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Chapter 27 : Phonemes
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As dawn breaks slowly on the edge of the horizon, a hand somewhere pulling on a string to tug the ink-black and violet of the night back, fading and morphing into the peach and golds and soft, blazing pinks of the early morning until they fill the whole sky with a hazy, delicate fanfare and the world underneath remains blind and silently sleeping, then, at those times, we are at once least and most lonely.
In the beauty of it all, the only sounds the twittering and cawing of birds around in a chorus a little too off-kilter to be melodic, nothing moves except Mother Nature herself – she is the only thing awake, tumbling over rocks in streams, steady and garbling as always, and letting loose whispers from branch to branch and leaf to leaf until the whole forest shakes with the same, repetitive message.
Even if you happen, by some lucky coincidence, to be awake and roaming the fields at such an hour, you will find your breath is steadied, your mind calmed, and your tongue sits leaden in your mouth, unwilling to move.
After all, who could dare to disturb such serenity?
A foolish question, in truth – I have no doubt of that – but all the same, no one at that hour speaks or shouts or even whispers. Everyone stands, still and quiet, watching as light blossoms on the horizon, the long fingers of the sun stretching out and brushing, tenderly and sweetly, over the backs of hills and the deep crevices of valleys, catching silken spider webs and veins of white and pink in budding flowers.
Once upon a time, I stood by the window on the landing of the tiny house in Godric’s Hollow, clad only in shirtsleeves and trousers and watched the sunrise, the world complacent as the rest of the house slumbered; in my bed, you wore a halo of spun-gold curls, wrapped in soft blue blankets, a boy again in the morning light.
There, aimless and thoughtless, it seemed that the world was alive but for our house, quick, trilling bursts of notes flitting through the air like single, lyrical letters, bites of sounds from a language I could not understand. I imagined them to be tiny, delicate letters, transparent and wavering as sound does, or perhaps knocking, drilling taps of Morse code, sending secrets from place to place.
Every now and then, the blackbird in the hawthorn tree by the window would hop on its branch, cock its head to one side, a dark, beady eye studying me carefully, and chirp a brief, flourishing refrain.
Leaning against the window-frame, I marvelled at the serenity in understanding nothing, being utterly confounded by the syllables floating from branch to branch in lazy, swaying puffs of wind; I had not been so enchanted by something so impenetrable since I had first met you and heard the way your tongue slid and clicked through the staccato consonants and strange, rounded vowels you spoke with your Aunt.
Once upon a time, I abandoned the window after a handful of minutes of silence, turning back to pad along the hallway in socked feet to my bedroom, closing the door behind me with a tiny, squeaking tick which echoed throughout the room but never managed to reach you.
Settling myself on the bed, awkwardly slotting myself in between the wall and you, my back sinking against the old wooden headboard, I would pluck a book from the stacks dotted around my room, perched precariously on shelves and on top of cupboards, pouring out of drawers meant for clothes and teetering on the edge of the desk, and I would wait, patiently, for you to wake, the rhythm of the pages turning a rustling accompaniment to the faint calls and warbles of the chorus outside, king of a world entirely my own.
Eventually, with dawn fully risen and the blackbirds’ concert quietened, you would stir, brushing a curled, lazy hand against my leg, feather-light and slow, even as I shifted the book on my lap, slipping my fingers into your hair and combing through the strands with unhurried, gentle tugs.
Nothing changed, neither of us moved, and nothing was said.
Then, we spoke in our own language of slight, trembling caresses, each brief flutter of fingertips a syllable, a phoneme all itself, inflected here and there by the softest changes in pressure, warming skin and blood and soul alike.
Impatiently lazy, you would cajole the book from me with sluggish, idle pulls, moving it centimetres at a time, until it fell away from me, and you smiled, triumphant at last, as you pushed yourself up so you sat and looked at me, still half-asleep and rumpled, sleepily victorious. You snaked an arm around my neck and slithered over my lap – hot and solid, a stark contrast to the cool, rippled leather bindings – and kissed me.
I believe, at least – or perhaps I kissed you; does it matter so much, who leaned in first?
What did it matter, when I wound an arm around your waist to press us closer as your thighs pinned me in place; all that mattered was the way you tilted your head so your lips dragged against mine and sighed, sweet and indolent, against my mouth, how you tasted as my tongue slid along your bottom lip, the way that this too was a language all its own, intimate and unknown and blissfully indecipherable.
