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Chapter 24 : Finland
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When the bells toll midnight and the witching hour ripples on the wind, brushing through snow-laden branches and sweeping across white-cold landscapes to settle over the country like a black gauze shroud, everything slows, the last gasp of a sigh dissipating and vanishing – and then it stills, silent and breathless. Tomb-like and solemn, it seals your lips shut, words choking and clawing at your throat, trapping and freeing you at the same time.
A study in contradictions, midnight in Saariselkä, when the sky is black and the light is grey and green, snaking across the sky in long, dazed ribbons, illuminating everything in a faint, tender glow.
Then, once everything and everyone is hushed and frozen, patiently waiting with the Sandman sitting on their shoulder, the strings unravel, hanging around the stars in a trail of green and pink and icy turquoise blue. Running and blending together, spools of ink knocked into a bowl of water and curling, bleeding into each other gently and steadily, they rock and weave in the night, on currents of air thousands of meters high, suspended in the very middle of the night.
Slinking and undulating, it tugs at the breath in lungs, at the melancholy staining the edges of your soul and pulls, pulls them all away, leaving you with nothing but a soundless, mindless contentment.
Around it the sky is bruised, burning at the edges in shades of plum and dove-grey where it touches the aurora, darkening and deepening as it runs out towards the horizons to a charcoal-black, peppered with thousands of tiny, glittering stars.
Soon enough, when the Northern lights fade, all that will be left will be black, starlight and moonlight reflecting coldly, weakly off the rolling carpet of snow blanketing the land; black and white and soft spectres of grey.
There will be nothing else in this kaleidoscope.
Standing there, on the balcony, the fur on my collar brushing along the line of my jaw in a caress you used to give so frequently, the cold clings to the skin on my cheeks and my chin, dry and bitter, and each breath in and out slows my heart and drowns my soul in tranquillity, even as it freezes out the hollow of my throat with cold, sand fingers. Breathing hurts, my head is swimming, and it feels as though I am sinking and rising all at once.
It sends me reeling, spiralling upwards and around, around like a wheel, the inked lines of trees blurring and softening, the world smudging until it is a mess of grey, streaks of white and black here and there.
On my tongue, at the back of my throat, I can taste something bitter and strong – absinthe, perhaps, or laudanum.
Oh, Albus, it is such a drug, such a wonder, to be breathless: it leaves you giddy with delight, heady and delirious, the thunder of your blood in your veins and threaded through your skull muffling any other sound, just as the sensation of floating, of sailing away serenely and helplessly, numb and blissfully uncaring, blunts other, more earthly sensations – the press of fingers on nerves, hard and hot, teeth scraping over skin on your neck, on your shoulder, and the sharp jab of humiliation as you hear yourself begging more, please more, always more.
It was a long time ago, when I last begged, was it not, my Albus? It has been longer still since I begged like that – half-sobbing, half-demanding, and so very much claimed.
Among the snow-laden firs and the endless banks of white, I left everything earthly, everything usual behind, the daily rhythm of life, tugging and charging forwards at a canter, always at a canter, quietened for a night, and found in the thin air, in the racing of my blood as my lungs starved, a kind of grounding I had not had for so long. It unwound the muscles in my back, unfurling every part of me inch by inch, and squeezed my heart until I remembered I was as mortal as ever, as real and as fiercely vulnerable as ever.
A lesson in control; a lesson on death, on fragility and the delicateness life has always borne.
It was, in a way, my final gasp of freedom before the plunge, before the gates to Hell opened and temptation led me down, hand in hand and slyly addictive, throwing noose after noose around my neck until my knees buckled and I hit the deck, the gavel crashing down from your hand to hit the stand; by then, temptation is long gone and her brother-in-arms is not so forgiving – desperation has laid me waste, bit by bit by bit.
