It's starting that causes the problem. There is no problem before you start. It's beautiful before you start.
— John Clarke.

When I begin a film, I want to make a great film. Halfway through, I just hope to finish the film.
— François Truffaut.

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.
— Vroomfondel, Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons.

#

Westward Ho! (7b: Back Alley Smatter).

The Tutor skipped across the paving stones and past Fenghuang Imports (closed door, Back In 5 Minutes sign) into the cul-de-sac.

{ I wish you'd stop skipping, } said Harry.

{ And twirling, } he added, when the Tutor stopped skipping and started twirling instead.

I'm not twirling, I'm spinning, said the Tutor. Need robes to twirl. But all right then, less footling about and more the quick once-over ¡al galope!

He patterdashed down one side of the alley and up the other — not a short trip, but a fast one; there were no other pedestrians — and skidded to a stop back at the importer's, whose sign unaccountably still said Back In 5 Minutes.

Now, he said, what did I miss?

{ Everything…? } suggested Harry, in a tone that walked the line between dry and dessicated like a tightrope expert.

Nope, nope, I saw it all, and you saw more than you think you did, Mr Quidditchy Eyeballs. It's just that something was missing. Or maybe its absence was missing. Need a second look. He clapped the hands over the eyeballs and the world went dark grey and sparkly. What do you remember of this alley? Give it your best shot.

{ ... } said Harry, and it would have been followed by "I haven't the faintest" except that he realised differently. { There was a tavern. }

The Tutor put the feet in motion, tappity tappity, and removed the hands from the eyes. Before him, before them, was a large bay window with construction permits plastered all over it. If you peeked between the permits you could see chairs and tables and a bar with mirror and a half-unpacked carton of decorative pint glasses, each glass having the motto ceoil agus craic written on. If you laid an ear against the window you could hear workmen eating lunch. If you looked down and under the feet, you could see, inscribed in a brass disc set in the pavement, the number 12. These things he did.

Very good, Harry, he said, and put the hands back over the eyes. Now, what's behind us?

{ What, are you joking? ...no? Um...I don't...no, hang about, was there like a brass dragon? In a window? }

Whirl around, hands away, and lo, across the street behind the brass-disc'd number 11, was the future Ohm's Apothecary. It looked like it was just waiting for him to apply the nose to its large window, so he did that. And there was indeed, resting on an card table inside, and accompanied by various metal connectory bits, the topmost part of a brass Hydragon, duodeciheaded, with pipes leading out its collective neck. Against the back of the room was a long white counter with a couple of signs leaning against it, waiting to be hung by their brass chains:

Halewey's Orange Phosphates /Ice Cream Sodalities

On the wall behind the counter was a menu that showed this was going to be the kind of dispensary where you could get a slice of pie to go with your soup and sandwich.

Spifftacular! he said. A chemist's in the modern style! And right across from the pub too, very handy, get your willowfine before the hangover sets in.

{ Modern style, } echoed Harry.

Yes! insisted the Tutor. Once they get the soda fountain running, the magic world will be fully caught up to 1905!

{ ...'kay, } said Harry.

Several of the brass Hydragon's heads yawned. He gave them the hairy eyeball.

{ And there's a spice shop next door, } added Harry, though that was an easy guess as it was fully stocked and fuming exotically.

Okay, enough brushing up on your observation skills, said the Tutor, taking in the reflection of Didymus Pickle's Moderate Curses / Major Savings in the spice shop's window with a sidelong glance.

{ I didn't know sugar came in colours, } said Harry, taking in the view behind the cinnamon sticks.

Violet and rose, very old school, said the Tutor, and zig-zagged down the alley.

Various slates promised, but their buildings for the most part did not yet deliver, a two-person law office, a restaurant, an estate agent, a tailor, an accountant, a piano teacher, a portrait studio (with a sideline in landscapes), and a fishmonger's. The fishmonger's sign was completely blank; he wondered if it would stay that way. He didn't like the looks of Scapegrace & Crackrope's Back Of The Wagon Bargains, especially since it had a cart of books out front that he found to have apparently been nicked from the Golden Oak Public Library, and he made a mental note to look into it later.

