A dry mist descended on the Orchard, a low cloud that obscured the ground beneath us. The five of us sat close together at the base of an orange tree. Our bodies were hidden below the waist by the cool shroud of mist. I did not shiver at all; I was accustomed to the cloud.
We had not talked for a while now, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We sat in a circle, cross-legged and hands hidden by the mist. Occasionally, we would make eye contact with each other only to look away. I felt like we were all waiting for something we couldn’t name, the calm before the storm. I wondered idly if the others could hear them; the souls that unrelentingly tried to break through the barrier of the Orchard’s trees. A prickling feeling on the back of my exposed neck reminded me of their presence, as if I could forget. The silence of the Orchard was eerie at the best of times, but the faint wailing of demented souls chilled me all the more. I didn’t know how long they would continue to drift into the invisible force that kept us safe, but I wasn’t entirely sure it would last forever. After all, nothing else did. Not even the white world was unchanging. The trees grew, they died. The leaves fell from their branches in autumn and flowers burst from their buds in the springtime. A constant cycle of life and death surrounded me, yet I seemed completely separate from it. I had not aged in all the immeasurable years I had been in the white world.
How old would I have been had I lived? It was a strange concept to me now to think of the future. All those plans I had made, all those things I had wanted to do… they were meaningless now. I was a million miles away from home yet I was still there. I’d not yet lost myself in this curious world. Quite remarkable, really. I was often known to lose myself in my questions, in my mind. I used to spend days at a time working on some theory or another, following up a thought that had crossed my mind. It used to drive Xenophilius mad. During those days, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I didn’t talk. Another of my oddities. If I counted my time here in years, I had not slept for nearly a decade. But then again, I did not really know if anything counted here. Another unanswered question.
Lily, sat opposite me, drew her knees up to her chest. This slow yet sudden movement shook me from my thoughts. She seemed slightly grey, white even. Looking around at the others, I saw that they two had taken on a faded appearance. Was is the mist that hung between us? Or was it that the Orchard was slowly sucking the life out of us? There was no way of knowing the answer to that. I smiled briefly at Lily before yawning breathlessly. The silence was beginning to irritate me. Wanting to break it, shatter it, I considered shouting, screaming or even singing; that would have shattered most things.
“I’m tired of waiting,” Beth sighed when my gaze met hers. Her normally shiny, bouncy hair seemed lacklustre to my eyes.
“We’ve all been waiting a long time,” Jam said without looking up. His gravely voice broke the silence for a moment. It broke the deceptive calm around us, and the illusion of safety that had descended upon us. We all looked up, our eyes meeting and thoughts exchanged in mere glances. We had all indeed been waiting a long time, but my complaints seemed minimal compared to how long Beth had been here. Even Lily and James had been here the equivalent of ten years longer than I.
From what I could gather, none of us had found anyone else here. Our confinement was our orange trees, and although we saw glimpses of other trees we never saw their inhabitants. It was puzzling why the five of us had been placed together. There was no common denominator that linked us, nothing I could put my finger on that indicated similarities. The others came in pairs, it seemed. I was alone. I had not brought or found anyone here. I didn’t even know if I was supposed to.
James stood up, towering above our peaceful circle, his feet obscured by the mist. His features paled as he reached his full height, a thin sheet of mist crawling up his body and wrapping around him. He tried to brush it off with jerky hand movements, but the mist rose up again nevertheless. Stepping around the circle, he peered into the distance in the direction of the souls.
I noticed, then that the sound had stopped. A tinny silence remained in the absence of the scratchy voices. Had I been able to breathe, I was sure the sound would have echoed loudly in the Orchard; it seemed like even the slightest of noises could have shattered our eardrums.
I hated silence. I never used to, not when I was a child. Back then I would have appreciated the peace and quiet. No noise meant no company, and that suited me just fine. But now it drove me to the edge of insanity. It was an empty noise; I needed to fill it. The lack of sound meant lack of life and that was something that was beginning to haunt me. I cursed myself for not appreciating what I had had in life that was missing in death. Human nature was a wonderful and terrible thing. Why was it my own was so easily changed? I felt like I was nothing like who I was during my lifetime; I no longer craved solitude and I appreciated the company of those in a similar situation. Maybe it was that I could relate to them. I’d never really found another person quite as strange as me at home, other than Luna, of course. She and I were quite alike, even in her younger years. There was something so gratifying in seeing some of my own traits in my daughter. I felt like I wasn’t completely gone from the living world. Her curiosity was proof that I once existed. I would not be completely forgotten, at least.
I watched James warily as he slowly walked closer to the edge of the Orchard. Looking around at my companions, I could see they were watching him with apprehension too. We seemed to be holding our non-existent breath as step after step James edged closer to the souls. The silence remained, filling the air in the claustrophobic way it was prone to. I could feel it settle on my skin, in my hair, in my heart.
“There’s something coming!” James whispered, but the silence was so great that his voice carried easily. “Come and see.”
I shifted nervously. Going to see what was coming out of the cluster of souls did not seem very appealing at all. The white world had become so horribly unpredictable that I just wanted to run. Trying to fathom the mystery of the unknown did not hold any importance with me compared to the peril of the demented souls. Every noise they made felt like I’d swallowed a rusty nail, like I’d stepped into a bath of ice.
