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Chapter 15 : Expressions
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Every language has them: little tricks and flicks, phrases and saying which sometimes seem only to exist to confound non-native speakers, to mean nothing close to what they sound as though they should mean. Literalism is, with these, pointless to use in an attempt to understand: it only results in exasperation for both parties. In English, we have more of them than we could possibly ever write down – it would be more than a life’s work to compile them.
Perhaps it is not so strange, then, that over time people develop their own expressions – amalgamating those they heard as a child, as a youth and then as an adult, using them to coin their own.
Perhaps it is equally not so strange that we, in our whirlpool of English and German and Latin, spun our own expressions, our own inside jokes – phrases which, in four words, could summarise an entire essay, which could make us both laugh for hours on end until our sides hurt and our cheeks ached from smiling.
We never did write them down, alas, and I fear that now I long forgotten most of them.
Entschuldigung, darling: forgive me; I must beg your pardon; please excuse me.
Ah, I always did love the German habit of combining words to create others, to create something – one single word – which could only be translated in phrases, defined so haltingly, as one struggles to think how to convey the sense they bring accurately. In a language often considered to be so harsh and unappealing, there’s something wonderful about it being so expressive underneath it all, so clever in how it breathes and grows, as all languages do.
Just as we breathed and grew, and our relationship – for that is what it was, regardless of what exactly it was or should be called, as names change over the years (then you were merely my dear friend, later you would have been my lover, if we were young now perhaps I would call you my boyfriend) – breathed and grew, so too did the way we talked, and our list of expressions expanded exponentially, day after day.
Eventually, we did not need to speak much at all: all it took was a glance and a mouthed ‘rabbits’ or ‘Bentham’, and everything would be understood, more told then than we could have put into words.
It was blissful and exhilarating in equal measure, to be understood so easily and so simply – without need for words – to throw secrets between us in the air, coded and safe from others discovering them, so much so that at times it almost felt like we spoke a different language, lived a separate life, in a parallel universe watching the others go by in theirs, interacting with them but not truly belonging.
Aberforth complained about it endlessly, how he did not understand us, how he felt it was mocking him – I confess that I dismissed it out of hand, ignoring the possibility that those sly smiles you gave were not for me, were not at the irony of open secrecy, and chose instead to revel in the freedom of it. Perhaps from the outside it was like we had been enchanted, cursed to speak only nonsense, but from the inside, it was glorious and hard to imagine otherwise.
So many phrases, so many little sayings – and so many that I miss, that I think of even now and then, almost without noticing: you are not Andromeda, you used to tell me, amused or serious or almost violently passionate; you are not bound to this place, to them, you are not the sacrifice waiting to be slaughtered because you are told you must be.
Underneath it all, I would hear, I am Perseus, I can be Perseus, I am not Perseus.
How complex these things are; how complex we men are, in truth, or perhaps how complex we want to be.
Sometimes, though, I did wonder if it was only nonsense, as Aberforth thought, only a kind of gibberish we attributed meaning to, and it was only by luck, by understanding of each other that we came to the same conclusion.
On my birthday, that soggy, flat August day, I told you ‘you should give me flowers – something lilac or purple, perhaps, since they are my favourites colours – for putting up with you’, and, oh my darling, I wanted you to understand more than anything – I waited for the understanding – but when you smiled, my shirt brushing over the tops of your thighs, settled your head back down on my pillow and murmured ‘not now – you have quite exhausted me’, I could not say if you had known what I meant, or if it had faded before it reached you.
I suspect, though, that if you did not know then you knew later – when I fastened a string of red beads, a gift from my mother, around your neck, and you touched them gently, reverently.
“Red,” you whispered, then, the candlelight flickering in your eyes as you looked at me. “Catchfly and holly berries and roses.”
8th September, 1915; Hogwarts, Scotland
I spent hours, hours on end, staring at the two twin feathers you had given to me – sent, unmarked, in the dead of the night, a lover’s gift, and my chest tightened even as I tried not to think on it – feeling them slip through my fingers, watching how the red deepened in the lengthening shadows, bloomed in front of the fire, and the gold sparkled in light, turning to copper in dark. They were beautiful, a priceless gift in so many ways, and I could not help but wonder what you had meant by them.
