In the House of Black
There are countless ways to tell this story, but only one can make sense of the events which occurred after the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb. We told one story to pacify the Muggles, another to the Ministry, but there is another, though even that I cannot call the truth. Sometimes, I still wonder whether all of it was a dream. I am sure that many readers don't believe in magic, and even those who are witches or wizards might not believe in the existence of daemons. I certainly didn't, not until I meant one.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in a narrow world, my life having only one purpose: carrying on the pureblood line. I was born a witch to one of the most affluent wizarding families in England and grew up to think little and do even less. Or was it do little and think even less? I never thought about the world outside, that world without magic, except to believe that it was a lesser place, filthy and cruel.
My life changed one spring afternoon when the garden was filled with blossoms, the sun warming their faded petals. I had been out of Hogwarts for a year, doing what I could to avoid the marriage market. The Great War was raging across the Channel where both Muggles and wizards fought side-by-side. My parents had not agreed with the War, thinking it illogical for wizards to fight a Muggle battle, yet they did nothing to prevent my brother from going. And so Hector left for France with other young wizards to fight what appeared to be a losing battle.
Two years later, we received the owl which bore the tidings of my brother’s disappearance. They would never find the body.
The house elves covered the windows with black crepe and used the same material to surround my brother’s portrait in the drawing room. The portrait disregarded all sense of propriety, complaining how the black did not suit his complexion. It's funny to think of it now; I can't even remember what he looked like, his face a pale blur beneath blond curls. There is too much of my early life which has gone forgotten by my aging mind.
His wife was a sickly girl who had given herself up to Hector before he was to leave for France. It was my parent’s side of the agreement that he marry if he chose to join the army and Gwyneth Nott was a suitable wife, if nothing else, and utterly useless at anything. Pretty, yes, but many said that she would have been a Squib if not for her father's power in the Ministry. I'd never seen her even light a candle.
"It takes too much energy, wouldn't you agree, Helen? Getting out the wand, then remembering the spell, then trying to make it work..."
"But that's the easiest part!"
She sniffed. "Hardly. I'll have house elves to do it for me, anyway."
Gwyneth wasted away in an appropriate manner three months after the owl arrived. It started with fainting spells and dramatic illnesses, then a loss of appetite and disinterest in anything, even her infant son.
"Take him to play, Helen. I'm too tired."
"You should get some fresh air. It'd do you good."
She liked to sniff a lot, especially at me. Perhaps she could smell my future disgrace. "Some of us aren't made for the outdoors."
Or for life in general. She died in late summer, leaving her son an orphan. She had worried too much about being a young widow in a world sadly lacking in suitable young men, forgetting that the boy even existed.
And so my mother's eye, so long distracted by her beloved daughter-in-law, at last rested upon me.
It was September. The War still raged, seeming to have no end to its madness. Not that I ever troubled myself about it. Self-absorbed in my accomplishments, I avoided society, pleased to remain the untouchable Helen Black. The one all the young wizards must have wanted, the ideal pureblooded witch, not that I ever heard from them. The world could do what it pleased, I was happy enough with my music and my painting.
Father entered the room, the creases on his face deepening by the day.
A single word, so ominous. I made sure to slam the piano shut before following him to the library. It was not my favourite room in the house, reeking of my father's cigars, but its contents were the cause of endless fascination. The leather-bound volumes were not often removed from their shelves, so many secrets hidden away in manor houses across the England, our history in the control of the privileged.
"Helen, have you ever contemplated marriage?"
He sat behind his massive desk, staring at me over his spectacles, knowing full well how much I hated when he did that.
He almost looked surprised.
"But not for myself." The pause had been perfectly timed.
Father smiled in spite of himself, but the creases in his forehead did not budge. “I'd never assume you ever would, but things have changed. Your role in this family is one of those changes.” His face darkened, and I knew that these words were not my own. Only one of my parents ever spoke to me in this way.
I heard voices in the hall approaching the library door. Father turned, his expression still dark, his hands clamped on the arms of his chair. He seemed desperate, like a cornered animal. Something was happening around me and until that moment, I had taken no notice of it.