And then...

...the end of the alley.

Well, certainly endish: a high wall of flat grey stones.

The Tutor turned from side to side.

At number 39 there was an office of the Historical Preservation society; at number 40, C.H. Modbit's Root Cellar. ("World's Happiest Neeps!" said the motto on its sign, though anyone who'd had even a week's worth of Professor Sprout would have pegged the appropriately radiant mascot above it as a radish.) And right in front of him — a bare flat wall, making this a blind alley.

He directed the eyeballs down, and found the trainers resting on a brass disc labelled 39A. Ad hoc, ad locum.

Harry, have you ever flagged down a logically non-existent spaceship with a bath towel?

{ Nope! }

Well, that's a gap in your experience. We shall now fill it by proxy, and with any luck I will find out what I'm talking about.

{ You don't know either? }

I frequently run ahead of myself. He placed hands over eyes again. It doesn't make sense.

{ 'course it doesn't, } said Harry agreeably. { What is it this time? }

A wizarding builder leaving a blank wall lying around unused without so much as a To Let sign on, but with a street number plate in front of it. A wall, a wall in a mall, a mally wall, a malleus walleficarum, and what have we found in all the walls of this mall?

{ Storefronts? } said Harry.

Correct. Wizard landscapers aren't constrained by rights of way or anything else. Contour lines? They point and laugh. Wizards don't have bare walls except where they want bare walls, even if only for reasons of style. He briefly rubbed the hands together before separating them to let the index fingers make their points. And yet we have arrived at an impasse, rather than the more plausible pair of wash-rooms with a drinking fountain between. Or an actual fountain. Whole waterfall, they're wizards. The Tutor clasped the hands behind the back and bounced up and down on trainer-tips, barely containing his glee. What we have here, Harry, is a paradox, a juicy little paradox, and I haven't had a good paradox in weeks. If it weren't here there'd be no number, but if it were here the wall wouldn't be blank. It's like something is here and not here at the same time, a superposition. Why is it so?

Hands over eyes again.

Blind alley. Something that can't be seen...or something I'm overlooking?

Hands away from eyes.

No, the wall wasn't entirely blank, although what was there was so commonplace it was easy to have glossed over, the kind of humany-wumany detail that passed by unregarded, if not undetected, by all but passing caretakers.

Yes! he said, clapping hands and rubbing them together in a gesture distressingly reminiscent of Lady Macbeth (can't imagine why, not presently even in Scotland, change mental subject back to the alley at hand(s), carry on as though thought had not occurred).

{ Graffiti! } said Harry, a bit shocked. { Well that's just rude...and why rob New York City? }

There were two items on the wall. The one to which Harry presently referred was a stylized scrawl of blue paint:

ROB NYC

accompanied by a drawing of a furry little man with a pronounced nose and chin. Also a puffy tail.

It's a tag, said the Tutor. The tagger is named Rob and comes from or otherwise identifies with New York City.

{ Shame on him anyway, } said Harry. { Americans coming over here and messing our walls...hang about, do I sound like Uncle Vernon...? }

The Tutor, whose database regarding Uncle Vernon was mercifully incomplete, elected to let Harry answer that question for himself and steered the attention to the other, both more and less interesting, item. It was a bit of a chestnut:

To do is to be. — Lao Tzu.
To be is to do. — Socrates.
Do be do be do. — Sinatra.

Two philosophers, mused the Tutor, on stone, plus a frank artisan.

To do is to be, and to be is to do, and bees are busy-as. Action is required...philosophical action is required...and according to the Categorical Imperative, ought implies can...what are the chances?

{ Let me know when you need me, } said Harry.

Hah! It'll be a rare moment I don't need you, wizard boy.

There was also an advertisement —

.
.*.

Why Burn Up A Log Just To Chat?
Introducing the
Sithbruth Saga
MICRO-PYRO

.
.*.

