The Wrong Time
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
- T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
When I hit the ground, the surface beneath my hands was dusty, but not hollow; hard, but not stone. I had fallen into the cabinet, only to fall out of it again. It was a vanishing cabinet, I was certain of that, but from what I had seen, it was unlike any I had seen before.
There was supposed to be another cabinet somewhere else. But this was the same attic. The dust still rested in a thick layer across the floorboards. The trunks were still piled in the facing corner. The spider webs still hung from the rafters. It was still night, the crickets outside audible through the open window–
It had not been open before.
Struggling to rise, I scrambled for my cane, gasping for air. It took some minutes before I could approach the window, stepping warily past the still-open door of the cabinet. It could have been a disaster, sending me to Merlin-knew-where in the blink of an eye without knowledge of how to return.
My hands firmly on the windowsill, I felt reassured that the cabinet had malfunctioned, sending me right back where I'd come from.
It was still summer, the air humid on my cheeks, the sounds of summer night blaring into my ears. The sky was a starlit blue, no moon in sight, yet I could see the outline of the trees on the horizon, their branches swaying to a melodious breeze. It was a summer like any other, far removed from civilization, in the heart of the Lake District. It was little wonder that poets once flocked here.
Something moved below. One of the statues had shifted position, and I was certain that no statue was capable of moving in quite that way.
As I stared down, it seemed that something, or someone, was staring up at me.
“Excuse me? Hello?” My voice might as well have remained silent against the din from the crickets. They grew louder than ever.
The front door clicked shut.
That door had been locked, but then again, this window had been closed. There was something wrong here, after all. Perhaps–
My eyes were drawn toward the attic door.
There should have been a set of footsteps in the dust leading from the stairs to the trunks, then from the trunks to the cabinet, but the only visible disturbance of the dust marked the place where I had fallen. The only footsteps lead from the cabinet to this window.
A summer like any other....
There was someone on the stairs below.
Another time. That was the only answer. Who had lived here before Uncle Neville? I had never thought to ask and no one had thought to tell. The trunks contained the belongings of a woman, but they were as dusty and forgotten now as they would be in–
Why should I assume that I was in the past, rather than the future? How could I know?
A knocking on the attic door below rattled the floorboards.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
The same knocking I had heard before.
I hobbled over to the top of the stairs, gripping my cane until my knuckles went pale.
“Who is it?” My voice emerged high and weak.
There was movement, a low thumping noise like that of my cane weighted down by my exhausted body. Now that would be a terrifying discovery, finding myself below, demanding who was in the attic. There were rules regarding time travel. Aunt Hermione had explained them to me in great detail, eager to speak of anything as she took her shift at my bedside, a long string of people who talked and talked and never listened.
“Come on down where I can see you.”
The reverberating tone of his voice at least assured me that I wouldn't be violating any laws of time and space.
I stood on the top step. “Who are you?”
A pause. “It’d be better if you came down here.”
I refused to be the fly who naively leapt onto the spider's web. “Why?”
The door flew open.
The man who stood there was large, even looming, for all that his shoulders were slightly stooped, I thought with fatigue rather than age. He did not appear to be the studious type, his face covered as it was in deep scars, one completely overwhelming his left eye and another that left a gash across the bridge of his nose.
The left eye, far too blue to be natural, stared through me. “Hurry up, Potter. There isn’t enough time.”
Not enough time. There wouldn't be enough, not for him. I was in the presence of one who, according to all reports, was long dead. This did not have as much of an effect as did the knowledge that he knew me, that he recognized me when I could never have met him before.
On the second-to-last step, my cane slipped, the damnable ankle collapsing under the sudden shock of weight I set upon it. As he half-caught me, hands steadying me against the wall, I saw his wooden leg,the source of the strange I'd heard from above.
His face level with mine, I searched for a sign of a pain like my own, the understanding of what it meant to lack, to be inhibited, unwhole. What I found there instead was far more terrifying, a degree of suffering that I hoped would forever remain beyond my grasp. I lowered my eyes, unable to imagine what it must have been like to carry that pain and be crippled by it inside as much as out.
