A/N: You never conquer a mountain. You stand on the summit a few moments; then the wind blows your footprints away. – Arlene Blum (born 1945), biophysical chemist, mountaineer, author, and co-founder of the Green Science Policy Institute.
This is the prompt I got for the 2010 Femgenficathon on Livejournal. And somehow, it sparked all sorts of thoughts on two things I've long wanted to write: a story about lesbian life in 1930s Berlin, and a backstory for Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank.
As always, Kelly Chambliss and The Real Snape provided invaluable input and encouragement.
I borrowed a place from Erich Kästner and everything else you recognise from J.K. Rowling. All OCs traipsing around in this story are fictional except Lotte the walk-on, who really deserves a novel of her own.
Witch Night, or How The Word 'Snitch' Entered Muggle German
Stoatshead Hill, 30 April 1999, 6:30 a.m.
The woman yawned as she opened the back door of her cottage and stuck her nose out into the crisp, cold morning. Squinting at the horizon, she saw with satisfaction that a thin, peach-coloured lining had begun to creep up above the fields behind Ottery St. Catchpole. Timid rays of whitish light shone into her garden, making the clouds of mist that rose from the dewy grass look like so many tiny thoughts in a Pensieve.
About time the days got longer now.
It had rained that night, and the young day smelled fresh and earthy. The woman took a deep breath, her tired face cracking into a smile as the moist air filled her lungs, and pulled on a pair of wellingtons.
The grass badly needed cutting and de-thatching. Perhaps she could summon the energy to do it today. Old school, Muggle style. Granted, her back, once her great pride, wasn't what it used to be, but an hour with the scythe wouldn't kill her, not if she warmed up decently beforehand. Physical work was good. Repetitive manual labour, a stroke for every thought, a bead of sweat for every memory.
Besides, the animals would love the freshly-cut grass.
She crossed the puddle-dotted meadow and opened the door of the unicorn stable. The mare was eating poorly now, but who was she to blame her? It wasn't as if she had taken in anything that deserved to be called food these past days, either.
She took a bucket of water and placed it under the faucet of the ancient pump. Took a good dozen swings of the creaking handle until clean water came. She'd have to do something about the pressure, and a few drops of oil wouldn't hurt.
The bucket in one hand and a bundle of hay in the other, she went over to the mare and her foal. She mixed some alfalfa and a generous scoop of sugar beet shreds into the hay, hoping that that would make breakfast appealing enough. She forked the whole load into the manger and quietly closed the stable door behind herself.
Her first chore done, she sat down on the bench behind the cottage and took a pipe out of her pocket. She filled it slowly, pensively, taking her time lighting it. And when she took the first puff, she leaned back, the thick boiled wool cloak cushioning her spine against the bare stone wall, and let her yellow eyes trail along the peach-coloured strip on the horizon.
Berlin-Charlottenburg, 30 April 1999, 9:30 a.m.
Ulla Amtmann was a very proud hotel owner.
As she had every reason to be. The "Pallas Athene" was only three weeks old, and already three-quarters of the rooms were booked. The time of the year certainly helped, with Walpurgis Night - the night the witches were abroad - always being a popular reason for her target customership to take a long weekend. But given the fierce competition in the Capital's hospitality business, 75 percent was a more than respectable booking rate for a new hotel. Especially a women-only one.
Ulla's narrowed eye sized up the walls of her bright, practically-furnished entrance hall. It had been a good decision to use Women of Colour GmbH instead of her semi-expert uncle. Not as if the bill hadn't caused her a major stomach-ache, but Ulla Amtmann was of the opinion that professional women should be paid professionally. Even lesbians. After all, she'd be out of a job herself if she gave discounts based on sexual preference. And that yellow sponge paint job had certainly been worth every painful penny.
Yet as pretty as the wall was, even her frugal eye saw that it lacked something, and that was decoration. So here she was, having just put the last batch of hard-boiled eggs and coffee on the breakfast buffet, with a toolbox and a stack of black-and-white photographs of notable women-loving women by her feet, ready to give the entrance hall its finishing touch. She'd have loved to put the pictures into authentic art-déco frames, but fifty marks apiece had been a winning argument for the plain, black ones they sold at the Scandinavian furniture emporium in Spandau. After all, the hotel advertisements had already cost a fortune, and ads were more important than chi-chi frames. Peter from the CityMenZ B&B down the road had begged to differ, but then, his target clients consumed prosecco and Caipirinha, whereas hers preferred apple spritzer and Moroccan mint tea. He had the margins, she the Ikea frames.