— with an illustration of what appeared to be a silver cigarette lighter with a small happy person waving from out of its flame, but it was posted way off to the left, next to the Historical Preservation Society. That didn't makes sense either, surely they'd have posted it slap in the middle of the wall if they wanted people to see it. Assuming that it was possible to post a bill on this possibly unreal wall.

He fought off the momentary temptation to give out with "Hello, is there anybody in there?" — and then, suddenly, from out of left field...[no, not "from out of left field", he thought crossly, that metaphor's from the other side of the pond, pick another, how about "from the Penetralium of mystery", that's a classic, yes, that's good, let's have that]...came the word "eyebrows".

Well that's a bloody ridiculous insight, he told himself severely, what can I possibly mean by...oh, yes, that's what I mean.

Harry, he said. Do you remember Q.C. Flint's eyebrow trouble, Wednesday week in Slytherin wash-room?

There was a long pause.

{ I'm finding it hard to remember any of yesterday Wednesday at the moment, to be honest, } offered Harry.

I do fill up your time, don't I? Sorry about that. Q.C. Flint doing his Transfiguration homework — trying to change the colour of his eyebrows. In the wash-room, staring into the mirror. We were in there cos I was borrowing a towel. Slytherin's got the best bath towels, thanks be the Malfoys, you should totally nick one. But I digress. Do you remember yet?

{ Um, } said Harry. { No. Don't think I'm going to, either. }

Well, even if you don't remember it you can think about it. You're three months into Transfiguration, you've learnt to turn wooden matchsticks to metal needles and back again. Atomic transmutation. Changing the colour of your hair seems trivial by comparison, doesn't it?

He took the cap off the head and ruffled the formerly black hair.

...How do you like it, by the way? This Weasley red.

{ I dunno, } said Harry vaguely. { I've gotten used to it. It's okay. Could be a little darker…? }

Well, we'll work that problem some time later. But to get back to the present illustration.

We stroll into the washroom. Hallo, comrade Flint! we say. We perceive you are having difficulty in trying to give your eyebrows a makeover! No, says Flint — that's a charm, that's easy. I...am trying to remake my eyebrows.

Do you see the difference?

{ ...nope! } said Harry.

All right, pop quiz, what kind of Transfiguration is matchstick to needle and back? Granger knew it the first day of class.

{ Uh — switching. }

The old switcheroo. Inherently reversible, it's right there on the tin.

Flint was working on the sixth-year kind, far more difficult kind, I've read his coursebook. If and when he succeeded, his eyebrows would be different eyebrows — eyebrows that had always been that colour. Retroactive continuity with the effect of change. Like curse damage. If someone blows your nose off with confringo Madam Pomfrey can stick it back on, but lose it to Dark Transfiguration and it's gone for good because you can't put back what was never there.

{ ...I'll try to remember that for sixth year, } said Harry at last, { but what's it got to do with this wall? }

Everything! Whom did we meet to-day? Answer on a chocolate frog card.

{ Nicolas Flamel. }

And in meeting him we learned that the Philosopher's Stone can be made only by wizards. Wizarding and philosophy are bound together. Wizardry is philosophy in action. Specifically the philosophy of being itself, or applied ontology. Remember that phrase for sixth year, by the way, it should be good for six syllables' worth of extra points on an essay question.

{ Write it down for me... }

I forgot to bring a quill. Anyway, a wizard is like a cosmic comptroller, a plenary prothonotary...unless that's a songbird. Sort of like the ones at the Bank of England.

{ Songbirds? }

No, the accountants who run the numbers that create and destroy the money supply. If it has blue-grey wings it's probably not an accountant. But instead of money, wizards can move the castles out of their dreams and into the air. And back again. Transfiguring ideas into reality, creating redheads where none existed before. Have I lost you yet?

{ At this point I just sort of go with it, } said Harry.

There was a muggle philosopher, Harry, who said To be is to perceive or be perceived. If a wizard perceives something, it exists. But wizard perception requires effort, so you call it spellwork. You have to want to — you really have to want to — to stop ideas from just...sleeping in your mind, and get them out where they no longer need you to dream them.

