In a little stone cottage that stood between the outskirts of the village and the pebbly seashore, there lived a witch.
All the children in town knew she was a witch, because that was exactly the sort of place a witch would live. She looked the part, besides: she was very tall and very stern, and she wore high-heeled boots with buttons up the sides and a cloak over her long dresses. She counted her money carefully, and she had no kin around here.
The grown-ups hushed them. She was only a retired schoolteacher, they said, as though that was something to recommend her to children. She was an old-fashioned lady, they said, and they meant it as the highest compliment, for the village was an old-fashioned place.
The children, for their part, were unconvinced.
Soon after the witch's arrival, it became sport to dare each other up to her house. The brave would steal a peek through the cloudy window at the strange leather-bound books on the shelf or the cauldron hanging over the fire. The braver might even hammer on the door before sprinting off into the hills like the devil himself was on their heels.
One day it happened, however, that Mikey Taylor did not run fast enough. The other boys who were with him swore the witch appeared out of thin air an instant before Mikey could loose the second rock. The lot of them unabashedly ran like cowards as she dragged Mikey off by the ear, and then hunkered down in the hills, worriedly discussing how they would break the news to Mrs. Taylor.
It was nearly a quarter hour before Mikey emerged again. He had a piece of toffee in his hand, and he was pale, and no matter how much he was pestered in the weeks to come, all he would say was that they had better just leave the witch alone.
So they did, or most of them did. The novelty wore off not long after when a new shop opened in the village. One or two, however, continued to keep a sharp eye out each time they passed the cottage on the way to the seashore, stopping in the path now and then to watch suspiciously when a strange, wispy blue smoke rose from the little chimney. You could never be too careful with witches.
Minerva McGonagall began her retirement in the summer of 1998 on an island in the Hebrides known for good whisky and people who knew how to mind their own business. She bought the cottage with her savings, and she fixed it up a little at a time as her pension came in. A new rug here, a set of curtains there. A sturdy bed and a solid pine table. She pulled up the overgrowth from the garden and seeded bachelor buttons, and delphiniums, and lavender, and she took a constitutional along the beach every morning after breakfast.
At the age of seventy-three, there had seemed nothing new left for her under the sun, but this turn had led to bittersweet strangeness. This was the first home she had ever made her own, for herself and her alone. She had not come up in an age like this one, where young women left school and moved into London flats without so much as a chaperone. For her, there had been only her parents' home, and Hogwarts—first the Gryffindor dormitories and later her tower apartments—and in between, the home in Glasgow she had shared with Andrew for the five brief years of their marriage, with its cheery red door and the extra bedrooms that had never been filled.
With her books unpacked and her photographs put up, the cottage had ceased to feel so much like a borrowed boarder's house, though she suspected it would take the first frost before a certain corner of her mind was convinced she wasn't merely on summer holiday. The thought of winter here was a pleasant one. She pictured it: quiet and still, with snow on the window-ledge and a cosy fire in the hearth. This seemed a good place for winters, a place to watch birds and to knit, and most of all a place to write, for that was how she had decided to pass her retirement.
A shocking flurry of owls had accompanied the announcement of her leaving Hogwarts. Wealthy families looking for a private tutor, the Ministry offering positions in all departments, private councils looking for leadership. The wizarding world had all but exploded into industry upon the defeat of You-Know-Who in a manner unseen even in closing months of 1981. Thousands had come to gawk at the ruins of Hogwarts and then, as though shaken by a bad accident they had no cause to be walking away from, had left to throw themselves full-hearted into an economic boom.
The offer from Pollux Press to write the definitive modern book on Animagery had been too much to pass up. After that it would be a new introductory textbook for Transfiguration at the request of Pomona, who was settling into the position of Headmistress with admirable aplomb. Then, after that...anything that took her fancy.
She found she already missed teaching. That surprised her; she had been so eager to leave the school once the dust had settled. But then, for all that she did not regret her decision, she missed Hogwarts as well. The castle had been her home for a full two-thirds of her life, nurturing her as a schoolgirl, comforting her as a young widow, shaping her into the woman she had become.
Gossip, which was always the first thing to spring back in the wake of a disaster, held that the newly assembled board of governors had passed her over in favour of Pomona and that she had left out of pique. At the school itself, it was a lie agreed upon that she was feeling too much her age to stay on through the rebuilding.