What the hell, there was nothing wrong with apple spritzer, and those frames were perfectly fine.
Hammering Marlene Dietrich to the wall, Ulla congratulated herself on having placed ads in not just one but two relevant publications. The 1999 edition of the Official Members' Guide of the Registered Association of Certified European Women-Only Hotels (Boys up to Twelve, Pets upon Request) had, of course, been a must. But she'd also wanted to reach out to the more hedonistic traveller, the woman who might be inclined to spend a bit more than necessary (which reminded her that she'd have to look up a Caipirinha recipe one of these days). Anyway, that traveller tended to gravitate towards other, more modern channels, and so Ulla had forked over the equivalent of twelve art-déco frames for a listing on roaming-tribades-dot-com. To great success, it seemed. That American couple that was due here today had come via them, for example. They'd booked a deluxe double with breakfast. For a whole whopping week.
And interesting Americans they are, she thought as a group of six cigarette-waving women in knickerbockers, pinstripe suits, and sleek dresses joined Marlene Dietrich on the wall. For one, the booking email had been written in fluent, elegant German. If a tad flowery and antiquated in terms of word choice. Well, the writer of that email might be a descendant of German immigrants. Wasn't it like that with migrants, that they preserved old-fashioned patterns of speech? Then again, since when did Americans preserve any patterns of speech of where they once came from? Not that she blamed them, of course, considering that an American could easily be half-Polish, half-Italian, and half-German.
Did something about that last sentence sound somehow wrong?
And should she perhaps have used a spirit level?
The bell rang as Ulla bit off a length of double-sided adhesive tape to level the likeness of a boyish cabaret singer. Just like old Claire to refuse to even hang straight.
She placed the hammer and tape back into her toolbox, wiped her hands on her jeans, and swept over to greet the two women who had just entered the hall. Like most guests, they had taken about two steps into the hall and then stopped to take in the surroundings. Small nods of appreciation, imperceptible to everyone but the hotel owner who lived for those kinds of signals, made Ulla bless Women of Colour GmbH once more and vow to recommend them to everyone who would listen.
Yet if one asked her, though she knew nobody did, something was off with those women. Or this couple, rather. Just-friends were hardly likely to avoid each other's glance so subtly yet distinctly.
Both were perhaps in their mid- to late thirties, well-dressed, and not unattractive if she might say so without appearing superficial. One was slender, her close-cropped, blond hair and pointed chin a perfect stylistic match to the jeans and dark blue T-shirt from some charity walk-a-thon. The other one, dark and long-haired, and enveloped in a cloud of greenish garments, was the opposite in just about every respect.
"Welcome to Berlin," Ulla beamed, reaching for the heavier one of the green-clad woman's two suitcases.
"Thank you." The woman's voice was warm and clear. Wiping a strand of wavy, black hair out of her face as she readjusted a scarf around her neck, she shot a sharp look at the windows, then the ceiling. "You have no air-conditioning here?"
Ulla felt her cheeks flush. Should she have indicated that in the ad?
"No, sorry …"
"Bless you!" the woman said. "I can't stand those things."
Well, neither could Ulla. At twenty-two pfennigs a kilowatt hour …
"So." She opted for a chipper tone as she led them through the hall and up to the reception desk. "You've picked a nice time for a holiday in Berlin. The weather has been very good this past week, and if you're not too tired, I can recommend a few nice parties for tonight. It's Witch Night after all. I hope you had a nice flight?"
There were two nondescript yes-thank-you-very-muches as replies. It was clear as pickled egg brine that their twelve or so hours on the plane couldn't have been anything short of ghastly, and the turbulences weren't likely to have been in the air.
"So," Ulla resumed as she circled her desk and picked up her ledger. "You are Mrs ... Ms. Thea Jones ..." - the black woman nodded - "and ..."
"… Victoria Plank," said the blond woman with the pointed chin.
Bang, went the ledger as it hit the wood-panelled floor.
Stoatshead Hill, 6:45 a.m.
Rolanda Hooch extinguished the pipe after a few drags and cooled it down with a flick of her wand. Truth be told, she'd never really liked the taste. It was the smell she'd always loved, for nostalgic reasons mostly. So when the fancy struck her, she'd take three or four puffs, and given the intensity of the trusted brand, she could be sure that she'd have the smell around her for an hour or two.
