Chapter 3 : Words
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If silence is the killer and the jester and the lover all in one, the joker in the deck, then words are the simple, lowly twos and threes. As compared to the twisting, turning, thousand possibilities of silence, words are restricted to at the most a handful of different meanings – still defined by inflection and tone, but limited all the same. They are the building blocks of language, the very foundation from which all things begin, whether literature or ordinary conversation.
Though their meanings are often simpler to decipher, words are as potent as silence can be – and, in my experience, are far more likely to be employed to hurt, as they require far less skill on the part of the one wielding them. They can bite and nip, wound to the bone, and potentially kill.
It is interesting to note here that, of course, all spells are formed of words, incantations, used to focus the magic and so allow it to flow in a concentrated, precise manner. For this reason, non-verbal magic is so difficult and a highly prized skill amongst powerful witches and wizards. If spells can kill, can be unforgiveable, cannot words be the same?
My digression aside, words do not require quite the same level of awareness as silence does; instead, the trick, employed to great effect by politicians and speakers most often but by those who are persuasive and often deemed charming, is to use the right words for the mission in question.
It seems such an easy thing to do, to find the correct word for something – not necessarily a name, perhaps more of a label. For a mood, a colour, an idea… anything and everything is ultimately defined by words, using words.
You and I, that summer, we lived by words. They flew through the air between us, thick and fast, until they filled it completely, nothing left to breathe, and we sat there, laughing and exhausted. It was marvellous, heady; we were certain such ease of conversation, such melding and merging and swapping of ideas was a sign of great things to come.
Occasionally, you would slip up, frozen in place as you searched desperately for that missing word in English, the one thing you could not say in the whole conversation, and I would wait, patiently, for you to find it and then we would continue. It frustrated you: you would run your fingers through your hair, press your knuckles into your jaw, leaving pink marks, swear and apologise profusely for failing. I confess I found it utterly endearing; whenever you frowned, you looked somehow melancholy and lost and determined to find it again. It made me want to reach for you, pull you close and kiss your hair.
Perhaps I should have.
It is strange to think how, after all those words – thousands upon thousands of them a day – we exchanged, in a multitude of languages, I cannot find the words to speak to you, not even simply to say ‘good morning’.
Ah yes, but I have forgotten how words can injure the wielder, as well as the recipient, with equal strength and equal ferocity. They clog up my throat, up my mind and my hand, quill on the page, rests still. My voice remains silent.
Silence again, my darling. You must forgive me.
14th April, 1900; Pays-de-la-Loire, France
A new century had begun, the dawn of a new age, and I had blossom buried in my hair like a mockery of a bride, petals tossed over her by cheering onlookers in celebration and delight. Alas, mine were not such happy petals, full of the promises of new life and hope and a future entwined with another’s. Instead, mine, white though they were, only represented grief and loss and the constant ache of loneliness and regret.
It was not intentional, this decoration of my hair, rather more incidental, as the blossom trees near Nicolas and Perenelle’s house have a delightful tendency to shed their petals, pink and plump, when someone walks by them, regardless of whether or not there is wind that day. Every other day someone, friend or no, is caught unawares, the spell – simple and frivolous though it is – incurring only ever laughter and a trail of petals after the unfortunate victim. Once, I inquired with Nicolas as to why he had enchanted the trees, but he simply shrugged and smiled and said, ‘eh bien, mon ami, it is amusant, non? And it is the timing, it makes things beautiful’.
It did, that much I had to admit then and there – and the frivolity of it could hardly offend me; no, my irritation with the enchantment had nothing to do with any idea of wasting power on a cheap trick or any potential breach of international security, but more with the fact that I was, to put it simply, miserable.
Please, I am not telling you this to hurt you or because I hold you responsible for my state of mind – that, more than anything else, is my own affair. I am just going through the time, as it all happened, and so it must be mentioned. You may stop frowning and pouting now, darling.
