I want you to imagine for a moment that I began my story another way, that - rather than gradually opening your eyes to this raveled and many-eyed creature on your chest staring back at you - you awakened, as all readers do when reading a story for the first time, to a dream of great clarity and a moment of realization. Yes. Awakened to a dream.
But unfortunately, I would have had to set the stage first. Which kind of ruins that. And there would have been a long part where I rattled on about some philosophical point or other and thus put more distance between you-the-reader and the action, the scene that needs to appear all at once, in such a way that you are drawn into the story immediately, as someone who is jogging down the street on a dry hot night, then passes through a curtain of cool water and is drenched through immediately, and finds that on the other side of the curtain it is daylight just after a rain and in a different city, but the jogger already is somehow part of that by virtue of passing through the curtain, shoes creaking with moisture and shirt heavy on the shoulder, and the world is all of a sudden forever changed. But this doesn't happen, because I would still be on about some story or other that will illustrate the thing I want to tell you somehow better than telling you the actual story would, and so the distance becomes even greater. What would any of this have to do with magic, and flying around, and something that might be romance, and family, and action and anything else you might have been expecting to read, if you expected anything? The gulf would grow larger line by line as I take the most circuitous route possible and you throw up your hands, utterly deprived of readerly satisfaction of any kind.
So in any event, you can imagine it if you want, but that's just not the way things work with me. I want to talk about after the fire at the Burrow and after I laughed myself unconscious, when Hermione was trying to rouse me, and how she kind of did but not all the way, and then how remembering something brought me part of the way up and then something else brought me the whole way.
Actually I don't want to talk about it, but here we are. It just seems like the right thing to do. I've been trying to escape it. One of the things about memory is that it shows up with great clarity when you wish it would just bugger off or at least mumble at you instead of shouting about every last detail of things. And now here I am, talking about other things again instead of the actual thing.
It's a curse.
No, it isn't. I'm still avoiding it.
Since we're talking about death here, or were, kind of, in the sense that any conversation you have for the express purpose of avoiding something can be said to be about that thing, and since I have been and, at the moment in my story, ihad/i been expending a huge amount of energy trying not to think about a few things in particular, well… naturally I still want to take a detour. Yes, maybe it makes me less of a man to do so, but there's a reason behind it. I want to tell you about a woman named Dolores.
But first, there was a whole other bit I didn't tell you about. Some of it comes from people telling me, some from guessing, and some from listening to fragments of what folks think about, when they're talking about something else, usually by accident because someone looks me in the eye. So it's like watching the news on several televisions at the same time, in that there are facts involved, but they're all over the place, and someone else decided to turn the televisions on, but you decide which one to watch at the moment, and it may not be the most important news story or well reported or true, even, but it caught your eye, and there you are. And I realize that by telling you this following story that describes events in the past, or at least events that happened before the main story (such as it is) that I'm telling, that I remove a small bit of drama from the future, that is to say later on when I'm telling this story about things that happened in the past, because I'm telling you now about things that you as a reader would not learn until further along if my narrative followed any sort of reasonable linear path. Well, it doesn't. And it's not much worse than what anyone else gives you in life. If you think about it, in a little while it will all be in your past and you can line it up like you want. The timeline is governed by memory, our own individual architect and clock-maker, and once an event is in there, it's up to you what you do with it. I have learned this.
Okay. Imagine that you run a magic school. Imagine that one year you hire a somewhat skittish fellow to teach a class about people who don't use magic. Imagine that he doesn't do very well the first few years, and then coincidentally you have a vacancy in another discipline that no one seems to be able to keep filled for very long. Imagine that you see this as an opportunity to move things around a little staff-wise, but that you see the problems in using a teacher with very little practical experience to teach a class that is intended to educate students in how to defend themselves from the worst things in your world. Let's say you decide your skittish fellow needs a little time in the field to collect some experiences with which to teach. Let's say you have the utter idiocy to send him to a country where a previously-yet-insufficiently-killed dark wizard is suspected (by you and almost no one else) to lurk, and better yet, that you send him into the very wilderness supposed to be the site of said lurking. Let's also say that he takes a little extra time coming back, and when he does, he's wearing a rather large turban, which by a strange coincidence the native people in the land he visited are pretty much uniformly thought not to ever do under any circumstances.
Let's say he comes back to work, no less of a weed apparently, but possessed, shall we say, of a much broader knowledge of things that go bump in the night and then kill you. Imagine that he spends the better part of a term unnerving the students and then begins to act a little strange. Er. Strange enough that a bookish first-year girl and two friends – a red-headed chess whiz and a quiet boy who's living under a secret burden – notice and begin to keep tabs on him.
The first moment they encounter anything odd is in the aftermath of a troll attack that occurs inside your supposedly secure school, when it's noticed that their weird professor has a twitch in his eye. Never mind that the girl had been attacked by the troll and it was the will and courage of the two boys and the spell-knowledge of the girl that allowed them to defeat the creature, and then several professors had shown up and started arguing and yelling, and nobody had bothered to turn off the broken plumbing that was spraying everywhere in the room – forget all that – the girl has managed to see that one of the professors has a little tremor on his face when looking at an unconscious troll. (If you are wondering what the definition of "focus" is - say, because you can't remember it - you can see a picture of that girl next to it, should you look it up in the dictionary.) This seems peculiar to her that he would be nervous around a supposedly dark creature that he teaches about.
But after that they notice that he avoids their vitriolic Potions 'master' like the plague. Also, he's seen talking to himself one night in a corridor that students are forbidden for some unknown reason to enter. Then they notice a rather doggy smell wafting from said corridor, and because she is an animal lover the girl drags her friends there to be sure that a local cur has not become trapped inside, and they do indeed discover something of a dog, that is to say a giant three-headed slavering monster-dog, and in the mad dash to escape the girl manages to notice that the dog is standing over a trapdoor, guarding something.
