The Portrait

Ginny stood between Ron and Hermione in front of the fireplace in the Gryffindor common room, looking up at two picture frames that had just been hung over the mantel. The one on the right held the painting of an empty chair. The one on the left held the painting of an old man in red and gold robes sitting in an identical chair. His eyes were closed, his head bowed. Ginny, her red hair streaked with silver, wept as she gazed at the portrait, as did Hermione, whose bushy hair had long ago gone gray. Ron's hair was also streaked with silver, and he turned his head to hide his own tears.

There was movement in the left–hand frame, and Professor Dumbledore walked into it; he put his hand on the back of the chair and gazed sadly at Ginny. "I'm so sorry," he said to her. "I'll look after him."

Ginny nodded, unable to speak. She turned away, and Ron and Hermione came after her. They took her arms as she slowly walked to the portrait hole. The man in the chair did not open his eyes or raise his head.

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He remembered someplace that had been different, someplace that was not dark, and perhaps that place was where he could find what was missing. Why was it so dark here? He opened his eyes, but he was not sure at first if they were open, since it did not look very different from when his eyes were closed. Even though it was gray, not black, there wasn't anything in the grayness, just like there wasn't anything in the darkness. What he saw was a dim fog that swirled and flowed. There was nothing distinct in the fog, only waves and eddies of colorless gray. He waited.

Time passed, and then shapes emerged. The shapes were black and shadowy, but they were not the same as the black that had been before he opened his eyes. That black was formless, these were light–less objects that had form, and they moved. Their movements were indistinct and did not seem to have purpose, although their positions changed. But they were not the missing thing.

The shapes and their motions and the swirling fog wearied him; he was so, so tired. He closed his eyes.

He did not know how much time had passed when he opened his eyes again, but at first nothing seemed different. It gave him satisfaction that he had opened his eyes without having to think about it, unlike the first time, if that indeed had been the first time. He couldn't remember anything before that first perception of darkness — of nothingness, actually — so, yes, that must have been the first time he had opened his eyes. And as he peered into the gray fog, his satisfaction grew, because the shapes that moved and changed were now more distinct. They had wavering bodies and heads and limbs that faded in and out of the fog. The limbs — arms and legs — appeared to float away into the fog and reappear as though swimming back to a body. The movements now seemed to have purpose. The shapes moved from place to place, then back again. Some disappeared into the distance and were lost in the misty gloom, but then others — or maybe the same ones — appeared in their place.

He grew weary again, and closed his eyes, but now he knew that when he opened them he would see more shapes and more details, so now he was not afraid to close them. But something was still missing and he wasn't sure whether it was out there in the fog or nearer to him. Maybe when he looked again it would be there.

He opened his eyes expectantly, hoping to see... what? The "something" that was missing? Or just a clear view of the world in front of him? Another indeterminate length of time had passed, but there was, again, only blurry grayness. There were no shapes in view, and the fog was gloomier, as though darkness was entwined with the tendrils of mist. Nothing moved. He still yearned for the missing something. He was sure he would find it, if not now then sometime, because he now realized he had time to look for it. So he waited.

The fog became lighter, the blackness pulled away. Something light, bright, came from one side of the space in front of him. It lit up the world and soon he saw shapes once again. These shapes did not move, though. There were several of them directly before him, broad, squarish, low blocks of... something. The low blocks seemed familiar, something he was sure he had known about in the past. The past... yes, there was a time before this fog with its lights and shadows, its figures with limbs and its squarish forms. That time was the past. Where he was now was the present; he could not recall details of the past. Something was missing.

A figure moved in front of him. He was seeing very clearly now, at least compared to what he had been able to see before. This figure was tall, with arms, legs, and a head. The face was unclear, in fact it was flat, blank, slate–like, featureless. But this was good; this was even exciting. He knew that there should be details where there was only a blob. More and more of the world before him was emerging, even if he couldn't quite see all of it yet.

The shape approached and stood right in front of him. He was sure that if the face had details he would be looking into the eyes of a person, maybe even someone he knew. The shape's arms reached up, one to either side of him. He suddenly swayed to one side, as though the world had tilted. It tilted back and he lurched the other way. Finally the world leveled, and he steadied himself. The shape stepped back and stood still for a moment, looking at him — he was positive the eyes were looking at him. He reached out his arm.

