This is a substantially reworked and rewritten version of this story, which I originally posted in 2010.
I have long been unhappy with that version, for a variety of reasons, so I decided to do something about it at last.
The story you will find here doesn't differ from the original in terms of plot, but some of the events have been changed somewhat and the writing has (I hope) been polished.
If you did not like the original (or even if you did), perhaps you'll find this version more enjoyable. It still contains disturbing themes and scenes (same warnings as in the original apply), but I have reworked them in an attempt to reduce some of the sensationalistic aspects that I had come to feel were offensive and unnecessary to what I was trying to achieve with the story.
As always, thank you for your support, and enjoy the story!
I am conspicuously not the first writer of fiction to use Stephen Crane's 1895 poem (untitled by the poet but popularly referred to as "In the Desert") as inspiration and as the source of a title for my own work.
Novelist Joyce Carol Oates was, to the best of my knowledge, the first to take the final line of Crane's poem as her title, and it will be obvious to her many readers and my few that there is no similarity whatsoever between this novella and Oates's work.
The ten sparse and sere lines of Crane's poem have haunted me since I first read them in childhood, and they seemed to fit the themes I have tried to expound on here better than any original title I could come up with, so I hope Ms Oates will forgive me for emulating her fine example.
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter—bitter," he answered,
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
~ Stephen Crane
"You would be wise to stop interfering," Severus Snape said to the tall witch standing before his desk.
She didn't blink, despite his attempt at menace.
"You know me well enough to know that I will never stand by and allow the students in my care to be abused," she said.
"I know you well enough to trust that your wisdom will overcome your stubbornness, despite your unfortunate affiliation with the House of Gryffindor."
"Your definition of wisdom differs considerably from mine."
"Perhaps. But know this, Minerva McGonagall: every act of defiance from you can result only in greater suffering for your students and trouble for yourself."
Before she could reply, a burning sensation on his arm made his hand move automatically to the Dark Mark.
"That will be all, Professor," he said.
McGonagall smiled unpleasantly. "Your master is calling his lapdogs?"
"Good day, Professor," he said sharply as the door to the Headmaster's study opened with a bang.
Fifteen minutes later and six hundred miles to the south, a group of two dozen black-robed figures surrounded an ornate—throne was the only word for it—intricately carved with inter-coiling snakes.
The former man in the chair spoke in a high, haunting voice that made Snape think of the castrati of the Baroque period.
"It is time to make my presence felt more acutely at Hogwarts," the Dark Lord said, the pronounced sibilance of his speech echoing the serpentine features that marred his once-handsome face.
"The Headmaster informs me," he continued with a brief nod in Snape's direction, "that, despite his restoration of discipline, there are still troubling pockets of resistance among the staff and students. It is time to crush them."
Bellatrix Lestrange's grin made Snape's skin crawl.
"What would my Lord have us do?" Wormtail asked, simpering as always. Severus silently vowed to hex him with something painful at the next viable opportunity.
"I will appear at Hogwarts to address the students," said the creature in the chair. "You will all accompany me. Children are so impressionable, and I have no doubt that they will carry my message back to their families most urgently."
Snape kept his expression impassive, but his belly tightened at his master's words. This did not bode well for Hogwarts and its inhabitants.
"Will my Lord allow me to prepare the school for your arrival?" he asked.
"That will not be necessary. The surprise of my sudden appearance will unnerve the traitors."
"As you wish, my Lord," said Snape, bowing his head.
Snape's amplified voice cut through the after-dinner quiet that had fallen over castle and grounds.
"All students and staff will report to the Great Hall immediately. Latecomers will be severely punished."
Minerva dropped her quill on her desk and sighed, rubbing her temples. It would be another late night.
When she arrived in the Great Hall, the students were milling anxiously about. The House tables had been removed and the High Table replaced by a large, raised dais, which was ringed by black-clad figures. The teachers and other staff huddled like nervous Hippogriffs near the rear of the platform.
One of the dark figures had collected everyone's wands as they entered the hall. When Professor Flitwick objected to surrendering his wand, the Death Eater growled, "Security measure. You'll get 'em back later, now shove off."
"I have a very bad feeling," Flitwick whispered to Minerva as they joined the other staff on the dais. "I wonder what kind of dark mischief is afoot this time?"
He didn't have long to wait.
The doors to the Great Hall clanged open, startling everyone, and the students parted like the Red Sea as a tall, hooded figure strode towards the dais, guarded by a phalanx of black-robed Death Eaters.
They mounted the dais, and the figure removed the hood. A collective gasp rose from among the students.
It had been years since Minerva had seen him, and the changes were terrifying. The face of the creature who had been Tom Riddle was preternaturally smooth, with no nose and only slits for nostrils. He was close enough that she could see the crimson glow of his irises, punctuated by reptilian pupils that narrowed to ellipses in the candlelight that illuminated the raised platform.
He undulated around to face the assembly in the hall.
"Students of Hogwarts," he said, raising cries of fright from the group, most of whom had never heard his uncanny voice before. He inhaled deeply, as if he were savouring their terror like another man might a fine Burgundy.