So she drags her (clearly very stalwart, by this point) friends to the school's gamekeeper, who is a sweetheart of a man but a little on the chatty side and thus tells them how to put the triple-scoop of dog to sleep, says it's guarding something and that you and Nicholas Flamel put it in there. He puts a bow on it by telling them he shouldn't have told them about any of that. So let's imagine that this girl, who is no idiot by a long shot, looks up Flamel and discovers that he's hundreds of years past retirement age because he has something nobody else has – a stone that lets him brew a tonic that keeps him alive way beyond his birth certificate's expiration date. Since he's not famous for anything else except not telling any other living soul how to make a magic rock that keeps you alive indefinitely, her chess-playing friend thinks it's the stone the dog is guarding, so when they go down to see the gamekeeper again, the boy bluffs and says they know that's what's in there. Not one to stand up to a bluff by an eleven-year-old, the gamekeeper cracks under the pressure of this brutal interrogation and tells them that yes, it's there, but that every teacher has chipped in to put traps and challenges between the stone and anyone foolish enough to try to take it. The girl is highly irate to discover that they're keeping something so valuable that it has to be guarded by deadly traps inside of a school where naturally inquisitive students will undoubtedly run afoul of the traps. When she and the boys come to you and she asks you about the soundness of this as an idea, you tell her that adult wizards and witches are in control of this situation and that the three of them should mind their own affairs and stay out of trouble, and what would their parents think?
So she asks her parents what they think, and after a tense series of owls, not that the owls were tense but their messages were, though owls are a little high-strung when you think about it, always pecking at you if the bacon's wrong or you're sleepy or something, but anyway, she writes a letter to the board of governors of the school saying that there is a magical artifact of great importance being kept there and that the safeguards in place around it are, she believes, unsuitable when children are in such close proximity. The board convenes a meeting, harsh words are said, and you are summoned to answer many charges.
While this meeting goes on away from the school, the three children overhear the Potions professor and the weird professor arguing about loyalties and the stone, and they figure out that the weird professor wants it, and they decide that the best thing to do is to go get the stone before anyone else can. So they try to get help from another professor, the head of their house whose "door is always open," who dismisses their concerns out of hand. Then they ask their three-foot Charms professor for help, and after listening to their concerns, he agrees that something may be afoot and tells them to return to their rooms and wait. At this point the quiet boy speaks up and reminds the professor that he can't get past the three-headed dog without them because they know how to do so, and thus they find themselves standing in a room with a sleeping cerberus and a chess whiz hooting through a tin flute while the Charms professor jumps down a hole and, perhaps excessively, roasts a giant plant to death, then leaves them behind.
After a half-hour of waiting and an ominous crash or two from below, followed by the redhead's announcement that he doesn't know any more sodding flute songs, they jump into the trap door. Upon dragging themselves out of a roomful of burnt salad, they find a room full of keys flying around with one jammed into the lock of another door, and go through the door to find a huge space with a giant chess board covering most of the floor. They see the Charms professor clinging to the back of an immense stone knight and shouting out moves to the other giant pieces, and figure that he's got this one handled, so they creep around the edges and enter another room with potions and a logic test that is right out of the Mensa entrance exam, which the girl has unsurprisingly already taken, and thus they find themselves at the edge of a flaming barrier, which presumably has on its other side the thing they have searched for. As a result of her logic-problem-solving efforts they have a small phial of liquid that will allow one of them to pass through the flames unharmed. They are talking about who gets to go on when the sound of explosions reaches them. The girl realizes they are running out of time. She figures she can talk her way out of anything and that the redhead is a good runner, so she pours the potion down the quiet boy's throat and shoves him through the flames.
The boy is in a large, round stone room. Flames surround its periphery. He can't see any smoke, and the fire has no smell, so it's clearly magical in nature. In the center of the room is a large mirror, about eight feet in height. It has a thick arched wooden frame with rough carving on it – something that someone might think of as dreamy, if his or her only tool to express that had been a blunt chisel. In contrast to that is lettering carved with a certain prissy quality into the top arch of the frame. The boy realizes that it is text that is written backwards, and is something about the mirror showing what one's heart's desire is. He gets a little closer to it and sees something in it that is definitely not just him in a room surrounded in flames. In a moment this image disappears, and to his horror he sees, behind him, the figure of his turbaned dark arts professor approaching through the fire.
So the boy (you're still imagining this, right?) hides behind the mirror. The professor comes into the room. He sees the mirror and curses, with a tone that no student of his has ever heard. The boy cannot see him, but he can hear as the man approaches and stands at the mirror, having what appears to be an argument with himself. After a moment, it subsides, and the man says, "Is this truly what you see, my lord?" The way he says this unnerves the boy, but even more alarming is that there is a reply. A muffled rasp like the sound of tearing fabric.
The professor says, "But we are all dead, pureblood and Mudblood alike – there's only you…"
Another rasp follows this, and the boy can make out the last of it – "distorted… by the stone."
There is a bit of a silence, which is broken only by the buffeting of the flames as someone steps through. The boy can't bring himself to look, but the professor answers his question for him. "Granger! What are you doing here? How did you pass the barrier?"
"The potion phial refills itself when you return it to the table," she says. Her voice is shaking. The boy wants to move but he feels frozen. He's never felt like this in his entire brief life. He is gripped by something other than himself, a vise that surrounds him utterly. He has been afraid before, often several times a day, but it has never been this feeling, that his body would simply not respond. He can't really feel the fear as much as he would expect, but he still cannot stir. Behind the mirror, motionless, he hates himself.
"What do you know of this place?" The professor's voice is harsh.
"Nothing, professor," she says. "I was exploring, my friends – my friend and I…"
She is trying to protect the boy. He can't make himself move and she is trying to protect him. Helpless. He is helpless.
Another billowing sound from the flames, and then shoes on the floor.
"Weasley?" the professor says. There is a pause, and then he says, "What are you doing with this Mudblood?"
"You Weasleys," the professor says, "always have a soft spot for your inferiors. It weakens you, can't you realize that? No matter. Both of you! In front of the mirror, now!"
