Chapter 9 : Pragmatics
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To some men – clever, cunning men – words, a sentence, even silence itself, mean nothing on their own. Without anything else, they are simply leaves on a tree, caught in a breeze and fluttering gently, casting green rainbows onto the ground far below, onto passers-by: decorative, certainly, but feeble and easily thrown away to wilt and fade and die.
Perhaps it is a cynical belief, but then, alas, age has quite crept up on me, and cynicism is an easy habit to make when one is old and prone to foolishness.
Folly would say that one should believe the words that are spoken, no matter how or when or why – that a declaration of love, in whatever shape, should be trusted and treasured, wound about one’s heart like string on a parcel. Truth should be assumed, friendship and honour the foundations of it (for why would one lie to a friend? Why would one debase one’s own honour willingly?), and yet men have died because they lived their lives along these lines.
I may yet be one of them. Of all my weaknesses, it is the one which has come closest to destroying me before, as you know well, having been the architect yourself.
No, the key with words, which more often than not divines the meaning behind phrases, however eloquently put, is context: the setting, the very moment within which they are breathed out into the world, clothed in the wind’s protection. To understand what rests behind the words, that beautiful, sunny façade which glitters so enticingly in front of us, desperate for us not to look beyond, we must avert our eyes and tilt our head, catch a glimpse of the shadow they carry with them. Only then, is it possible to know anything for certain; only then is it possible to truly rely on them.
I remember how, time after time after time, in that summer we shared, you had looked at me – blazing, glorious, defiant, deliriously happy – grasped my hand or my shoulder and told me, your voice quiet and utterly, completely decisive (for this was no mere fact, this was a statement of intention, of want, of need as I thought, and there was power behind it), ‘together’.
Together. That one miraculous word which set my heart to thudding in my chest, dried my mouth even as it made my palms sweat and my lips curve upwards in a smile, without thought. Inside my veins, something would burn, foreign and strange and wildly intoxicating, so much so that I would be half-drunk, prone to ignoring all risk, simultaneously the most powerful and the weakest I have ever been.
On the strength of that one word, I planned to go to Europe with you, to run away and explore every city and wilderness, to reforge the future of the world in its entirety and create a new order, a new society – utopia, in all her wonder.
I would have done more. It shames me somewhat to even think it, to admit it to myself and to you – the two people who knew already – but I would have done almost anything you asked as long as you would continue lying next to me, a pagan god amongst the grass and bathed in dappled sunlight, your fingers entangled with mine, your grip hard and possessive, and breathe against my mouth, with all the fervent promise of youth, ‘together’.
Whatever situation we were in – whether I was pressing you into my bed, kissing trails down your neck even as you pulled my head up to yours, our clothes long gone; or sitting opposite you, the windows in the study flung open and our papers and plans before us – it was always the same way, always the same word, and always the same reaction.
Even now, it affects me, though the shudders have dulled to aches, my veins too old and too worn to cope with fire sweeping through them, and with it, the power of it is gone: that pure, exultant passion you lived your life by, all-encompassing and seductive as it was. I am cold and lonely, and though I still long for you, it is a steadier longing – a sweeter, simpler want then before.
I miss more now the comfortable silences, the weight of your head on my shoulder, the way you knew me so instinctively that at times I did not have to speak at all, merely look or sigh, and you would turn my thoughts with a single phrase or a smile. Then, at night – ah, then I dream of the darkness of your eyes as they deepened and smouldered with desire, with passion; of the feel of your fingers tight around my palm, nails digging into the back of my hand; and of that single, commanding word, gasped out roughly, desperately, as your voice rose in a cry and I took you for my own.
Together. Ah, to think of what we could have been hurts, I confess, but, alas, it was not meant to be. The context of us, so singularly bizarre and unhelpful, would never have allowed for it, could never have allowed for it.
Still, I remember – and resolutely try not to think of that last, terrible day when you begged me, please, Albus, no; when you begged me to remember us, our dreams and our plans, us together in all ways we had imagined.
There was passion about you even then, but it was abated, cold and frightened, desperate almost, and I could no more give into it, the sorrow and the saltwater it brought, than I could have walked away.