Oh, but freedom, Albus, the freedom then! It whispered and it scratched at my skin and it choked me in turn, but, ah – is that not always the way, when it is the calm before the storm? The world holds its breath, letting us drown slowly in thin, humid air, until she sighs and crashes and spins us into sensation’s arms to sink again, dizzy and overwhelmed and lost at sea.
When I was a child, I decided if I were to die, I would drown. Now, to me drowning is life and when I breathe, death cups my chin and kisses me slowly.
17th February, 1928; Saariselkä, Finland
In the background, the radio – a clear voice laid over a low, faint humming as the magic inside it chugs and churns away, catching the sounds transmitted from my latent, dormant Germany – was quiet, hushed, droning on without me, repeating yesterday’s opinions for today’s people, recycling old news with a new twist: a garnish of lemon, perhaps, or a sprinkling of rosemary. Every now and then, it hitched and jumped, words colliding with each other in a crack which wrenched the air and spat a trio of sparks, blue and bright, towards the ceiling.
It made me flinch each time, without fail, and in my hands the book jerked, my fingers tugging the page taut.
“– has said that he will be primarily focused on reinvigorating the economy, with a secondary emphasis on ensuring the security and defence protocols are sufficient to combat both individual attacks and large-scale persecution. In an interview with the new Minister of Defence, Otto von Eschen, it was confirmed that the new government will not rule out imposing tighter and more thorough security sanctions and measures on the population in order to respond appropriately to the growing Muggle threat,” the host was saying – was still saying; it was his formula, to say the same thing every day for two weeks and to bring on different guests to provide the spark needed to give life to his programme.
Insipid and talentless; like so many others, he was nothing more than a sheep waiting to be led by a firm, coaxing hand.
Like all others, he would not see that he had been led down one path until mountains rose on one side and a cliff-face on the other and the only way was to keep plodding forward. Such a disappointing destiny, no? To be so useless, so disposable; so entirely insignificant in the pages of history.
(Other men – stronger, cleverer, better men – are made for fate, made for reshapings and remakings of the world: they are born to push, to pull at the very fabric of society, of magic and life, to say ‘what if’ and throw light across those dark places where none have gone before.
It is a bold claim, you would say, so suggest that about oneself – but Albus, dear Albus, wherever did you think we belonged? Men like us, with minds and souls like ours, talent weeping from us in gentle, pattering drops, we were not made for obscurity. Arrogance, you would murmur, arrogance; but the fight in your voice would be dying, your objection only smoke and nothing more, no heat to it, no power – you will not give in or surrender, but you will teeter on the edge, a wounded bird threatening to fly.
You will resist it still – you have resisted it all your life since that summer, since you realised the price which may be tied, tight and stronger than steel, to the end of fame’s tail – but it will find you all the same. There is no way to run from it, and no way to pretend it is not the life God laid out for you.
You and I, our names were in the annals of history, inscribed at the top of chapters, long before we were born – the sooner you believe it, the sooner you will sleep at night.)
The radio crackled loudly for a quartet of heartbeats, slow and steady, fizzing in shades of dreary grey and blue, sending a stab of irritation, electric and bitter yellow, shimmering down my spine. Behind them, quiet and smart, was a trio of knocks on the door, putting to bed any idea of solitude.
Interruptions… there were always interruptions of some sort.
“Herr Grindelwald?” Agathe slipped through, her hair pinned back in stylish, sleek waves, bobbing out against her head, dark and shining. She was twenty-nine, then, young and efficient and ruthlessly, coldly logical.
A mechanical force of nature, someone called her once – I forget who, but it appears in my mind typed in smudged, precise black letters.
“The necessary wards and enchantments are in place,” she reported, her tongue quick and her voice soft; shy, in truth, with words just as much as she was not with her wand. “If it is acceptable, I will retire now, and rejoin you at six o’clock for the dinner this evening.”
“Of course,” I murmured, my attention already wandering back to the book as the radio spluttered in a corner – crackling with different voices but the same words, the same theories and conspiracies, all of them baseless, following the elections the month before.
