A Saint of a Woman
Disclaimer: The following is not purely original fiction, but rather characters, settings,and situations as created by J.K. Rowling. No money is being made of this piece of fanfiction and can not be reproduced for any purposes but strictly private entertainment.
A/N: Many thanks to the young hoodlums roaring along like maniacs on their motorcycles, awakening me from a few blessed stolen hours of sleep at one thirty in the morning, every night for one solid week. Theirs is the final scene of this fic - the final scene, and the best, and the only reason I managed to actually get this piece written.
For the first time since the day both had said "I do," Petunia Dursley had come across something she couldn't share with her husband, all simply due to an address on the envelope. Normally this meant nothing, and both Petunia and Vernon would summarise the contents of their post for each other. Nothing had ever been too serious for to worry about breach of trust and secrecy with their respective correspondences. Besides, if it were something the neighbours were to know, there was little point in keeping it from the spouse, and if it were something the neighbours were to never know, then they could count on each other to help keep the secret under lock, key, and braying, vicious bloodhounds.
But the address. Ah, the address. It had seem to be so exclusively honed in on Petunia, and with it written on such foreign material - thick, and not quite smooth, the parchment that Petunia had endured for seven long years - it intimidated her (Mrs Petunia Dursley, Number 4, Privet Drive, The Front-Door Threshold, Little Whinging, Surrey) into silence.
Soon Vernon was downstairs, wanting breakfast where there was none prepared - soon that would no longer be Petunia's task anyway, in a few years when the boy was old enough to Earn His Keep, By Rights. By that time Petunia had read the letter, had wrapped her mind around its contents, had thought up an explanation that covered up any gaping holes left by not mentioning the letter. An extra letter, tucked inside and free of all mention of blood spells and bonds and protection, aided her greatly. This was the only one that Vernon ever saw.
Vernon was scared because he had been anticipating something like this for the past twenty-four hours, and scareder still that his wife was so calm about it. It was nothing for her to be calm about. It was nothing for him to be calm about. Vernon stormed. Raged. Shouted.
He woke the boy, who wailed at unfamiliar surroundings, at hunger, and most of all at the storming, raging, and shouting. This cemented all dislike of him on behalf of his aunt and uncle on the spot, as his crying woke up Dudley, who was also similarly screaming in short order at the unfamiliar intruder, at the disruption in his schedule, at hunger, and most of all at his father's storming, raging, and shouting. This was when Petunia got her first taste of what it would be like to have two one-year-old boys on her hands. Petunia's fury would have been present in any event, but that morning, having to calm both with a roaring headache while totally unprepared for an additional baby, sealed her channel for the fury, which was towards the boy.
The boy stopped that screaming that always gives visitors an excuse to say "Well, he's got a healthy pair of lungs on him!" once Vernon had left and he had something in his belly. He looked up and around with mild, polite bemusement for a few hours. When Dudley poked, he stayed clear and regarded his cousin from a safe distance as a sort of novel entertainment. By lunchtime he was craning his little neck around to look for his parents. Afterwards came his nap, which headed off the impending second tantrum. But after the nap it came. Although he had never been an overly fussy baby (just a regularly fussy baby, which is quite fussy enough to be going on with), it had been forty-eight hours since his parents had tucked him in bed at home, and the intermittent time had been full of strain. He was quite due for another pitched fit.
Petunia stared helplessly down at him for a few moments, her own thoughts taking over as much of her brainpower as were the boy's cries of mum-ma! and da-dee! and why-liss! (whatever the lattermost meant - something freakish, no doubt). What, she wondered, were they going to tell the neighbours, who wouldn't hear the boy now, as she had shut the windows although it was a fine autumn day, but soon would be made quite aware of his existence? What would they say? However was she expected to watch two babies, one the son of the sister she had severed ties with when Lily's connections had resulted in their parents' death? What kind of barbarian of this Dumbledore sort drops a baby on you without a bit of help? Raising children cost money, after all, although magic-freaks probably had so little idea of family values that they likely didn't know.
The boy had woken Dudley yet again, and that's when Petunia's helplessness transformed into white-hot anger. Twice now this boy had disturbed her Dudders. He was going to have to learn that she would not tolerate this crying.