Dragging footsteps, sharper and more abrasive than before. Closer to the frozen boy. They stop.
"What do you see, Granger?"
"I…I'm older. I'm… Head Girl, no, I'm... My hair…!"
"Enough! Spare me. Weasley! What do you see?"
He is quiet for a moment.
"What d'you want? It's nothing! I'm a Quidditch player, I'm tall, I'm famous. How's that important to anyone? What is this, bleeding career day?"
"What? We're just having a look about. All he can do is give us detention."
"I think you'll find I can do worse than that, Weasley."
The flames rumble once more. Light footsteps sound this time.
"Quirinus!" the Charms professor says. "Thank goodness you're here! Is it safe?"
"For the m-moment," he says.
"Ah, well, then. You see, children? All is well. Shall we be getting you back to your common rooms, then?"
"Professor," the girl says - then pauses. "We're awfully sorry to have caused you so much trouble. We just need to find our friend and we'll be going."
Protecting him again.
"Your friend?" The dark arts professor's voice is unmistakably menacing.
"Oh, yes, of course," the Charms professor says, "where is young Longbottom?"
The sound of the flames.
The dark arts professor's voice is a roar. i"Longbottom!"/i
"Quirinus, is there something…"
The flames billow violently.
"Albus?" the Charms professor says.
"Quite the night for adventures, don't you think, Filius? I believe these two students have had their fill. Perhaps you would be so kind as to accompany them to their common room?"
"Why, yes, certainly, that is, if you're all right, Quirinus?"
"Professor Quirrell and I will see to the… the stone's security. Thank you, Filius. Good evening, Miss Granger, Mister Weasley."
"Professor…" the girl says.
"Quickly, now, before curfew, you wouldn't want to be out overly late -"
"But Professor, it's Neville, he -"
"Now, then, children, go along, Neville will turn up, you know how distrait he can be, surely hiding near the chessboard, now off with you." The boy twists inside, but it sounds like something he would do. The kind of boy who hides when his friends are brave.
Magic discharges and the children are gone through the flames.
"Now then, Quirinus. A curious position we find ourselves in. What could have bought you this far through the gauntlet of protections?"
"Th-th-the ch-ch-children had gotten p-past all of th-the e-e-en- enchantments, p-Professor."
"My goodness, that stutter needs seeing to. One moment it's not there at all and the next you can barely speak. Why don't we just dispense with it altogether?"
The boy finds space in his paralysis to be surprised.
"Albus, you were always so clever," the professor says. "Tell me. You've hidden the stone inside the mirror with a conditional ward, not unlike the Fidelius charm. How can we be sure that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named can not retrieve it?"
"Oh, we can be quite certain. You see, the stone is hidden to all except one who would wish to find it, but not use it. Since Voldemort obviously wants to use it to return himself to life, he can never find it."
"And destroying the mirror?"
"Would merely banish the stone to the nearest active volcano. Quite clever, if I do say so myself."
There is a long, shivering sigh from the younger man. "Then this was all for nothing. Pointless."
"Not entirely, Quirinus. Not entirely."
"All of this…pain. All of the l-lies. The glamours and the…the lack of sleep."
"You will never p-prevail." His words seem to come apart at random, as if stretched too tautly over his mouth. "He can d-d… d-do things you can never i-i-im-m-magine. You cannot…eh, eh… escape him. Except…in one w-way."
The rasp returns. "No, you fool, not now!"
The next sound is feet running, staggering, and a man screaming. A blistering shriek. A rush of air filling the frozen boy's ears. And then, silence. No more flames.
And the voice of his headmaster. "You can come out now, Neville - it's safe."
The boy remembers a moment with his grandmother. She is being told that her son was a hero by the Minister of Magic. She is smiling until she hears the word "was", and then something changes in her face. It is a thing shaped like a smile, but it is no longer a smile. The stiffness of her wrinkled face is what he feels now, as though he is bound by a rictus of false feeling. Like life, but not life. All he wants inside is to die.
The boy struggles to his feet and creeps around the now-empty mirror. The floor is bare but for a pile of ashes, what remains of the dark arts professor.
He looks more pitiful than you would have imagined. You find it hard to believe that he could have made it this far to retrieve the stone.
"Your friends are safe," you say. "It has been, shall we say, a long night. Give me the stone."
The boy's face goes blank.
"Come, now, Neville," you say, "let us draw this evening to a close. Give me the stone and you'll be back in your little bed before you know it."
"But…but I don't…have it," the boy says.
Point of view is important. And the interesting part of telling a story that has been told to you in fragments by many people is that you can choose the angle from which to re-tell the story. One can create a picture by using multiple perspectives. One can even postulate the point of view of a person who is involved but has not given it. Sometimes this last can be useful in getting to a point. So here's my point.
Let's say you're a scheming bastard who runs a school.
Let's say you hear that a dark wizard is trying to return to life, and you hear of an attempt at stealing a stone that would return him to life. So you confer with the fellow who has created the stone, and he suggests that you hide it in a mirror that he has lying around. He even comes up with a spell to use, one that hides the stone from anyone who would want to use it. You think this is wise, because that hides the stone even from its creator, who's a little bit of a wild card given his unique perspective as the oldest living man, and you know he would not want to part with immortality.
You also see this as an opportunity. You have a boy under your supervision, a quiet, shy, unmotivated boy who needs to be brought along and molded to serve a greater purpose. He has managed to find a few sympathetic friends to carry him along, for better or worse. There is a girl who is very book-smart and desperately in need of friends herself, and there is a boy who has an equally desperate need to prove himself. By no accident they are brought together when a troll is allowed to gain entrance to the school and threatens the girl. In defeating the troll they all gain a sense of power when they are together – however false it may be, as they have defeated the troll only by the purest luck in your estimation.
You realize they are now primed for adventuring, and the shy boy is in need of experiences that will mold him in the right way. His grandmother has done a great deal towards this end, continuing the process that the misfortune befalling his parents had begun, but not quite enough. You see that a kind of inverse variant on the hero's quest is in order.
