it's rarely that I begin a story with a note, but this one bears some commentary. I've been really interested lately in the idea of truly inhabiting the body, and what it feels like to be at odds with your skin. I'd ask you to be patient with the plot; it does, eventually, come. I will update this story weekly, if all goes according to plan.
I shouldn't say this, but for the best experience, you might consider acquainting yourself with the poem "Invictus" by William Henley, as the energy of this poem is what has inspired this fic. thank you for reading!
And you’re delirious in the potions fumes again. Your hair a bushel of wire, a cloud floating above your shoulders. Your hands clutch the edges of that cauldron like your nose is close to touching into liquid, or you’re looking for your reflection at the bottom of the pot. Only skin of boomslang there, poison snake, beady eyes.
I consider my quill, my wand. Each a dull brown against the gloss of the black tabletop, newly polished, a brand new shine. I observe the parchment spilling out of my bag, nudge the fabric with my shoe. Things have been quiet, it is winter, the walls are getting porous, are starting to feel hollow again, and my mind is burning up, bored with potions we’ve already learned to make.
Our lesson ends at half nine. It is the same every Monday. There’s no reason to, but I always wonder if anyone ever hears my skin stretch over my anxious inner-person, always pushing up at those boundaries, sometimes nearly breaking free.
* * *
I’m in the common room, leaning out of an open window, looking down at the grass poking out of the snow.
“What’re you doing? You’ll lose an eye!”
“Hardly,” I say, turning back towards the room, and the fire is casting shadows and throwing light onto the same walls. “It’s not that cold.”
“Cold hands, warm heart,” Molly trills. I grimace, pushing my lips together, apart, frowning, and squinting my eyes near closed. Everything seems a grand effort.
“Warm hands, cold heart,” I say, pushing a curtain of hair over my shoulder.
“Are you still planning the break-in for later?”
“You can’t--” I fly towards her, upturning poufs, tripping over the claw of an ornate chair. “You can’t say
things like that, you’ll get us killed!” I hiss, quite close to her face. I can see where acne has sprouted up near her hairline, the mark of an end-of-term Seventh Year.
* * *
“So. Let’s talk about you.”
“Look,” he says, leaning in closer. I scoot back, my chair screeching in the classroom full of the hum of students talking under the drone of Flitwick’s lecture. “You think just because you’re this golden girl
everyone’s going to take an interest in you, or like you, or something.”
I stare at his face. It is wide and his forehead is smooth and high, ending in a stack of tightly-wound, black curls. His deep, brown skin is freckled over the bridge of the nose and rounded cheekbones.
“Addae,” I say, tilting my head, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “Addae Jordan, right?”
He looks at me out of one eye. “Yes,” he says. His face asks how I know.
“Let’s finish this assignment,” I smile, and he hesitates before sighing and lifting his wand to my eyebrow and closing his eyes. I can see his lips flutter. He cheats on the nonverbal spell. I pretend not to notice, looking down at my hands when he opens his eyes.
He grins widely, baring square, brilliantly white teeth. I’m startled by how easy it is for him, as though he doesn’t think at all.
“There,” he says slowly, holding a mirror out toward me in both hands. I take it gingerly, and lift it to my reflection.
My left eyebrow is a vivid, cobalt blue. My face twitches into a smile, my eyes crinkling to twinkling slits.
“Nice work,” I say, setting the mirror down on the table between us. Addae watches me warily. I can tell he wants to try again, see if I’ll speak now.
From across the room, Molly is waving her arm in a large arc, almost Roman. I gaze at her skeptically, molding my face, inhaling sharply as your face appears at her shoulder, sporting a new, bright pink unibrow. I push my lips forward, and then smile, rubbing my left shoulder with my right hand. I raise a finger. You hardly notice. You’re watching Albus pepper the back wall with spitwads covered in hair.
* * *
“Ham,” Molly is saying through a mouthful of food. “Chicken. Beef. Roast. Pie. Pota--”
“Are you sorry, yet?”
I turn my head, angling my chin over my left shoulder. I have an eager face; I often need to close it. Everything can open it up: anything can. Quiet light coming in through dirty windows, candlelight bouncing off wood, wandlight on dense black nights. Open air in the Great Hall. Things are always splitting me open. I’m quick to cover up what stuff gets quickly bared.