So she yelled at him. Which only made him cry harder and scream louder. Then she whacked him hard on the back, with the same predictable results. She left him to get Dudley, cuddled and soothed and eased her son into their sole high chair, and when left to his own devices the boy stopped crying and crawled into the kitchen. He pulled himself to his knees and hugged her a little above the ankles, which is how Petunia noticed him.
She slapped him, not quite so hard as before. "Bad!"
And the boy started crying again, the wailing and flailing of babies who aren't getting their own way.
- - -
Vernon came home once peace had been restored, but even with the boy's subdued behaviour he had thought of plenty of points and arguments while at work during that day, which had undoubtedly been a very unproductive one. His mood was made worse by the dinner, which, thanks to the commotion of the day and the anguished distraction of Petunia, was not quite up to his usual standards.
Petunia had been a mess all day, and looked it that evening, but she was mysteriously cool and crisp in countering all of Vernon's worries. She stopped feeling herself and let a very glib imposter take over the use of her mouth. No, for the last time, they could not just take him to an orphanage, imagine what the neighbours would say if they turned out their nephew. Yes, they would have to spend money on the boy, but no, not a great deal if she had anything to say about it, just having a roof over his head should make the boy grateful (she said, speaking as if the one-year-old child now rubbing his eyes as if to block out the memory of blinding green light had any notion of gratitude or any emotion beyond a desire to be back in a non-destroyed home with his parents). And no, the boy would not become one of them. At least, they'd see to it. After all, they had gotten him early, and it was all in the environment, wasn't it? He'd grow and learn to be a respectable boy, and grateful (that word again) for what he had gotten.
- - -
For a week the boy screamed and screamed. Even when he subsided into mere whimpering and leaking tears over his confusion and loss, Dudley would start poking experimentally, soon progressing more and more quickly to punching. Petunia never knew how she kept herself together for that one week. She was strained and haggard, sleeping poorly, prone to outbursts and sobs at the slightest provocation. Even when the boys weren't screaming their respective lungs out, she heard them echoing in her head, which ached abominably and continuously.
The only bright spot was the neighbours' reactions, which, although tainted with healthy amounts of suspicion, were uniformly of the opinion that Petunia Dursley ought to be canonised. Little Whining wasn't much for religion - not the heartfelt sort, anyway - but suddenly all sorts of heavenly talk was being thrown into their conversations. She was a martyr, they told her, usually to her face, because, as she suspected, less complimentary things were said behind her back. "Yes, Petunia, you must be a martyr, a Christian martyr," said Mrs Agnew of number ten. "Yes indeed." And an eligible, if not quite young, bachelor that heard about the recent adoption when invited over to Mongolia Crescent for tea had shaken his head and said that Mrs Dursley must be a saint of a woman. Hearing that from a friend of that family had brightened Petunia's day. Righteousness temporarily balmed her nerves - only for a little while, but it was a drug that could be used repeatedly, and she often did. A saint, indeed! They didn't know the half of it, did they? Of course, they never could know… know about the pain connected with the boy's mother, about the way feeding and changing him (which was about all she could bring herself to do) was like swallowing hot coals. She certainly considered herself a martyr, a magnanimous woman of greater and nobler heart than many.
But righteousness, as an insane and wicked but nevertheless intelligent woman would later tell the same boy, could not hold up to actual hatred. Petunia experienced, although never learned, this. Righteousness buckled before hatred almost every time; righteousness was a pompous coward, lacking the strength that makes hatred what it is. And very seldom did thoughts of Christian martyrdom stop her from hitting the boy with all her strength to silence his sobs.
- - -
Still, Vernon once came home to discover a lack of any dinner whatsoever. He could tell immediately from the smell. The house was almost deadly quiet - Dudley and the boy were watching a film. He battled down his initial annoyance long enough to find his wife in the kitchen. It was dark because it was six o'clock on a November evening and dark because she hadn't taken advantage of their electric lighting. When he flicked the switch he found that he had never had he seen her look thinner or smaller or frailer. She was sitting in a chair pulled out from the table as if she had collapsed in it and was staring at her hands.
"What's the matter?" he asked, the lack of disaster ample permit in his mind to unleash some of his temper.
