Chapter 1 : dull as dirt
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Something has changed in Merope Gaunt, a thrumming of insect wings, a pulse kickstarting to life. Her belly is a pouch of warm soil, crisscrossed with red veins. Seeds can take root here, splitting into small plants that will inch up and up her body, their tendrils will wrap around the soft masses of her organs and the trellis of her bones before sprouting out of her mouth and into the sun.
She pushes the shutters open and the morning air is balmy enough to feel like a hand, touching her cheeks. Last night Tom Riddle had been kissing her skin, the way it pulled and dimpled over her ribcage. His pupils were enormous, pitch-coloured irises leaking into the whites. This morning there’s something different about the air. She breathes it in. There is a whole new perplexity of smells that she’s never noticed – fresh paint, wet grass, chimney smoke, perfume, dust, dead insects. There’s the smell of food, too. New-baked bread, meat frying in its own grease, a foggy sour smell of clotted milk – Merope bends over and retches.
It is time to stop the potion. Every day, at the crack of dawn she would be flaying Abyssinian shrivelfigs, shaving Gurdyroots, shredding ribbonwort and pulling out clumps of her straw-coloured hair before mixing them together over a flame. Her head is mottled with tracts of scalp gleaming through where too much hair has been stripped off.
Twice a day, every day, for a year of days she has been feeding Tom the potion, spoon by spoon. And he has been letting her, his jaw falling open as she tips his chin up with a knobbly forefinger, and his throat closing up and swallowing at the gentle prod of her words. And afterward she would lick the back of the spoon and kiss the purple stains off the sides of his mouth.
He does not wake from his reverie instantly. Little by little, a lean black focus inches into his eyes, making its way into the centre. His pupils full of little spots of awareness, as though they are crawling with insects. It frightens her.
She finds him one afternoon, tracing a pattern in the dust of the windowsill. Spines of sunlight fall through the gap in the curtains.
He turns and she takes a step back. Merope has never been good at reading expressions. Her entire life has been spent with her father and her brother, and neither are particularly subtle people. But even now she can’t ignore Tom’s face – ashen, rigid as though cut out of granite. His expression shifts. She can almost hear the grind of marble plates sawing against each other.
“What have you done.”
She balks at the flatness of his sentence. “Don’t you remember, Tom? We were – ”
“I don’t want to hear. Don’t you dare say it.” His lips peel back, showing the beautiful limestone tiling of his teeth. He looks like he used to look, pulling past the Gaunts’ cottage, his sneer taking in the cracked ivy-strangled porch. He looks handsome.
He lunges forward and seizes her by the collar of her dress. There is a kind of madness in his eye. The tiny capillaries have burst – spots of blood blooming in the pale jelly of his eyeballs, catching the angle of the sun, a scarlet glimmer in his pupils.
Merope does not know what she’s doing, but there is something else inside her. Something that sits, thinking darkly, that wants to break through the warm red membranes one day. Before she knows it, her wand is in her hand and the tip is pressed into Tom’s chest, singeing a hole in his shirt. He screams and leaps back.
No, no. This is not how things are supposed to turn out.
“I’m sorry, please.” She drops her wand and holds out her hands. “Nothing? See? I’ve got nothing. Please stay.”
But he continues to back away toward the door. Words tumble from his mouth, clanging like cowbells. They cannot understand each other. And just like that, he turns round and bolts from the room. The front door bangs, footsteps stumble across the garden and out the gate. He will not come back now.
She’s alone in this tall draughty Muggle house which Tom bought after they’d fled Little Hangleton with whatever money he’d made off with. It was a rash purchase and he’d overpaid but he hadn’t – couldn’t have – cared. So happy together they’d been. Tom and Merope and Merope’s specialty brew – love potion piping hot from the cauldron.
She goes out into the small garden and sits in the corner and the plants rearrange themselves around her crouching form. Sack of muck, Marvolo used to call her. From a distance, where she’s curled up, earth-coloured clod she is, it looks like the weeds are sprouting from her hair, green shoots poking out from the stumps of her knees.
Merope is hungry. She can’t remember when she has never been hungry, she who used to kneel in the garden of the Gaunts’ old cottage, combing her fingers through the dirt and grubbing for tubers to cook. And on those days when draughts seeped into the house and the flagstones became ice and she couldn’t light a fire (and Marvolo would be screaming your wand and her wand would invariably fail), she would gnaw on those tubers raw, their hard vegetable flesh cracking between her teeth. The dirt on their coarse skins would taste bitter.
