A Tale of Roses
by Lady Memory
How does it feel to be missed?
Disclaimer: This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling, who created and, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and settings elaborated herein.
All my gratitude to my fantastic previewer and beta Duj. Many thanks to all my kind readers and reviewers.
Dedication: To Tearsofphoenix, an excellent teacher, a captivating author and, above all, a dearest friend.
- Part 2 -
"Mum… Mum!" Rose gently shook her mother's shoulder. "MUM!"
Finally, the old woman opened her eyes and looked around hazily.
"Rose?" she quavered.
"Merlin's beard, Mum, you frightened me!" Rose's shock had been great and demanded compensation. "This is the last time I indulge your whim! See how tired you look! We are going to St. Mungo's immediately now, and I don't want to hear another word from you anymore!" she scolded her mother in a bizarre exchange of roles.
"Rose!" her mother replied sharply. "I'm perfectly well, don't you see? I was only…" She glanced around. "Oh dear, did I fall asleep? Where is Professor Snape?"
"Mum!" Rose sighed, convinced of her mother's mental confusion. "What are you saying? Professor Snape here? Let's go to St. Mungo's and see the Healer."
But Hermione was too worried to listen.
"Rose!" she demanded. "Didn't you meet a… a man, more or less your age, dressed in dark clothes?"
"A man?" Rose replied, gathering the bag she had dropped on the grass in those first terrifying moments. "Mum, you were sleeping." She shook her head. "You've been dreaming."
"I was speaking with a man, I tell you," Hermione declared, but her confidence was shaken. Had she really met a man who had died sixty years ago? Was that possible? Or had her immense longing for consolation made her imagine it?
Saddened, disappointed, uncertain, she watched her daughter as if she could give her an answer.
"Mum!" Rose insisted, clearly running out of patience.
Hermione looked around in anguish. Nobody else was there. The garden was lonely and silent. Had it been only a dream? Her lower lip trembled.
"Let's go, Rosie," she murmured at last, fighting tears. Slowly, she got to her feet and put a hand in her sleeve, searching for glasses.
And there she felt it.
The black blossom he had given her was in her fingers again, and she stared, stunned, at it.
"Mum?" Rose called, turning to see if she was coming. Swiftly returning the flower to her sleeve, the old woman began to walk, her pace becoming faster and steadier at every step.
The sun was low on the horizon as nature prepared for a wonderful sunset that would paint the sky in glorious shades of orange and red.
The house was just on the top of a hill; a pleasant little cottage, solidly built in stone to protect those living inside from the chilling cold of the Northern winters. But there was no need of such protection. Though there was snow on the peaks of the mountains, the little valley downwards was blooming in an eternal spring: the thick walls of the house were covered by ivy, and the chimney was merrily emitting white puffs of vapour, showing that something was boiling on the fire. There was a market garden on the left of the house, and a well on the right. Hens crossed the yard, guiding their rows of chicks with measured, rhythmical movements. A goat rubbed her small horns against a fence and, curled on a windowsill, a cat slept as soundly as only a cat can. Everything looked quiet and peaceful.
The old man was sitting on a bench, his white hair reflecting the light of the fading sun while he stared at his ordered little kingdom; his eyes affectionately watched the many little creatures wandering in the yard, and finally rested on the field of roses in front of him: the luxuriant, beautiful black roses, that were slowly but inexorably withering.
Since he had returned from his trip, their soft, velvety petals had gradually begun to detach and fall on the ground, whirling in a delicate dance of death. Thousands of brightly coloured butterflies flew over the flowers, trying to find nourishment and shelter in that tremulously swinging mass. The spectacle, that had once been breathtaking, now breathed desolation to the ambient air.
With a soft pop, the woman Apparated onto the pebbly road that led to the house. Slowly, she went up the little hill, her eyes fixed on the dark-clad figure curled on the bench. Though her face was old, her hair was brown and curling and her movements were fluid and easy. Silently, she went closer and closer, and not even the dog napping in the shadow of a great oak noticed her.
Lost in meditation, the old man turned his head just a moment before she reached him. His eyes widened in amazement, then warmed with pleasure. For a long moment, neither said a word, each savouring their intense emotion.
"It took me a whole month to find you," she said.
He nodded gravely. "I imagine you used the rose."
"Yes." She put a hand in her sleeve and took out the black blossom he had given her. It was still soft and radiant, and its petals exhaled a subtle bittersweet scent. She lowered her palm to show it to him.
