Chapter 1 : the Birch House
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The centaurs take me into the woods. We walk till the half-hour, past the birch trees, through the spider tunnel, and to a bright clearing where moonlight falls amongst the dappled leaves like a smattering of snow. There are folk tales about the clearing, and some people would tell you that they aren’t true, but you know, and I know, that they are.
Not many people know this, because the books don’t tell you, but centaurs aren’t only half-horse--a centaur is a half-person, half-anything, and their queen is a half-cat. She has sleek black fur and green slanted eyes, which sparkle in the moonlight with a perfervid heat, and she is the mistress of the Birch House.
The Birch House is a small square room where the centaurs take the orphans on the full moon. It has white walls and arm chairs and tapestries on the wall opposite the window where the light of the full moon shines in, and falls upon the needlework. The colours of this tapestry are rich, magical, bright greens and deep blues, plums, golds, silvers and scarlet. Out in the clearing, the half-horse centaurs stand guard armed with bow and arrows, and the centaur queen rises from the grasses, stalks into the Birch House, and waits for the moon to peak in the sky.
I do not remember my first visit to the clearing. What I do remember is spotting the dappled rump of the mooncalf disappear between the thin trunks of the trees turning themselves to light. I do remember the stories, and how I did not think of any of them when I followed the mooncalf through the trees, without looking back at the lake. I remember the scent of the pines and the heady ache of the birch swaying in strong winds, I remember the feel of leaves against my cheeks, the thrill of running in the dark, over roots, through caves, in pursuit of silver.
Out from the trees, a small form gathered darkness around its lithe shape and quivered at my side.
“Dost thou know what a Mooncalf makes?” The female voice was quiet and it bounced like the water in a rapid brook over the stones of its floor. In the moonlight I stopped, the leaves around me flying to the air as I dug in my heels to the soft dirt, and she stopped, too. A woman the size of a cat with a cat’s hindquarters and legs, and a long black tail that flickered in time to her blinking. Her eyes were green and wide, and sparkled with wisdom.
“Poop?” I asked in awe, my voice hushed. The centaur rolled her exquisite green eyes and her tail flickered.
“No,” she said, and parted her mouth widely to reveal thin, pointed teeth. When she closed her mouth again and heaved a small, wondering sigh, I could see where these teeth pressed up against her lips, small protrusions on the bottom curve. She is not exactly beautiful; her eyes too large and far apart, her shoulders too slim, her skin too ghostly, too pale, almost glowing, and the sleek black of her fur is unnerving, where it joins with skin at the hip.
“Dost thou know--how the Mooncalf cometh to be?” she asked me, and I frowned. This was a new question and no, how could I know? The wind rustled the leaves at our feet and the centaur leapt up onto the trunk of a tree fallen across the path, dewy and coated in bright green moss. She used the palms of her hands like the cat uses its front paws, and walked along it a way, until she came to a patch drenched in a silver glow.
“No,” I answered, “but I am sure a Mooncalf does poop.”
“Poop,” the centaur said, watching me with her head tilted back, down towards the dark part of the path, “has nothing to do with us.”
I should have liked to contest, but then, a wild clomping in the distance silenced me and the centaur sitting before me seemed to disappear. Up from the wet earth, spirits rose, the colour of candy floss and stars intermingling, a scent of winter apples rustling my hair. They chanted strangely melodic spells, weaving light around us in dark colours, and there was a great noise as if a giant were standing up from a squat, and suddenly we were surrounded by glittering eyes and rumpled fur.
I say that I do not remember my first visit to the clearing, and this is true, because on my runs after Mooncalves I often strayed into patches of land where the grass lay flat like fur and the light of the stars filtered through the branches on the trees to lie in it like pools. I had, like you, heard whispers of the Birch House, and the clearing that breached its eastern wall, lit up like fire when the sun rose, a portal between worlds, but had never realised that when I set foot into the damp grass, I set foot into ground whose other belly felt the tingle of spirit feet upon it.
“Young child,” a voice was ringing through the trees, a voice larger than the centaur’s, “come to the Birch House.”
Two half-horse centaurs came out from the bush, now alight with bonfire. I saw their eyes reflect the flame, and I was not afraid.
You have heard of the Birch House, and you have heard the others argue about whether or not it exists, or can, but you know that it does, and you know that its eastern wall is flanked by the clearing, but you have not heard that in winter, the Birch House heaves a sigh and lets the orphans free. You have only heard the stories of the harvest, that the creatures gather orphans and take them to the House where they are not allowed to love, so that they will not use it up.
