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Threads of Hope by Oregonian

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Although nothing menacing had happened to her, Dolores felt unnerved nevertheless by her brief venture into Knockturn Alley, and she sank down thankfully onto the same bench where she had sat earlier. She felt herself trembling a little; she would stay there on the bench until she recovered. She leaned back against the bricks of the building, which were warm from the sun, and closed her eyes.

Her mind wandered to her next task, which was to get something, such as a hair, from Mr. Crouch. Why was her life becoming so complicated, she asked herself. It was as if events had a trajectory of their own. When she began working at the Ministry in July — was it only nine months ago? — she had only wanted to do her job well, seize opportunities for advancement, and find a suitable man to help her on her way.

Now look at me, she thought. Sitting in Diagon Alley clutching a bag of knitting supplies, having just gone into Knockturn Alley to do business with a Seer who might be a hag, and planning how to steal a hair from Mr. Crouch.

It was insanity.

She opened her eyes and looked up and down Diagon Alley, a familiar, cheerful place with bright shops and with happy shoppers, normal people, walking up and down the street.

Calm down, Dolores, she told herself. It’s all going to work out. You’ll get the hair, and then you’ll go back to the Seer, and she’ll tell you the sex of the baby. Problem one solved. Then you’ll go to the yarn shop and buy the right color of yarn and start knitting the blanket. Problem two solved. Then you’ll go back to work and get back to what you were doing before, while you knit in the evenings and on the weekends. When the baby blanket is finished, you’ll wrap it up and give it to Mr. Crouch. Problem three solved. Completely back on track. Then just wait to see what happens. You can handle this.

She was relieved upon feeling that her life was back in control. The trembling had worn off, and the sight of Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour sparked an impulse to reward herself with a dish of ice cream for all that she had accomplished. She walked energetically up the street to Fortescue’s, sat down at an outside table, and when a young witch came to take her order, she said, “Chocolate, vanilla, and peach, three scoops.”

It took a while to eat that much ice cream, which she consumed without even paying much attention to it, preoccupied as she was with figuring out how to get Mr. Crouch’s hair. Ideas appeared and fizzled in her mind — his hairbrush? his razor? his pillow? sneaking up behind him? — until she finally settled on her best plan. She finished the last of the ice cream and crossed the street to the stationery store next to Flourish and Blotts to buy a decorative note card with matching envelope.

The next week at work, Dolores went promptly to the lunchroom each day at noon, Monday through Thursday, sitting at a table where she could watch the door continuously, noting when Mr. Crouch and the other Litigators entered to eat. After four days of observation, she could say that they were always there no later than a quarter past noon.

That night, she wrote a thank-you note to Mr. Crouch on the note card, expressing her gratitude for his advice and telling him that she had put her name on the list for the Introduction to Law series of classes that were commencing in September. That was true; the librarian had informed her about them. The next morning she placed the note, a roll of Spellotape, and a small, frameless hand mirror in the pocket of her robes before going to work.

At noon, she ate her lunch so hastily she practically inhaled it — cottage cheese, applesauce, a mug of cream of tomato soup heated to lukewarm, nothing that needed chewing. By ten minutes past twelve she was finished, and she had seen Mr. Crouch and his friends enter the lunchroom. She scrambled to her feet and walked briskly out into the corridor, heading for the Litigation unit.

The unit was empty except for a young receptionist witch who was sitting at the desk just inside the doors, eating her lunch, which was spread out in front of her, and reading a copy of Witch Weekly. She looked up as Dolores entered and said in a bored voice, “Can I help you?” She was obviously on break and didn’t want to be disturbed.

“I just have a letter for Mr. Crouch,” Dolores said brightly, holding the note in her hand. “Oh, don’t bother to get up,” she added as the receptionist made ready to rise. “I can see you’re on your break. I can take it down to his office myself.”

The receptionist settled back into her chair. “The offices are down that corridor,” she said, indicating to her right. “Names are by the doors. You can put it in the wooden mail box next to the door.”