You convince the ancient creator of the stone that it would be safest at your school, and then through various subtle machinations convince the staff to create a series of obstacles that a clever first-year and a chess-player who can ride a broom can overcome. It is your belief that the dark wizard's minion, who knows the significance of the Longbottom boy, will attempt to retrieve the stone and kill the boy, the completion of which you will not allow. You watch as the children discover the cerberus and know it is a matter of time before they investigate further. What you had not expected was that the Granger girl would report you to the board of governors, and that they would summon you at that very moment.
Even though at this point the lives of the children are in danger, you know that since the Longbottom boy will surely creep along at the rear, it is more likely that one of the two more outgoing children would be injured or killed, which, though regrettable, would not sway the outcome of the adventure for the boy and might perhaps enhance its impact upon him. Your original plan was to lead the students through the series of traps, which the other two would unravel in front of the hapless Longbottom, revealing him to himself as useless without help and reinforcing his low self-esteem and his need to rely upon you– so in the interest of carrying this out, weighing it against the alternative, you respond to the board's summons, stun everyone there, and obliviate and confund them before returning to the school, congratulating yourself on the fact that only a wizard of your caliber would be capable of such a thing.
By this point the children have somehow enlisted the help of your Charms professor and arranged for him to bypass the obstacles while they continued to the mirror. True to your expectations, they all reach the mirror at the same time that Quirrell does. When you arrive, the two other children and Flitwick are confronting Quirrell, who is acting somewhat out of character to anyone who didn't know he was in league with Voldemort.
Longbottom is behind the mirror, a victim of the compulsion and mild petrificus charms the mirror had waiting for him, surely filled with self-loathing because he is unable to make himself help his friends. He's already taken the stone from the mirror – you know this because you have just attempted to remove it, with no response from the mirror - and he will keep it until you have dispensed with the minor threat of Quirrell and shown the boy that he is worthless without your training, which will one day make him brave and worthy enough for his friends.
You have Flitwick remove the other children, and then you discover that Quirrell is under the burden of a much darker magic than you expected – but before you can defeat this magic, Quirrell manages to wrest back his self-control and throw himself into the flames in despair. You approach the boy, feeling not altogether unsatisfied at the way things have gone, and ask for the stone. But the boy does not have it.
The reason for this is simple. When you arrived, things were a little chaotic. You didn't think about who was present in the room. Hermione looked into the mirror thinking of the research she might do on the stone to plumb its possibilities. Neville thought of his damaged parents and wondered if they could be healed. Flitwick had no ability not to covet such a profoundly charmed object. And even you yourself, in your heart of hearts, know that if you possessed the stone your great work would continue indefinitely, that the world would receive the benefit of your wisdom and power for an untold age, and that death would not prematurely and uselessly end your service to the greater good. However, there was one person present who had no desire to live forever or heal anyone or research the stone – his only desire was to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
Ron Weasley left the room with the stone in his pocket. He and Hermione waited until Flitwick had left before going up to the owlery. Wrapped in a spare bit of parchment, the Philosopher's Stone was returned to Nicholas Flamel by a brown Hogwarts owl, with a note suggesting that it be hidden somewhere else, perhaps where first-year Hogwarts students wouldn't find it.
Now. Dolores. So things were very tough at the best magic school in Britain at the beginning of Ginny's fourth year there. The government were taking advantage of the large number of missteps that the headmaster had made by publicly questioning his efficacy and also inserting their own representative as an instructor in defending against the dark arts, whatever those might be. The representative was a squat, powdery-smelling woman named Dolores Umbridge.
I can't say she was a sympathetic person in any way. She was at turns saccharine, vituperative, bigoted, narrow-minded, sadistic and cruel, and really just bitchy all round, and loved pink and kittens in a way that only a person with acidic sludge coating their hypothetical soul could. Her office at Hogwarts was regarded with dread by anyone summoned there, not only because of the punishments or fear of them but also because it was decorated in a manner that, had Van Gogh seen it, would have persuaded him to keep the ear and send over the eyes instead.
She made her presence known at Hogwarts (I hate writing that name. I just do.) at the feast that begins every year there, following the inexplicably divisive and pigeon-holing, typecasting, personality-dooming ritual of slapping a leather hat on a child's head and telling them not only what sort of person they are but what sort of person, despite any wishes or efforts on their part, they are likely to be for the rest of their lives, and that they therefore ought to live with a bunch of other people who are the same way rather than… I'm going off on a rant, clearly. It's just that children, all things being equal, are possessed of a very special gift for a very limited time in their lives before they are obliged to conform to their community's will in the interests of survival, and that gift is a blissful lack of self-awareness. Unless a child has a parent or two who may believe it's useful to tell a child what her nature is in very specific terms, she is often left to discover and decide it for herself, and even make changes to it as she wishes. Somehow the idea of shining a brutal light in the eyes of an eleven-year old, scorching her core with it, and then shoving her, still flash-blind, into a group of similarly-branded strangers doesn't seem right for a well-thought-of place of learning. But, shockingly, I digress.
So Dolores had been given the position of Professor of Defense Against The Dark Arts. Her primary objective, to her knowledge, was to de-emphasize the practical nature of the subject and to refute any and all claims that Tom Riddle had returned. Beneath that, of course, were wheels within wheels. Her superior, the then-Minister of Magic, was a blustering career politician whose authority, to his mind, hinged on two things: the perception that under his leadership all was well, and the inability of the people of magical England to unite against him should things turn sour. To these ends he drew from what now appears to have been a time-honored tradition: placate the people with platitudes, loudly declaiming that a problem doesn't exist while sowing fear by the mention of it; reduce the people's ability to think clearly about the subject (using fear), remove their ability to think or act in their own interests (fear again), and convince them that the only way to handle the problem is to sit back and let his government handle it (kind of like Stockholm syndrome in a way). The goal was a cowed populace who lacked skills and education and were thus inclined to go along with whatever he wanted. A really horrible thing to do to people who live all around you, or anywhere, really.
