Ashes of Dust
There is little to report - no change whatsoever. The only class I'm interested in is Defence Against the Dark Arts. It’s practical, something that will be useful when I attend the Academy. I don’t know why I need to take so many classes to become an Auror. It doesn’t have much to do with learning at all. Potions had more to it just before the holidays, when we studied poisons. Slughorn now has us doing the really boring things, and Grimm says they’re mostly wrong anyway, so what’s the point? This isn’t the time for playing around with useless knowledge.
I keep track of the days until I can leave this place, just like I’ll count the days until I can finish my training, as fast as possible, and fight in this war. I don’t want to be nothing more than curse fodder, but I need to go. McGonagall told me what my name means, and I know that you chose it on purpose. Alastor, the avenging spirit, just like those demons you’ve captured from the tombs. I won’t let father’s death be in vain....
She reads the letter, the sand blowing in her bleached hair, but whether by sun or age, one cannot be sure. Perhaps it is both. There has been a sadness in her eyes since she returned from London, ever twisting the ring of turquoise and coral around the gnarling finger, now too large for the ring to pass over. It is trapped upon her finger, and she is trapped within the memory of its presence.
That last line she reads once and again. Her son never speaks anything but the truth, his blunt words like whiplashes even as she senses the genuine feeling behind them, the anger, the frustration of his adolescence all pent up against those who had caused his father’s death, not necessarily those who had caused the war itself.
From this distance, she can admit that Alastor Moody was the monstrous combination of his parents, all forthright and obstinate. He would fight to the death.
If he was anything less, she could not have loved him.
He had been born here, among the sands of Egypt, much against his father’s will. Alastor had refused to be born in London, waiting until after his parents had alighted from the boat, her pigheaded notion that she would return with or without her husband still a tabooed subject of conversation when she had collapsed with sudden pain.
“Three weeks late,” she had breathed around the contraction, wrenching her husband’s hand. “It’s going to be just like you at this rate. Never on time for anything important.”
He had squeezed her hand in return, jaw in a firm line. “It’ll be as stubborn as you, if not more.” He paused, musing. “Would that even be possible?”
She could not remember anything until she had opened her eyes to see the red thing in the midwife’s hands, bulbous and large, its head thrown back in a bellowing screech, hands pumping in the air.
Her husband had turned to her, seemingly terrified of the creature.
“It definitely takes after you, Princess.”
Unable to find the energy to think up an appropriate response, she asked the first thing she could think of. “What will we name him? I assume that it’s a he.”
He nodded, sitting on the bed beside her, back to the screams as the midwife wiped the boy clean. He took up her hand, a little smile fading the lines of worry from his face. “A good wife would first think of naming it after her husband.”
She managed an uncomfortable laugh, wincing as she did. “Trying to keep track of two of you would drive me mad. Perhaps something similar...” She closed her eyes again, happy to look into the darkness. Something, a long ago memory, reached her. They had been on a train speaking of demons, the squib and the witch, he holding the seminal volume on the subject while she disagreed with everything he said.
He spoke her name and moved to fetch the nurse, but she tightened her grip to keep him near.
“You remember that book?” She licked her lips. “Demonology
“That one? Why?”
The midwife wrapped the child in a blanket, not that it was anything close to cold in the room. She could hear him fussing, but he had silenced his voice, as though knowing that it was futile to resist the violence of birth.
Her husband’s thumb made circles on the back of her hand.
“Remember the alastor?”
He would frown, wracking his mind, overfilled with political coups and intrigues. He was more likely to remember the details of her face rather than the book he had used to draw her out of her tightly-fastened shell.
“The avenging spirit.”
“The what?” His voice cracked. “That’s a little much, isn’t it?”
The midwife approached the bed from the other side, shaking her head over the boy before handing him down to his mother’s awkward arms, adjusting them three times before being satisfied.
Wife and husband, now mother and father, looked down at the child, cherry-red and wrinkled, eyes squeezed shut, arms struggling against the folds of the blanket. They seemed transfixed by his movements, the odd complexities of this simple creature, its mind not yet stamped with worry or care, bodily function its only concern.
“I think it suitable for the son of Alexander the Great and Helen the Fair.” She mocked her own pride while attempting to bolster his. “After all, you’re supposed to be the ‘defender’.”
He snorted. “Preposterous stuff.”
Then he looked at her face, scorn fading from his features.
“I suppose that sort of thing works with you, Princess, the way that you light up a room...” He touched her yellow hair, his fingers running down the side of her face.
“It’s not that different from your name, after all.” Her eyes expressed the appreciation she did not put into words, and he leaned his face down to hers.
