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The Clarissa Black Effect

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August

 

Albus Dumbledore sat looking calm, pleased, and curious all at once. The letter from the Ministry Office of Internal Affairs lay open on his lap, though the words had already dissolved in the way of confidential memos. His hand moved slowly upward, open-palmed, following the movement of smoke.

So the rumors back then were true. Lucius had been intimately involved with an intern in his office, Clarissa Black. And she, fresh out of Hogwarts, practically a kid. Oh, Clarissa Black could take care of herself, no doubt. Even then, even before the hard lessons of Azkaban. But Dumbledore felt a pang of swift pity and sorrow for the wide-eyed, athletic girl who had been one of his favourite students. Her photograph on the front page of The Daily Prophet alongside the story of her Ministry pardon refreshed his appreciation of her straightforward, genuine manner, though the woman pictured had definitely aged. “The years become her,” he thought. The photograph was all shades of grey, but he vividly recalled her dark eyes of sapphire blue.

“Now, I understand, Lucius has reason to be gravely worried about his misstep,” Dumbledore said slowly, shifting in his high-backed plush wing chair. Fawkes the Phoenix twittered contentedly above his master, plumage gently fanning the air.

 

Severus Snape fidgeted in his firm leather chair, his mind wandering from the article in New Victorian Potions Master Quarterly. Dumbledore was actually serious! He wanted to hire that snotty little sister of Sirius Black for Binns’s position. The smart-mouthed, flippant creature who worked years ago, with rather dire results, as Lucius Malfoy’s assistant. He recalled that morning’s Daily Prophet photograph of Clarissa Black looking directly into the camera. The story outlined how, due to her youth at the time, Ms. Black had been officially pardoned by the Ministry for her participation in her brother’s crimes. A wave of heat spread up Snape’s neck. His mouth twitched slightly.

A mental image of the deranged Sirius Black, recalled from widespread news coverage of his escape from prison with his sister nine months ago, brought a half-smile to Snape’s face.

“Just what . . . is dear old Albus up to . . . ” he said aloud, slowly and gravely, to no one at all. The dungeon office, sitting room and adjoining bedroom were devoid of human presence other than brief glimmers of a smiling, portraited Lily Evans Potter on the end table beside him.

He sipped his favourite sweet red vermouth and returned to his article on traditional versus new befuddling potions . . . but found himself recalling a Potions lesson from his own early years at Hogwarts. Professor Slughorn was droning on as usual. . . . Severus had found himself startled as his seat became warmly wet.  Sirius Black and James Potter had put a ridiculously childish Pantswetter Spell on him. Pale yellow, sharp-smelling liquid flooded over the chair as giggles erupted around him. Of course, he knew how to remove the spell with an urgently whispered “Reversio,” but not before the damage was done. As urine splashed audibly to the floor under him, Lily Evans, his lab partner, had looked down, horrified, and then--she had laughed. The old pain settled into his chest like a stone. With a sigh, Severus Snape set the magazine on the table and stared into the dungeon space.

 

Clarissa Black sat hunched over the kitchen table at 12 Grimmauld Place next to a bottle of whisky, a generously poured glass of amber liquid in hand. She stared at the far wall remembering the message from Dumbledore, delivered by Grey Owl earlier that day: Position available. Professor of History of Magic, as Binns has finally decided to retire. Would love for you to apply, dear. Includes Ravenclaw Head of House. Sorry it can’t be your own Gryffindor, but Minerva McGonagall remains firmly competent in her position.

This seems awfully easy, she mused. Maybe I should talk to Sirius first?--Would he wonder about Dumbledore’s motives? Only days earlier, Sirius had asked her to contact Dumbledore to find any possible opening at Hogwarts. The school posed a security problem. Severus Snape was known to the Phoenix Order as a double agent in their service; he maintained Death Eater status in order to keep Dumbledore supplied with inside information. Or so Snape claimed. She thumbed the thick file labeled simply SS as she shifted her compact frame on the hard wooden seat.