The truth was, there were simply too many memories there. She was barely middle-aged, but the past year had done what two wars had failed to. There were shadows in every corner and bloodstains that no amount of scrubbing could lift. She could not walk over the patch of dead earth where Albus's corpse had fallen. She could not celebrate in the Great Hall where so many humiliations and horrors had been carried out by the Death Eaters. She could not look upon the charred remains of the Shrieking Shack and not remember that the last time she had seen Severus, she had believed of him all the terrible things she had once sworn not to.
It was a half-truth, perhaps. At times she felt tired enough for a woman twice her age.
Thank goodness for the sea, she decided, as her days took up an ebb and flow of their own. She cooked, and she read, and she walked on four paws along the shore each morning. She wrote fond letters to dear friends and admonishing missives to the Daily Prophet, and she worked on her book a little each day, surrounded by teetering piles of reference books and notes. It was a comfortable, content existence.
At least until the day the little black tom showed up at her door.
Grubb's Encyclopaedia of Magic defines Animagery thusly: "The practice of performing a purely physical self-transfiguration from human form to a pre-destined animal form. An Animagus in his transformed state is anatomically indistinguishable from a true animal of its type and mentally indistinguishable from his native human state."
This is, to put it simply, utter nonsense. An Animagus transformation brings into play complicated biological and psychological factors that do not occur in conventional transfigurations. Animagi regularly display physical features unseen in nature, such as in colouring, and are often notable by markings that reflect psychosocial facets of identity; the white of a dove may be interrupted by the shape of a wedding band around the tip of a wing, or a tabby cat's markings may reflect the shape of an accustomed pair of spectacles.
It must also be remembered that the brain is an organ much like any other. While higher functions are not impaired as in transitive transfiguration, neurological adjustments in sensory perception, communication, and motor skills are imperative simply to function within animal physiology. Many Animagi report taking comfort in their simpler animal psychology during times of stress. Consider the case of a Canid Animagus incarcerated in Azkaban [...]
She looked up, startled by a faint scratching at the door. Morning had moved on, and the sun was now overhead, still a while away yet from the glare off the water that would alert her to teatime. She glanced at her foe-glass, but it reflected nothing but the opposite wall. Caution caused her to slip her wand up her sleeve, although she suspected it was only the village children playing silly buggers again. Old habits died hard. She opened the door and, to little surprise, found no one there. She leaned out and had a suspicious glare about, but there was nary a sign of anyone, nor any telltale sniggering.
Sighing, she shut the door and regarded the clock, trying to decide if it was truly lunchtime yet. Then she sat back down at the desk and had just picked up her quill when she was interrupted again.
A shadow passed by the window, and she glanced up sharply to find a small black cat perched on the ledge. It cocked its head, staring at her intently as cats were wont to do. Something about its appearance momentarily unnerved her, though she could not put her finger on what.
She raised an eyebrow. "And what do you want?"
The cat continued to stare. "Nrao?"
She reached out and carefully opened the window. The little creature flinched but didn't scamper. "Well?"
The cat continued to stare, its tail twitching anxiously. She could hear, faintly, that it was purring, though the bristle along its back spoke for it being in the nervous manner. It twisted deftly, pacing back and forth on the narrow ledge.
A peek proved that it was a 'he', unaltered. The poor little thing was just as obviously a stray, underfed and ragged. He was small for a tom but did not have a kittenish look about him. His claws were worn and his paws ragged, as though he had walked a very long way.
She paused, realising then what had struck her as so odd. The cat's eyes were quite dark, darker than she'd ever seen on a cat before. She leaned forward for a better look, but the cat let out a startled hiss and kicked off the ledge, righting himself in midair and disappearing in a streak when he hit the ground. She leapt to her feet to see if he'd run far, but he was already out of sight.
It took a moment for her to return to her seat. She shut the window against a sudden chill and picked up her quill but found she had quite forgotten what she'd meant to write.
No. No, she was being a silly old woman with silly thoughts. She sat motionless for several moments and then decided it was lunchtime.
Her work put away for the moment, she set to making herself a cucumber sandwich. While the kettle heated, her mind turned to the leftover kedgeree in the icebox. Only a stray cat, likely in need of a good meal. After a brief inner debate, she unwrapped the plate and left it out on the front step. If she gave it much thought, she might have presumed that the little cat was already halfway across the island by now, but when she went outside to sweep the step that evening, she found the dish had been licked clean.
Who can become an Animagus? This the question on the mind of nine-tenths of those who have picked up this book. Certainly it takes disciplined practice and a considerable ability for transfiguration, but there is little evidence otherwise to prove that the talent adheres to any particular background or bloodline. Scant findings suggest that attempting transformation in the adolescent years yields a higher rate of success, given the state of flux under which a young wizard or witch's body already exists. However, alternate theories suggest that a higher failure rate among older individuals may be psychological rather than physical in nature; one's human form becomes a habit. In this sense, it can be speculated that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
Severus Snape returned to Hogwarts two years after he'd left it, a sombre young man where a stooped, beaky boy had been.
