3. The Boy Who Returns
After talking with the redheads, Harry was unsure of who he was anymore or even where he was. He had vague memories of being in a world that changed from day to night, warm to cold, rainy to dry, but he could only get that now by walking into those places where it was one way all the time. And they hardly seemed like normal places, even after spending a long time wandering through many of them. He tried to ask Potter about it, but he seemed to have no idea what Harry was talking about.
One time, Harry began a discussion with one of the old men who sat by themselves in front of their window.
“I’m not sure if I belong here,” Harry said. “Everything was different before I rode the train to get here.”
The old man looked at him sagely. “You are from outside the castle?”
“Yeah, the castle… I remember seeing it after I rode up from the station on those funny carriages. I couldn’t open the door and this knight made me come in through his window.”
The old man began to chuckle. “Then Sir Alfred is the one responsible for your current state. He is the entrance guardian, and that ‘window’ as you call it is actually the magical painting in which he resides.”
“That was a painting? How did I go through it?”
“Yes, but you must understand, it is a magical painting, and you did not go through it, but inside it. Magical paintings are incredible duplications of a certain place and time, and the residents therein are free to move about as if they were actually alive. Those who never existed as living people prior to being included in portraiture have very little knowledge of the world beyond the paintings they have visited.”
“You mean people like Potter?”
“Yes, indeed. He has existed in his pottery shed for nearly five hundred years doing the same things he always has and that he will continue as long as his painting hangs on the walls of Hogwarts.”
That explained a lot of the things Potter said, but that he lived in a piece of artwork was hard to comprehend. “His shed is just a painting that hangs on a real wall somewhere?”
“Of course. What you see from his shed is the corridor in which his painting is mounted. As you can see in front of me, this is the third-floor landing of the grand staircase of the castle.”
“But I don’t see any stairs going down.”
“That’s because Hogwarts is a magical castle, and the stairs will move from time to time to keep things lively. The creators of the school had a wonderfully quirky sense of humor.”
Harry thought it was very weird, but he liked it that way. He remembered the ‘normal’ life at his relatives’ house, and wanted things as different as possible. Quirky was good.
And it helped him realize another thing that had been growing in the back of his mind — the school was magical, so the students must be learning to do magic, and those ‘fancy sticks’ were real magic wands!
“How come you know so much?” Harry asked.
The man gave a wry smile. “I was once a live person, just as those you see through the windows — which are actually the frames of the paintings you visit. I taught Charms here in the thirteenth century, so I would have been long ago forgotten had there been no portrait created of me. Of course, it is rare enough that a student is inquisitive enough to read my nameplate or ask my identity that I may as well be forgotten. Yet because I once knew a life in the real world, I have a perspective beyond those who were simply products of a magical artist’s brushstrokes.”
Harry was beginning to grasp the bizarre reality of his existence and talked to the old professor for a long time. He learned how passage from one painting to another was possible only if the paintings were placed within the same real-world structure, such as those inside Hogwarts castle. The exception was a person with multiple portraits could pass back and forth between their own frames, instead of being several places at once.
“Do you miss being alive?” Harry wanted to know.
“Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it in so long… I suppose to an old person like me, this existence is pleasantly comfortable, without the intensity of real life experiences, but we don’t really feel anything — it’s a bland reality. I don’t suffer pain or heartache, but I do without real joy or love or anything that true living can abound in. But sometimes it’s the simple things; I’ll never get to taste a butterbeer, for instance… I’ve heard they’re quite delectable…”
On his way back to Potter’s shed he passed through the parlor with the rowdy men playing cards, who always stopped their game to give him a lively greeting.
“Look here, it’s the Potter boy, come to pay us a wee visit, he has!”
“Top o’ the morning to ya, laddie! What can we do for ya?”
“Well,” Harry said with hesitation, “before you came here, were you ever — you know — alive?”
“Oh, no,” they said, “not us lads. We’ve always been here and just here. An’ happy for it, too!”
“Aye, we’re just pigments of some overactive imagination, we are!”
“Oh, don’t listen to him, he meant figments…”
“No, you buffoon, I meant what I said — “
Harry couldn’t help but laugh as he walked on through. They were all buffoons, whatever that meant, but it sounded right to Harry, and he liked them a lot.
From then on, Harry began paying more attention to the view in front of each painting he passed through and eventually learned more about Hogwarts than almost anyone except the headmaster himself, and a few things that even he did not know.
Harry managed to work his way to the portraits hanging in each of the four common rooms. Their occupants weren’t very friendly, merely scowling at him whenever he visited, but he got to know the students better that way, since these places were their havens of relaxation.
The snake painting in the castle dungeons was one of the scariest he came across, until Harry discovered that it would talk back when Harry spoke to it. It was very matter-of-fact and expressed almost no emotion at all. Harry was therefore very surprised when the snake calmly described the situation of a boy being trapped in an unknown part of the castle for a very long time by a former student who could talk to snakes, nearly fifty firstings ago.
Harry made a valiant effort using code phrases taught him by the snake, and eventually reached a painting that looked more like a jail cell than anything else Harry could imagine. He looked out of it to see a tremendous columned hall, and barely visible in the slight greenish glow was a colossal statue at one end that reminded him of the man who looked over the Slytherin common room.
Harry returned his attention to the corner where lay sleeping a young boy that resembled himself.
“Hello?” Harry said. “Can you wake up?”