“Use your feminine wiles, darling,” Sirius had quipped at her from the mirror, their preferred method of off-site communication. Her brother, still a fugitive, was holed up in a cave not far from Hogwarts. “Charm Sir Albus into letting you lead the Quidditch Team or something. Offer your tremendous mind in the service of our dear old school as devoted repayment for your Hogwartian education. You were his favourite, after all, weren’t you? Just get in there, by hook or by crook, so you can figure out what’s really going on with Snape.”

Clarissa had joked that she hardly thought her feminine wiles would have any measurable effect on Albus Dumbledore. And though she didn’t reveal any self-doubt to her brother, she felt just about as unsure of her ability to handle a teaching position. Only eight months ago she had lain for days on end in a converted Bulgarian monastery, incapable of holding a conversation. Yet, she had readily acquiesced to her brother’s cheerful fortitude and agreed to the assignment.  I’m ready for this, she told herself. Sirius thinks so.

“Slimy Snivellus is not with our lot, I’m convinced. Yet Dumbledore gives him practically free rein over Harry.”

“It is a puzzle, I agree. Known Death Eater turned Potions Professor. And as far as his teaching skills go, he sounds beyond dreadful. But do we have any new evidence about Snape’s allegiance? Let’s be sure we’re not running on old emotions here.”

“Well, not exactly evidence. There’s a lot of suggestive--But you know all that. Mainly, his fingerprints are all over Voldemort’s knowledge of the July Prophecy.” Sirius’s voice had been icy. “The latest intelligence from the Order suggests that Voldemort is getting stronger. Word is he is reorganizing.”

Clarissa had whistled in response to this grim piece of information, and said goodbye.

She downed the Scotch. Well, big brother, she thought to herself with amazement, wait till you find out who is Hogwarts’ next History of Magic teacher. She looked at the newspaper lying next to the Snape file. That hard-faced woman. I hardly know myself, she mused, and poured another half a drink. She flipped open the SS file and the photo of Snape stared out at her, unblinking. The flat black eyes transmitted a creepy coldness; the face was all hard angles of jaw, browbone, and beak-like nose. A face that housed . . . cruelty, she felt sure.

 

A night later, Clarissa’s tawny owl scratched at the cave floor where Sirius spent most nights. By day, in the form of his animagus, a giant, shaggy black dog, he could be anywhere: wandering Hogsmeade, or London, or occasionally, the very grounds of Hogwarts school. Sirius took from the owl a letter confirming that Dumbledore had accepted Clarissa’s credentials and offered her a teaching position. Not only would his sister be at the school; she would have daily contact with both Harry and Snape, and would have legitimate reason to advocate for Harry’s safety and well-being. Harry had just turned sixteen that summer. His last year before coming of age was a critical period in the eyes of the Order.

Perfect, he thought, sipping the family whisky and settling himself more deeply into the threadbare brown divan. But how in bloody hell do things like this just fall into her lap? He tossed the previous day’s newspaper aside, but Clarissa’s serene face still gazed across the grimy couch at him. He felt a pang of mixed guilt and admiration towards his younger sibling. He wanted to believe that she had emerged from Azkaban hardy enough, after a rest. Outwardly, at least, she was unscathed. But then she had disappeared for months, to Troyan Monastery in the Bulgarian countryside where she had studied before prison. She had told him she needed time to “gather herself.” Whenever he had tried to contact her, he was kept at arm’s length by Nymphadora Tonks, a cousin who had gone with her. Shifting uncomfortably, sipping his Scotch, he realized he would never really know what Azkaban had been like for Clarissa. Certainly, he himself was mostly out of his mind by the time she arrived; she had kept him going with her strong presence as a Legilimens. That’s life, isn’t it? he thought. Tag teaming our mental energy in the fight against evil. We are never all whole at the same time, that’s the problem.

The Clarissa he had come to know once she returned to live at 12 Grimmauld Place the past summer was more focused, more contemplative than the boisterous young woman who entered prison at age 25 for aiding and abetting him in the murders done by Peter Pettigrew. He smiled thinking how she would relish academic life. A teaching position at Hogwarts was certainly a stroke of luck for a former prisoner, even one with an official Ministry pardon.

“Damn it,” he muttered. “You owe her everything.  Be bloody happy for her.”

