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ugly: in defense of pansy parkinson

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Let's talk about how Pansy Parkinson was a bully, how she sliced and cut with words, how she lied, cajoled, and taunted. She probably left some scars that never quite healed.

Now let's talk about James Potter.

Let's talk about James and his carefully rumpled hair and his cruel entertainments. Let's talk about how McGonagall wept for him, how Hagrid bawled, how Lily loved him and Harry stood tall in his image.

No one wept for Pansy Parkinson.

 

Tell me about a Pansy who plucked the Inquisitor's Squad badge off her chest with shaking fingers only in the cold comfort of her room or Draco's, who leaned against him and whispered under the fire's crackle, some nights, "What are we doing? Do you know what we're doing?"

They both knew the answer to that question. Some nights Draco said, "Whatever we want," or "What we have to," and some nights he said, "Surviving."

She listened to the shake in his voice and thought, with something like pride, and another something like grief, the boy's learned how to lie.

"This isn't what I thought heroics would look like," she confided, one night, when she'd fled to Draco's little single room because Millicent Bulstrode had been crying herself to sleep in hers.

"Who said we're the heroes?" said Draco, but he let her curl up on the other half of his bed, a careful three inches between their crescent-moon spines.

Tell me about the Carrows calling them into their office, telling them about all the viscera they would come to love, the sick little noises, about how good they all were, such promise, even you, Millicent, stop sniveling. 

 

Let's talk about how Pansy and Draco grew up at different rates. One had a tattoo on his left forearm and the other had terror in her voice when she told her school to give up Harry Potter and save themselves. The ink beading Draco's skin, that was terror too, plain and simple, grasping for anything that looked like safety.

They screamed at each other, over the years, across mahogany dining tables and sticky pub booths, over words and deeds, broken hearts and old tremors. He felt guilty when she felt vulnerable. He felt redeemable when she felt dirty.

How dare you? Do you remember what they did? Do you remember what we did? Do you?

They swapped words, insults and frequencies, him shrilling in their own defense and her rumbling their own guilt. They spat and screamed and brought each other coffee on cold mornings.

"I want you to have something warm to hold onto," they didn't say, as they bumped shoulders, sighed, and swallowed the bitter liquid down.

Warmth curled in their stomachs all day long. For the first few years, panic ran the edge of it, that warmth, because they were not supposed to be warm. Pansy let her fingers freeze some mornings, like a penance, though she wasn't sure if it was for old deeds or for this morning, just this morning, taking a cup of coffee from Draco and loving the warmth.

 

You do not get to redeem forty year old stalkers on the grace of their undying obsessions and then leave young women out to rot.

Snape loved to oblivion, to delirium. He remade his Patronus in her image. Somehow, this saved him.  

There is a difference between a bully and a Death Eater. There is a difference between a teenaged girl spitting words no crueler than her Head of House's, and a professor--a teacher--an adult who terrorizes children who cannot escape him.

Snape never forgave Harry for his father's sins. Severus saved his life, but only for his eyes--not for what Harry saw with them, or what he did, or said, or saved, or loved, but because of their color. For this, for this, Snape is redeemed.

Pansy Parkinson drifts on the page, wreathed in smug contempt.

 

Tell me about Pansy after the war, when the DA flocked to the Aurors and their own dreams, when her fellow Slytherins went scarce and silent. All her life the point of Pansy had been her sharp eye and crueller tongue. It was written into the very lines of her. She did not know what else she was good for, so she applied at the Daily Prophet.

Malfoy Sr. had a friend or three on the Prophet's Board of Directors even now. Draco popped around, to odd jobs, old friends' country homes. He stood so much more rigidly than he had known how to at Hogwarts, but Pansy could feel him shaking apart. When the Prophet called her back in for a second round of interviews, she found a strong-boned woman with a bright green quill waiting for her.

"You were one of my favorite interviewees during the Triwizard Tournament," Ms. Skeeter said fondly. "So creative. I'm thrilled to see what you can accomplish from the other side of the reporter's notebook."

