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Chapter 23 : Semantics
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Tell me, Gellert, what do words actually mean? How do you know what they mean – how do you come to define them, where do you take your definition from; perhaps when do you take your definition from, and from whom? How do you say what is a word and what is not: how can you pin something down and give it fixed, inflexible boundaries when it is constantly moving, shifting and growing, expanding as the culture which surrounds it, the people who fill it and use it grow and shift and change?
Is it possible, therefore, to ever really define something – to write out a word and say, this is what it means, this is what a person says when they use it.
Semantics, darling, merely semantics, but they have always been so very important.
After all, if you twist a word one way, it means one thing; if you tilt it another, something else, and so on, until the same word, with different inflections, different sounds, can have a dozen meanings all stemming from it, branching out like a tree from a seed. All equally right, all equally valid, and all entirely dependent on context to show, a light through a prism scattering into a blurring rainbow, which one is meant.
When an implication can wound, can burn and scar, when a word can conjure up anger, red-hot and powerful, then semantics come into their own – then they are necessary.
That is not to say that they are not necessary all the time, as I know you would argue, indignant and affronted, ever the linguist, only that there are times when even a fool would think them needed, would agree that intent has importance then, that meaning and definition and simple, honest ignorance, however true and however real they may be, cannot solely make a word.
For us, that summer – perhaps always, no matter how well we knew each other; our need for semantics was only reduced, not vanquished completely – implication was everything: we spoke across languages, across cultures, and so intention trumped definition, as it was.
Strong, you would say, meaning hard. Fat, you would say, meaning round. Once, I remember – at least, I think I do – you said forceful instead of passionate, your hand tracing the symbol of the Hallows on my chest, looking flushed and thoroughly debauched.
I had stilled, stunned and petrified, while you had frowned, butting the back of your head against the pillow – and that, of all things, had given me the sense of what you had meant.
Ah, but the things we lose in words, only to understand in actions!
All my life I had prized eloquence and debates around semantics, the ability to turn a phrase or to mould new meanings for words, to give meaning to sentences and clauses which meant very little originally; in meeting you, all of that was thrown out of the window with a glance.
Suddenly, what meant so much more was how close you were to me, were you close enough or too close, how you moved – from your hands when you gestured to how your mouth moved as you spoke and the way you walked – how you smiled and frowned, the simple touches here and there: a brush of my leg by accident, a quick, tight clasp of hands when we parted… it infuriated me as much as I adored it; it set me on edge like nothing else, and I craved it and dreaded it in equal measure.
I had never been quite so thoroughly convinced at once of the power of words and of their utter uselessness.
Did you know it, how easily you could distract me, turn my head and my thoughts simply by shifting slightly or pressing your hand to my skin?
No, do not answer – I am not certain if I would like to know the truth, if you were merely sweetly infatuated and as fascinated by the illicit thrills it brought as I was, or if you were gently winding my soul further and further around your finger like a piece of coloured string.
No one has ever, will ever enthral me the way you did, my darling, of that I am sure.
Did you use that, that slipping of semantics, cerebral and purely intellectual, from my grasp in favour of something more temporal, more tangible, to draw me in, to encourage me to turn a blind eye to the darker, deeper aspects of your plans?
I remember – and this I do remember, sharp and clear – asking you once, sitting on the bank of the brook that ran along the back of the Godric’s Hollow, delving and diving between rocks, around the roots of trees, bursting out of the earth which lined the sides of it, “This idea of the ‘greater good’, I cannot help but wonder – is it really ‘good’, as such?”
You had smiled, fond and amused and perhaps there was something sly and condescending and cold underneath it, bathed in dappled sunlight, a sylph in pale silver-grey and jasmine-yellow, lowered your eyelashes and wiped a droplet of water, light and cool, from my cheek, with your thumb, half-cupping my face.
“Albus,” you almost sighed, your gaze fluttering over my mouth. “Your semantics.”
10th August, 1926; The Hog’s Head, Hogsmeade, Scotland
The air was heavy, sticky, as though the water embedded into it had been tinted with sugar or honey, colouring the landscape with a faint brush of cream over the green and the brown; the treetops were still and the sky full to the brim with high, arching banks of grey clouds, dark and foreboding even with the sun, in the middle of her cycle from horizon to horizon, lighting them up with flickers and flashes of bright yellow breaking through here and there.
Everything felt hung, as I recall, stacked delicately on top of each other and wobbling, swaying with a gentle danger.
It seemed, then, like nothing of consequence – only the coming of a summer storm, fierce and sudden and beautiful; of course, when I look back on it now, I wonder how I did not see any of it coming, how I did not feel, then, the precipice approaching with the weather and the threat of losing everything, of seeing it all destroyed in the time of a single rumble of thunder, accompanying it.
