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Chapter 6 : By Way of Sorrow
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Snow has nearly covered the gravestones, the tops of the marble slick with ice. Eileen trudges through the village graveyard, the bottom of her skirts wet. She is trying to make her way to a large plot closest to the forest. The plot she seeks is surrounded by bushes and firs that have grown and collided with each other; together, they shield the remnants of a once-majestic and magical family from Muggle eyes. Eileen can sense the magic her grandfather had imbued into the trees. As the older bark is pushed forever outward by its younger counterparts, it wraps the spell tighter around the land of dead. The plot is vast, with dozens of headstones, some crumbling and some having already sunk into the ground.
In her hands, Eileen carries three dozen flowers, the petals of white lilies and red carnations frozen by the December air. She opens the iron gate between two fir trees and enters the sanctuary. The snow is scarce here and Eileen walks to the left, where the newest graves are set. With each crunchy step, her blood pumps faster as her heart strains against the constricted veins.
Eileen stops in front of a single marker. Underneath her feet, her family lies beneath the earth, stacked like cans. It is a thought that sickens Eileen. How awful, she thinks, that in death, they are not their own, ever intertwined with each other. Eileen hadn’t had a choice. A simple space-saving measure, this rule too had been decreed in the magic. Eileen finally pulls herself from the depths of her mind and looks at her family. There, Eileen reads the inscriptions on the marble:
Everett Prince Olive Prince
A memory to be ever with us.
With a great tenderness, Eileen places the flowers at the base of the headstone. She stands, her head bowed, a sentry. Despair casts a shadow larger and wider than Eileen’s soul, encompassing everything around her. She cannot believe it has been seven years since the deaths of her mother, her father, and her brother.
She speaks to each of them, wishing them a happy Christmas, trying to regain some sense of the normalcy of her childhood.
“Christmas is just a few days away. The tree’s going up this evening decorated with all of your beloved ornaments, Mother.”
Olive Prince is not there to wish her daughter a happy Christmas or tell her exactly how to arrange the precious decorations. Silence is a poor substitute for the voices and very presence of those long lost to the worms and decay of the earth. The image of rotting flesh that was once animate in the form of loved ones, disturbs Eileen. Her grief has manifested itself into traumatic images from which, in this moment, she cannot escape.
Eileen shakes herself and speaks, “My business has been doing well. Not what you expected of me, Father, but I’m okay,” Eileen pauses. “And August, you know I still talk too much – practically talked the head off a date a few weeks back.”
The red carnations laying over the buried vestiges of her family remind Eileen of blood. There had been so much blood. It had already begun to dry when she’d found them, prostrate and disfigured on the parlor floor, the bright metallic red transforming to a muddled brown. She remembers staring as it trickled through the infinitesimal fissures of the wood flooring. Eileen had not screamed or cried, but had stared and stared. She had frozen in time.
Eileen shivers underneath her woolen cloak. The recollections have made her far chillier and destitute than winter’s grasp ever could. She bends down and kisses the headstone that now represents her family. It is a show of physical affection that would not have been tolerated in life, but in their deaths, it is more than appropriate: it is necessary.
“Happy Christmas,” Eileen whispers.
She passes the graves of her ancestors, the names barely legible. Their carvings had not been impregnated with magic. As a child, Eileen had been fascinated with her ancestors, imagining who they had been and what kind of lives they had led. Now she must imagine and create lives for her parents and brother: what August would have achieved and how her parents would have been content in their old age.
Eileen leaves the graveyard and slips and slides her way down a path leading out of the village. The inhabitants of the village have taken shelter in their houses leaving Eileen alone on the street. When she reaches the outskirts, she Apparates away and into the living room of her apartment.
A Scotch pine tree, seven feet tall, lays wrapped in twine beside the stairs, waiting for those beloved ornaments. It is the twenty-first of December, a Friday, and Eileen welcomes the relief of the upcoming five days of vacation.
Eileen tries to shrug off the overwhelming sadness she feels after her annual Christmas visit with her family. Instead, she shrugs off her cloak and busies herself with the trimmings. Outside, the snow falls heavily, muffling the sounds of the nearby factory as the whistles signal shift change. It is ecru; the pollution from the factory denigrating its purity. Eileen has just removed the twine from the Scotch pine and levitated it beside the window when there comes a knock on the shop’s door.
