Chapter 14 : Sicily
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I do not believe in paradise, in perfection of nature realised, beauty and serenity twined together so that you feel nothing can go wrong there, nothing bad can exist there; it is all left outside the edges, abandoned at the border, snarling and growling and waiting for your return.
A dream, truly, and therefore almost impossible to realise – for nature, of all things in this world, is the most beyond our control.
If I were forced to label somewhere as a paradise, as the place I think of most fondly, for its aesthetic beauty, for the calm it brought me, it would be Lampedusa, that jewel stranded halfway between Italy and Tunisia.
Lonely, some would call it, but isolation in itself is not necessarily cruel – solitude can provide many things: respite, détente, time to think and wonder and discover the world anew. If taken in the right amounts, it can become a medicine, a panacea for the whole self: mind, body and soul all.
(Too much solitude, alternatively, shrinks the stomach and rips the mind apart, cracked and shattered and turned on itself, until there is nothing left but fragments of sound, of sight; syllables of words endlessly repeating in your ears, in your mouth – the rhythm of insanity.
I hear it sometimes – order in chaos – and wonder what it means for me.)
Ah, do you remember it, Albus? The way the sea, royal blue and tinted with green, waves edged with the white of foam, would slowly surge up the beaches, breaking on the rocks, an endless pool surrounding us on three sides, the colours of it rich and so vibrant, as though someone had poured vats of ink into the water.
A cloak of peacock feathers, almost, rippling and sparkling in the blaze of sunlight.
I would stand there, in the mornings, the wind whipping at my hair, the sky lavender and periwinkle blue, cloudless, my breath slow and steady, my soul, for once, at peace. Your arms would slide around my waist, warm even in my imagination, your lips press kisses to my neck, my cheek, and I would feel the rise and fall of your chest against my back, a soft accompaniment to the sway of the sea.
It is strange – it feels so real in my mind, that single image of you and I: the Mediterranean spread out in front of us, Africa to the right and Italy to the left, blue all around so that it almost seems we are suspended in mid-air, in the heart of the world, entirely alone except for each other; but I can only wonder, now, if it ever happened at all.
It is a lovely dream – would be, could be, could have been a lovely dream.
Then again, who can say what could have been is not what was? In places like that – where the sea and the sky at times merge on the horizon, where one can become convinced one is the only man in the world – it is at times hard to distinguish between the two, to separate them so clearly in my mind.
You see, in my memory the haze, golden and faint like a curtain of sand hung in the air, settles gently over the scene, a light blanket over it all, hiding the horrors of the world from our eyes, protective and warm; paternal, perhaps, in a way. The sunlight glances, darts and smiles, glittering brightly, each beam seemingly crystallised, and in it are reflections of life, of beauty, caught and distorted into elongated, twisted shapes.
False light off a mirror, a trick in truth, but beautiful nonetheless – and never more so than coupled with the heat, heavy and solid, weighing down on heads and shoulders with all the force of the unearthly.
Ah, Albus, at times I do not know whether it would be better or worse to know for certain whether it is a dream or a memory of time forgotten; in this, lonely as I am in my tower of penance, I prefer the uncertainty – then, after all, it can be whatever I want.
24th May, 1915; Lampedusa, Sicily, Italy
It is always the fate of beautiful things, that if it is all they have to their name – beauty, but nothing more, nothing deeper and darker than that – that they become dulled by time, the glittering edge which accompanies it worn down by the force of repetition, by the flight of interest when the depth of the waters is tested and found to be lacking. A melancholy destiny, it is true, but one which can be passionate, happy at least, even if these moments are fleeting.
Two weeks on a beautiful island in the middle of the ocean, land only just visible from the horizon on the clearest of days; it was promised like a dream, to be a political heaven, where, with so many others relaxed and thoughtless, I could press home my dagger and start to gather pace with influence.
Ah, to rest for once, to be able to simply play Europe like a harp for a few hours – such a delicious idea and so very much a temptation.