Ah, the blessings of hindsight! So helpful and so forgiving, and yet at once so damning.
In truth, it is a seductive, wonderful sword – double-edged and gleaming, glittering with gold and jewels on the pommel, perfectly balanced and ready, willing to be used, to slice through the veil, silk and translucent, which blinds you to show you the murky grey of reality. All it asks in exchange is for you to fall on one side or the other – forgiveness, for yourself or for another, or damnation.
Either way, you fall, and the cuts do not heal quickly when they cut deep.
I should apologise, I suspect – as I grow older I find myself clinging more and more to philosophy, to endless circles around life and death and the intricate, infinite nature of man; pouring night after night after night over old, faded letters and thick, leather-bound and vellum tomes, and it is undoubtedly lessening my conversation.
In thinking so long on life, on the meaning of the world and one’s place within it, on the foundations of being, it is possible to waste it. Ironic, perhaps, and romantic, in its own fashion.
Perhaps, though, you would prefer to call it tragic – I confess I am no longer certain what you would think now, or even what you would have thought then.
Isn’t it so strange, how having once known another almost better than we know ourselves, we can now only guess at what the other might think or believe or want, and hope, silently, that we are somewhere close to the truth? How things change – so suddenly, so quickly, and so very emphatically.
Once, we were inseparable; now, we could not be further apart.
(I do not mean physically – after all, if we measure it in miles or kilometres, the distance between us is not unpassable: perhaps some seven hundred kilometres or so; around four hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies – after all, throughout everything, physical distance has never meant much.
What can it mean, when we have defeated it over and over again, meeting and finding and running to each other ? What power can it have, when it has never diminished our attachment or affection – when the mere fact that we were apart changed nothing at all, other than that I missed you almost as much as I loved you?
No, for us distance has always been mental, spiritual: wound up and trussed up high with the differences we pretended we did not know were there in the sake of blushing, innocent adoration.)
Forgive me if I am melancholy today – I have been revisiting old memories and old wounds, and neither of them has been kind.
I should have known better, though, if I am being quite honest: visiting Aberforth at the end of the summer, in those last few weeks after my birthday and before the beginning of the new school term, has always been a foolish idea. He is angry and I am gently miserable, and together we are two sparks in a wooden hut.
You see, it is one of the few times in a year when we are both thinking about the same thing, both remembering the same thing in the same way, but always failing to agree. You see, my darling, we are both thinking about you – about the duel, about you, about how wretchedly disastrous love turned out to be.
That day, though, so many years ago, I was equally as melancholy and equally as typically melodramatic.
Slowly, as though the water itself was breathing, the edge of the lake pushed in and out, in and out, regular and rhythmical, curved and edged with white ribbons, a soft, dove-blue counterpoint to the sky and the trees. It soothed, settling the butterflies and the tumultuous thoughts in my mind as I walked, even as the silver-grey sky above sank down onto the treetops and the castle’s spires, ominous and heavy.
Above my head, the rowan trees were still laden down with sprigs of bright scarlet berries: pale red and watery, almost outnumbering the leaves. Here and there I had to duck under a branch, step around a bouquet of berries; occasionally, a leaf or a berry would snag in my hair and I would reach to brush them out automatically, absently.
Let me tell you something of a secret: if you walk far enough around the edge of the lake, following the rim of it as it climbs up a metre or two, growing ever more jagged and more natural, there is a tiny, cloistered bay, hidden out of sight by the trees and the bends in the land. There, aspen trees line the banks, stopping three feet from the edge, a carpet of wildflowers and daisies dotted amongst the grass – it faces south, to the sun and the warmth, the summer when it comes.
It is perhaps not much of a secret I grant you, but it is a lonely place; quiet and deserted, save for the rooks and the pair of eagles which still nest in the Forest.
I had discovered it early in my tenure as a professor, wanting an escape, a challenge, something which resembled freedom, and it had done none of those things in the end, but alas, I am a creature of habit and so I had returned faithfully, day after day after day.
Then, I sat on a tree-stump, recently cut after a fierce summer storm, and looked out across the water, counting the waves as they surged, swaying back and forth along the banks, licking and biting softly at the dirt packed along the sides. I sat, and I thought – my mind meandering off here and there, darting along junctions and alleyways, but always, always returning to you, to me, and Aberforth’s voice ringing in my head, repeating the same words over and over again.