"Mr. Snape has had his share of adventuring and has decided to return to the fold," Albus announced when Severus appeared with his trunk two weeks before the term was set to begin. There was no mistaking his meaning.
She appraised the young man frankly, dearly hoping that Albus was not being his usual softhearted self. Severus Snape was a ghostly figure in his new robes, his eyes shadowed and his lips pale and thin. She was not shocked, as she suspected Albus had hoped she'd be. Severus had been an unremarkable student in Transfiguration, and one of Horace's boys besides, and so all that she knew of him had arisen from his scrapes with James Potter and his friends. He was the right age and of the right house and had hung about with the right crowd; the past years had hardened her, and if she was surprised by anything, it was only that he had come back.
Severus didn't look especially overjoyed to be Hogwarts' newest professor, but he set down his trunk and made his half-graceful manners. "Professor."
He looked tired. She thought that quite clearly, and in hindsight, it was that simple fact that softened her. If he had looked angry, or put out, or even zealous, she might have treated him as she'd come to treat the parade of fleeting faces Albus dug up for the Defence position yearly: someone to be cordial to, to tolerate, and to under no circumstances lend books to.
But she understood being tired, and so she returned the nod. "Professor."
His brows lifted in faint surprise. Then his posture straightened ever so slightly, and his chin lifted in a familiar Slytherin tilt.
She hid a smile as he disappeared into what had been Horace's rooms, and she lingered awhile with Albus, speaking of school business and overhearing the quiet sounds of unpacking. Severus made no appearance at lunch that afternoon, or at dinner, and if he crossed her mind at all, she only made a note to speak to him in the morning to see if he was aware that professors took meals in the staff lounge during the holidays. She saw him earlier than she expected, however, when a knock came at her door that evening.
He stood stiffly on her doorstep, his hands folded. "I hope I'm not interrupting."
"You aren't," she assured him. "I was only sorting through some lesson plans. Come in."
He hesitated and then put one foot over the threshold, almost sidling through as the other half was forced to follow. She might have laughed, but she remembered her own first day here. She had been thirty, but when it came to addressing her former professors she might have been all of eleven again.
"I'd like to become an Animagus," Severus announced abruptly.
He added, awkwardly: "I think it would be of use. For subterfuge."
It appeared torture for him to ask. There were those who were too stubborn to comfortably admit the world of things they didn't know, and there were those too embarrassed to turn to any source more judgemental than books. She wondered which he was.
"For subterfuge," she said. "Have you spoken to the headmaster about this?"
He nodded, his hands folding even tighter.
"Oh, do sit down, Severus. You look exhausted."
Now it was his turn to blink. He looked around as though he couldn't fathom how to proceed, and then he came to perch at the edge of the chesterfield. "I understand that you're busy..."
"Nonsense," she said, already rummaging through her shelves. She amassed a small stack of books and placed them on the table with a satisfying thud. "This will do, for a start."
He picked up the one on top and immediately began leafing through, his brow creasing.
She paused. "Would you like some tea?"
He looked up in surprise, eyes baffled, as though she were speaking Russian. Then he nodded so warily that she suspected it had been a long while since someone had offered him a good hot cup.
She went and put the kettle on, and he began to skim Numenor's On Animal Magic. That was how it began.
In the two months that followed, she did not succeed in helping him transform even a single hair on his head. He sprouted no feathers and grew no gills. It soon became apparent that while he had a sharp sense of the theory, not even his impeccable survival instincts could avail him in this.
She had seen it before. He was too much inside his body, unhappily but stubbornly clinging to it for the same reasons, she suspected, that he did not take better care with his appearance: a fear that trying and still being left lacking was worse than pretending not to care at all. A bitter satisfaction that any slight or failure could be attributed to the petty judgements of others. His body was his shield and his prison. Sticks and stones might have proven kinder in the long run; privately, she thought he was almost handsome in the right light.
Still, he continued to come and continued to try, and she admired him for it. Which was why, in his quiet, unhappy days after All Hallow's, she continued to order him back every Sunday—for the sake of his pride, she told herself, and not solely because she enjoyed his company—and she called the visits lessons, for all that they only sat together, and shared a pot of tea, and talked about journals and students and everything but the world outside.
