The Sugar Quill
Author: Seldes Katne (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Spirit Song  Chapter: Chapter Two
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Part II.

 

Around him was open woodland, a mixture of pine and deciduous trees.  A cool, salty breeze ruffled his hair, and he squinted into a late afternoon sun.  In front of him was an area of brush.  Behind him were more woods; the weaving and Professor Sprout’s office were nowhere to be seen.

A woman’s voice, creaking with age, drifted out of the brush before him.  Neville froze as a boy’s voice, Malfoy’s voice, answered.  Neville slung the pouch over his shoulder and walked cautiously forward.

Beyond the brush waved a field of tall grass, which gave way to a sandy beach.  Neville took one look at the beach, then crouched behind the last of the bushes.  Draco Malfoy stood out on the sand, speaking to a huge, shaggy woman who, even stooping with age, towered over the boy.  She seemed to be fully as tall as Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper, who was easily the largest person Neville had ever seen.  The woman resembled the image Neville had first seen in the weaving -- a misshapen human with long hair.  A woven basket, large enough to serve as a bathtub for a person of normal size, was strapped to her back; her clothing seemed to be made of animal skins.

“I need to speak to someone in authority,” Malfoy was insisting.  “I need to get home -- one of the professors has a very dangerous magical item at the school, and it sent me here by mistake.”

The huge woman stirred.  “It’s along way to the nearest village,” she said in a wheedling tone.  “And night is coming quickly.  My home is on the other side of these woods, not far off.  Stay the night, and I’ll see that you get to the village tomorrow.”

Even as far away as his hiding place, Neville could see the disdain on Malfoy’s face.  “I think not.  I’d rather spend the night in a village than in some hut in the woods.   If you can’t Transport me there, at least point me in the right direction and I’ll walk.”  Despite Professor Sagan’s words about accepting sincere offers of help, Neville could understand why Malfoy might want to turn down the giantess’s offer.

A most unpleasant smile broke across the woman’s face.  “Very well.  I’ll ‘Transport’ you, my dear.”  She stooped suddenly and seized Malfoy by the back of the robes.  Ignoring his protests, she lumbered about in a circle, taking shuffling steps, and began singing in a high-pitched chant.  Then she flung Malfoy into the air.

As Malfoy flew upward, he began to shrink.  His yells faded as he turned over in midair, and as he fell back toward the woman, his shape began to change; it became rounder and smaller.  At the last moment the woman reached up and plucked Malfoy, now a turtle, out of the air.  She chuckled heartily.  “ ‘Transport’ you indeed!  Child soup for dinner soon!  All I need is one or two more!”  She reached behind her to open the basket’s lid, and dropped the turtle in.  Then she turned and strode into the woods.

Neville hastily scurried around the bush as the woman passed within a few meters of him.  The woman’s head turned in the direction of the sound, and she stopped.  “Ah, what a lovely young boy,” she said, catching sight of him.  “Are you lost, child?”

Terrified, Neville bolted.  Scrambling furiously through the brush, he heard the woman call after him, “Wait!”  He gathered up his robes in both hands and fled, tripping over rocks and roots, ripping free of grasping branches, expecting at every moment to feel the woman’s hand grasping the back of his robes.

Finally, gasping, chest burning, he stumbled across a small stream and onto the sands of the beach.  He collapsed face down into the sand.  Somewhere in his flight he had lost the pouch of food, and, he realized dimly, his wand.   For a few minutes all he could hear was the pounding of his heart and the rasp of his breath.

Then he caught the sound of someone walking on the sand in front of him.

Neville struggled to his knees, but the person approaching him wasn’t the huge woman.  It was a very normal-looking old man, dressed in a kilt of what looked like woven bark.  Over the man’s shoulders was thrown a cloak of dark blue cloth, with a red strip around the borders.  On the man’s head was a conical hat of woven bark with a very broad brim that sloped down over his eyes.  He was smiling, and his smile was much friendlier than the huge woman’s had been.