Dirt. The taste of it flits across her tongue. Her stomach folds in hunger. She burrows her fingers into the earth and clenches a fistful of soil and eats it. The dirt is dry and there is a crunch to it. The grains skitter down her throat. She chews at her blackened fingernails.
Eventually, the morning sickness goes away. Inside Merope, there is a comma of a child, picking up shape, unfurling its fuzzy outlines. Eyebrows and eyelashes start to sprout and fingernails grow on its hands and a thin fine down covers its body. Its heart beats furiously. Merope’s spine curves over the hummingbird centre of her body. Her belly swells a little but the rest of her body is rake-like and her face is without colour. She might as well be transparent.
These are the last of the potatoes, two of them, tiny sprouts pushing out from their skins. She pulls out the green bits and fills a pan with water. There is a gas stove and she lights a match – two, three, four matchsticks before the fire is lit. The smell of sulphur lances through her nostrils. Smoky. Thick. She eats the burnt matches, the charred tips crumbling on her tongue.
When the potatoes are done, her appetite is gone.
She has a dream that night. The light is greenish and cloudy. She’s standing in her childhood home in Little Hangleton. Wisteria, not ivy, has swallowed the exterior of the cottage, the vines forcing the shutters open, cracking the walls into pieces and digging up the flagstones and settling their roots into the soil underneath. Blue and violet trails of flowers hang from the roof. These same vines that have broken up the house are also holding the ruins together. Outside, there is the old oak with the scarred yellow leaves, except now its foliage is green and shining. Merope remembers its long shambling limbs growing horizontally rather than up toward the sun. She and Morfin used to clamber up and sit on its branches, hidden from Marvolo as he paced up and down the grounds hollering for them. Back then Morfin had been a sullen child but he was not cruel yet. He was smaller than her even though he was older, and she used to comb his tangled hair, and let him rest his head on her lap while they were up there in the tree. She would pick off the papery shells of cicadas from the bark and show it to him and he would crush them, simpering at the crackle beneath his thumb, the golden flakes of dried insect skin drifting down to the ground.
Merope walks deeper into the cottage, through the green ruin of it, the hesitant light sifting through the foliage. Someone is standing in where the kitchen used to be, his back facing her. When he turns slowly, she sees his pale face, his dark eyes, black hair.
“Tom,” she breathes but there is something different about him. Tom never smiled like this before, she can only recall the way his lips parted deliriously under the influence of the love potion, hovering between a smile and a snarl of barely-controlled desire. Here he is smiling, he looks so wholesome and so much younger, still in his teenage years.
He opens his mouth to speak and his voice is different, too – slower, more tentative. “Is that – what you will call me?”
She knows who he is, then. So beautiful, so pure, standing in the ruins of her home, the dim light polishing his features to perfection. She feels self-conscious.
In the morning, she sits up and puts a hand on her belly. She feels it for the first time – a flutter beneath the skin from the tiny bobbled limbs kicking and squirming and cycling in her womb. Warmth flows through her fingers. She must do something. How could she have ignored all this? The apothecary will have the necessary potions and supplements. But first of all, she needs money.
When she turns all her possessions inside out she finds only a pair of goblin-made earrings and the locket of Salazar Slytherin. They will have to do. If she’s lucky they’ll fetch enough Galleons to last her a couple of weeks.
Merope has been to Knockturn Alley before – a long time ago, when she and Morfin were still children and Marvolo still had a few valuables to trade in. He had dragged both his children through alleyways with their cobbles uprooted and shattered and lantern light stuttering in the stale air – all the way to Borgin and Burke’s.
Now she follows the path her father had taken, passing by the crones in the shadows with trays hung around their neck. One of the peddlers is selling hair. Wads of silky blonde hair gathered with string, the ends stiff and stained a rusty scarlet. Merope’s hand drifts to her head, fingering the bald patches where the skin is so thin and stretched that it feels like she’s touching her wet skull.
Borgin and Burke’s is a narrow shop sunk into the damp stone of the alley. She pushes open the door. There is a long glass counter housing an array of objects – a glittering opal necklace, a curved dagger with a blade cut out from a hunk of obsidian. Behind the counter, against the wall are shelves with more things – masks, a shrivelled hand wrapped in bandages, a spindly Kappa folded and squashed into a bell jar, head between knees, suspended in a pickling potion.
The shopkeeper, Caractacus Burke is sitting behind the counter, writing. He does not look up. She remembers the note of contempt in his voice as he negotiated a deal with Marvolo all those years ago. Marvolo slamming a fist on the counter and spitting and Burke’s face sliding into a smile. Six gold coins skating across the counter, which her father pocketed. Burke has eyes that seem to wobble in their sockets, sticky yellow drops caught at the corners. There is a boil on his lower eyelid, making the small flap of skin droop toward his cheekbone. And strangest of all, the long feathery eyelashes, each slow blink bringing them together.