She wondered though, sometimes, if she might have helped him to that small victory if she'd only tried a little harder. Sometimes a good sharp shock was what it took. She herself, in more impetuous days, had finally leapt from the top of a steep staircase, forcing her body to realise that four legs and a righting reflex would make the landing much easier. His tired eyes had stopped her, however, and she had never even raised her voice to him. After all he had gone through, she hadn't wanted to be one more person forcing him to be something he didn't wish to be.
What form might have sprung from that well-hidden soul? A handsome adder, perhaps, or a clever raven. Or maybe a cockroach. She had kept that last thought to herself, not wishing to be misunderstood. She had always heard that cockroaches would outlive them all.
The cat returned the next day, once again scratching at the door and then coming to sit at the window.
"You little beggar," she said softly, and the cat blinked impassively through the glass.
She was nearly tempted to draw the curtains, and the instinct was so strong that she forced herself to ignore it out of sheer stubbornness. She rose and went to the cupboard to find a tin of fish, mixing it with a little water in a saucer. She went to the front and set it down on the step and waited.
The little tom quickly came to investigate. He sat down on the stone path that led to the door and looked from the dish to her and back again. His tail twitched irritably. "Nrao."
She crossed her arms. "If you're expecting caviar, go begging somewhere else, you wee bampot."
The cat continued to stare at her for several moments until hunger seemed to win out. She stooped down as he ate and tentatively reached out to pat him. He gave a jolt, but it wasn't enough to distract him from eating. He was wonderfully soft, the morning sunlight bringing out a patina of blue in his coat. A cat, only an ordinary cat.
"You are a handsome boy, aren't you," she murmured, and he paused to look up at her with slitted eyes.
Her hand fell to her side, and she left him to his breakfast.
She kept the door open as she set out her work. It was a warm, still day, and a bit of a draught would be welcome. The cat curled up on the step and sunned himself right through the afternoon, wound up nose to tail in a tense little bundle. For all that her desk faced the window, she felt his absence when he left.
That the transformation process involves neurological changes is evident among those Animagi who have spent great lengths of time in animal form. Reports given afterwards have included such effects as simplified thinking, loss of concentration, and disrupted memories.
Few records exist, for obvious reasons, on those who have never returned from a transformation, and so it is indeterminable as to whether such lifestyle changes are truly by choice or stem from a forgetfulness brought on by the transformatory state.
It was winter when she took Severus to her bed for the first time. You-Know-Who was dead and gone, or so it was said, and Hogwarts and the wizarding world at large were celebrating the merriest Christmas seen in centuries. Minerva distributed the crackers to her students, and smiled through the staff party, and at the end of it she convinced Severus to bring his bottle of scotch to her room instead of his.
They didn't put much of a dent in it. Instead, they sat in quiet company, and she thought about that poor little baby with his Muggle aunt and uncle. As for what Severus thought about, she could not say, for his expression was as smooth and distant as bone, but she remembered that he had once been friends with Lily Evans in their school days, when the world must have been a more innocent place.
For all that she loved winters, it became clearer year by year that Christmas was best for forgetting.
She watched Severus sip at his scotch, his eyes closing for a moment. He was all shadows, the curtain of his black hair obscuring half his face, the cut of his cheekbone sharp, his eyelashes a dark smudge on the palest part of his cheek. She had reached out and brushed back his hair before she knew what she was doing.
He turned to look at her and froze. He wet his lips nervously, his cheeks flushing. He did not pull away.
And so she set down her own glass and asked—rather more briskly than she'd intended, for being embarrassed and trying to hide it was something one never grew out of—"Would you like to stay here tonight, Severus?"
He did not reply. His gaze darted from her to the door, to the couch, and back at her. Then it slid towards the bedroom door, and she smiled.
"Come on," she said, "'tis late." She took his cold hand in her own and led him back with her into the warm embrace of her room.
It was his first time. She only discovered this later, when he lay with his head on her breast and stiffly confided it, but she might have guessed it was nearly so. He stood uncomfortably as she unbuttoned his robes, and his usually dexterous hands fumbled with her own clasps and laces. She kissed him and discovered he had a talent for it. He warmed in her arms then, and he grew bolder with the lamp turned low, almost fearless as his hands and mouth explored.
Almost: nearly trembling when they were under the cool sheets and she guided him with her hand. A look of shock as he entered her, and then an expression of nearly painful gratitude—whether to her or to God himself for creating such pleasure, she didn't know—and he moved with desperate hunger, braced atop her, his hair hanging down and his lips parted and his eyes like burning coals. She caressed his smooth back; caught his hips and slowed him. Clutched him as her own pleasure shook him.
Another course of lessons ensued, every Sunday evening for a time.