He drained the glass of whisky. As he slammed it down on the wooden crate which functioned as a table, the dull clunk reverberated through the cave.

 

Minerva McGonagall tucked the plush velour blanket under her bottom and sipped her tea slowly. She involuntarily shook her head back and forth and made a soft tittering sound with her tongue. She stroked the grey striped cat on the plump purple sofa cushion next to her.

“Poor girl, poor young girl,” she said with sorrow. “Pity the thought of Clarissa Black in that horrible place!” Minerva shuddered, her thick Scottish brogue all the more pronounced in her distress. “But Azkaban did not break her! No, no, it did not!” The previous day’s news story lay on the coffee table before her; in the photo, Minerva thought Clarissa looked defiant, victorious--though older, certainly. She recalled the petite but powerful Clarissa streaking across the Quidditch arena. “No wonder she held the attentions of so many of our young men--and no doubt, some of the young women, too,” Minerva chuckled, then knit her brow. The image vaguely reminded her of some unpleasant business. . . . What was it? Something involving Lucius Malfoy. A tawdry Ministry scandal . . .  

“It is kind indeed for Albus to offer her a position here. It will be a lovely way for her to rehabilitate, to get back with people. A woman with her grit will be a wonderful example for our girls!” The cat purred affectionately as Minerva vigorously rubbed its neck.  Minerva still looked troubled and tried to remember the exact story about Clarissa and Lucius.

 

Nymphadora Tonks clattered into the foyer of 12 Grimmauld Place, doors slamming shut behind her, humming bits of a melody she had heard while at dinner with Remus Lupin. She could see the kitchen lights were on. “’Rissa?” she sang out.

“She’s been at the bottle, ’Dora. Been passed out there a good while,” barked Kreacher, the family house elf, from his den under the stairs.

“Oh, dear girl,” she said, finding Clarissa slumped over the table. Tonks corked the whisky bottle, picked up the empty glass and set it on the counter. She began to prod Clarissa awake when she saw a letter lying by her cousin’s outstretched hand. Hogwarts School letterhead. A teaching contract.

Well, that would certainly be a change of pace, thought Tonks. I wonder if she’s ready for working life?

Tonks gently shook her cousin by the shoulders.

“Come on now, ’Rissa. Up you go, then!”

Clarissa whined in sleepy protest but arose, gingerly. Tonks supported her cousin up the stairs and into bed.

 

Lucius Malfoy was propped with fur-covered pillows in the firelit bedroom. He flicked his wand at the giant painting on the wall facing the bed, changing the picture to his evening Botticelli, Mars and Venus. Next to him, Narcissa Malfoy flipped glossy pages in Womanly Witch Weekly.

“What is it, darling?” she murmured up at him.

“Nothing, dear,” he said hastily. His mind, however, kept seeing yesterday’s Daily Prophet photo of the grey-clad Clarissa Black looking into him. Of course, he had done everything in his powers to keep the newspaper from his wife. He recalled that Clarissa’s formerly long blond hair was now in shorter, darker, thicker waves around her broad face, a pronounced grey streak accenting her high forehead. The eyes, which seemed both accusing and sad, were unmistakably Clarissa’s. A heavy sensation filled his chest. Turning to gaze at the elegantly groomed woman draped alongside him, Lucius reached for his wine. He drained the glass of ruby red liquid.

Narcissa reached up absently from her magazine to stroke her husband’s cheek.

Lucius Malfoy set the glass down, sighed, and closed his eyes.

 

Harry Potter read with great interest that Sirius Black’s younger sister had recently been pardoned for the Pettigrew murders. Of course, Harry knew of Clarissa Black: her photographs in the Hogwarts’ Quidditch Hall of Fame had caught his eye on any number of occasions as he was on his way to practice. She was a star Gryffindor Seeker in her day; her stats had been equalled by just one or two Seekers since. Not to mention, she was quite attractive. Her compactly curvy figure aboard a broom was unmistakable, blond ponytail streaking behind or swirling about her head. . . . Harry was sure he was not the only player whose gaze lingered on those photographs and dreamed of things beyond besting Clarissa’s averages in Seeking.