"I am pleased that the taint of impure blood has at last been purged from this noble institution," he said. "Nevertheless, I am troubled. I have heard reports of disobedience and rebellion within the ranks of both students and teachers. This must not continue."
"My Lord," Snape said, "I take full responsibility. I assure you it will be handled more forcefully in future."
"I am confident that you can manage any difficulties that arise," Riddle continued. "Yet, teaching by example is considered a valuable pedagogical methodology, is it not?"
"Indeed, my Lord."
"Very well. Which miscreant shall serve as our example this evening?"
The assembled students and staff held their breath as one. Riddle pretended to consider before whirling around to point at Minerva.
"Minerva McGonagall! Come forward."
She stepped towards the creature, her chin thrust forward, feigning a bravery she did not feel. She forced herself to look into Riddle's eyes.
There was nothing but madness behind them.
"You have repeatedly defied the dictates of your Headmaster and interfered with the rightful discipline of the students of this school. Now you shall receive your just punishment."
The only thing Minerva could hear in the profound silence that followed was her own breathing.
Gasps broke the silence as a flick of Riddle's wand wrenched Minerva's wrists painfully upwards and held them above her head with Conjured chains. Filius, Pomona, and Septima surged forward, but a barrage of hexes from Riddle's Death-Eater guard forced them back. Hagrid, roaring with anger, advanced on them but was bombarded by Stunning spells. He withstood them and managed to fell two of the Death Eaters with the swipe of an enormous arm before Riddle, looking amused rather than concerned, shot his own Stunner at him. Hagrid collapsed to the floor. Poppy hurried to him, and Minerva held her breath until Poppy called out, "He's still breathing."
Pride in her friend welled up in Minerva's chest when Poppy turned to Riddle and said, without shaking, "I'm going to move him to the hospital wing to stabilise him."
Riddle dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
"You will stay where you are. The half-breed will be fine. His filthy giant blood will protect him from any further effects of my little warning."
The Death Eaters laughed.
"Now . . ."
Riddle turned to Minerva. She recalled his predatory smile from their school days, when they had often faced off in the duelling club. He moved in so close to her that she could smell his breath. It smelled of rotting meat. She could not suppress a shudder as a skeletal finger caressed her cheek.
She closed her eyes, steeling herself for the agony that was sure to follow.
But it never came.
Instead, he leaned in to whisper in her ear, "We've had this appointment for a long time."
And then he was gone.
His next words made her eyes snap open, alert as a rabbit that senses a wolf on the prowl.
"Bella, my dear, perhaps you could help Professor McGonagall with her clothing?"
Another gasp erupted from the crowd. Minerva's stomach dropped.
Bellatrix Lestrange stepped forward and pointed her wand at Minerva. "Depulso," she hissed, grinning into Minerva's face.
A wave of nausea passed over her as the cold air shocked her suddenly bare skin.
A lone wolf whistle from the corner where the Slytherins had gathered broke the stunned silence. A smattering of tentative applause followed from the same quarter.
"Be silent!" Snape's voice thundered from behind her.
"Who will begin the lesson?" said Riddle. "Perhaps you, Amycus?"
The short, sweaty wizard came forward, leering at his prey.
Minerva thought her very skin would scream if he touched her.
He was nearly to her, a greedy hand outstretched, when Snape's voice stopped him.
Minerva couldn't see him, but every other eye turned to the Headmaster.
"My Lord, may I speak?" he said.
"Very well, but be brief. Professor McGonagall is waiting."
"As Headmaster of Hogwarts, would it not be more appropriate for me to administer discipline to the staff?"
"Ah, Severus," replied Riddle softly. "Naturally, it would, but given your past reluctance to indulge in the more tangible pleasures of your position, I had assumed you would prefer to delegate the current task."
"A wise assumption, my Lord. Nevertheless, when duty calls, I must answer, must I not?" Snape said, as if he were discussing the marking of Potions essays.
Riddle gave a guttural chuckle.
"As you wish, Severus, as you wish. Amycus, step aside for our Headmaster."
Snape came into Minerva's field of vision. Carrow shot a poisonous look at him and backed away to join the other Death Eaters.
"My Lord," Snape said quietly, "perhaps it would be best to dismiss the students before we begin . . . the lesson. After all, imagination is sometimes the best teacher, is it not?"
Riddle looked at Snape, and for a moment, Minerva thought he was going to Cruciate the Headmaster then and there.
But Riddle only gave him a queer smile. "Such concern for the tender sensibilities of children. And, of course, there is your own position to consider. It would diminish considerably in some quarters if you were to fail to . . . live up to the challenge you have set yourself."
Riddle turned to his henchmen.
"Dismiss the students!"
Sobs mixed with murmurs of relief spilled across the Great Hall as the Death Eaters herded the children out.
On the dais, the staff began to move as if to follow the students, but Riddle said, "No. You will stay to witness Professor McGonagall's punishment." He turned to Snape. "Severus . . . begin."
As Snape stepped towards Minerva, his eyes met hers briefly, unfathomable in their darkness.