“You’re not sorry, you little thief! What else do you want to eat?”
Molly’s stolen Albus’s carrots. He makes her recite all the things she wishes she was eating while serving her only greens. It is a strange sort of power play. If I had ever had any hope for either of them to begin with I would worry. But as it is, I ignore them. Lunchtime is tedious, like most other times.
I feel eyes on me. Lunchtime is sometimes also dangerous.
* * *
“How’s the Weaslette on this fine evening?”
“Peeves,” I sing, walking past him in the opposite direction. I hear him cackle as he turns in midair to follow me.
“Weasel, Weasel, pumpkin pie,
tough as nails, weak as rye,
hair large enough to kill some guy!
“You’re going off it, Peeves,” I say, lifting the right corner of my mouth higher than the left. I put a hand on my hip and swerve to a stop in the middle of the corridor. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
“You’ll crack some day, Rosie!” he cries, before whizzing through a tapestry depicting Cliodne’s birds. I turn to face this tapestry fully, holding out my arms in front of my body and dragging the tips of my fingers down the soft fabric, fraying in places.
“Moondew,” I whisper at it. “Tell me your secrets.”
“That isn’t quite fair, is it?” a voice says, shrill and nasal. Molly’s caught a cold again. I stand still, staring at a patch of mauve thread-work. There’s a lone bead dangling from a string of threads. I don’t indicate that I’ve acknowledged her here.
“Did you know,” asks a voice from the other side of the tapestry. I jump, and settle back into my skin. I shift my focus between the threads of a thin, fraying patch on a bird’s wing, the part lying over the heart of the sleeper. “Did you know that what Cliodne does most on her Chocolate Frog card is scratch her nose?”
“I’ve got three of her,” Molly says, and Albus steps out from behind the tapestry, upsetting dust and a winged mouse, which flies quickly around my head for a moment and disappears into a puff of dun-coloured smoke.
We walk back to the Common Room, three-wide, sweeping the corridors silently and quickly. I feel now, as I often do, simple pride in the ability to do something well.
* * *
We’re roasting things in the fire. Partly because Albus has made friends with one too many house elves, partly to show the lower years that we’re extending them the privilege of sharing our
turf. There used to be times I didn’t think I could trust the common room, but after seven years I have learned that anyone who can pass our knocker is someone with whom anything I have under my skin is worthy to be shared.
A marshmallow swells to the size of Molly’s head and pops, splattering our textbooks, essays, faces, robes, hair with white-hot sugar. I pull my wand out before anyone can make a noise and vanish it silently. Our skin is peppered in quiet little red welts, but we’re experienced fire-roasters. Albus pulls out a phial of essence of Murtlap, and we take turns applying it, sometimes helping each other.
We spend our hour quietly, muttering occasionally about the length of our Defence essay due Thursday, wondering aloud how our last Saturday trip to Hogsmeade will deflate further our expectations. At times I feel I will almost burst into song: budding laughter at once inflates and compresses my chest. I am everywhere trying to get out of my own skin, I am always convincing myself the skin and the self are the same, I am trying to love what I have, and aching to change.
“Only double-Herbology left today,” Molly whispers as we watch the fire flicker once, and then settle into a bed of glowing embers.
“Why do we have so many N.E.W.T.s?” Albus wonders aloud.
“I’m not great at Herbology,” I worry.
“Please,” Albus says. I can hear him rolling his eyes, and I wish he wouldn’t. “An ‘E’ O.W.L., and it’s your worst one. You have to lower the bar, Rose.”
“I’m tall,” I say. “I can climb over pretty high bars.”
Molly laughs, a piercing sound, travelling quickly away from us. It has a way of rounding out at the end, and coming back towards us.
* * *
I won’t be part of it, you understand. Not what anyone will see of it. But I’m good with timetables, and tasks. I can organize it all fairly easily, and there are people eager to aid me. People have never thought of doing it this early, of starting so soon. This is a new level of leaving, of struggling to be remembered. For me, it is another struggle, almost entirely removed from me and wrapped up so tightly in us
that it nearly makes me ill to consider.