He studied the latest photograph of her which accompanied the news story about the pardon. She looks . . . so different now, he thought. She was certainly still nice looking. But the mass of dense curly hair around her head, wildly askew, was no longer blond. A white -streaked lock rose out of the middle of her forehead, like a lightning bolt. Harry unconsciously touched the scar on his forehead. This woman’s gaze was serene. He liked the way she looked directly into the camera, rebellious. That defiance about the jaw, and the deep intelligence of her eyes--these features reminded him of Sirius. Otherwise, there was little in her appearance to suggest the lankily built, shaggy-headed man he had recently come to know as his Godfather.

Now he was quite startled to see Sirius’s face appear in the living area mirror of his Gryffindor suite amid the tumult of guitar and drum noise. His Godfather’s eyes were shiny; was he . . . weaving a bit where he stood? Sober, his Godfather would not risk appearing to Harry unannounced, for fear of being seen by other students. Sirius’s jollity seemed a tad forced as he announced to Harry that he would soon be getting to know a new member of the Black family.

“Harry, m’boy, she’s the besta the lot! Clarisser is my kid sister, and she’s twice as smart as your old Godfather! And ten--no, maybe only five--well, two!--times better looking!” Sirius’s laughter was nearly drowned out by the roar of drums and shouted lyrics thundering around the cave.

“That’s--that’s really cool,” Harry managed to stammer. “Your sister! So she’s kind of like my . . . aunt, I guess?” A member of Sirius’s family, at Hogwarts.

“And if you are taking Advanced History of Magic this year, she’ll be your teacher. She’s bright, like I said. Eastern European Mysticism is her specialty. Lived out there for a time.”

“Great. Wow, great! Thanks for letting me know.”

“Got to run, Harry. Be good! Talk again soon!”

“Right,” Harry said, thinking, You always say Talk again soon. But it’s usually nothing like soon.

 

Minister Fudge stirred restlessly in his armchair and stopped humming an accompaniment to a German piano sonata--which had, until a few minutes ago, soothed his sagging spirits. The Daily Prophet photo of Clarissa Black glared up at him from the coffee table. Next to it lay an internal memo announcing that Ms. Black was the latest hire at Hogwarts.

“Damn it,” he thought, and the music stopped abruptly. “What the devil is Dumbledore up to now?”

Against the jarring silence of the room he flicked the sound back on. He lifted a tiny crystal goblet and gulped the pale sherry.

 

Severus Snape sat up in bed and flicked the light on. He rummaged vaguely for something to read and pulled the Daily Prophet from the bedside table before flinging it onto the bed in irritation.

“Not her again,” he fumed, as the days-old photo of Clarissa Black jarred him with that fawning, open stare. He reached for the NVPMQ journal he had been attempting to get through all week and snapped it open again to the article on befuddling potions. His mind roamed uncomfortably. He found himself recounting a distinct memory of Sirius, a seventh year like himself, walking by him in the hallway with Clarissa, on her first day at the school. Sirius had paused as he passed Snape standing in the corridor.

“That, dear little sis, is a Slimy Snivellus. The worst kind of vermin. Dumbledore fumigates the whole castle once a year to kill them off, but this one keeps lurking.” Sirius had glared foully at Snape.

Clarissa--a gangly, wide-faced girl with a long blond braid down her back--had stopped to peer up at him. She had stared, and then had walked off with her brother, giggling.

Now he reached for the newspaper photo of Clarissa and puzzled over that face, pictured in black and white. This woman wrapped in coarse grey cloth, recently pardoned by the Ministry following her escape from Azkaban, was that same petite girl with Sirius some twenty years ago. Remarkable, how the violet eyes he called up in his mind altered the picture significantly.

 

Several floors above Snape’s dungeon, Dumbledore stood at the open window gazing out at the moonlit night. “Ah, yes,” he said, stroking the Phoenix’s brilliant tail. “I agree, dear Fawkes. This girl--well, woman, now, surely--may be just what the place needs.”

He turned out the bedroom light with a wave of his hand and lay still in the downy bed.