“Thanks, I’ll find it,” Dolores said, and she started down the corridor as the receptionist returned to her magazine.

The first two office Dolores passed belonged to other wizards. Then the corridor made a right-angle turn and Dolores was thankfully out of sight of the receptionist. At the next office, the nameplate by the closed door read Bartemius Crouch, and a wooden receptacle for documents was fastened to the wall next to it. Dolores dropped her envelope into the receptacle, then gripped the door handle as firmly as she could and turned it slowly and noiselessly. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she glanced down the corridors to see if anyone was coming around the corner. Opening the door slightly, she slipped into the office and closed the door silently behind her.

There was his cloak, hanging on a coat tree in the corner of the office, behind an upholstered armchair . She slipped behind the armchair, standing next to the cloak, and took her roll of Spellotape and the mirror out of her pocket. She balanced the mirror atop the back of the armchair, then ripped off lengths of Spellotape and pressed them against the cloak in the area of the collar and the shoulders. The cloak was black and Mr. Crouch’s hair was dark, so she could not see hairs on the cloak, but when she pulled the clear tape off the fabric, she could see a few sticking to the tape. She stuck the tape onto the mirror, three strips in all, and then thrust the mirror and the roll of tape back into her pocket.

Breathing shallowly, heart racing, and praying, “Dear Merlin, just let me get out safely,” she hastened to the door, opened it carefully and peeped out. The coast was clear. She slipped out of Mr. Crouch’s office, closing the door without making a sound, and walked back around the corner to the reception desk where the young witch was still engrossed in her Witch Weekly.

“You have some lovely artwork on your walls here,” Dolores told her. “I couldn’t help admiring it.” That remark was intended to explain to the receptionist why she had taken more time than necessary to drop an envelope into a mail receptacle, but the receptionist just grunted and didn’t look up from her magazine. She probably had no idea how many minutes had elapsed, Dolores concluded. Dolores walked rapidly away from the Litigation unit and spent the rest of her lunch hour in the departmental library.

That evening, after dinner, Dolores sat at the table in her little flat and carefully peeled the Spellotape from the glassy surface of the mirror, pulled the hairs off the tape, and placed them in an envelope. She could scarcely believe her own luck in having found the office door unlocked. Maybe the lazy receptionist was supposed to intercept intruders. If so, Dolores thought with a broad smile, she wasn’t doing her job.

And now tomorrow Dolores could go back to Knockturn Alley with the envelope of hairs, and the Seer would be able to Divine the sex of the baby. Then Dolores could buy the right yarn and start knitting the blanket.

Little white squares of knitted swatches were scattered over the table, the fruits of her labors over the previous six evenings, studying the knitting books and practicing the stitches. The first swatches had been studded with mistakes, but she had refused to let herself be frustrated — she had learned from her mistakes, and soon, by a combination of careful concentration augmented with trial and error, she had figured it out.

You would be proud of me, Grandma, she thought. She had not seen or even thought about her grandmother for years — Grandma had been a Muggle, after all — and Dolores did not even know if she was alive or dead. She never spoke of her grandmother, of course, but she remembered now how, when she was a little girl, before she had known the difference, she had loved her grandmother.

The sun had retreated behind a low-hanging layer of gray clouds when Dolores returned to Knockturn Alley the next morning to revisit Madam Leogane. Under her cloak Dolores clutched the precious envelope containing the hairs tightly in her fist plunged deep into the pocket of her robes, and a purse of coins hung heavily at her belt. The weather had turned raw and chilly, with a smell of fog in the air, and few people were afoot.

She hoped the Seer was in her shop. Dolores was less nervous this day than she had been the previous week; having ventured a little ways into Knockturn Alley and survived, she was marginally more comfortable in this dark, narrow street of shabby buildings and dodgy merchandise. It helped to have a specific place to go to, rather than to be wandering fearfully into the unknown.

