Disclaimer: JKR created the world of Harry Potter and its characters. The Starlings are mine. Thanks also to E. Nesbit, who inspired this.
The Garden Gate
It wasn't so bad, being eleven and practically a grown girl about London in the '60's. The music was great, skirts were short and colourful, and London was never again to be so full of life and so much the center of the world. Even with most of the other children going to the seaside, or even to the South of France, there was plenty to do around and about Grimmauld Place in the summer.
Mum would pack us up some sandwiches, tell us, "It's a lovely day," and send us out to save her sanity. I, being the eldest, was admonished to watch over Peter and Heather, and to make sure I disposed of our trash in the proper bins; to never, ever, accept sweets from strange men; and to avert our eyes when the "revolting hippies" disported themselves in the park.
We had made a pact, and swore solemnly on our honour, never, ever to tell Mum things that would alarm her—especially things that would put an end to our delicious freedom on those hot August days. So we hadn't told her about the old man who had wanted me to come by myself to his house for tea, or about the big boys who knocked me down one day and took our sandwiches. It was all part of the adventure, and after all, it is only one's duty to protect one's mother from the Rougher Side of Life.
Those big boys were lounging in the park that day, and I decided it would be the better part of valour to explore a little closer to home. It was fine, but hot, with not a breath of wind stirring the sleepy flowers along our walk. I took Peter and Heather around to the back of the houses, because sometimes people leave interesting things out in the dustbins, and it made us feel like adventurers.
"I don't remember that," declared Peter, who had stopped suddenly.
I saw where he was pointing. Back behind number thirteen, and to the side, I could see a huge iron gate, the kind one sees when one visits Blenheim or Chatsworth or one of those other stately homes that Mum used to drag us to see. It was decorated at the top with a big coat of arms, and the crest was a silver snake.
The gate was open, letting us see into a strange dark back garden; and in the gateway stood the strangest little boy. He gave us a wave, and we decided to walk back to meet him. I thought I knew everyone in Grimmauld Place, so I supposed the boy must be a visitor.
We must have stared a bit, for he was dressed in a green costume, something like the robes Mum's younger brother Julian had to wear at University, and he was holding a twig in his hand. He was quite a nice-looking little boy, too: big blue eyes and thick black hair and the brightest smile.
"Hello," said Heather, trotting up to him with the confidence of her six years. "What are you?"
"I'm a wizard," answered the boy. And he said it very well: just exactly as if it were true. Often we had found that we had to explain games to other children, and even then they played very badly, saying that they were "pretending" to be a princess, or "pretending" to be a bear. This little boy knew how to play right away without being told.
"I'm a wizard, too," Peter announced, swaggering up.
"I'm a wizard, too," Heather said eagerly, and the strange boy laughed.
"No, silly, you're a witch: girls are witches and boys are wizards." He turned to Peter, asking, "If you're a wizard, where's your wand?"
Peter, without missing a beat, broke a twig off a tree branch. "Here."
I broke one off for Heather, and another for myself. "I haven't seen you about before," I said, by way of introducing myself. "I'm Sorrel Starling, and this is my brother Peter and my sister Heather."
The boy switched the wand to his left hand, and put out his right to shake hands nicely. He had the sort of manners Mum would call lovely, and I would call old-fashioned. "I'm Sirius Black."
"S-I-R-I-U-S." He spelled it out earnestly. "It's the name of a star." I looked that up later in a book, and it is true: so you know that this story is true, too. "I'm glad you're witches and wizards. At first I thought you were Muggle children."
We assured him that we were witches and wizards, and came from a long line of witches and wizards before us.
"Probably not as long a line as mine," he boasted. "I'm a Black, from the most Noble and Ancient House of Black, and we have a tapestry in our house with all our names written in gold on it going back to olden times."
"Well," I said loftily, not to be outdone in imagination by this little boy. "We can trace our ancestry all the way back to King Arthur, and we have his sword and a lot of crystal balls, and other witch things."
He nodded acceptance, and did not try to contradict us. "Do you know how to play Hunt-the-Muggle?"
He certainly showed us some fine games. Hunt-the-Muggle was like Hide-and-Seek, only when the wizards found the Muggle at the end (it was Peter, then me), they killed him by pointing their wands and shouting "Abracadabra" at him, and the Muggle had to fall down dead. It was terribly exciting; and when I was the Muggle and they found me hiding behind a bush, my heart was pounding so I thought I would die right then and there.
We were pretty hot after that, so we sat on the grass, and Sirius asked us if we liked Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, and I said I thought so, and the little boy pulled a real velvet bag out of his robes and passed it around. We had never had anything like them before. Heather squealed when she got a malt vinegar one; and I got a lovely meringue and then a steak-and-kidney pudding one; and Peter ate two at once, and said that lemon shandy and fish and chips were not bad, when he got it all sorted out.
"I'm awfully glad you're here," said Sirius. "I haven't had anyone to play with this summer but my little brother Regulus, and he's useless. My cousins came last week, but they're all girls and they don't like to get dirty, and they played wedding and made me get married to each of them. It was stupid."
"Why don't you come out to the park?" I asked him.
"I'm forbidden to leave the garden. Mother is afraid I'll be contaminated by Muggles, and Kreacher is always watching me." He gave an angry laugh. "But today I got the gate open when Mother called him in."
"He's our house-elf."
I reached for another bean, and wondered if a pearl-white one would be nice. Clotted cream. Blissfully, I chewed it, and then realised that I had not understood what Sirius had said.
