Ginny stood before the fireplace in the Gryffindor common room, looking up at two ornate gilt picture frames that had just been hung over the mantel. The frame on the right held the painting of an empty chair. The frame on the left held the painting of an old man wearing red and gold robes sitting in an identical chair. His eyes were closed, his head bowed. Ginny, her red hair streaked with silver, wept as she gazed at the portrait, as did Hermione, whose bushy hair had long ago gone gray. Ron's hair was also streaked with silver, and he turned his head to hide his own tears.
There was movement in the left-hand frame, and Professor Dumbledore walked into it. He put his hand on the shoulder of the sleeping man and gazed sadly at Ginny. "I'm so sorry. I'll look after him."
Unable to speak, Ginny turned to the portrait hole. Ron and Hermione followed and took her arms as she slowly walked away. The man in the chair did not move.
Something was missing. He remembered someplace that had been different, not dark, and perhaps that was where it was, the thing that was missing. Why was it so dark here? He opened his eyes, but it did not look very different from when his eyes were closed. Even though it was gray, not black, there was nothing in the grayness, just like there was nothing in the darkness. Only a dim fog swirled and flowed. There was nothing distinct, certainly not the thing that was missing, only eddies of colorless gray. He waited.
Time passed, and shapes emerged in the fog. The shapes were black and shadowy, but they were not the same as the black that had been before he opened his eyes. That black was formless, these were light-less objects that had form, and they moved. Their movements were indistinct and did not seem to have purpose. But they were not the missing thing.
The shapes and their movements and the swirling fog wearied him; he was so, so tired. He closed his eyes.
He did not know how much time had passed when he opened his eyes again, but at first nothing seemed different. It gave him satisfaction that he had opened his eyes without thinking about it, unlike the first time, if that indeed had been the first time. He couldn't remember anything before that first perception of darkness—of nothingness—so that must have been the first time. And as he peered into the gray fog, his satisfaction grew, because the shapes that moved were now more distinct. They had wavering bodies, and heads and limbs that faded in and out of the fog. The limbs appeared to float away into the fog and reappear as though swimming back to their body. And now the shapes moved from place to place and back again. Some disappeared into the distance and were lost in the gray fog, but others—or maybe the same ones—appeared in their place.
He grew weary again and closed his eyes, but now he knew that when he opened them he would see more shapes and more details, so now he was not afraid to close them. But something was missing. Maybe when he looked again it would be there.
Another indeterminate length of time passed and he opened his eyes, hoping to see the thing that was missing. but there was, again, only featureless gray. There were no shapes, and the fog was an even gloomier darkness, with tendrils of black entwined in the mist. Nothing moved. He still yearned for the missing thing. He was sure he would find it, if not now then sometime, because he now realized he had time to look for it. So he waited.
The fog grew lighter, the blackness pulled away. Brightness came from one side of the space before him, lighting the world. He saw shapes once again, but these shapes did not move. Several of them were directly in front of him, broad, squarish, low blocks of . . . something. The shapes seemed familiar; he was sure he had once known them. The past . . . yes, there was a time before this fog with its tendrils and shadows, its figures with limbs and its squarish forms. That time was the past. Where he was now was the present, where something was missing.
A figure moved in front of him. He was seeing clearly now, at least compared with before. This figure was tall, with arms, legs, and a head. The face was unclear, in fact it was flat, blank, slate-like, featureless. But this was good, even though he knew there should be details where there was only a blob. More and more of the world was emerging, but he could not yet see all of it.
The shape drew near and stood before him. He was sure that if the face had details he would be looking into the eyes of a person. Would it be someone he knew? The shape's arms reached up, one to either side of him, and he suddenly swayed to the left, as though the world had tilted. It tilted back and he lurched to the right. Finally the world leveled, and he steadied himself. The shape stepped back and stood still for a moment, and he was positive the eyes were looking at him. He reached out his arm.
