Chapter Two: The Unnatural Caves
I had been so concentrated on moving one foot and then the other and the shifting of weight that I didn’t even notice that we had reached the castle. I probably would have kept on walking if it weren’t for the fact that Dumbledore needed his arms in order to open the door, and I was still leaning on them. I knew what a door was, Jack had described them and we had a few of them in the lake, but these doors were HUGE. And they were made of wood. Wood being used to build something! I didn’t see how it could be so durable; wood’s easy enough to break apart in your hands. Under water, I had to remind myself. And this was certainly not under water.
I let go of Dumbledore with one hand and rested it on one of the doors. Then I moved the other one over as well and leaned on the door. It was so smooth, just like the rocks in the lake. But it was wood. Amazing. How did they make it like that? Water was supposed to smooth most things, but this wood was smoother than any water I had felt. I’d have to ask Jack.
Dumbledore led me into the castle. It felt so small, so contained, even though I knew castles were supposed to be large and spacious. The roof blocked out the sky, the sun, the surface. And the walls on all sides made me feel like I was in a cave. Caves had boundaries, limits, restrictions; they were hard and cold. I had never liked caves. I stayed close to the doors, clinging onto the wall as I looked around in distaste. At least the floor was made of stone. The stones were all arranged funny though; it made everything flat. There was nothing remotely natural about this place. A normal cave would have at least partially rough edges.
Then I heard a familiar laugh.
“Glaring at the floor isn’t going to change it Erin. It’s been too well preserved.” I looked up in surprised pleasure.
“Jack!” Thank the waters above, Jack was here.
“Yep, it’s me.” He laughed again. “Boy, you look funny with legs Erin.” He stopped, wrinkling his nose. “Yikes, you need some clothes and a bath. You might scare some poor unsuspecting professor or ghost, dressed as you are.”
“What’s wrong with the way I’m dressed?” I challenged him. I was actually rather well dressed I had thought, but now Jack was acting like I was dressed like one of those clowns he had told me about.
“Humans normally wear something to cover their lower bodies, and generally seaweed is not a preferred material for shirts.”
I glared at him. For some reason it sounded like he was laughing at me again. I tolerated his laughing, not enjoyed it. If I still had my tail, it would be a flashing beacon, I was that angry. But he was lucky; he was saved from my wrath by the return of Dumbledore.
“I quite agree with you Mr. Gevas.” He said, “And as proof I have brought some clothes for Erin.” He held out the bundle of cloth that he expected me to somehow put on my body and I remembered that my tail was not flashing brightly because I no longer had a tail. I stared at the clothes with distaste. But there was nothing to be done; I simply couldn’t have people laughing at me. So I took the clothes.
Taking the clothes and putting them on were, of course, two entirely different things. Leaning heavily against the wall and moving slowly I managed the robes, once Jack had pointed out which way was up and which was down, (It was like a shirt that was twice as long as it should be) but when they handed me shoes I was flabbergasted.
“How am I supposed to put these weird things on?” Jack laughed again; this laughing bit was getting old real fast, and told me to sit down. I stared in amazement. Sit down? It had taken forever to stand up in the first place! But Jack was insistent on this point. In order to put on shoes one had to sit down. I sat down and went through the painful process of putting on the shoes. Jack even told me, when it was finally all done, that I was lucky that the shoes didn’t have laces, because that would take even longer! What these humans were thinking, I’m sure I don’t know.
The clothes felt funny. They stuck to my skin awkwardly, not clinging to my skin like the seaweed had. It was an odd sensation, and it made me itchy. They also got in my way when I tried walking again, clinging to the wall. I was ready to take them back off again, but I wasn’t sure that I could figure out how to without ripping them, and Dumbledore might not be very pleased with me if I did that.
So I followed, slowly and sulkily, to the next cave in the castle. This cave, or room I suppose, was slightly bigger than the previous one, for which I was infinitely grateful. At first I thought that it was open to the sky, but Jack explained that it just looked like the sky. Still, having the sun above me, even if there wasn’t a bunch of water in between me and it, made me feel much more at home.
It was dinnertime. Jack directed me through the painful process of how to sit down. Dumbledore had to move the bench, my new word of the minute, out quite a ways before I could manage to swing my legs over. Convincing me to actually let go of the table so that I could sit down took even longer, but luckily Jack isn’t one to show his frustration much. I guess it’s cause he’s a ghost, I mean, he’s got forever to wait.