"What's a house-elf?"
He looked at me in wonder. "Our servant. Don't you have one?"
"No. Mum has to do everything." Mum had told us, over and over again, about the big house in the country she had grown up in, and the cook, and the parlormaid, and her nanny. Things Were Different Now, and it was plain that she thought they had changed for the worse.
Sirius looked embarrassed. "I wouldn't mind if we didn't have Kreacher. He's horrible—always sneaking around, and finding a way to give me nasty bits in my dinner. Mother could probably do better without him, but she likes having him around to give orders to."
Peter got up. "Let's play Hunt-the-Muggle again. You're it."
We covered our eyes, and Sirius ran off to hide. We finished counting to a hundred, and then starting running about to find him. I guess we made plenty of noise, because when we found Sirius, he jumped out at us and tried to get away, and we were waving our wands, and screaming "Abracadabra" as loud as ever we could.
Sirius stopped running suddenly, and looked scared. We turned around, and were scared too. An awful old woman, with a long black dress and a black cap, was looking at us from the door of the house.
"SIRIUS!" she screamed, in a horrid, hoarse voice. "Who are those children?"
He swallowed, and said, "This is Sorrel and Heather. They're witches, and Peter here is a wizard like me."
There are grown-ups and grown-ups, and I could see that this was not a good thing to say to a grown-up as angry as this nasty woman.
She stormed down into the garden, looking us over, with dreadful rolling eyes and an ugly sneering mouth. I couldn't understand how she could be anybody's mother.
All at once, she reared back, and spat out, "Witches and wizard, indeed! They're nothing but Muggle children!" Quick as quick, she drew a stick from her long dress, like our pretend wands, but smooth and polished, and terribly real-looking. I knew as well as I had ever known anything that I did not want her to point that stick at me. She did though, muttering, and I felt horribly stiff and uncomfortable, as if I had stepped into cement. I knew too, in a flash and very clearly, that the stick was a real wand, and Sirius' mother was a real witch.
She grabbed Sirius, and held him by both his hands, and pointed her wand at them, screaming, "Scourgify, scourgify!" Sirius screamed too, and it was as if she were trying to clean his hands, for the dirt on them from our play disappeared, and they started to bleed.
She threw him to the ground, and she sobbed and moaned, "Muggle filth! How could you soil yourself, soil your blood, with filthy subhuman spawn? Go inside, right now!"
Sirius jumped up, tearing running down his face. "I won't!" He ran to Heather, because she was closest, and hugged her. "When I grow up, I'll always play with Muggles!"
Sirius' mother had turned pale yellow. She gave a horrid laugh, like a husky bark, and shouted, "Kreacher! Carry Master Sirius indoors! Give him a hot bath! And burn his clothes!"
Then the most frightening thing of all happened. Something invisible picked that little boy up, and as he fought and hit out, it carried him into through the dark gaping door of that dark house.
Sirius mother turned to us them, with a smile that showed her teeth like a dog, and screamed, "Vile little apes! Muggle corruption! You dare pollute my home?" She came up to me, looking down at me so close that when she spoke again, her spit flecked my face. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even shut my eyes. So that's what a Muggle is, I realised, feeling sick. A Muggle is someone like me. And witches hate them.
"If I ever see you again, I will kill you like the animals you are, and bury you in the garden. Get out of here. Finite Incantatem!"
At last I could move. I was off like a shot with a hand each for Heather and Peter, and we ran wildly through the gate. We were just outside, and rounding the corner of the house, when we heard a last, raucous shriek.
Heather and Peter stumbled, but I held their hands tight, and ran on. We ran all the way home to number seven, and we leaned against the wall with the climbing roses, gasping for breath.
"That's was fun," Peter said, after a minute. "Let's run like that some more!"
I stared at him in amazement. "That witch lady wasn't fun! I thought she was going to kill us with magic!"
Peter and Heather stared at me. "What witch lady?" They didn't look frightened at all. They were red from running, but otherwise seemed just fine.
"You don't remember? She pointed her wand at us and said to get out of her garden?"
They looked at each other, and I suppose they were trying to think about how to join in this new play.
"Yes," volunteered Heather. "She was scary, and had a big hat and a six black cats!"
"Don't you remember Sirius?"
Blank looks. And then Peter grinned and asked "Are you serious?" He thought this very funny and he and Heather giggled for some time. I was still shaking inside, thinking about what could have happened, and then we went into the house, and I told Mum I was tired and needed a nap. She looked at me, and felt my head, wondering if I had caught something: but I would never, ever frighten her by telling about the little wizard boy and his horrible witch mother, especially since Heather and Peter seemed to remember nothing about it. She would never believe me, anyway. No one would believe me.
The next day, I went out alone and early, looking for the garden gate. I found the back of number thirteen right enough, and next to it, number eleven. I went back many times until summer's end, looking for the iron gate with the snake, but I soon saw it would be hopeless. As far as I know, Sirius never got the gate open again.
The horrid woman had yelled something at us as we were running away, but somehow it had missed me and struck Peter and Heather. Maybe it was for the best. At least they wouldn't have nightmares about that day. I couldn't say the same for myself. I still dream about it now and then. I wonder about little blue-eyed Sirius, alone in the garden. I wonder about what became of him, and his horrible witch of a mother, and the terrible, invisible servant. I remember playing Hunt-the-Muggle, and never even questioning what a Muggle was. I wonder if he remembers us. I wonder if wizards and witches really hunt people like that, and I burrow down deeper under my covers in bed, hoping I never find out.