Weeks passed. Her quill slowed to a snail's pace across the pages, and letters went unopened and unanswered for days at a time. Half-sketched notes piled up on her desk, and her hours grew long as the days waned. She wondered, rather calmly—and for that she gave herself credit—whether she was perhaps going a little mad. She consoled herself that if anyone was entitled to, it was certainly her; anyhow, one's academic reputation could only improve with a measured dose of eccentricity.
This was not a cheerful madness, however.
The dark-eyed cat haunted her. He appeared at the window every morning, and he stayed whether she fed him or not, which she inevitably would. Afternoons, he spent sleeping on her front step, through sunshine and rain and sea-spray off the rocks. She had ceased her morning constitutionals, remaining on two feet, fearing that if she did otherwise, she might well be lost.
She thought of Severus often, and of Andrew, and she would admit that sometimes the memories of them nearly blurred. She had not wept after Andrew died, shocked and numb and more than anything angry that he had left her. It had taken her a year to finally give in and let the sorrow come, and it had taken her another three to make it stop.
Severus's funeral replayed over and over in her memory, carving itself in deeper each time. The cold drizzle and the pale mockery of Albus' sending-off, the attendance sparse and the castle falling to ruins behind them. It was her last memory of the place, and her last memory of him, for all that there had been too little left of a body to fill the coffin. She wouldn't have attended if her absence wouldn't have been conspicuous, if there hadn't been a greater need for someone to tell the whole brave and miserable truth about Severus Snape.
Afterwards, she had cremated her copy of the eulogy in her own private...
...well, "goodbye" was not the right word. She hadn't been ready to say goodbye then, and she hadn't been ready to say she was sorry, and she hadn't been ready to forgive him. But she missed him, and the pain of it made hope a terrible thing.
There are questions about Animagery that this book does not pretend to answer. There are questions that may never be answered at all, for if there is one thing that unites the spell's practitioners, it is that they may all be called strange folk. And if there is one thing that may be said about the practice, it is that not even those who possess the ability know all of its secrets.
Animagery represents the most primal wish of wizardkind, a wish to take wing, a wish to see the depths of the sea, a wish to burrow into the places no human being could glimpse. These are the twin roots of magic itself: desire and change.
On the day of the first frost, when the leaves had started to drop and the wind off the sea picked up a bitter note, she rose from her bed and looked out into the dreary morning. She did not make breakfast, and she did not make tea. Instead, she sat down on the sitting room couch and wept as if her heart would break.
She wept until her eyes were red and her head was sore, until her voice was gone and her mouth was parched, and when it had passed, she drew a deep breath. She exhaled. The early autumn air chilled her through her nightdress as she stepped out barefoot onto the grass. Then she let the change take her, and the grey day erupted into a bouquet of new scents. The breeze ruffled her fur, and her whiskers twitched in pleasure.
There she waited until the little black tom came, faithful as he'd always been. He paused several feet away, his dark eyes narrowing.
She lay down in the long grass, and he cautiously approached. Her body spoke: the loose curve of her backbone, the flicker of her tail. In so short a time, she had forgotten the lush pleasure of wordlessness. To say a half-dozen things in the set of her ears and know that not one could be a lie.
He sat down warily beside her, tired and hurt, and she closed her eyes and breathed in a scent so half-familiar that she nearly mewed aloud in pain. A heavy purr rumbled to life deep in her chest, and he held still, unresisting, as she cleaned his eyes and his ears.
When she nipped at his scruff and stepped back into the cottage, he followed.
The old witch lived in a cottage by the shore, and she lived alone save for her cat, because that was what witches did. It was a black cat, of course, and it followed her everywhere, glaring menacingly at the children of the village. The witch even talked to it sometimes, and that was further proof in their eyes, even though each and every one of them had a gran who talked to her moggies.
She was a strange woman. She never turned up on the ferry, for all that it seemed she'd sometimes disappear for days at a time, her house sitting quiet and dark. She never had any visitors either, save for the other ladies of the town who would pop 'round for tea on Sundays. No one else came and no one else went.
There were those who swore that when passing the cottage at odd hours, they had glimpsed a pair of silhouettes through the window. The witch and a figure far too large to be a cat. And then there was Jimmy Malone, who swore that one night he had seen the devil himself dressed all in black sitting out in the witch's garden.
Don't be silly, the grown-ups said, it must have only been a salesman come to call. It was only a son or a nephew visiting from the mainland. It was only a shadow.
The children of the village nodded, because that's what you did with grown-ups. As to the matter of the man in black, they kept their own counsel. After all, you never knew with witches.