[And, of course, he thought to himself, infantile magic, accidental magic, unconscious magic is the most magical of all...]

He stared the eyeballs at the wall again, decisively this time. And so we arrive at this present situation.

{ We do? }

Could go one way, could go the other, possibility as open as a door, but you, wizard boy, get to make the decision.

{ Hah? }

There are two possibilities. This could be a wall — or it could be something hidden, something vastly more interesting. Am I right?

{ Y...eah...? } said Harry, a bit dubiously.

And by definition, said the Tutor, tapping a toe on the ground, something vastly more interesting is, in fact and necessarily, the more interesting possibility of the two. That's a tautology.

{ That's true, } admitted Harry. { Are you going somewhere with this? }

Quite literally, I expect, said the Tutor, and, perceiving a sudden uptick in ambient noise suggesting that the alley's collective tea-break was coming to an end, began to speak a little faster. The more interesting possibility, you see, is therefore the more energetic potentiality, and ipso facto and quid pro quo, the only real possibility to a wizard is that this is no mere wall. There's a threshold right in front of us. Am I right?

{ If you say so, } said Harry.

Oi! Are you a wizard or not?

{ Yes! }

Well then! Best foot forward. You're a wizard, and what's a threshold for?

{ ...Crossing. }

So let's stop dallying — and cross it!

He closed the eyes, raised the foot, and left it to Harry to plunge them both towards the threshold...

#

They crossed it.


Extract From THE SACRED RITES OF KTLBGPQ!, Winter Term 1991:

#

We of the Editorial Staff of TSROKTLBGPQ! have taken a number of complaints to the effect that putting this rag back into circulation will do nothing but run down the reputation of Slytherin House on the mere grounds of total historical consistency. What was will be, whingers whinge, and what will be is what was. What wubbish! In the interest of obviating this and further obloquys and/or obloquia, this revived, revamped and renewed publication is hereby inaugurated with the following interesting, instructional, and immensely intelligent insertion from Wizarding History, that moral myth most magnificent—

THE TALE OF THE THREE BROTHERS
by Beedle D. Bard, B.A., D. Lit.

Once upon a time three brothers went a-wandering, as wizards are wont to do, and soon found themselves in a deep dark dank forest, in which they wandered for hours and hours whilst it got deeper, darker, and danker.

Eventually they found themselves at the bank of the deepest, darkest, dankest river any of them had ever seen, a river guarded by none other than Death himself.

"Welcome," said Death, gesturing ominously with his hourglass and scythe, "to the River of Death, which — which none may cross without, erm, dying."

The three brothers argued briefly about going back, but the eldest and grumpiest brother, who didn't put up with anything from anybody, won as he always did, and at his direction all three of the brothers drew their wands and used evanesco on the ground to redirect the river to flow behind them, thereby crossing it without crossing it.

"Ah. Huh," said Death, uncertainly. "There's a thing."

"And what are you going to do about it, Charlie?" said the eldest and grumpiest brother.

Death said, "Look, I'd, I'd really appreciate it if you didn't, er, didn't tell anyone about this."

"What are you offering?" said the middle and greediest brother.

Death looked around haphazardly at nothing in particular. "Er. A boon?" he suggested.

"Three boons for three brothers," said the youngest and canniest brother.

Death inhaled, with a whistling sound, through most of his face. "Yeah, all right," he agreed.

The eldest and grumpiest brother pushed the other two out of his way. "I want the best dueling wand ever," he said.

Death thought about this a bit and then moved a bony hand across his scythe to pull the elderwood nib from his snath; he presented the peg to the eldest brother. "That'll kill anybody, I expect," he said. "It always has."

"Is it good for anything else?" said the eldest brother, hefting it experimentally.

Death shrugged. "Dunno. I've never tried doing anything else. Next?"

The middle and greediest brother said, "I want to raise the dead."

"...Yes?" said Death. "Don't let me stop you."