(And it would be fair to say that when I tell this story that sometimes my point of view is that of the original teller, and I say that's not only a blessing and fun but it happens all the time, whether you think about it or not.)
The ironic thing is, people who use fear as a tool to control a populace are usually motivated by it. Fudge (more irony – perfect name, really; strange how magical folks wind up shackled to their names) was internally and externally a small man who felt (secretly, rightly) that he had attained his post by trickery and favors – that he had somehow spent his cleverness and capital to get there, and once at the top of the mountain he could not seem to find his balance without calling for help. In the early days of his Ministry he had consulted with the great "light" wizard of the age, sodding Dumbledore, but the advice that he got was not to his liking because it came with a price – that at every turn, he was made to feel like a clumsy schoolboy before his erstwhile headmaster, which further gnawed at his little round bellyful of doubt. As people who crave reassurance do, he soon found a new source of advice in the form of a malevolently canny political fixer named Lucius Malfoy.
Who, I believe, we have met.
Malfoy was the head of a family that would be generally referred to as aristocratic, which to my mind means money and a superior attitude. The family claimed "pure blood," another way of saying "we all knew each other very, very well," and also a long unbroken line of ancestry into the distant past. It turns out that last wasn't exactly true. The English branch of the family went back a few hundred years, which I would think is not that uncommon for people who live in a country much older than two centuries, but they were an unwilling offshoot of a French family who'd had enough of a certain son's general unpleasantness. (I know this because Bill, who worked at the bank as a cursebreaker, had occasion to read the records collected by the truly ancient and very meticulous race of goblins that ran the place.) Not that you'd ever hear that from the Malfoys, though – to ask them one would think that at the base of the highest, oldest peak in England, there was a cornerstone with their name on it. And there might have been, but it would have been relatively recent and carved by a servant of some kind. The Malfoy family believed in the value of the family brand, the sanctity of "old" money, the bedrock of the class system, and the base inferiority of people who couldn't perform magic.
The first time Tom reared his scaly head, Lucius had been drawn in by his assertion that purity was paramount, that lesser types were leading the magical world to destruction, and that the right order of things called for a certain hierarchy: pure-bloods, then half-bloods for servants or workers, perhaps, and then – as far as non-magicals, those born to them, or magical creatures were concerned – the rest were animals, playthings.
And as I may have touched upon before, the idea of other sentient beings as playthings greatly appealed to Lucius Malfoy.
So he fell in with a man more sociopathic than he, and followed his rise, thrilled at the new sport and the power, and reveled in the destruction and torture, and found an unexpected boon in the promise his leader made of deathlessness for his most faithful of followers. The journey was equal parts agony and pleasure, until the two somehow blended into one sustained rush of momentum that he could not resist – nor did he want to. Murder after murder, torture after torture, every wish he had – granted. Until one awful night, when everything fell apart. His leader, the man who broke him and remade him, was gone.
Once your every wish has been fulfilled, especially if the wishes are dark, upon the cessation of fulfillment you will feel a kind of flatness, the insufficiency of mundane life, and you will find your existence to be without direction. Unsatisfying. Lucius was able to collect himself sufficiently to profess his innocence of his crimes by reason of being cursed to act against his will, and because the nature of the mark Tom placed on his followers was not understood, he was able with the use of part of his fortune to remain a free man. Free from prison, anyway, but not from the great and burning desire to have things as they had been when he was being led by Tom. But he was, as I have indicated, a sociopath of sorts, and was able to conceal these desires from the court that tried him and the officials that he bribed, and was to bribe. He knew the power of fear very intimately and was able to use it to manipulate the weak of mind into thinking that they were following their own wills and not just doing his bidding.
Which returns us to Fudge. Where Dumbledore had failed because he was unable to relate to Fudge in any way that did not first indicate the Minister's inferiority to the grand old man, Lucius succeeded by taking a page from the same book Fudge might have – telling Fudge that power was something he deserved, telling him that surely there could be no threat to his authority, giving him desperately-needed advice on how to carry out his job (so that he never had to actually learn to do it), and giving him enough money and support that Fudge found himself, eventually, utterly beholden to and utterly dependent on Lucius, and yet somehow too egotistical – and ultimately ashamed - to admit it. Lucius' wishes became Fudge's own, because to acknowledge otherwise would be to see his world, attained as an impostor, collapse around him. He would cease to be powerful, and would once again be the hapless schoolboy, stuttering at the feet of those greater than he.
So in the interest of protecting his pink and quivering newborn mouse of a heart, Fudge ordered Dolores to reduce the teaching of Defense to a theoretical exercise, thus staving off a future generation of people able to feel their own strength – for, being a magical human, he was prone to long life, and he was willing to invest in the future – and whispers of the return of a dark lord would really only serve him, if the populace really had something to fear, if they were unable to defend themselves.
Dolores began her task with a strong statement of purpose at the school feast that night. Her assertion that the Ministry wanted to take a firm hand in the "right-thinking" education of its populace was not well received by most of the students and faculty present. Naturally they felt that this outside influence could not be a good thing. They were further convinced of this when, in the first class Dolores taught, she instructed them to put their wands away, as they wouldn't be needing them for the course. Hermione and Ron's objections led to a very rare show of temper from Dolores, who shrilly informed the class that any assertions that the public were in any danger were lies and would not be tolerated. She went on to ask the class what someone who tried to make them fearful would have to gain by telling such lies. Unfortunately a majority of the class, unaware of the truth behind many of the events at the school, were looking at the two Gryffindors and began asking themselves the question offered. As people often do, they ate what was set before them.
At this point it should be noted that there was a confluence of events created by the different factions here that influenced the moment. One was the utter deviousness of Dolores, Fudge, and Malfoy, who were accusing their opponents of the strategy they themselves were using. The other was a hubris-fuelled pretense, a covetousness of the truth and the belief that none other was equipped to handle it, perpetrated by sodding Dumbledore himself, who had decided that the student body were capable of hearing him say that Voldemort had returned but were not ready to hear any useful details to make sense of it with.