“What can I do for you?”
She drops the earrings onto the counter. The locket stays hidden beneath her robes, pressing its hard gold shape against her chest. Not today. “How much?”
Burke does not even bother dropping his gaze to look at the things before him. He looks past Merope’s shoulder. “Three Galleons.”
Three Galleons is nothing. “Six,” she says, trembling.
Burke shakes his head slowly, in an almost melancholy manner, still refusing to look at her. “I cannot help you today.”
Three gold coins glide across the counter, stopping in front of her. She takes them. He resumes his writing. He is bowed over a piece of parchment, the sharp slant of his handwriting stabbing toward her direction. Behind him, the Kappa blinks back the scabby rind of its eyelids, the webs between its fingers pancaking against the glass.
By now, her body is out of proportion. Her belly pushes out the front of her dress into a tight lump. Her shoulders and ribcage are skeletal. Her fingernails are flaking, her hair falling out more than ever, her teeth shaking in their gums. Her feet and her legs on the other hand are ballooning, swollen with water. When she presses a spot on her leg, her fingertip leaves a small dent, which does not fill up. Her flesh is dull and inelastic.
Merope likes watching the cars and buses go by in Muggle London. They roll down the street and she wishes she can ride on them and be one of those women in pretty dresses, gloved to their elbows in satin, clasping the arms of men in dinner jackets. When her child is born she will raise him as a Muggle. She feels him kick now, and she lays a hand over the front of her dress, stroking the bump slowly, crooning to him in Parseltongue.
Her strange cravings have not gone away – only last night she had gone to the kitchen to the hole she’d torn in the skirting with the very bones of her fingers, and ripped out lumps of plaster and wood and ate them. And afterward, she looked at the mess, at the gaping hole in the wall with despair. Her baby would have to live in such a dirty broken house. She set to cleaning the place, not just the kitchen, but the whole house, scrubbing the floors on her knees until pain speared up her back, and her neck and shoulders tightened into wire. She had not been able to fix the hole in the kitchen, not without magic.
She finds herself walking down the curling streets toward Knockturn Alley one afternoon. Snow is falling in dense grey swirls and the shawl across the shoulders is useless against the cold. Her feet are swollen, her belly has dropped low. She needs money again.
Caractacus Burke is behind the counter as usual, and in front of him is a small black chest. Its lid is open, and inside, there are eggs. They are strange eggs, each the size of her palm, delicate turquoise veins spidering across the white shells. He looks annoyed to see her at such an hour, the tips of his eyebrows dipping in a frown.
She pulls out the locket of Slytherin and dangles it by the chain so it swings directly in front of his eye. “This is the locket of Salazar Slytherin, an heirloom passed down the generations in my family, the Gaunts,” she pauses, “I want thirty Galleons for this.”
A dull flush creeps up his neck, and there is a glimmer of excitement in his face. Perhaps this is something valuable that she has after all. Perhaps Marvolo hadn’t simply been bragging about its value as she’d always thought. It is a beautiful locket, gold and with a snake carved onto its front, the scales and the tiny fork of its tongue so intricately sculpted. And the two bright green stones for its eyes, Charmed to always find and imprison the dimmest light around. Merope has always liked snakes. The small vipers and adders, slithering through the dead leaves, finding her as she murmured to them, laying their chins on her lap and braiding their bodies against her legs. Their tongues flickered in the air, eating up fragments of the language shared between her and them.
Burke reaches a hand out and delicately unhooks the chain from around Merope’s finger. “I’ll have to perform some spells on this to confirm your claim.”
He disappears into the back of the shop. Merope looks down at the box of eggs on the counter. The shell of one egg begins splitting along a vein, red seeping out of the crack. She looks away.
When Burke reappears, her heart sinks. The expression on his face is completely flat, dreary even. It’s his turn to dangle the locket in front of her.
“It’s a fake,” he sighs. His eyes glaze over and stare past Merope’s shoulder. “It’s completely worthless. Not a drop of ancient magic in it. But it is a pretty trinket. I’ll give you ten Galleons for it. Take it or leave.”
The gold locket rolls side to side in the air, spinning at the end of its long chain, which hangs from Burke’s daintily extended little finger. The snake’s eyes glint at her. She thinks of Marvolo. Her flesh crawls, remembering the shapes of his hands around her arms, her jaw buckling beneath the sudden weight of his clout. And Morfin, how she used to cradle his head on her lap, and how he grew up to be the same as their father. How he found her one day in the bushes, an adder wound around her wrist, and how he pulled it off her and put it to the door of the house, and drove a spike through it, still alive. Her family. She would sell them all for less than ten Galleons.