The person turned its head, and suddenly more people were standing there. He lifted his arm again. An arm emerged from the side of the first figure, and it lifted in response. The new figures stood for a moment, then left. The first remained for a long time before it too moved away.

He wished the person would come back. He wanted someone to be there looking at him and returning his gesture. He wanted... but what he really wanted was missing, it was not the person who had just disappeared, it was a yearning for... He wasn't sure what.

He was exhausted, not physically but from the renewed longing for the missing thing, and from his striving for it to no avail. It had completely drained him. He closed his eyes.

His eyes opened and he felt well–rested. In fact, he felt stronger than he had at any time since he had come to this place, or this place had come to him — however it had happened. For the first time he looked around, not just in front into the gray, foggy space, but to his sides.

Off to the right was a long corridor. It was dim, not foggy or dark, just poorly lit, and he couldn't tell where the light was coming from that partly illuminated it. The corridor stretched far away and there did not seem to be any end to it. To his left there was not a corridor but a rectangular opening and another space beyond. That space was different from the space in front and from the corridor on the other side. Intrigued, he decided to go there. Maybe he would find what was missing.

He did not know how to do it, how to "go" there. He knew he wanted to get from here to there, but how? It was not so far, just an arm's length to the opening. He looked down at his arm, and saw for the first time that it was resting on a carved piece of wood, and as he followed it with his eyes he saw where the wood joined an upright board that was also carved and padded with something soft. He looked at his other arm, the one nearer the long dim corridor, and saw another identically carved wooden armrest. He leaned back against the padded board. He was sitting in a chair.

This discovery enchanted him. There was something else here — wherever here was — besides himself. Now he could feel the seat underneath him and the backrest behind him. He moved his hands along the arms of the chair, feeling the texture of the wood and the curves of the carving. He pushed against the arms and felt himself rise. He stood up.

His perspective on the space in front changed. He could see farther into it, and could also look down to what was immediately below. But although the space now appeared broader, he could still see no details through the fog. There were more shapes visible beyond the boxy forms nearby, and they appeared to be similar. When he leaned forward, he discovered that right in front the fog was thinner, and he could see a pattern on... on the floor? The pattern on the floor was of repeating rectangles. The rectangles were not another shade of gray, but had overtones of something else, a color.

That was all very interesting, but what he really wanted to learn about were the long corridor and the opening to the other side. He moved toward the opening, but as he did, he noticed the sound. It came from the space in front, and he turned back to it. The shapes, the people, were there, and sounds came from them. Voices. Many people were now standing in front of him, close by, a wall of heads with no faces, only voices. It was grotesque, and he turned away.

He peered into the rectangular opening that was on the left of his chair. He saw a small chamber, but it was hard to tell anything else about it. It was filled with fog, illuminated by a pale, weak light that came from the same direction as the opening in front of his chair. It probably looked out into the same dreary world of faceless people. He had no interest in seeing that, but there was something else in the chamber, fairly close to where he was standing in the rectangular opening. Through the fog, which was very dense, he could see that it was a chair, and it looked, as best as he could tell, like the one he sat in.

This was also uninteresting; he was looking for something... different... something that was missing... but the little room with its identical chair was just like his room. He turned away and went to the opening to the long corridor and passed into it.

He drifted past walls in shades of gray, through shadowy fogs. Openings appeared on either side, and also above and below, but he somehow passed over those without difficulty. The openings led into chambers that were like his own. Through them shone brighter patches of gray with vague movement and activity and hazy shapes. Sometimes there was a more distinct brightness showing through the opening, and at those places, sound — sharp but incomprehensible — came to him. He sensed that someone or something was speaking. He encountered these sounds several times, and he tried to understand them — maybe they would tell him where to find the missing thing — but never could. The noises would continue for a few moments and then stop, and then there would only be silence, filled with his own disappointed hope. He did not know what to do about it, so he drifted on in the silence, until he passed another chamber and heard more sounds.

It was impossible to tell how long he floated through the corridor, or how far. There were no events, nothing to mark one place from another or one moment from the next, and the chambers just repeated themselves. The sounds and shadows blended into one gray, monotonous, never–changing, never–ending sameness. He stopped. What did it matter whether he moved or stayed still, kept his eyes open or closed? He did not want this anymore. There was something missing, and without it this was all pointless and meaningless, a monotony that would never end. He closed his eyes and floated in a sea of emptiness.