“Humans are small creatures,” say the centaurs in the stories. “Incapable of pure love, of infinite love. And when they love, they use it up. Let you not use your love too soon,” they say, and let the orphans play in the square house, with the tapestries on the walls. One night in winter, six months from the Walpurgisnacht, they let the orphans free. The spirits rise from the mists of the earth, and the centaurs gather in the clearing.
“The Birch House will be empty tonight,” the cat-centaur said to me. All around me whispers in the air turned soft, every eye alight with fire, the rosy spirits dancing in the leaves. Other creatures--foxes, peahens, gophers, Nifflers, and a dying Phoenix trailing ash in an arc across the night sky--accompanied the centaurs back to the clearing, where they stood at the edges of the thick grass and watched with glowing eyes. The centaurs took me into the Birch House.
As they had said it would be, the Birch House was empty of orphans.
“Bow to Queen Ruth,” a young centaur told me, coming out of the shadows at the foot of a tapestry. He was half goat, and stood on his hind feet carefully. His forehead was clear and high, his head wrapped with a crown of berries. “I am her son, Boaz. And this, my brother, Jachin.” Another half-goat tripped into the moonlight from the shadows, and his was a crown of ice. I bowed to Queen Ruth, who was now sitting on a plain, light-wood throne beneath the window. She wore no crown.
“These, my guard,” Queen Ruth intoned, her green eyes crinkling at the edges as she smiled at the two half-horse centaurs, “Xury and Delphi.”
“Er--hello,” I said, when they turned to me, and nobody spoke.
“I asked of thee, ‘dost thou know what a Mooncalf makes?’” Queen Ruth said, as Princes Boaz and Jachin sat at my elbows. Xury and Delphi moved to flank the queen’s throne. Light fell on their polished hindquarters from the window.
“Yes,” I began, but Queen Ruth held out a small hand.
“Hush,” she said, her eyes flashing. I fell quiet, and wiped my chin. “I do know what you did say, and it has nothing to do with us.”
Outside, the wind whistled through the trees, and an owl hooted. I felt calm, and warm, and the light coming through the window fell into my eyes as Queen Ruth began her story.
“Thou knowest the stories,” she said, her voice thrumming and musical, “of the orphans of the Birch House, of the harvest and the centaurs who reap the children from the darkness. In the Birch House, children are taught to save their love until the time comes that they are ready to give it to the people who will give it back to them. But every once in a while, a child comes along whose fate, written in stars, never ends in partnership--a child whose cards would read solitude, poet, hermit. These children, we keep in the Birch House for no longer than they wish to stay. We release them at their will. We do not wait for winter.”
Years later, as a young fifth-year running through the forest in hot pursuit of silver, whenever I leapt the roots of the forest floor or tore through branches, upsetting leaves, whenever I heard the rustle of a horse’s tail behind me, whenever I felt the warmth of the cat paw at my back or heard the trill of the flute while I ran through the Forest, I remembered Queen Ruth’s words to me:
“These are the Dreamers, who can only find their way by moonlight. And we do not keep the Dreamers in the Birch House because they will never use up all their love. When they are young, we tell them that when they are old and wish to use the last of their love, they may return to the Birch House on Walpurgisnacht, when all the birds will join their hands around them and join in song, and the bonfires will whiten the light of the moon, and the Mooncalves will emerge from the ashes, the human made eternal, the human made love, the children of the moon, gentle spirits.”
author's note: Dearest Janechel, you are so patient with me! I never update "An Improbable Fiction" these days, and yet your love for Hugo Weasley remains pure. For that, I reward you with a pre-"It's Called Adventure" one-shot, which I may or may not expand into a short-story collection, as I've debated doing this for a long time; it is hard not to want to write Hugo more when you do it a little bit.
some things to consider: walpurgisnacht is a German may-day festival with roots in the occult. If you're interested in this idea, I highly recommend further research.
The idea of the Birch House is one I have played with regularly in short stories and other writings, but I got the idea at all from a girl in a class I had last year who wrote a short story about the Ash Houses of Dartmoor from a child's perspective, one who'd made up stories to explain their existence. The Birch House is quite different to the Ash Houses of Dartmoor, but I thought I'd give credit to this classmate and wonderful writer who'd inspired this story.
The quote "a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight" and any manipulations thereof are due to Oscar Wilde's poetic brilliance.
The cards mentioned ("solitude," "poet," "hermit") refer to tarot cards (and may or may not be ones revealed to me when I had mine read, ahem).
I should probably also add that the mooncalf is JKR's creation and she talks about it in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and if you're familiar with them from this book then you're not surprised when I say that I've done really nothing to stick to that description; nor to counter it.
You can read this as universally-parallel to the stories "It's Called Adventure" and "An Improbable Fiction," told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old Hugo Weasley (: