By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
—Macbeth, Act IV, scene 1, William Shakespeare
Chapter 1 - Something Wicked This Way Comes
I remember opening the shutters wide and inhaling deeply. The slightly musty scent of springtime, of too much rain and mud, had been replaced by the smell of flowering trees and new growth. Enchantment shimmered in the country air, reaching across the dewy grass. It was almost as though I could perceive the magic extending down the steep path from our humble cottage and onto the road into the village of Godric's Hollow proper.
As I gazed out of my open bedroom window, I could hear Ariana humming softly to herself in the kitchen beneath me. On the days when she awakened lucid and inclined to brew a pot of tea, toast some bread, and set the table, one could hardly imagine what she was capable of at her worst. Resilience and youth had thus far enabled me to weather the misfortunes that had befallen my sister, father and mother. Elusive during the dark hours of the night, hope seemed attainable in the clarity of that morning’s early summer sunshine.
The previous evening had been one of the quieter ones for the two of us. Aberforth, in his fifth year at Hogwarts at the time, had not yet returned home for the summer holidays. Ariana and I had been living there alone since our brother left for school again that past fall. She missed the company of Aberforth. I yearned for him to return also, but regretfully not for himself, but so that he might relieve me of part of the burden of constantly minding Ariana.
I had read to her from an ancient book of Muggle children's tales in order to help her fall asleep the previous night. Ariana exercised an unchallenged tyranny over our entire household. She would coerce Aberforth into conducting a whole series of tasks for her and entertaining her at command throughout the day. Despite being well beyond the age for bedtime stories, she insisted that I alone should tell her stories or read her to sleep every night. I did so without argument rather than face the consequences of one of her protracted fits of hysteria.
That particular night she had chosen a story called “The Girl without Hands.” It is one of those morbid tales that so often find their way into children’s storybooks. In this one a girl permits her hands to be chopped off by her father in order to save her family. I could barely keep my voice from breaking and my hands from trembling as I turned the pages to read such horrific passages as:
Then he went to the girl and said, "My child, if I do not chop off both of your hands, then the devil will take me away, and in my fear I have promised him to do this. Help me in my need, and forgive me of the evil that I am going to do to you."
She answered, "Dear father, do with me what you will. I am your child," and with that she stretched forth both hands and let her father chop them off.” (“The Girl without Hands.” Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.)
After appalling suffering, the brave protagonist wins the love of a king and encounters another rescuer in the form of an angel. Finally, the maiden's hands are restored to her. Despite Ariana’s usual perceptiveness, she appeared to discern nothing at all freakishly unpleasant in the story, which to me in many disconcerting ways resembled her own trials. She instead wept tears of joy at the happy ending and fell into a dreamless sleep for once.
My composure had cracked at the similarity of the girl’s sacrifice of her hands at a parent’s insistence and Ariana’s loss of the use of her magic. I shuddered when she said, “Thank you, Albus. That story was so good!”
Apparently, I had successfully hidden my nervous state from her.
Despite their often tragic nature, my sister favored poems relating to kidnappings by fairies and traditional knights-and-fair-ladies romances. But it was not simply that she sought insipid nursery tales, but that she preferred even Muggle history over any topic which touched upon true life accounts of the doings of Wizards. Narratives relating to solving problems or overcoming realistic hardships made her anxious. I could understand her aversion. After our father had been sent to Azkaban, we overheard our mother engaging in far too many hysterical exchanges with tradesmen and other creditors about the impossibility reshuffling our ever-shrinking income to meet increasing household expenses. Even normal, resilient children do not deserve a childhood clouded by such matters, much less a girl of Ariana’s background and fragility.
Any possible cure for my sister had been rejected by our mother in order to save what remained of the tattered reputation of our benighted family. Her justification had been that she feared Ariana would be kept drugged and held in confinement in St Mungo's for the rest of her life if the extent of her lack of control over her wild magic were to be discovered.
Decades later I questioned within my own heart if my mother honestly believed the explanations she gave us. It could have been that she had knowingly sacrificed Ariana to allow Aberforth and me to live a relatively normal life. If that were the case, my mother’s gamble had failed on an epic scale. Initially, I was far too young to question my mother’s judgment. By the time I had assumed the role as head of the Dumbledore family at the ripe old age of seventeen, Ariana’s troubles were nowhere near the top of my list of urgent concerns.