At the anger in his tone, Petunia burst into tears, still staring at her hand through wetly blurred vision. "Oh - I'm sorry - I'm sorry - oh, Vernon - "
Vernon shifted his considerable heft awkwardly. Horror at having to comfort a hysterical woman more than outweighed the combination of mild concern and moderate irritation. After half a moment when Petunia's storm showed no signs of blowing further east, he cleared his throat unsuccessfully and said, "There, now…" He ended this with a cough, aware of its inadequacy.
Petunia cried because she knew that Dudley, encouraged by her example, was paying more attention to hitting his cousin than watching the film. Petunia cried out of discomfort at being controlled by a force she couldn't place. Petunia cried with shame because she knew she had become a child abuser - an actual child abuser - and that unknown force - hatred - never allowed her to stop.
She had never meant to become a child abuser. And that was the way she thought of it, in that term, with an almost-naïve horror, a double-edged horror, repulsion toward the label and repulsion toward the acts that led to the label - but mostly repulsion toward the label.
Again Vernon cleared his throat. "If that boy's too much for you…"
It may not have been very sympathetic, or even intentional, but it worked wonders on her tears. She started choking to stem the flow immediately. Because she could not have the boy sent away. Which was possibly the worst thing about it. She was no martyr and no saint. Wizards, actual wizards, wizards engaged in some horrible war in which good innocent people like her parents could be casualties, had coerced her into this, not out of her fear of powers of which she knew, but because she had only the haziest idea of what they might do if she didn't. Martyrs and saints had choices. She was only a helpless woman compelled by surreal incidents. And if the neighbours knew of this juxtaposition…
- - -
And then, after that week, the boy quieted. As self-defence he learned to lie low and to avoid attracting his cousin's attention. He finally realised the connection between wailing and his aunt's thwacks. And one week was really all it took for one whose days were as long as full as a baby's were to figure out that he wasn't going to see his parents nor any familiar face any time soon, and to recover from the grief induced thereof. He quieted - unhappily, listlessly, with his huge eyes the dark cadet blue of nearly all young babies large and sad. And growing more and more large. Whereas his parents had spoiled him (more reasonably than his aunt and uncle did Dudley, but much the same nonetheless), the Dursleys kept him on short rations, still furious at footing this bill.
Petunia discovered to her horror one morning mid-November that the boy's eyes were changing into their real colour. She hadn't noticed it until it was almost finished, as she paid as little attention to him as possible, but one morning there it was: he blinked at her miserably and sleepily - from eyes that were large and almond-shaped and green.
She left him in the crib she had purchased some weeks ago with teeth clenched so tightly that the saleswoman had been forced to inquire, "Excuse me, what did you say?" repeatedly. How could she care for this boy if his eyes were exact replicas of Lily's? It was unnatural, the similarity. Surely it had something to do with magic.
Although her breathing had been irregular most of the morning, she found that the eyes made little difference - in fact, they helped. Because before he had looked such a total stranger. Every feature he had, even as little defined as they might be in babyhood, had come from James Potter, making the boy seem a stranger, a baby plucked from streets far away from Petunia's doorstep. Lily's eyes made the experience seem more real, made that letter seem more plausible - although it still wasn't that far a cry from absolute and dangerous nonsense to Petunia's mind. And as years went by they built a bridge, as years will always do, although perhaps not a strong one, because Petunia's youth had been corrupted by the strange and wondrous and mystical and heartfelt, and her adulthood was full of banality and superficiality and those she loved had been scaled down to two. But built a bridge they did indeed, and after a while it wasn't that the boy had Lily's eyes, but her memory of Lily that had the boy's eyes. It made all the difference when the similarity was turned upside down like an hourglass.
- - -
A month passed, and then some more, through which Petunia seemed to grow more accustomed to the idea each morning, and the task eased into proportion. But just when she had begun to breathe easily, Little Whinging's peace was shattered early on a clear and cold grey December morning.
It was a growl, and well and beyond the normal volume of a growl, blasting through the quiet of the suburb, and then individual shots rang out from the indistinct wall of noise. It grew louder and louder as it neared number four. Petunia winced, hands over her ears, and Dudley, poor thing, was wide-eyed with fright.