7th April, 1933; Portrush, Northern Ireland
In the light, cream-white and flickering, that the candles threw against the dim grey of the clouded sky outside, my hands looked pale, blue veins snaking across bones and muscles underneath my skin, white and thin against the rich red of the tablecloth. Together with the fine china teacups and slim-spouted teapot sat in front of me, they made a startlingly fragile tableau – feeble and delicate, full of precise, elegant lines and subtle tones.
Of course, I do not mean myself – I am rather referring mostly to the teapot.
A gentle tinkle of music drifted throughout the room from an enchanted grand piano in the corner, the spellwork reapplied every half an hour by the maître d’, a sweet, soothing layer underneath the faint, low hum of voices which hovered in little swarms about tables here and there, enveloping them in clouds of buzz and thrumming, lazy excitement.
On our table, a large mahogany circle tucked in one corner, a pillar and a potted plant with waving, starburst-yellow flowers flanking us on either side, the flare of chatter as we had all arrived, one by one, each in a swirl of wind and spray of faint, warm raindrops, had started to die a little, pleasantries and enquiries after the health of wives and husbands and children (even Tiberius was married now, to a dark-haired woman with clever, sly eyes, and I felt my bachelorhood keenly then, as they all chattered on past me, exchanging sympathetic smiles and knowing, fond glances I could not hope to decode) abandoned in favour of a bottle of wine and food.
“So, what’s the latest gossip on the Continent?” Tiberius asked between bites of steak and sweet potato. “I heard something on the wireless about there being some kind of emergency in your neck of the woods – though no one seemed to be at all sure what it was about. Any light to shine on it as a fellow in the know?”
Elphias, startled out of his contemplation of his pasta and slow, ponderous fork-twirling, glanced up at Tiberius and then at me and Euphemia, quickly, fox-like and nervous.
“I really shouldn’t be sharing anything with you – it would be a breach of secrecy and loyalty,” he began, halting, his mouth dropped into an apologetic grimace as he reached for his wine glass; a barrier, perhaps, to better shield him from unwanted questions.
I could not blame him – even I in my imposed blockade from international news of any kind had heard rumours muttered and repeated at dinner tables and over the morning newspapers, shared with the kind of confidence one has when one knows absolutely nothing about a subject, and I wanted even less than he did for the hour-glass of the conversation to turn and drop into it with an almighty splash.
I was so very afraid that someone would mention you or Germany or our private, secret slogan, and my stomach shrank at the thought, even as my heart beat a little bit faster. I was afraid, oh yes, I admit it; but also terribly, hopelessly thrilled.
“We’re not asking for state secrets, Elphias, good gracious,” Euphemia exclaimed with a jumping roll of her eyes as she speared an asparagus on a fork, delicate and neat. “Simply what is actually going on. There was one man on the other day, on a news programme, saying that Germany’s declaring a state of emergency – you know, what with everything going on in the Muggle world over there – but the other man on, who was supposed to be an expert on it, I think, said that that was a lie. The first man seemed quite certain, though.
So,” she fixed her dark, blunt gaze on Elphias. “Which is it, truth or a lie?”
(Truth or a lie – such a small, simple question, but so impossibly heavy, laden down with a thousand and one possibilities, half of them exquisite, the other half bitter and sour and rotten.
My stomach twisted, my mouth dried; I sipped wine to hide it, full and fruity, and waited for the hammer-blow to come.
Even then, my darling, I suspected so much and feared so much and hoped too little, and I could not find the words or the voice to speak any of them, to give them their own wings and their own paths. There was no one but you to say them to, and you were still too much the temptation, too much the promise of a future I had told myself I did not want, and too much of me for my tongue to move and draw out the letters, one by one.)
“Both, though it’s dull to say, I grant you,” Elphias smiled a bit, wan and thin, and it took years off his round face – wiping away the dark circles under his eyes and the lines beginning to gather around his mouth. “There hasn’t been anything declared yet – at least, not officially – but apparently things are getting worse: people are discontented, nervous, and angry. As of yet, there haven’t been any riots, but the rumours say it’s only a matter of time.”
“A difficult business,” Tiberius mused, swilling wine in his glass, slow and thoughtful. “Managing a mad Muggle Minister.”