“So,” Aberforth had looked at me, turning used glasses upside down and setting them to dry on the side of the sink, and he hadn’t smiled – instead, he was measured, calm and efficient. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” I responded automatically, taking the half-pint of beer he pushed across the bar as a follow-up, feeling the wet on the sides from washing coming away on my fingers; in mere seconds, they would be sticky.
I didn’t drink, though, and Aberforth noticed but said nothing of it. Of my time in France, I had not told him that – about how melancholy had spun me closer and closer to crashing down, that it had been a much tighter escape than I would like to admit – and I did not want to, in truth.
It is remarkable how childish we become when faced with those who knew us as children: Aberforth and I had always been fractious as a pair, so much so that mother would threaten to knock our heads together if we did not stop, and nothing of that had changed or passed. Now, older, I do not think it ever will – we cling, all of us, to our pasts and histories, always desperate to believe the best of ourselves and really quite useless at moving beyond.
“I saw him,” he said abruptly, and his tone was decidedly neutral – bland, almost, and it was almost worse than if he’d been angry. My heart thudded and my mind stopped; I sipped at the beer, gulping down a mouthful simply to have something to do. “April-time, last year. Didn’t think there was much use in bringing it up then – but…” he shrugged and pulled out a rag from underneath the bar, busying himself with wiping it clean, though there was nothing to wipe, in truth. “Thought you might want to know.”
Stirred, restless again and numb, I watched the condensation dripping down the side of the beer glass, forming a small, slender pool about the bottom of it – it was steady and slow, keeping pace with the ticking of the clock over the mantelpiece.
“Thank you,” I said, though my tongue felt heavy and unwieldly – it as difficult to even say that, and the words sounded loud in the silence. Instantly, I wondered if I had been too hasty to speak, to slow, perhaps; too excited or too nervous, too sure… I was certain there had been a hundred and one flaws in what I had said, and equally convinced this was some kind of test, some way of attempting to measure the depths of my guilt.
For a minute or so, that was all there was, though: the echo of Aberforth’s words lingering on in the quiet that fell after, broken by the sound of the second hand marching round the clockface and the squeak of polish and rag on wood as Aberforth scrubbed at the bar-top.
He glanced at me once, twice, and I could not find it in me to look at him, my hand still clutching the beer mug.
“Did you know?” he asked eventually, still in that same calm, affable tone. “That he was here, I mean?”
“Yes,” I answered softly – oh, I had known, I had known very well. The cluster of violets was tumbling delicately out of a tall, thin vase in my rooms, and the note that had accompanied them had been locked in the box with that summer.
I wait – you should know that I had thought about it, that I had dreamed about going that night and every night after for a week, that it had summoned up every feeling I had ever felt for you and set them ablaze in a glow of warm, whispering enchantment.
“Did he tell you he was here?” Aberforth’s voice was rough now, hoarse, and he was watching me intently, scrutinising me so as to catch every flicker and twitch.
“Yes,” I said quietly.
That was that, then: neither he nor I volunteered anything more and we stayed in silence, strange and companionably tense, until I left and he retreated upstairs.
Sitting there, my robes folding neatly into the grass, a pile of emerald green lines and curves and corners poured on top of the ground with its holes of brown and yellow-and-white daisy heads here and there, poking up, their petals faintly grey in the dim light, I felt strangely empty after that revelation.
I wanted to feel something – that flare of passion, of want and need and burning, breathing love which had sparked almost every other time we had been so close; it was so familiar now, so usual, that the loss of it left me anxious and stressed, on the edge of nausea.
The very idea that I did not feel as in love as I had done before – that thing I had longed for and dreaded in equal measure for so long – now only made me distressed. What would I be if I did not love you? Who would I be – what would I want, how would I define myself, my life and my dreams?
How did I exist, my darling, if not in relation to you?
(I know what you will say, if I may: you will argue, your eyes alight and your mouth curved a little, that of course one must exist separately to love, to the way he exists as with another – for the latter cannot exist if the former does not exist on its own. A dependent self is born out of the original self: it cannot have another origin, nor another end.
Ah, darling, I know and in most times you would be perfectly right, but for us, for you and I and me myself, I suspect I long ago ceased to hold those two parts of myself separate and bound them up in one.
A romantic notion – mere semantics, you would scoff, even as you smiled, pleased, and let me steal a kiss from you.
Mere semantics, but they are the little things which make life.)
So it was that I made my way to my birthday celebrations – hosted by Elphias, who had organised it all, blissfully ignoring my persistent instructions that I did not want anything extravagant with a stubbornness I think you would have enjoyed – in London disappointed and nervous, at once wondering endlessly on you, on us, on your last note the year before (I wait – I wait where, when, for how long? For the romance, it was beautiful, but desperately impractical), and determined, as I had been so many times before, that I would forget all about you, if only for an evening.
Ah, it is such a childish trait, to keep persisting with a tactic which has failed each time before. Empires were not built on repetition, after all – but then, that has always been more your dream than mine.
It is the way of love, though, to reduce us to our simplest and yet most complicated selves.
All those years before, the evening before my birthday, your aunt had drafted you in to accompany her to the library in Buckinghamshire – she needed someone to help carry the books, mostly, and thought that the least she could do was offer you the use of her connections to borrow anything you wanted and so you had gone with the Hallows tripping off your lips and your head full of political treatises.
It rained for hours on end, water running down the windowpanes, coalescing in every crack and dip in the roads outside, tiny ripples juddering out in concentric circles as new drops fell and joined; the air was colder than before, almost Spring-like, and there was the faintest glimmer of a rainbow on the horizon, as though it was hanging and swaying between the hills, overshadowing the valleys underneath. A soft, wet kind of day, I spent it cloistered in my room, watching and listening to the drumming of the rain on the roof, flicking aimlessly through books and journals in an effort to find an appropriately electrifying counter-argument.
You came round that night, slinking over from your aunt’s house to mine like a fox – soaked and smiling, thrumming with a kind of nervous energy, your hair plastered to your face and dyed brown by the rain.
“It is not too late?” you had asked, glancing over my shoulders to check if anything of my siblings could be seen.
“Of course not,” I had replied, letting you in and dragging you upstairs by the hand, revelling in that Aberforth was in bed, Ariana was long asleep, and so we were as alone as we could be in the house.
Time seemed suspended, then, entirely irrelevant as we sat on the bed and talked and laughed and kissed, sleepy and innocent, stripped down to nightclothes and secluded from the rest of the world – there was only us and the room, the candles flickering and your eyes glittering, and the way your fingers were warm between mine.
Then, so many years later, I was warm again in the club in London, surrounded by velvet upholstered chairs in crimson and sapphire blue, the chink of crystal glasses on metal trays chiming through the low murmur of conversation and the hum of the violin strings. I was warm and dry and happy enough, but it was not the same and it was not half as wonderful, in truth.
Elphias did his best, but he is not you, and you could hardly have ever been replaced by a party, in whatever capacity.
There were more people there than I had thought I knew – professors from five different countries, linguists and lawyers, bankers and curse-breakers and Healers, Potioneers and Charms masters and a smattering of diplomats and international personages who were acquaintances too important to leave off the list.
Thankfully, the Minister had declined to attend, citing too large a caseload, and as the evening ticked on the bureaucrats and functionaries began to drift out, each one shaking my hand and wishing me many happy returns as they left.
By the time they were nearly all gone, I was quite grateful they hadn’t stayed – the clock had swung round to nearly midnight, the music was louder and faster, and the taste of gin and limoncello and raspberry liqueur all mingled on my tongue, trailing down the back of my throat. The world shifted from evening to night, dragging the party with it.
I was lingering by the bar, Elphias having just darted off at his wife’s call but not before shooting me an apologetic grimace as he went, when there was a soft sound behind me: a gentle, half-hearted cough.
“Sorry,” the man said, though he was smiling a little – genial and bright, edging towards suave rather than genuine – and he stuck out a hand for me to shake. “Linford Huxley. I must admit I came over for a reason – I have heard a lot about you over the years, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce myself properly.”
Looking back on it, I am constantly astonished that I did not understand from that first sentence what exactly what he meant by it, that I did not hear the code woven into it and flaring as the words ran through my mind.
In truth, I missed it entirely, I am afraid and I cannot blame it solely on the alcohol or you – I was simply oblivious.
“May I buy you a drink?” he offered.
I hesitated, then, glancing at the clock briefly. Five past midnight; I did not have to work the day after, I had set it aside in expectation of a late evening, but I wanted even less to accept another drink and another and find time slipping away from me even faster, the semblance of control lost entirely.
“It isn’t too late, is it?” he had noticed, and an apologetic frown was painted over his face – his jaw square-cut and clean-shaven. “I know its past midnight, but I thought it might not be too late an hour. Besides, I have nothing else to offer as a gift and I do not think I could leave without giving one – it wouldn’t be proper.”
For a moment, a single second, I thought of you, of my birthday that summer and the way such a similar phrase had tripped off your tongue, light-hearted and thrilling, and then I forgot it.
I smiled, taking him in – dark hair, a handful of inches shorter and lean, with hazel eyes and pink lips, handsome enough even in the poor lighting – and nodded, focusing on him.
“Of course not,” I assured him.
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