1st May , 1906; Hogsmeade, Scotland
Over the years, I have heard many people – students and staff alike – call Hogwarts their home, their home away from home, and smile as they say it, their eyes lighting up and expressions earnest. Whenever I hear it (and over the years, it has been more times than I can remember), I can never help but feel somehow proud, as though simply by being Professor or Headmaster I have had a hand in the success, even though I have never done anything to merit such a sense.
It may surprise you, then, to learn that Hogwarts for me – at school, at the beginning of my confinement – never quite felt like home, that for me it never held the same meaning, the same importance as she does to those who truly love her.
The difficulty is, of course, that for a place to truly be home, all the pieces of your heart must be there – and you took so much of me with you when you left that I could not really be whole again.
I returned to Hogwarts on a cloudy spring morning, armed with nothing other than an invitation to interview stuffed inside my front breast pocket and a fiction of confidence which was altogether far more flimsy than it appeared, what with nerves fluttering in my stomach, churning that morning’s breakfast round and round and round until my throat tightened and I suddenly needed a glass of water.
Hogsmeade was at my back, the village shrouded in spring’s garlands, the trees around all green and lightly showered with the scent of dew and blossom – magic emanating from the area allowing things to grow when perhaps they shouldn’t in a trick no wizard had ever been able to explain – and it would be easy enough to slip into The Three Broomsticks or The Hog’s Head and request a glass of water; I had time spare before my interview for such delays, conscious of the impression I needed to make. I could, truly, except that I did not want to – it would feel a little too much like giving in to the nausea, however ridiculous it sounds.
Nervousness was not something I had had to content with before, in any significant way – the only previous time being when I was first introduced to Nicolas Flamel, at the International Alchemical Conference in Cairo during my childhood – and I was determined I would not let it control me now. It is, I think, a notion you can sympathise with, considering your belief that fear is merely a mental weakness.
So, nausea camped in my belly, I waited as patiently as I could, ten metres in front of the gates, admiring the way the blue and white blend of the sky poked through the metal bars, a cold and pale patch of colour, though it faded in comparison to the glitter of the steel. It was a startlingly bleak picture, weak and watery; there was a sense of impossibility about it, that everything about it was unattainable, one could try for hours and days and years in turn, and end up with nothing more than a handful of empty space.
It put me uncomfortably in mind of prison bars, dark lines streaking down the sides of light – and I thought of my father, how he died in prison, looking out over the North Sea, that swirling tempest of storm waters, garbling to himself about dark eyes and blond hair matted with blood and dirt, and I wondered what he would think of me if he could see me now. Would he be disappointed or pleased? Would he have disowned me as Aberforth had or had some sort of sympathy for the wild, passionate adoration which had sent me tumbling downwards?
I will never know – and, truthfully, Gellert, I am glad of it. I do not think I would want to know the truth of the answer; the ambiguity of it allows me to hope for the best, naïve though that may be.
Soon enough, though, the gates were swinging open, silent and slow, cracking open only just enough for me to slide through them, and the groundskeeper led me up towards the school, his lip curling every time he looked at me, a disdainful glint in his eye. He said nothing, not even to introduce himself – for he was a new hire since I had last been at the school – and I did not dare to enforce conversation.
For one thing, I could not imagine what on earth we would have to talk about; a rare thing for me, for all I never had your charm.
The journey, though I knew in fact it was long – almost two miles from the gates to the entrance to the Headmaster’s office – seemed to pass in the space of a smattering of heartbeats, the blues and pale greys and greens of the grounds merging seamlessly with the browns and golds and faint spots of brighter colours of the castle’s interior, so much so that I could scarcely have told you where the former ended and the latter began.
A gruff shout of the password (‘Perfidious’), and then I was rising up and up, rotating gently as I went, the grinding of stone on stone a strangely soft accompaniment – sandstone, I reflected, running a hand over the thick blocks of stone in the wall, the grains of it rough under my fingertips, leaving a thin residue of dust behind, specks of lovely, pale golden cream.
Raising a hand, I knocked gently, twice and paused, the nausea in my stomach all but vanished, liquid settling into the surface of a lake, gently swaying, and I felt much more at ease, more collected than before. The confidence familiarity gives you, I think, and this was a routine I had walked more times than I could count – one that would become almost automatic as the years went by.