A very long time passed, during which he felt no desire to move or to look or to listen. Then something intruded, and he reluctantly opened his eyes. A distant point of light, far down the corridor in the direction he had come from, was approaching. It was white, and did not move steadily but had small sideways and up and down motions. It grew and became the figure of a person. The shining figure drew nearer, and a head and body, then a face, emerged from the bright light. The body was wreathed in billowing dark blue robes that were covered with stars. The face was bearded and the mouth and blue eyes were smiling as if welcoming him. The eyes peered over half–moon glasses. The face was lined and wrinkled, but did not look old or worn, just used, as though countless emotions had played on it for a very long time.

The figure stopped in front of him and reached a hand toward him.

"Harry," the man said, "how are you?"

Harry was not surprised to hear his name. It had been there all along, he realized, he just had not known it was there, just as if he might not have been aware of his hand until it had touched something. It had not been missing, just overlooked.

"I'm becoming lost," he said, and his voice did startle him. It sounded a little quavery, not what he expected: something younger and more vigorous. Of course, he had not had anyone to talk to since he had first opened his eyes, and since he had no idea how long ago that was, maybe he was just out of practice. Then again, maybe he was old.

"Yes, I know." The man's smile broadened, and he seemed to understand that Harry did not mean that he had lost his way physically. He took Harry's hand. "Come, let's take you back to your portrait. I'll show you the way." He started to pull Harry gently along the corridor. "It's confusing at first."

"Something's missing," Harry said, and looked around at the featureless corridor.

"I'm sure you'll find it," the man replied. He continued to smile.

Harry let himself be led along. They passed corridors and openings and passages that he had not seen before; it became bewildering, and finally he simply closed his eyes and trusted that his companion knew the way and would lead him to the familiarity of his chair. After he closed his eyes he was aware only of the touch of the man's hand on his. The sensation was warm. The warmth crept to his wrist and then to his forearm and then to his elbow. It contrasted with the cold parts that the warmth came up against, then overlapped and pushed away. The rest of him was still cold, a feeling he had not noticed before because he had nothing to compare it with; now it contrasted with warmness. The cold was blue, the warmth a deep, rich, comforting red. Harry did not know where the colors came from, or why, in this world of black and gray, he had thought of them.

He drifted along with the shining man, and the comforting warmth continued to rise up his arm. They stopped. Harry opened his eyes and found himself in a small room, and recognized his chair. He glanced to his left into the small, foggy chamber next to his and saw the same chair sitting empty where he had discovered it. He peered at his smiling guide and the man led him around his own chair and sat him down.

"Here you are, Harry." His voice was serene, matching his creased face. "If you get lost again, I'll find you and get you back home. Why don't you rest now?"

Harry's eyes were already shut. His head dropped; he began breathing deeply, and for the first time since he had opened his eyes so long ago, he slept. The man put his hand on Harry's shoulder and squeezed it gently. "Sleep well, my old friend," he said, and walked away down the long corridor.

Harry took many more long walks. He drifted through countless corridors and passageways, and he often heard voices and now he recognized his name being called as he passed some of the bright openings. Ever since he had met the shining man and had found his name, he was noticing more and more details of his surroundings. The corridors led past chambers, most of which had chairs in them, but some had other strange objects that he couldn't identify or were blurry to his sight. Usually there were people in the chambers, and those were the ones who called his name. Sometimes he stopped and peered into the rooms and through them into the foggy openings beyond. At first he was curious to see what was there, but all he ever saw was the same fog he saw in front of his own chair, and soon he stopped looking.

He was also aware of being cold now. Whenever he woke up he was cold, and he never felt warm until the shining man found him again in some desolate passage and took his hand. Then the warmth began advancing up his arm from where their skin touched, but it lasted only as long as they were in contact. As soon as Harry was sitting in his chair again and they broke contact, the warmness retreated and the cold returned.

He never stayed still in any one place in his wanderings. At first there was an unsettling restlessness inside him that urged him to keep drifting, keep looking for the missing... he still didn't know what was missing. But as time passed without his finding it, and as his ability to see more details of this world increased, he found that it was becoming harder and harder to wake up and open his eyes and go wandering again. The new details simply showed the same things, over and over: corridors, rooms, chairs, the same people calling his name, the same foggy spaces. Why bother? What was the point?