So plenty of blame, all round.
The few who spoke up were punished, but this made a few people come to their senses a little – or at least shift a little of their suspicion-driven ire from Hermione and Ron and subsequently Neville (who had quietly objected to the treatment of his classmates). Small comfort. The three students found themselves, one after the other, seated alone with Dolores in her otherwise empty classroom. To walk into the normally crowded Defense classroom, usually full of desks and apparatus, and find the room bare but for one student's desk and chair and one hideous Queen Anne wingback on a low platform is a little disquieting. The first thing you think is, what animal spirit-guide of bad taste did someone get to stand still so they could eviscerate it and the goo could splatter onto the chair in just that fashion? The second thing would be, how creepy is it that she put her chair on a platform?
Subsequent thoughts would include, "I must not tell li- OW!" – because Dolores had decided that, in order to more clearly etch her point into the consciousness of each pupil, she would use a very illegal artifact known as a blood quill. The principle behind one is simple, and was put into practice originally to sign binding agreements. The holder attempts to write something on a piece of parchment without ink. The pen draws blood from the hand of the writer to substitute for ink. In doing so, a cut in the shape of the words written appears on the writer's hand, leaving no doubt in his or her mind what has just been agreed to. The thing is, it's very painful, and also it leaves a scar after repeated usage. A more or less permanent one, barring a lot of magic or more extreme measures. Not what any reasonable person would inflict upon, say, a teenager. What can you imagine that would be so important for the teenager to remember every time he or she looks down while cutting a steak or tying a shoelace or one day patting the cheek of a child?
"I must not tell lies."
Well, we all tell lies. For example, Dolores lied when she told Fudge that she had experience teaching children. She didn't. But it was a lie that shaped a situation and got her what she wanted, which was a position of power from which she could exact revenge. More on that later. Some people believe that their lies are acceptable because they achieve certain results, whereas the lies of others are immoral, regardless of the result. This makes me wonder at their ability to empathize with their fellow beings, but again, I digress.
The three children made a pact. To complain about their treatment was to let the horrible woman win. For Hermione this had been a tough sell. Her first impulse had been to go straight to a teacher, McGonagall perhaps, but Ron's adamancy, his seriousness about keeping stoic, surprised her. She realized that there were things about him that she didn't know, and found herself wanting very much to respect his wishes. Neville was quite used to suffering in silence, as he was training regularly with Dumbledore and Snape, and one more bit of pain wouldn't push him over the edge. In any event, the children decided to start up a secret dueling association to pick up the slack in their education. Hermione researched spells (many of which Neville already knew, but he remained quiet in his way, because it meant so much to the girl), and they drilled themselves and other students in a room that they'd discovered quite by accident one night when Hermione had taken to pacing in an empty hall and obsessing about their need for a hidden, secure place to practice.
Now, where was Ginny during all this? Oh, she wouldn't have missed it. She was there. Only, no one knew about it at first. The reason for this was that my father did her a kindness. He'd known that she was scared at the beginning of her second year, had known that she was dreading school and having to face all of the people there, even though she had not been herself when all of the bad things had happened before, so he lent her a family heirloom to help out with that, a cloak that made the wearer invisible. So she shadowed the three older students, learned the spells, and practiced them on her own, just as she had with a broom, until she felt that she was as capable as any other student. She appeared at one of their meetings one day, demanding to be included in their group. Ron frowned but folded his arms and said nothing, and Neville nodded his head gravely. The only one of the three to have anything to say about it was Hermione, who said that she was already too far behind to catch up and might hold the class back.
The next thing that she had to say was "whulf," as she was set upon her backside by the spell she'd taught the group at the last meeting. She was not one to frown on ability and enthusiasm, though she did mutter about being caught off-guard as she was being helped to her feet. Ron spoke softly to Hermione, but just loudly enough for Ginny to hear, saying that they always needed to be ready, that you never knew when you would have to defend yourself because an enemy wasn't always going to announce themselves, were they, and that it was probably a good lesson for everyone there. This last was something that Lily Potter had said on more than one occasion when they were smaller, when one of the younger ones had some kind of mishap, to sort of bring all them together and spread out the burden of the mistake, so to speak, and it was a small thing, but something that helped to keep them all close, and when Ginny heard those words coming from Ron she felt something inside that was hard to put words to, but it was a good feeling, and not the fight she'd expected. When the meeting was over, she went to Ron to talk to him about it, faintly sour words about not-just-tagging-along in her mind, but he seemed reluctant to dwell on it. He was still an awkward boy at this stage, but he managed to talk a little with his sister, though there were a lot more shrugs than strictly necessary. He said that he felt like he was supposed to look after her, but he couldn't always do it, and she was too sneaky to keep track of all the time anyway, and it was good for her to be able to defend herself; and she was already pretty good, though maybe not as good as he. She poked him in the arm and they didn't talk about it again.
So in the interest of clamping down on the school and furthering the Fudge agenda, Dolores had begun instituting a series of edicts from the Ministry. The curious thing about them was that they related to issues that she was having with the school and the students on a daily basis. She wanted to replace a few of the professors – most notably Trelawney but also Rubeus Hagrid, the gamekeeper and Magical Creatures instructor – and a new decree appeared, as if by magic, making it possible for her to do so. Unfortunately for her, it was worded so that the headmaster had to be unable to find a replacement before she could do as she wished, but this was, she felt, a minor setback. She merely did what all bureaucrats did in this situation: she had more decrees issued. Student groups were limited to only those approved of by her; punishments and removal from the school were at her discretion; teachers were forbidden to speak to students about anything other than the subjects they taught; Luna's father's newspaper, which was critical of her administration and hinted at Tom's return, was banned in the school. Ginny virtually lived in detention with Rubeus (though she loved the large man and got assigned to him only because she acted as though she was afraid of him) because she kept asking "undesirable" questions in Dolores' class. Every decree the woman issued gave her a little thrill, as evidenced by a small twitch on her lips that she got whenever she announced a new one to a group of now-cowed and timorous students. Her chin would be lifted slightly, her hairdo appearing autocratic in its utter motionlessness, and pervading all in her proximity a scent of powder along with flowers that one might suspect were smashed and ground perhaps unnecessarily harshly.