When she wakes, still holding the letter, she is surprised that she has slept. Growing old, she supposes, though she is only three years past forty. A widow, now, all the same. Perhaps it is the way her son is not very good with words. He does not find it necessary to use flowery language, paring words and images down to their literal meaning before running off to take action.
He will not make a good politician, but he will be a very good Auror.
It has always been obvious what he wanted to do with his life. Being a wizard, he has greater opportunities than his father, and he has not hesitated to take them, using underage magic around the house until the threat of expulsion from Hogwarts had made him sigh with frustration, bellowing for this parent or the other to help him find whatever it was he sought.
The problem was that he tended to hide things, just in case someone came to take it from him. He had inherited his mother’s paranoia, a fact that Alexander was always pleased to exclaim even though his influence was little better, particularly in his habit reading the Sherlock Holmes stories aloud before bed.
“Why isn’t it a magic hound, Dad? That would be more right.” Meaning more realistic, though that word evaded his gap-toothed mouth.
Alexander put on that blank mask, unwilling to reveal his deep-set bitterness on the subject. “Not everything has to be magical. Most of the world isn’t. Don’t forget that.”
The boy’s large brown eyes stared up in awe. “Is that why Holmes doesn’t have a wand?”
“Neither do you.”
He was always harsher on the boy than on his wife. Perhaps he could never understand why this boy had been born with magic while he had not.
“I’m too little!” came the arrogant reply that, given in a high-pitched voice, was loud enough to bring Helen to the door. She questioned the situation with a raised eyebrow. As long as they weren’t reading those scientific romances again, she would not complain. Aliens from other planets, indeed!
“Alastor doesn’t seem to understand how Muggles can live without magic.” Alexander’s voice was flat, and she knew that she was to blame, amusing her son with magic tricks in her husband's frequent absences.
She sat on the end of the bed, watching them through tired eyes. “Perhaps, Alastor, that could be our next project.”
“What, Mummy?” The boy sat up like a hound at the sound of a horn, always eager for a new project, a mission that would take him from the kitchen to the garden and up into the attic, magnifying glass in hand.
But when she spoke, she stared into her husband’s eyes. “We will live without magic this whole month, just like Muggles.” She managed a small laugh. “It’s been a long time.” Long enough for her to have forgotten the feeling of scraping one’s living from the ground.
She almost missed the uncomfortable eagerness on her son’s face, deepening her small laugh and sharing it with her husband, who now only saw her in the room, as it once had been between them.
That was part of the problem, she reflects, the memory blown away with another gust of wind. As Alastor came to understand that his father loved his mother more than him, the scent of another challenge passed beneath his nose. He would not speak of magic for days, asking only for his father’s help, admiring, worshipping, until–
“Would you like to come with me?” Alexander looked down at his son, who was practically clutching at his leg, though he was nearly eight, staring upwards at the god of his little world.
“Really?” The eyes were painfully bright.
Alenxader looked bemused, waiting for Helen’s approval. She wordlessly handed him his own jacket along with its miniature twin. Their eyes met halfway, more than a passing glance, a smile playing about her lips, his hand lingering on hers before he helped Alastor with his jacket. When his parents leaned toward one another, he ran out the door.
She remembers how Alastor couldn’t stop talking about that day for a long time. It was all he has of his father's attention for nearly three months. Alexander had gone to Turkey, or was it Tunis? Did it matter where? Those are the details that elude her now, but they are unimportant. She sees the light fading from her son’s eyes with each passing day. He would sit by the window, then by the door, then outside of it, gazing down the road, heedless of the stares of those passing by. She had continued with her work, not daring to fall behind, only a little conscious that her son never waited for her in such a way.
It was natural for a boy of his age to want his father’s company, even if his mother was a curse breaker, and a famous one at that, though her work had come to lean more toward the administrative than the practical. One days she had attempted to convince Alastor to accompany her to the tombs, he would resist.
“Just in case, Mum. You never know when he’ll come back.”
She would leave him there with a book that would remain unread upon his lap. Even the stories of Sherlock Holmes could not interest him, not without the magic voice of their narrator.
Perhaps it should have hurt that, because her husband loved her more, her son loved her less. In sitting by the road, Alastor ensured that he would be the first thing his father saw, the first thing he greeted.
She never said anything about it to him, never remonstrated his odd behaviour.
“It’s not normal, Helen.” Her husband rubbed his temples, sitting away from the window, out of sight of the world he was growing to despise. “Not to mention how it makes me feel guilty. Bad enough that I’m away for so long, but to think that he’s sitting out there the whole time makes it worse.”
“Nothing will dissuade him from it.” She came from behind and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, preferring that he should not see her face. “I can never be to him what you are, you know.”