Once, something different happened. The shining figure had found him floating motionless in a corridor and had led him back, once again, to his own chamber and his own chair — his "home," as the kindly man called it — and the man had paused briefly and peered into the adjoining chamber, and had muttered something unintelligible. He had gazed at Harry with a strange look that was both sad and hopeful. But this was notable only because what always happened — except this time — was nothing. He had sat Harry down in his chair again and Harry had slept.

But when he awoke afterwards, he did not open his eyes. He had finally lost all desire to get up and go drifting away again. He was now hoping that his existence would end if he stopped all action, all perception. He felt finished, over with. He did not want to open his eyes again, or go wandering down the endless corridors again, or see the emptiness of this world that he existed in, where there was only gray nothingness and shadows without substance, and no future, just an empty present that went on into eternity. The missing thing, if it had ever existed, was gone forever. He decided to remain in his chair, and maybe he would stop being aware of his surroundings and of himself. He would blend into this forlorn universe and become part of the void, and his existence would end. It would be a relief.

He heard a low buzzing sound, and he involuntarily opened his eyes. A large number of the faceless ones were talking and moving about in the background of the space in front, and others were standing motionless between them and himself. Then he became aware of a change. There was light to his left, a different kind of light than the shades of gray that were all he had seen anywhere. He turned his head.

A cascade of color was coming from the adjacent chamber: golds and reds and browns and yellows and shades of white. He blinked and stood, and moved to the opening. As he came through it he was bedazzled by the flood of brilliant light and stunning colors that surrounded him. He stopped as though striking a wall and put his hands over his eyes, the light was almost painful. He saw his pink palms, and after a moment, when his eyesight had adjusted, he put his hands down but stopped and looked at his fingers. They were also pink, and on the fourth finger of his left hand was a gold ring. Where had it come from? Had it been there all this time without his noticing it?

He put his hand down, and in front of him was the chair and in it sat a woman. Her head was bowed and her eyes were closed; she was sleeping. Her hair was red with streaks of silver. She was wearing rich, warmly red robes trimmed in gold, and when Harry glanced down he saw that his own robes were the same. On the woman's left hand, which was resting on the arm of her chair, she wore a gold ring, identical to his.

There was movement to his right, and he turned and looked out of the portrait into the Gryffindor common room, its circular walls lined with other portraits, some of whose occupants smiled and waved. Battered old wooden tables and well–worn overstuffed chairs and sofas filled the room, and dozens of people stood and watched him.

He moved in front of the woman in the chair and stared at her as tears filled his eyes. He fell to his knees and put his head in her lap. The students in the common room, some of whom had been whispering to each other and pointing at him, grew silent and still. Several moments passed but Harry was aware only of the softness of the robes and of the legs beneath them; he slowly ran his hands along her robes, feeling the solidity of the bone and the soft curves of the flesh. The touch warmed his whole body.

A hand stroked his hair and he raised his head. The woman's eyes were open. "It will never lay flat," she whispered as she patted the hair at the back of his head. She bent down and kissed his brow.

"Ginny," he said through his tears.

She brought her face close to his and their eyes poured into each other. Minutes passed. She glanced over his head at the students now gathered in front of four large easy chairs; they were gazing up at the portrait with smiles on their faces. "Oh, look," she exclaimed, "our great–grandchildren!" Harry glanced back and saw six boys and four girls looking up at them; behind was a large crowd of young people, all watching. The ten in front were holding hands or had their arms around each other. Some of them were crying.

Harry smiled, and after a moment he looked back at Ginny. He stood and took her hands and she rose out of the chair. "You are more beautiful than ever," he whispered.

"I missed you so," she said, and suddenly, in a flash, Harry understood.

"Yes, I know you did." He brushed her hair with his hand and caressed her face. "That was all I knew. Come, there are places we can be alone." He turned to their great–grandchildren, who were watching raptly. "We'll be back later," he said to them.

Together they walked out of Ginny's portrait, through Harry's, and disappeared past the edge of his frame. The students in the common room went back to their books and their parchments. The sun poured in through the windows and shone on the two empty picture frames over the fireplace.

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