Europe was still in the death throes of celebration in April: Paris and Marseilles were awash with people toasting the new century loudly, declaiming hopes and dreams and predictions of the future. Laughter lingered on every street corner, leaking out into the countryside, so that, even where I was lost in the depths of rural France, it slipped through the cracks and down the chimney, making Perenelle hum under her breath and keeping a smile pinned permanently to Nicolas’ mouth. It was a time to be happy, a time to think of the future and different possibilities; the world was ready to be shaped anew, and everyone was eager to make a fresh start (a new name, a new home, a new life) out of the rubble of the last century.
Everyone, I suppose, except I.
The joyous, excited spirit which had invaded so many of my friends seemed to merely slide off my robes, falling behind me in the dust and grass as it gave up. Alas, I could not find space in my heart to be happy; the turn of the century only served to compound my burdens on my shoulders, compressing them until I wondered how it was that my knees did not crack under the pressure. My friends, to their credit, tried their best to involve me in strings of parties in London and Hogsmeade and Paris, but eventually even they wearied of my utter melancholy, and stopped asking, only deigning to mention the events after they had passed.
I was grateful for the silence, for the lack of questioning and the end to invitations I had to find excuses not to attend; that, to me, then, seemed the true mark of friendship: knowing when to hold back, as well as when to push. The idea of socialising, of being expected to laugh and chat about inconsequential things and yet be the clever, witty man they had grown up with at school was suddenly abhorrent to me.
Tiberius Ogden had attempted to cajole me into going by mentioning that dear Euphemia Bones had expressed personal interest, as he had put it, in whether or not I would be attending. I confess I nearly choked on my tea, wracking my mind for any possible reason not to go. It was not Euphemia herself – she was a lovely and talented woman, with the virtue of being both handsome and forthright – but the prospect of spending an evening fending away advances, and what could I say to do so without arousing any suspicion?
Naturally, admitting glibly to the world at large that I had spent a summer contentedly making love to a beautiful blonde boy would certainly have done the trick, but the following scandal would not, I think, have been worth the few moments of amusement it would have produced.
The damage was done, however: my mind turned back towards you, the familiar aches stirring in my chest and so I had begged my leave, throwing some excuse about Nicolas and I starting work early the next morning over my shoulder. Four hours later, I owled Tiberius apologising that I had unfortunately been struck down with a nasty case of influenza and would be unable to attend the party.
By all accounts, it was a magnificent party: Elphias took four dances with Honoria Prewett, Tiberius ended up in a flowerbed for most of the night, and Euphemia Bones, having forgotten all about my absence after the brief disappointment upon making the discovery, quickly gathered a circle of admirers, half of whom she would go on to marry and then promptly divorce after lengthy affairs. I could be glad, at least, reading the descriptions in Elphias’ neat hand, that my friends had not been disturbed by my misery, and that their appetite for frivolity was unmarred.
The morning after the Bones’ ball, I was standing on top of a hill, feeling the wind murmur in my ear, cool and chilly. Spread out in front of me was countryside, somewhat ordered and lacking in any true sense of wild, but countryside nonetheless. It was a mess of greens and yellows, bushes sprouting up here and there, but my gaze was much more for the sky. I had always preferred to watch the sky rather than the earth, even as a boy; I loved how the clouds changed shape, whipped up and sped along by the wind, far mightier cousin of the little breezes which reached me on the ground, and how the sun would poke his fingers through them, lighting them up in golds and silvers and pure, clean whites.
It was not peace that I felt then, nothing like it, but it was comfort on some minor level. Out there, I could breathe and relax a little and simply not think, only observe.
Far away, there was the silvery gleam of a river winding towards the ocean, a single boat drifting down it, white sail flapping in the breeze; above them, reduced to mere faint dots, a flock of birds tumbled and wheeled, startled out of the trees. Spring was coming, but dawn still bathed the land in a thin, delicate coating of frost, making the grass crunch under my shoes and the leaves almost melt away at my touch. There was a dreamy, mystical quality to the Loire at daybreak which I could not help but love; it tugged softly at heartstrings I had thought broken, and, on occasions, made me smile, if only slightly.
