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Strawberry Hill by marinahill

Format: Short story
Chapters: 4
Word Count: 5,187
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild Violence, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Angst
Characters: Dumbledore, Ariana, Aberforth, Percival, Kendra
Pairings:

First Published: 08/27/2011
Last Chapter: 08/14/2012
Last Updated: 08/14/2012

Summary:




Follow Ariana to Strawberry Hill. Then you'll know you're dead. 

banner by OMG! @tda | TGS Awards finalist 2010: Most Creative Story


Chapter 1: Prologue
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Prologue

Time healed none of my wounds. I had very little of it when I was alive and during my time in the land of the dead it betrayed me even more. Perhaps I expected too much from something so benign, from something so inanimate; it was indifferent to me and my troubles. Time was as dead as I was.

Dwelling on thoughts of the past always took me to the same place, where the heart of the white world rotted slowly beneath the hill. Vivid grass tickled my feet as I felt the slow and irregular beating of its heart. My heart. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine an engorged heart buried underneath the surface, throbbing as its veins turned black, spilling an inky substance into the white earth up into the grass. The darkness within me would one day poison this entire world, cracking its immaculate surface until the souls of the dead fell through the chasms. I would be their downfall.

My burden was a heavy one. My untimely death had taken me to this world, where I was trapped beyond the grasps of life. Those that passed through this place repeated questions I had asked after my arrival and I was none the wiser even after my long imprisonment. We found each other, the newly dead and the veteran, desperate in our quest for answers and knowledge, the meaning of life. I could not give them what they wanted.

They always left me behind, the dead. They passed through the white world like passengers on a train; I was merely a stop on the way to their final destination. I understood the ways of this world, as it understood me, and it was clear from the very beginning that this was my stop. Where my companions remained unchanged, I grew and aged, time weathering me in ways that had no impact on others. I changed with the world around me, my bones growing as trees formed woods and forests, skin forming like still water. And at the centre of it all was Strawberry Hill, the green island in the middle of the perfect lake; my rotten heart beneath my unblemished exterior.

Peering into the lake, I saw only my reflection. Those striking blue eyes belonged to the young girl that I once was, the woman I had grown to be and who I would become. The image never rippled, the smooth surface surrounding the hill perfectly round. Staring out into the distance, I watched as the forest formed before my eyes, immaculately circular around the lake. Trees grew tall, like limbs stretching up into the sky as though racing for an invisible finishing line, pushing and shoving other trunks and branches out of the way. They were taller than any tree that grew in the living world, and I was always surprised when the growth halted; I expected them to grow into infinity. Arms split, branches developed and a canopy slowly spread out across the forest, casting dark shadows onto the white earth beneath it. This dense wood served as a waiting room for all who came here. Possibly many of the dead who entered the white world got lost in the trees, forever searching for a way out but the Orchard had no end. Idly, I wondered if they’d one day end back where they started but never realise. How else could I explain why I did not belong to the fruit trees in the Orchard? How was it that I had the power in my aged hands to send the dead into the next life? I didn’t even know where I sent them, but they never came back. Never.

I often found myself unable to leave the hill, dark thoughts rooting me to the ground along with the strawberry bushes, their scent taunting me as I longed for the freedom of the orchards. I would glimpse images in the lake, fragments of memories or snippets of life in the land of living. Sometimes I could not bear to look at them, for I rarely liked what I could see. Every moment reminded me of all that I had lost, of all the grief and guilt that I had to shoulder. Storms would brew in watercolours above my head and rain would fall like heavy teardrops into the pure lake, disappearing without a trace. Thunder would rumble with my roars and lightning would illuminate the white lands beyond the forest.

The powers I possessed in the white world were useless against the trysts of life. I told this to those who begged me for help, who demanded that I give them the key to immortality. I could only guide them, advising them to bide their time, but in a land where time made fools of all its inhabitants, time was not an attractive answer. Seasons changed in mere moments, on whims and fancies, time eluding all laws. It could not be trusted. I was the bearer of bad news, the grim reaper, and it made for a lonely existence.

I had to learn not to become too attached to the people who crossed my path; inevitably, I was the one who sent them on. It did not do to get upset about such things. I was an irrevocably permanent part of this world and I had long ago accepted that I could not move on myself. Friends were denied, for the heartache of losing those I loved over and over again would be altogether too devastating.

Emotion always found me in the end; whether it was through haunting visions of the past or briefly finding myself walking among the living again, it sought me out. There was nowhere for me to hide, for the white world worked in ways that I had not yet understood. Images of my brothers appeared on the glassy surface of the lake, magnetically drawing me to watch. I wished I could bury the past, forget the pain I had caused, but for as long as I remained in the white world my past would haunt me. It would never let me leave.