My father had destroyed his life and the integrity of our family because he had been unable to protect Ariana from physical harm. My mother, proud and resentful of the turn in our fortunes, was incapable of shielding my sister from the worries of adult life. After the death of our mother, Aberforth and I allowed Ariana--neither of us properly equipped to care for her--to linger in a shadowy illusion of the childhood which had been snatched untimely from her.
Ariana habitually viewed simple choices of right and wrong as frustratingly insurmountable challenges. The stories I read her could not contain explicit descriptions of violence, nothing about the loss of mothers or fathers, meetings with threatening strangers, raising goats, or mutton stew. Do not even ask me to detail all of her prohibitions. The list was as long as my arm and the explanations for each as tedious and complicated as they were wide-ranging.
On the evening before Gellert arrived, she had fallen asleep early and slept long into the morning. I recall thinking that it was about time that she had a good stretch of sleep. It had been a nearly a fortnight since she had enjoyed an uninterrupted night.
Ariana was as lovely a girl when awake and coherent as she was in deep repose. Her auburn hair, on the redder side of chestnut, a color she shared with Aberforth and me, contrasted beautifully with her milky skin and hazel eyes. It broke my heart to look upon her fine regular features, so feminine yet strong, to think of how she certainly would have, in a better world, grown to be a remarkable woman and as much sought after for her wild strain of powerful magic tempered by sweetness as she would have been for her beauty. I never knew in those days whether I would wake up in the morning to find a sensitive intelligent young girl or a snarling, scratching, feral little monster, given to outbreaks of uncontrollable and potentially destructive magic.
In the way of the very young and selfish, I more often than not endured Ariana's disabilities as undeserved misfortunes which had befallen me personally. But on that sun-dappled late spring morning, my thoughts were limited to the awareness that if Ariana were to spend the day alert and cheerful, I might be able to relax. I could read and answer some correspondence. Perhaps I would even be inspired to compose some letters to scholarly Wizarding journals suggesting articles I wished to submit.
My recent leave taking with the highest honors from Hogwarts had provided me with the prospect of eliciting the attention of academics and publishers. The window of opportunity, however, would not remain open long without publications in my own name. Publishing early and often was one of the few means for an independent scholar of my generation to earn a living. Not only had I been snatched away from what had appeared such a short while earlier to have been the certainty of a brilliant career but, with the tragic death of my mother, I found myself burdened with the support of my frail and dangerous sister and my recalcitrant younger brother.
Those would have been daunting tasks for any Wizard barely turned eighteen years of age. It is not conceited for me to say that I was not just any Wizard as a youth, but a remarkably gifted one. My family circumstances might have been considered heavy beyond all bearing by most people, but my personal attributes were unequaled by any among the peers or mentors I had encountered at that period in my life.
Somewhere in the bloodline of the Dumbledores, often skipping generations, there ran a much touted strain of elemental, powerful magic and it seemed to have reached its pinnacle in me. A fact that I know is being studied by some eccentric scholars now, which would have been considered outright heresy by the most forward-looking of Wizards in my youth, is that the subspecies of magic found in pureblood Wizards can be strengthened by the addition of one or another of the unique strains of magic found among Muggle-born mages.
That remarkable summer, I still believed, another manifestation of youthful arrogance, that my Magical talents and my professional achievements were wholly of my own making. I see now that nurture and the complicated genetic cocktail of the generations of Magical creatures which had come together in me had, if not determined, at least influenced greatly the development of the overconfident young Wizard I had become. My hard-won understanding causes me to look back with more modesty and less self-hatred at my own past. It also enables me without my early bitterness to be more forgiving and philosophical about the distressing outcome for that spectacular Wizard who was shortly to become my first and only love.
** ** ** ** ** ** **
"Albus!" Ariana called, her voice shrill with urgency. "Are you all right? I have been trying to tell you that I brought you a cup of tea."
I had not even heard her enter the room. I wondered how long I had been standing there gawking out of the window, contemplating my short life and the circumstances of those closest to me. Also, for the last two or three minutes at least, I had been hearing but not processing the sound of Ariana’s voice, as I inspected a couple hiking up the path towards our cottage--a short woman and a tall boy or man. As they drew closer to the garden gate, I could observe him better. My surprise at what I saw provoked a smile.