Well, other things were afoot, and I don't want to over-complicate this story - your writer says about ninety thousand words too late - so let us just say that throughout the school year things had gotten considerably harder for most of the students of the school. Dolores had collected a group of the more aggressively asinine children of Ministry supporters and made them her little deputies, to assist in the carrying out of the various decrees. Let it not be said that they were all little bastards, but rather that in a dictatorship, people will often scrabble amongst themselves for whatever power they can get, and it's better to be at the top of a pile of dung than buried somewhere towards the bottom. So after Dolores had managed to get Dumbledore out of the school, some of her misguided mini-thugs stumbled upon the dueling club and brought it to her attention. She was able to apprehend them all at exactly the worst possible time, for reasons I may yet get to, and had the obvious leaders of the group dragged up to her hideous office for a bit of interrogation, and perhaps coercion via exposure to copious amounts of chintz and kitten paraphernalia. And failing that, truth serum and torture.
Hermione was a good girl, really. She had always been one to follow the rules, not just because she was a good girl, but because she loved knowing what she was supposed to do and doing it. This was very satisfying to her. The most difficult learning experience in her life thus far, then, had been discovering that the Ministry that ran her world was not looking out for her, not acting in her best interests but rather its own. The idea had been that if she worked hard and did what was expected of her (and a bit more), she would be rewarded with good grades, success in her career, and security. This scenario was currently being drowned face-first in a dirty toilet. The Ministry had sent this woman here, knowing what she was, and given her every tool she wanted to dominate the school, turning a blind eye to the use of forbidden magical artifacts on students. And now here she was, eyes a little too wide, words clipped too short as if she were trying to keep something from escaping her mouth, ranting and riding a crescendo towards what peak Hermione could only dread. She realized that this had gone well out of her control, or revealed that she had been foolish to think she had ever been in control of anything, and that maybe she wasn't so clever after all if she couldn't see this coming, but who could? Trapped here in this kitschy nightmare, the powder smell pressing into her nostrils, far from anything familiar, far from her dull parents and their mundane nights after work and their paltry understanding of who their daughter was and what the world was really like...
Into the face of this terrified girl Dolores hissed her bile-soaked anger. She hated children. All of them. They should not be allowed to think, or speak. They were hateful, vicious liars, and they must be corrected. They must be cleansed.
Those words frightened Hermione into action. She began to cry, and told Dolores that they had been sneaking out of the school at night to work in the forest with Dumbledore on a weapon to be used against Fudge. Dolores slapped Hermione's face hard enough to leave a mark and instructed her and Neville and Ron to take her to the weapon.
Well, I like Hermione a lot. She thought very quickly in a horrible situation and figured out a possible solution to the problem. Go to the Forbidden Forest, hang about where Rubeus' giant brother was known to be, and get him to help them. Surely he wouldn't have any problem with Dolores.
Grawp took one whiff of Dolores and promptly backed away.
Right into a herd of centaurs who had come to investigate what all the noise was about.
Dolores at this point made a bit of a tactical error. She assumed that her petty authority, granted to her by the only person she could imagine to actually have any, would carry over into the darkened woodlands as well. But alas, as a sodding asshole I know would say of her authority, its jaundiced and intermittent light could not loft its beam that far into the forest primeval. In return for her harsh words of superiority over those possessed of rational thought set upon broad uncloven hoof, she was taken up into rough and well-muscled arms and spirited off for an evening of what they considered justice, or at least entertainment.
A while after she was found staggering out of the woods and brought to the infirmary, she came back to herself, violently resisted all attempts to examine her and, with the use of a few spells that were clearly what one might call dark, managed to wound and incapacitate Poppy Pomfrey and escape the school grounds, leaving behind a different smell than her usual one of crushed vague and insipid flora - a scent of decay.
She faded into slight obscurity at that point, refusing to return to work presumably because those reporting Tom's return had been vindicated. After a particularly long absence, a not entirely unsympathetic co-worker decided to floo to her house and try to convince her to return to the office, to do what was possible – make amends, defend herself, anything, but to do something – and found herself stepping out of the fireplace into a silent parlour, painstakingly ordered but with a faint layer of dust on every surface. She wandered through the house calling out, but received no reply. She was about to leave when, in an upstairs corridor, she became aware, underneath the must of disuse and the faint powdered flower smell, of a rotten odor which she followed to a tensely pink bathroom, in which she found the remains of Dolores Umbridge, half-submerged and almost unrecognizable, in a large white claw-footed bathtub.
When Aurors were summoned and investigated, they found no traces of foul play, and the death was ruled natural by way of a massive infection from a large wound found on her stomach. Examination would reveal that the wound was years, perhaps decades, old and showed signs of repeated amateur treatments, necrosis in the tissue, and the remnants of liquids that must have oozed almost constantly from it. It was shown that the wound would certainly have caused her great pain and would have been extremely difficult to keep clean. It was impossible to determine what might have caused this wound and speculation was pointless as to why she had not sought treatment for it and instead kept it a secret for many years.
But it explained the strong scent of powder and flowers.
What is it like? To have a façade of order that covers a wound as wild as a thicket of briar; to espouse purity with a relief map of corruption on one's belly? What story makes sense of a wound that one must keep secret and suffer with, and how does it connect with the story of a woman obsessed with forcing children to believe that they should not defend themselves and that all intelligent beings that are not human are but savage animals, to be dominated and destroyed at will?