Pansy got hot drinks for writers and editors and trailed after Ms. Skeeter on assignments and interviews.

"It's amazing what people miss when they don't have their eyes open," Ms. Skeeter said.

"Going through other people's garbage isn't exactly on the same level as open eyes," Pansy pointed out.

Ms. Skeeter appreciated her creativity but she also liked the kind of places a name like Parkinson got you into. Pansy didn't begrudge. She clung to the usefulness of her name, too, except when circumstances needed her to fling it away.

Pansy had fed Ms. Skeeter stories once, about Hermione Granger and Potter and Weasley. She had fed her lies and Ms. Skeeter had taken her clumsy thrusts, sharpened them, and tossed them out into the headlines.

Someone left a dead rat in a shoebox  on Pansy's desk and she remembered Granger being sent letters stuffed full of pus. Matted grey fur, right there, by her careful notes, trimmed quill, all the little ways she was trying to do this well, do this good.

Pansy took the shoebox and its contents out to the dumpster and then washed her hands in the break room sink. Ginny Weasley (Sports section reporting, intern, present article: professional Gobstones drama) came in to filch some stale bagels from the editors' morning meeting leftovers. She blinked to see Pansy standing there, her shoulders shaking just slightly.

"I see you got a present this morning," said Ginny. She critically assessed a poppy seed bagel and then selected a sesame one.

"Was it you?" Pansy said.

"No." The DA's general tore off a big bite, chewed, swallowed. "If it was me, I'd have signed it."

Pansy was still washing her hands. She'd used cold water, because she had thought now I know how Granger felt and then felt sick. People had cursed Granger for petty lies (Pansy's lies), and here people were hating Pansy for things she had actually done.

"Hey, you're wasting water, Parkinson. Turn it off," said Ginny. "They're clean enough by now." 

 

James Potter was a bully, privileged, snotty, and simple. So was Sirius. They did not abuse Severus Snape for his future political affiliations. Severus was Snivellus, was greasy and weak and outcast, was easy, all the things they had been taught to hate.

So let's give Pansy a family as black as Sirius's. There is a long tradition of wayward children swallowed whole by dark things, who claw their way out. Let's give her one as old as James's, as rich, as arrogant, as privileged. Let's give her not their excuses--there are never excuses--but let's give her their reasons--there are always reasons.

This is not a request for sympathy. This is a far cry from forgiveness. But in this tall tale about change, about growth, about choice, let us give her a story.

Hermione wrote Marietta's fears out across her pretty face, named her sneak when she should have spelt out child. She meant it to be permanent. She meant it to scar, because Hermione felt wounded and she wanted someone else to bleed.

Hermione Granger saved the world, but she left a lot more things in her wake than a blushing Ron and Draco Malfoy's broken nose.

Hermione was not a bully. She was a hero. Marietta cried herself to sleep at night, sixteen and terrified for her mother, sixteen and terrified of a brave little girl with bushy hair and a knack for curses.

Peter Pettigrew betrayed his friends. He killed Cedric. But in the end, he repented and he had our pity.

Sirius Black hated Snivellus Snape until the day he toppled through a veil. Sirius, at sixteen, almost became a murderer using Remus's unwilling teeth, but Sirius was a godfather, a best friend, brash and warm, and so he died beloved. He died mourned. 

Draco opened a gaping hole into Hogwarts halls, sneered and spat and cowered, smashed a Petrified Harry's nose in--but he was given sympathy, in the end. He was defeated and he was saved. 

Luna's father was willing to spend three lives to save Luna's. He had their sympathy. Pansy offered up one boy for hundreds of souls. It was not brave, but we are not asking you to call her a hero. We are asking you to give her the dignity of considering her life worth living.

Harry went. Pansy offered up his life in trade, but Harry took the deal. This was what made him a hero. This was what made her terrified.

