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Threads of Hope by Oregonian

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Chapter Notes: Warning: some graphic medical information included.
In Diagon Alley the sky was still a cover of dark gray clouds, and the air was chilly on her face. She headed straight for Knitwits and felt an overwhelming relief at the cheerful sound of the tinkling bell over the door and the bright array of yarn skeins in their boxy little compartments. The blonde-headed witch was behind the counter again, knitting something with yellow yarn, but she leapt up when she saw Dolores enter and said, “Hi. Have you come back for your yarn?”

“Yes,” Dolores said. “I decided on the pink.”

“We have two pink shades,” the young woman said as she led Dolores to the display of baby yarns, “one pale and one bright.”

They stopped in front of the yarns, and Dolores looked at the two shades of pink. One was pale, like a delicate, dew-kissed rose or a frothy dessert of meringue and whipped cream faintly flavored with strawberry. The other was bolder, more saturated with color; Dolores tried to imagine an entire blanket made of that yarn and shook her head.

“I’ll take the light pink,” she said.

“That will look lovely,” the woman said. “Do you remember how many skeins the pattern called for?”

“Eight,” Dolores said. It was the same number as the amount of Galleons that she had paid just an hour earlier. Dark, light. Foul, fair. Fear, happiness.

The woman brought the yarn back to the counter and began to add up the price. Dolores emptied her money pouch out on the counter and began to count the coins, pushing them with her fingertip. “If I don’t have enough, can you hold the yarn until my next payday?” she asked. Someday, she thought, I’ll have a vault at Gringotts with stacks of coins in it. When I’ve risen high at the Ministry, my husband and I will have plenty of money. Meanwhile, she lived payday to payday, and it was so hard to save. Something was always coming up.

The woman announced the total price of the yarn, and Dolores paid her. There were four Sickles and ten Knuts to go back into her money pouch.

“Just right!” the woman said cheerily as she gave the bag of yarn to Dolores. She had no way of knowing that those few coins were all that Dolores had left and that she would be eating out of her cupboard, whatever was in there, until her next payday.

Throughout the remainder of the spring and summer, Dolores worked on knitting the baby blanket. There was a prodigious number of stitches to cast onto the needles, and so it took a long time to knit even a single row. Keeping track of multiple repeats of the pattern motif was trickier than just knitting a little swatch with one or two motifs. She tried to knit in the evenings and on weekends, but sometimes she was too tired in the evening or had other things to do on the weekends. Sometimes she worked at it industriously, and other times she would let it slide for several days at a time.

But slowly the piece of knitting grew longer and longer, hanging down from the needles, and the pattern took shape, becoming more and more lovely the larger the piece became, all soft to the touch and delicate pink to the eye. Dolores was incredulous that she could create such beauty.

I need to know when the baby will be born, how soon the blanket has to be finished, she thought, but she was shy to ask Mr. Crouch boldly about the date, so she did something just as effective — she asked one of the witches whom she secretly referred to as the ‘gossip crew’, who knew everybody’s business and never hesitated to pry for personal information. And sure enough, the next day she had her answer: the last week of September.

As she knitted, Dolores’s head was full of enjoyable anticipation about the months to come. She never went out in the evening with her friends anymore because she could not spare the money — she was putting away everything that she possibly could, to replenish her empty purse. There was the fee that she would have to pay for the Introduction to Law course which began in September, and shortly thereafter would be the 1962 national conference, which was even more expensive.

She wondered if Mr. Crouch would attend the conference, the date of which would fall just a couple of weeks after his wife’s untimely death. Dolores hoped he would be sufficiently recovered from the initial shock to be able to start getting back to his professional life. After all, he had once told her that he always enjoyed the conference. She imagined herself at the conference, not intruding into his grief, but always being a calm and supportive presence in the background. Maybe she could squeeze out a little money for some new robes.

Although she assiduously avoided any contact with her father during her days at work, so that her colleagues would not connect her with an employee in the Department of Magical Maintenance, she took to visiting him at his flat in the evenings once or twice a week, bringing her knitting and having dinner there, to the surprise and pleasure of her father, who never guessed that she was doing it to reduce her grocery expenditures.

By early August the blanket was completed. Dolores bound off the final row of stitches and then spread the blanket out on her bed to admire it. What an accomplishment. Forty inches square of precise little stitches, a lacy pattern in the center and an undulating, scalloped border on all four sides. A light, delicate pink, as soft as a cloud. She would buy some satin ribbon and put bows in the corners. Little Miss Crouch would look like an angel in this blanket. No other baby gift that the Crouches might receive would outshine this one. And not purchased in any shop, but all handmade.