“Can you make it downstairs?” There was a curiously softer tone to his words.
I took a deep breath, feeling at odds with everything, especially myself.
“Yes. I mean, I hope so.”
A smile passed across his features, though I could not be sure whether it was a figment of my imagination. It was difficult to tell what went on behind all those scars.
“I’ve put on the coffee.”
He stumped down the first flight of stairs, gripping the walnut banister.
I did not follow directly, watching him slowly make his way from one stair to the next. He never looked back to see whether I followed, assured enough of himself to know that, eventually, I would. The halls were dark, but he knew his way from long practice, just as I did.
He entered a bedroom, in my time an empty, gaping space with boarded windows and scorch marks around the fireplace. These were not there now, the window thrown open to the night, looking down on he same portion of the garden that I had seen from the attic, the place where the statuary loomed over boxwoods and dwarf trees were trained into unrecognizable shapes.
The furniture was made of the same heavy, dark wood as the staircase. A four-poster bed dominated, but I thought it was a preposterous object, too large for a room like this in a cottage of inconsiderable size. There were other, smaller things – a couple of chairs, a dressing table shoved beneath the window – but the bed was a distraction, and not only because I was beyond exhausted.
Meanwhile, Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody poured coffee by the fire before squatting on an ottoman, seemingly unperturbed by this whole impossible situation.
“It’s not as I expected, that’s for sure.”
He had a rough accent, like someone from the North, but there was something else in it, long suppressed.
“What do you mean?” I remained by the door, bracing myself against the frame to collect my breath.
“Time is cruel.” He placed my cup by the other chair.
I had to pass by him to reach it, feeling his eyes on me all the while. It was a searching gaze, nothing more, but it still raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It must have been that magical eye, capable of seeing through all things, including time... but that was an exaggeration. He looked at me in this way because he knew me. I did not know when. I did not know how. Only that he did.
The coffee wasthick and strong. No sugar, a generous serving of milk. My lips twitched in satisfaction at the first sip. His eyes mirrored that smile before I realised what it meant. I put the cup down sharply, the flavour going sour in my mouth, my hands going cold and numb.
“I don’t understand. This isn’t making any sense, Mad– I mean, Mr–”
His gaze dimmed. He took a flask from his pocket, measuring a fair amount into his own cup before returning it to his coat.
“You warned me of this.” At first I could hardly hear him above the crackling of the fire. “You said that time was out of line. Out of joint, you called it.”
It was a quote from Shakespeare. Hamlet, to be exact, though I understood the words too literally. By that stage in my recovery, I had read too much Shakespeare, too much Yeats, too much everything, consuming all, understanding nothing.
“I won’t be born for another nine years,” I said, watching for his reaction. Nothing. “It is 1997?”
It was the only year that made sense. Indeed it was the last possible year. Moody looked old, tired, like someone who had waited a long time, only to find disappointment at the end of his journey.
He took a deep draught of his well-doused coffee. It seemed to take an eternity before he set it down again.
“July, if you were looking for specifics.”
I knew the history of the Second War, probably better than most. The only problem was that he could not have known–
“You were always easy to read.”
He had seen it in my face: he was soon to die. No one knew where. There was only my father's word, his garbled memory of a body falling in a wash of green light as they soared over the countryside at breakneck speed, Voldemort at their heels.
“So are you.” I picked up the coffee cup, if only to hide behind it.
The firelight cast odd shadows across his face, deepening the scars. He remained impenetrable like the statue I'd taken him for. He would not tell me how he had come to foresee his own death, but then again, the world was ripe with Divination experts and not all of them were frauds.
The room had all the atmosphere of a wake. Two people drinking together, their thoughts filled with reminiscence, happy and sad, celebrating life, or at least giving voice to the ghosts of the past. Except that I had only just met him while he acted like he had known me for years.
“I suppose that you can’t explain everything to me now.” I swirled the liquid in the cup, anything to avoid meeting his eyes, or rather the magical one. His normal brown eye was sharp, but it failed to send the same shivers down my spine.