“I’ll take it.”
The coins rattle in her purse as she makes her way through the dark streets. The lights are guttering in the wind, giving off the stench of slow-burning animal fat. As she walks past an alleyway, two wizards stumble out in front of her, giggling, their breath mushrooming from their mouths, reeking of cheap smoke and dandelion ale. Their faces are hidden by the shadows.
“Hello love,” one of them says. “What happened to your hair?”
The other one reaches toward her and puts an arm around her shoulder and she flinches. She can feel the damp warmth of his touch through her dress and his ratty, fingerless gloves.
“We saw you,” the second one says, “You were coming out from old Burke’s. So how much you got?”
“Come on, it’s New Year’s Eve, share it with us.”
She tries to shrug them off, but they laugh, and she is sandwiched between them, rubbing arms and shoulders. Words bubble in her throat like bile and she snarls at them to let go.
“What are you hissing like that for, love?” they cackle.
“A bit off in the head, this one.”
She breaks away and stumbles a few feet down the alleyway. They follow. She will not be able to go far, dragging her heavy bump along like that. And at that moment, the baby gives a ferocious kick to her ribcage. She feels a twist of anger coursing through her thoughts, an anger that has nothing to do with her. Her hand plunges into her robes and draws out her wand. She has not been doing magic for many months now. She turns on the spot. Every part of her body is stretched and pulled and elongated, the breath squeezed out of her in a thin long straw.
When the crushing sensation ends, she collapses to the ground and vomits even though there’s not a lot to vomit out. The two men are gone, along with the alley. She’s somewhere in Muggle London again, the streets lined with rows of tall townhouses with strips of gardens. A car clatters past. In the distance, there is singing. Wisps of song like smoke. Merope has never Apparated before. She does not know how she did it. What was she thinking! She’d heard of it, heard of the perils of those who attempted it without practice. Spl-inched. She could have left an arm behind, a leg severed at the ankle, her protruding belly filled with child and no no no no.
She trudges along for some time before she feels it – the tepid trickle running down her thighs, soaking through her laddered stockings. A little while later and there’s pain, waves of it folding her over and she’s staggering crying banging at the nearest door and throwing her whole desperate weight on it and it gives way and she falls through into the sleepy glow of a room lit with oil lamps. The sound of a woman gasping, calling for help, and help is another pair of arms pulling her up as the world contracts around her, falling like a thin sheet and moulding itself to the shape of her body.
It comes to this, then. A midwife is summoned. For a first pregnancy, she has a fairly short labour. She cannot push the baby out at first. Tears break in her eyes but the midwife is not a patient woman. She takes Merope’s face in her hands and says, “Give it everything you have.” Merope misunderstands or maybe she does not. So she bites down on her bottom lip, sealing her breath in her mouth and pushes everything out of her.
There is blood in her mouth. There is a splinter of a cry.
“It’s a boy,” the midwife says but she already knows.
The pain is gone. She lies on the bed, disoriented by its sudden absence. Now that it’s gone she cannot remember what it ever felt like.
The midwife puts the baby in Merope’s arms. He is tiny and crumpled, his blushing body in the crook of her arm. A mouth opens and closes, the scalloped gums flashing. Teeth will grow there one day, the most beautiful set of teeth in the world, beautiful mineral teeth. His dark eyes are sharper than her muted ones, they find her and hold her gaze. He tests his new voice and the soggy vowels waft into the space between him and Merope. A marvel! An enigma! Laughter ruptures out of her.
She brings her mouth close to his forehead, feels his warm breathy crying on her neck. You will be well. One day we will find each other, she whispers. And she motions to the midwife. Please, she says, take him away.
Outside, a bell clangs. The wall seems to have crept closer to her, the window right beside her bed, glass missing. Snow is tumbling from the black sky, and the flakes settle on her nose and lips like ash, and she pokes her tongue out. There is the acrid taste of plaster. She does not like it and she cannot think why. In the distance, the singing goes on. She tries to remember a dream she had once. Snow. Leaves. Stone. She forgets. In the arms of the midwife, Tom Riddle stops crying.
A/N: Edited, at last! To all my brilliant reviewers, thank you so much :D You've given me so much encouragement :)
Pica is the name of a disorder where people have cravings for inedible things such as dirt, plaster, matches, soap etc. Some pregnant women may experience this.