelia.”
I paused, then asked, “Can you take me to Skeleton Wood?”
“Follow me,” she said with one of her smiles and set off along the path again. I studied the orange trees around me as we walked. They made me feel terribly small and insignificant; a feeling I was used to from my school days.
After about one-hundred steps I noticed that the trees were changing; their trunks were slimming and their bark was getting darker in colour. I looked up and saw that the beautifully green leaves appeared to be shooting back into the branched. The sight was alarmingly eerie.
“Is it winter?” I whispered. It seemed forbidden to speak loudly.
Beth looked at me, all the smiles gone from her face and voice. “This is Skeleton Wood.”
I peered into the wood, wondering what was so different or special about it. It was just a bunch of dead-looking trees; admittedly the white world was now grey, but other than that I saw no change. Beth had stopped walking and I stood by her side; we were waiting. The white world was one big waiting room as if at some point I could just hop on a train and ‘move on’. From what I had seen so far I guessed it wasn’t nearly as simple as that.
The whole wood seemed restless; although I couldn’t hear anything I felt like I was being watched. My skin felt prickly and I had goose-bumps up and down my arms. There was definitely something wrong here and it agitate me. I needed to get away; standing here didn’t feel natural.
“Why are we here?” I asked Beth irritably.
Beth made no movement but I could see in her eyes that she understood my discomfort. “There are some things in the world that you can’t avoid,” she said softly. “It helps you accept who you are.”
My eyes drifted sideways, searching for what was hiding in the trees. “I know who I am; I’m Aurelia. Can I go now?”
Before Beth could answer I saw them. All the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when I looked at them, but I found that I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
“What are they?” I asked, feeling repulsed.
“They are souls.”
I eyed the deformed figures. They could almost be human shaped, except that they were lost and rotten. Grey in colour, they looked like they were made of smoke; they were definitely not solid. “Souls?” My voice caught in my throat and my eyes stung. I still couldn’t tear my eyes away from the sight before me; I felt that if I didn’t watch them they’d simply disappear.
“They still have living bodies,” Beth said to her feet. She, for some reason, was able to break eye contact with the twisted creatures. “They are neither dead nor alive.”
“But,” I said in a choked voice,” I thought we are all dead here?”
Beth shook her head and smiled sadly. “No.”
“Can’t we help them?” I said desperately.
“No,” Beth shook her head again, making her golden curls bounce around. They looked so out of place here. “They stay like this until they die.”
My eyes pricked. “What could do such I thing to a person?”
“Usually a coma. But there are magical creatures, so I’ve heard, that can render a person soulless. You’d have to talk to Lily and James about that. My knowledge is rather patchy.”
I shuddered and turned away. Dizziness enveloped me, leaving me feeling sick and ashamed. How could I complain about my own predicament when these things were in a much worse state than I was? At least I was still of sound mind and body.
I returned to the orange trees. The tree trunks stretched up into the sky, seemingly endless. I closed my eyes on this horrible place, this place of death and decay, until the white light crept under my eyelids. When I reopened them, I found myself facing my orange tree. The leaves were delightfully green, as if they were the only living things for miles. Were they even alive? Or was this orange tree condemned to death, just as I was? Did its leaves breathe, did its heart beat? I had no need to breathe, and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. The most simple of reflexes, and it was no longer in my control. I no longer had long, deep breaths to soothe my mind.
I mentally drew a breath and tenderly placed my bare foot on the trunk of the tree. It seemed to distort around my foot, creating a perfect step. I climbed further into the tree, the branches twisting around my body, until I reached the oranges. I hungrily plucked one from its branch and peeled it. After one bite, the sweet juices filled my mouth, and I felt at home. I felt safe.
The leaves rustled and stirred, as if a faint breeze was passing through them; I knew better, of course. No wind had ever passed through this blank world. The only things that passed through it were the dead. The dead and the decayed.
The leaves and branches slowly faded away, leaving a scene to form behind them. As I peered closer, the scene became less blurred, and people-shaped objects began to define themselves against a large scarlet object. Grasping my new wand tightly in my hand, I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I found myself standing in the middle of the crowd. Voices danced around me as if they were echoing off some barrier between us, and they seemed strangely distant in my ears; almost as if I were underwater. I looked passed the many heads on my right and saw the Hogwarts Express, its scarlet engine gleaming like a beacon against the dark stone walls behind it. I knew instinctively that this was Luna’s first day of school. I walked through the people around me in my search for my daughter, but I couldn’t see her beautiful blonde hair anywhere on the platform. I eyed the old clock on the wall and I relaxed; it was only ten to eleven, so my family would be sure to arrive soon.
