You can see the stars up here: bright, crystalline fragments of light...so clear, so cold....
The stars are very important to my Family; we’re all named after them, apart from my cousin, Narcissa. And that’s only because her mother, Druella, is rather dim and couldn’t think of another star-related name. When the rest of the Family found out, They were furious, but the damage was done; the baby was named, and there was nothing They could do about it.
At first, They were very worried because dear Cissy didn’t even look like a Black. She took after her mother with her white-blonde hair and high forehead. That, combined with her name, convinced the Family that she would be a disgrace, but – and fortunately for her – all the extra attention turned Narcissa into the perfect little Black.
Personally, I never liked her much.
When, as a young child, I was told that story about Narcissa, I had always wondered why the star names were so important. Strangely enough, it was my father who satisfied my curiosity in one of our rare conversations.
I had just turned seven, and it was about a week after my birthday. The birthday itself was a subdued affair with only close family invited. However, since this was the Black Family, it had meant the whole house was stuffed full of adults making dull conversation. I had realised, long before, that things like birthdays were only an excuse for the adults to meet and gossip; the children were sent up to the small sitting room on the second floor where we were expected to entertain ourselves.
We did this in our various ways: Andromeda hid herself in a book, Narcissa sat on the windowsill and complained (not about anything in particular – just general complaining), and Bellatrix demanded that Regulus and I help her practise spells for school. I had been on the receiving end of her wand-work before and so quite sensibly refused, using the reasonable excuse that I was the “birthday boy.” Regulus, on the other hand, worshiped her and was quite willing to be her test subject.
Now, normally, I wouldn’t have minded – if he was stupid enough to volunteer, he deserved what was coming to him. But I suddenly felt a surge of compassion for the little twerp; it wasn’t his fault that Bella was nine years older than him and, in our parents’ eyes, a much better person to idolise than me. It wasn’t his fault that even at twelve she had the ability to compel obedience, with force if necessary. Still, I shouldn’t have interfered; Bella was the oldest and had ordered the rest of us around for as long as I could remember. I shouldn’t have meddled.
But I did.
The cousins left the next day, all saying goodbye in their customary fashion: Andromeda hugged me and told me she would write, Bellatrix gave me a savage pinch, and Narcissa simply smirked. Later that day I was summoned to my father’s office, a place that I was normally forbidden from entering on pain of, well, pain. My parents were people who believed the saying, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Now, in my mind, this wasn’t nearly as bad as their belief in the saying, “Spare the mind-numbingly boring speeches about purity of blood...and spoil the child.”
I think this was the main reason I turned against my Family. I was (and still am) one of those people who – if you’d said “black” – would immediately say “white.” Speeches on blood pride had the opposite effect on me. An adverse effect, really, compared to the result my parents wanted. Of course they didn’t realise this; long speeches and other traditional methods had always worked before. Why should it be any different with their son?
At that point, the Family didn’t realise how far off the rails Andromeda had gone; she was the “weak” one in between two very strong sisters. They had better things to think about than quiet, bookish Andromeda; she would never dare say anything to contradict her Family, but They could not have been more wrong. At home, she spent most of her time reading. When she did venture out of her room, Narcissa and Bellatrix appeared out of nowhere to flank her. Things would change when she got to Hogwarts, though.
The year after my seventh birthday, Andromeda was Sorted into Ravenclaw and thus taken away from the beady eyes of her sisters. It was quite amazing, the transformation she went through after that. She used to send me long letters detailing her experiences in Ravenclaw: the lessons, the Quidditch matches, and the hours she spent in the library. And her friends, she talked about her friends even more than she talked about her books. This was quite a feat, since she talked about her books almost all of the time. She was reading about viewpoints that she had never known existed. She told me about books on politics, policies, and prejudice; a whole new world was opening for her, a world that the Black Family did not want us to know about.
At home, however, she reverted back to her old self: always hiding behind a huge tome. She hoped that They would forget about her; she never stood up for herself or her newfound beliefs. She would never have gone as far as she did without Ted. Without him she would probably still be stuck between her two sisters, helpless to change her stars.... I always liked Ted.
Anyway, back to my impending lecture: I think that my darling Auntie had had a word with my father about my behaviour towards her beloved girls. She did the same thing at the end of every visit, so it wasn’t that much of a guess. Just before leaving, she would sidle up to him in a fashion that she obviously thought was unobtrusive, and say, “A word in your ear,” in a whisper that half the house could hear.
Despite the fact that it was my father to whom she aired her grievances, he normally delegated the onerous task of talking “at” me to Mum. Unfortunately (for him at least), she was ill, holed up in bed with some strange disease. While being as weak as a kitten, she still had full use of her vocal cords. This was useful for my mum since the only being that went near her was Kreacher, and he lived at the bottom of the house. You would have thought that the non-invalids of the house would have had a hard time of it. Mum tended to want things at the most inconvenient times; we would be woken from slumber by her “dulcet” tones, and disturbed during lunch. This would have been hard on us, but, compared to usual, Mum was relatively quiet. I think we all found it quite restful.