She entered the shop of Madam Leogane, as seemingly empty as it had been at her first visit, and just as dim. The notion flitted through her mind to wonder how many customers Madam Leogane had, for fortune-telling, and whether she had some other line of business also, to make a living.

Dolores stood in the gloomy shop, next to the table and chairs, and said in a firm voice, “I have come back. I brought what you asked for.” She kept her eyes fixed on the curtained doorway, and soon Madam Leogane emerged into the room as she had done on the previous occasion.

While Dolores waited, Madam Leogane gazed at her for several seconds and then said, “What did you bring?”

“Some hairs from the husband of my friend who is expecting a baby. I was here last week, and I wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl, and you said – ”

“I know what I said. Give me the hairs.”

Dolores pulled her fist out of her pocket and tried to straighten out the wadded-up envelope, but Madam Leogane wordlessly reached out one hand, and Dolores gave her the envelope. The Seer lifted the flap of the envelope and peered inside, though Dolores wondered if she could see the hairs in the dim light.

This day there were fat candles on the table which Dolores had not noticed until Madam Leogane lit them; there were three, and they cast a yellow light that illuminated the table top but lessened as it spread out into the room. The shelves on the walls were still in shadow. The Seer sat down in one of the high-backed chairs and indicated with her hand that Dolores should do likewise.

Dolores sat stiffly, tense with anticipation. The information she was about to receive would be one more step towards her goal, she believed, and then she could leave Knockturn Alley and never set foot in it again.

The dark-haired Seer spoke again. “First you must pay me.”

“Y-yes,” Dolores said, and she fumbled at her waist to gain access to her money pouch. For an instant she intended to untie it from her belt and set it on the table, the whole pouch containing all the money she had brought for both the Seer and the yarn shop, but a moment later she thought better of it, and she just slipped her hand into the pouch, which was below the edge of the tabletop where the Seer supposedly could not see it and judge how much it contained.

She brought her hand up onto the table, clutching a handful of coins, and began to count them out. They were mostly Sickles, which tallied seventeen to the Galleon, and she began making little piles on the tabletop. Two Galleons and fifty-one Sickles.

When the coins were all stacked up, three piles of Sickles and the two Galleons, she lifted her eyes to Madam Leogane’s face and said, “There. Five Galleons.”

“Not enough,” said Madam Leogane curtly.

“Not enough? What do you mean? Last week you said five Galleons.”

“That was before you told me the baby was not yours. It is more costly if I have to go through another person. It takes more effort, more time. Eight Galleons.” Madam Leogane folded her hands together on the edge of the tabletop and gazed coolly at Dolores.

Dolores was taken aback. Eight Galleons? She had not counted on spending so much. This was false advertising, extortion. Maybe she should just get up and leave. But something kept her in her chair — the compulsion to do this thing right, to carry out her plan to the end, even in the face of obstacles. I should have known there would be obstacles. She took a deep breath. In for a Knut, in for a Galleon.

“All right,” she said. “Eight Galleons.” She reached into her money pouch again without looking at it, running her fingers through the remaining coins, picking out three of the large, heavy Galleons by feel. She dumped them on the table beside the other coins.

“There.”

In a quick motion, Madam Leogane swept all the coins off the table and into a bag that had lain concealed in her lap. She stood up and carried the bag into the back room, then reappeared with a broad, low silver bowl with a wide lip like a soup plate, on which something was engraved in an alphabet Dolores didn’t recognize.

The Seer placed the bowl on the table, where the crystal ball had been sitting at Dolores’s previous visit, and then took a glass phial from a shelf on the wall. She poured the contents, a milky liquid that shimmered in the candlelight, into the bowl and sat down again. Lifting the flap of the envelope, she poured the sparse collection of short dark hairs into her palm, then picked them up delicately with the tips of her fingers and sprinkled them evenly over the surface of the liquid where they floated for a few seconds, little dark lines against the white.