You have never done something simply for the pleasure of doing it, there is always something else underneath the surface, a reason which forces your hand, insists that the gesture, the phrase, the mere look must be given, must be done.
Curiosity, perhaps, or a passion to do something, to prove to the world that you can; a passion to arrange the world and everything in it as you wish.
Holed up in my office, remembering you as you had stood on the cliffs that day, your hair – still golden, still curly, still no doubt as liable to slip through my fingers like silk as it had been before – swaying gently in the breeze, and your eyes resting on me with an expression I could not decipher (was it desperation, longing or a guarded unease? I suspect I shall never be certain), I could only sigh and wonder.
I will admit freely that I wished – often, heartily, selfishly – that they meant you loved me, that you missed me, that you wanted me back by your side, our plans resuming the shape perhaps they should always have held: you and I, revolutionaries and Masters of Death, together again.
Ah, such a beautiful, blissful dream; such a naïve and egotistical assumption – but it is all your fault, my darling. After all, it is you and you alone who twists my mind and body and soul entire until I can only think of you, can only see you – you and I and no one else.
It was a bittersweet torture, sitting by the fireside, feathers in my lap and a cup of tea on the side, trying to prise the silver truth out of the mess of string surrounding their meaning, their message.
Alas, that I was not quite up to the task – too unsure of your motives, too afraid of being disappointed once again, too ashamed of what others would think (of what Aberforth would think should he ever find out), to think clearly – that you were not there to laugh and explain it all to me; a child playing with a kitten, jerking the string up and up and up until eventually he grabs it and the child laughs, pleased.
In the end, it was visiting Aberforth down at his pub, his baby girl in his arms (Moira Kendra Dumbledore, for our mother, and Aoife’s grandmother, both witches of extraordinary ability) and his wife beaming next to him, his hair in need of a trim and his robes patched in places, and the memory, so strong, of our family – what had been, for the short while it had been, our family – together, with mother and father and Ariana all hale and healthy and happy, which made me realise perhaps what it could mean, if not what you intended it to say.
Family is the most precious thing you have, father had told me, grave and tired, before he had gone to Ministry and never come back. Never abandon it, never lose sight of what it means.
How many times had I failed to do that over the years? How many times had I raged against the bonds, intangible though they were, which kept me, as I thought, tethered to a village which would never give me anything? How many times had I been overjoyed to run out of the house, down to the brook, to think that one day I might leave and never come back?
I did not want responsibility; I did not want to be burdened with duties and necessities. I wanted freedom, the freedom I felt I was owed, that I deserved.
I was young and I was selfish, and love was almost merely an excuse.
This, though, these feathers – the promise, the message, the yearning declaration I wanted so very much for them to have – if I believed it was true, if I allowed myself to hope that they were, would I not do the same thing again?
All my duties, all my responsibilities – to Aberforth and his family, to Hogwarts and her students, my colleagues, to Ariana’s memory, tender and fragile though it was; I would toss them out of the window even as I fetched my cloak, fixated this time not on freedom as such (not as much, at least), but on the possibility of love, of a romance I had thought long dead.
Could I do that, was the question I had to answer, the question a gift of two phoenix feathers – seemingly so insignificant – had laid at my feet: could I abandon my life again, everything I had worked for and attained over the years, for a chance at a happiness I did not think I should have?
So you see, my darling, at the end of it all, wretched Gryffindor that I am, I am a coward.
The feathers I gave away one afternoon while strolling down Diagon Alley, keeping them out of sight in a drawstring pouch to protect them from wear, and I will not pretend that my hand did not shake as I did it, that I did not hesitate for minutes at a time along the way, that I nearly, very nearly, told Ollivander there had been a mistake, that I must have them back.
It is often the way of things that we do not realise their true worth until we have given them away, lost them or thrown them in a fit of pique. In the light of their loss, they appear without equal, utterly perfect, and we wonder how we could ever have believed the lies, lies and tricks, we used to convince ourselves that it would be for the best.
