iii. touch of the unholy

Not terribly far from the dark cupboard beneath the stairs of Number Four, Privet Drive, lived another little girl quite like Harriet Potter. That is to say, she was a girl who the Dursleys, convinced of their own exemplary ordinariness, would not think normal in the slightest.

Elara Black couldn't help being odd. There simply hadn't been a chance for normality in her upbringing; living in a place like St. Giles' Institute of Wiltshire often precluded such pleasantries. Matron Fitzgerald—hunched and scowling, limping with a cane that thumped loud on the hollow floorboards—woke the children at six o'clock, led them through their morning prayers, and set them to their lessons with one of the younger sisters. Lessons were interspersed with chores, and sometimes a light game of football in the courtyard. After vespers they sat down in the dining hall and Father Phillips led the children in saying grace.

If one was very, very lucky, they never had to see Father Phillips outside of dinner or Sunday mass. They never got called into his office.

Elara was never lucky.

Terrible things just happened to Elara and to those around her. She had a predilection for causing mayhem without meaning to, without raising a single hand or uttering a single word. The roses in the courtyard withered to blackened stubs after Elara helped Sister Abigail trim the buds, and she once wished Mandy Tibbs would fall off a ladder and she did. Kaleb Sanders got sick after pushing her down the stairs and he spent time in hospital, attached to all manner of strange tubes and a ventilator. Elara almost cried when she saw him. She knew it was somehow her fault.

"She's cursed," the other children whispered behind their hands. "Elara's got the devil in her. Black as her name."

Elara didn't think she believed in the devil, or demons, or any of that nonsense. As far as she was concerned, the "devil" existed all around them; he resided in Sister Mattie's too-strong grip, in the side of Matron Fitzgerald's cane, in Father Phillips sharp tongue, and maybe even in Elara, too, though whatever resentment festered in her heart had been born and bred by others, not by herself. She never meant to hurt anyone—not the garden, not the other children, not the sisters who were too loud and too fast with the backs of theirs hands. She mights be cursed, but it wasn't her doing.

The summer heat sank into Elara's back as she leaned against the brick wall and lifted gray eyes to the empty sky overhead. Voices echoed in the confines of the garden walls, younger children playing in the sand pit or among the overgrown weeds hemming the parched lawn. Elara sat behind the hedge, on the little strip of rough concrete separating the dirt from the property's dividing wall, the air always smelling faintly of cigarettes from the eldest kids smoking where the sisters couldn't see. They didn't mind if Elara sat there; the children on the cusp of adulthood really stopped believing in curses and devils and God a long time ago, after all.

Elara was a thin girl, considerably tall for her age and "passably pretty," as Matron Fitzgerald always said, though the Matron believed Elara had best join the convent and not fuss with finding a husband when she was older, lest her demons get the better of her. She was too pale and always outgrew her dresses too fast, much to the consternation of the sisters, and she was prone to terrible bouts of motion sickness. She kept her black hair consigned to a tight bun on the back of her head and liked to wash her hands far more than the other children her age. Elara thought herself quite plain, really. If not for the occasional accident happening in her vicinity, she fancied that no one would ever notice her at all.

Letting out a huff of air, Elara returned her attention to the book bent open on her knee. It was an old bible, battered and torn and water-damaged, resigned to a regretful fate in the bin before Elara salvaged it. She had no love for the scripture—rather the opposite, in fact. Lips pursed in concentration, she used her ink pen to gently black out certain passages and lines, creating mini stories with the words and letters that were left. If one of the sisters found this, Elara's backside would have yet another unfortunate meeting with Matron Fitzgerald's cane.

She pulled at her wool gloves, her hands hot and itchy, but didn't remove the coverings. Sweat prickled on her brow and the back of her dress had a decidedly sticky feel to it. I should probably go inside, she thought, morose at the idea of having to face the others. I'd rather cook than listen to Sister Mattie snarl psalms in lessons. She could probably fly to Bath with the amount of hot air in her head.

A sudden screech jerked Elara upright. The bible snapped shut on the concrete.

An owl—an honest to goodness owl with rumpled feathers, sharp talons, and a rather cross look in his or her gold eyes—had landed on the wall above Elara's head. Surprised, she stared at the creature and the owl stared right back. Had Elara not been used to "devilish" things happening to her, she would have been a touch nervous to have such a sharp-beaked bird inspecting her like a piece of tasty roadkill.

"Ah," she said, reaching for the bible in case she needed to chuck something at it. "Hello, there."

The bird clacked its beak twice, then jumped down off the wall into the narrow space allocated between the hedges and the bricks. Elara scuffed her shoes scrambling out of the way, and the owl followed her, hopping about on one leg with a displeased hoot. Confused, she realized the poor thing had an envelope tied to its upheld foot, and it insisted on her taking it off. Elara hesitated, then reached out to pull the loop of twine.

The heavy envelope fell and the owl moved away. Under the direct brunt of sunlight, the letters inked in green shone like emeralds.