Once settled at the table, I eagerly analyzed it. We didn’t have tables in the lake, but if we ever wanted to put something down there was always a rock. And, of course, the fact that moving towards or away from the surface was no problem. Humans didn’t know what they were missing; only being able to walk across a flat surface all the time instead of being able to move up and down at will. Anyway, I noticed that the table was made of wood. It was amazing the things that humans made of wood. It’s like wood was an entirely different substance above the surface.
I saw plates, forks, spoons, and knives. Just like Jack had described. They were a little bit different than I had imagined and I told Jack so. He laughed again and apologized for not being able to carry some down to show me before. I frowned at him. If he was just going to laugh at everything I was just going to have to keep my opinions to myself.
The food was some of the oddest I had ever seen. They had it all laid out on the table like it was a fine occasion. Well, maybe it was. After all, I had gotten legs. The food was so weird and different though, you couldn’t even tell what the plants were by looking at it all. Finally I asked Dumbledore, who was less inclined to laugh at me than Jack it seemed, if they had any coral or seaweed or even algae.
Just goes to prove how wrong I am. He nearly laughed. I could see it in his eyes; after all, I’d seen that expression plenty of times in Jack’s eyes before. Lucky for him he managed to contain himself with a large smile as he informed me that they didn’t have any of the things I was accustomed to eating.
Now this was serious. No seaweed? I loved seaweed and had some everyday since I can ever remember. It was everywhere in the lake, and I often pulled up a bit on my way to my lessons.
“Not even the littlest bit of algae?” I asked desperately. “Nothing?”
He shook his head. “Nope.” He seemed on the verge of laughing again and I felt myself heat up. “But there are some other really nice vegetables here that you might like. I’m not sure if . . .” He looked at me anxiously, and for the first time I realized that this was probably new to him too. He wasn’t headmaster when my mother had gone through this. “Are you a vegetarian?” He asked bluntly.
I turned to Jack, who was sitting on the bench next to me. Obviously he read my expression, after all I’d used it on him thousands of times in my lessons, which now seem to have covered far less of human life than I thought they had, because he immediately answered,
“A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat. Do you think you’d mind eating fish?”
I balked. Eat fish? The very thought made my stomach churn with revulsion. I was half fish after all. Well, I’m not sure if I am now. I've got legs and all, but still. Fish were stupid and annoying a lot of the time, but to eat them was unthinkable. It was like eating part of myself. It was almost cannibalistic.
“Or maybe not fish.” Jack amended, surmising once again from my expression what I was thinking. “How about birds? Like chicken or something? Or pigs, ham and bacon are made from pigs.” He looked at me hopefully, apprehensively.
I thought about it. Maybe birds wouldn’t be too bad. After all, birds ate fish, and they weren’t related to fish at all.
“I’ll try it.” I said.
Dumbledore smiled and pulled what he informed me was chicken onto my plate. It didn’t look very appetizing, nothing like seaweed, but I said I’d try it. I picked it up awkwardly and took a bite out of it. It didn’t taste too bad, but I didn’t like the feel of it in my mouth. It was dense, much too dense, dry and stiff. It reminded me too much of the rotting carcasses I had seen of various of the lake creatures. I got through about three mouthfuls before I put it down.
“I’d prefer not to eat the rest of it.” I said uneasily.
Dumbledore nodded and gave me what he called lettuce. It looked a little more similar to seaweed, and tasted a lot more similar too. Still a bit too dry, but I suppose I can‘t be too particular. I ate a lot of this lettuce. While I was eating Dumbledore and Jack combined taught me how to use a fork. I didn’t see the point in it; after all, the lettuce didn’t even stay on the fork when it came off the plate. Humans are so strange. What was the point in making forks if they didn't even work? Oh well, I went through the motions of using it and ended up using my fingers more often than not. When I had finished eating they made me practice cutting chicken.
“You don’t have to eat it.” Jack told me when he saw my face. “Just cut it.” So I practiced. “Also,” Jack continued, “It would probably be good for you to tell people that you’re a vegetarian, and that you’re allergic to seafood. That way even if somebody tried to trick you into eating meat for a prank they won’t give you fish.” I nodded, trying to remember the words he had used. Allergic, vegetarian, and seafood. Three new words to memorize. Who knew that humans had such a complicated vocabulary?