“What’s wrong?  Why are you running?” the old man asked as he bent down to study Neville.

Neville managed to catch enough of his breath to answer.  “A woman -- with a basket -- chased me.  She --caught Malfoy -- turned him -- into a turtle.”

“Ah.”  The old man nodded.  “That would be Basket Woman.  She steals children who have wandered away from their parents.  When she has enough of them, she’ll eat them.”

“But she can’t!” Neville blurted.  “I mean, I have to --somebody has to rescue Malfoy before that happens!”

The old man sat down cross-legged on the sand in front of Neville.  “Tell me your story.”  Neville related the tale of what had happened and how he had come to be sitting on the beach.  The old man nodded.

“Your friend will need your help to escape Basket Woman,” he told Neville, acting for all the world as though British schoolboys appeared on the beach on a daily basis.

Neville stifled the urge to explain to the old man that Malfoy was not his friend.  “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted.

“Come with me to my village,” the old man said.  “I think I know how to rescue your friend, but we’ll need time to plan and to teach you what you need to know.”

Relieved, Neville smiled gratefully at the old man.  “Thank you, sir -- um, I mean, Grandfather.”

“My name is Singer of Memories,” the old man told him.  “Follow me; we should go before it gets dark.”

The old man led the way along the shore to a canoe that had been pulled up onto the beach.  Carved and painted designs ran the length of the boat; many of the symbols looked like the ones Neville had seen on Professor Sprout’s weaving.  The old man helped Neville into the canoe and pushed it into the water, then hopped into the boat and picked up a carved wooden paddle, which he used to guide the boat out onto the ocean.

Neville watched as the shore receded further and further into the distance.  By now he was feeling uneasy again.  “Um, excuse me, sir, but how far away is your village?”

“Not far,” the old man replied.

When the shore had completely vanished, the old man laid the paddle on the floor of the canoe and stood up.  “Let’s go,” he said to Neville.  “We will reach the village before nightfall.”

“Go?” asked Neville in a quavering voice.  “There’s nowhere to go here -- there’s just water.”

“Not just water,” Singer of Memories replied.  “There is a whole world beneath the waves.  Come.”  And with that he reached out to catch Neville by the front of his robe, and pulled him over the side of the canoe.

Water closed over Neville’s head, cutting off his shout of surprise.  Never very athletic at the best of times, he floundered in the water, thrashing arms and legs in a desperate attempt to reach the surface.

A hand seized the back of his robes and pulled him up.  His head broke the surface and he gulped down breaths of air.  Singer of Memories bobbed in the waves beside him.  “Take a deep breath,” the old man ordered him.

“But --”

“Do it....” here Singer of Memories’s voice softened, “....Grandson.  Do not be afraid.”

For a moment Neville hesitated; then he took a deep breath and held it.

“Again,” the old man said.  Neville complied.   “Now we will dive,” Singer of Memories told him, and dragged him under the water again.  “Do not struggle,” the old man’s voice spoke in Neville’s ear.  Singer of Memories himself swam in front of Neville and, like Malfoy earlier, his shape began to change.  But instead of shrinking, the old man began to grow.  His legs blended together into a massive tail, his arms became fins, his face became longer and longer until it took the form of a whale’s jaws.  The jaws opened, and the whale began to sing -- an eerie, wavering melody of whistles, clicks and moans.

The song resolved itself into words.  “Take hold of my fin,” came Singer of Memories’s voice again.  Neville reached forward and grasped the fin on the whale’s back.   A tingling sensation ran up his arm and spread out to cover his body.  The urgent need to rush back to the surface for a breath faded away.

“Now,” said Singer of Memories, “we can go.”  The whale plunged downward, carrying Neville toward the ocean bottom.

 

 

***

 

 

Sagan withdrew the tips of her fingers from the surface of the weaving and turned to face Sprout and the other Hogwarts staff members.  “Well,” Sagan remarked, “that’s not a bad beginning, although I suspect that dive was rather a nasty shock.”