Sometimes I wondered, restless and bored, if I should simply forget the radio, ignore it altogether – but the will of the people is a powerful thing, an important ally if you exercise it correctly, if you manipulate it and contort it so that it faces the right way, moves the right way. To keep power, one must know the mood of the people, the rhetoric they hear, and the phrases they repeat.
In Germany there was only one word whispered around the streets that month, echoing dimly around Europe in her entirety, whistling through corridors and bouncing off walls – even you, my friend, in your cloisters, will have heard it, no?
Putsch, they whispered; Putsch, they wondered; ein Putsch, the radio commentators called it in every programme, on every channel, and in every newspaper column.
Der Putsch, Segelinde still screamed, wailing from her castle home like a banshee, her hair streaming behind her and her screeches embedding themselves in the walls with the scratches from her nails, raking alone stone with demonic fury. A witch, in every sense – harsh and brittle, teetering on the edge over the abyss.
A shame; she had always been an excellent enemy.
The last time I saw her, she was in black, a string of pearls around her neck and a sapphire broach at the clasp of her shirt, her hair piled up and sporting a hat, a net veil tumbling over the brim, shielding her eyes from the sun. Around us, the rest of the congregation were silent, solemn and despairing as the priest intoned from his position at the head of the grave, watching as the casket was lowered, draped in the national flag and a wreath of white lilies.
She had not watched the casket; she had watched me, and I had watched her.
I think, perhaps, she expected me to smile.
Dietmar Heppler was dead; asphyxiation jerking him roughly from the world before anyone could save him. A general election would be called, following a two-day mourning period; the results would be announced in January.
At that time, I held the highest approval ratings for my Germany since his birth. I had my President in place, my party gaining strength after strength, and now, now I would have my chance – three months earlier than otherwise.
A stroke of luck, oder ein Putsch?
Oh, but it is a question for the historians – otherwise they will have nothing to do but flip quills between their fingers and sigh loudly at the cat sleeping in front of the fire.
On the corner table, the clock chimed, low and slow, once, twice, all the way through to five times; it woke Fawkes abruptly, making him start, jumping and squawking with fright, cawing indignantly as he settled down a moment later, ruffling his feathers and dipping his head to preen. He was only a small thing, in the early parts of his cycle, and he startled easily, nipping and whining to complain.
How foolish immortality is! How proud and vain and wholeheartedly wise at once.
(I know what you expect me to say here, Albus. I know what you believe I am thinking – or, perhaps, want me to be thinking.
Do not pretend you send him to me out of compassion – do not do me further injustice.)
“Gellert,” his voice, calm and firm, sounded from behind me, and I wondered absently as I dropped a ribbon down into the belly of On Liberty, to mark the page, when he had entered; I had heard and seen nothing, and such blindness was disconcerting.
Of all things, I have never been blind.
“I laid out your robes,” he told me, his wand held loosely in one hand as he directed a stack of newspapers and a tray carrying a jug of coffee and a mug to the table beside me. “And these arrived moments ago – I brought them straight through.”
My reply was lost in the clinking of china on china as he poured me coffee, stirring in the single teaspoon of sugar with six precise circles, before handing it to me and sitting on the sofa beside me – at the other end, but not out of reach.
He liked to be useful; in the end, it was his undoing – is that not always the way, though? That the things we prize most, that we adore most, are the things which destroy us?
(For you, it is your guilt – not love or courage or your fondness for rescuing those broken souls and mopping their brows when they cry – it is guilt that is your greatest burden and your most prized quality.
Even as you protest this, you will know I am right.
It will kill you, my Albus, this guilt of yours – it will sear your skin until smoke rises, staining the ceiling and the walls black, and as you breathe, harsh and gasping, your flesh will begin to rot. It is a poison you cannot fight, a curse you are destined for even now, since the beginning of everything.
Passion destroyed me and guilt will claim you – and the world would shout it is the other way around.
All those friends of yours, all those pupils of yours in your new, glistening world, so blissfully unaware that everything they believe in, everything they worship and trust so blindly is only a mirage.