“Come,” came the call – short and curt, though his voice did not raise a jot. He had a great talent, Professor Black, for drama; charisma was as much his matière as Charms had been, and he remained, even after my Head Boyship, possibly the most enigmatic man I had ever met. Even you, with your teasing, secretive smiles and coy glances could not compete.
I stepped into the room, shutting the door carefully behind me, and looked up at the desk on the dais. Nothing had changed about the room since I had left; it seemed identical to how I recalled it: lined with four bare pillars, carved into Corinthian columns, the portraits of former Headmasters crowding the wall behind the wooden throne which encased the current incumbent, clad in smooth black velvet robes, trimmed with fur even in spring. A single photograph, black and white and still – old, very old – sat on the nearby dresser, enclosed in a small alcove which housed a carved dip, the sleek silver mirror I had seen in it before absent.
The atmosphere was singularly uninviting, I must admit to you, though I had not expected to be welcomed back with open arms: I had never been Professor Black’s favourite student; too clever by half for my own good, as he had told me repeatedly throughout my schooling, and far too aware of it. I cannot deny some truth in it, at least, though his opinion of me never lessened as time passed.
To this day I cannot think of a single reason why he hired me in the first place; and he never revealed anything to anyone. If there was a reason, it is lost beyond the veil.
“Albus Dumbledore,” Professor Black pronounced my name in a drawl, the vowels clipped – the sharp, clean accent of the home counties. Somehow, he could manage to make my name sound utterly unappealing, akin to a curse, dying the air deep blue, the threads of it curling lazily as a thread of ink dropped into a bowl of water. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
He did not smile – not even a bit – simply watched as I sat down on the chair opposite, leather and hard-backed and most uncomfortable. In return, I kept my own expression steady, attempting to match him stare for stare, not wanting to give something in exchange for nothing.
“I would like to enquire about the Transfiguration position – I understand you are in need of a professor for the next year,” I replied, following his lead by not mentioning the invitation, still tucked inside my jacket. What would the point of it be? Petty, childish play; nothing more – and Phineas Nigellus has never been a man, in whichever form, with whom one can afford to act as such. His lack of patience for children is somewhat legendary.
“And why are you enquiring about it?” he asked, his tone not entirely polite, coal eyes narrowing. “I understand most of your post-school research has been in the field of Potions, not Transfiguration. Talent for a subject as a student is not quite what I am looking for in a replacement professor.”
“I am qualified –” I began, a list of my discoveries, of the theoretical papers I had written for Transfiguration Today and the Journal de Michel-Mauglin de métamorphose, but he interrupted me, impatient and faintly, very faintly, amused.
“Yes, yes, you are very well qualified – exceptionally well qualified,” the grudging respect in his voice – slender and delicate as a snowflake though it was – could not quite be covered by the irritation which followed on its heels. “An alchemical partnership with Nicolas Flamel; nineteen papers published in internationally acclaimed journals, a third of those ground-breaking research; and the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood. I doubt you could find a man in Europe with credentials even half as impressive as those.”
He fell quiet, regarding me carefully over the desk, the smooth, mahogany surface only covered by a leather protector and a single sheet of perfectly blank parchment, quill and ink waiting to one side. His gaze was shrewd, calculating, and I swallowed, perfectly aware that this would, no doubt, be the question which would make or break the interview.
I had to succeed; there was no question about that. It was imperative. If I did not – well, I had no idea what I would do then, no idea other than that I simply could not continue on as I had been.
“Which, Dumbledore, begs the question: why are you here?” he paused again, his dramatic flair raising its head briefly to taste the air, and gave a small, cruel smile. “And, please, do not insult me by telling me it is a job you want – we both know that is not the case. You are too talented to be a teacher, and I am too clever to fall for the act of the earnest young genius who wishes only to mould young minds.”
From his expression, arranged so as to be studiously patient – overly so, in fact – it was clear he expected me to have been caught out, to be lost for words and have to struggle for minutes, desperately searching for another line to feed him, another way to convince him I truly wanted to teach, that I longed for nothing more than a classroom full of children, half of them bored and half of them only half-interested, and piles of essays in the evenings, with only my conscience for company.
Alas, I confess I disappointed him sorely.
“I do not want to teach,” I admitted openly, my voice carefully even, meeting his eyes easily. “I want a purpose, and I will find that in teaching.”