He put down his cup and leaned forward. “I can only tell you what I know, which isn’t much.”
It would at least be something, considerably more than I already knew. The cabinet had sent me nearly thirty years back in time, where my arrival had been expected by a hero of the war, the head of the Auror Department until he had, for some reason, gone mad.
I set my cup aside. “Anything is better than nothing. Please.”
“That cabinet in the attic,” he began, shifting his wooden leg into a more comfortable position. “Was never in correct shape. My mother found it in Cairo at one of those antiquities shops, where they told her that the usual matching cabinets had been merged.”
“Is that even possible?”
He shrugged. “She thought it was a curiosity.”
The real curiosity was how he, a detective, had failed to be curious about one of his own possessions, especially something as extraordinary as this vanishing cabinet. It moved through time instead of space, something that should have been impossible. But the question remained as to how it could be controlled.
I opened my mouth to ask, but he pushed forward in his chair, hands on his knees.
“I only noticed it once you started coming through.”
Those words brought my train of thought to a screeching halt. Had I still been holding my cup, it would have dropped to the floor. I stared at Moody and could only think of the way that the firelight reflected off each eye at different angles, enhancing the oddity of his gaze. He reached for one of my hands. His was warm, roughened by the elements, as scarred as his face.
“After–” He swallowed. “There came a time when I did get curious about it, but I could never get it to work.”
I tried to bring my thoughts into some logical order. “Do you mean that I have some measure of control over its use?”
“I don’t know.”
There was that letter. Where had it gone? I pulled my hands away to search my pockets, unable to remember what had become of the letter, or if I had even been able to secret it away before falling into the cabinet. But if I had dropped it, where was it now? Back in my own time? Moved on to another time?
“So I'll go back into the cabinet, and you'll see me again?” My voice was feeble.
His brow raised an iota, one corner of his mouth twitching upward, but then a clock chimed, and all expression receded from his face. I counted the chimes only to realize that it was morning. Time had passed. Now was the end.
“It won’t be long now,” he said, picking up his cup to drain its contents.
The pink light of dawn was creeping through the darkness, disturbing the silence with the threat of day. Soon the firelight would grow dim against the sun blazing across the horizon. I don’t know why it was so easy to think of fire in this room. Perhaps it was the scorch marks on the mantelpiece that I remembered tracing with my fingers one day, wondering how they had come to be there. There were not there now. I had a feeling that it would not be long before they would appear, but I shoved it aside, another silly dream.
“Must you go?” The question came unbidden, but I did not regret it.
“I’ve got no choice, but you do.”
How could I respond to that? My lack of sleep was hampering my ability to think. I no longer knew what or how to think.
We both rose at the same time, narrowly avoiding one another’s injured legs.
He almost laughed, and I could begin to imagine him without the scars, without the wooden leg or the glass eye, a proud and irascible young man with a dark and ironic sense of humour. He would be striking, but not handsome, his features not well-enough defined, too completely lacking in charm to be anything approaching the ideal. But he would be pleasing to the eye, a living flame.
I blinked and the image was gone.
He was watching me again with that strange, searching gaze.
We stared at one another. I was at a loss of what to say to a man who was going off to die. Nothing seemed appropriate, much less sufficient.
Silence reigned instead.
He reached out his hand, then stumped away before I could register the feeling of his fingers against my cheek.
There was something there, something I had missed all along, his gestures, those things I’d found in the attic, all adding up to some answer that lay just beyond my reach. It was here somewhere. I couldn’t even be certain whether he knew.
The fire gave one final crackle of defeat before dying, but I could see from the growing light of dawn that above the fireplace was an abandoned portrait. It contained the same chair where I had been sitting; the wallpaper in the background was that of this very room. But the sitter was missing.
I shivered and went to close the window, wondering how the dawn could bring such a cool breeze in its wake.
There was no sign of Moody on the lawn.
The rest of his story, I already knew. There was only one direction I could go from here.
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