"I mean I want you," said the brother, "to give me, the power to raise the dead."

"I'm, I'm, I'm — you know — Death," said Death, nonplussed. "I. I don't do the raising, I do, you know..." He waved the scythe back and forth, fwip fwit, and it released a smell of ozone as it cut through various oxygen molecules. "The other bit," he concluded vaguely.

"Oh yeah," said the brother, tapping his fore-teeth with a fingernail and frowning with the always unexpected effort of thought. "Er, ask my bro what he wants."

Death raised an inquiring eyebrow at the youngest and canniest brother, to the extent this was possible.

The youngest and canniest brother hesitated and looked towards the eldest brother, who was ten yards away and happily exploding small animals with his new wand, and whispered "I want to be able to hide from my brother what you gave the wand to. Permanently."

Death shrugged out of his cloak and gave it up. "Here," he said, passing it over. "No one ever sees me coming. You know, not...not specifically."

"Ta," said the youngest and canniest brother. He put on the cloak and vanished with relief.

"Made up your mind yet?" inquired Death of the middle and greediest brother.

"I want," said the middle and greediest brother, "to be able to see and talk to the dead."

Death looked confused; he had a versatile skull. "You already can," he said.

"No I can't," said the brother.

"No, you can — I mean, I mean everyone can — there's a terrific graveyard about a mile that way if you don't believe me." Death pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Open-plan mausoleums and everything." He looked ever so slightly uncertain, as though it might be mausolea instead.

"Oh! No no, I mean, get answers. I mean, I mean, not talk to the dead, I want to talk to ghosts what have passed on. I want to, like, see my dead mum and dad in the afterlife. Ask 'em who they really left the family jewels to, and that."

Death exhaled through his single nostril. "Here we are again," he said dismally. "That's, that's not something I, you know...do." Somehow he looked off to the side without moving his head.

"Well, it's what I want!" said the middle and greediest brother.

Death hung heavily on his scythe and rocked thoughtfully from side to side. "Wwwwell," he said, staring wretchedly up into the sky, "I've heard, I've heard mind you, that people who've been Touched By Death can See Beyond The Veil..."

"No touching me, sunshine," said the brother, raising a warning finger.

"All right, all right," said Death, "hang on, won't be a tick..." And he went behind a bush momentarily, returning with a small damp round thing. "Here," he said, and dropped it into the open hand of the brother.

"What is this?" said the brother, examining it with a frown. "A bone?"

"It's a stone," Death said testily, leaning to one side. "So long as you're holding that, you should probably be able to see what you want to see. Might take some practice, but it's the best I can do, all right?"

"Hmm," said the brother, playing with the stone experimentally. "Yeah, I can see loads of dead voles already. They're smoking mad about something..."

"Are we all done here, then?" asked Death of the air. "Please?"

"Excuse me," said a voice by Death's ear, causing Death to jump. "Sorry," said the voice, "it's only me, what you gave your cloak to. Look, sorry if this is a rude question, but...is this your first day on the job?"

Death snorted like an elderly lion.

"It always is, mate," he said. "It'd be too depressing otherwise."

And he turned upon a sudden darkness and was gone.

.
.(|).

Now you may well wonder what happened to the Three Brothers...

The eldest brother was killed in a tragic wand-cleaning accident. Always mind your wand safety instructions, children.

The middle brother got into a series of raging arguments over various inheritances and eventually threw his stone straight through his late great-aunt with such wrathful force that it bounced off the wall behind her and smote him dead in the head, and you can imagine what she said then. Always remember, children, a soft something or other turneth away et cetera.

The youngest brother collected the wand and the stone from his deceased other brothers, started a band called Deathcloak, and is to this day missing, presumed on tour. It is said that all his posterity have an amusing hourglass birthmark on their upper thighs. Keep an eye out for them!

THE END.


In the beginning, usually no one knows it is the beginning.
— C. van Zyl.

The natural function of the wing is to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods.
— Plato.

O man, doth nature not bend to your will?
— Beaufort de Silencio.