Stowing her wand away, Eileen flies down to answer the door and opens it. She meets Tobias. Eileen is shocked, but delighted. It seems that the man looming in the doorway is full of surprises. How can he go from rude to almost attentive, Eileen wonders, brows unknowingly scrunched together. An unexpected blossom of happiness had flowered as Eileen had opened the door. She is curious - what is going on?
It has been two weeks and three days (not that she’s been counting) since their date and Eileen hasn’t seen or heard from Tobias. She hadn’t wanted to ponder the notion that Tobias thought she was too bothersome. Eileen stares at him as he stands outside in the cold. His black eyes are hidden in the shadows, but the memory of their nuances causes Eileen to fidget.
“Tobias...how good to see you again! Thought I’d scared you off.”
“Could I come in?”
“Oh yes, sorry! It was cold out there earlier – must be awful now that the sun’s gone down,” Eileen chats as she moves aside to let Tobias in. He is still in his factory clothes and smells of sweat. She is does not wrinkle her nose, nor is she repulsed. His smell, after hours of toil, is earthy like the scent of newly dampened soil after a summer’s rain.
As she shuts the door, Eileen says, “I was putting up Christmas decorations when you knocked. Would you like to come upstairs?”
The two make their way upstairs to Eileen’s apartment. Eileen leads the way, acutely aware of Tobias’s stature despite his being a few steps behind her. Eileen gestures for him to sit and Tobias maneuvers around the many boxes and sits on the daffodil-colored couch, partially covered in a quilt of green and red. Eileen resumes her decorating while the man watches her. They do not speak for a long time.
She knows his eyes follow her. Her hands tremble as she unwraps several of the precious snowglobes. Tobias watches as she gently shakes them before positioning them along the windowsill. Garlands are pulled from the box next. They are fake and fading - Eileen cannot bring herself to throw them away, even though the baubles are constantly falling off.
“I have been working double shifts at the factory,” Tobias finally says.
“You must be exhausted! I should have asked sooner...tea?”
Eileen lays down a garland and goes into the kitchen. She bustles about, waiting for the tea kettle to whistle its song. It has been a trying day, but Tobias’s stoic presence brings her a sense of relief, especially as each decoration brings with it a flood of memories. Standing on her tip-toes, Eileen retrieves the seldom-used tea tray and proceeds to arrange a bit of cream and sugar, as well as spoons and cups.
The tea has boiled and steeped for a few minutes. She carries the tray into the living room to find that Tobias has strung the garland along the bookcase, across the top of the window, and around the coffee table. Eileen smiles, wondering how she ever stumbled upon this man.
“I’ll put you to work if you keep that up.”
Tobias smiles slightly. “Give me some of that tea then.”
The two have interacted with each other less than twelve hours in total and yet, there is something there. It is not tangible and connects them in a way that Eileen does not yet understand.
Eileen laughs and strides toward him, holding the tray and letting him stir in some cream and sugar. They are close, his breath making wisps of her hair flutter softly around her face. He lingers, drawing out the preparation of his tea. Eileen recalls the strong grip of his large hand around hers. She looks up at him and they stare at each other. It is awkward, but Eileen cannot tear her eyes from his.
Eileen is the first to turn away and they resume their work. Eileen takes a deep breath, expelling it roughly. Tobias toils with just one hand, the other holding his teacup, occasionally taking a sip. Soon, only the tree remains bare.
Having finished their tea and set the cups aside, Eileen and Tobias begin to remove the carefully wrapped ornaments from several boxes.
“These were my mother’s ornaments. My brother and I weren’t allowed to touch them. She thought we’d shatter them into a thousand pieces. Our home was covered in decorations – Christmas was Mother’s favorite time of the year.”
“My parents and brother are dead…have been for seven years now.”
Tobias does not shake his head or apologize for her loss. He just looks at her. There is no pity in his eyes, but a keen understanding.
“My mother is also dead.”
Without thought, Eileen pats Tobias on the arm. The something that seems to connect them starts to stitch them together, a bridge of thin thread. Flesh separated by clothing cannot deter the spark of understanding between two human beings overwrought with unspoken emotion.