On arrival, it was everything people had said of it: long, winding beaches, rocky cliffs high above them, growing from them, brown and yellow and dusted over with harsh, olive green plants. There was a wildness to it, a serene wildness if you will, which spoke of the true majesty of nature: that it controls all, obeys none; that it births beauty and terror in equal measure, and has no need for mortals, creature or human, save as decorations, toys to suffer or succeed on a whim.
When the Celtic pagans – your forefathers, and perhaps mine too – called nature a goddess and prayed to trees, to the sea, to the air, they were not wrong. Within all these things, there is a certain divinity, a power we would be wise never to attempt to harness or claim.
There are small sins, things a priest or a bishop can forgive: indecent thoughts, indecent acts – kisses, touches forbidden by God – but there are things which will rip the very fabric of your soul, and there is nothing more foolish than to toy with the prospect of eternity.
Death can be defeated, but God cannot; damnation is only ever merely delayed by those for whom it comes.
It was strange, nonetheless, the place the Chief Warlock had chosen for such an event – a conference, long since needed and long since called for, to discuss the muggle war raging around us, loud and dimly glorious – an island where, even tucked behind layers of spells whole metres thick, hearts still shuddered at the glimpse of destroyers and U-boats on the horizon, and occasionally the faint pounding of guns somewhere out in the Mediterranean could be heard, could be felt as we sat on velvet chairs and drowned under pomp and ceremony. Surreal in both its idiocy and its reality: safety never feels at once so secure and so desperately fragile.
There is a time and place for such things, for displays of wealth and power, reminders of to whom you bow, but not in a crisis, not while people choke on ash and pray that the next bullet will not (or perhaps would; the trick to wars is not to survive, but to survive the aftermath. Death’s last call to those he could not collect) hit them.
(A cynical man might say that that is why the Chief Warlock died, when the revolution came; a wiser man would say he should perhaps have seen his own fate long before it came.)
It offended me greatly, more than people will know or believe, that we should potter about drawing rooms and orangeries, plucking lemons from trees to eat and squeeze into juice, sipping whisky over ice and enquiring after children, after wives and the latest stock market reports from the Gringotts Alliance, while outside people suffered, people who had not chosen to suffer, who had not wanted to, nor needed to. How cruel they would have thought us, how rude and distorted by our own self-importance – but most do not think about these things; for them, the little people do not feature.
Two of my half-brothers were to die in the war, sabres and muskets in hand, Austrian blue on their backs and the roar of a nation in their throats.
I did not mourn, but I prayed.
Still, even now, I should like to see them have at it, those creaking fools, long past their time, who thought that the world did not turn, that ages did not pass and we did not have to follow, endlessly, a dog with a master, their pattern. A sword in one hand, a horse underneath and a gun in the right – tell them to charge and see then how their legs tremble, how their hand shakes faster than their heart beats, palms slick with sweat, and command then, at the end, to kill and to live.
They would fall, I know, every single one of them: by being too old, they had forgotten how to live, what it meant and what it was worth – glory and honour and death, these meant nothing to them, noises without sound.
Ideals for youth, you had once sighed, sounding far too old then – eighteen by minutes – but you had smiled, had laughed, the words only a jest.
Throughout it all, though – as one speech flowed into another, then a third and fourth, none of them saying anything – I bit my tongue, stamping down on the anger in my stomach, feeding it with iced lemonade, and feeling it turn, slowly, into something more malleable, raw still but focused, fashioned more into a spear than a storm; lightning over thunder. I was no less incensed; the only difference was that this fury was a weapon, it would be the drive I would use to make them break and obey.
Anger is only ever a weapon, truly, when it is cold; too hot and it explodes, impaling both the wielder and the wounded.
Ah, Albus, you and I both know how badly it scalds and how painful the scars are, do we not? So we learn, to avoid the same hurt in the future – to make it into a tame wolf, refusing to bite the hand which feeds.
