The Sugar Quill
Author: mary ellis (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Childhood's End  Chapter: 2. A Letter
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Chapter 2. A LETTER AND MEMORIES

"I'm home, Da. What's up?"

"You’ve been out a long time, child."

"Quidditch, Da, out back of MacMillan's."

"Fag okay?"

"Held together pretty good, but you might need to make the braking charm stronger."

"Aye, there's the trouble with that thin stick of yours. No room to put a proper charm. I wrote my auld lad, Randy Keitch. Even he couldna come up with a solution. You'll just have to slow down your turns, lass."

"Da!"

"I ken it's like asking a corbie to fly with but one wing."

"Goodie said I got a letter. Is it from Ma?"

"Naw, your ma will be in seclusion another moon. Healer Kirk says it's the best way."

"Da, she's been at Kirk's almost three months."

"You think I should be sending her back to London for treatment? Naw. And I'll not let those foreign shamans touch her again. New-fangled treatments…untested spells. She just needs rest. The auld ways are best, Minerva."

"All right, Da. What about the letter?"

He waved a tasseled scroll at her. "Och aye--it’s from your new school!"

"Hogwarts. Da, you took me away from the game for that?"

"But you have to open it! See if you're accepted."

"Da, all the kids got them--Dugald and Raymie and Susannah. I know just what it says.” She rattled off a singsong: ‘DearMissMcGonagall--Wearepleasedtoinformyou—thatyouhavebeenaccepted—atthegodalmighty glorious--HogwartsSchoolofWitchcraftandWizardry--'"

Her father stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "I know, lass, but all the same, would you read it out--for your auld da?" He sat down heavily, but in high excitement, on a kind of throne, backed with ancient, worn tapestry prominent with the McGonagall blue. It went well with the rest of the room, which was high-arched and gloomy, though with a promise of eastern light from a balcony at the far end.

She shrugged and took the scroll. As she unrolled it, noting its handsome purple seal and gold-leaf edging, the big man prattled on like a child. "I remember my letter. Oh they were not so free in those days with their gilt and their colored inks. And parchment was scarce. Dark Times you know. Wars and more wars. We all knew Auld Grinty was behind it, but no one could catch him--"

She cut him off gently, clearing her throat with a little squeak. She'd heard permutations of this story so many times. Grindelwald—evil magician—responsible for the Great War—never caught--et cetera and so forth. And school was so harsh: no heat, snowstorms every day, teachers who would fail you as soon as look at you. How her father loved bemoaning his boyhood. A sense of mischief welled up in her. It was time to give Da something to take his mind off his complaints. She ad-libbed: "Dear Miss McGonagall,…ah…we regret to inform you that…um…due to reports of your poor…ah… spellsmanship…and…er… all that jinking and jouking about the Quidditch pitch,…er…you have not made the cut-off for admission to Hogwarts. You will…ah…be placed on the alternates list and…um…in due time--"

"What?! My daughter an alternate?!” Jupiter McGonagall rose to his full six and a half feet. “Those snotty auld Squibs--I’ll skin the lot of them!”

“Now, Da…”

He stomped about and strode out to the hallway. “I’ll feed ‘em to the Loch Ness kelpie…”

“But…”

He about-faced and made for the balcony. “I’ll grind their bones to make my bannocks…”

“Da…”

He drew his wand and began waving it about. “I’ll call down Mary Stuart’s headless ghost on ‘em!”

“Please, Da…”

“I’ll accio their precious castle to Rannock Moor…”

“..you don’t need to…”

“…and sink it in the bog…”

Her father went on this way for quite a while, giving Minerva ample time to repent her joke. In this state, he was quite capable of putting a fist through a tapestry and cracking plaster with his weight in excess of eighteen stone. She became truly alarmed when his face went beet-red as if he was working himself up to toss the caber at the Muggle Highland Games, his favorite non-wizarding activity.

"No—Da--it’s all right--no--here--you read it."

"I'll read it all right. Then I'll tear it to pieces. Then I'll march up Hog’s Mountain and fling them in old Dippy's face. He is still Headmaster, isn't he?"

"I don’t know, Da. It's signed”-- she struggled with the crabbed writing—“Vergilius—Horatio—Binns."

"Binns be damned! He's been at the place since the Year One. Where does he get off--?"

"Da. Read." She put the scroll in his hand and stepped well back.

"Hmmph! ‘Dear Miss...pleased to inform...accepted…book and equipment lists enclosed.’ Why you…you…little hempie, I ought put you over my knee and spank the liver-and-lights out of you."

"Please don't, Da. Anyway, you'd have to catch me first." She flashed a grin and brandished her broom.

He chuckled. "That I would. And there's not a sweep made these days that would hold this old body up for more than a few minutes, much less accelerate to the speeds you get up to. Here, I'll compromise with a congratulatory hand shake."

She took his hand and he engulfed hers in his great calloused palm. Then he clasped her to his chest and danced her about. “Ah, I knew you were only pulling my leg.”

She pulled out of his embrace. “Did not!”

“Did. I saw your dimple while you were reading. A dead giveaway. And no self-respecting Hogwarts professor would ever use the terms ‘jinking and jouking,’ of that I’m sure.” He sighed. "Your ma will be proud. You have to write to her. And a thank-you to the school."

"Daaa! Nobody writes thank-you notes--not even Dugald."

"Your mother did, Minerva, always, when she was in her right mind. And she made me promise you would too."