“Huh? What?” the boy said, startled. Upon seeing Harry, he leapt up.
“I don’t believe it! Someone has finally come to save me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Who are you?” Harry asked.
“Well, I don’t have a real name, but I work with Potter, at least I did, so they just call me the Potter boy.”
Potter was very pleased that his original boy was returned to his proper place, but no one made a big fuss about him either.
After rescuing the real Potter boy, Harry found that he wasn’t needed in the shed with Potter as much, so he spent more and more of his time wandering. He struck up conversations with students whenever they didn’t seem to be in a hurry, and he even talked with some of the professors when they didn’t have classes in session. They always seemed amused that a little boy in a painting would be interested in their subject, but they were teachers at heart, so they told him whatever he wanted to know. He eventually grew in understanding enough to enjoy their theory classes almost as much as the practicals.
Harry also sought out the portrait subjects who once had real lives and learned a great deal of history of the magical world through the ages. He was naturally inquisitive and most of the portraits — having nothing better to do — loved to talk about their time outside.
o o o
Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress and Professor of Transfiguration, was the most unflappable member of the Hogwarts staff, which was why Headmaster Albus Dumbledore was genuinely surprised to see her burst wildly through his office door like a whirling dervish.
“I waited and looked for it, just like you asked, and it was there, but Albus, I just don’t understand!”
“Calm yourself, Minerva, would some tea help? How about a lemon drop?” he added, holding out the dish of tart yellow sweets.
“No, no, Albus, look at this!” she said, slamming a fine parchment envelope on the desk in front of him. “It has his address, but I don’t know what to make of it, and no owl will deliver it!”
Dumbledore glanced down at the letter, and then he did a double-take. It was one of the standard letters of invitation and acceptance for attendance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, just like dozens of others that the deputy headmistress sent out every summer.
However, this one had an anxiously awaited name along with an address, and just like his deputy, Dumbledore didn’t know what to make of it either, for there was no town or other locality listed.
It read simply, “Harry Potter, Potter’s Shed.”
o o o
Albus Dumbledore strode up to the podium of the Great Hall and looked out at the gathered students, the professors sitting at either side, and the crowds of portrait onlookers in the magical paintings that adorned the spaces between the windows, high on the walls.
“Welcome to another year at Hogwarts! If Professor McGonagall would kindly lead our new first years in to be sorted, we may begin.”
The headmaster carefully surveyed each one of the young students as they approached the Head Table, wondering if one of them could possibly be the long-lost Boy Who Lived. They had been frustrated numerous times on every attempt to get the boy his Hogwarts letter, but he held out a glimmer of hope based solely on the fact that the letter had actually been created.
Only time would tell, and the sorting seemed to go on and on.
Finally, they were sorting the students with last names beginning with “P” — the Parkinson girl was sorted into Slytherin, of course; two Indian twins named Patil went to different houses, something interesting to keep an eye on; then a girl named “Perks” was sorted…
McGonagall looked down once again at her list and took a deep breath. “Harry Potter,” she called out.
There was an uneasy rustle throughout the hall, whispers rising as no one answered the call.
“Harry Potter, if you are here, come and be sorted,” McGonagall said commandingly.
No one noticed the small bustle in the painting second from the rear of the hall, where one old former charms professor had pulled aside a small boy.
“That’s you they’re asking for, is it not?”
“Yes,” Harry said meekly, “that’s my real name, but I don’t know what to do.”
“We must get you to be sorted, that’s what we do.”
The professor led him away to an empty portrait located in what Harry knew to be the Entrance Hall.
“All you have to do is jump out,” said the professor.
“Really?” Harry said. “That’s it?”
“Yes, best get a run at it.”
Harry stepped back and leapt through the window that was actually the frame of the painting, feeling like he was passing through cold water, and crashed to the floor.
The professor sat back as he watched the young boy clumsily rise and stumble to the doors of the Great Hall. “Well,” he muttered with amusement, “it’s not a typical day that I still learn something new. That actually worked.”
o o o
Professor McGonagall was giving the boy every chance to appear that she could, but it seemed to be a lost cause. She was just about to call the next name when she thought she heard something in the Entrance Hall and one of the doors at the back of the hall was pushed slowly aside.
“I’m here!” came a small voice, and all eyes were widened at the sight of a little boy trotting up the center aisle, dressed in rags and covered head to toe in gray dust.
Mutterings of recognition and debate followed him; all the older students recognized the Potter boy, but how was he not in a painting and appeared to be as real as they were?
The boy finally huffed to a stop in front of an astonished Professor McGonagall. “I’m Harry Potter,” he announced, breathing heavily, “here to be sorted.”
He struggled to climb atop the stool and then, knowing the routine, grabbed the Sorting Hat from McGonagall’s still unmoving hands and thrust it upon his own head.
Everyone held their breath, wanting to hear the verdict of the hat’s deliberations — was this small child really the Boy Who Lived, and would he go to Gryffindor as his parents did, or was he proving to be a Slytherin by staying well hidden for the last four years? Was there a possibility he belonged in Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw?
The Sorting Hat itself did not seem to be exhibiting its normal behavior. Its wrinkles had disappeared, standing at full alert, as if startled about something.
Then the boy started wobbling on the chair, and the Sorting Hat made its decision loudly, almost panicked, as the boy tumbled bonelessly to the floor and created a small foul-smelling puddle on the flagstone beneath him.