But the boy had looked up with wide eyes the moment the noise had started. His face had an arrested expression - in this case, of someone who had been sharply reminded of someone else who had been on the edge of their memory, about to fall off on the other side. His face broke into a wide and shapeless baby-grin; his hands pressed together. The boy, who had been sitting quietly on the couch moments before, an entirely different creature of defeat, now scrambled up to peer out of the window, little uncoordinated hands trying to bat away the curtains. "Er!" he shouted, and even in Petunia's horror at a motorcycle on Privet Drive and at number eleven's awful relatives that they shouldn't have invited even for Christmas, she could hear absolute joy in the baby's voice. Delight. Euphoria. 'Tis the season to be jolly.
And it tugged her heartstrings.
She didn't even have to conquer the unwanted emotion on her own. The motorbike roared past, with a brief moment of rumbling in Petunia's chest, and then leaving dimmer noise and then a strange silence in its wake. The boy's ecstasy faded from his face as the sound diminished - Petunia felt another tug, and was in danger of wanting to take the boy into her arms and soothe him with nonsense baby talk like she would her own son. But never fear. The boy destroyed any such chance at that with another tantrum. And for babies, tantrum-throwing is like, well, riding a bike. You never forget the knack, even if it has been almost two months since your last go.
At the silence that verified that the motorbike was not stopping, the boy's face screwed up, growing redder and uglier. Then he pounded the back of the couch - not with fists, but with the whole of his little body. Undoubtedly the pain induced from his head's hard contact with solid mass increased his screams.
Screams - inadequate. If any breath could be channeled through his voicebox it was, and said voicebox, although little, was doing its absolute best to articulate the despair of its user. The boy was wailing and flailing again, with more vim than ever before. So masterful a tantrum was it that Dudley looked on, quiet and curious, as if trying to pick up a few pointers.
The boy threw himself back on the couch, meaty fists and legs in the air, and then tried again, this time falling off. The resulting thud didn't slow his tantrum a mite. He screamed and screamed, Petunia's ears were ringing…
"Er! Er! Er-iss!"
"That's enough!" she shouted, nearly as hysterical. "That's enough! You bad boy!"
"Er-iss, Er-iss! ER!"
The boy pounded the floor, the air, the side of the couch, like a thing demented. Petunia had enough time and mental space to worry that he was possessed. It had been years since she had felt strong emotion, and even then had repressed it, as respectable society taught its members to do. This raw, pure grief was something of the young, something of the unrefined. It scared her.
She put him in the cupboard under the stairs, a feat easier spoken of than done. A wailing, flailing baby may not be able to beat up someone many times heavier and stronger than itself, but it can put up a good fight for anyone trying to get a good hold on it to carry it somewhere it doesn't want to go. It can put up a better fight with someone unused to physical force, whether on the giving or receiving end, and Petunia had never much experienced either. It was a sweaty ten minutes before she managed it, a very long ten minutes.
The door muffled the noise but it was still there, the screams and bawls and pounding of solids and appeals to Er-iss. And once he had gotten over his shock, Dudley joined in the tantrum as well, and all Petunia's hugs, bribes, and various appeals in general to his good nature and baser instincts failed.
After a half an hour the boy's tantrum was at something less than full steam. Petunia made no move to get him, wanting to forget about him in there indefinitely. He descended to whimpers, the occasional restart of crying, the chanting of various syllables, mostly open-ended vowels that were his last embers of the memories of people and things now gone, but never another tantrum, not for years and years, in fact. The fight slowly drained out of him as he whimpered, now only for Er-iss and Mum-ma and Da-dee, with no conviction left that they would answer his calls. When Petunia finally opened the door a few hours later, thinking mistakenly that he had fallen asleep, she found what he had become and would remain for several years before he got acquainted with bitterness, sarcasm, and childish retaliation: a broken, apathetic boy, good mainly for being the first punching bag of the later-to-be Junior Heavyweight Inter-School Boxing Champion of the Southeast, '95.
Spirit would return to him later, though, in the form of aforesaid bitterness, sarcasm, and childish retaliation. One couldn't go to a school as pariah, as outsider, as leper unclean, as local whipping boy, without learning something more than to, you know, do maths and stuff.