I grin into the snow, feeling indulgent, feeling derisive. My hands begin to freeze, and I squeeze my fingers into fists, then release, feeling the skin crack over the middle knuckle of my right hand, splitting open, spilling me out, but I know the hole is too small for a proper escape.
“Cold hands,” I mutter, and Molly links her arm through mine as we step through the snow carefully. I like the sound of ice being splintered beneath our boots. Our Herbology gear is heavy and permanent.
“Warm heart,” Molly says, rubbing the inside of my arm and glancing each step or so at the blooming sore on my right hand.
“None of us has a warm heart,” Albus calls from behind us, propelling his voice hard and fast to offset the headwind.
An owl floats by overhead, a letter clamped in its beak. I imagine I can read the name inked into the envelope. I am always imagining things.
* * *
Like this: In Herbology, I am often assigned grunt work, which is the true failing of the planning. We all know this, history is screaming it at us: central planning will fail, and has, without fail, failed. Professor Longbottom is a good chap, friend of the parents; that does make it hard to smile around him. I never know who he is seeing when he looks at me. I am wary of all old people, of all people outside of our House, outside of our common room. It is a safe way, tiring, exhausting. I smile sometimes, because I have to say, occasionally: nobody said it was going to be easy!
In Herbology, I am assigned the grunt work. They have me popping Snargaluff pods. I am not strong enough to wrestle with the stump, and not because my arms are weak. I look at the gnarled mass, I consider the bark, twisted, chaffed, flaking, grey and brown, and am never able to dig inside to pull what it wants to keep out of its body. Coaxing things to give
is outside of my nature, is decidedly beyond my capacities.
Here is what I imagine. My hand is around the bright green birth that has surfaced from this pathetic stump. It is like slime against the inside of my hand, and my skin is rough in contrast. There is a blood-red globule puffing up my whole right hand; it is the same hole gaping from the center of that fraying clump of wood, and while I am dreaming of poetic irony, this creature propels itself from the table into my body. My hands act before I can, throwing themselves forward in untempered self-defence, and the Snargaluff scrapes against the canvas Herbology cloak protecting my forearms.
One table over, you are not prepared for what is about to land on you, and you are holding one hand in the air, an unmitigated plea for assistance from a Professor who is mending a burn on another student’s cheek. At this table, my arms are still moving upwards, as if underwater, but the stump has already made contact. And now I am watching as I push it up into the air and far away from me, my chest, from whatever heart it thought it could snatch, get back somehow. But Greenhouse Seven will not escape casualties. This stump has changed course, a homicidal act, it is heading towards you and gathering noise about it, and when I think it will pass you by, your arm disappears into that maw, and my heart is a bird boring for freedom against the inside of my chest, drilling a pain between my lungs. Putting a hand there does nothing to stop.
It is not quite that you are precious to me. I could say that somehow, brushing elbows with you for seven years has made me fond, but that is not entirely the case. You are dear to me; whether or not you know, you are always receiving my voice. It will not always speak outside the body, but something about us transcends.
I imagine increasingly violent things. Your arm develops a rash, a sprawling, green, flaking set of scales that crust your lower arm. Professor Longbottom sends you to the Hospital wing. I accompany you there. On the way, I trip over a rock, and you do not look back, concerned for your safety. They never said bravery in every
case, I suppose, looking at your gold and scarlet tie, your gold and white hair, because now the sun is out, and things can be gold again.
I get to my feet, I walk after you, and things are pouring from my right hand, I’m leaving a trail of me in the snow which is a safe place, because it will melt, and then grass will grow over what’s bared of me in the sun, and flowers will grow out of my sadness, and the guarded heart I’ve left in puddles, and something, perhaps an earthworm, will one day crack the shield I’ve built up around it, and someone, somewhere, some little earthworm brain will really know.
But none of this is happening. You are so intent on holding your Snargaluff steady that I cannot see your face, but I can read your posture. You approach life as something to tackle, to win over. In a quieter way, so do I. Life is something to outsmart, to con somehow, to make to believe me. At the heart of it all I convince myself, the world filter. Veil that I am.