“Dive?” echoed McGonagall.

“Oh, yes.  They’ve gone under water.”  Sagan indicated the symbols.  “These represent whales.”

“They look like birds,” Snape remarked.

For a moment the American looked blankly at the weaving, tilting her head to one side, then smiled.   “Oh.  Well, I can see where you might get that impression.  But the parts that look like heads and beaks are actually the creature’s back fins.  See --” her finger traced the outline of the symbol “-- here’s the head, the tail, eye.”

Snape stared at her with a disbelieving expression on his face.  “How can you tell?” he asked finally.

“Oh, come, now, Professor, you’re a literate man, aren’t you?  You’ve learned the alphabet, along with various runes and symbols for chemicals and that sort of thing?”

“Of course.”

“Well, this really isn’t much different.  Many tribal groups have sets of symbols or glyphs.  Symbols are very important in tribal magic.  Any good Medicine Man or Woman knows at least the basic symbols of the main tribal regions.  These are Northwest Coastal symbols of whales.”  Sagan shrugged.  “Simple.”

“So, Neville is with a whale?” Sprout asked.  When the American nodded, she continued.  “Is that good, or bad?”

“Well, it could be either,” Sagan admitted.  “It will all depend on how Neville deals with the situation.”  She sighed and gazed at the weaving for a moment.  “Either way, there’s nothing more we can do for him now.  The only person I can help at this point is your missing staff member.”

“I thought you said you couldn’t enter the weaving,” Snape remarked.

“I can’t.”  Sagan began pulling more items out of her bag.   “What I’m going to do now is summon my colleague and send him in.”

“I thought you said no adults could enter the weaving,” Snape remarked.

“They can’t.”  When Snape opened his mouth again, she sighed wearily.  “Look, Professor, I am a certified Medicine Woman, among other things.  Please just let me handle this, all right?”

“I think it would be best to let Ms. Sagan get on with her work,” Dumbledore broke in.  “Is there anything any of us can do to help?”

Sagan unfolded a blanket and draped it over one arm.  “I’ll need continued use of this office for a while, undisturbed.”

“Of course,” Sprout said instantly.

“Other than that, a pitcher of water and a drinking glass would help immensely.”

“I’ll see that one is sent up as soon as possible,” Dumbledore assured her as he ushered the rest of the professors out of the room.   “Is that part of the ritual?”

Sagan smiled.  “Well, in a manner of speaking.  It’s for my throat -- keeps my voice from cracking on the high notes.”

Dumbledore’s eyes lit up.  “Ah, of course.”   He paused.  “I know that tribal magic is rarely used anywhere in the world these days.  I, ah, don’t suppose that I could persuade you to let someone observe?”

“Not this time, sorry.   Professional secret, I’m afraid.  I’m going to have enough trouble getting this to work as it is.”  She picked up the drum and eyed it thoughtfully.  “But I might be able to arrange a demonstration of something simpler when this is finished.”

Two hours later, Lucius Malfoy stormed into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

 

 

 

***

 

The whale village wavered in front of Neville’s eyes.  Sometimes it looked like a spread of domed houses made of stone and coral; at other times it looked like hills on the ocean floor, with whales swimming among them.

The whales themselves seemed to ripple back and forth between human and whale shapes.  Nearly thirty members of Singer of Memories’s family glided between the houses (or hills).  Soft lights hovered in and around the village area; some were fish that carried glowing spots on their bodies, others were plants, and still others were just circles of light provided by the village’s magic.

The whales sang constantly, the sounds alternating between human speech and whale sounds.   Neville caught some snippets of the whale song as he and Singer of Memories drifted past.  Some of the songs were slow, lengthy conversations.  Others sounded like lists of things.  Still others translated as lessons from older whales to younger ones.