Once Jack was convinced that I could use a knife and fork in a semi-satisfactory way, although he seemed as though he still thought that I could improve a lot, Dumbledore told me that I needed to be sorted. I just looked at him blankly, waiting for an explanation. He didn’t seem to want to offer one up though, so I gritted my teeth and asked him what that meant. I was going to kill Jack later; I didn’t care that he was already dead. There was so much about humans that he hadn’t told me, and he was going to pay for my humiliation. How does one go about killing a ghost?
But Dumbledore just smiled again and swiftly got up from the table. How did he do that? So fluid, it looked like as simple as swimming. It took me forever to stand up and once I finally did Dumbledore apparently changed his mind about something.
“Erin, why don’t you wait here while I get the sorting hat. It’ll be faster that way.”
I nodded, but couldn’t quite keep the scowl off of my face. If he wanted me to wait here, then why did he wait until after I had gone through the long process of standing up? I sat down on the bench again, but didn’t bother swinging around to face the table. I’d gone through enough trouble as it was getting out of there.
Then I remembered Jack.
“Okay Jack. What’s this sorting all about?” I asked, rounding on him. He laughed again which just made me scowl more. He sobered a bit when he saw this. “Stop laughing.” I said curtly.
“Oh come on Erin, surely I told you about this?”
“No, you most assuredly did not.”
He grinned. For some reason he was particularly happy today. It aggravated me.
“House sortings. They're only done at Hogwarts you know. You wouldn’t be expected to know about it. Must be why I didn’t mention it before. Anyway, Hogwarts is split up into different houses. Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. And . . .”
“Wait.” I interrupted. “I thought that there was only one castle. You meant that there are MORE of these? What’s this one, the central palace or something?”
“No.” Jack replied with the careful patience of a teacher. Thankfully he seemed over the whole laughing at me thing and seemed much more at ease. “They’re called houses but really they’re just like different families. Like how all of the royal court live at the palace, and your friend Becca lives with all of her family.” Oh. Finally he was speaking sense.
“At Hogwarts they don’t have families,” Jack went on, “so they’re sorted into what are called houses. The people in the different houses are supposed to support each other and act in place of a family. Each house has a different common room for hanging out in and their dorms. They go to all of their classes together and eat together. But lots of them have friends in other houses too, kind of like you and Becca. They just don’t spend all of their time with them.”
That made sense. I guess if there was a problem then there would always be someone to help them. But there was something missing . . .
“What about family arguments? Who’s the father? Who gets the final say?”
Jack smiled, obviously pleased to see that I was thinking. “The head of the house. That’s one of the professors. For Ravenclaw it’s Flitwick, for Slytherin it’s Slughorn, for Gryffindor it’s McGonnagal, and for Hufflepuff it’s Sprout.”
“Those are their names?” I asked skeptically. I mean, I knew that humans had odd names, but honestly. Slughorn? That sounds like a horn that’s been punched, you know, slugged. And Flitwick? It’s like there’s some algae stuck to his arm and he’s trying to flick it away.
“Last names.” Jack clarified. Then his silver eyes grew wide. “You don’t have a last name, do you?”
I looked at him, surprised. “No. Do I need one?”
“Yes. Just about all humans have last names. It would be very odd if you don’t have one.” I looked at him suspiciously. He had never talked about this before. Plus, Jack didn't have another name. Jack was just Jack. Unless he had another name and he never told me . . .
“What’s your last name? You were human, so I guess you had one.”
Jack grinned reluctantly. “Gevas.”
“Do I have to have a dumb name like that? That doesn’t sound like a name; it sounds like a new type of comb.”
“Thanks.” Jack didn’t look too happy with me. “I didn’t pick it. You usually take on your father’s last name until you’re married, then the girl takes the guy’s last name instead.”
“What’s Dumbledore’s last name?” I wanted to know.
“What? He’s got the same last name and regular name?” Why couldn’t my last name just be Erin then? Why didn’t Jack mention more of this stuff earlier?
“No. His name is . . .”
“Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.” Dumbledore had returned and answered the question himself. I glanced at him briefly before turning back to Jack.
“Then why doesn’t everybody call him Albus Percival...and all that other stuff? Why do they use his last name? Is it just because he’s an adult?”
Jack briefly glanced at Dumbledore before answering. “Dumbledore likes younger people to call him by his last name. A lot of times you call someone by their first name when they’re the same age as you or you know them really well. It’s a sign of familiarity to call someone by their first name.”
I pondered this for a moment and then turned to face Dumbledore. “So what’s my last name to be?” I asked eagerly. Please, let it not be something terrible.