“Nothing happens to me,” I say. My voice is louder than I intend, cracking on the rise in the word “happens.” People are turning to look at me. It is a rare mistake. Things are all breaking down on this week in winter and I cannot see why there is a good reason. I put my face towards the pod under my hand. There is still that gaping crack centering the balance of my right hand. It stings, it is nearly numb. I imagine for a moment that I can see down to the bone.
I consider floating away, through the glass, into the white evening sky.
* * *
At dinner, I use my right hand to push food across my plate. I look for my reflection in the gold. I put my hands around the edges and lift it, my biceps flexing, my shoulders tense.
“‘Hungry to know where meaning lies,’” Molly quips, pushing my left hand back towards the table. I set down the plate and straighten my back. I breathe in deeply and tuck a vagrant curl behind my ear.
“These plates are heavy.”
“You ever considered that I could get one of the little guys to pass me one of these? Hide it under a pillow, something?”
“Get one to melt it down in the fireplace when everyone’s gone to bed,” I snap, glowering in Albus’s direction. Something rips at my throat, I feel ill, I’m shaking all over.
“Merlin,” he says, dropping his fork. It falls with a dull thud to the wooden table.
“You can’t talk like that,” I say. I glance at Molly, who’s gone quiet on my left side.
“It was a joke, Rose,” Albus says, looking incredulous.
“I’m not daft,” I say, my voice cracking. I realise I’ve put my fist down hard into the table, upsetting a second-year’s pumpkin juice down the line. People are staring. I can almost hear their eyes blinking toward me. “That’s your whole problem! Thinking you can joke about things like that.”
I stand up, flinging a leg over the bench and standing up. I put my hands on my waist and squeeze them hard, turning my knuckles white, down to the freckles there. I want to say more things to Albus--all of the slurs are so close to my mouth, but people are watching. I breathe heavily at him and jerk my head in his direction, frowning deeply, and turn to walk out of the Great Hall, my shoes making a racket on the flagstone floors.
* * *
We’ve gone to bed. It’s just Molly and me awake, the others’ deep breathing absorbed into the fabric they’ve pulled around their four-posters.
“Do you ever imagine being in love with somebody?”
For a moment, I contemplate brushing off the question. It would be easy. “Really? Are we going to talk about that tonight?” But I don’t say this. I stay quiet for a while and wait for her to talk.
“It’s just--I wonder--do you think we need to practice at that kind of thing? It’s so easy to--”
“Fly off,” I finish, folding my arms. The duvet puckers and rustles under my skin. Goosebumps creep up my forearms. I poke at the sore on my right hand with my left index finger, crackling the new scab.
“That’s not what I was going to say,” Molly says, but she’s thought about it, hesitated a moment.
“There’s this thing about living with people for long enough,” I say. “You get to know them pretty well. I know you’re talking about earlier.”
“And I know you
pretty well. Are you ever going to talk to me about Scorpius?”
I feel flat, suddenly. All my organs are gone. There is no blood pumping through me and I’m suspended in space. I close my eyes, I wait for the bed to return, for the gentle scratching of the woolen socks against the skin on the tops of my feet.
“There’s nothing to say.”
It isn’t true. There are a lot of things I never have told to Molly about us, and there are a lot of things I even wish I could tell her. But everything is gone from me. I feel no energy, no drive. All the times I have ever felt lonely abandon me in this tremulous moment, and I feel my boundaries gather in the darkness.
“What did anyone ever do to hurt you?” Molly whispers. “You aren’t the only one here with this story, Rose. Your sulking’s going to cut you off--”
“I can’t talk about this right now,” I say, and it’s true. “I don’t know
The breathing around us has shallowed out. The others have woken. I turn to the chest by my bedside, close my hand around my wand, draw the curtains closed, and pull the duvet over my head.
A minute passes. Perhaps more than one. Molly’s Muggle clock is clicking time out on her wall. I am almost asleep when I hear the curtains part and feel the mattress groan underneath me as someone else’s weight compresses the side of the bed, and a gentle heat warms up the right side of my body as another presses up against it, arms snaking under the duvet to wrap around the front of my shoulders and underneath my neck.
I breathe quietly. I cannot tell if times this happens it is for her, or for me.
a/n: the line "hungry to know where meaning lies" is from the poem "monologue for an onion" by suji kwock kim. peeve's little rhyme is unfortunately mine.