“Quite, quite,” Euphemia agreed with a frown. “And not at all helped by the fact that the last war ended so dreadfully for them – all those sanctions and so on – and the International Confederation is being most unsympathetic.”
Silent, I listened to them swap rumours and stories, trading them across the table for less than a handful of empty, vacant facts Elphias offered up, half-dazed by the oddity of it all: that I should be sitting there, in a restaurant in a village in Northern Ireland, surrounded by green fields and white-gold beaches leading into the sweeping, swaying sea, while my friends picked at detail after detail of the tremulous flutterings of the greater good, dissecting and debating in careless, ordinary voices.
It seemed absurd – to be talking of such things, to be mentioning revolution and uprisings and theoretical superiority in the open, surrounded by sunlight and the chatter of two dozen other voices flaring like sparklers here and there around us.
It seemed, somehow, so terribly wrong, as though such things were not made for this world, were not defined and breathed out for this world – daylight and living, knowing ears.
Then, of course, it came – it was only a matter of time, I had known that from the beginning of the conversation – but it still startled me: the swooping jump in my stomach, the double thud in my chest, and I wondered desperately, absently if I were blushing.
(Again, my darling, so absurd to think of it! Blushing at your name alone; good God, how foolish of me!)
“– say, though, Grindelwald seems quite up for the challenge,” Tiberius commented glibly. “If anyone can deal with this Hitler bloke, the Confederation, and everything else at once, it’ll be him. A friend of mine heard him speak in Stuttgart – he gave a speech of sorts to the wizarding lot there after a protest a couple of months ago – said he was brilliant. Really understands the common man.”
“Really, Tiberius, he’s just a man,” Euphemia laughed, bright and sparkling and it burst through the bubble you and your (our, our plans) plans had spun around me, spider-silk thin and enchanting. “Don’t be so enamoured. He’s a politician, after all, and all politicians lie – it’s likely nothing will turn out as it should do. They never do, whoever’s running the show.”
With a soft clink, I set down my knife and fork, studying the patterned china plate with feigned interest – at least, that was what I was aiming for; it is entirely possible I merely looked tired or bored or some combination of all three – and, as soon as I was able, begged out of dessert and fled, cowardly and terrified, back to Hogwarts.
There, I was surrounded by walls and wards, books and lesson plans, with a thousand and one tasks and details and little, imperative things to bury myself under until I could forget that I had heard your name slipping from my friends’ mouths, forget that I had heard and thought our damnable slogan once more, that I had thought of you and of all the thoughts which had flickered in my mind when I had, none of them had been remotely good or right or just.
It is such a well-known myth of love: that it is always good.
(It is one I know you believe in with the same damning, absolute faith you believe in everything with; it sighs and rages alongside your steadfast flashes and flickers of Hallows and destiny and a great, glorious future – alongside you and I, hand in hand, still, so many years on.
You are god-given, you told me once, blazing and calm and deliriously wonderful, your eyes wine-dark and your hair tangled and knotted, the paths of my fingers still woven into the strands. You are god-given, you had said then, how could this, how could we possibly be wrong, if it was so ordained, so perfectly orchestrated? When we were so obviously designed for each other and no one else?
“My Alexander,” I had teased you, my arm draped over your shoulder, a deliberate strand of laughter laced through the words, and you had blinked, your eyes glazed, dim and unseeing.
“Ja,” you had replied, your voice sepulchral and echoing faintly, like the tolling of the church bells in the distance, muffled and heavy, and there had been a weight in the words which dragged through the air, a shroud settling on both our shoulders. “Without you, I will fall into madness, no?”
“Hardly,” I had whispered back, watching as the air cleared and your face lightened, skin flushed hot, and I carded my fingers through your hair to press, gentle and firm, at the top of your spine; you smiled, wan and lazy, and your eyelashes cast spindly shadows over your cheeks, long and sharp. “You will not lose me.”
God-given, perhaps, my darling, but I cannot say for certain whether you and I would ever have been good. In another life, another world… but it is too late and we are both too old to muse on the endless possibilities we once skipped by.)
That insignificant lunch, it seemed, was the opening of the floodgates: everywhere I went after that people murmured about Germany, about riots and revolutions, about you – Grindelwald, Grindelwald was the name they all repeated, twisting the pronunciation until it sounded nothing like you or Aberforth or Bathilda, but still somehow everything like you.