For the best… ah, it is, I find, always a curious choice of phrase, for it is very rare that for the best is, in fact, truly for the best for those it concerns – usually it is empty, an expression solely intended to placate, to reason without reasoning, perhaps.
In a school, there are a hundred-and-one different languages; spoken and unspoken, filled with gestures and body language, ticks and habits – all of them perfectly obvious if one only takes the time to observe the minute details which give it away, tiny translation at a time. These are the things which, as a teacher, it is necessary to understand; signs to a pathway of understanding.
Good teachers, I have observed over time, pick up on these things quickly, almost immediately – knowing half of them from their own schooldays, the telling flinches and glances.
Alas, I confess – not, no doubt, to your surprise, and I suspect to your great amusement – I was not one of their number.
My first years at the school were spent regretting my decision, cloistering myself away in my rooms after excusing myself for the night from the other staff, let alone speaking to students outside of class, unless it was for a detention. I taught lessons systematically, without thinking or feeling, each one laid out the same, or almost, each plan imprinted on my mind through hours of staring at my notes, mind lingering over the taste of absinthe and how gold hair had once curled about my fingers, how you flittered about Europe, powerful and admired and handsome, laying the foundations for the empire we had dreamed together.
It felt so pointless, sitting behind a desk in a classroom filled with children, reminding them once again not to poke each other with their wands; what good could I do, I would wonder in the evenings, unable to sleep and gazing up at the dark canopy overhead, trapped as I was? What would become of me, I who was meant to be Minister one day, whom my comrades had so often envied for my talents, stuck in a place I did not want to be?
A selfish question – irrevocably, entirely selfish; ah, but selfishness is a flaw I cannot seem to rid myself of, no matter how hard I try.
The truth is that, as is often the case, the hatred and uninterest I directed at the school, my colleagues and my pupils, bitter and venomous, had nothing to do with them – it was simply that blaming them for the boredom I could not shake off was easier than blaming myself.
It is always that way, is it not? Thus arguments are always the product of another’s mistakes, not our own: you should have done this, he should have come here, she should not have done that – and so, they lurk in the dark recesses of our minds, slipping out when we relax, just before we dream, to torment us, and they never end, sustained on the guilt and hate and irritation they spawn.
So many days now, as I sit here, I wonder what would have happened if our argument had ended before it did – if we had been less afraid and perhaps more mature, and far, far more honest. Would we have continued? Would we have ended, forever?
I do not think I can say one way or the other; I do not think I ever could have said, and the uncertainty of it chills me, even in the May evening.
Arrogant as I was – as I am, in truth – I had grown resentful of the cage I had built myself, grown bored with the toys I had assigned myself to play with, and instead devoted so much time to gazing outside at the wide, wide world: bright and beautiful and full of the wonder I could not see around me.
The grass is greener, indeed.
I could not speak about anything to Aberforth, but, unfortunately or fortunately – depending on how you view it – he and I were fluent in the other, years of brotherhood doing nothing to dull that skill for him, it seems (though I, since Ariana’s death, have found him almost impossible to read, impossible to predict. A strange sort of self-punishment, I think), and he could see through me in a heartbeat.
Every time I went to the pub, we would have the same routine: I ordered a glass of something with Aoife, and retreated to a table in the back, careful to be quiet and as inconspicuous as possible. When the night grew late, Aoife retired upstairs to Moira, and the last of the patrons – legless and slurring something unsavoury about their wives usually – staggered out of the door, Aberforth would sit down and we would have a drink together.
He always, always asked about Hogwarts – how were my lessons, how were the students (didn’t I know a pair of them had tried to sneak in last Hogsmeade visit, cheeky little buggers…), my colleagues, the House Cup…
We never spoke about anything else – not about ourselves, not about politics, or friends. Our world had narrowed, limited to the very basics, a sort of small-talk, and it came with a mutual understanding that it could not be more than that: the tiniest spark would send what we had rebuilt, painstakingly and slowly, up in flames quicker than either of us could say ‘aguamenti’.