She took a deep breath, smiling with joy. And now all that was left was to present it to Mr. Crouch, saying, of course, that it was a gift for Mrs. Crouch. Wrapped in beautiful paper, of course, with a satin bow.

And there was the matter of the sweet, spicy biscuits that Madam Leogane had recommended, the ones baked with the extract of the herb that the Seer had written on the scrap of parchment, to ensure a fast, easy delivery and abundant milk. It was sad — Mrs. Crouch would never need the abundant milk, but at least her labor could be easy, up to the moment of the fatal outcome prophesied by the dream. Dolores did not wish her ill, did not desire that she should suffer. In fact, Dolores hoped that her final hours would be pleasant ones.

But it would be wise to practice making these biscuits ahead of time because Dolores did not have a precise recipe for incorporating the herb into the biscuits. Adding a tea might make the dough too runny, and if one compensated with extra flour, the biscuits might be tough and hard. It would probably take some experimentation, she thought, perhaps several batches of biscuits to get the correct formula by trial and error.

I had better start now to develop my recipe, so as to be able to give the blanket and the biscuits to Mr. Crouch by the last week in August.

On Saturday Dolores went back to Diagon Alley to buy a sheet of delicately beautiful wrapping paper at the stationery shop and a supply of the herb at the apothecary shop. It was early morning when she arrived, but it was already starting to get warm, and there was increased foot traffic in the streets — students making purchases for their fall term at school.

Two students were already in the apothecary shop when she arrived, and she had to wait as the man behind the counter helped them assemble all the items on their long lists, weighing many of the items and pouring them from the scales into little sacks. The aroma in the shop was just as Dolores remembered it from her school years, musty and acrid.

Finally it was her turn, and she approached the counter.

“Here to replenish your supplies for school?” the man asked in a friendly tone. Dolores felt a prick of irritation. It was so annoying when people mistook her for a schoolgirl, just because she was short and had curly hair.

“No,” she said. “I finished school a year ago, and I work at the Ministry. I am here for just one item.” She took the scrap of parchment from her bag and placed it on the counter. “Do you have this herb in stock?”

The clerk picked up the parchment and looked at it. Then he looked up at Dolores, and the smile had vanished from his face. “What do you want this for?” he asked.

An alarm went off at the back of Dolores’s brain. She could sense that something was not right, although she didn’t know what it was. But suddenly she didn’t want to talk to this stranger about childbirth and lactation, or about baking the herb into biscuits.

“It’s for making a lotion for the skin,” she said. “My friend gave me the recipe. She said it was good for a radiant complexion.” She stood calmly and looked the clerk in the eye, willing him to believe her.

“What are the other ingredients?” the man asked.

Dolores thought rapidly. She had no idea what would sound plausible, and she didn’t want to risk saying something completely unbelievable. “I don’t exactly remember. My friend gave me this recipe several months ago. I do remember they were common ingredients I already have. This is the only one I didn’t have, so I haven’t got around to making it until now.”

“I cannot imagine how this ingredient would benefit the skin,” the clerk said, “unless perhaps to dilate the blood vessels and temporarily make the skin more rosy.” He looked at her sternly and said, “I need to let you know that, in spite of what some young women may have told you, this herb is not an abortifacient.”

“A what?” Delores asked.

“An abortifacient.” He laid the parchment scrap down and placed both hands on the counter. “A drug to cause a miscarriage, to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy.”

“Oh, no,” Dolores exclaimed, recoiling a little in dismay. “I’m not pregnant. I don’t want to get rid of anybody’s baby.”

“Good,” the man replied, “because this herb would not do that for you. In fact, I don’t think young women should handle it at all, especially not during the second half of their monthly cycle.”

“Why not?” Dolores asked.

“Because it can cause particularly heavy monthly flow, which can lead to anemia over time. And pregnant women should never use it for any purpose.”

“I don’t understand,” Dolores said. “Women don’t menstruate during during their pregnancy…”

“This herb is a powerful anticoagulant,” the man explained. “It’s true that women don’t menstruate during pregnancy, but after the baby is born and the afterbirth is expelled, they bleed more heavily than a monthly period for many days. If a woman in childbirth had been in contact with this herb, she would suffer torrential hemorrhage. She could die within a matter of minutes.”

Dolores’s eyes were round and her mouth sagged open. She put out one hand to grip the edge of the counter and steady herself. “That’s horrible,” she whispered.

“If you still wish to use it — in small amounts, let me stress — for your face cream, you will have to sign the register.”

“The what?”

