"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." – Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
HARRY JAMES POTTER: Such a light within his soul.
His hair is completely gone to silver now, the shiny strands clipped to chin length. No beard, of course.
"I never understood wizards with long beards," he murmurs idly. "Getting into the soup, popcorn sticking at all angles..."
"Like Dumbledore," I add.
"Like Dumbledore," he agrees.
"Not to speak ill of the dead, but Dumbledore was an fool."
"You've been saying that for years."
"Every year brings even greater clarity." I sigh. "And speaking of which, congratulations!"
"Thanks, old friend." He continues to pin the medals on his black velvet dress robes. He hesitates at the elaborate gold and jeweled Order of Merlin, his eyes beginning to mist. Sirius, Remus, Ginny, Ron...
"None of that, now! None of that!" As always, I can read his mind. "Anniversaries are joyous times. Sixty years is a great accomplishment. Think how proud they would all be."
He flicks an imaginary mote of dust from the elegant velvet folds. "I can still miss them, can't I?"
There's never been a more popular Headmaster in the history of Hogwarts. Even in their own time, the Founders, themselves, would be hard pressed to match the outpouring of loyalty and love engendered by Harry James Potter.
One might assume it is due to his epic battle against Voldemort. But the truth is, many other wizards have faced down powerful villains in the past – Dumbledore did, after all, did defeat the vile Grindelwald.
But Dumbledore lacked Harry's openness and humility. Dumbledore had one of the most closed minds I have ever seen. He kept his silence when he should have spoken up. And all this for the so-called "greater good."
No, Harry Potter has never believed in keeping secrets. He knows only too well, the damage it can do. When he took over the running of Hogwarts, he was barely twenty-one. Many people were skeptical about his ability to handle such a position, but then again, it wasn't as if the past few Headmasters had handled it worth a damn to begin with.
Harry was a modest young man who never patronized his students. His fame never went to his head, and he remained approachable from that very first day.
In that way, he reminded me so much of another student from centuries ago – Mungo Bonham. That gentle boy suffered much at the hands of his cruel relatives, but despite it all, he had gone on to become one of the most beloved figures – the founder of the greatest hospital in the wizarding world.
"Really?" the Headmaster squinted in amusement. "Wasn't he a Hufflepuff?"
"You would have done well in Hufflepuff. In retrospect, you would have been magnificent."
"It might have been fun, at that." Harry agrees. "Well, are you ready?"
"I'll have you know, I despise parties."
"Balls, banquets, dances – the endless inane chattering gives me a headache."
"Um, you don't have a head. That's why I'm putting you on mine. How else do I get to enjoy all your deliciously snide observations?"
"That's besides the point, Potter..."
He smirks in a way that seems familiar, somehow. I didn't quite remember why. "Sixty years. Times flies, doesn't it?" The smirk melted into a vague, faraway gaze.
I clear my non-existent throat. "Well? Are you going to keep the entire school, the press and those idiots from the Ministry waiting? Who knows what those Weasley twins have done to the punch by now? Still wreaking havoc at their age, the silly twits."
"I think they're brilliant." Harry grins fondly. "Well, shall we go down and face the mob, old friend?"
Ah, it worked! I've made him smile!
ALBUS DUMBLEDORE: The worst kind of fool – a brilliant man who thinks he knows everything.
"Headmaster, I have seen inside his mind! He suffers in that muggle household."
Dumbledore shakes his head benevolently. "He is a fine young man, and these are minor adversities."
I grumble. "Might I remind you of another wizard who presumed to think he always knew best? Salazar Slytherin?"
The Headmaster laughs indulgently, "I am flattered.
"You shouldn't be."
Those blue eyes twinkled. I don't trust wizards whose eyes twinkle. It usually means they're laughing at someone else's expense. It's bloody irritating. I would tell him so, but what would be the point? It's not as if the insufferable windbag actually listens to anything I have to say.
"Might I remind you, that you are still just a hat."
"No, really?" That old insult was getting tiresome after so many centuries. "Might I remind you, Albus, that a certain headmaster presumed to intervene in the so-called 'welfare' of an orphaned child. His idea of care involved leaving that baby on a strange doorstep in the frigid autumn air. He didn't even wait to see how long the basket would sit there. How would the baby be treated?"
"They were his blood relatives, and the protections served him well."