Then the hairs began to shudder and writhe, twisting and puffing, as a faint crackling sound emanated from the bowl, and soon they were as fat as plump angleworms. Waves of sparkles spread over the surface of the liquid, originating at the expanded hairs and directed toward the rim of the bowl.

Dolores watched, fascinated and apprehensive the same time, until the reaction was over and the sparkles faded. The puffy hairs, now still, floated on the surface of the liquid.

The Seer carefully picked up the hairs with her fingertips and placed them on the wide lip of the bowl. Streaks of dark pigment remained in the milky liquid in a slightly swirled pattern that reminded Dolores of marble cake batter in a pan before it was baked.

Madam Leogane looked up at Dolores. “Now you must think hard about your friend who is pregnant. Think hard about the man whose hairs these are. And think hard about the growing baby. Concentrate!”

The sight of the silver bowl was unnerving. Dolores chose to stare at a bare area of the ancient wooden tabletop, first envisioning the wedding photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Crouch (the only image she had of the pregnant woman), then envisioning Mr. Crouch, first in the lunchroom when he had given her advice and then in the meeting room where he had sat next to her during the lecture. Finally she concentrated on her dream, on the figure of the matron saying, “His wife just died but the baby survived,” and Mr. Crouch saying, ”Oh Dolores, I’m so glad you’re here.”

She closed her eyes and tensed her shoulders, breathing shallowly, hoping she was doing it right, willing the mental images to become vivid and detailed, recapturing the emotions she had felt at those moments.

Madam Leogane, who had been staring at the patterns in the bowl, suddenly exclaimed “Ha!” and lifted her head with a jerk. Dolores gave a little start.

“My eyes have pierced the womb of the woman who carries the baby that was fathered by this man,” Madam Leogane announced. “The baby is a girl.”

Dolores felt her shoulders relax, and she began to breathe deeply again. “A girl,” she repeated, to affix the answer in her brain.

“That is what I said.”

A girl. She had learned what she wanted to know. It had been worth the fear, not to mention the expenditure of so much money. Dolores supposed that the session was over, and she was on the point of rising to her feet and expressing her thanks when Madam Leogane spoke again.

“You say that the pregnant woman is your friend?”

“Yes,” said Dolores, but she was aware that this was a lie. She had never met the woman or felt any kindly inclination toward her. She could see that she had fallen into a pattern of half-truths, statements that weren’t exactly false but weren’t the whole truth either, and behaviors that had dual motivations. Not strictly illegal, but again not actions she would want to have publicized. It was tempting to do this, and each questionable action made the subsequent one easier.

“I will give you a gift,” Madam Leogane said. “You do not have to pay me for it.” She stood up and went into her back room.

Dolores was surprised. A gift? What and why? And the woman who extorted three extra Galleons from her would hardly be someone to give anything away for free.

The Seer returned holding a quill and a small scrap of parchment. She wrote two words on the parchment and pushed it across the table to Dolores.

”Paeonia exsanguinica,” she said, and Dolores saw that that was the pair of words on the parchment. “An herb. You can buy it from an apothecary. If your friend takes this herb during her last month of pregnancy, she will have a fast, easy delivery and an abundant flow of milk. She can brew it as a tea, but it is very bitter. Better to use the tea as an ingredient in cakes or biscuits where the sugar can allay the bitterness and the strong flavors of spices or chocolate can cover the taste.”

“The last month of pregnancy. Baked into sweet, strong-flavored biscuits,” Dolores repeated. What an odd gift. A recipe. She picked up the parchment and put it in her bag. “Thank you,” she said, standing.

Madam Leogane gave her one final, level look, then turned and disappeared behind the curtain. The silver bowl remained on the table, its liquid now dull and the shriveled remains of the puffed-up hairs still lying like dead worms around the rim. It looked repulsive. Dolores pulled her cloak around her and hurriedly left the shop.
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