 

Let's talk about how whenever Draco was injured, was scared, was lost, Pansy would rush to his side and offer aid. It was as thoughtlessly loyal as Hermione counting the stresses in Harry's spine and heading to the library.

As the years went on, Pansy watched Draco circle, stumble, fall for Astoria Greengrass.

"Astoria is not your absolution," she snapped, panicked for reasons she didn't quite say. "You don't get scrubbed clean by stuff like that. I don't care how softly she holds your hand."

"You think I don't know that, Pansy? You don't get scrubbed clean, but you can still build on this."

They fought about it until Astoria took Pansy out to dinner one day, talked about eaves and awnings, talked about narcissus and belladonna. Pansy stopped worrying. Astoria would not allow anyone to treat her like absolution, not even Draco Malfoy.

She went with Draco when he knocked on the door of the family Tonks and asked his Aunt Andromeda if she'd care to take tea with him. He expected her to slam the door in his face. Pansy could see him bracing for it, the way his shoulders are carefully not hunched, his hands easy and open. Pansy held her breath for him, while Draco was busy pouring apologies and stubbornness onto the doormat.

Three months before he asked her to marry him Astoria took Draco to the parts of Hogwarts that had been corded off as unsafe, to false doors Alecto and Amycus had never found, to blind drops behind paintings.

Astoria had been a weepy little thing at Hogwarts. Pansy remembered her, two years younger than them, prone to crying fits and wet-eyed earnest apologies. Astoria knew all the words to say, to the Carrows, to the bullies. She made this into sympathy, rather than pity, or disgust.

Astoria knew all the words, and apparently that meant these ones too: the ones she tucked behind paintings and slipped to little Hufflepuffs, warnings and secrets and answers. Astoria never stepped foot in the Room of Requirement. She was not one of Dumbledore's Army's soldiers. She had no practice and no coin to call her to war. She was one of its spies and she carried that with her, all her life.

Astoria's rambling townhouse was as scattered as the Weasley's Burrow. She had spent her summers building false backs to closets with her father's toolkit, wallpapering them over. She took Draco's hand, walked him through, and showed him all its secrets.

When Scorpius Malfoy was born, pink and screaming, Pansy was in the waiting room, smirking at the whites of Draco's eyes. She took pictures of his panic to coo over with Astoria, later.

She was the seventh person to hold little Scorpius, after his parents and each set of grandparents. The Greengrasses were only barely becoming comfortable with being in the same room as Narcissa and Lucius.

Pansy took the red, squinting blob, admiring his tuft of white blond hair and trying to find a way to tease Draco about it. She balanced him on her lap, her hands that had bits of ink rubbed off on them and his lack of fine motor control telling some kind of story here.

They took him back, soon enough, to nestle against an exhausted Astoria, to become the center of too many photographs. The nurse shooed them out, and as they went, Pansy gazed back over her shoulder at the sleeping, wrinkly creature, and thought,

You will understand.

You will not be stranded among cruelties and asked to swallow them whole, to vomit them back, to call them cunning.

Your conscience will never look like mine.

 

Let's talk about how Pansy walked down Diagon Alley, about how people stared. She felt indignant about it the first year. She felt condemned the second. She walked down the street and felt attacked.

She told Ginny Weasley this, over stale biscotti left over from the editors' meeting and a fresh pot of tea, and Ginny laughed, a brittle sound. She showed Pansy every scar she'd ever gotten, threw them out at her like old wounds weren't vulnerabilities but plate armor.

I must not tell lies.

Pansy walked down the street and felt vilified, at twenty-four, felt like a villain. She felt like they had a right to stare and maybe they did.

For one whole year Pansy wore grey, only grey, skirted the edges of streets, shoulders huddled, and she didn't notice until Astoria pointed it out, until Ginny bought her a bright green scarf for Christmas.

One day when she was twenty-seven, an interview to get to, a gala to crash quietly, she walked down the street and kept on walking. Pansy walked down the street, breathed in, put one foot in front of the other, got where she was going.