"I have seen all his memories during the Sorting. He suffered with those dreadful muggles. Muggles, who I might add, give truth to every paranoid delusion of Salazar Slytherin! He has been starved, tormented, and abused worse than any house elf. He has never received a Christmas gift or birthday present. Until he received his Hogwarts letter, he lived in a cupboard with the spiders! A bloody cupboard, Dumbledore!"
"Yes, I admit his home environment has been less than ideal, but he is protected."
Oh, this can go on forever, I see that! Rowena Ravenclaw, herself could use her dazzling logic to argue the point and this twinkling turd would still act oblivious.
And it is an act. Of that I am convinced. How much compassion, how much care can someone supposedly so wise and knowing have for a suffering child if he allows this injustice to continue? But even though I am resigned to the fact that Dumbledore will not heed my warnings, I am compelled to continue. I must fight for Harry Potter. I have been placed here as a Guardian of Hogwarts. I must try again and again, even though I know it is a losing battle against an old man's vanity.
"Headmaster, you must listen. Harry Potter belongs with a loving family. At the very least, let the child spend his summers in the safety of Hogwarts."
"I wish it could be so, but unfortunately-"
"Why not? What possible reason could you have for denying this special child the sanctuary of the castle? This was a common occurrence during the time of the Founders."
"I'm afraid it remains impossible."
"In heavens name, why?"
Dumbledore sighs dramatically. "You must trust me on this."
The arrogant ass! The conceited fool! He's playing God, again! As if he actually knows best! I'm well over a thousand years older than the Headmaster.
I'm the one who knows best, you bloody idiot! Not you! At least I've learnt from my mistakes! I know all about penance. The question is, do you?
But aloud, all I can manage is "Keeping secrets from me, Albus? An instrument of the Founders?"
The twinkle disappears oh-so-briefly. The benevolent visage hardens for just an instant. This tells me all I need to know.
I try one last time. "Put aside your ego, Dumbledore and heed this warning: Do not keep the boy in darkness. Do not imprison him every summer with those horrid muggles. Free him from the bonds in which you have him chained. The potential to bring such joy and happiness! I haven't seen such a capacity for good in centuries. Not since-"
"I must handle the situation as I see fit. Your rather...solitary existence as a hat has given you only the barest understanding of the real world. I believe I know best here." He clears his throat. "Ah! Would you look at the time! I must go to bed..."
End of discussion. Well, at least I tried. And for the first time in centuries, my anger and annoyance has brushed away the cobwebs.
I see what we are up against. The darkness which lays ahead. It isn't blurry any longer. But the old fool will not listen. How many will suffer because of Dumbledore's blindness? Like the old muggle generals who sit in their armchairs miles from the Front, while young soldiers wage their wars.
ARMANDO DIPPET: The perfect example of a useful idiot.
"Headmaster, about this Tom Riddle..."
"A fine boy, a fine fellow, what?"
"I must caution you – there is something terribly wrong here. I have seen into his mind. There is an ugliness, a darkness –"
"Doom and gloom, is it?"
"Something...I cannot remember..."
"Not very helpful then, old fellow." Dippet is already distracted by the thoughts of this evening's supper. There will be dumplings!
"You must listen! There's a place - a hidden place..." I falter. Why can't I see it anymore? Someplace dark and sinister. Damn! Why has it all gone suddenly hazy?
"Yes, well, it's that kind of castle, isn't it?" Dippet chortles, pats my brim and ambles off towards the Great Hall.
As I said. An idiot.
PHINEAS NIGELLUS BLACK: A thoroughly unpleasant chap.
"Headmaster, the ghosts have come to me expressing their concern over the matter of Peeves..."
"But you're a hat."
"Yes, but I'm a very old hat. Nine hundred, to be exact. The ghosts feel a bond with me."
"Why would I care about the feelings of a hat and a passel of irritating shades?"
Ah. Quite a nasty fellow, indeed. Just as nasty and intractable as he was at the age of eleven! The dregs of Slytherin House, to be sure.
"Phineas, may I speak bluntly?"
"You may not! You are a bloody hat!" Black was quick to anger, too. "You will address me respectfully, as befits my station. I am 'Professor' or 'Sir.'"
Oh, joy. He's going to be one of those kind of headmasters.