Miss E. A. Black

Bedroom 3, St. Giles' Institute

45 Riversrun Lane

Wilton

Wiltshire

A letter for me? Elara pondered as she took the envelope in hand. The thick paper reminded her of the pages in Father Phillips' oldest bible, the one he used for special sermons during the holidays. Nobody had ever written a letter to Elara before. She had no living relations, no friends, not even any cordial acquaintances. She could count on one hand the number of times she'd ever left the orphanage since she'd been left there at almost two years old. Someone delivered me a letter by…owl? I've heard of carrier pigeons, but not carrier owls, for goodness' sake.

She cracked the purple seal and proceeded to read.

HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY

Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore

(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc.,
Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)

Dear Miss Black,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall

Deputy Headmistress

Elara held her breath. A light breeze rippled through the hedge leaves. "It's a test," she managed to choke out past the lump in her throat. "They're trying to test—." Because how could it not be a test? The Matron and Father did so love to try the zeal of their charges, none so much as Elara and her perceived wickedness. "A fanciful child," they called her when they were being generous, "a damned heathen" when they were not. Hogwarts? Witchcraft? A confederation of Wizards? What nonsense—?!

She went to crumple the letter in her fist, frustrated, when the owl gave another haughty hoot.

Where did the owl come from?

Frozen, she forced a breath into her lungs and blinked away the sting of tears. Elara had seen many bizarre things in her short life. She had seen books float on their own accord, flowers shrivel between her fingertips, silverware start to dance, had dreamed about a black haired man who could turn into a great, shaggy dog, and had felt the rekindling of a tiny rapid heartbeat cupped in her hands—but Elara had never seen an owl so uncanny in its intelligence, and had never seen anyone at St. Giles' exhibit even an ounce of the creativity it would take to construct such an elaborate little game.

Where would Matron Fitzgerald even get an owl? She swallowed, turning the letter and the accompanying list over in her hands. It seemed such a fanciful thing. An ill-tempered bird comes soaring out of the sky to deliver a letter from an academy of magic to a poor orphan girl. For her entire life, the Institute and the church had all but beaten into Elara's head the evils of witchcraft and blasphemy—but by instilling those teachings, were they not confirming their existence? Elara didn't think much of devilry, but what if magic, real magic, existed? Did this letter mean Elara did magic? Was she really and truly cursed?

She wasn't sure, couldn't be sure, and the skeptic in Elara warned her against such silliness. Would it hurt to reply? she asked herself, running a finger along the signature of Minerva McGonagall. The pen had cut deeply into the paper—parchment—leaving indents.

"Miss Black!"

The voice of a sister carried through the garden from the back door, and Elara tucked the letter and envelope into her bible without hesitation. The owl continued to watch her as Elara rose to her feet and brushed dust from the backside of her skirt. Her socks and Mary Jane shoes were hopelessly dirty. Stealing herself, she looked at the owl, and said, "Just…just wait—or not. Whichever," then hurried off after the call of her name. Her face felt hot with her own embarrassment.

Talking to birds now. Maybe I am touched in the head.

Sister Abigail waited for her, holding open the door and the screen against the casual tugging of the wind. She smiled when she saw Elara and her young face creased. "There you are, Miss Black. Father Phillips has been askin' for you."

Elara's heart lurched. "Did—did he say what he wanted?"

"No, not as such." Distracted, Sister Abigail craned her neck to peer by Elara toward the younger kids chasing each other in a game of tag. One of the girls tripped and let out a piercing cry. "Here, you go on, Miss Black, Miss Richardson needs some help over there…."

Elara continued inside on her own, clutching the tattered bible against her chest, the letter and alterations inside like brilliant hot stones she wanted to let go of and hold all the tighter at the same time. Her footsteps echoed in the narrow, crooked halls, a fan droning somewhere behind a shut door, the children either outside or cloistered in the chapel or in the musty classroom listening to Sister Mattie snarl. Elara pushed her panic away, took the trepidation she felt tapping at the inside of her ribcage and shoved it to the back of her mind until she felt reasonably calm. It didn't stop her gloves from sticking to the palms of her hands.

Father Phillips' door lay at the end of the long, twisting corridor. Elara stood before it, and knocked.

"Come in, please."

The door swung in on silent hinges, her steps muffled by the thick rug residing just past the threshold. Silence typified the the priest's office, no radio sitting on the empty bookshelves, no fire in the grate even in the dead of winter, no ticking of a clock on the paneled walls. The rest of the world seemed to get just that much farther away whenever Elara was called into his presence, as if everything beyond St. Giles' just ceased to exist.

"There you are, Elara," Father Phillips said with slight simper from behind his desk, the corners of his mouth pulling at the aged skin of his heavy cheeks. Bushy brows capped his eyes like the white peaks of mountains, though the man himself was a whole and hale fifty in age, his Irish brogue deep and rolling. "And how does God find you today?"

"Very well, Father Phillips."

He gestured at the wooden chair by the covered window and Elara went without protest, her fingers cramping around the bible from their unforgiving grip. He must have sensed her anxiety despite her best efforts, because he laughed. "Oh, you needn't be so anxious, child. I just wanted to check up on you."

"Of course, sir."