The only downside (from Father’s point of view) was that he had to take care of certain tasks in her absence, such as spending time with his eldest son. In my opinion, though, anything was better than Mum telling me exactly how I had failed her this time.
The only thing I didn’t like about the lecture was the formality that went with it. I had to wait in the formal drawing room for my father’s summons, because the patriarch of the Black Family wasn’t supposed to know that common rooms, such as the playroom, existed. I didn’t like the formal drawing room with its straight-backed, hard chairs; malevolent mantelpiece; and heavy atmosphere of disuse, tradition and pride.
Every year at Christmas the children would be brought down to this room; theFamily would then be informed of the great events of our year, good and bad. The cross-examination that followed was agony for me; the way They peered at you, discussed you, and finally reached a verdict, was one of the worst times of the year. This was mainly because the conclusion They came to was never a good one, and the splendid presents that came afterward never made up for Their stares and whispers.
So I sat in a room that held only bad memories, wearing my third-best set of robes in honour of the momentous occasion of my father addressing me in person. The stiff black satin of my robes, although quite grand and expensive, was scratchy and uncomfortable; the high collar, which was fashionable at the time, dug into my chin when I turned too quickly. If I had had any choice in the matter, the robes would have been burnt long ago – but when did I ever have any say in anything? Mother had insisted that I wear these robes, and so I grudgingly obeyed, though already plotting her destruction.
When I was finally beckoned into my father’s sanctuary by the sneering house-elf, Kreacher, my state of mind was not in its most receptive state. I was already bored by the proceedings and wished only to return to my room, where I could be moody in relative peace.
Alas, it was not to be; Father lectured me for almost a half-hour in his slow, monotone voice that was so different than Mother’s. For this I was grateful; it is very hard not to pay attention to someone who is screeching at you from two inches away – she was worse than a Howler – at least with one of those you don’t get spit in your face. Yes, I much preferred Father’s speeches. He didn’t specifically pick out my faults; rather, he talked in sweeping generalities about pride and other such things that I evidently lacked.
Personally, I don’t think that I lack pride and ambition – I have them – I just use them in the opposite way than what my parents intended. My greatest ambition as a child was to be blasted off the family tree, and I was fiercely proud of every step I took to achieve this.
Instead of listening to the drivel my father was spouting, I examined his desk. For the first ten or so minutes, I tried to read the letter he had just finished writing. As far as I can remember, it was to a distant cousin, explaining exactly why a further connection between their families was impossible. The argument seemed to be that my father didn’t actually have any daughters. It might have been wishful thinking on my part, but I think that he went on, in the letter, to suggest that the cousin inquire elsewhere – his brother-in-law’s family for instance. Their oldest daughter, Bellatrix, was shaping up well. I can remember rushing up to my room afterwards to write a jubilant letter to Andromeda, telling her that the bane of her life, namely Bella, might no longer be an issue by the time she left school.
After the letter ran out of words I understood, I turned my attention to the rest of my father’s possessions. The eagle-feather quill was examined, as was the stack of fine parchment embossed with the Black Family crest, but such luxuries hold no attraction when one is a small boy of seven.
Father’s inkstand, on the other hand, mesmerised me; it was made of some incredibly rare, black stone, and delicately carved into the shape of a roaring panther. The panther’s mouth formed the ink basin, its great, black fangs snarled up at me, and its ruby red eyes glowed. I held my breath every time my father dipped his quill into the black maw; the panther looked so alive that I almost believed the jaws would snap down on my father’s fingers. The prospect of seeing such a bloody sight gave the interview a little more spice than it had had before.
Considering my fascination with the objects on his desk, it’s surprising that I remember anything about his speech at all. However, I can remember his closing words to me, mainly because you can only stare for so long at an inkstand (even one as fascinating as my father’s) before it loses its appeal. My father stood up, placed his hand on my shoulder, and led me over to the window. He threw open the heavy curtains that blocked the room from the sight of the city below. We stared out for a moment before he turned to me and began to talk again in his intense voice.
“There is nothing higher than the stars, nothing as pure as the fire that burns in them. They look down on this world of mud, and they scorn it as less than nothing. Why would they want to mix with the mud, sully their perfect brilliance with muck and grime? We are the stars, Sirius...we are above all others in this world...they are as soiled as the animals are. But we are pure; our fire is untainted. We are the stars, and we must not fall into the mud.”
He was staring at me, as he finished, with the strangest look in his eyes – it wasn’t just the fanatical flame that kindled in most of my Family’s eyes at the mere mention of blood purity. There was something else behind it that I had never seen before, something strange and new...pleading. My father was begging me to believe what he was saying; he was desperate for the light to come into my eyes. For me to see the world the way it was meant to be seen.
This threw me; I had never even known before that he could display any other emotion apart from pride and disdain. He was human, after all.
Possessed by the strange urge to live up to his expectations, I choked out that I would try.
For a moment his lips twitched in what must have been a smile; then he patted me on the shoulder and sent me away. His mask was back in place; he was, no doubt, already contemplating something more important than my attitude.
It was only when I was back in my room, with my father’s words and expression already fading from my mind, that I realised something: you can’t see the stars in London, only the deep-red glow of the mud.