More wasn't needed.
Placing her hands on her knees, Rolanda got up from her bench, shoved the pipe into her pocket, and went to the broom shed. No use trying to go back to sleep; she might as well do a quick morning round. The flying boots badly needed a shine, she thought as she stripped off her wellingtons and pulled the brown leather shafts up above her knee. The broom handle could do with a polish, too. Shame, actually, to let such a fine broom go like that, when she'd finally succumbed to buying a Firebolt only last year. It had been a used one because a year in exile had eaten a considerable hole into the budget, but she'd felt like celebrating the beginning of a new era.
They'd been in a celebratory mood then, despite it all.
Berlin-Charlottenburg, 9:45 a.m.
Up in the deluxe room on the third floor, Vic carelessly threw her suitcase on the bed and took a rainbow-striped neoprene pouch out of her carry-on bag. She kicked off her shoes, slumped down cross-legged on the bed, and cursed the bloody laptop liberally for taking forever to boot.
Vic didn't grace the tentative approach at conversation with an answer. Instead, she picked up the photo that the landlady had removed from its frame and examined it with all her attention. Someone had pencilled the names of the six women on the back, in handwriting that was almost impossible to decipher. Yet if the chin was anything to go by, it was clear what name she was looking for.
It actually wasn't possible. But unless the Plank chin gene had miraculously reproduced in someone who just happened to look like Victoria's asynchronous twin sister, from the fair hair and the facial lines to the posture and even the apparent preference for dark-haired women, then there was no mistake.
"Do you want to tell me who this is?"
All right, then. "Look," she said, reluctantly tilting the screen of her laptop just so that Thea could see if she craned her neck. Couldn't keep up this radio silence forever; might as well talk, now that Thea had stopped apologising. And genealogy was a fairly neutral topic, unless you counted Thea's profound dislike for the hobby. But Thea wouldn't dare complain, not now. She'd know better than that.
Vic double-clicked on the file "Family Tree". On the screen there appeared a pyramid of boxes and lines (most of them straight, some intersected - after all, the choice of mates was limited in the villages of Mecklenburg.) Most boxes had names in them, and small icons that led to pictures or documents with the stories of the people behind the names. When were born, what they'd done for a living, that kind of things. Only one name didn't have much to it.
Wilhelmina. Born May 1905. Died late 1916? (unknown).
Vic clicked on the photo icon. A blurry picture appeared, showing a girl who looked decidedly uncomfortable in her white, frilly dress. Blond. Lanky. Plank chin.
No, there was no mistake.
"Grandpa said she was shipped off to some asylum when she was eleven." Her voice felt thick and lumpy as she spoke. "The year before he was born. Different times, Vic, he'd said. People then didn't know how to deal with a girl that wasn't quite right in the head, so one day a woman came to pick her up. He said he'd never met her."
Vic hadn't thought much of the story back then. She'd felt pity for the poor girl, sure, but this had been before parent self-help groups and integrative schooling. They'd kept her with them until she was eleven, so perhaps they'd tried their best. She'd tried to find out more from grandpa, but even though he remembered so many details of his childhood in the German northeast, he knew surprisingly little on the matter of his sister. Or perhaps not so surprisingly, given that he was born after she'd departed.
Ten months after she'd departed.
"Shit, Thea." She let the photo sink into her lap.
Thea pulled her legs up on the bed and reached for the photo. Vic noticed with some gratitude that there was no attempt at a compassionate embrace.
"Look at her, Vic," she said, running a hand over the six laughing faces. "She lived. She's happy. She's with five beautiful women. Doesn't that count for something? I mean, think of the many women back then who thought something was wrong with them, who thought themselves frigid or hysterical or God-knows-what. And never found love in their whole lives. Maybe never even experienced pleasure."
"Think she did?"
Thea raised an eyebrow and pointed a tidily-manicured finger at the sleek-dressed imp who looked as if she were just about to pinch Wilhelmina's cigarette. "And these two? Were so doing it."
Vic had to laugh despite herself. Thea saw affairs and relationships, drama and undying love wherever she looked. It probably had something to do with the fact that she spent her working life channelling the effusions of romantic geniuses whose music tended to be far more varied than their plots.
There was the hand on her shoulder.