So many times I have been asked why I started teaching, and always, always I parrot the same lines: I tutored during my schooldays, I enjoyed it, teaching was the natural progression – and each time I say it, each time the words leave my lips, they burn ever so slightly. The lies have become easier to tell over the years, I admit, but still thinking on it for too long reminds me of the truth, of the purpose I sought – to replace the purpose I had lost with your flight from England, with Ariana’s death.
You affected me so much, my darling, more than I care to admit – even to you.
“I see,” Professor Black murmured after a while, his gaze still fixed on me, with all the intent and ferocity of a hungry wolf, waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to pounce.
Over the years, I have always wondered what he made of that – not the last honest answer on the subject of my career I ever gave, but the last to someone who would not see the ugliness it hid – but I never dared ask. It is a question, though, that remains with me: just what of me did he see in that? How much did he guess at from such a simple comment?
However much he guessed, however much he thought he knew, he never mentioned it, and for his silence, if it was held, I am grateful – doubly so, knowing his constant distaste for me. It is a kind of loyalty, in its own way, one I have no idea how I earned, and perhaps for those reasons it is all the more precious.
“You will receive an owl in a week informing you of my decision,” he told me frankly at the end of it, reaching for a quill – slim, black-boned and feathered, the pin-feather of an augury tipped with silver. “You understand there are other candidates.”
“Of course,” I nodded, though he did not see it, and rose to leave. “Thank you for your time.”
Back outside the castle, it had begun to rain – a thin, light shower which landed gracefully on my hair, trickled down my nose and neck, coming to a halt on my collar, tight around my throat. It was not going to get any heavier, I mused as I looked up at the sky, observing the clouds as they progressed slowly overhead, but it was enough to soak me to the skin. Indeed, it seemed to me that as I stood there I could feel (my imagination at work once again) my cravat, a fine yellow silk, already beginning to flatten against my chest, mellowing into a deep amber.
Grateful for the foresight to bring both cloak and gloves on what had been promised to be a beautifully sunny day, I loitered in the rain, content to let it brush down the back of my neck and splatter on my shoulders, as I wondered whether it was worth it to stop at The Three Broomsticks for lunch, or head home where no doubt an owl would already be waiting from Elphias, anxious to hear an account of the interview.
It was a meeting of sheer coincidence – if he had known I was in town, he would have never left his house that morning, of that I am certain – and all it took was a moment.
He stopped dead in the middle of the street, less than twenty metres away, and absently, as though my mind was removed from my body, I considered that this was the closest we had been to each other in nearly seven years, since he vanished into the dawn the day after Ariana’s funeral, long before I was even awake.
As we stood there, both frozen in place, I noted that his clothes were ragged at the edges, his shoes nearly worn through and his skin tanned to a sort of pinkish-sandy colour which suited him better than I would have thought – his hair having darkened also, the auburn tint it had had when we were young gone – and all the guilt, all the want to talk to him, to try to get to know him as I never had before, to cling onto the last piece of family I had left surged up inside me again.
I could not find the words, though, and so I merely stayed there, as much a statue as the gargoyles on top of the gates, wondering once again how it was that he – so much weaker, so much less intelligent, so much simply less than I – could make me flounder in such a way.
It is the one thing you have in common, I think, you and he: the ability to strike me dumb without doing anything, or saying anything; existence alone does the trick.
Eventually – I say eventually, though in truth it was little more than a minute – he glared at me, flipped me a rude hand gesture and stomped off, deliberately turning his back on me. The message was clear: I was not yet forgiven, nothing yet forgotten, and I wondered if I ever would be, if there would ever be anything I could do which would redeem me in his eyes.
Once again, alas, I still do not know the answer, and again, I do not want to know. I am very much afraid that the truth of it would destroy me, and unlike with you, there is no possible hope of pretended compassion – for Aberforth does not deal in subtlety and imagery, enchantments of language, but brute honesty – and so I sit quietly and keep my questions secret.
Oh my darling, my darling, sometimes I think my life is formed solely of secrets – those I keep and those which are kept from me. To this day, I am not certain which ones I should fear more.
A/N: matière = fr, 'subject', also used in colloquial English, with the sense of pretentiousness and less of academic discipline.
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