 

Snakes are cold-blooded. They become the temperature of their environment. They lay out on hot rocks and soak in the sun, swallow it whole. They don't sweat it out like mammals, just brim and brim and brim.

You'll find little knots of snakes sometimes, or even mounds, bodies slipping together, scales holding close, steaming in the cold air. They're waking up, after winter, calling out.

 

"It's tempting, to listen to hate," Ginny said once. They weren't friends yet, not quite yet, but this might have been the moment. A lot of people had tried to give Pansy advice over the years, "ex"-Death Eaters who thought she was as pansy as her name, or kindly do-gooders who wanted to reform her evil ways. This was not advice. This was not about Pansy. Ginny was telling a story.

"Bad people sometimes have kind voices," said Ginny. "Sometimes they make you feel alone, shunned, like they're the only people you can trust. You give them pieces of you, let them in--but you are still responsible for the things you do. But we were all children. We all thought the world was simpler than it was."

Pansy started going out to drink with Parvati Patil, which wasn't something she had ever expected. They had grown up together, her and the twins and all their pureblooded playmates, and then at eleven they had grabbed on to different colors and swaddled themselves in them. Ginny came out with them, too, some days, and Padma, whose sly wit was only improving with age. 

“Why are you here?” Parvati asked her once, over a beer. People asked Pansy a lot, when they found her in Flourish and Blotts, or at work on the Prophet. Their eyes raked her, looking for green, for silver, for venom. Sometimes she'd smile back, let them see the danger. 

"Because I'm not fifteen anymore," said Pansy. "God, do you know what precious Potter Sr. got up to at school, the bully? But boys get to grow up to be men, you see, and us girls just grow up to be bitches."

For Christmas, Ginny got Pansy a small children's Muggle science textbook. She smirked when Pansy opened the package, but even by then Pansy knew Ginny did everything on purpose. Pansy wrapped it in brown paper and read it on lazy Saturdays. She wondered, reading it, if this was what it felt like to ten year old Muggleborns, the day a letter arrived by owl.

Pansy went out walking, alone. Draco didn't comprehend such athletic endeavours. Ginny didn't understand walking when you could fly.

But Pansy liked the way your thoughts could spread out into the quiet, the way the low hills rolled out and away from you, opening up under the grey sky. Her childhood had been full of such pointed noises.

She found little creeks in the wrinkles of hills, and let the freezing water run over her hands. The noise was endless, the splash and murmur of it, the way it kept rolling and rolling on.

Water is life and Slytherin sleeps sound beneath the lake. Water is life, and change, carving chasms in broad plains over centuries, slipping easily among a thousand smooth stones.

There is an Egyptian story about entering the afterlife. (Pansy read it in INTRO TO WORLD CULTURES, a little brightly illustrated Muggle textbook that Ginny got her for her birthday). They take out your heart and weigh it against a feather.

Pansy felt like she was standing, breathless, would always be standing, frozen, watching to see which way the scales tipped.

On long nights, cold nights, she stopped waiting. She was certain of the outcome at three in the morning. She stared up at the ceiling and listened to the lump of concrete in her chest beat.

 

Falling in love saved James Potter. It killed him, in the end, but it saved him first, and after, and always.

James loved Lily and it made him brave. Maybe Pansy fell in love, too, someday. Maybe it elevated her sharp tongue.

Maybe she fell in love like a bag of bricks. Maybe it was slow, three years of going out hiking alone in the hills on Saturday mornings, and running into, stumbling into, looking for, waiting for a girl with a ball cap and a purple backpack. They swapped packed lunches, sweated and cursed, grew close. One day the girl would take Pansy home to her parents, their kind smiles, their electric stove and television. Pansy's tongue was swollen with a childhood of cruel words, but she swallowed, inhaled, said, "I'm so very pleased to meet you."

We could give her a love story. We could call it salvation.

Or maybe there is no hiker. Or maybe that love falls apart--Pansy is kinder now, calmer, maybe, but they've grown in different ways, to different needs. They go on one last walk together, through old hills. They part slowly and they both cry all the way home. Pansy never looks at trees the same again.