I will not deny that there were times I wanted to – times your name hovered on my tongue, times the truth of it all sat there, times I wanted to be free to complain and curse about the lot I had assigned myself to and the burdens I had set on myself, even if only to see his reaction, to be shouted down with all the force of a raging dragon, to hear him say all the things I could not bear to admit – but I held my tongue. In this, there was more fortune in discretion, rather than valour.
I answered, of course, as simply as I could, recalling simple anecdotes on occasion, however petty and meaningless they were, and for a time, it was enough.
Aberforth, though, was never one to indulge a fantasy for too long.
“You know,” he began, each word deliberate, slow, chosen with a shrewdness which belied his Hufflepuff sorting. “You’ve been at that place for what – eight, nine years now? – and comin’ here for nearly a year, and you’ve never yet said you actually like it. Strange, don’t you think?”
I was stunned, I admit; I could not find anything to say – I could not say that I did like it, but for some reason, I did not want to lie and pretend that I did, that I had found my true calling. It was enough that I had had to convince my friends that it was a post I had wanted, that it was a job I valued highly – though that had been easier, since they had not seen papers in riddled English and German and Latin, talking of Hallows and revolutions and utopian perfections realised.
In my silence, Aberforth seemed to read every scrap of it off my face, and for a moment sympathy flickered in his eyes, before it died, squashed by a gruff, rough annoyance.
“It’s bloody wrong,” he started, conviction lacing his voice, and a fire in him I remembered suddenly, vaguely, from our father, the few times he fell into anger. “Bloody wrong, that you, after all your plans and your big ideas, you end up at a safe, cushy job, and you can’t even try to like it – spend most of your time making yourself miserable.”
He was glaring at me, eyes dark and blue and so much like yours and so wrong in his face; I only looked down, nursing the now empty cup of gin and wondering if it would be too much to ask for more, or – better and worse still – simply summon the bottle.
There is an old joke, much repeated and beloved by each generation in turn, that Gryffindor courage comes in bottles.
Dreadfully untrue, unfortunately – though I did my best to test it thoroughly, I assure you.
Opposite me, the light from the candles lit around the edges of the room beginning to fade as they burned out, smoke wafting and settling in the room, a shroud to surround us, Aberforth was dark, reds and browns mottling over his shirt and his hair, emphasising the creases under his eyes and the day-old stubble covering his jaw and cheeks.
“God help those poor children with you teaching ‘em,” Aberforth muttered audibly, rising and draining his glass in one go, a twitch of his wand sending both them into the sink. “Soon you’ll have them all potty-trained in your greater good.”
That, I assumed, a mix of shame and hurt and anger curdling in my stomach, was my cue to leave, and I ducked out without another second spared, not bothering to close the door behind me – Aberforth slammed it shut and locked it as soon as I was out.
A letter arrived the next evening, only five words written on the parchment, the writing precise and angular, as though the author had agonised over the words for hours: sorry; you still deserved it.
I did not need to look at the calendar to know why, in any sense – the date was woven into my very heart. Ariana had always hated us fighting, hated it more than anything else (for mother and father had never fought, or if they had, never in our sight or hearing, and as for spiders and the dark, she would reason, they could be dealt with simply), and we had never, ever before fought on her birthday. It had always seemed taboo, a sort of ritualistic habit we had always maintained.
Then, I suppose, it had an even greater value than it had had before – poignancy in memory.
There has always been an expressive note in Aberforth – an ability to make a handful of words mean the same as an entire novel, piling the emotions into them in a way which cannot truly be taught, inherited from our mother. It is why I treasure the small notes he sends me, the Christmas and birthday cards, for they always carry a meaning beyond what they are, and the messages inside, though short and seemingly simple, are as precious and complicated in their own way as anything you and I ever sent to each other.
For him, there was never any point in saying anything without meaning it, and without reason to say it – words were scarce, and, when they did pass by, blunt and small.
In truth, Aberforth tends to say more in three words than I do in thirty, and it has long since been both a poor joke and a spot of contention between us; he no more approves of my waffling than I approve of his utter lack of tact.