"I called you three times,” Ariana said, pushing a steaming teacup under my nose. “Couldn't you hear me?" She stuck her lower lip out at me before abandoning all pretense of pouting.
"Oh! So sorry," I answered, taking the cup from her while grinning reflexively to reassure her. “Thank you very much.”
Mollified, she smiled and pointed toward the open arched window with its decorative parapets, some 19th century middle-class Wizard’s literal interpretation of the old adage that a man’s home is his castle.
"Who is that beautiful blond boy coming up the path with Bathilda Bagshot?” she asked. “One may call a young man with his looks beautiful, mayn't one?" She pressed herself up close to me to get a better view out of the window, studying him carefully, pursing her small rosebud of a mouth and wrinkling her nose in concentration. I curled my arm around her slender waist, fascinated with the waves of curiosity and concern that poured out of her.
I snapped my mouth shut, realizing I had allowed it to fall open as I had turned again to look out of the window and process the supple litheness of him, the glitter of sunlight upon his golden hair, the careless grace of his stride. He wore a waistcoat of an outmoded vaguely continental cut, narrow in the waist, flared slightly and longish. His sartorial sense would have appeared foreign by either Wizards’ or Muggles’ conventions. But his air of relaxed youthfulness stood out against his antiquated garb.
Old lady Bagshot’s shapeless black robe flapped about her low, plump figure adding contrast to their discrepancy in height and age. I seemed to recall that she had relatives in Eastern Europe. That might explain the quaint fashion sense of the attractive stranger. By his demeanor--the self-satisfied cant of his head and the loose, assured swing of his stride--he appeared to be an unabashedly confident young man. His aristocratic fineness of features and his casual elegance of movement were offset by a careless gesture of repeatedly tossing an unruly mop of loosely curling hair out of his face.
"I would certainly say one could," I said, expelling a besotted sigh, grateful that only Ariana and not Aberforth was present to observe me. Even so, Ariana discerned something strange about my reactions and considered me with a puzzled frown.
“Could what?” she asked, distracted.
“You definitely could call him beautiful.” I did not even bother to hold back another wistful exhalation. What impression would I make on him? It already mattered terribly what this unknown youth might think of me. No one would have called me beautiful at first sight.
She shrugged and laughed softly. “It took you forever to answer me. I forgot what I had asked you."
I can still see in my mind’s eye, as clearly as though I were looking at a Muggle motion picture, the upward curve of his wide sensual mouth, the rosy blush across high cheekbones visible under a light suntan. Even now, remembering how he cocked his head to one side laughing at something Professor Bagshot said to him causes a hitch in my chest. He took hold of her elbow to give her balance on the rocky path with the accustomed ease of a person who knows how to use attentiveness to charm. Truth be told, Gellert Grindelwald could make any companion feel for a wonderful moment frozen in time that they were the focus of his entire universe.
"Do you know who he is?” Ariana asked. “I think they must be coming here."
"I have no idea who he is,” I replied. “I would absolutely remember if I had seen him before. I do think I had better put my trousers on and go downstairs to let them in."
"I'll stay upstairs and come down after they leave,” she said. “There is a new pot of tea on the kitchen table. I don't like nosy old lady Bagshot and that boy has frighteningly strong magic. I can feel it prickling on the back of my neck,” she said, lifting her shoulders up in a shiver. “He is very pretty though."
"Run along to your room then and let me get dressed. You can stay upstairs and I'll take care of them. I'm sure they won't stay long."
Shedding my nightshirt, I grabbed my trousers from the night before. Hopping on one foot and then the other in the direction of the wardrobe, I managed to get both legs into my trousers. I then shuffled through my clean shirts there, hoping to find an appropriate one. My intention was to look presentable, without appearing to have made too great of an effort. Professor Bagshot’s was generous enough to allow me to use her personal library. She did not stand on formality. I never wore a collar and tie for those visits, so I grabbed a Russian-style green tunic that I had been told accentuated my eyes.
