Chapter 1 : stars and apples
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On a day like this, Andromeda feels endless.
It’s one of those days when the air is so heavy that she can choke on it, so dense that it’s almost like wet clay folding tightly around her limbs. Sweat runs down from beneath the loose grey curls of her hair, outlining the gutters along her face, where the skin is slack and puckering with its own weight. Andromeda isn’t young anymore.
Today, she sits by the stream at the back of the cottage in which she lives all by herself. It once belonged to the Lovegoods, this house, but Xeno Lovegood is dead, and his daughter Luna and her husband Rolf had sold it before moving to the remote jungles of Belize in search of some rare creature or another. When her grandson Teddy moved out after marrying Victoire Weasley, Andromeda had bought the Lovegood cottage at Molly Weasley’s urging in order to be closer to The Burrow and the Weasleys. After all, according to Molly, they were all family.
For a little while, she had been happy. The house was unexpectedly cosy and a cup of tea with Molly was just a short Apparition trip away. Teddy and Victoire visited often – her little Teddy, who grew up much too quickly, grew into his scruffy chin and into his spindle-neck, bursting upward into a shocking blue-haired head, grazing the kitchen ceiling. So tall he had been, a good head taller than his father Remus was. She used to rub her knuckles against Teddy’s jawbone, asking him how come he didn’t have blue stubble as well.
Things are different now. Teddy and Victoire are gone. There had been that hiking trip, and when they were late in returning, nobody but Andromeda had been too worried at first. Teddy and Victoire were well-known for their spontaneity and sense of adventure, often taking unexpected trips and extending their holidays on whim. Only Andromeda had been uneasy. There was something she felt she ought to know, but couldn’t place her finger on it. The days passed, and Ministry search parties were conducted, headed by a grim and tireless Arthur Weasley who returned each night, empty-handed. There must have been a point in time – though, she can’t remember exactly – when Andromeda stopped waiting for the news, stopped expecting Teddy to come round and visit and swipe nearly-baked scones from the oven, stopped going over to the Burrow to sit with Molly so they could take comfort in each other, two old ladies around the kitchen table, a pot of steaming camomile in between, holding them together. The search parties were called off, a funeral was held, no bodies were buried.
She seldom goes to the Burrow for tea anymore. Molly, too, has aged: suddenly, sharply. Andromeda spends her days outside her own cottage, sitting by the stream in the long pale grass, sometimes knitting if she can remember how to, and sometimes she finds herself reading, which never fails to surprise her, because she never had much interest for books during her younger days.
But today, she is neither reading nor knitting. The heat seeps through her skull, soldering her thoughts into lumps. It hurts to think, or even to do anything. She leans forward, a rusting frame of herself, bones jarring against each other, and pulls of her canvas shoes. Her feet are knobbly, the outcrops of her ankles blotched with liver spots and the calves streaked with lumpy veins. She stretches her legs and nods her big toes, first the left, then right, before dipping them into the stream and letting them sink into the mud.
It isn’t really a stream, not with most of the water stripped away by the heat, leaving behind a few puddles and exposing the streambed with all its ruts and cobbles and hardened scars in mud. It’s more of a ditch than anything, and the residual water is bland to the touch and tepid as the air. Andromeda closes her eyes, hearing the sound of a Plimpy gulping for breath in the sludge. Sometimes, the colossal lull of her very own life overwhelms her.
Something touches her ankle and she opens her eyes. Next to her foot, bobbing on the surface of the water is an apple – a yellow one, looking strangely polished in the afternoon light and rather out of place against the muddy streambed. Her heart skips a beat.
This is a sign; she knows this, she recognises it from somewhere – if only she can remember properly. All of a sudden there is a change in the air – she feels it keenly, – as though the heaviness of the day has been rolled back like those tiresome velvet drapes the house elves used to tend to every morning in the Black household. She picks up the apple. It is cool and clean in her hands and when she skims the fruit across her lips, there is a sweet, sharp smell – almost cidery, but with no trace of fermentation.
The scant water around her feet begins to ripple even though there isn’t a breeze. The water temperature drops quickly, and a great chill rises out of the mucky streambed to clasp her ankles. She pulls her feet in and holds a hand over her eyes, trying to peer into the distance.
Something is going to happen. He is coming back. Why now? She doesn’t know. So many things have fallen off the edges of her memory.