"It was the only clue I had. But I had to try so many times! I think I have Apparated into more than two dozen rose nurseries, in every part of England. Once I even landed in a botanical garden."
Her eyes twinkled. "The gardener wasn't very happy about my sudden appearance but, as I am an absent-minded old lady, he accepted my apologies. After that, I was much luckier. The next attempt brought me to a village, a nice little place… though the people there were extremely reserved. It was hard to find somebody willing to talk. Even harder, somebody willing to answer. But you know me: I have always been stubborn."
Her smile grew mischievous. "Incidentally, John Harrison and his wife send you their best wishes."
"John… Harrison?" he asked, brows rising in astonishment.
"Yes, the farmer whose baby you saved with one of your potions. Little Jimmy Harrison is thirty-six now, a rather tall man with a handsome smile. His parents are grandparents, and remember you with great affection: they were eager to tell me wonders about your remedies as soon as I said that I was an old friend of yours… but alas, they couldn't tell me anything else, except that you had left more than twenty years ago. It took me an extra effort of imagination to guess where to try next, but, as you see, it was worthwhile."
He tilted his head and considered her. "Are you real?"
"Of course I am. Let me show you. Is this place taken?" She indicated the bench. "May I sit there?"
His eyes lit. "These… these are the first questions I asked you that day in Hogwarts."
"You are correct, sir, and your memory is excellent as always," she replied with a little bow, pleased to see that he had treasured even the most insignificant details of their meeting. But he hadn't answered the questions, so she added jokingly, "Do you think that this bench will stand an added weight?"
"I suppose the best way to know is to try it," he suggested.
She smiled, but tears were dangerously near. He had aged so frighteningly since their previous encounter! She sat near him and silence fell again while she furtively studied him. His hands crumpled the fabric of his robes, and a curtain of white hair sheltered his face and his feelings.
"Why did you leave, that day, Professor?" she asked.
"Why should I have remained?" he retorted.
"You saved my life. Why didn't you wait to be thanked?"
"There was no need of thanks," he said.
She took a deep breath.
"Well," she said merrily, "as thank you is only a part of what I intended to say, if you don't accept my thanks, I will have to leave immediately."
He stiffened and looked helplessly around.
"In that case, your thanks are accepted," he muttered, shooting her a glance of reluctant appreciation. She smiled to herself. Her hook had been too tempting for him to decline.
Reassured, she continued, "Again, please tell me: why did you leave?"
He shrugged. "I couldn't stay. Perhaps you haven't noticed, or perhaps you are too polite to remark, but I have changed."
"After all your years away, nobody would have recognised you. Even less noticed a difference," she said. "However, I don't see any change in you, except in the colour of your hair." Her gaze lingered on his figure. "White suits you. It gives you a much more luminous air." She smiled, hoping she had told her lie convincingly.
He looked her over. "You look beautiful," he said.
She hadn't expected that. "My heart has recovered," she agreed. Her new-found wellness had exacted a terrible price from him, and a fresh remorse had joined her old ones… Which was probably the reason she felt compelled to keep talking.
"The Mediwizards at St. Mungo's were utterly astonished by my improvement, and so was my family. They wanted me to stay in the hospital for further investigation. But I left as quickly as I could. You understand, I couldn't waste my time in experiments, and I didn't want to explain about you." She paused. "There has been an unfortunate development: my daughter told them that I had fallen asleep before the White Stone." Her voice was wry. "I'm afraid that they are going to credit my recovery to a newly manifested healing power."
"Another miracle of Albus the Venerable," he agreed, but there was no resentment in his voice, only a weary acceptance and a hint of relief.
She whirled on him. "But this is so unfair, Professor!" she protested. "YOU were my real saviour! It has been terrible, hearing all that nonsense and not feeling allowed to reveal the truth!"
"Thanks Merlin you didn't!" he retorted. "Fame is the last thing I want. Do you think it could improve my life? Do you think a belated glory could repay me for all I have lost?"
She bent her head. There was nothing she could reply. She had arrived brimming with good intentions, but now the momentum threatened to abandon her. Her words had awakened hurtful memories, and she had played an active part in so many of them. What answer could she give to his bitterness?
Her eyes silently questioned the mountains, the fields and the sky; slowly their remote serenity filled her heart.
"I can understand your feelings," she murmured. "It's so beautiful here."
He nodded, his austere face finally opening in something similar to a smile.
Comforted, she tried again.