Before I could finish washing my face and cleaning my teeth, I heard them knocking. I stuck my head out of the window and called that I would be right down. Professor Bagshot tilted her fussy little parasol at me in greeting, reminding me of a gentleman tipping his hat. She permitted a smile to crease her plump cheeks. The lad raised his eyebrows at the sight of me, cocking one head to the side, before grinning, apparently pleased at what he saw. I remember thinking that perhaps I was not so unappealing after all to have merited such a response. I quickly rinsed my mouth, fastened my shirt and ran down the stairs.
Ariana had indeed left the teapot steeping on the table. She had covered it with a cozy and set out a pitcher of fresh milk. I quickly placed two more cups on the table. The sliced bread, butter and jam, may not have been a feast, but it would do for unannounced guests so early in the morning I hoped.
Opening the door and seeing Gellert up close gave me a twofold shock, not only was he even more handsome than he had appeared at a distance of thirty feet, but his magic was palpable to me. I often thought that if the sun had not been so bright that day that I might have seen it hanging in the air like a sparkling mist. Magic like his is a marvel that I have only encountered a few times in my life and that was my first experience. I had no defense against it. My own magic strained and buzzed beneath my skin in a barely controllable response. I took a deep breath and released it to relieve the onset of palpitations.
“Good morning,” I said. “Please come in.”
“There you are, Albus!” Bathilda Bagshot announced. “This is my nephew, Gellert Grindelwald. He’s taken a leave from Durmstrang and will be staying with me for a while. He’s a lot like you: bookish and with a magic nearly too strong for his own good at times. The two of you will get on like a house afire.” Gellert, still grinning, extended an elegant long-fingered hand towards me. I took his hand and held it a few seconds too long before I released it blushing. I thought he might have winked it me, or maybe I imagined it. One thing of which I am certain is that something sparked between the two of us that went beyond the figure of speech. The reaction of each of our magics to one another’s resembled a charge of static electricity without the overt physical manifestations.
Gellert was to tell me later that his Aunt Bathilda had recommended me to him as a lovely young man, clever enough to be good company for even him or especially for him. She had given me no warning whatsoever, simply showed up on my doorstep that summer morning with her incomparable nephew in tow, all but demanding breakfast. Bathilda must have been aware of the similarities of us two youngsters, each accustomed to the feeling of being different from others of our own age. But the force that brought us together carried with it the reaction of a positive and negative charge—the old opposites attract cliché rang true with a vengeance for us. We knew instantaneously without discussing it that our magic together was greater than the sum of its parts. Our response to one another was mutual, electrifying, and irresistible.
“This jam is delicious. Did your sister make it, Albus?” Bagshot inquired.
“No. No one in our family makes jam. I bought it in the village from the lady who sells yarn and jam. We are none of us great cooks. Except, of course, for Aberforth’s infamous--or should I say legendary?--mutton stew.”
“Ah, yes. The mutton stew you bring me from time to time,” Bagshot said, turning to Gellert, her face alight with eagerness. “I do hope you get a chance to try it. So delicious--savory with spices, onions and garlic. Why on earth would you call it infamous?”
“My sister detests it,” I said. Bagshot shook her head sympathetically. Gellert smirked conspiratorially at me, just out of her line of vision.
He finished a slice of bread with jam and butter in no time at all and reached for another piece. I thought that he was probably starving; I recalled that Bagshot ate very little in the evenings.
“I am more than competent enough to whip up some rashers, sausage and eggs, if you would like. Shall I?” I asked.
“Well . . .” drawled Professor Bagshot coyly, “we did leave the house without our breakfast.” Gellert grinned at me, his merry eyes sparkling with mischief.
“That’s what I’ll do,” I stated with firmness.
“Only if you let me help you,” said Gellert. “I traveled across half of Europe with little coin on my way here. I taught myself to cook on the road, in rented rooms and campfires alike, with and without magic.”
My cheeks ached from grinning back at him. His idiomatic, only slightly accented English was a delight to my ears. It was too soon to tell if his responses to me were simply reactive: the result of male adolescent libido and compatible magic or perhaps something more.
“I’ll accept your kind offer,” I said. “And there is no need to be shy about using magic here.”
It was hard to believe that only the day before I had felt alone and friendless, trying to resign myself to a boring future in the poky little village of Godric’s Hollow.