"Well, Sir. It is the consensus of the castle ghosts that something must be done about the poltergeist's behav-"
"Have I not made myself clear, you uppity rag? You exist for the sole purpose of the annual sorting. Kindly keep your brim shut at all other times. Silencio!"
Dreadful, unpleasant little man! So typical of that strain of Black arrogance! Mark my words, there's a pureblood family that's doomed to implode one day.
I suppose I could tell the bastard that one cannot use silencing charms on a protected magical object...but why bother? His days are numbered, after all. When he dies, he'll go down as the most unpopular headmaster in the history of the school.
DILYS DERWENT: A good and kindly soul.
She is beautiful, both inside and out. Even though I have no body to speak of, my mind reacts to this astonishing woman. She has spent the past twenty years as a healer before returning to the castle.
"I welcome you to Hogwarts, Headmistress."
"Why thank you, dear Hat. She beams at me, tossing back a long lock of silver hair." She reminds me so very much of Helga Hufflepuff, it is truly astonishing. A worthy daughter of that noble house.
I envision the many evenings to come - engaged in fascinating conversation with such a congenial soul. Ah, Merlin, I believe I'm in danger of making rather a fool of myself...but the possibilities awaken something forgotten within me. A memory of four friends, boon companions all. What happened? How did it all change for them? What went wrong? What poisoned the well?
"I beg your pardon, Hat?" Headmistress Derwent's concerned voice jars me out of my painful thoughts.
Yes! A hat can think! Yes, an enchanted hat is capable of emotion. Haven't I spent the past eight centuries drinking in the minds thousands of young wizards? Sensing not just their potential, but hidden dreams, fears and desires? Yes, I know what they will all become...
I reach for something startling familiar, tantalizing close. My mind can just touch that fragile memory, and then it is gone! Vanished into a mist, a cloud, a funk. Too many memories. Too many years. So many of them fold up against each other and dissolve into the ether...
"Is something amiss?" the gentle concern cuts through my stupor.
"No, dear Madam.
"In my former vocation, I tended to all creatures in distress, Sir. And I sense something more than you are willing to admit."
"But I am not a creature, I am merely an object."
"Nevertheless, there is something causing you...concern."
"I am getting rather ragged around the brim these days," I concede. "I often wonder just how long the Founders intended me to go on."
"Forever, I assume." She smiles with such compassion. But at least, the awkward subject has been redirected.
Somehow, I have forgotten why I was so disturbed. I don't care about the darkness, whatever it might have been.
All right, then.
FINGAL FORTESCUE: A genial wit and generous spirit.
"Ah, yes, my good fellow! An excellent crop this year!"
"I quite agree, Headmaster."
"Quite a haul for Badger House, eh?"
"Indeed. It makes for a pleasant change."
Fortescue brushes the black fringe away from his eyes, and downed another shot of fire whiskey. "My good Cap, I would not presume to intrude on the otherwise confidential nature of the Sorting, but I must inquire..."
I cannot help but snort in amusement. The Headmaster and I play the same delightful farce each September 1st. The times we live in give us such little cause for celebration, and it is natural for him to seek those rare sources of light and joy. There is certainly nothing unethical about uncovering the occasional bright spot amongst the First Years.
"You have reason to smile, Fingal."
His normally dour and sallow face is illuminated with a broad smile. "Pray continue!"
"Young Mungo Bonham."
"Destined for greatness, eh?"
"A most gifted healer." I allow myself a moment of reflection. "Helga would be most pleased at the honor he shall bestow upon her house."
My companion beams. "Excellent news, indeed!" He hoists his glass. "To Hufflepuff!"
"To Hufflepuff!" I bow at my brim.
Some years are like the finest wines, to be savored and enjoyed at leisure. This is one of them.
EVERARD OF CUMBERLAND: Will of iron; heart of stone.
"You agree with me, then."
"Yes, Headmaster. These are perilous times."
"I have nothing against Muggles, personally, you understand."
"Regretfully, we may lose a talented Muggleborn here and there...but it is for the greater good." The red-faced wizard looked sadly at the stack of letters which would never be delivered.
Yes, life can be cruel, but I quite agree about these dangerous times. The Plague ravages through Britain, virtually unchecked. For the most part, the wizarding world has remained untouched by The Black Death. It is a disease spread by rats and filth. The genius works of public sanitation that gave the Romans such pride have long since fallen by the wayside. Many muggles now believe that personal hygiene is a Godless abomination.