“Hmmm.” He thought for a moment and then looked at my legs. A smile spread across his face. “Walker.”
“Walker?” Okay, that is so not funny. Make a laugh by naming me Walker even though I can barely walk? Oh Neptune.
But Jack was nodding slowly, also looking at my legs. “Erin Walker. I like it. And it does fit. Nobody will be looking for a mermaid with that last name.”
I stared at him. He liked laughing at me too, apparently. But what he said made sense. And I did promise, no swear, to secrecy. If having a humiliating last name was supposed to help with that, then I suppose I would have to suffer it.
“Fine.” I told Dumbledore. “Walker it is. Now how am I supposed to be sorted?”
“With this.” He held out something so dirty and wrinkled that I didn’t know what it was at first. It looked like an old crinkled bit of leather. I’d seen some before, an old wallet someone had lost in the rushes at the far end of the lake. Wait, it probably was leather. Humans use it for stuff all the time, or at least they used to. That didn’t help me figure out what it was or what I was supposed to do with it. I waited for Dumbledore to explain, but he remained silent.
“What is it?” I finally asked.
“The Sorting Hat.” Dumbledore answered. “Just put it on your head and it’ll sort you.”
“How?” I asked obstinately. In all honesty I didn’t want to put that thing anywhere near my head, but if that’s what humans did to get sorted into their student families . . .
“Like this.” And Dumbledore crammed the hat onto my head. I sat staring out over the room at the four house tables in front of me. Dear, which was I going to be in? Doesn’t really matter I suppose.
Oh, but it does matter.
Poseidon! What was that?
I’m the sorting hat. Hmmm. Haven’t seen a mermaid in a while. How’s your mother doing? Oh, wait, I see. She died? Such a pity. Renee had such a brilliant mind; it was such a pleasure to be inside it.
You’re reading my mind? I can’t believe that I’m talking, no thinking to a hat.
Yeah. Yours is easier to read than most, surprisingly. Must be something about mermaids . . .
How many mermaids have you met? I asked incredulously.
Oh, a fair few. I’ve been around ever since they’ve been getting legs. The hat replied vaguely. Now, I’d love to chat, but I’m afraid that I’m supposed to be sorting you.
Yeah, so let’s see. You’ve also got a sharp mind, but you’ve got incredible potential for . . .
Wait, what’s the state of my mind have to do with anything?
Hmm? Oh. Well Ravenclaw is for those that have sharp minds. Slytherin is for the sly and cunning, I’m afraid you don’t fit there, Hufflepuff is for the loyal, happy, good-natured people and Gryffindor is for the brave. Now, where to put you?
I don’t want to be in the happy place. That would drive me crazy I think.
Oh? The hat asked politely.
Yeah. All those people not knowing how to sulk and be sad every so often and probably trusting every merman that wanted to be an advisor. And Ravenclaw would be bad; I feel wonderfully stupid ever since I got my legs. Must be because Jack isn’t as good of a teacher as I'd thought.
Oh now, don’t be too harsh. Jack is an excellent teacher. He was in Gryffindor though. He had an excellent mind too though . . . Rather reminds me of you come to think of it.
Can I be in Gryffindor too then? I asked eagerly. If Jack had been in Gryffindor it couldn’t be that bad.
Well, I don’t see why not. It’s only for a year after all . . . yes, actually I do see quite a bit of bravery in you. No coward would be able to make friends with the giant squid.
I blushed. Nobody was supposed to know about that particular friendship. My father didn’t think that it was very good for us to associate with it.... Something to do with it being less intelligent than us and not wanting me to be distracted.
And the seventh years in that house would do you quite a bit of good I think, teach you to lose a bit of your pride. Yes, the more I think about it the more it makes sense. I do love having time to think about things in great detail you know . . .
The hat babbled on. Honestly I wasn’t paying much attention to it at this point. Jack was looking at me inquisitively; I guess that the hat usually didn’t take this long to sort people. Dumbledore was looking politely vague. I don’t think that the hat usually fit the person’s head it was sorting. They don’t get to watch their friends while they’re being sorted. Probably helps somehow though . . .
Yes, I do think you’re right. All right dear, I hope you have a good year. I expect to hear about you from Dumbledore from time to time.
Er, sure . . . I started but then the hat yelled out so loud that I jumped.
A/n: Thanks to my wonderful beta Lacewings for her beta work and the chapter image! Please leave me a review and tell me what you think.
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