“We live here during the summer,” Singer of Memories explained through song.  He and Neville floated among the dwellings together.  A moment later a ripple passed through the water, and the dwellings became hills again.  “In winter, we will swim to a village far away, where the water tastes different and feels warmer.  But now, let us eat and discuss your friend and what can be done for him.”

Neville found himself in a sitting position near Singer of Memories’s eye.  A shell plate appeared in his hands.  The food on the plate looked like scrambled eggs in one place, lettuce in another.  At least the shrimp was recognizable.  The food tasted nothing like he expected, but it was good, and it had been a long time since he’d eaten.

“Basket Woman is very old, and very dangerous,” Singer of Memories said as Neville ate.  “If you were a powerful warrior, you might be able to defeat her in battle.”

Neville shook his head.  “I’m not any kind of warrior.”

The whale’s shape shifted back to that of the old man Neville had first seen on the beach.  Singer of Memories smiled.  “I did not think so.  We will have to find another way to defeat her.  Perhaps by cleverness.”

Neville stopped eating and looked away.  “I’m not very clever, either.”

“Well, then, what are you?”

“I don’t know.  I’m not very good at my classes, I can’t get magic to work well, and I forget things a lot.”  Neville sighed and reached out to put the plate on a nonexistent table.  The plate disappeared in a swirl of bubbles.

Singer of Memories prompted him, “Come, now, you must be good at something.”

“Well....”  Neville considered.  “I usually get good grades in Herbology -- where we study plants and what they’re used for.  But I don’t know what good that will do here.”

The old man laughed.   “That will do perfectly well here, Grandson!  Our brothers and sisters of the plant people give us food, medicine, building materials, clothing -- many things!  Tell me about the plants you have learned.”

Neville thought.   “Well, there’s Mandrake -- the voice of the young plant knocks people out.  There’s wormwood.  And asphodel -- you know, the plant that looks like a lily?  They’re both used in sleeping potions.”

“So,” Singer of Memories’s voice carried a tone that said he was very pleased with Neville, “you have found three plants that might help you.   Mandrakes we do not have, but I can show you other plants that grow near the beach that will do the same things as the ones you mentioned.  Now, how can we use them?”

“I’d have find some way to get her to eat them,” Neville reasoned.  “But I can’t just walk up to her and ask her to swallow it.”  He thought for a moment.

“Then you must trick her into eating them,” Singer of Memories said.  “Or...find a way to put in something she will be eating already.”

Child soup, Neville thought wildly, made from the children Basket Woman turned into turtles.   He shuddered; that was as frightening as some of the things they made in Potions class.  But at least in class Professor Snape didn’t expect them to try the potions on each other, although it sometimes happened by accident.  Then another thought struck him.

“Singer of Memories, Basket Woman said she only needed one or two more children to make soup.  What if -- what if she’s eaten Malfoy already?”

The old man pondered the question.  “I can not believe she will have found another child or two this quickly,” he answered finally.  “The village is far from her home and the villagers know enough to keep their children safe.   She will still be waiting.”

“Then the other child she’ll need to make her soup will be...me.”  Neville drew his knees up to his chest and hugged them.  “When she catches me, she’ll be ready to eat.”   The idea began to grow, in spite of an also-growing fear.  “And when she starts the water to cook the soup, I can put the plants in then.  But she won’t eat until she’s --” he swallowed hard and forced himself to finish the sentence, “until she’s cooked us, too.”

Singer of Memories surprised him by chuckling.  “Perhaps not.  When someone at home is cooking, do you ever want to sample it before it is served?”

“Well,” Neville said, not Great-uncle Algie’s cooking, but, “yes.”  And he stopped, fear turning to excitement.  “If I can put enough in, and get her to taste it a few times before she’s ready to add, um, us....”

“She should fall asleep,” Singer of Memories finished for him.  “Very good.  Now, we will need to find the plants, and prepare them, and you will need to know how and when to add them.”