You are a snake amongst roses, dear Albus, and the pretence makes my heart ache.)
Finally, finally, the radio coughed and choked and wheezed out its last, buzzing notes; then, with an abruptness that bit at the air, it fell silent, shuddering to a halt on the table. The last handful of sparks it had spat out as it died, disjointed things in sickly shades of green-blue, popped above it and vanished.
“I will have it replaced this evening,” Konstantin told me, casting a glance over at it. “Though if that one should also break, we will have to send to Berlin for more.”
“Nein,” I replied, taking a sip of coffee, strong and nutty, laced with strands of caramel – Vienna roasted, darker and bitterer than most German versions. My father once told me, proud and exasperated at once, that I drank my beer like my grandfather and my coffee like my mother.
He was wrong, on that: I have always drunk coffee as my brothers did, as my mother’s husband did, back in Hungary – in those old, mournful days when the world had empires built on blood and we were young and sweetly wild – after dinner, when my tongue is still striped with the red of raspberries and plums.
“Such effort would be a waste,” I said, licking at a stray drop of coffee along the rim of the cup and watching him as he turned his attention back to me, his brown eyes bright behind his glasses; blinking and darting and noting every small thing. “I will have need of your talents elsewhere than ordering another victim to the slaughter.”
The room was quiet, then; the only noise Fawkes’ soft cooing in the corner as he preened his feathers, shuffling and hopping on his perch, his clever dark eyes studying both of us on the sofa to see if we were looking to see how the candlelight made the gold in him gleam and the red burn. Fanning his wings out, he studied them, pleased and singing a quick burst of melody – loud and vivacious, speaking of trumpets and crashing cymbals – and jutted his head into the air, giving a final shake to settle it all.
“I wondered,” Konstantin began, tentative and slow, his hands twisting like snakes in his lap. “If you would like me to call the doctor? You have not been sleeping these last few nights and I thought perhaps a Sleeping Draught would be appropriate...” he trailed off as I watched him still, saying nothing and doing nothing. “If you would like, of course – I only thought –”
“I know what you thought,” I interrupted him, a fizz of annoyance spiralling through my blood. His role did not allow him such liberties; those rights I allowed him did not grant him the liberties to go so far. “You are wrong.”
Draining the last of my coffee, I placed the mug on the table with a clap which careened around the room, echoing crisply and coldly.
“You will not presume again,” I told him, my voice flat and harsh, standing and sweeping through into the bedroom, leaving him, the tray of coffee, and the crimson robe I had been wearing in my wake, stunned and deathly, decisively silent.
(I am dying; I am dead; I will die; I have died.
All speculation, endlessly circling around: jumping from tongue to tongue, carried across the air on a whispered breath, an invisible wildfire, enveloping everything in its path. They wonder, from the Urals to the furthest edges of the Celtic coast – and, perhaps, you wonder too: dying, dead, to die.
They have only ever asked me once – a young guard, scars on the backs of her hands and the clump of a wooden foot trailing behind her: are you dying?
I have forgotten exactly what I answered then, but I remembered her face: she paled, her hand on her wand shaking once, twice, with tremors she could not conceal, not from me, and then she left, fleeing down the steps in a clatter of wood and rubber on stone.
I will tell you, my Albus, since we are tied in this together: I am both. I am dead and not dead; I am dead and slowly, steadily dying in this hellhole you have imprisoned me in.
In truth, I have been dying for decades – you know this, you will know this – as the pieces of my mind crack bit by bit and the magic in my soul, blackened to charcoal, blows through my bones in a fine, white dust and wears away with a gentle, continuous rub at everything which holds me here.
I am dead; I am dying – what does it matter, when I do not exist to the world anymore?)