James Potter was saved by a love, so let's give Pansy a lover. Maybe she kissed Padma Patil in the coat room of her first art show, ran her fingers over the scars on the back of Padma's hand, over the cracked lines of her palm, the old broken bones.

Maybe it was a journalism intern, a young man in the lifestyle department but thirsting for the front page. He turned articles on cute little artisan food festivals into pieces on the way half-troll children were subsisting on potatoes and rice three streets over. They sent him out to cover a play, an opera, a children's choir concert and he wrote about the whispered conversations in box seats, how the pure still flocked together, sleeves tugged down over their wrists. When they sent him out to cover Hermione Granger's love life and fashion tips, Pansy aborted a snort in the packed conference room. The editors didn't know what they'd gotten into now, putting those two in a room together with a quill.

Maybe his fire kindled something in her, too. Maybe it tasted delicious on her tongue.

Maybe she never loved them, or maybe she loved all of them, knew them, listened to their breathing late at night. Maybe they taught her things, about holding precious things in your palms, about all the ways someone can catch your breath, about goodbyes.

We could give her a love story and call it salvation. She listened to their breathing, late at night. Maybe it helped her, those nights when her ribs were filled with concrete, to listen to their wheezes and snores. They made her remember that the heart is a muscle, clenching and clawing its way to life. They were alive and so was she. We could say they saved her life but we would be lying.

It wasn't that they were breathing, that they were there--that matters, yes, but that's not the point. That's not the reason.

They breathed. She listened.

Love is a power. Love is an old magic in any universe, but it is not enough. She listened to their breathing. She listened to her own. Love is a power, but it does not save your soul. You do.

So let's give her a love worth dying for, worth fighting for and lying for and repenting. Let's give her a love worth living for, and let's make it herself. 

Let's tell a story where no one saved her soul. She did not borrow the grace of a lover until her own goodness bloomed in her chest. She did not inhale the protagonists' pity like it was any kind of gift. She was a godmother and she loved, she bought broomsticks and teased and comforted, but this is not what saved her.

A snake sheds her skin. This is not about deceit. A snake sheds her skin because she has grown too big for it. A snake sheds a skin because she is moving on.

 

 

Ms. Skeeter found scandals in people's glances, their hands brushing, the whispers of the jealous. Pansy watched her nudge half-truths from some poor, bitter girl and felt nauseous. She took careful notes on her technique.

They went to parties, to stakeouts and picnics, the columnist and her shadow. Ms. Skeeter gathered things that were not quite lies and spun and spun and spun them until they were.

"Are you really going to do this?" Ginny asked, not seeming particularly interested in the answer, but then she never did. "Follow in her footsteps."

"I'd be good at it, don't you think?" Pansy asked, just as casual. It was a game in its way--who can seem to care less?

"Yes," said Ginny.

They went to galas and cornered people cheerfully in cafes with Rita's green quill and Pansy's black one. Ms. Skeeter dug out jealousies and called them malice, found coincidence and turned it scandalous.

Pansy found half-truths and kept looking, found more, and put them together to make something whole.

Ms. Skeeter pulled juicy quotes from people's lips and Pansy peeled away. She had been a young girl once, in a house where guests were allies first and friends second, where words meant many things, where things exchanged hands. The foundations of their very world were shaking now. In the aftermath, things were being torn down, built anew. Pansy wondered what was exchanging hands.

Ms. Skeeter looked for love affairs, delicious ones, tainted ones. Pansy looked for the way old Ministry men exchanged glances across rooms, the way the young ones eyed corner offices.

She lurked, snapped photos, wheedled information out of the cleaning staff using every trick Ms. Skeeter had ever pulled out of her hat, with every fluttered eyelash her mother had ever taught her.

She wrote them up with her quill sharpened to a knife point. When it hit the presses, she hoped they bled.