Reluctantly, the rest of us joined him. We stood beneath the lush canopy of the Orchard, which was only slightly obscured by mist, and stared at the sight before us. The souls, ever persistent, drifted into the invisible barrier about a foot away from where we were standing. Their dark shadows blocked out a lot of the whiteness that came from outside of the Orchard, except for a tall, white shape in the middle.
Glowing, its light reached us even though it came from the other side of the crowd of souls. They did not notice the source of the energy even though it seemed to be among them. They just continued slowly drift into the invisible; bouncing off and determinedly trying again, like waves bobbing on a shore. The glowing shape grew brighter still, the shape becoming slightly larger and more defined as it ghosted through the twisted shadows. I squinted and tried to focus on the shape, but my eyes just couldn’t make out what it was.
I took a few steps forward, my bare feet tickled by the icy mist. Holding my hand above my eyes to prevent the glare, I could determine a faint outline. There was a much darker shape at the top of the shape, a sort of cone that reached a glowing peak some feet above the bottom of the shape. This cone was reached above the gaggle of souls as they doggedly, desperately attempted their breakthrough. They became almost transparent as the shape drifted through them, the glowing turning their disfigured bones papery.
I looked sideways at James, who was staring with a look of wonder on his face, his mouth ever so slightly agape. That’s when I saw it; the tiny glimmer of hope as it slowly spread across his features, as it reached his eyes. A smile broke out, the grin reaching his eyes. It was an infectious expression and as I watched him I felt the hope diffusing through me too. I turned my head back towards the white shape as it came closer still, my heart dancing, my hope shooting into the canopy above.
Oh, how fitting it was that the shape should form a figure, that this figure would not only glide towards us but stride. The souls cowered in its wake, they shrank away as it hit the invisible barrier. The white light expanded and cut through the trees around us, a quick searing sound following closely behind. Even before my eyes readjusted to the light, I knew who stood before us. The five of us stood abreast, standing so close to each other that we were touching, we were one. The hope soared through us, it enchanted us as we beamed at the man before us.
“I hope I’m not too late,” Dumbledore said apologetically.
His voice, soft and melodic, drew the hope from us and into the atmosphere, where it hung like clouds. There was something about the post-death Dumbledore that endeared him to our world; his skin was smooth and unblemished, his beard had the texture of cloud, the colour of snow. This man was pure and I knew that he had come to save us all. It was a moment of complete closure; this was what we had been waiting for, this was our salvation. If you asked me to put my finger on how I knew this, I couldn’t possibly explain it; words failed me. But I had never placed my belief in something foolproof. Where was faith in that which we knew? No, I had always praised the mysterious and unlikely; the unknown. Here stood the answer to our prayers, the heart of our hopes; here he stood with a shy smile and a cotton wool beard.
“Now, gather round,” he said serenely, beckoning us to him. “I do not have long. I do not belong with you, I have one task left for you. Stay silent and watch me.”
The hope surged inside me once more as Dumbledore turned his back on us. There were so many questions that were banging against the inside of my skull, yet they refused to break free. Why didn’t he have long? What was this one task? More importantly, how had he died? How had the greatest wizard in the history of magic died? Though his arrival meant hope for the dead, I couldn’t help but wonder about the hopes of the living. Without Dumbledore, who was the great protector? Surely the wizarding world would now descend into chaos. Was my daughter safe?
I shivered as I returned my attention to Dumbledore’s bony back. His robes were thin and a deep purple colour; they could have been bought new that day. The wizard himself did not appear to be wizened and old at all, more fresh and ready. He raised one bold arm up above his head, his palm relaxing into a stop position. I held my breath as I watched the souls stop their actions, as they slowed to less than a whisper. Though their faces were twisted and unreadable, I got the impression that they were either watching him, or waiting for his next move.
He did not move for a moment, making sure he held their complete attention. Then, he raised his other arm and took a step forward. I wondered if he was surrendering, but that did not fit his actions at all. Dumbledore was sending waves of silent offers to those less fortunate; he was giving them an escape. He lowered his right arm, reaching forward to the crowd on the other side of the barrier.
“My right hand offers you the chance of redemption. You may return to your previous lives, unharmed.”
He then offered his left hand to the silent crowed.
“My left hand offers you eternal peace. Leave this place forever, embrace what waits for you on the other side.”
A pause followed his statements, silence still aching in my ears and my eyes watering with anticipation. I did not want to blink, I didn’t want to miss the moment of salvation. I waited another second before Dumbledore’s hands started to glow, the same kind of light that he had arrived with. Another pause as the souls took in the sight of the wizard with glowing hands; then, in the space of three seconds exactly, they split in two and were sucked into Dumbledore’s hands. The silence was the only thing that remained.
That silence remained in the air around us. I could hear my companions let out their breaths, blinking as though they had just emerged from a dark room. Relief washed over me; not only had those poor figures found their salvation, but we had found ours too. The fear left me, the relief so great that I nearly staggered, leaning into a tree to support myself. I felt the need to thank the wizard, thank him for saving us and the souls, for freeing us of the responsibility of the orange trees. It was not written, it was not spoken, but it was undeniably true that we had to protect the Orchard, to preserve the white world. I did not understand it in the slightest, but neither did I ever hope to.
Dumbledore’s hands stopped glowing and he turned towards us with a bashful smile.
“Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a train to intercept.”
He offered us his hands. Together, we trusted him with our deaths and in return he took us to Kings Cross.
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