The stream is rising. Water rushes along the channel, appearing from nowhere to froth around her legs, and drench the hems of her robes, the surface churning into a great mass of bubbles, and out of the foam, a dark shape emerges from some concealed magical depth. Up and up it grows, black and wet and gleaming until she can make out its form: it is the head of a great horse, protruding from the surface with a massive skeletal muzzle – so long and emaciated that it resembles a crocodile’s snout – and a mane plastered down on its neck, matted with dripping wreaths of waterweed. The creature has black eyes and she can’t make them out from the rest of the dark head, but she studies the angle of its head and senses the focal point of its glare. Water sluices out its nostrils.
The horse head speaks first. “Andromeda Black.”
His voice is raspy, the syllables scraped out from the depths of his throat. She blinks. The cold has got into her bones and a fierce ache is starting to build up in her limbs.
“It’s been a long time,” she answers frailly, “but I think I might know your name.”
The horse throws his head back, his mane smacking wetly against his hide. He opens his mouth, half-whinnying and half-gargling, emitting the sounds made by a drowning beast, and Andromeda’s lips jolt into an involuntary smile. Such a contrast it is to the horse’s speaking voice.
“Well?” he demands.
“I – I can’t remember clearly,” she falters. She tries to stand. Pain flows up her spine in tight waves. Old age has reduced her to a bag of splintered nerve endings.
“I am Aequin Darkmerre, as I have told you once many years ago, on the banks of a different pool. The kelpie is my kin, as is the horse, that dumb beast of burden that for centuries has borne humankind upon its back. Have you forgotten me after all, Andromeda?”
She has. She has forgotten many things.
Andromeda is not afraid. “I know you now,” she says, lifting the apple in her hand to eye level, her face crinkled into the most severe expression she can muster. “You were bringing me somewhere. But you lied. You tricked me.”
Aequin lowers his head and glares at her. “Oddly enough, I find that it is you who are the trickster. You have always been a sly one, Andromeda.”
Aequin Darkmerre. She whispers his name under her breath, and each time she says it, it becomes more and more familiar. Yes, perhaps she knows him. Perhaps he once came to her, rising out of a pool in the moonlight, gaunt and hungry with his hide hanging loose over a stark ribcage, glaring at her. She can picture that. She can also imagine his quick, glib tongue spinning lies and enchanting tales that held her in thrall, that moved her to enter the water, his domain, and clamber onto his back where she believed that she could ride him as she could any docile pony.
“Why are you here?”
The kelpie moves his head and she sees it: his eye, almond-shaped like a human eye, and with a black glinting pupil, catching and trapping tics of sunlight.
“Do you recall where you were going all those years ago?”
“I’m an old woman now. How am I supposed to remember every person or creature I’ve met and every place I’ve gone to?”
Her irritability lends a hint of arrogance to her words, and Aequin laughs. “Look in your hands.”
It is the apple – round, yellow, perfect. The sweet scent rising in gentle waves to her nose.
She pauses in wonder. “Apples. Apples, there were lots of them.”
An island. She sees it now. Beyond the pebbly shores, the knolls, the fields of foxgloves and lupins and the sprawl of swamps smothered in waterlilies, right at the very heart of the island, there are the orchards. Trees with apples drifting among the branches, unattached, bobbing in the breeze. The trees twisting into each other, growing in crisscross, into a thick latticework of trunks. And above – a living roof. The foliage and the luminous fruit like lamps and the interknit of branches resembling the ribs of a cathedral ceiling – a cathedral woven out of sweet-smelling trees. So sharp and clear she sees all that.
“Yes,” says Aequin, watching her carefully, “The isle of apples. Not many have ventured there. You are lucky, even if you were never meant to go ashore.”
Something else she remembers: she hadn’t been alone on the island. Ted had been with her – dear, beloved Ted, long dead now, much younger than her. He didn’t have a single grey hair on his head when he died. How she missed him. After she and Ted married, they searched for a while, trying to find that island so they could visit it again, perhaps bring along little Nymphadora. They never found it, and everyone they asked appeared to not know that such a place even existed.
“I still don’t know what it is you want with me.”
“To offer you passage to the very place once again. You sought it more than once long ago. I can bring you to it again.”
Andromeda laughs, not in a kindly manner. “Don’t you think that by now I would know a little better than to accept any offer of yours?”
Aequin’s lips peel back into a lazy grin. He has many gleaming teeth, all of them sharp as pins. “You are young no more, Andromeda Black. The blood that flows through your veins is clotted with age and I can hear your heart beating. It is tired, oh it is heavy, but it cannot stop.”
There is truth in his words. She hasn’t just felt old and tired these last few weeks, months, years even. In all her weariness and suffering, she has also felt perpetual.
“All those whom you love are gone. You have outlived your happiness.”
She looks up sharply. Outlived. That is her own private nickname for herself. Andromeda the Outliver. The name had come to her after Nymphadora and Remus’ deaths, a sardonic sing-song joke echoing in her thoughts even as she rocked a fitful baby Teddy in her arms, as she mechanically lowered her lips to his forehead.
