BURNING – Part 1
By W.M. Achrya
1997; Deathly Hallows
Searing, burning, freezing.
Two needles of red-hot ice were buried deep in the side of her neck, plunging deeper, the freezing, burning sensation spreading through her neck, shoulders, the base of her skull.
She sensed a wordless, desperate plea for help. Knowing that she was feeling another’s agony, she pushed herself to wake up, to break the rapport, but her strength failed her. Then she recognised the mental touch.
Severus. Mortally wounded. Aware of being effectively dead.
The huge snake hissed in her face, its fangs dripping with its victim’s blood. The venom was spreading, spreading at a terrifying speed, running along the victim’s nerves, burning, searing, freezing, paralysing.
The snake’s protective sphere released the victim, and the stricken man fell to the floor. Catrin felt the jarring impact of his head against the boards. He was short of breath, running out of air, chest muscles struggling, straining, burning.
Catrin felt her own lungs constrict, and forced herself to deepen her breathing. The man’s body responded, drank in the oxygen avidly. His brain, able to sense once again, took in the searing, freezing pain now impacting his entire body, paralysing his extremities, dragging him beyond screams, beyond pleas.
Something was urgent. It had to do with memories.
Deep inside her, in the pit of her stomach as her mind pictured it, another fire glowed, burned, searing her with a sensation of her own. A memory that connected her to the dying man, quiescent for many years, enclosed in the shape of an amber gem, was consumed by flames.
Catrin screamed. She managed to twist around onto her side, she buried her face in the pillow, and screamed until her throat was raw. The fire felt as if it was burning a hole straight through her torso, chest to back. She saw the amber gem burn: yellow, red, white flames.
The flames receded slowly, and with them the searing pain.
Her own amber artefact was still in place, singed, blackened, but whole. It rested in a pile of grey-white ashes, the remains of its identical copy in another’s mind.
The rapport took hold of Catrin’s awareness again, and once again she focused on the increasingly heavy effort of breathing, for herself and for the snake’s victim.
There was someone in the room with the man – two presences, one anonymous, incidental, the other one a young boy, black hair, green eyes, a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Severus’ urgency had something to do with him, all the terminal shreds of his attention tunnelling on the boy, single-mindedly needing to give, to hand over, to pass on... something. Catrin added her focus to his, felt Severus’ mind desperately cling to her supporting energy, gathering for one final effort. His raw, brutal pull at her mind told her that he was not himself anymore, just one last urgency, one single must, before the very end.
Wordlessly she gave her permission, all her energy short of bare survival completely at his disposal.
A splitting headache struck her, and with it a sensation of something, many, many, many somethings, being ripped out, long, sharp, cutting, searing strands being pulled out of her extremities, her groin, her stomach, pulling, pulling, cutting, searing, burning, gathering in her head and struggling for urgent, brutal exit through her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She rolled out of bed and threw herself at the bathroom door, barely making it to the toilet before she vomited.
She lay on her knees, her hands clutching the rim of the toilet bowl. Her stomach heaved, constricted, spasmed, again, again, again, her throat burning with the passage of bitter gall and with the raw animal sounds that seared it.
Then it was over, only sweat and tears running from her face into the foul stinking mess in front of her.
She managed to raise her arm enough to flush the toilet, but she grabbed the rim again and remained on her knees, breath panting, tears streaming. After a short while, still clinging to the toilet, she struggled to her feet. She grabbed for the wash basin, turned on the cold water faucet and lowered her face under the stream of water. She rinsed her face and mouth, swallowed a little of the water and staggered back to the bed. There was a numb ache in her entire body, the base of her skull as if crushed in a vice, her lower belly pierced by two blunt, searing hot daggers, a lump of frozen lead in her empty stomach, cold sweat soaking her night shirt.
Catrin collapsed onto her knees only a step from the bed. She dragged herself onward and, still on her knees, draped her upper body over the edge of the mattress.
Yet another desperate yank at her breathing, she forced herself to inhale, to give breath to three final words: “Look... at... me...!”