He kissed her hand, warming it with his breath. “He’ll be at school soon.”
Her breath caught; she pulled away. “Yes.”
They took him to London together, walking him through Diagon Alley for the first time in his life, his eyes wide at the sight, his hands itching at his new woollen robes. His mother warned him about the winter and chilblains. His father placed an encouraging hand on his shoulder, claiming that he’ll make them proud. Then he was bundled off on the train, his hand waving at the window, face untouched by anxiety.
He wrote little, his letters always too short and never particularly good. She vowed every year to correct his grammar and add to his vocabulary in the summer, but he would pursue books about practical spells and curses, shrugging off her advice.
“Father rarely writes when he’s gone.”
She let out a sigh. “He used to write more.”
Alastor looked back down at his book, picking up his wand to mirror a diagram.
Every evening, after dinner, he would sit with his father, no longer to be read detective stories, but to hear his father’s stories. Alexander would set him after this or that book, but Alastor only read the exciting ones, never those regarding history or politics. He never said they were impractical, only that he didn’t need to know of them.
“You’re sounding too much like Sherlock Holmes.” His father's voice was stern. “A person can’t live that way, limiting themselves to arcane knowledge. If you aren’t careful to know all the facts, it will be death to you if you’re lucky, death to others if you’re not.”
Helen, standing outside the door, closed her eyes.
It was a lesson her son would never forget. He still mentions it sometimes, though only in passing, but it’s enough to prove that his father’s voice, his words, remain in his mind, that some part of his father lives on within him after all.
Alastor eventually outgrew his patiently vigilant habits and began to accompany her to the tombs. By then, she had been promoted to head curse breaker of Upper Egypt, second only to the Prefect, and she would inspect each tomb for any cursed objects. Alastor would poke into all the corners, shifting aside some thing or another with a careful finger, careful not to disturb the dust.
Once there had been a box in one corner that still shook with the ferocity of an unleashed demon. Alastor, then fifteen, did not hold back, but stood beside her as she approached, wand out-raised, eyes intent, heart exhilarated. He seemed to feel it, too, his muscles tense.
“Remember, Alastor,” she whispered, wand tip against the box, free arm reaching to hold him back. “You must always be on guard. Constant vigilance!”
As though her words had been the catalyst, the box flew open, the blue-smoked demon rising high against the tomb ceiling, his glee resounding. Alastor took in a sharp breath. Pictures in books could not capture the demon’s power, electrical in the stale tomb air. He watched as his mother froze, as though the demon had already taken her, wounded her, but it passed as soon as it had come. A single unintelligible spell sent it raging into its prison.
Alastor stepped forward while his mother, gasping, fell back against the piled tomb furniture, the contents rattling only a little more than her nerves. She took his arm, a tear visible against the dust on her face.
“I’m getting too old for this.” She did not even attempt her usual smile.
He offered her some water. She drank deeply, feeling his gaze upon her, different from how it had ever been. Perhaps it was a shade of the worshipful gaze he awarded to his father. Perhaps he had finally realised that she was just as worthy a hero.
She met his gaze and saw the question within it.
“Memory is the worst thing of all.” She took another drink.
The glass beside her is now empty, the letter still in her hands, the sun going down. The wind has died, leaving the air stiff, oppressive. It is the problem of living too close to the water, but that is how her husband preferred it, the road to the station never as long for her to walk back, alone. Not that it matters now.
She does not know when Alastor will return to her or if he ever will. His writing has improved a little, she notes, eyes passing again over the letter. Perhaps he feels guilty for his father’s now-permanent absence, that she must live alone, dressed in black.
After all this time, he has never really understood that he is too much like his father, so much so that Alexander, living behind so many masks, could not show any love for him, though he felt it, deep within. She is sure that he loved Alastor. She sees all of the similarities between them, has seen them since the beginning, and she knows that her son, her Alastor, will live up to his name.
* * *
Another holds the letter, some decades later. He scoffs aloud at how his mother kept everything, preserving their lives in a cardboard box. He looks different now, unlike anything she could have imagined, the rounded features hardened into stone, one blue eye reeling while one of brown bores into his adolescent words, his face covered in scars. With them, he has sought to make himself in his father’s image, the chiseled nose, the cleft chin, but still, in the mirror, he sees his mother’s face. Rounder. Softer. Weaker.
The letter falls from his hands to lie on the floor amid the dust. He stumps away, the limp heavier than before. An echo resounds his mother’s words, whispered in his ear as a child, called after him when older: “remember, constant vigilance!”
She had lived by it. His father had died by it.
And so shall he.