I've mentioned that I find it odd how many people in magical society are driven by their names – that is to say, it's as if a geis is placed upon the shoulders of the infant, leading them inexorably toward some destiny. It's not clear to me who would want this for their child, as so many of these names bespeak unhappiness of one kind or another – but this woman, I think, is a victim of the same curse, but perhaps not in the obvious way. It's easy to think of her surname and imagine she would end up an argumentative or offensive person, and in point of fact she was, but when I heard her entire story I couldn't help but think of her secret, and the wretched nature of her inner life and the tragic things that made her who she was; and the feelings I have are not all of distaste, or loathing, but are somewhat sad.
Bill says that this story is better when someone tells it about me than when I tell it about myself. I'm not sure I know why that is. He says that I spend too much time talking about how other things looked or smelled and not enough time talking about what was said. For some reason he thinks that it's enough to just recall the conversation, and that somebody else should be doing it. And maybe he's right.
However. Sometimes he will have to just kiss my arse. So it's daylight in Surrey, daylight all round. It has just rained. The streets of Little Whinging are shining with water. Even as a formless observer, your cheeks would be sore from the glare. Once your hypothetical eyes acclimate, the sun sharpens all edges through the clear afternoon air. The sky is the sharp blue of renewal. The heavy gray clouds are pushed back towards the horizon like autumn leaves raked in haste. A series of boxy, top-heavy cars is beaded with moisture in a succession of glistening, spotless driveways that recedes around a gentle curve in the road. Given the uniformity of the houses, it's easy to imagine them going on forever. A young man is standing halfway up a concrete walkway leading to one of the houses. He's been dropped here for a few moments while his mother goes down the street to speak to a friend of hers, a woman with no magic.
In front of him is a thin woman with hair the color of drought-parched hay. The collar of her single-buttoned gray sweater seems to give the impression of containing something within her, and this impression is occasionally supported by what appears to be the faintest of tremors in her hand when it worries the button.
Speech bursts from her like the lurch of brakes on an old bicycle. "Have you found the lord?" she says.
The young man, who we'll call D, is taken a little aback.
"We're not looking for him right now," he says. After a moment of trying to figure out how to ask, and not understanding her expression, he says, "Are you... looking for him?"
"I've already found him," she says, with a smile he can't read. "I am his humble servant."
D is surprised she is saying this openly. He says, "Er, why? I thought you couldn't do magic."
Her smile falters, but remains. "He accepts everyone," she says.
D finds his eyebrows rising. "But he thinks his kind of people are better than other people."
She says, "All people are the same in his eyes."
D imagines a bulwark of anonymous bones, and finds he agrees.
"But all of the pain and suffering he causes…"
"That is simply how life is," she says, as if speaking to a child. "By passing through suffering we reach the path to eternal glory."
D is at a loss.
"In any event, surely our suffering cannot compare to his," she says, leaning forward slightly and lowering her voice. "After all, he died for you."
That makes no sense to him. "He didn't die for me, and anyway, he came back."
"At least you don't deny that fact," she says. "That's the first step."
He says, "I have to fight him and people who follow him all the time now – how could I deny it?"
"Yes, it seems like such a struggle, doesn't it?" she says. "You fight it night and day, until you reach a point where he simply cannot be denied anymore. And in the end," she says, leaning back again with something that looks like satisfaction, "you realize that it's much easier to simply… accept him."
D is beyond being at sea. What random thoughts he is trying to assemble are about to be utterly dispelled.
"He has a plan for you, you know," she says.
That is quite unnerving.
"How… do you know that?"
"It's written in the words of the Prophets."
D wonders if his mother has told anyone else besides the family, and also wonders if maybe everybody knows. But this is all a bit much. What's wrong with this woman, anyway? Is she a glutton for punishment?
"Listen," he says, "this lord of yours only accepts people who are pure in his eyes, and everyone else can go to hell."
"People need to learn their lessons and find their places in this life," she says, a little strained, "and that's what your free will is for. But regardless, young man, you will join with the lord eventually, because of the one great shining truth that you will learn for yourself."
"Um… and what might that be?"
She gets her smile back. It's not right. It just looks like one. She leans back in, and half whispers.
"He's already with you. Inside. He always has been."
D's hand goes to his forehead. He is absolutely rattled by this. It's something he has suspected for a while, but to hear it said, and by this woman…and she is without a doubt wrong in the head, and he says so. "You're touched, lady." She nods. He tries again. "Listen, maybe this wasn't explained to you properly at the meetings. He believes that you are created in an inferior way. You're iflawed/i."
She nods again. D shakes his head in frustration and says, "No matter what he or anyone else tells you, because of this supposed flaw in your nature, you're going to end up in flames if he has his way, just like everyone else."
The rictus goes away.
"Lily's son!" she says. "Through and through."
She turns abruptly and totters like a wind-up toy through her front door. It closes rapidly. D hears the sound of more latches than are strictly necessary. He stands still and hears his own breathing, but has to think for a moment to figure out what it means. His thoughts are interrupted by the footsteps of his mother returning.
"What on earth was that?" she says, shifting the baby in his sling. "What were you talking about?"
"Voldemort," D says, and hears it echoed off of the faces of the uniform houses.
"I didn't know she even knew the name," she says. "Honestly, I'm surprised she's not going on about Jesus or something."
"Yeah," D says. "I'm sorry, who?"
Give me a minute.
It's been a ridiculously long time. I can plead "baby", and I can plead "busy", and I can plead "I got some very good advice from someone that as it turns out I am unable to follow", but in the end it just took refocusing my thoughts here. There are scenes I have written already I can't wait to submit, and there's a good bit more story to tell. As far as this chapter goes, I was considering just putting it out as a separate entity, in the same universe and serving as a bit of background, but in the end I couldn't stop thinking of it as a way that D avoids remembering some things, and liked him doing it for an entire chapter. Thanks to m. and S., known in that order for obvious reasons, for reading through it. Thanks to F. L.-F., for being a better reader than I am a writer. Thanks to J. and j. for delighting me. And for those of you who waited patiently or otherwise, thank you very, very much for reading.