I am exaggerating, of course – it was not everywhere, not as constant and as deafening as it sounds – but it was often enough and thoughtful enough that words and phrases stuck in my head, pinned to the walls with needles and pearl-topped pins.
It felt overbearing, stifling: like the humid heat of summer, wearing you down bit by bit by bit, until you lie on your bed, sticky and sweaty and exhausted, humbled at last.
For so long, I had been cut off from the world, cocooned in a pupa of essays and examinations and minor, petty arguments between children, just old enough to know how to cut deep; I had been safe there from words and syllables which clanged and rang, bright and fierce, safe from stirring, dusty memories of radicalisation and fervent, blind devotion.
Now, of course, you had reached me, even in Hogwarts, even behind so many walls and so many spells, a network of silver-bronze laid over the stones and the bricks, threaded through mortar, and you were there, leaching gold into them so they gleamed with flashes of sunlight, embedding yourself into my life once more, slowly but surely.
It is remarkable that every time I think I have started to forget you, to find a path beyond and around you, to build a life without you in it, you slip in between the trees to bump my shoulder and brush my hand again, insidious and beautifully enthralling.
Really, darling, it is quite cruel of you.
I took again to walking – leaving the castle at daybreak or earlier, the sky a watercolour mess of orange and pale yellow and deep, sapphire blue, and trekking further and further afield, up into the rocky hills and mountains which surrounded Hogwarts, delving into the caves and water-carved alleyways which littered their sides, grey and green and serene.
Now and then, against the sky, there would be a flutter of brown or dark, dusky black, as birds winged their way overhead and past me: owls darting down south to families and friends, blackbirds and swallows flying to their nests and their young, fluffy chicks cawing for food, and great, golden birds of prey, eagles and hawks, circling the land below endlessly, scanning and hunting and waiting. They would dive, bullets through the air, curving and carving through the wind blowing through my robes and my hair, and I would lose all sight of them, their triumphant screeches echoing gently in the quiet.
There, lonely and tranquil, I would sit on a spire of rock jutting out over a sharp, steep valley filled with bluebells nodding and swaying in the breeze to the beat of some inaudible tune, and think about nothing at all.
Nothing or everything, in truth – and the perfume from the flowers would wind its way around me, encasing me in a cloud of it, as the muscles in my back unknotted slowly.
One day, not long after that fateful dinner, I was sat there, on the rock, admiring the flowers and the birds as they weaved in the sky, and then, all of a sudden, emerging down from the path opposite me, a slim winding stair that rolled over the top of the crest, heading towards the same point and the same meadow, was Aberforth.
It had been months, then, since I had seen him – and even then, when we had last spied each other, neither of us had said a word – he had grown older, scruffier, and more unkempt: his hair was still short, messy and roughly cut, and his beard was shaved close to the skin, a layer of stubble bubbling out in grey-tinted red from his skin.
He stared at me, his jaw locked, and I could do nothing but stare back.
(It is a fact of my life that there have only ever been two people so able to steal my eloquence from me so completely, throwing me out to sea with merely a look and watching, blank and patient, for me to drown.
You and him are far more alike than I would ever dare to say to either of you; though in truth you both remind me more of the faint, scattered memories of my father than anything else.)
“I can leave,” I said eventually, the words dry in my mouth, sticking on my tongue, already half-rising. “If you would prefer.”
He looked at me for a heartbeat longer, the watch on my wrist – that old, worn gift from my seventeenth birthday – ticking loud in the silence, a steady beat I honed in on absently, and then he simply carried on, striding down the mountainside to the edge of the valley where, in the shade of a cluster of birch trees, the bluebells sprouted in waves.
Bending down, he reached out a hand and gently plucked one, slicing through the stem with a short, rounded knife which glinted silver, before reaching for another and a third, lying them to one side in the grass, violet-blue in the dappled shade.
“They were her favourite, weren’t they?” I remember aloud, the image lingering in my mind from so many years ago: Aberforth, decades younger, with a posy of bluebells in hand, and Ariana laughing, curtseying when she took them from him, smelling them and smiling, arranging them delicately, fussily in a tall, glass vase.