They started calling her a bulldog. It was an old name for little pug-faced Pansy Parkinson. She drank tea in the breakroom with Ginny and burned her hatemail.

When she sank her teeth into something she didn't let go.

She tore apart Borgin and Burkes' shady practices, set politicians out to roast, found sins and hung them up in alleys like stained sheets. It was vicious. It was true, every speck of it.

She had been cruel all her life. She would never be soft, but she could do this, be sharp, be hard, watch and wait and write, hold the world accountable to its foulest truths.

They should be afraid of her coming. She grinned at the thought, and there was nothing ugly in the expression.

The story here is this: a girl with a sharp tongue learns to sharpen it.

This is your life. This is your heart. Your hands will never be empty. Decide what to do with that.

 

Love is not enough. It does not make your hands clean. It just makes them warm.

Ginny got into screaming rows with her louder coworkers and smoking ones with the subtler. She would not hold her tongue for any grace, for the people with power or for the ones she loved.

Pansy had watched them write it, quills scratching paper scratching hands, over and over again in fifth year. I must not tell lies.

Them. She had watched them.

Ginny was a smug early riser, mocked Pansy's elegant espresso while she poured hot milk and honey into her own chamomile. This is a story about growth perhaps more than it has ever been about forgiveness.

Pansy went home and heard things drop from her parents' lips, tittered curses and polite, murmured slurs. She felt the acrid taste of each of them on her tongue. She swallowed them down and imagined them in Ginny's wry drawl. She reached for memory and realized that she hadn't heard Draco spit those syllables out in years.

Pansy would show up at Malfoy Manor some nights, with its opulent guest rooms and reclining couches, and end up curled up into a ball between Astoria and Draco. Sometimes you cannot sleep alone. Sometimes you cannot breathe alone.

 

Evaporation. Condensation. Precipitation. Water flies, it gathers, it falls.

Pansy turned her face up into the rain, looked up past the drops slamming her cheeks and into the depths above, the miles of falling water hurtling down at her head, screaming joy. She wanted to scream back, with grief and terror, pride and victory, with knowing.

You have been so many things. You will be so many things.

"The water that flooded the Bering Strait millennia ago is the same water that you water your lawn with, the water in the morning fog, the steam from your tea," said the little textbook Ginny had given her. Pansy didn't know what the Bering Strait was, but she knew this fear had lived in the back of so many people's throats.

You have been. You will be. 

 

Pansy washed her hands in cold water. She felt guilty, on bad days, for hot sips of tea. She was supposed to be cold. That was the point of her, a sharp edge, a chill down your spine. She was unkind. She couldn't run away from that, the cruel barbs she'd spat out all her life. She was turning them other places now, useful ones, instead of easy targets, but this was still her life. Her core held no light.

 

But some days the young Malfoys sat on Pansy's apartment carpet and Scorpius screamed and toppled, the little brat. She and Draco had had a fight yesterday, or maybe they'd have a fight tomorrow, shrieking things they couldn't take back, but they were here, right now, and they would be back. This was the warmest she would ever be, but she knew, she knew, that this was not new.

In her first year, she had gotten an awful cold, and Draco had had Crabbe and Goyle sneak her chicken soup from the kitchens. She had been eleven, homesick and having nightmares every night that the lake might crash through the walls of the dormitory. She had cradled the steaming bowl in her hands and breathed deep. 

A decade later, she was still breathing, watching Draco pretend aloofness, watching Astoria light up with glee at his upturned nose. Pansy had Ginny to smirk at in long meetings, Parvati and Padma and their two different types of hard edges, and she had work at her fingertips--something to dig her hands into, her life into; something that would steal her soul for the rest of her days.

She got ink on her cheek and she got chased out of businesses, Ministry buildings, parties that wanted to be discrete. She started getting manila envelopes dropped at her desk, at her front door, secrets and tip offs tucked inside. When rats showed up in shoeboxes on her doorstep she grinned, fed them to the alley cats, and sharpened her quill.