Even Godric Gryffindor, in all his earthy compassion, would agree it is hazardous to the health of wizards to mingle with muggles during a time of plague. Wizards have potions and spells to protect them. Muggles will find it suspicious that certain families are completely untouched by illness, while entire villages are decimated.
Time to burn witches, again.
No. Such a thing cannot be risked again. And as for those muggleborn wizards and witches who were to have received their Hogwarts invitations this year – it carries too many dangers, as well. What muggle child would not wish to use his or her new knowledge of magic to save family and friends? And what child could keep such knowledge secret?
Disaster. Isn't that what Salazar always feared?
"Noble Everard, I cannot dispute the soundness of your logic. It is a pity, though."
The Headmaster shrugs. "A harsh reality, to be sure."
"The losses to the magical world, though," I murmur. "What potential might be go unnoticed? Who knows what great potions master or spell crafter might never get the chance to discover his gifts?"
"You don't truly believe that a few lost muggleborns could compare to the loss of a single pureblood wizard, do you, old Cap?"
I don't know. Never before have I been troubled by such thoughts.
And the ground shifts under me.
SALAZAR SYTHERIN: The greatest folly of all.
I sit in the abandoned Headmaster's Tower. It has been six days since Helga Hufflepuff breathed her last.
Most teachers and students had already returned to their homes for the two months following the Summer Solstice. Those few who remained have been sworn to secrecy.
I have returned.
I was not in time to bid a final farewell to my most cherished love. Whatever foolishness kept us parted for the past fifty years, is long forgotten. In the meantime, she moved on and married another. They had a son. He is the current Charms master at Hogwarts.
I looked at his open, kind face...a face so like his dear mother, and ached for what might have been. If not for my own blindness, my own stubbornness. My own folly.
The fault is mine. I shall bear the loss for the rest of my days.
Godric and Rowena also passed on, years ago. It was almost as if Helga hung on, waiting for my return. I owe them all a debt. I wonder if it can ever be repaid.
"Put me on your head."
And then I see it. The hat. Godric's beloved old pointed cap with its absurdly wide brim. I remember the night, so many years ago when Godric first got the idea of giving it a personality. And even though the voice is weak, I can still hear it.
"Put me on your head."
Ages ago, when we enchanted the cap, we all knew it could not last. The imprints of our personalities would fade in time, as with all spells. All that remained now, were the faintest echoes of our thoughts and dreams. And even those were quickly fading. Soon, they would be gone. And Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw and Godric Gryffindor would cease to exist.
How long before I, too, would follow my cherished friends into that great nothingness?
"Put me on your head."
Suddenly, I understand. It is so clear now, what I must do. The prospect does not frighten me at all. And it is the very least I owe my old companions.
It's a somewhat complicated spell. Some consider it evil, but how can anything done with the purest of intent be evil?
I will give all of myself this time, not just a fragment of my personality. In doing so, Godric's cap will truly be sentient. And it will last an eternity. I won't be dead but I shall no longer be alive, either. I will be somewhere in between.
Whatever that means. I suppose that is the final mystery.
"Put me on your head."
And so, I walk forward, pick up Godric's old cap, and take a deep breath...
THE FOUR FOUNDERS: A great dream.
Helga smiles at her three companions. "Ask me what I think."
Salazar simply smirks. "I don't have to. I already know."
Rowena nudges him. "Couldn't you at least humor her?"
"Salazar and humor in the same breath? Merlin help us!" Godric winks in that irrepressible way of his.
"I'll have you know my sense of humor is magnificent."
Rowena snorts and Godric pretends to gag. "Then what is Helga thinking?"
"She's thinking that the three of us are right. It's an utterly brilliant idea."
Helga smiles indulgently at her betrothed. "It is quite wonderful. I agree. What could be more inspired than a school devoted completely to magic?"
"A dungeon devoted completely to the art of potion-making!"
Godric rolls his eyes. "You're completely welcome to it, my old friend. Damp, dark, nasty places, dungeons."
"I have the plans right here," Rowena flicks her wand over the large, circular table. Slowly, an image of a great stone castle begins to rise beside a sparkling lake. Turrets and spires soar higher and higher into the air.
The three other stare, utterly speechless at the sight before them. Even before the school ever has a name, it is real. It will exist.
And the four of them clasp hands.