"Please, show me your roses."
They strolled amongst the fading flowers, each step awakening bright clouds of butterflies that flew frantically away to alight immediately after. She contemplated the ravages with a lump in her throat.
"What happened?" she asked, though she already knew the answer.
"My roses are dying," he said, crossing his arms. "As you have surely understood, there is no more power in me to nourish them."
She felt an immense remorse. Not only he had shortened his life for her, but also sacrificed his most precious possessions.
"I'm sorry," she murmured.
"I'm not," he replied. Then, while she looked at him in confusion, he added sharply, "Do you think I value my roses more than your life?"
"But these flowers were a part of your soul," her voice trembled and, embarrassed, she bent to stroke a reclining blossom, blinking the tears away.
"My roses must die, as all earthly creatures do," he murmured. "But, someday, new roses will grow in their place. And perhaps I will live to see them bloom again…"
He stopped, and she understood his unexpressed feelings. He had been living for years in the illusion of a sort of immortality. Now his sudden unpredicted transformation had reversed his options and presented him with the unknown pains of an aging body and the fear of approaching death.
The prospect was even more terrifying in that little corner of paradise, where magic had tamed nature, making the valley flourish in an eternal spring. The implications of that last consideration suddenly struck her, and she turned to look at him.
"How did you manage to keep this place secret?"
He looked embarrassed.
"As I told you, this is a very isolated location; probably the best term would be 'forgotten'."
She crossed her arms with a frown. Being a mother and a grandmother had its advantages: she could easily recognise a lie. "Forgotten or not, I can't believe that you have lived here for more than twenty years without anyone stumbling on you. Call it coincidence, luck or misfortune, but there is always a chance to encounter people in the limited space our island offers."
He turned away his head, biting his lower lip.
"The place was Unplottable… till a month ago," he admitted.
For a moment, she was baffled. "And then you removed the spell? Why?"
He didn't answer and, watching his sheepish expression, she suddenly understood.
"You mean you wanted somebody to come?"
"Not somebody," he said quietly. "Just you."
An immense joy filled her heart at those words. Then she shook her head, frustrated and sorry for the time they'd wasted, a time that was running each day shorter for both of them.
"I could have come before, if only you had let me know. Why did you play hide and seek with me? Why did you force me to wander and search for a whole month?" she reproached him.
He clenched his hands.
"I warn you: you are not going to like my answer."
"Why not? It can't be worse than a refusal!"
"No," he agreed. "Not a refusal. But… friendship is a word so far in the past for me that it has practically lost its meaning. Memories are all I've got… and memories ache and stab! Still, I need them to persuade myself that once I was alive." His tone hardened, as if he was forcing himself to go on. "I left you that day, because I needed to know if what you had told me was true."
Her eyes darkened. "So, I was right. You didn't trust me."
"You don't understand. I left a passage open for you, but I had already resigned myself to not seeing you again."
Though she knew how deeply wounded he had been, she felt offended. Her offer had been somehow disbelieved, and disillusion bit cruelly her heart.
"I suppose you hate me for what I've done to you," she mused, and bitterness tinged her voice.
"That is complete nonsense," he snapped.
"It's the truth. I've shortened your life!"
"No, you've only shortened my sentence," he corrected her, crossing his arms.
The night had spread silent wings while they talked, and a fresh breeze had begun to blow. The moon was shining in the sky, indifferent in its pale beauty. Dark shadows were clouded by dark thoughts; neither spoke. She felt the tears prickle again. Why had she reacted so harshly? It was as if they had returned to the skirmishes of her schooldays. She shivered in the darkness, and he saw.
"You are cold, and it's late," he commented, with the inexpressive tone he used to hide his feelings. "We'd better continue our conversation in the house". He glanced at the moon and impulsively added, "Perhaps you would like to share dinner with me? I'm not a great cook, but some food would warm you before you go."
Wrong-footed, she nodded without even knowing why. They went back to the house in silence, while she searched frantically for words that could correct, explain… apologise.
When they reached the yard, he excused himself and stopped to gather the goat and the hens and lock them in their shelters. She didn't try to help, and he didn't ask for assistance; the animals followed his commands obediently, and she admired the many ingenious devices he had installed to make up for his increasing lack of strength and agility. He seemed to enjoy manual work, and she noticed that he never used magic if he could avoid it.
The house was heartbreakingly ordered, austere in its simplicity, minimal yet pleasant. He watched her look, his stance stiff and anxious, as if fearing her judgement. Then she smiled and he breathed again.