She saw a pair of eyes, large and spectacularly green, no longer under a shock of black hair, but framed by a dark, dusky red, in an oval face, a woman’s face. The pain that Catrin was feeling belonged to her alone – Severus was past suffering. Her eyes burst into tears again, her chest hot and swelling with the overwhelming sensation of his love directed at the green-eyed woman. Then the shared awareness exposed the dying man’s relief, calm and contentment…
Everything went black. Catrin thought that she was losing consciousness, but she remained aware. Aware of the blackness that enfolded her, of the piercing noise that she knew was tinnitus in her own ears, of the smell of autumn leaves, so powerful as to be nauseating, of the taste of bitter, dry ashes on her tongue, of the feeling of sinking down into thick, black tar that prevented all movement, that had no escape.
She was alone.
All that penetrated the blackness and isolation was a glimmer of light from a gem deep in the core of her mind. It chafed, cut and hurt like a grain of sand in an oyster shell.
With a keening noise that she was unaware of ensuing from her throat, the woman crawled onto the bed and lay enclosed in her inner darkness, under the bright rays of afternoon sun streaming through the windows of her bedroom.
--- --- ---
Catrin woke up to a numb headache, a stiff neck, muscles that felt as if she had been moving rocks all the previous day. Her stomach was acid and sore, her lower belly twisted in a cramp, her sticky eyelids opened only reluctantly. She stretched with a groan and thought something vague about a terrible nightmare.
Then she noticed the spots and the smell of sweat on her night shirt. The sun showed that she had not been asleep very long. No. Not just a nightmare. The dream would have been bad enough, but it was true. Severus. Dead, gone forever.
The icy leaden lump in the acid pit of her stomach shifted as she rolled onto her side, lowered her legs and pushed herself to a sitting position like a convalescent. She waited for her head to stop spinning. Then she got to her feet and staggered into the bathroom, barely upright, hugging her midriff. She used the toilet, and had to grab the wash basin for support to get up. She turned on the faucet, stuck her face under the stream of cold water, sloshed it over her hair with her hands, lapped and swallowed it like an animal. The discarded smelly night shirt lay on the floor. She just kicked it towards the wall, rubbed her face and hair with a rough towel and ran the barely damp cloth over her chest. Then she pulled on a fresh night shirt and stepped out into the corridor.
Faint, deep, plaintive notes, like a psalm over a dying dinosaur… Catrin followed the sounds. Alice was at home, practising. Alice. Her friend, her only confident, the other half of her self. Her wife. And the only person left in the world truly close to her. The only one, now.
Catrin stood outside the door of Alice’s study, leaning her forehead against the smooth wood, listening to the disjointed, plaintive, deep tones of the bassoon. Incidental music to “Richard III”, she thought incongruously. Bassoon, bass clarinet, cello, double bass, percussion.
Quietly, without knocking, she pressed the handle and opened the door. She slipped inside, closed the door just as quietly, and leaned against it. Her eyes dry, her face stiff, she bent her knees and slid down to a sitting position. She sat, hugging one knee, her back against the door, staring ahead, letting the disjointed tones of the bare bassoon part penetrate her senses, flood her mind.
Alice sat on a backless stool, facing away from the door, completely focused on her instrument and on the sheet music on the stand in front of her. She was wearing a blue and white striped t-shirt, the stripes making her deep, meticulously controlled breathing even more distinctly visible. There was very little silver in the thick, copper-coloured braid that hung down the exact middle of her back, all the way down to her tail bone, ending in a simple piece of dark blue elastic. Catrin could only see the ends of the long, reddish brown wooden tube that Alice was holding diagonally in front of her. She imagined the familiar, slender, powerful hands, long fingers running, slapping, caressing, subduing the precisely worked silver keys to do her exact bidding. She pictured the curved silver mouthpiece, ending in a double reed, between Alice’s strong, flexible lips that regulated and balanced the stream of air in exquisite detail, turning it into music by strictly physical means that only appeared magical.