He was right, though, I can admit that now – I could admit to parts of it, then, hard though they were to hear and to read: it was in incredible ill-taste for me to moan so much about a fate I had given myself, when in reality it was hardly a bad one to have at all.
(At the same time, though, I nearly burned the note in frustration, in the sudden surge of hatred I had for him and his way of seeing through me. I had been, strange, though it seems, happy in misery, happy with being miserable, and with that one note, he had torn that all to shreds.)
I should be braver, I thought resolutely, I should be braver and better and stronger: embracing the chances I had been given, the reformation Hogwarts offered me, and the sanctuary it was already providing. There were children here, things to learn and ways in which to grow I had not even considered before; I could still, I told myself, be great, though perhaps not in the way I wanted or intended.
You will note, no doubt, how it was still wanted, still intended, never in the past. Ah, my darling, that is another flaw: I have never quite managed to let go of my dreams, long dead now though they are, always excused why I have not achieved them.
And so, though I cannot quite find the words to say it, I always long for you.
As I sat there, I could not help but think that, really, it was too late for those things – to be braver, better, stronger – and no point in it, either. After all, if I had been any of them (perhaps a pinch braver, a mite stronger), I would not be at Hogwarts, but in Germany, or maybe some other place, with you.
If I had been any one of those things, even fractionally, I would have gone after you that autumn, the risk it was – would you love me, would you hate me, would you even stand to look at me anymore, potential murderers both – nothing compared to the possibility that the answer would be yes, that there was something in us, something between us, that could be saved.
The other day, I told a dear friend of mine that love is the strongest force we wizards know of; that used correctly, it can defend against any spell, against any known threat, perhaps even against death itself. I told her she should let love win, that she should accept it, let it flourish, for when it succeeds, then there is nothing which can stop it.
She is marrying soon; she will be happy, and for that I am pleased.
You will see, though, in this the hypocrisy I berate myself for nightly, the hypocrisy so ingrained in me through fear, through my own damnable obligations, that love should win, but not for us. The risks should be taken, but not by me. That love should be a blessing and a burden – joyful but sometimes heavy – carried by others, but not, never, by us.
Do you hate me for it? Knowing as you do, the things which could have been? The possibilities we missed? Do you resent that I was too scared, too weak to admit to the truth of it – that I loved you then, that I knew that I always would – and in turn we both suffered because of it?
There are days I think you would understand; there are days I think you would damn me to Hell and back, passion and sorrow entwining in your voice. Every day, I am perversely grateful I do not have the strength to ask.
I did try, though, Gellert – I wanted to admit it, I tried to summon the courage, to write to you, to send you a note or a gift, some sign you could read. Short and sweet, I thought, as I sat at my desk, Aberforth’s note, crumpled and dirtied by half a ring of a coffee stain on one side, and something desperately romantic for the poet you hid in your soul.
A confession, really, and one you had by this time deserved to hear for a while, and I was resolved that you should – deliverance from uncertainty would, I told myself, be deliverance from the longing, from the fear of not being loved and the hope of being loved chasing each other in circles day after day after day.
By your birthday, I would have sent you something – anything – to express it.
It was backed up, as it happened, and my determination doubled, by an owl from Professor Black, informing me that he would be firing me at the end of the year.
I would be leaving my pupa in less than nine months, free from the cage I had built and so detested, and somehow, somehow I knew, I had to be ready – I needed an end to the uncertainty, darling, if I were to face the world again, face the temptation of the power I still craved, my ideals paper thin against the steel of fame and fortune and success.
People often praise me for my strength, for my determination, and for my zeal in chasing the right thing to do – alas, that I have never had the heart, nor the nerve, to admit that I learned those from you.
A/N: Please forgive any mistakes - this was written during NaNo, as was the chapter before! They will be edited soon! :) Bonus points if you can work out the significance of Albus' comment about lilacs and purples to Gellert, and Gellert's to Albus about red - catchfly and so on ;) And lastly, I'm sorry this is a bit of a ramble - it is leading into something, I promise! :)
Entschuldigung - excuse me.
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