Paeonia exsanguinica is a Schedule III herb. We are required by law to keep records of who buys it and how much.” The clerk turned to a counter against the wall behind him and selected a large book from among several standing there and opened it up on the counter in front of Dolores. He turned the pages rapidly and stopped at a page where the words Paeonia exsanguinica were printed at the top, and below that, columns of dates and names.

“We record your purchase here, and you sign here to acknowledge receipt of the herb and to acknowledge that I have given you a printed sheet outlining the dangers of the herb and guidelines for its safe handling.”

Dolores stared at the page and at the names of the unknown purchasers who had willingly given their signatures. Never in a million years would she allow her name to appear in that register. Signing her name, she knew, would be like signing a warrant for a life sentence to Azkaban.

Somehow she had been steered horribly wrong. Had Madam Leogane been mistaken? If she, Dolores, gave Mrs. Crouch the biscuits and she subsequently died of — how did the clerk term it? — “torrential hemorrhage”, there was no doubt in Dolores’s mind that she would be discovered. She had heard the skilled investigators talking at the MLE. They would find a leftover biscuit and analyze it. They would see her name in the register as a purchaser of this herb. She felt as if all her strength had drained out of her; she could hardly stand.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she whispered. “This herb is frightening. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

“A wise decision,” the man said. He closed the register book and put it back on the counter behind him.

Dolores’s distress began to abate as the damning book was removed from her sight.

“What do people use it for?” she asked in a shaky voice.

“In carefully controlled doses, Healers use it for patients who are susceptible to developing blood clots in their veins. We compound standardized potions for people to use on an outpatient basis, by prescription. And some people, owners of warehouses, for example, use it in rat bait to kill rats.”

“Oh, my,” Dolores said. She was still reeling from the shocking revelation, and most of the apothecary’s technical explanation had gone over her head; her mind retained only the image of dead rats. “I guess I’ll be going, then. Thank you for the information.”

She turned to leave and saw three children, Hogwarts students, standing near the door with their parents, awaiting their turn to buy. Merlin, what did they overhear? She felt their eyes on her, following her as she left the shop.

Once outside in the sunlight again, Dolores simply stood on the pavement for several minutes, trying to calm down and collect her thoughts. Even more families were on the street now, a buzz of animated conversations between children and their parents, and a bustle of motion. She needed to be somewhere quieter. She crossed the street and approached a bench in front of the post office, where there was less traffic, and sank down on it, bowing her head into her hands.

What had just happened? She had almost murdered Mrs. Crouch. Only by sheer luck had her hand been prevented. If there had been a different clerk who hadn’t warned her about the herb, hadn’t told her what it would do, she would have happily signed the register, thinking the act to be no more than a bit of bureaucratic busy-work. Or if she had gone to an apothecary shop in Knockturn Alley…they probably operated entirely outside the law.

What had Madam Leogane been thinking? She must surely have known…

The image of the prophetic dream flooded into her mind. Mrs. Crouch would die. But how? By Dolores’s own hand? The thought was horrible. But it all fit. His wife just died but the baby survived. If she died because of some crisis during labor, the baby might well die also. But if the crisis occurred after the delivery, the baby would be healthy; it would survive.

Madam Leogane had called the scrap of parchment a ‘gift’. A gift? A gift was something you gave to someone who wanted it, something that would hopefully make them happy. What made Madam Leogane believe that Mrs. Crouch’s death would make Dolores happy? Dolores had described Mrs. Crouch as a friend. Did Madam Leogane know that Dolores had been lying? Did she know about the prophetic dream? How could she know? She must have been a Legilimens. And she had instructed Delores to concentrate on the father, the mother, and the baby. And I did it! I let her into my mind!

Or maybe this was how the prophetic dream worked. It told you what your future would be, but you still had to take the necessary steps to seize that future. Too bad I woke up when I did, she thought bitterly. It didn’t show me the part about whether or not I go to Azkaban.

Dolores remained sitting on the bench with her head in her hands, rocking backwards and forwards slightly, breathing in shuddering breaths, until she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She looked up into the kindly face of a woman who was standing in front of her, leaning down to Dolores’s eye level.

“Are you all right, dear?” the woman asked. “Can I get you anything?”

Dolores tried to pull herself together.

“Uh, no. I just — I just had some very bad news, is all.” She managed a weak smile. “Thank you for asking.”

“I’m so sorry. Let me get you a glass of water,” the woman said, and she conjured a glass and filled it with water.

“Thank you,” Dolores said, and she reached up and took the glass.

“Will you be okay, dear?” the woman asked.

“I think so,” Dolores said. “I just need to go home.”

With effort she got to her feet. There was no one at home to talk to. The trouble was, there was no one anywhere to talk to.
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