Up to that point, Neville had been feeling more and more confident about the plan.  But at Singer of Memories’s words, a cold fear ran through him again.  “Grandfather,” he told the old man, “I don’t think I can do that.  I -- in Potions class, I can never remember how much to add or in what order to put it in. And if I don’t do this right....” he trailed off.

Singer of Memories regarded him thoughtfully.  “Can you sing?” he asked suddenly.

Neville, caught off guard by the question, stared at him.  “Uh--”

Singer of Memories persisted.  “Can you sing?   Do you remember songs?”

“Well, yes.  I mean, I remember nursery rhymes and stuff like that.”  Neville had no idea where this was going.  Singer of Memories fell silent, and the two drifted for a few minutes.  The wails and squeals of the village inhabitants continued around them.

“You hear them,” Singer of Memories told Neville.  “When they sing, you hear their words.  All our knowledge comes from song -- that is how we speak, and teach, and remember.  Choose a song that you know and can remember.”

Neville thought for a moment.  “Um, okay.”  He finally chose a children’s nursery rhyme, Four Little Dragons, which was just a series of rhyming lines.  He sang it for Singer of Memories, even though his voice broke a couple of times.  The old man nodded.

“Now,” he told Neville, “we will change the words, and you will learn the new verses.  And this will help you remember what to do with the plants and Basket Woman’s soup.”

 

 

***

 

 

“I’m sorry, Lucius, but Ms. Sagan has insisted that she needs to perform her rituals in private.”

With the whole school gathering for dinner, Dumbledore had ushered Malfoy into a side room off the Great Hall and called both Sprout and Snape to join them.  The story of the weaving and the disappearances had been related once again, and the two men were now facing off across the fireplace.

“Absolutely unacceptable!” Malfoy snapped.  “I cannot believe how thoroughly this whole affair has been mishandled.”  He turned on Sprout.  “And you -- I hold you completely responsible for this!  That tapestry is obviously a dangerous magical item, and you’ve brought it into this school!  When I’ve finished discussing this with the Board of Governors --”

“Now, Lucius,” Dumbledore interrupted, “Sylvana assures me that she was unaware of the weaving’s abilities; if she had, she would never have brought it to the school.  It’s my understanding that it’s been here for several months now, and we have never before --”

Malfoy’s face twisted into a snarl.  “That doesn’t excuse what’s happened here!  That -- that -- thing! -- has swallowed my son, and I mean to see both it and this woman removed from this school immediately!”

Sprout drew a deep breath.  “Headmaster, he may well be right, but the important thing right now -- ”

“You see, she admits it!” Malfoy snapped.  “And as for this, this so-called specialist, I demand to see her at once!”

“That would be inadvisable,” Dumbledore said firmly.  “Ms. Sagan has asked that she not be disturbed during her rituals.”

“Rituals,” sneered Malfoy.  “What is she doing, dancing around with feathers in her hair and paint on her face?  We’re talking about a primitive artifact, made by a backward bunch of savages.  Modern magic was proven superior centuries ago, and we are wasting our time standing here while some witch doctor shakes a rattle and chants some mumbo-jumbo.”  He turned again to Sprout.  “Your office is located in Hufflepuff, is it not?”  When she confirmed it, Malfoy strode to the door and flung it open.

“Lucius,” said Dumbledore in a warning tone.  Snape also opened his mouth.  Malfoy cut them both off.

“I will remind you that I am a member of the Board of Governors, Albus,” Malfoy shot back.  “You have no say in where I may go or what I may do in this school.”  With that, he swept out the door.

 

***

 

Singer of Memories had insisted that Neville sleep and eat again before they left the village.  Most of the whale-folk gathered to see them off, their music turning to songs of farewell.  Neville again rode the whale’s fin to the surface, where they found the wooden canoe drifting.  After Neville had stepped off Singer of Memories’s back and tumbled into the canoe, the whale once again took the form of an old man, and paddled back to shore.