AN: After a year of leaving this alone, I've finally got to rewrite it as it should have been written the first time. It's a companion story to Sitting in the Orange Tree, but I'm trying to write it so that you don't need to read that first. If there's anything confusing, please let me know and I'll try and clarify. Thank you to Rachel (PenguinsWillReignSupreme) for being my rock, as always. I couldn't do it with out her! Please leave me a review if you have time, I appreciate all feedback.


Chapter 2: Penance
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Penance

Clouds swirled in kaleidoscopic patterns above my head as I lay amongst the lush grass of Strawberry Hill. I often enjoyed watching the space above me when I was at a loose end, letting the whiteness above tinge with blue as someone, somewhere, spilled a pot of ink whilst writing their tragic tale. Sometimes I imagined that it was me who caused the sky to fill with such beauty, that I could influence the art with my eyes. At other times, I invented characters who toiled away at night only to have their masterpiece ruined by a careless hand. I envied them, with their hopes and disappointments, with their decidedly human emotions.

Eventually, the ink seeped away to other parts of the white world and the clouds separated, leaving behind a brilliant white sky. I sat up, brushing stray grass from my hair. A small object marring the perfect surface of the circular lake around the hill caught my eye, a pale shape against the dark blue. Approaching the water's edge, I leaned forward, reaching for it. I lost my balance, my feet slipping from the bank and into the icy water. The current was strong beneath the surface; where the object stuck above forever, beneath it the forces were too strong for me. I let myself be dragged in, my hands clasping for the object before I was sucked under, water rushing loudly past my ears as I was carried.

My shoulder reached the bank at the other side of the lake first, burrowing into the hard surface as the water spat me out onto the shore. As I stood, I was already dry, with the small object trapped in my spindly fingers. It was a leaf, crisp and auburn, vivid and bright against my pale skin. Dark veins ran through it, a network of life hidden in its dead case.

I turned, sensing footsteps behind me. "Who are you?" a quiet voice said as I faced her.

Peering down, I inspected the little girl who had spoken. She was most likely short for her age, shorter than I had been, and she had large, terrified eyes framed by soft curls. "The question is," I began curiously. "Who are you?"

I had not been in the white world long when I had encountered my first dead. I, a child, turned and ran, leaving the poor soul calling after me in desperation. I had run and run until I reached the other side of the hill, beyond where he could reach me. They always found me first, the dead, and they wanted answers that I couldn't give. Their demands were high, their expectations low but I could not help them then. I knew no more than they did.

The little girl frowned up at me. "I asked first."

I sighed, wondering if I should have considered running after all. "I live here." I gestured towards the lake. "But you don't. You're new, aren't you, Elizabeth?"

"Yes," she said after a thoughtful pause. "I am. How did you know my name?"

I smiled at her curiosity, looking down briefly at the leaf in my hand, where the veins formed her name. "I was expecting you," I offered. "How did you die?"

She appeared to contemplate her answer, before shrugging. “I suppose it was pneumonia in the end,” she said mildly. “But I had cancer from a very young age.” She peered at her reflection in the lake. “From about this age, I’d say.”

We walked along the shore in silence, allowing her time to adjust to her new surroundings. It must have seemed a strange place, this world, with its abstract horizon and colour-speckled landscape. I had misjudged her from the moment I’d seen her, assuming her age was all that she was. It was easy to take people at face value, to look upon their unblemished souls and think that I could read them. I had assumed she was no older than eight or nine years old, when this sharp young girl held wisdom beyond her years in her sparkling blue eyes. When I looked upon my own reflection, I saw only a young woman, my eternal inner-child trapped behind bars of aging skin. Nothing was as it seemed here, and I would do well to remember that.

Elizabeth stopped as we drew closer to the edge of an orchard. She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply, as though a heavy perfume was wafting on an imaginary wind. “What’s that?” she asked curiously, her feet shuffling towards the trees of their own accord.

I looked skywards, admiring the splay of giant trees in front of us. I could not smell the scent she had found, but I knew it was there nonetheless. “This is where I leave you,” I said with a small smile. I stepped back, watching as a dirt path spread into the trees from where her feet touched the white earth. She began to wander up the path, forgetting me. “These are the orange trees.”

*

I avoided the orchard as much as I possibly could; I did not belong there with the rooted dead as they awaited their fate. I showed them where to go, but that was the limit of my guidance. I did not have the answers they sought, and it was best that they forgot about me completely. I needed to be the outsider, for that was what I was. That was what I always had been.

My own company suited me best and I relished it. I did not need to be ashamed of my solitude here, because we all were lost, in one way or another, waiting to find ourselves amongst the fruit trees. I had yet to discover what I was looking for; I had only ever known what it was to be alone, to be ashamed and afraid.

As I returned to the lake, I considered what I had told Elizabeth; I had picked the leaf with her name on it, but where was my leaf? Who was expecting me? I had nothing to rely on, nothing I could trust. I only had myself.

Mist hid the lake from my view as I walked closer, growing denser and denser before it completely engulfed me. I closed my eyes and let it support me, almost enjoying its light caress. White light grew brighter until it seeped under my closed eyes and I winced.

When the light subsided, I found myself where I always ended up when the mist took its hold on me. Godric’s Hollow had barely changed since I left it that fateful day, my only marker of time being my own age. I placed my hand gently on the garden gate and looked up at the house I had called my home. Ten years ago, I had died here.

My family, what was left of them, no longer lived here. My visits were usually solitary, allowing me to wander in my thoughts without interruption. The living could not see me or sense my presence; not that this was an unusual feeling for me. I was used to being invisible.

There was a light on in the front room and through the window I could see the young family that lived there now; they were laughing at something or other, but I couldn’t imagine what. I hadn’t done a lot of laughing in my time. Sighing enviously, I turned on my heel and walked the same path I always walked when I came here. It was a set rhythm, as though I was a small drop of water in a strong river; I could not stop myself. One foot in front of the other, I meandered towards the church and the graveyard that surrounded it like leaves fallen from a tree.

I knew what I would see, no matter how much I could stop it. Aberforth, my poor brother, my dear friend, knelt in front of a headstone, clutching a chipped vase. That vase used to sit on my windowsill, hosting dead flower after dead flower; they never survived long in my presence. He swept his hair from his face before removing the dead flowers from the vase, draining the dirty water before placing fresh flowers in the vase. His wand provided fresh water. I had no doubt that these flowers would be dead within a week, only to be replaced by him once again with sinful diligence.

I wished he wouldn’t come back here. Ghosts of our terrible past hid behind every corner, contaminating the air and the ground beneath our feet. He was paying a penance for the crimes of others, for sins he had no control over. In my early days in the afterlife, I had tried calling to him. I had tried touching him, but my efforts were futile; I could not reach him. Perhaps he hoped that this atonement would bring me the peace that I had never had, but it merely tormented me as I watched him in the graveyard.

He looked too old. It alarmed me how he had changed since my death, how little he had achieved in that time. An old man in a young shell, his body ached with a weariness fifty years too old for him. He seemed closer to death than I was.

As he wiped a tear from his cheek, he began to fade as the mist crawled across the land to reclaim me. I closed my eyes once again, surprised to find that my lashes were wet.





Author's Note: Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed the prologue - it's lovely to be writing in this universe again.  


Chapter 3: Cobwebs
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Cobwebs

I held a strawberry in my hand, the vivid colour of its skin making my fingers glow. It was freshly plucked from a small ring of blushing fruit that grew in a perfect circle at the peak of the hill in the centre of the lake. Each strawberry was almost identical in shape, a tiny heart to be held in the palm of my hand. As I cradled it loosely the fruit pulsed, throbbing against my smooth skin, a reminder of its vitality. It seemed cruel to even touch it, let alone let it pass my lips. I never ate the fruit here and I had never tasted any from the rest of white world either. I knew it was dead, everything here was, but I half held onto the hope that something remained in the white world, something alive. It was written in the way the wind whispered and the trees swayed, how the lake encircling the stoic hill; hidden behind the colour and silence was something resolutely alive. That thought kept me from losing myself to loneliness.

One day, perhaps, I would learn to accept that it was the curse of the guardian to be lonely. Keeping my distance from those who briefly passed through the intermediate world sheltered my soul from destruction. Death was harsh and all too frequent; I was surrounded by it here and it was something I couldn't escape from. The dead met me, questioned me, left me and that circle never ended. Every time I held my hand to their weakened hearts, I took a piece of them with me, feeling their nostalgic last pulse in the palm of my hand. Breaths were discarded and blood was stilled until all that was left of a person was their mind and spirit, wandering around the white world until they found themselves again.

The Orchard, where most departed souls found themselves, was always empty when I chose to visit. The path I wandered was always solitary until I was needed. I was their first contact, greeting them with infinity and waiting lifetimes just to bid them goodbye.