At five to six, Konstantin hovered by the door, one hand on the handle, anxious, nervous, waiting for some sign to come closer – his hesitation made him half a boy still, revealed the last flush of youth which lingered in him, and was nothing, nothing at all like you had ever been – his thin face drawn and stoic, the calmness this time only a façade. He watched me, close and guarded, and his thoughts screamed louder than he ever would; passion but only in measures, only ever sometime.
“When I return,” I murmured, loitering next to him for a moment, my fingers brushing his sleeve softly, fondly, and he swallowed, waiting, always so patient. “Be here.”
“As you wish,” he whispered in reply, a small smile slipping out from under the façade to hang on his mouth: delighted, excited, already wanting.
In the growing night, his hair was dark, copper strands shining here and there, and I half-thought to kiss him, to feel him tangle a hand in my hair and an arm around my waist, the way he would push me against the wall, pinning me in place as he planted kiss after languid kiss down my neck, hot and demanding; controlling me as I controlled my Germany, unabashedly and absolutely.
But he was not you, and I was different, and those fantasies – fleeting, ethereal things – stung deep.
The flashes of red, strings of auburn and ginger, were everywhere that night: on the earrings Agathe wore when they twinkled in the white lights, on the dress the Finnish Minister wore – a deep mulberry affair which clung to her arms and flowed behind her in waves – underneath the gleams of gold and tarnished bronze in the drink they handed me (a White Russian, warm and biting), in the strip of red on the flags which hung in each corner, sighing and swaying with the wind.
It was everywhere, you were everywhere – reaching out across the North Sea to slide your hand around my throat and the other onto my hip and whisper, mutter nothing at all in my ear.
Between it all, I drifted from guest to guest, greeting them all in a mix of broken Finnish, German, and English, my tongue heavy and slow, my mind halting. I smiled dutifully, handsomely, but that was all, and my fingers were growing stiff from handshake after handshake, gripping tight and firm each time; I answered the same questions over and over again, giving the same answers, carefully prepared days in advance, tailored and tweaked here and there.
I was everything I needed to be that evening, charming and clever and witty and intimidating, and I felt throughout it light-headed and weak, every step cumbersome and heavy, as though the ceremony of it all, glorious and perfectly solemn, was strangling me, her fingers grasping tighter than yours had, pinching and closing, my lips turning blue and my limbs thrashing as I clawed at nothing in search of air.
I was drowning in restraint, in ritual; the power I had craved for so long was suffocating me with its ornate, useless trappings – ironic, no?
Through the long windows, with the moon bright and full and the stars unveiled, the world outside was a lolling mass of white, curved and heaped in soft sprays long since frozen; here and there, pine trees clustered in spots of green and black as they stuck out of the banks around them, the same clumps of snow streaking along their branches like ragged quilts. Across it all the moonlight dusted diamonds, glittering and sparkling along the edges of the rolling banks of snow, highlighting the edge of a branch, catching on the wing of a snowflake as it fell, fluttering gently towards the ground.
There, though, there again was that flash of red – crimson and copper-auburn – dashed onto the snow like a pool of ink, swelling and lapping out. There were other flashes – fragments, always only fragments, inconclusive and weakly maddening – blue and green and black, so much black and grey, spots of light appearing in quick succession against storm clouds, and patches of red; whispers, whispers of things in languages I did not speak turned into a code I could not break.
I had tried, for so long I had tried, but is that not how all the greats fell – by being understood and never believed?
Warnings come in murmurs, insidious and creeping, licking into my mind in the shadows of the night, of a slow redemption in poison, of a scream and the rush of wind as fate leads you over the tower’s edge, of the scrape of flesh and nail against prison walls as you beg, shredding your voice with your mind, for someone to listen, for someone to sit and listen and just to believe…
Fear is an excellent silencer – it loops a cord around your heart and croons gently, quietly, even as it cripples you and binds your tongue in a braid of metal.
So many chains, my Albus, so many chains; is it any wonder that I have been dying all my life?
A/N: On Liberty is by John Stuart Mill and so is not mine.
Putsch (ein/der) = a/the coup
'oder ein Putsch' = or a coup?
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