~*~

Minerva acted nonchalant about her acceptance letter, but once she got to the kitchen, she breathed a sigh of relief. Truth be told, it was possible to be turned down by the premier wizarding school in Britain, even in this magic-rich valley in the crook-armed lee of the Grampian Mountains. Even if your family line was pure as pure. Several children of prominent families had in recent years been declared insufficiently magical for the rigors of Hogwarts, and they had in fact received letters of refusal much like the parody Minerva had teased her father with. After much weeping and wailing, attempted bribery, and, it was rumored, threats against the Headmaster himself, the families had finally resigned themselves to home-schooling their kids in Charms, Magical Defense, and Potions, and hired a tutor for the more abstruse subjects like Transfiguration and Astronomy.

But Minerva had been accepted. She would become a witch—not just in name, but in fact. She channeled her excitement into hearty punches of the oaten dough which Goodie had left to rise. She flattened half to parchment-thinness, cut and pricked rowies to go with the mutton stew, simmering deliciously in the fireplace. Into the rest, she kneaded some beet sugar and spices and shaped plump bannocks for the morrow’s breakfast.

Minerva had been Goodie’s assistant at the great stone-walled hearth for as long as she could remember. As a toddler, she’d fashioned ‘dwagon cakes’ out of scraps of dough and beat a Highland tattoo with pot and spoon, calling all within earshot to the evening mess. But gradually she moved into her mother’s role, making menus, choosing fish and vegetables at market, cleaning, skinning, scaling, and cooking when Iphigenia Wallace McGonagall was too ill to do so.

She skimmed the foam off the Atholl brose and took a whiff of the heady brew, but refrained from tasting it. Even a spoonful of this beloved Scots beverage could put a young lass like herself under the table, and in fact had, at a harvest party the year before. She put out heavy bowls and mugs on the well-scrubbed table in the center of the kitchen, singing to herself the well-worn refrain:

Ane fer Da, ane fer Ma, ane fer the auld troll’s daughter-in-la…

It would be a small gathering about the board tonight, which was unusual. Da was stingy in some ways, but would invite everyone and his Kneazle to supper, given the chance. Filch, their foreman, who usually broke bread with them at least once a week and stayed after to talk shop, was laid up at home with a bad Knarl bite, and none of the relatives were visiting. The field workers usually went home for dinner and bed, unless there was a celebration—the end of planting, harvest time or the decanting of a particularly fine Brose. So it would be just herself, Da, and Goodie--because Ma was away...

Ma—Mother…Minerva couldn’t yet say or even think the dear name without a lump rising in her throat, although the automatic accompanying tears had long since dried up. Ma had always been a sensitive sort, crying over the smallest things—a broken cup, a lost pet, a wilted houseplant. Minerva was too young to think that such a condition could be passed on, but she had an instinctive fear that the habit of crying could only lead to something worse.

She once heard Goodie whispering to visiting friends about Minerva’s birth, a lengthy, painful confinement, which had left Ma in a cloud of sadness. But a course of Dr. Wheezy’s Spirit-Lifting Tonic had set her mistress to rights straightaway. Then a year later Ma started experiencing depressions, which would flare up to excited, energetic madness at unpredictable intervals. Once Goodie had caught her mistress dancing barefoot in the embers on the hearth, clasping Minerva, who looked too scared or fascinated to cry out, and moving towards the heart of the fire. Ma hadn’t felt the pain of her burned feet. And long after the incident, her eyes still sparkled with an inner fire as if flames were shining out of them. She had been singing something—Minerva couldn’t remember what--as she danced that heedless, deadly dance.

And so it went—paralyzing depression followed by uncontrollable bouts of energy—with occasional good times, calm times, lasting as long as a month, when things seemed almost normal.

But the good times were oh-so-good. She could remember holding hands with her parents as they walked together through fields of barley and oats, one summer, together with some Crups they were watching for aunts Philippa and Frances, who were on holiday. Five-year old Minerva would break off giggling and run on ahead and squat down to hide in the waving grain, until Da would ‘discover’ her and fling her in the air. She cherished the simple memory of waiting with Ma on winter nights for the neeps and tatties to boil. And playing the prediction game: throwing potato peels over her shoulder to see if the long peel would spell a word when it hit the floor. Ma, she now knew, secretly waved her wand and made it say something funny like ‘sleekiewhizzie’ or grand like ‘queenminerva’ or touching like ‘loveyou.’ And there was the time they chased that Nogtail out of the pigsty…and once they had ousted a family of garden gnomes from the orchard, giggling all the while…

Now Ma was in the kind, competent care of Ellis Kirk, the renowned Scots Healer. Madam Kirk had made mental troubles her special study and had at her hospice all kinds of fabulous magical powders and elixirs that a young not-quite-a-witch could only guess at. Goodie herself had potions that could cure headaches, calm a restless sleep, erase bad memories. Not that Ma could have any such memories. She’d been so happy when she married Da, at least that’s what everyone said. There was just that story about Grandfather Wallace…but that had been long ago and long forgotten.

Minerva sighed. She doubted even Healer Kirk could cure a disease that had eluded the best efforts of Healers in so many countries. For Jupiter McGonagall, when he finally admitted to himself that his wife’s depression was not going to just go away, had made a plan for her recovery. Belying his reputation for stinginess, he started her off with an extensive diagnostic session at Saint Mungo’s. Then, after their regimen failed to effect a lasting cure, he consulted with his sisters, his friends, anyone who might have an idea what would help. This resulted in pilgrimages to virtually all the famous healing centers of the Magicosm: to Tibet, Zimbabwe, Germany, Japan, even America. All had short-lived good effects, Goodie told her, but a permanent cure eluded them.

Minerva sighed. Da was right. She would have to owl a letter to Ma tonight. Perhaps the good news about her acceptance at Hogwarts would cheer her mother up.

//
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