"Long time since I had a guest", he said. "Hope I've not been too hasty in my offer. I'm afraid you'll find my meal a bit light. I can offer you only soup, cheese and vegetables. I renounced meat when I moved here. The animals you have seen are my friends, not my food."
"Don't worry," she answered, ready to make amends and to rebuild their relationship. "I'll be happy with what you've prepared. I too have changed my tastes with years."
He went to the fireplace to check the simmering cauldron. She followed him with her eyes.
"That's our soup," he said and, understanding her unexpressed question, he added, "I brew potions only for my plants these days, and not in the house. My lab is in the cellar."
They had entered the kitchen and, roused by the sound of his voice, the black cat jumped down from the seat where it had been resting. After a few moments of hesitation at the sight of an unknown visitor, it went to rub its furry head against its master's robes. Then it raised curious eyes at the woman and meowed insistently. She tilted her head in amusement, while the cat arched its back against her legs, waiting to be stroked. She couldn't resist anymore. Shaking her head in defeat, she crouched to take it in her arms. The happy sound of purring filled the air.
She glanced at the man she had, for years, yearned to meet again. He was smiling, the very first open smile since she had arrived, and the room seemed brighter.
She watched him prepare dinner. His fingers selected and chopped the different vegetables with precise graceful movements, and a wave of memories filled her mind. For a moment, she was twelve again, sitting in a cold classroom with a bunch of frightened students as he taught them the correct way to cut Asphodel roots. The vision was so vivid in its details that she shivered. He turned to look.
"Do you still feel cold?" he asked, arching an eyebrow. "I will add wood to the fire."
"No," she reassured him. "But I don't like to just sit and watch you work. Let me at least set the table."
"You don't know where the dishes are," he pointed out.
Her smile widened. "I have run a house for more than fifty years. I suppose I can deal with this kind of problem… Furthermore, I know you."
He frowned at that sibylline pronouncement, then nodded assent. She opened the cupboards. Everything was as precise as she'd imagined, the dishes stacked near the glasses, and the cutlery meticulously divided in the drawers. There was no tablecloth though, and when she asked him, he apologised, explaining that he liked the look and feel of wood under his hands.
She gave him a sympathetic look, and began to place the different pieces on the table, doing her best to create a nice composition. The black cat had followed her, tail up, and it had even tried to climb on the table, evidently curious to see what she was doing. Impertinent creature! She lifted it off and put it on the floor, scolding it with the soft amused tone she used on her grandchildren.
When the dishes were set, she searched again, this time looking for decorations, the finishing touch to celebrate that special dinner. At last, she found some scented candles on a shelf. Perfect! She placed three of them in the candle holder and lit them. Their tremulous light cast soft, undefined shadows on the walls, creating a nice atmosphere, and she smiled.
She was enjoying her task so much that she didn't notice that he was watching her.
Dinner was over, but she was still waiting for something, a strange void aching in her chest.
"Everything was very good," she complimented him. "Being a great potioneer has definitely enhanced your cooking skills."
"Thank you. I'm glad you liked the dinner," he replied. Silence fell, while they both lost themselves in their thoughts.
"What are you going to do tomorrow?" she asked at last.
He seemed relieved at her question. "Oh, plenty of things, though nothing special. The usual routine. I have my animals to feed and my plants to water. And then I have my roses." He hesitated. "Perhaps I will begin to root them out."
She stared at him incredulously. "You mean you will destroy them all?"
His lips twisted downwards. "Anything is better than watching them die day by day. If I clean the ground, I can plant new roses." He sighed. "Though I'm not really sure that they will grow."
"I suppose you'll be very busy, then," she tried again.
"Yes," he replied briefly, toying with a crumb. The cat jumped on her lap and she startled. For a moment, she thought to push it away, but it was too cute, so she smiled and gently rubbed its neck. Curling comfortably in the new nest it had found, it began to purr.
"He seems to like you," Snape said.
"The feeling is mutual," she replied, stroking the little animal absent-mindedly. "He reminds me of Crookshanks. Do you remember? The cat I had in school. But yours is much more handsome."
He nodded, but kept his head obstinately down. The silence became unbearable. There seemed to be nothing else to say. Swallowing hard, she put down the cat and got to her feet.
"I think I must leave now. Thank you for inviting me. The food was really delicious."
