Growing Up Black
For you my little one,
so that you might one day understand.
Chapter One: The Tree
I can remember a time when family didn’t
mean Family. Or if it did, it didn’t matter so much. We knew, in the vague way
of children that it was a Good Thing to be a Black. But I don’t think that any
of us, not even Bella, cared much about it. At least to start with. Later of
course that changed, but I still like remembering that innocent time. Before
they killed Cretin, before Reggie was born, before Bella left, before…before
My earliest memory is of the three of us
playing The Tree Game with Auntie Cassie.
Really, she was Great-Aunt Cassiopeia, but
that sounded far too grand for a woman who wore gloves with no fingers and talked
to books. She really did talk to them. Out loud and with pauses. As if they
were talking back to her. She used to call them her children. Bella said she’d
been driven mad when her husband-to-be had died the night before their wedding
in a dreadful fire. She said that Auntie Cassie had forced him to go back for
her books and that the house has collapsed on top of him just as he was about
to get out. But Bella always said things like that.
With the possible responsibility for the
death of her fiancé aside, I liked her. She wasn’t very good at talking to
people, but I quite like silence. So that was okay. I also liked the way that
she talked about long-dead people as if they were still upright and breathing.
And she seemed to know absolutely everything about all of our ancestors. Even
Bella admitted that she was the best person to play The Tree Game with.
It wasn’t a proper game.
You couldn’t play proper games in Auntie
Walburga’s house. It was too old, too creepy, too dangerous. Over the years my
family has collected some pretty scary stuff. Cissy nearly died once. I don’t
remember it. I don’t think I was even there. But I remember Bella’s face
afterwards. White as a sheet. She thought the world of Cissy. We all did. She
was our baby, our precious little one. I remember I cried when Mama told me
about it, but Bella never sat and cried. She did things. Auntie Walburga
was furious when she smashed that mirror. Spitting furious. But Bella
said…Bella said: “It could have killed her and I would do it again.” Just that.
She was only seven, still in plaits, and she stood up to Auntie Walburga. She
would have done anything for Cissy.
But I was talking about the game, which
wasn’t really a game. I started it. One of the few games I did start, but then
it wasn’t a proper game. So I was allowed to claim it. What you did was you
picked an ancestor of the Family Tree and made up a life for them. Then the
supervising adult would tell you the real story. I always liked hearing the
real ones, especially when Auntie Cassie told them. But Bella liked making up
really gruesome stories with people slaughtering werewolves or being tortured
by Muggles. Cissy was only a baby of two then so she couldn’t really play. But
she did her best. She used to point to names and demand their story in her high
This particular game happened on a rainy
(I’ve always enjoyed the rain. I like
sitting inside with the window open and a book on my lap. There is something
about the smell. It speaks of newness and freshness. At least to me. I tried to
explain it to Bella once. She laughed and said “You just think it’s a good
excuse not go outside”. I didn’t even bother trying to tell Cissy. She hates
the rain. It makes her hair go all flat and limp.)
I remember that Auntie Cassie was in one of
her moods. She wouldn’t play the game properly. She kept getting halfway
through talking about an ancestor named Bellatrix in the fourteenth century
(she married a vampire then staked him when he was halfway through…well you can
probably guess). Then Auntie Cassie would abruptly stop, mutter a curse, stare
at the bottom of the tapestry, and we would have to shake her arm to get her to
start again. Only she would always start right back at the beginning. It
annoyed me (I like having stories finished), and it was one of Bella’s
favourites so she was hopping mad after ten minutes of this. I don’t think that
Cissy cared much about the story; she was only a baby. But every time Bella
shouted at Auntie Cassie she stopped brushing Cissy’s hair, and Cissy hates
people not paying attention to her. So none of us were very happy.
It wasn’t just because of Auntie Cassie. We
hadn’t wanted to be there. None of us were keen on Auntie Walburga’s house in
the normal run of things. And Mama had promised to take us shopping that
day. She had been going to buy us all ice cream and hot chocolate if we were
good. But instead we were stuck in that gloomy study with an increasingly vapid
Aunt. And I had left my book at home.
We weren’t quite sure why our trip had been
cancelled either. No one had bothered to tell us after all. We had been about
to get into the carriage, all decked out in our cloaks, (sea green for Cissy,
royal purple for Bella and midnight blue for me) and galoshes (ditto, Mama had
a very set idea about what suited her daughters). Then Papa had caught Mama on
the doorstep and they had had a hushed conversation in grown-up voices. Then we
had all got in to the coach and gone to Auntie’s house instead. And the
grown-ups had rushed off to do grown-uppy things and we had been sent up to the
We sat there for hours and hours.
Eventually we gave up on Auntie Cassie. She had started talking to the tapestry
like she talked to books. So we moved away a bit, because, no matter how I
liked her, it was kind of creepy. I kept expecting the tapestry to sprout a
mouth and answer audibly.
We sat on the floor (because all the chairs
at Auntie Walburga’s house hurt something dreadful when you sit on them). Bella
carried on brushing Cissy’s hair and I played Ten Little Unicorns with her
toes. Cissy loved that. She loved people making a fuss of her. She never really
talked much, just enough to let us know what she wanted. Then when we obeyed,
she'd pat our arm with her little hand, or give us one of her rare smiles. Oh,
we would have moved the world to make her smile!
Eventually, we heard voices, and footsteps
on the stairs. They were quite loud, much louder than we were allowed to be in
Auntie Walburga’s house. I heard Auntie Cassie give a yelp of joy, then she
clapped her hands and spun around on us. “A good old name,” she informed us
brightly, “He’ll shine this one--keep the old tree growing.”
We stared at her,
bewildered. Then Bella rolled her eyes at me and tapped her head. I privately
agreed but didn’t respond, I didn’t want to upset Auntie Cassie.