"Don't start." A warning undertone. The tone Vic usually reserved for making pitbulls present their toenails for clipping and spitzes their furry butts for their annual shots.
No, thank you, she didn't want to talk about it. She didn't even want to think about it. What had happened at the baggage claim would have to be discussed, but later. Right now, Vic had something to chew on, and a Plank didn't speak with her mouth full. And all because Vic's mobile didn't work in Europe. She'd taken Thea's to text her mother that they'd arrived safely. Before she'd typed the first word, a double beep announced a new message, from Thea's best friend. It had opened as Vic had tried to exit from the typing field.
And she'd spotted the first words before she could stop herself.
Clearly there had been something that Thea hadn't told her.
"Right," Thea said, biting her lip. For a fleeting moment, Vic felt almost sorry, but she'd really heard enough for a day. Been smothered with words, actually. They'd probably entertained the taxi driver no end on the ride from Tegel Airport to the Pallas Athene. I had meant to tell you. I never thought you'd do this. - Don't forget you'd walked out on me weeks before. - I never meant it to be for good. - And how was I supposed to know that if you don't talk? - You sure lost no time. - Do you think I thought it would happen so fast?
Somewhere around the Emperor William Memorial Church they'd settled on giving the topic a break. Or rather, Vic had. She'd have to think about this, and the thinking process wouldn't include Thea. Just as Vic hadn't been included in the doing process.
There remained the small hitch that this holiday was supposed to be the celebration of their making up after a monumental fight some time that winter. Or was it? Had Thea brought her here for the big reveal? Because it was more difficult to stomp out of a double room in a city full of strangers than a detached house in Seattle with two cars parked on the driveway and a devoted dog who'd follow Vic wherever she went?
"Later, Thea," she said.
"All right." Thea tucked at a sleeve. "Whenever you're ready."
Vic got up from the bed, fished a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of her bag, and headed for the door of the balcony. She couldn't stop herself checking quickly for a reprimanding look, but there wasn't one. A small light flared up as she sat down in the small metal chair and propped her legs up on the banister.
"So," Vic resumed when the first cloud had dissolved in the air. "Short nap, and then?"
Thea stood by the balcony door, photo in hand. "And then we go looking for Auntie Wilhelmina."
Vic's eyebrows darted upwards. She stubbed out her cigarette. "What? I thought my genealogy stuff was the snobbish pastime of white wannabe aristocrats?"
"And I stand by that as long as you try to trace yourself back to Charlemagne ..."
"He had twenty-something kids. There's no way any Caucasian isn't in some way a descen- …"
"… but if you have an aunt who was declared dead by her family only because she happened to be different, then I want to know about it. And here's your chance to write that contribution for the Lesbian History Project that you've been blathering about."
"That's true, I could do that …"
"You will. What's the number of the reception? Call me Countess fucking Geschwitz if that woman isn't well enough connected in dyke Berlin to locate one of the girls in the picture for us."
Stoatshead Hill, 7:00 a.m.
Rolanda kicked off the ground hard. Up and up she circled, until she felt wind in her hair and mist on her cheeks that were still warm with sleep. She'd always loved that feeling of an early morning fly. Let others have caffeine. Rolanda Hooch needed nothing but air and a few icy droplets in her face to feel wide awake, wide alive.
From far above the treetops, well out of sight from the village, she peered down at the cottage that nested snugly between a small forest and the gentle slope of Stoatshead Hill. A tiny piece of thatch next to the even tinier one that was the stable. Two neat, brown squares that should soon be dotted with flowers and vegetables, and a bright green pasture that encircled it all.
A year ago, when Voldemort had fallen and they'd been able to come back from the Camargue at last, they'd found the premises in ruins. A heap of sooty rocks on muddy soil had been their welcome-home. She'd built it up, alone, with her wand and her bare hands, stone walls, thatched roof, stables and all. Even tiled floors. She'd dug, ploughed, planted. And then she'd flown over to Kettleburn's to negotiate the price of a unicorn mare and a mating.
Not quite eleven months later, the foal was born. Wilhelmina had insisted on getting out of her bed and spending the night on a folding cot in the stable. She'd whispered to the mare, barked commands at Rolanda, and wouldn't let vertigo or headache or frailty keep her from assisting the mare as she went into labour.
Rolanda hadn't seen Wilhelmina so well in months.
... to be continued ...