His lips curled down, but he rose and walked her to the door, although she could have Apparated away where she stood. They paused to bid good-bye.
"Thank you for visiting," he said, still avoiding her eyes. "I imagine your family is waiting."
"Actually," she said slowly, "nobody is waiting for me. As I told you, I live alone."
She waited, but he didn't reply. Slowly, she opened the door and turned to look at him, hoping for a word that could possibly…
"Farewell, Madam Weasley," he murmured, interrupting her thoughts and burning her last hopes. Her eyes prickled and her chest ached.
"Even now, you can't call me just Hermione?" she asked.
"I'm afraid I'm too old-fashioned," he replied with a little bow.
"Good bye, then, Professor." She felt the tears trickle down and, turning her head to hide them, she Disapparated with a soft pop.
He stayed still, staring at the empty yard for some long moments, uncaring of the cold breeze, unaware of the stars above his head. Then he went back in the house and sat at the table. He looked blankly at the walls for many minutes, then, with a sigh, he bent his head and rested it on his crossed arms. Slowly, the flames in the fireplace decreased. The cat meowed once, surprised at his master's stillness, then jumped again on a seat and nestled in it.
Silence filled the house.
She scrutinised her living room. What a contrast between the comfort, even the luxury of her furnishings, and the Spartan simplicity of his cottage! And now he was there alone and saddened and…
She forced herself not to think about him. He had refused her friendship. Stubborn, irritating, insufferable man! Surely she could find something better to do…
Yes, she decided, a book would be a much more suitable companion to spend her evening.
He sighed deeply. Then, noticing that the flames were dying, he dragged himself up to add more wood to the fire.
She threw the book on the table and sprang up from the armchair. What she wanted to do couldn't wait any longer.
His eyes lit up, then became immediately wary.
"Back again?" he asked, fixing his face in a sneer. But his eyes were desolate. "Forgotten something, I suppose?" he continued, but she was quicker.
"Yes," she said, before he could stop her. "I've forgotten to tell you something, so I've come back, because I wanted to give another chance to the most stubborn, exasperating man I've ever known."
He inclined his head with a sarcastic smile.
"Such impetuosity! So Gryffindor," he tried again to tease her, and miserably failed.
"Don't try to evade the issue," she told him. "I came here to offer you my friendship, and I meant it. Now it's up to you to decide. If you say no, then I won't come to visit you again."
He remained silent, but his eyes were anguished. Then he lifted his arms in a gesture of helplessness.
"I cannot answer your question," he replied bitterly. "Don't you see? I have nothing left to offer."
"You have yourself. And that's enough for me." She watched him, and her voice softened. "Now tell me. Should I really go away?"
He didn't answer. She stared at him for a long moment, hoping with all her might. But he didn't say a word, so, saddened, she lowered her head and prepared to leave forever.
Then she heard a whisper.
He had called her by her given name, and joy invaded her heart. She turned and watched him.
His lips trembled and she couldn't resist any longer: with two quick steps she went close to him and hugged him tenderly. How frail he seemed in the circle of her arms!
"Severus," she murmured, touching her cheek to his.
He was shaking.
"Would you like me to stay?" she asked.
"Please don't go," he pleaded, hiding his face in her curls.
Holding him tightly, she smiled fondly.
"I have already raised a rose of my own. Now I'll be happy to help you raise yours."
Inspiration for this story came from two wonderful pieces. One is a poem, the other is a song. Below you can find them both.
Best wishes of joy and happiness to everyone reading.
C'è un ape che se posa
There is a bee that alights
sopra un fiore de rosa,
on a rose flower,
lo succhia e se ne va.
savours it and flies away.
In fondo, la felicità
All in all, happiness
è una piccola cosa.
is made up of little things.
(Trilussa, Roman dialectal poet, 1871-1950)
Life is beautiful
(song from the Oscar-winner movie by Roberto Benigni)
Smile, without a reason why
Love, as if you were a child,
Smile, no matter what they tell you
Don't listen to a word they say
'Cause life is beautiful that way
Tears, a tidal wave of tears
Light, that slowly disappears
Wait, before you close the curtain
There is still another game to play
And life is beautiful that way
Here with his eyes forevermore
I will always be as close as you remember from before
Now that you're out there on your own
Remember what is real and what we dream is love alone
Keep the laughter in your eyes
Soon your long awaited prize
We'll forget about our sorrows
And think about a brighter day
'Cause life is beautiful that way
There's still another game to play
And life is beautiful that way.