“How do you know all that has happened in my life?”
Aequin’s expression does not change. “Your grandson and his wife will not come back.”
“Teddy,” she whispers. Without realising what she’s doing, she clutches a handful of grass, and wrenches out the roots from the soil. “What has happened to him and Victoire?”
The pause that follows is a moment too long. “I have not seen them.”
“And you only know they will not return?”
“The hills are a vast place.”
She reaches a hand into her robes and draws out her wand, pointing it at the kelpie. Her voice quavers but her words are resolute.
“Go on, then, Aequin Darkmerre. I don’t want to see you here and I won’t come near you or your cursed waters!”
He rears, throwing his front legs and hooves high into the air, and a shriek rips forth from the depths of his cavernous throat. His nostrils flare, and his heavy mane lashes wildly, dripping with decaying sedge and slimy pondweed. Around him, the water bubbles and little white curls rise from the surface to seep through Andromeda’s robes and touch her skin. They feel like ice. She pulls back.
“I know a spell to drive away a kelpie,” she warns, “do not test me.”
The waters die down together with the frenzied glow of his eyes. “I apologise. I am of an impetuous nature, as some of us surely are. You must see that I do not mean to be rude, Andromeda Black.”
She lowers her wand a fraction, not to let her guard down, but her arm is aching from holding it up for so long.
“I cannot tell you of your grandson and his wife. I do not know. But my initial offer stands. I will bring you to the island. You have longed for it and you still do now and you are not to blame.”
Andromeda is tired. Her head is heavy on her shoulders. It must be nearing half-two in the afternoon, the time when she usually dozes off on her favourite armchair until dinner time. This conversation with the kelpie is wearing her down. It has been some time since she has spoken so many words to another person. Or being.
“Anything is better than the life that you lead – and a long life it will be, and yours alone, while all those around you who still remain will continue to desert you in death, one at a time.”
Aequin Darkmerre moves restlessly in the middle of the overflowing stream. All his movement gives Andromeda a headache. If he isn’t exhaling water or slapping up waves with the thick bulrushes of his tail, then he’s snorting, bucking, stamping his submerged hooves.
“If I am to go with you,” she says at last, “I want you to speak the truth. No deceptions or trickery.”
“Your mind is made up, then.”
“I know what all kelpies want. You yourself have shown me all those years ago. I know you well enough, Aequin, and right now I can’t care less. But I will not even come close if you do not speak without lies.”
Aequin pauses, regarding her with his unsettling human eye.
“Hurry up,” she says impatiently, “I’m an old woman. I’ll be fast asleep by the time you give me your promise.”
“You have my word,” he says at last.
Andromeda nods. “Where will you take me if I go with you?”
“To the place you call Apple Island.”
“What is there for me if I go?”
“Nothing. You will not go ashore. You will only be allowed to glimpse the place. One glimpse.”
His eyes glitter. “You know me. A kelpie always has a price. And this time the Mudblood won’t be around to interfere.”
“Mind your language.”
“Forgive me.” He bows his head mockingly. “But if it makes you feel better, the language of wizards or the cleanness of wizard blood is of no import to those of kelpie-kind.”
“And if I don’t want to go with you?”
“Nothing, in all sense of the word, happens. You will forget me again. And in the years to come I’ll find you and ask you yet again. And as far as I can see, you will still be around then.”
She turns back to look at her house. Even now, when she’s lived in it for more than a year, does she still refer to it as the Lovegood cottage. It is an awkward, crouching thing, narrow-bottomed in its seat on the hill, the floors jutting over each other, mismatched shutters barely fitting into the crooked window frames. No matter how much she likes this cottage, she won’t miss it if she goes. Nor will she miss the Burrow or Molly Weasley or those still around. It is not them or here that she wants.
“I’ll come with you,” she says, “and I will pay your price, now that you’ve been kind enough to tell me so honestly. Although I do hope your word can be trusted.”
“I have given it to you. A kelpie does not give his word lightly.”
She closes her eyes briefly. Perhaps it’s wrong to do this. Is she being too rash, too quick to seize an escape from this terrible lull that is her life?
But these thoughts abandon her, and her attempt to be rational is futile. Instead, her thoughts drift again, back to Ted, to Dora, to Teddy. The last happy thing she remembers is Teddy’s wedding, an age ago. Teddy had been laughing and spinning his lovely new bride across the rowdy dance floor, his hair aflame, and a sloppy triangle of shirt poking over the waistband. And Victoire! Victoire was a vision, a whirl of peach and cream and silk, goblin-made tiara slipping over her pale head, cake crumbs and hardened flakes of icing spotting the corners of her mouth. Molly Weasley had sobbed her way through the ceremony. Of course, she, Andromeda had shown a little more poise, sitting straight-backed and proud, dabbing at a dignified tear with a handkerchief.