Placing the strawberry close to where I had plucked it from, I watched as a bright green stem shot from the ground and glowed as it found the stalk of the strawberry, the colour fading as the small fruit nestled itself into leaves and grass. Things here had a habit of healing themselves, with or without my intervention and I liked it that way. I had always preferred to let time take its own course, though I could barely fathom the hidden workings of this world. People came and went, young or old for their age, fixed in one form yet I weathered, aging as though I had never left my earthly body. I had grown up in a strange world, more startling than the one I had left, gaining an accelerated wisdom. Death had given me many unexpected things.

Shaking my head, I stroked a perfectly straight blade of grass, my fingers turning green momentarily before the colour faded. I had made a promise to myself not to think about the past, something so far away and distant that I should really bury it or tuck it neatly away. Besides, there were other things that had much greater need of my attention.

The grass was no longer a vivid green; blade by blade, the green turned white in a circular motion, the colour fading in ripples from where I sat. The white spread, erasing all trace of colour before I was forced to close my eyes; the whiteness itched at my eyelids and attempted to crawl under my lashes but they remained tightly shut, unsurprised. The white world was predictable in its unpredictability. Quite often I found that objects and other things simply melted into nothingness at my touch, whether I meant to do it or not. The white seemed to live under my very skin, leaking every once in a while to spread amongst my surroundings.

As the whiteness beyond my eyelids fade slightly, I opened my eyes, adjusting to the new light. The white sky was eclipsed by dense canopies, leaves and branches weaving together like clumsy cobwebs, letting in diamonds of white every now and then. Beneath my feet the ground was earthy and shaded, a dusty path stretching out in front of me with every step forward. The air was cloying with fruity scent, sharp and lemony.

Leaning against a tree to my right, her face shrouded in kaleidoscopic shadows, my mother was waiting. I sighed, leaving the path, avoiding the lemon pulp rotting on the orchard floor and approached her, my eyes warily taking in her wane features.

“Mother,” I said stiffly as I reached her. She didn’t look surprised to see me, a frown preparing to make its way onto her stubborn brow.

“Ariana,” she responded, her expression even. “I wondered when you’d be back.”

The first time I had found my mother here, I had fled to the safety of my hill and wept for a very long time. All I saw in her face was unanswered questions, my own bitterness reflected there and an uncertainty of truth.

I didn’t want to see her here, somewhere where I thought I was safe. This place was mine, I protected it and it sheltered me from what I had done. To her, I had died a long time ago. We haunted each other; me and my condition, her and the death I caused. I saw the hardness behind her eyes as she faced me now, a steely accusation.

She could see me grow up here in a way I had refused to when we were both alive. I was stilted, afraid and restricted, her shame never allowing me to flourish into the girl I could have been. Scared as I had been, my mother never learned who I was. Here, fifteen years later, she and I were equals. With equality came the uncovering of secrets we had both buried long ago.

I shrugged. “I think we both know I’m not going anywhere.”

My mother nodded. “You’ve grown again,” she observed, referring not to my physical height, but to something else. One day, I would overtake her in age and maturity alike.

I brushed some loose strands of hair from my face, knocking a low branch next to me. A lemon dropped from it like a stone, bursting when it hit the ground in a splash of yellow, the colour seeping into the earth and reaching far beyond its pulp. The yellow glowed in my mother’s cheeks, the first sign of warmth I had seen there.

“Why are you still here?” I asked, my voice sharp and stony. Naively, I had once thought she would be gone quickly like the rest of them, staying briefly in this place of awe until they dispersed into the mist, finished. My mother, frozen in her form, never left me in peace.

“You’re the one with the answers, it seems. Why don’t you tell me?” Her lips were pursed, her eyebrows slightly cocked. She seemed to enjoy my irritation.

“If I knew that, you wouldn’t still be here,” I retorted, pacing in front of her.

My mother sighed. “Perhaps if you stopped being so angry with me, you might think more clearly.”

I kicked a loose lemon angrily, colour and scent exploding onto the white earth. “Don’t you think I have a right to be angry?”

“Not particularly,” she spat. “Not after what happened last time.”

My fists clenched, the ground beneath me shook. Above us, the canopy rustled noisily. “That wasn’t my fault.”

Saying nothing, she stood up straight, looking at me with disappointment before turning her back on me and walking away into the thick of the trees. It was a long time after she left that I was able to relax my fists and walk away into the white mist, my bitterness and regret seeping away into the white horizon to create a scarlet-dappled sky above me. The mist faded, revealing Strawberry Hill at the centre of the lake, its waters rippling. I lay down in the grass, letting the hill sooth me and comfort me. I was in control here; my magic couldn’t hurt me anymore.




AN: Thank you once again for the lovely reviews. I've had a sudden burst of inspiration, so hopefully I'll be writing much faster from now on. If you have time and feel so inclined, please leave a review!