“Ah, monsieur, I did not think I would see you up here,” Nicolas’ voice is quiet, and, as always, faintly amused by something I cannot put my finger on. “I ‘ope you are not ‘aving trouble sleeping – madame would be ‘appy to brew you a potion, if you require…”
“No, thank you,” I replied, giving a shake of my head. “I am quite all right. I have always enjoyed walking around dawn; the peace is delightful.”
“It is,” he agreed, surveying the land with a strangely distant gaze; so much so that I found myself wondering about him, what he had lived through for such melancholy to emanate from him at the sight of a dew-sprinkled field.
For a moment, I considered divulging some of my troubles to him. Almost immediately, I reconsidered it. It would be foolish, I told myself, foolish and arrogant to believe that such a man would be interested in the troubles of a mere assistant.
Instead, I continued looking out over the fields below, watching a bird in flight vanish into a cloud and then dip out of it, banking on a rising stream, beak emitting a hoarse, sharp cry that rang shrill even in my ears. Something about it seemed out of place, too loud and too alive for such a time of day.
It felt to me, regarding it from below as it settled on a branch some way distant, that the bird had merely turned my own discomfort into sound; and how discordant and rude it had sounded. Make no mistake, I was distinctly nervous on that hilltop, my stomach turning and my throat tightening, with Flamel beside me, even though we were not talking. I could not help but think of his arrival as an intrusion into what I had come to consider my place, the handful of moments in a day where the past and the present and the future did not all converge themselves upon me, expectations and the memories of failures bearing down on my head. Resentful and irritated, I wanted to leave; the only reason I did not was that I could not think of any good excuse to make.
“You ‘ave finished ze equations?” Nicolas asked abruptly, turning to face me and studying me with an intense, thoughtful look which swept through my eyes and right down, it seemed, into my very soul.
All the intelligence in the world could not make up for the youth and inexperience I felt then, painful and obvious to him as I thought it must be.
“Yes, I completed them last night,” I responded, my voice even.
“Bon, bon,” he murmured, not looking away from me. Under the scrutiny, I forced myself to hold still and silent (not such a feat as it sounds, perhaps, considering I have had far worse tormentors in that arena – you yourself are far more guilty of that then he was, with your creeping, gliding hands), and calmly looked back. “Zen we shall start ze real work today.”
He left then, with a nod and a smile and a whisper of ‘bonjour, monsieur’, and I was bobbing along in his wake, feeling, for the first time, a frisson of excitement – thin and piteous, certainly, but present all the same – shudder down my spine.
Alchemy holds the strange honour of being both an exact and precise science, and being utterly and completely inaccurate. The inconsistencies in the field as a whole are not helped by exaggerated, incomplete, or simply falsified documents narrating techniques and methods, meaning much of the work in the field is based on guesswork and the use of equations, incorporated theories from other subjects. I do, however, count myself fortunate that it is a singularly bizarre and frustrating field, for it meant that breakthroughs and discoveries, by which names and reputations were established, were somewhat easier to come by.
It was hard, testing work, and I spent hours poring over texts in candlelight, the fire long dead in the grate, the last of the smoke curling lazily up the chimney, a half-drunk glass of port on the table next to me. I found myself going to bed early, exhausted to the bone from the work of the day – stirring cauldrons and scribbling down results, racing out of the laboratories before the explosions hit and chuckling when we discovered all we had created was a bar of copper with a selection of fragrant, purple bubbles – too tired to even think or to dream.
My correspondence with my friends suffered accordingly, letters going unanswered for weeks at a time before I penned hasty replies when politeness was just about to flutter out of the window and off back to England. I admit I had always struggled to muster up as much enthusiasm for the gossip of the day as they could find, having no interest in who was seeing whom and which politician was currently teetering on the edge, but with my attention wholly captivated by something which truly interested me, there was no competition.
Of course, I still thought of you – I do not want you to think that I forgot you so soon, that you had so little effect on me as my words imply – but over time, as I concentrated and focused, narrowing my gaze to Alchemy and only that which I was studying (avoiding, very carefully, the prospect of immortality and eternal youth which came with it, for even little mentions of those reminded me of Hallows and revolutions and the way you had breathed against my neck at night as you slept), I thought of you less and less. I tried not to think of you, I admit I did not want to think of you, and I found that it became easier as time passed, memories shifting back in my mind, replaced by newer, fresher ones. It is not true to say that these memories were perhaps happier than the ones of the summer before, but they were less tainted with circumstance and grief.
Nicolas and Perenelle became friends, though not close or trusted (I suspected even then that they were keeping something secret from me, and I could not begrudge them the lies, for I had my own to guard and guard well), and I started to spend evenings at theirs, discussing history and books and music. We did not broach upon politics, which I always feared we would, for that topic I will forever associate with you. It was always your field, your mastery, not mine.
As summer progressed, slow and stately up the coast of France as is her wont, I began to feel lighter, better. I was not healing completely – I still carried my burdens and my conscience and my festering, rotting secrets – but I could find more joy in life, more pleasure in nature and friendship. The letters back to England doubled in length; I made sure to set aside time to write, describing my new life to my friends and inquiring after their own, and I found I had holiday enough to take a Portkey to England, to invite Elphias and Tiberius and Euphemia (now thankfully quite over any notion she had of attempting to woo me) to Paris and Marseilles. For the first time, I felt what had possessed them since that fateful moment the clock struck twelve and the second hand ticked past: hope.
After so long, it seemed only inevitable that it would infect me as well, sinking in through my skin, down into my blood, though I had been stubbornly resistant at the beginning. It worked its magic slowly, encouraging me to smile, then to quip glibly at comments made, then eventually to laugh. I cannot tell you how it felt to laugh again, how it punctured something inside me, releasing out the sense of freedom I had missed, and with it a reminder that I was still young. There was time, I recalled then, time for everything I had said I would do, time to be everything I wanted to be. Possibilities swirled around my head, making me stumble into Tiberius, who simply laughed as we righted ourselves, oblivious to the somewhat disapproving looks of the more sedate Parisian locals, mature and refined as compared to our youthful unruliness.
Perhaps, I thought, drunk on damson wine and a spiced orange liqueur which had bubbled and fizzed even as I swallowed it, perhaps this could be turning point for me. Perhaps I would finally make a name for myself; perhaps I would forget all about you and find a lovely young woman to settle down with, live the perfectly respectable life. Perhaps I would reconcile with Aberforth, take myself out of hiding in the middle of nowhere and do something meaningful, something inspirational.
Perhaps, and it was the last thought – guilty, secret and yet so utterly heartfelt hope won and I closed my eyes as the star flashed overhead and prayed to any deity who would deign to listen, that I would see you again, that I could love you again, that you could love me.
Really, you know, I should have been far more specific – for I have done all of those things (though the last, I think, I shall never know if it was ever true), and yet I am alone and companions with misery once more, hope humming to herself in the corner, waiting for her time to step in.
It was there, though, on the bridge over the Seine, surrounded by friends, warm and blissfully unconcerned with anything, that I decided that since life was determined to simply march along no matter what I did or said or how much I refused to follow, I would continue on too, with or without you, as you wished. I decided I would not let you define my life, would not let that summer, tragic though it was, define my life.
Ah, I imagine you are shaking your head at me, that smug, knowing little smile on your face. Yes, I must reply, I forgot, of course, about you.
A/N: perfect CI by the wonderful azimuth @TDA
monsieur - mister/sir (when used deferentially)
madame - mrs
eh bien - expression of exasperation/contemplation/etc.
mon ami - my friend
amusant - funny
non - no
bon - good
bonjour - good day
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