It struck me then how I had never thought to visit her, her and Mama in Godric’s Hollow, not since the day we buried her and Aberforth broke my nose, and guilt exploded in my chest like a bomb, a rush of some unnameable grief surging up through my throat. How had I never visited? How had I never even thought about it? How was it that I had been so obsessed, so fixated on you, moving past you, avoiding you and everything which reminded me, forcefully and wonderfully, of you, that I had never gone back even for that?
A better man would have voiced all those things, would have sought forgiveness for them; but I am not a better man, and I do not have the strength to do either.
“Surprised you remember that,” Aberforth snorted, gruff and with that thread of anger leeching through which always seemed present when he and I were in the same place. His hands had stilled on the bluebells, the knife still twinkling in the sunlight, catching it and winking at me. “Never seemed bothered with her.”
I swallowed, my eyes dropping to stare at the grass around my feet, tiny emerald blades dipping and brushing with the wind.
“Of course I remember that,” I said softly. “I used to braid them into her hair – don’t you remember, that summer, we would sit outside in the garden and I would braid them into her hair while he…”
I trailed off, the unmentionable, unspeakable ‘we’ lingering in the air, solid and tantalisingly toxic, swelling and growing with every second that passed, every second in which Aberforth did not turn or move, but the knuckles around the handle of the knife grew whiter.
“Don’t bloody pretend,” the reply was biting, gritted, and it stung, a curious mix of defensive, resisting anger rising in my chest with a second push of guilt and bile-thick self-hatred. “It had anything to do with her.”
I said nothing in response – what was there to say? What could I say to defend myself? He and I have always spoken different languages, different dialects – it is something for which he has never forgiven me – but on that he was right; on that he is almost always right, an unfailing, unflinching critic of mine, reminding me of every sin and failing I have ever committed.
A minute or two later, he gathered up the bluebells, indigo heads spilling over his hands like a bride’s spray, bell-shaped and nodding, glared at me once more and left, vanishing over the hilltop in a flurry of ragged brown.
For hours I stayed there, perfectly still, the earth spinning around me, underneath me, and the sun trailing across the sky, stately and blazing, my thoughts everywhere and nowhere – on you, on me, on poor, delicate Ariana, on the words Aberforth had flung at me, harsh and vicious, which still rattled around inside my head. Eventually, I was there, thinking of nothing at all, blank and faintly sad.
Rising, stiff and sore, my knees creaking and muscles protesting at the long-awaited stretch pulling them taut, I made my way back to Hogwarts and into my office, barricading myself there for the rest of the weekend; from seclusion to seclusion, each one mindless and thunderously silent.
Every time I closed my eyes, all I could smell was the scent of the bluebells in the field – of the wild roses and dahlias in the fields by the stream where you and I had once sat as I braided, carefully and softly, bud after bloom into Ariana’s long, long hair, in shades of soft pink and yellow and bright, pale white. The bluebells were always last, tucked in at the end, heads pouring out of the tail of the plait, a white rose beneath them, green stem tying it together.
She beamed at me every time I did it, lighting up and spinning around, arms wide, as though she was a princess.
Once, she ran off and returned with an armful of orange-yellow spotted tiger lilies, daisies, and purple violets, letting them cascade into your lap, a fractured kaleidoscope.
Smiling, you had beckoned to me, Ariana tugged on my sleeve; and I had sat in front of you, your fingers carding through my hair, steady and methodical, weaving them in amongst the copper of my hair, smoothing out the strands and untangling it easily, your fingertips brushing the back of my neck; I had to bite my lip to stay silent, my cheeks flushed, and feeling so impossibly warm.
Aberforth had found us, an hour later, Ariana swaying around the field plucking flower after flower, their buds blooming in her hands, colours growing stronger and brighter, their stems winding around her wrists and trailing down to the ground, and you and I: my hands in your hair, your head in my lap, and blossom littering us both.
Unbidden, back in my rooms at Hogwarts, so far from those halcyon days but so sharply, suddenly jolted backwards, I slid an arm under my bed for the box I kept there – an old habit, from my childhood – pulling it out into the light. The dust on it covered my hands, clogging my lungs and papering my mouth, making me cough, a mockery of dead, crumbled petals.
I hesitated, and then opened it, and, Gellert, my darling, for the second time that day I felt close to crying.
How could I ever forget, when the world itself refused to let me, even when I begged?
A/N: All references to Alexander (the Great) and Hitler are not owned by me; they were real people (of course).
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