Neville’s companion hummed as they searched the fields; the old man was working on the song that Neville would use to prepare the special “meal” for Basket Woman.  In the meantime, the boy examined leaves and flowers, until he found the plant he sought -- leafless stems that bore a white, lily-like flower.

“Here,” he said, and carefully grasped it near the root as Professor Sprout had taught him.  It took some digging, but at last the plant came free of the soil.  Neville trotted down to the beach to wash the roots in the salt water.   When he returned, Singer of Memories had a different plant in hand, and was stripping the stems of roots.

“You will want these,” he explained to Neville.  “The leaves will make the other plant you plan to use even more powerful.   And pull up one of those --” he nodded to a tall stalk that bore several pods tucked in among its leaves.  “Open the pods and take out the seeds.  Put them in one of the cloth bundles.”

He and Neville sat down on the edge of the beach.  The lily-root leaves were ground between stones to form a powder and placed in a small red pouch.  The leaves from the second plant were tied with a rawhide cord.  The seeds from the third plant were placed in a tiny yellow pouch.   “Now,” Singer of Memories said, “here is your song.  This will help you remember what to do, and when.”

 

First potatoes, round and white, and a handful of red in water bright.  He handed Neville the red cloth bundle that contained red powder.  “This goes in first.”

Second, add the green leaves gleaming, drop them into water steaming.  “These go in next," he said, handing Neville the leaves he had stripped from their roots.  “Ask Basket Woman for a leafy vegetable to add to the soup.”

Lastly, season with golden down, sprinkle this when water’s brown.  The final packet contained tiny yellow seeds.  “This goes last,” the old man explained.   “It can go in with any kind of seasoning.”

 

He made Neville sing it back to him several times.  The old man nodded in satisfaction.  “There is one thing left to do,” he said, and stood up.  “Come here.”  He and Neville walked to the edge of the forest.  Singer of Memories stripped five strands of bark from one of the cedar trees.  Singing, he rolled them back and forth between thumb and forefinger, then, as the strands seemed to grow and multiply, between his hands.  Finally he drew his hands apart to reveal a cloak woven of the bark.   This he threw over Neville’s shoulders.   “So Basket Woman will not recognize you,” he said.  Neville looked down at his clothing; he now seemed to be wearing not only the cloak, but also a kilt similar to the old man’s.  His shoes had turned into sandals.

“Oh,” Neville managed.

Singer of Memories smiled and led the way back to the ocean’s edge.  He scooped up a handful of wet sand and carefully rubbed it over Neville’s face, arms, legs and hands, humming softly.  Then he waded out into the water and pulled up some of the sea plants that rippled in the waves.  These he combed through Neville’s hair.

“There,” the old man said, and in his hands appeared a bowl of water.  Neville peered into it, and saw that his skin had acquired a tan, and his hair had turned a dark brown.  He looked almost nothing like himself.

Singer of Memories nodded in approval.  The bowl vanished.   “Now, you have your plants, you have your song, and you have your disguise.  I have one more thing for you.”  He put both hands on the boy’s shoulders.  “Go with the blessing of the Creator, not just now, but always.”

Neville blinked at him for a moment.  “Grandfather, I -- I don’t have anything to give you back.  I mean, thank you, but --”

The old man shook his head.  “My grandson, a good deed cannot be returned.  It can only be passed on.  Some day, in your turn, pass what I have done for you on to another.  Then I will be repaid.  Now, from here you must go into the forest and keep the sun at your back.   It is not far to Basket Woman’s hut.   Go and save your friend.”

“Yes, sir,” Neville murmured.  “Thank you, Grandfather.”

The old man smiled and gripped Neville’s shoulder, then turned to his canoe and pushed it out into the water.  Neville watched him paddle for a few moments, then turned and walked up the slope to the forest’s edge.  When he turned back, the old man and the canoe were gone.  Just as he was about to continue on into the forest, Neville caught sight of a whale, black against the blue of the sky and the grey-green of the water, as it heaved itself out of the ocean and fell back again.  Neville waved, then turned away.

 

//
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