She probably wouldn’t have noticed anyway.
She was away off in her own blissful world, a big soppy smile on her face and
everything. She wandered across the room, beckoned to us when she got to the door,
and then disappeared. I turned to Bella. She shrugged in a way that meant,
“Humour her, it’ll be more interesting than staying here.” We scrambled up.
Cissy pouted at the interruption, but Bella heaved her up into a piggy-back and
she settled down a bit.
Auntie Cassie was already half-way up the
stairs by the time we got out onto the landing. We trotted up after her, Bella
panting slightly from Cissy’s weight. Then, to my amazement, we took the next
flight as well. The only things up there were the best bedrooms, and we were
never allowed in those.
(Not that I had ever had the slightest
desire to poke through Auntie Walburga’s underwear, but grown-ups seem to feel
the need to forbid things. It never seems to do any good either, Bella likes
doing things she isn’t allowed to. And she always drags us along with her.)
Apparently the adults were ignoring the
rules that day, or maybe they had forgotten in all the excitement. Mama opened
the door when we reached the top floor. She looked tired, her face was red, and
her normally neat blonde hair was coming out of its bun. But she still smiled
at us and informed Auntie Cassie that we “could only stay for a moment, she’s a
bit tired.” We were ushered in.
For some reason I had always thought that
Auntie Walburga’s room would be dark and a bit like a dungeon. It wasn’t. The
word that most strongly came to mind was grand. Everything was big and old;
there was lots of deep purple velvet and funny knotty carvings on the
wainscoting. At the centre of the room stood a big four poster with Auntie
Walburga in the middle, propped up by a mound of white pillows.
If Mama had looked tired, Auntie Walburga
looked exhausted. Her hair and face were soaked in sweat. Her arms lay limp by
her sides, like bits of string or a hair tie that’s been snapped. Her cheeks
were white, and she seemed older than usual. But her eyes! Oh her eyes, they
burned. Burned with triumph and pride and other emotions that I couldn’t hope
to understand. She looked like a queen, one of the ancient ones like Boadicea,
who won battles and shouted defiance at the legions of Rome. She looked as if
she had won a great prize, but I had no idea what that was.
She made such an impact upon me that I
didn’t even notice the greying witch in lime green robes until she turned to us,
and I recognised Auntie Hester. Like Mama, she said something about being quiet
and letting your Auntie rest. Of course Auntie Walburga was having none of
that. She pushed herself an inch or two further up the pillows, then collapsed
back, panting with the effort.
“I am not weak, Hester,” she said loudly
with her voice cracking. “Why would I be, I have secured the line, I am not
weak, I am strong, not like that….”
Auntie Hester cut
her off at that point by tipping some sort of potion into my aunt’s mouth.
Auntie glared with her mouth full, but Auntie Hester ignored her and turned to
us before she had time to start up again.
“Come on dears, he’s over here.” We were
directed with a small push to an enclave at the side of the room where a large,
intricately carved and glossy cradle squatted. A blue blanket was tied to the
first bar. It seemed some how out of place, perhaps it was just the colour. We
peered through the bars, Cissy peering over Bella’s shoulder for a better look.
He was small. Tiny hands with miniature
fingers punched reflexively at the air, even in sleep. His mouth was bow-shaped
and slightly open to reveal soft pink gums. He didn’t seem to have any eyebrows
and what little hair he did have on the top of his head was sticky with red
ick. He was not a handsome baby and was more like the pictures of Bella (she
had been a fat, squalling baby) than ‘Cissa (who had been pale and perfect). He
might have looked like me. I didn’t know since my baby pictures had been lost
(along with a great uncle’s hunting trophy and several boxes of my mama’s old
school books) when we moved house. I was told that I was sick a lot and was
quite listless, but had a sweet nose.
I remember Bella being most unimpressed in
Auntie Walburga's room. “Is that all?” she asked quietly so that Auntie
wouldn’t hear. “Just a baby?”
Cissy didn’t say
anything. I tried to feel something for him, but he was a rather ugly baby and
I was more interested in the increasing fullness of my bladder at that point. I
informed Bella of this, and she told me to squeeze my legs together and wait
until Mama got back. Not even Bella wanted to ask Auntie’s permission to go to
Thankfully it didn’t take long for her to
return. But when she did she wasn’t alone. I admit that I cowered behind Bella
when they all burst into the room. There were so many of them! They were all
fine on their own; Uncle Reg had been known to enchant flowers and Grandmama
always had sweets. But now they were all crowded together in that one room, all
talking at the tops of their voices, and all adults. It wasn’t just me either,
Cissy pouted at the noise and I could feel Bella going stiff.
Papa and Uncle Orion came in last. It was
eerie the way that everyone went silent at the same time, and the way that they
cleared a path towards the bed for Uncle. But grown-ups often seemed to be able
to read each others' minds. Someone pushed past us, scooped the baby out of his
cradle, and then disappeared into the crowd.
I didn’t exactly see what happened. But I
did hear Uncle Orion’s voice. He made a speech that I didn’t really understand.
But it was very solemn and…at the same time…bursting with the raw emotion that
I had seen on Auntie’s face. Most of the family seemed to share this view; I
saw Grandmama crying, and Auntie Cassie had the biggest smile on her face.
Then I glanced over at Mama, who had joined
Papa at the doorway. And they were different. They were standing quite close
together, and their faces wore identical stony masks that stuck out among the
sea of elation. Mama’s left hand kept plucking at her robes and Papa’s right
fist was clenched. And they held hands. But it wasn’t like normal. They held
onto each other as one would hold onto a lifeline when drowning.
Uncle Orion held up the baby and said “This
is my son, Sirius Orion Black, heir to the Black name and legacy!”
And Mama shut her eyes.