But Teddy and Victoire are gone. Just like her daughter Nymphadora and her son-in-law, Remus. Just like Ted, from whom Teddy took his name. All of them have been taken from her.
Her mind is made up. For the first time in a very long while, something in her pulses, a quickening in her bones, a relief in her joints. She exhales and the air that leaves her is sour, as though it had been held in her lungs for too long. Never mind. Everything will change now.
“I suppose I shall have to leave a note behind, telling whoever who finds it where I’ve gone,” Andromeda muses, “I can’t just disappear like this.”
But Aequin snorts, expelling more water from his nostrils. “The currents are moving and I will move with them. Do not waste time, Andromeda.”
She takes the yellow apple and lays it on the ground. Something tugs at her, at the sight of the lovely fruit lying there on the wet grass, and she lifts her wand and murmurs a spell. “Bisecta.”
The apple splits along its equator and falls cleanly into two halves. The flesh of the fruit is pale and right at the centre are five scarlet pips like teardrops, arranged into the shape of a star.
It was Ted who showed her this all those years ago. They had been wandering beneath the trees, soaking wet because they’d just scrambled out of the lake, but neither felt cold. Her arm was threaded through his, and she hadn’t bothered walking properly as she had been taught all her life in the Black household. She leaned against him, swinging and jolting against his elbow as he moved and he supported her easily, with a carelessness that she grew to adore over the years.
“You reckon these apples all have stars, just like the normal ones?” he’d said, glancing around them.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she told him dreamily.
He laughed. “I’m serious.”
As they passed under a low branch studded with dozens of radiant apples, Ted reached a broad arm up and plucked one from the air. It seemed to resist being in his hand, jiggling and jolting beneath the bars of his fingers before going still. From his pocket, he took out a red Muggle penknife with a white square cross on its handle and sliced the apple in half and showed her. She ran a thumb over the pips, and they wriggled beneath her touch, still rutted in the white fruit flesh.
“How is it you don’t know this?” Ted teased. “Every Muggle three-year old knows. I bet you’ve never heard of fish and chips,” he pressed, and upon seeing her puzzled face, added with glee, “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Oh, Ted. If he were to see her now, would he recognise her? No matter. She will find him. She will find them all and stay with them. After all, this is the only reason she’s going with the kelpie, isn’t it? Andromeda gathers her thoughts and shakes them away. Next to both halves of the apple, she lays down her wand and puts her shoes together. She won’t be needing any of these.
Aequin watches her and for once he says nothing, and his silence is almost respectful. He doesn’t come near the shore. She will have to go to him but that is fine. A little walk will do her good. It may be past her afternoon nap time but she still has enough strength to wade out into the stream. She smiles to herself as she puts one foot into the icy water and sinks to her waist, gasping as the immense chill enfolds her. Her plain grey robes pool on the surface in a crumpled marsh of fabric, weighing her down, but still she keeps going. Aequin fixes his triumphant but curious stare on her, sharp teeth peeking from behind his horse lips. She is not afraid. Now, there is an understanding between them, and she approaches him as she would an old friend. He begins singing in that gravelly voice of his, and the lyrics come to her in scraps.
to orchards in mist, to greenleaf chapels –
She imagines her life, all the thick layers of it that she had never wanted begin to flake away, one year at a time, flying from her in broadening ripples. On she goes, right to where the kelpie rears and writhes, where he curls the water into foam and twists the stream around his manic body, to his slick flanks and to the snarls of his mane.
Andromeda Black will not reach the shore.
“Tonks,” she chides Aequin quietly with a smile, “Andromeda Tonks.”
He laughs his choking laugh. Then, he bows his huge knees and crouches before her, so that she may climb onto his back and he may bear her away through the watercourses and streams and rivers threading through the hills and the fields until they come to the hazy marshlands, which slacken and swell into the great lakes and, set somewhere in the middle of all that water, is the scented shore of Apple Island.
A/N: Hello, everyone and welcome to my new short story! :) This story will go backwards in time (reverse chronology), and I really do hope it works. :P I really have no idea what I'm doing, but so far I'm having fun! Thank you for reading this far, and I'd appreciate some feedback for this chapter, seeing as it's quite different to other things that I've written. I hope you enjoyed it!
The name 'Apple Island' is inspired by the legendary island of Avalon, which apparently translates to "Isle of Apples'.
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