"Your mother believes that Abraxas requires a more... stable family unit, parents to raise him as though he was their own." He hesitated, fingers tightening on the chair.
I stared at Father, only partially understanding his meaning.
"But what about both of you? You could still raise him...."
Father swallowed uncomfortably. “Your mother has rejected that option, claiming that you are in greater need of something to do, as she put it. A child would do just that, as would a...”
I opened and closed my mouth a number of times before the words emerged. "A husband."
He looked away, eyes wandering across the shelves, anything but look my way. “Most fortunately for you she has made a wise choice in husband for you,” Father continued, his voice lowering. “Even though I am opposed to you getting married so soon as I was with your brother’s untimely departure, Canis will serve you well as husband. He has many fine qualities.”
The strangled sound that emitted from my throat at the sound of that accursed name rang through the room. “Canis Malfoy?"
His cheeks flushed, his upper lip turning up in a typical pureblood sneer. “The Blacks and Malfoys have been connected for centuries. Your marriage would strengthen certain holdings and further the pureblood cause. You know all these things already, Helen."
I bit my lip, trying to fight back tears. Father was supposed to be an ally against my mother, protecting me from her schemes and manipulations. He had been the only one after Hector's death to stand between myself and marriage, letting me claim that I was still too young even as all my peers made wise attachments and ran their own households. But Canis Malfoy, of all people? That slimy, arrogant bastard, my brother's age, but never his friend. He had known was Canis was really like, why so many girls could not bear to speak his name.
"It is unfortunate that you are displeased at the match, but it is a necessary one for the continuance of our branch of the Black family. Our City cousins cannot be let down by your failure." He was growing more serious, a sure sign that he was not about to change his mind anytime soon.
I was trapped. A bird in a gilded cage, soon to be placed between the cat's greedy paws. No, wolf. Canis was far more canine, as suiting his name.
"I will not marry him." Blunt, and perhaps the most honest thing I'd ever said.
Father ripped off his spectacles, his cheeks flushing in frustration. Had he expected me to agree to this immediately? It made no sense. Surely he knew me well enough, knew why I had been avoiding society since graduation.
“Who else is there to marry? If you can name someone, please do.”
There was no one, nor had there ever been. Even with my appearance, my accomplishments, the boys at school had looked, but never touched, nor spoken, nor demonstrated any interest whatsoever. I could see that now. Some would be dead others maimed by the war, and those who had remained, they would be long-married, sitting behind their desks at the Ministry, anything to avoid their controlling wives. It was surprising that someone like Canis Malfoy had stayed behind. He was so great a coward that he didn't even think it necessary to fight himself, not when there were others who'd gladly take his place.
The sound of Father’s chair being pushed back from the desk alerted me to the approaching voices which had now reached the door of the library. I could hear my mother’s impatient voice berating someone about the proper treatment of his cloak. He'd always been that way. And to think that they wanted me to share a home - a bed - with this man disgusted me. No, not just that: it terrified me.
"Please, don't make me marry him, Father. I can't. I won't."
“I cannot make both you and your mother happy,” was his only reply. So it was to be my mother over me. She would win, as she always knew she would.
He'd always had a weakness for her whims, loving her too much, I supposed, though it might have been something else. Perhaps he wanted something from her that only marrying me off could ensure. I lowered my eyes, hands folded in my lap, wishing that I had been born a Squib.
“And look how modest she is, Canis." Mother's voice resonated throughout the room, filling all its silent corners, disturbing the fragile bindings of the books. “Such a dear she is! Now come here, my dear. I assume that your father already told you of the plan."
She patted my shoulder with more affection than I thought her capable of. Oh yes, she was definitely pleased to be getting rid of me at last, that millstone around her neck. People must have been wondering why the perfect Black girl hadn't found a husband. Must be something wrong with her...
They were right, of course. But I couldn't tell them, I couldn't tell anyone the reason. A promise is a promise.
"I'm afraid that I cannot accept Mr. Malfoy's offer. I do not wish to marry anyone."
In the silence, I kept my eyes downcast, imagining my mother’s reddening-face and the glares she'd shoot at my father like jinxes, blaming him for this streak of obstinacy. As for Canis, I dared not to think. Perhaps he was leering at my silhouette, or worse, staring at me with disgusting thoughts in his head. It wasn't below him. Nothing was.
“Never marry, what an idea!” She must have turned to Canis at this point because her voice lowered an octave. “Don’t mind her, she’s simply astonished at such an honour. You know how girls are these days.”
“Theodroa." Father attempted a soothing voice. "Perhaps it is the timing that has brought on this answer. Gwyneth's death-"
“Oh rubbish, Cygnus!” Oh, she was livid now, and it was with a struggle that she maintained the polite mask she wore in company. “Helen enjoys her little jokes, especially at my expense."
“I do not disagree, but perhaps putting this off for another week, even month..." He trailed off, his attempts to quell her rage failing. Putting if off, ha!
Canis watched with interest. Too much interest.
Mother's voice began to break. "Never! If it is not done as soon as possible, then it will never be done! What sort of wizard are you, to be so weak against your own child?"
He closed his eyes and turned away to look out the window. The Cornish coastline was neatly framed by the curtains, all grass and stones, the waves raging below the cliffs. There was no comfort to be found in such a sight, a place that Nature had forsaken in her own way.
“Never marrying means that I don’t want to marry today nor any other day." I rose from the chair, hands clenched. "Postponing it won't change my mind. Either I stay here, or I leave, but either way, it's as a free witch."
Unfortunately, Canis actually looked impressed at my speech. Damn him. My mother did not fare so well, staring at me as though I'd admitted to being a Squib. Hector had been her favourite. I was a girl, something to be passed off at the first possible moment, preferably with the least expense and the most benefit. She'd never wanted me, and she'd never been afraid to show it.
There was a snicker from above the mantelpiece. A portrait of our prominent cousin Phineas Nigellus, one of three such portraits, was looking down at the scene with much amusement. He must have arrived to see the spectacle.
“You can tell she’s a Black by her stubbornness." He laughed again, then nodded to Father. “I always said that you spoiled her too much. Obviously even a Malfoy isn’t good enough for her now.”
“Enough!” Father turned to point his wand at the portrait. Curtains appeared, hiding Phineas’s grin. The only remaining voice of reason was vanquished.
Father at last looked toward me, jaw set in fury. Between Mother and myself, we'd made quite a scene. Knowing Malfoy, it would be heard within every pureblood household by the end of the week. “You will marry Mr. Malfoy no matter what idealistic notions you've been harbouring. You need to correct those childish attitudes of yours.”
When he transferred his gaze to Mother, I could see how wrong I was. There was no infatuation there, no eagerness to please. I would never know what it was that had made him believe that marriage to Canis Malfoy was my best option. He opened his mouth, then with a frustrated glance toward Malfoy, he made for the door, slamming it shut behind him, a house elf leaping out of the way just in time. Mother collapsed on the couch with a screech, hand to her forehead. Canis knelt beside her too eager in his attentions, and that was when I knew the truth.
It was too easy to slip away, to go where they would not find me.
There were corners of the house where I could hide for hours, but that would not do. I had to leave entirely, wipe my existence off the face of their world forever.
But to where? Not London, to the City cousins. They would only send me back again, laughing at my insolence (or country ignorance). Not France, not now, nor Europe in general. No interest in going to America, a certain exchange student had reduced any passing interest to dust. There had to be other places where magical people could reside, but even then, I might be seen, recognised. Perhaps it would be best to stop being magical, to hide where they could never find me.
My possessions stowed in my school trunk, excepting the fabulous dress robes Mother had been bribing me with these past months - they were filthy things now. A book or two from the library, some money, jewels from my mother's box - borrowed, but never returned.
And so I ran away from home, like a character in a book, stealing away in the dead of night from an unwanted marriage.
But it was real.
I was in Liverpool before I had decided. Father had mentioned some banking interests in Egypt, worried for their safety in the possibility of the country gaining independence, which the Seers had been forecasting for years. From the books I'd read about the place, it sounded fairly interesting, even if I knew next to nothing about it. Tombs, museums, temples, crowds of tourists to get lost in, where it was warm and dry, no more of that infernal dampness of the Cornwall coast.
Yes, Egypt definitely was the place for me.