"How have you been feeling?"

"Very well, sir."

His gaze trailed over her, hard and disinterested, then lingered on the bible with the slightest bit of warmth. "Have you been doing your readings outside? It's a nice day out. Best to be thankful for the weather before the rains blow back in."

Elara gave her head a quick nod as she stared resolutely at a certificate handing above the wood mantel. She couldn't read it from her angle, and the frame was so thick with dust the letters would have been lost anyway. She didn't want to look at the priest.

Father Phillips stood and came around his desk, his hands folded behind his back, his pace measured and loud in the pressing silence of the office. "Sister Mattie tells me you've been quiet in lessons, and you haven't been eating all your food at supper."

Something tightened in Elara's chest as the priest came to stand before her. Memories weighed on the edges of her thoughts like feet stepping on the hem of a dress, jerking it back, causing her to stumble.

"Now, child, I know you've been through an ordeal, but it's important to keep your strength up. Heaven knows we don't want to be hearing more tales about any resurrected birds, aye?"

The window was covered, but Elara knew that if she were to twitch the curtains aside, she would be able to see the great old willow tree that Elara had avoided looking at ever since that day. Flickers of images returned to her: Gunther Lyle with a sparrow in his hand, the other orphans shouting, jeering, crying, a stone coming down, a tiny body broken and thrown into the leaf-strewn roots, bloody feathers sticking to Elara's trembling fingers as she gathered the bird in her hands, feeling the warmth spill through her skin—and she suddenly watched as the dead sparrow took a breath and flew away.

The tightening sensation in Elara's chest constricted, and she wanted to tear it free, tear through the cloth and bandages and flesh until she could put her hands on her bones and shake the feeling out. She didn't do that, though. She just laid her bible in her lap and discreetly wrung her hands.

Father Phillips settled his own hand on the top of her head, stroking her hair. "Recovery is a hard road, but I know you have a good soul in you, Elara, and God does not abandon his faithful servants to the treachery of the Devil."

Elara nodded once, numb. She didn't trust herself to speak. From the corner of her eye she saw a glass begin to spin and shudder, coming ever closer to the edge of the priest's desk, and she willed it with everything in her to stop, to stay still. Please—please, not again, I can't go through THAT again—.

Too many hands in the dark. The sharp bite of steel in her young flesh, encircling her wrists, the cross glowing red like a shooting star, Father Phillips clutching that special bible of his while he loomed overhead, the silk of his purple stole cool against her skin as it trailed across her tear streaked cheek.

"Most cunning serpent, you shall no more dare to deceive the human race. We drive you from us, we drive you from us…."

Shivering, Elara stood and banished the images and voices from her head. She hated that office more than any other place in the orphanage. "Father Phillips, I need to go get ready for my lessons later this afternoon."

"Of course." He straightened, stepping back, and Elara exhaled. "Make sure to study well. We'll have tea in a few days to check up on how you're doing. How does that sound?"

Awful. "Wonderful, sir."

"Excellent. Off you go then."

Elara turned on her heels and hurried from the room, trembling. The sound of glass shattering filled her ears and she broke into a run, the bulbs in the light fixtures bursting as she crossed the hall, dashing up the stairs and into another passage. Elara didn't stop until she was safely ensconced in her bedroom and the door slammed shut behind her on its own.

That won't go unpunished. She stripped off her gloves, then threw them at the wall in a fit of self-indulgent frustration. The room was not very large but it was modestly comfortable, the iron frame of the slim bed cleaned of rust, her sheets firmly tucked, her desk empty of everything aside from a notebook and pen she'd been using earlier that morning to write lines for Sister Mattie. Sunlight streamed through the window, and the silhouette of the wrought-iron bars laid a crooked latticework on her polished floor.

Elara sat on the edge of the mattress and covered her face with her sweaty hands. She was tired of this. She felt as though she lived her life on a tightrope strung between punishments, and no matter how skillfully she managed to cross the gap, her reward was yet another sharp reprimand, another smack with a ruler, another scathing monologue promising Elara Hell waited for her and she would burn for all eternity. She was already burning. Elara Black was eleven years old and yet she felt so, so much older. She could not go on like this.

Thwack! Thwack!

Sitting up, she glanced toward the window where the tapping sound originated. She blinked. The owl that had accosted Elara in the garden now perched on a rung of the bars, sticking its head through the barrier to rap its beak against the glass. She hurried to open it, and the owl gave a rueful hoot as it studied her.

Right. Hogwarts. Elara found the bible laying on her mussed blankets, and she whipped out the letter again, flattening it on the top of her desk.

Magic. That invisible force that welled up inside her and broke light bulbs and cups and returned smashed little birdies to life. She had been told it was evil, that she was evil, for her entire life, but this—.

You have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Elara traced the words with her fingers.

You have been accepted.

Hardly daring to breathe, Elara sat at her desk. She pulled her notebook closer and tore out the page of lines, crumpling them until the sentence 'I will not blaspheme' disappeared into the crinkled paper. Elara picked up her pen, and on the new, fresh page, she began to write: Dear Deputy Headmistress McGonagall….