“How are your hands?”
“Oh, they’re fine. Like new,” Eileen says. She waggles her fingers at Tobias, showing him the pretty pink flesh with no signs of having been burned.
Tobias laughs at Eileen. She joins him, giggling. Together, they delicately arrange the ornaments on which some are scenes of magic, but Tobias does not seem to notice. He glances at Eileen through the branches as she pretends to be focused on placing the decorations properly and equally over the tree. Rather, she observes his factory-roughened hands as he gently cradles the ornaments. He takes particular care of the higher branches that she can barely reach. Tobias bends the little metal hooks around the thin twigs.
“You know, for the past seven years I’ve done this by myself. It’s nice to have someone do the high branches…and for the company.” Of course, Eileen had used magic to take care of the hard-to-reach places. The real magic, however, lies in the physical contact; it is how Eileen holds onto the ethereal connection with her mother. Eileen fights the desire to cry, thinking that the only way Tobias will ever know her dearest mother is by touching an object she once possessed.
Eileen does not expect an answer and she does not receive one of words. One glimpse of his black eyes reveals fellowship and compassion. She sighs and walks over to the last box and pulls out silver tinsel.
“Mother hated tinsel and never used it, but I like it,” Eileen converses as she hands some to Tobias and they begin to string it all over the tree.
They finish and sit on the couch. Eileen’s living room is brimming with red, white, and green. There are trinkets on every available space, most of those being snowglobes. Eileen has artfully hidden those with little witches and wizards in their snow covered landscapes from Tobias’s gaze. There is even a sprig of mistletoe over the entrance to the kitchen.
“I need to go.” Tobias stands suddenly.
“So soon? You wouldn’t like to stay for dinner?” Eileen asks, smoothing her skirts as she rises.
“Thank you for helping me today.”
In what has become his signature gesture, Tobias nods.
He departs with a wave of his hand. Eileen scrutinizes him as he leaves. She turns, slumping onto the couch. Laying there, she observes the room so carefully decorated by a man that is inching his way into her life. Eileen notices something out of place: a small box on the coffee table. It is the color of a evergreen tree, gold lettering across the top spells “Christies.” Opening it, Eileen gasps. There lays a pair of lemon rhinestone drop earrings and beside them a piece of paper folded many times into a tiny square. Eileen sets the earrings down carefully, then uses her fingernails to unfold the paper. It reads in a messy scrawl:
Happy Christmas, Eileen. I am working through Christmas and the new year, but I would like it if you’d go on another date with me. Think about it. -Tobias
“How gorgeous,” Eileen whispers. “Happy Christmas, Tobias.”
Eileen feels a small cluster of guilt form in her heart, wondering if the present is the reason Tobias has been working double shifts. Still, the earrings are too beautiful to acknowledge anything but happiness as she gazes upon them.
For the first time in seven years, Eileen has said the words Happy Christmas to a living soul and meant them. The weight of the day’s events breaks through Eileen’s resolve and she begins to cry. It is sorrow for her family, apprehension for the future, the small gift, and the mixture of confusion and hope for the budding relationship with Tobias that makes Eileen sob. She wraps her arms around a pillow.
Several soft clicks against the window rouse Eileen. She sees a tawny owl carrying a small parcel and letter. She sniffles and rubs her eyes. Letting the owl and a great gust of cold air in, Eileen takes the package, sending the creature back on its way. She doesn’t even read the contents of the letter, but instead looks to the name. “Love, Lorraine” is written in great looping swirls. Eileen smiles.
Hello lovelies! Thank you so much for reading and reviewing! As always, the biggest thank you to Jami (Jchrissy) for her wonderful beta skills. If you're looking for the best Lily & James novel in fanfiction, stop by her page and have a look at "Before They Fall."
Tell me your thoughts about the chapter! What do you think about the new information concerning both Eileen's family and Tobias's mother? How do you like the progression of their relationship? What about Tobias? Please leave a review and let me know!
*Disclaimer: The title of the chapter, "By Way of Sorrow," is a song by The Wailin' Jennys. As always, Harry Potter is property of J.K. Rowling. Everything else is original material.
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