Then I saw her; she was skipping through the barrier between Platform Nine and Platform Ten. My husband followed her, a wistful look framing his face. How much older he looked, I thought sadly. I had forgotten that although my age is at a standstill, life goes on. It has been nearly two years since my death, for Xenophilius, anyway. For me it has seemed like no time at all.
The clock struck eleven and Luna was itching to get on board the train. Excitement shone from her every pore, and she bounced on her heels in excitement. I watched Xeno’s face with longing as he bent down to give our daughter a kiss on her cheek. I almost made to hug her, but I had to remind myself at the last moment that I was dead. No matter how much I wanted to hug Luna so tightly and never let go, her life was moving on, and it was something I could no longer control. Then again, Luna had always been independent, and I’m not sure even if I hadn’t died that I would be able to control her. I didn’t think I wanted to.
I watched her hair sway across her back as she hopped onto the train. I wanted to help her with her trunk when she struggled with it, but she no longer needed me. She was now strong enough to do the tasks she had always depended on me for. This wasn’t supposed to happen now! I thought miserably. She was supposed to be a woman before she no longer needed me; I was supposed to be alive. This premature notion struck me dumb. I had taken for granted things which I no longer had. I wanted my daughter to need me; I wanted to be able to share those moments every mother and daughter has a right to; I wanted to help mould her. How had she grown up so quickly?
I forgot who I was for the time being, and joined Xenophilius where he stood on the platform amongst the other proud parents who were sending their precious children off to Hogwarts for the first time. We waved goodbye to our daughter together as if no time had passed and nothing had changed, even though neither father nor daughter would ever know I was there. A tiny piece of me left on the train with Luna that day; it was a part of me that would always belong to my daughter, and I was happy to see it go.
I can easily say that sending Luna to Hogwarts had made me very proud. I suppose it’s rather unorthodox that one of my happiest memories happened when I was dead. I’ve certainly never heard anyone say that before. Unusual things have always happened to me, and so there should be no reason why unusual things would stop happening to me after I died.
I turned around to find Xenophilius again, just to see his face one more time before I left, but instead saw Lily and James Potter waving their son off. They saw me, and the looks on their faces mirrored my feelings; seeing that it wasn’t hard for just me cheered me up slightly. It was almost as if we were friends.
Friends. Now there’s something I didn’t have many of. I had the select few who saw past my oddness and stuck by me. However, I found it hard to believe that any of them would have understood my situation. Seeing Lily and James standing there on the platform possibly feeling as alone as I was made the world seem brighter. The only difference was that they weren’t alone; they had each other.
The world was indeed brighter, for I was returning to the white world. I closed my eyes so that I could adjust to the whiteness, and soothe my mind. When I opened them again, I saw the orange tree staring back at me as if it were alive. Which was an absurd notion, because nothing in the white world was alive. I studied the leaves, wondering if they had ever been alive; they drooped under my gaze, turning golden and red. Autumn was here.
I plucked another orange off the tree and stepped down. I walked a few paces and when I looked over my shoulder, the orange tree had faded. In its place were roots, and the roots twisted and shot upward, solidifying into tree trunks and sprouting leaves. How could that not be alive? I thought to myself as I crushed a juicy segment in my mouth. I was in no rush, so I ambled amongst the trees as a colourful canopy covered the blank space above them. As far as I remembered, it had been spring before I had visited Platform Nine and Three Quarters. What had happened to summer?
I had always enjoyed summer, and I felt nostalgic that I had missed summer here. I had no idea when the next summer would be; the seasons in the white world were unpredictable and random. They didn’t follow normal rules, and the season differed for each dead person. How could I ever make sense of that? It frustrated me that I couldn’t understand where I was or how it worked. I had spent most of my life working out problems, and now I didn’t have the facilities to discover more. I hated the unknown.
I looked around at the expanse of trees; how big was the Orchard? I had heard Beth talking about the people from the Orange Trees… so I decided that there must be other types of trees. How many people waited here? There were so many questions buzzing around my head, and I knew that some of the questions would never be answered, if indeed there were answers. Some things had no solution. I had to learn to accept that.
The tree trunks thinned, and I came to the clearing where I had first met Beth and her grandson. I saw that Lily and James were already there and I joined them where they sat. None of us mentioned where we had just been; it seemed too private to discuss out loud. Instead I finished my orange whilst I waited for someone to break the silence. It was only in our companionable silence that it occurred to me: Lily and James had been here for a very long time. I had never thought that I’d be in the white world for very long, but what if I never left? Ariana, the lady who was not death, had said we waited in the Orchard until we were ready to move on; what if I was never ready? I had no idea what I was waiting for.
The silence seemed to grow, and I examined a yellow leaf that was on the ground next to me. Although there was no defined time in this world, I knew I couldn’t stand to be alone for much longer. I had contact with the dead here, but it was no match for the bond which that two living people shared. I would never have that again, and as far as I was concerned, I would always be alone.
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