A metallic glint caught Catrin’s eye, and she raised her head to look at Alice’s desk. The shiny metal was the foot-long, precisely turned and polished brass contraption used to plane the raw material into suitable thickness for bassoon reeds. There was a square white plastic bin on the window sill, and Catrin knew that it held about ten slender stumps of the bamboo-like material, soaking in water before it could be cut, planed, bent, tied and scraped into reed mouthpieces. Other implements of reed making were laid out on the desk top: slim tubes of brass and cork; spools of resilient, dark red silk thread; a watch-like instrument for measuring thicknesses down to fractions of a millimetre; shiny, meticulously clean scissors, knives and scalpels that always reminded Catrin of her own surgical instruments.
Alice was a powerful witch by birth and training, and yet she had chosen a profession where she had no use for magic. Or rather, it had chosen her, music having a magic of its own, compelling those struck by the talent to a life-long servitude, a never-ending search for a clearer pitch, a more expressive tone, a smoother technique, a better-controlled timing. Constantly striving to develop their individuality and discipline it, becoming part of a greater whole, a collective anthill of a hundred minds and bodies joining together to impact their listeners in ways that no-one, no science or magic, had yet managed to explain. Now Catrin was the sole receiver of that impact, the single strand of the deep, plaintive bassoon part caressing, probing, unsettling, soothing… Her eyes still dry, Catrin raised her face, leaned her head against the door, and, staring at the blue sky outside the window, waited for the musical sequence to end.
Alice released the reed, took a deep breath, unhooked the bassoon from the strap around her neck and placed it on its stand on the floor next to her desk. She pulled the reed loose from the silver tube, pushed a small lever in the leather and velvet case that lay open on her desk, and slipped the double reed onto an empty holder in the case. Closing the case, she turned around on the stool, and noticed Catrin.
“Aren’t you asleep?” she asked. “You’ve been working all night.”
“Yes,” Catrin said vaguely. “No.”
Legs in dark green warm-up pants appeared in Catrin’s field of vision. She saw a hand, took hold of it and let it pull her to her feet.
“What’s wrong?” Alice asked gently, her fingers running through the other woman’s short-cropped dark hair.
“Severus. Severus is dead.”
“How do you know? Did you have an owl?”
“I was there,” Catrin murmured flatly. “In rapport.”
Alice pulled her into her arms, held her close, ran her hands along Catrin’s back in long, smooth, gentle strokes.
“What can I do for you?” she said, “what do you need?”
Catrin stepped back a fraction, looked into her wife’s sapphire blue eyes, then looked away.
“I don’t know,” she said numbly. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Sorry, Alice, I’m so sorry, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
She felt as if she were screaming, keening, at an unbearable pitch, but to Alice the words were barely audible. She kissed each of her wife’s hands in turn and gathered her into her arms again.
“I’m here,” she murmured into the grey streak behind Catrin’s ear. “Hold on to me.”
After a short while, Alice took hold of Catrin’s shoulders and looked into her eyes.
“Can you find Gsaa?” she asked. “I think she needs to run.”
“You’re right,” mumbled the older woman.
She crumbled into a crouch. The air about her shimmered, and a snow leopard rose to all fours, shook its round, furry head, yawned, and stretched its long, flexible spine, front paws straight ahead, the magnificent tail curving towards the ceiling.
Next to it, a fox-like creature with dark red fur, black ears, cream belly and a ringed tail, blinked its black button eyes and sniffed the air.
The door opened. The red panda and the snow leopard trotted out into the corridor and set off towards the stairs. They raced down, the panda in a flurry of legs, the big cat in a few huge bounds, disdaining the last half flight and leaping over the stone banister into the hall. At its muted “mmrrrroooooarrr”, the back door opened and released the two animagi into the park surrounding the old white building.
They would be back later, in human form, to deal with human sorrow.
But not yet.
Now there was running, jumping, chasing, sniffing scents, playing tag, rolling in dead oak leaves, and falling asleep in a tangled heap of pale grey and auburn fur.
This concludes the alternative tale of Severus’ life.
What happened at his funeral,
how Catrin and Raven dealt with the loss,
also whether Raven became a witch,
you can read in the second part of this story.