Chapter 4: Sanctuary
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Something dark tarnished the heart of the hill, its strawberries growing poisined from the ground. They were bitter to the taste, rotten to the touch and dying very slowly as I tried desperately to save them. Water from the circular lake should have been their saviour, yet as I poured handfuls of the silvery liquid onto their leaves they withered more until they frothed and melted into the green grass.

I was confused, perched on the side of the mound as I searched my memory for any thought of healing the fruit. I knew nothing of gardening and if my mother had known anything at all she had never passed on any of her knowledge to me. I had rarely left my home, let alone taken an interest in the nature surrounding it. What was it about the water from the lake that was harming the heart-shaped berries? I sighed, burying my face in my hands as water dripped from my fingertips.

Lacking control bothered me. How was I supposed to protect this land if I was the very thing destroying it? The strawberries were the first sign that something was poisoning the very core of the white world and I worried often that it was me who was tainting it. Another visit from my mother had sparked more hatred into my heart and I was struggling to contain it. She hadn't made it easy for me to forgive the life I had lived and remembering was gradually destroying every positive thread in the fabric of the land.

Walking among the trees left black footprints in the earth, my hands resting on the tree trunks left infections in the bark and weeping wounds in their roots.

"I don't understand," I admitted to Beth as she watched my hands turn leaves into putrid dust. "This world once came alive at my touch; now I'm killing it."

Beth, her electric bright eyes following the trail of rot with interest, shook her head sadly. "Perhaps you should look deeper."

I followed her gaze as the leaves surrounding me turned black and dissolved in ripples. "What do you mean?"

"Underneath, you're hurting."

Her eyes betrayed the years beyond her young exterior, much like the purity of my skin did not reflect the turmoil soiling my heart. She was insightful, forcing me to focus on dark thoughts of my mother. My need to destroy the guilt and loathing was turning on the external world that was ever connected to me.

"You can't escape yourself here," Beth added as she turned away from me, heading towards the orange trees further into the Orchard and leaving me alone with that thought rattling around my mind.

I had been running for too long, I realised. When I was alive, I was ashamed of what I had done and I hid myself away from those who loved me so that they would never see what I saw every time I closed my eyes. I had been scared, frightened of my lonely and harmful future. It was easier to deny myself the chance to realise it than to battle through fixing myself. Here, in this world, every tiny thought was magnified and expressed in the landscape.

The fruit was rotting because I was. Faced with an eternity with myself, I was sinking before I could swim. The water from the lake, external like the strawberries, couldn't save something that began and ended within me. Somehow, I would have to try and save myself first.

As I padded through the Orchard, black footprints in my wake, trees bent forward towards me, their branches extending and their leaves gently caressing my face before withering and dropping to the floor in breezy pirouettes. Ahead of me, the image of my mother held still, drifting further away as I took a step forward, unreachable like a rainbow. Panic rose, tears threatened to overflow and I reached out a hand towards her, knowing that I couldn't reach her no matter how much I longed for her. She was eluding me now as she had done in my childhood, a figure of an aloof woman. And, like a child, I begged her to come to me. But she too withered, her image darkening until I couldn't make her out amongst the darkness of the trees.

Eventually I tired, settling into a ball on the ground, crying in silence as I watched the white world turn black around me. I needed to speak to her, to speak to the part of me that still blamed her and myself for what had happened. Finding peace with myself was the only way to heal the world I was beginning to destroy.

"Crying never solved anything."

My mother, never one for grand gestures, placed a hand on my shoulder, her warm touch contrasting the cool of my own body. I sat up, almost scared to face her in case I had finally destroyed her. To my relief, her skin was unmarked.

I wiped the tears from my cheeks and let her place her arm around my shoulder. My heart spasmed at her touch, almost alive once more as she held me to her.

"I'm sorry," I managed after considering a more lengthy expression.

"I am too," she said gently.

Colour began to spread from where my toes touched the earth; browns, russets and golds mingling with bright greens underneath the sapphire blue sky above the canopy. The trees stood up straight again, their leafy heads stretching towards the sky. I knew, back on the hill, the maze of strawberries would be juicy and red once again.

My mother knew my pain, she had seen it whilst we were alive and she could see it plainer than ever when the white world changed with me. There was no need for words when this world told tales of my feelings beyond my imagination. We were one.

Perhaps this world could offer more than I had first thought; it was key to my healing and it was my sanctuary.




AN: Oh hello, you. Long time no see ;) Sorry I'm terrible at updating... But I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Please read and review, I'd love to read your feedback. -Marina


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