I stood, soon enough, and I spoke, and I watched their thoughts and their feelings flitter across their faces, one by one – some half-hidden, some completely bare, and a very few curtained entirely. The spear hovered in my hand, vibrating, cold and hungry, and when it flew, the air shivered around it; a ripple, almost visible, passed out from where it hit, spreading across the room, enveloping each person as it went, shards of it, thin and poisonous in nature, piercing their skin and sinking down.
Do not misunderstand – I am not arrogant or foolish enough to believe that through two speeches on a topic I could make them believe me, change their minds so easily and have countries under my sway by evening; it is never that simple, wonderful though it would be if it were.
No, I wanted the idea to be there, a worm at the heart of the apple, ready to eat its way out when I called, when the right time for it came – and then, you see, Europe would jump when I commanded, and nothing would be able to stop me.
People have a great power in numbers; it is only a shame it is so rarely used in our world.
In truth, the conference did little to further anything – talk, action, all of it dead because no one there wanted to be the first to put their hand up and suggest that we should do something, that perhaps we, as a group, needed to be closer than we were; we were smaller, we were weaker in ways we could not understand – ah, but sense it often lost on those who are most in need of it, no?
‘A visionary’ the newspapers had labelled me before, and they repeated it again then, those nervous, flighty politicians in whose hands Europe rested: a visionary. Always said with a tone of half-awe and half-disdain, as though I was nothing more than a lunatic, ranting and raving with no purpose and no meaning to be derived from my words.
Such a scathing word, is it not? Visionary…
It did not matter, though – I forced it not to matter what they called me (bastard whore one year, visionary another; but they are both names, and names given by those who do not know, though it is hard to remember at times) for in the end, I knew, they would see, even if I had to peel off their eyelids myself for it to happen.
For two weeks I waited it out, sitting in the room as men talked and decided nothing, decided to do nothing and to say things which meant nothing, and regretting more than ever that I had not thought to ask someone to accompany me – if only for some time away from them. Nico would have come, had I asked; Otto perhaps, or Hans – but ah, I had not thought it would be as bad, and so difficult to listen to.
Hubris, in a sense, though not dangerous in execution – and never dangerous for me, in truth.
After all, how could I be in danger of reaching too far too fast when all around me people decried me as a fool?
(It is a strange twist of fate that we should both suffer so during our lives – both be so unheard; those we try to protect, to inspire refusing to listen, refusing to believe that there is any truth in our words.
Cassandras both – when last we meet, it will be at the bottom of the ramparts, looking up at the stars.)
For two weeks, I sat and stood, sipping cocktails and vodka over ice, watching flimsy white curtains sway in the salt-tinted breeze, the sound of the sea – in and out, an endless pull and push, steady and sure – slowing the pace of life, slowing me until my heart beat in time with it, and the murmur of voices was buried beneath it.
Lampedusa calmed me, steadied me, gave me back some of the balance I had thought I had lost long ago, and retaught me the patience I had forgotten in frustration.
I should have liked to return there one day – an impossible thing now.
Now, I know, they talk of Lampedusa as a step on my road to power, another rung of the ladder, and it was, though not in so many words, nor so smoothly as people think – but, as with so many things, so many secret things, that was not all it was, was it?
Ah, I can imagine your face if this was a real conversation: you would pale, lips thinned, in that expression you wear when you have determined to be stubborn. You would look at me, steadily, and say, ‘perhaps not for you’, and you would lie, lie through your teeth because that is what you do now, yes?
That is who you are now: lies and secrets, and more guilt than you can stomach thinking about.
Time changes us all, Albus, in ways we do not expect.
I remember – it was my fifteenth day there, and I was walking on the clifftops, close enough to the edge that I could see small spires of rock jutting out of the sea where the curves of the island began to slope up towards the surface of the water, but far enough away that I could only hear the sea, not see it. Contradictions amuse me, as well you know, and the smell of the salt with the crunch of the grass, the swish of the water down below mixed with the flutter of the wind made me smile.
Odd perhaps, but I cannot help the delight I take in such things.
It was a beautiful day: clear, the horizon stretching on into the distance, so much so that I fancied if I looked hard enough for long enough I would see the edge of Africa, Europe left behind me, filled with wonders and curiosities I had yet to explore – would never, by fate, explore.
(It is the trick of life: that at the end of days, when death knocks at our doors, we regret most the things we did not do, joy stripped away from those things we did do because of that self-nagging doubt that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps we should have done other things, perhaps we did not do enough when we could have done it.
It is guilt, harsh and bitter and murderous, and it consumes us.)
Then, though, I did not know the future, did not know the horrors it contained, and so I looked and I gazed and I could only see promise, the possibilities of tomorrow. The world was not big enough to satisfy me, not small enough to contain me, and my ambitions were not bound by numbers and words and the opinions of sceptics: instead they were pure and free, noble still in their idealism.
Possibilities and promises, but all the temptations of luxury set against them; devils in the mountaintops, offering whole loaves of bread to the unworthy.
Ah, temptation – and as always, I yielded, yielded far too easily, far too smoothly, with barely a struggle against its seduction.
You may say that hair shirts and penance, kneeling on cold stone floors for hours at a time with hands clasped and words, feverish and repetitious, escaping your mouth in a long, continual stream, is the true measure of a soul, water for the seed of wisdom. I say you may say – you do, do you not?
It is why you will always think, always think – daily, weekly, monthly and yearly – that you should visit me here, in Nurmengard. It is why you never will.
What does sin mean, though, to a man who has never done it? To a man who wishes that he never had? Who regrets it, refuses to understand it, what it has forged in him and from him, and what he has become because of it?
Sin is an experience, Albus, and only that; like all experiences, it must be treasured.
A seagull, white wings spread wide, rising on a bank of warm air, soared overhead, silent and majestic, flapping once and twice and three times to change direction, the angle of his flight, wheeling around twenty degrees to fly west, due west, and off towards the oceans.
I have always preferred the land to the air, the grace of temporal things to those of spiritual things, but in that moment I could understand why you loved them so much, though still I wonder if it was ever for the power and the elegance they possess, or simply for the freedom that they had and you did not – if it was both, perhaps, since truth is rarely simple.
As the bird flew off, wings beating the air to go higher and higher over the sea, he crossed over the head of another person – a man, walking along the shore just as I was, west to east just as I was going east to west.
For a moment, there, I was lost. I was thoughtless, weightless, thrown out of my own body and helpless just to watch you progress along – here, of all places, where I had thought you never would be, where you were never meant to be, not in this time. You disoriented me, spinning my head and my heart and my soul, my mouth drying out and my stomach churning, heart thudding a thousand beats a minute to the point where I wondered if I remembered even how to speak.
Exaggeration, but only very slight.
You told me, one day, that I rouse in you things you do not understand, feelings which you fear for their intensity and their depths; have you never thought that you do the same to me?
Trance-like, almost, I still continued towards you, as though you and I were two stars, already bound for collision, drawn together by forces we could not resist or break from any more than we could change the very fabric of ourselves – and so, step by step, the distance closed.
Was it then that you saw me, in the front of the background, a blonde-tipped blob against the blue of the sky, or was it only later, when it was already too late to turn away? People would say it does not matter, but it does, more than they could possibly know, as all small things turn out to matter so much.
Eventually, after what felt like an age of walking, steady and sickly, we met again.
Your name stuck on my tongue, familiar and yet perhaps too much so – I did not know what to call you now, how to act in front of you, with you – and so I stood there, watching you, drinking you in, picking out the changes time had wrought in you, the lines he had added and the colours he had started to wash out.
What did physical differences mean, though, when you were Albus and I was Gellert and we were on the same beach, at the same time, with no one but the sea for witness?
“Congratulations,” I said eventually, English rough in my mouth – I had not spoken it in years, not even to my Aunt. “I heard about your promotion.”
Those words – did they sound as bitter as they tasted? Could you hear the irritation in my voice, the jealousy and the hurt that that was what you had chosen over me, over us: a castle, filled with schoolchildren who did not know how to hold a wand properly.
If they did, the wound they caused did not bleed.
“Thank you,” you were quiet, sombre, and when you looked at me, you did not hesitate, did not falter, even though something – something swift and heavy – flickered for a second in your eyes. “I should congratulate you on your success; reports of your speech were most favourable.”
“Only from those for whom it should be,” I responded, the corner of my mouth curving upwards automatically.
“Of course,” you said, and your tone was amiable – forcedly so, and the falsity in it made me long to bite and snap, just to see you flash and swell with anger, to hear your voice crack its own façade and be more than simply learned. I did not deserve walls, not then, not after everything, and you know it too, I think. “Forgive me, politics are not quite my speciality.”
Lies, Albus, such lies you tell – do they sting your tongue when you say them, or have you said enough that you are immune to the poison?
I wanted to laugh then, laugh or cry or choke, perhaps all three at once, and so I could only muster a smile. Forced, brittle, and I knew that you saw behind it, though how far I could not say.
Silence, then, and a silence too strong on both of our shoulders, a storm-cloud full of the things we had not said, the things we had never said and should have, and the things we would take back, if given the chance. So many words there, unheard and unspoken – incomplete halves of a conversation, as ungainly even in thought as a pas-de-deux danced by one.
It had been so long, so many years apart, but we had not yet forgotten how to talk – that is the tragedy.
“So, Professor,” I heard myself say, feeling far too old to be flirtatious, but the expressions, the mannerisms, the little coquettish behaviours, came without thinking around you – it was as if you summoned them up, banished me back into my sixteen-year-old self, fluttering and stuttering and too enraptured to care what others would think if they knew.
(The title made you flinch, though – with fear, or was it with the shameful thrill the power it brought gave you?)
“If you would like me to elucidate, I am more than happy to do so,” I continued, flicking you a smile from underneath my eyelashes. Too young, far too young, but this is what you did to me – this is what you made me into.
There is a theory, not new in its entirety, that there are many worlds, many universes alongside our own, diverging in different places, different ways. The roads not taken are taken elsewhere; the petal falls from the blossom tree on another day, and a million people do not die – that, at least, is my understanding of it, though I lack the books to go deeper.
If it is right, then there are two endings to this chapter of our lives. In one, you watch me leave, turning on my heel and retracing my steps, and, after wrestling with yourself, after temptation locks your conscience in a cage of iron, you follow me.
You linger outside my door just long enough to make me wait, to pretend you had not come so soon, that you were not as eager as you were, and then, it opens and there is nothing more between us than there was at the beginning; we are Albus and Gellert, and nothing else matters, and when you reach for me, there is a fire in your eyes, a flame you have long suppressed.
Now, then, you give it oxygen, feed it and encourage it, and it roars and we burn together.
Lampedusa is paradise and paradise is in Lampedusa, and it feels like time stops for us, like the world encloses us from the rest of life, just for a moment – it seems like it is all we have left.
In another world, I leave and you do not follow. We retrace our steps separately, never quite reaching the crossroads, never having the courage, the strength, to jump off the road and into the grass again, to roll down the hill and laugh, airs and graces and propriety all damned in the face of an ending.
In both worlds, you leave Lampedusa with an envelope, and inside it are two feathers – red and gold, our colours. They fell together, one evening, as I strolled along the edge of the Baltic sea, and they remained together: joined by a single shard of white tip, torn from a wing by the wind, by fate, by whatever force you want it to be.
I do not know what you did with them; I doubt I ever will, for you will not say, and who else knows?
Ah, what does it matter? There were once two boys; perhaps there were two men, too, halfway between Europe and Africa; and now there are two feathers – and the one thing they all share, is that they are all secret.
Secret – secret, and silent.
A/N: I do not own the many worlds theory - though I do own any mistakes made in discussion of it :P - Cassandra of Troy, mentions of the Celtic pagans and (Gellert's interpretation of) their beliefs, nor mentions of the First World War, U-boats and destroyers, and so on :)
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