The person turned its head, and suddenly more people were standing before him. He lifted his arm again. An arm emerged from the side of the first shape and lifted. The other shapes stood for a moment, then moved away. The first remained for a long time before it too moved away.
He wished the shape would come back. He wanted someone to be there looking at him and returning his gesture. He wanted . . . but what he really wanted was missing, it was not the shape who had just disappeared.
He was confused and exhausted from the renewed longing, and from his striving for it to no avail. It had drained him. He closed his eyes.
His eyes opened and he felt well-rested. In fact, he felt stronger than he had at any time since he had come to this place, or had this place come to him? For the first time he looked around, not just forward into the fog, but to the sides.
To the right was a long corridor, dim and unlit, but not foggy. The corridor stretched into the distance with no visible end. Turning to his left he saw, not a corridor, but a rectangular opening and another space beyond. That space was different from the space in front and from the corridor. Intrigued, he decided to go there. Maybe he would find what was missing.
He did not know how to do it, how to go there. He knew he wanted to get from here to there, but how? It was not so far, just an arm's length to the opening. He looked down at his arm, and saw that it was resting on a carved piece of wood, and as he followed it with his eyes he saw where the wood joined an upright board that was also carved and padded with something soft. He looked at his other arm and saw another identically carved wooden armrest. He leaned back against the padded board. He was sitting in a chair.
This discovery enchanted him. Something else was here—wherever here was—besides himself. Now he could feel the seat beneath him and the backrest behind him. He moved his hands along the arms of the chair, feeling the textured wood and the curved carving. He pushed against the arms and felt himself rise. He stood up.
His perspective of the space in front changed. He could see farther into it, and could also look down to what was immediately below. But although the space now appeared broader, he could still see no details through the fog. There were more shapes visible beyond the squarish forms, and they appeared to be similar. When he leaned forward, he discovered that directly in front of him the fog was thinner, and he could see a pattern on . . . the floor. The pattern was of repeating rectangles. The rectangles were not another shade of gray, but had overtones of something else, a color.
That was all interesting and worthy of observation, but what he really wanted to learn about were the long corridor and the opening to the other side, because the thing that was missing might be there. He moved towards the opening, but as he did, he noticed the sound. It came from the space in front, and he turned back to it. The shapes, the people, were there, and sounds came from them. Voices. Many people were now standing in front of him, close by, a wall of heads with no faces, only voices. It was grotesque, and he turned away.
He peered into the opening and saw a small chamber, but it was hard to tell anything else about it because it was filled with fog, and illuminated only by a pale, weak light that came from the same direction as the opening in front of his chair. It looked out into the same dreary world of faceless people. He had no interest in seeing that, but there was something else in the chamber, fairly close to where he was standing. Through the fog, which was very dense, he could see a chair, just like his.
This was also uninteresting; he was looking for something that was missing, but the little room with its identical chair was just like his. He turned away, disappointed, and went to the entrance of the long corridor and passed into it.
He drifted through shadowy fogs past walls in shades of gray. Openings appeared on either side, and also above and below, but he somehow passed over those without difficulty. The openings led into chambers like his own. Through them shone brighter patches of gray with vague movement and activity and hazy shapes. Sometimes there was a more distinct brightness showing through an opening, and at those places, sound—sharp but incomprehensible—came to him. He sensed that someone was speaking. He encountered these sounds several times and tried to understand them—maybe they would tell him where to find the missing thing—but never could. The sounds would continue for a few moments and then stop, and then there would be only his own disappointed hope. He did not know what to do about it, so he drifted on in the silence, until he passed another chamber and heard more sounds.
It was impossible to tell how long he floated through the corridor, or how far. There were no events, nothing to mark one place from another or one moment from the next, and the chambers just repeated themselves. The sounds and shadows blended into one gray never-changing, never-ending sameness. He stopped. What did it matter whether he moved or stayed still, kept his eyes open or closed? He did not want any more of this. Something was missing, and without it all was pointless and meaningless, a monotony that would never end. He closed his eyes and floated in emptiness.
A very long time probably passed during which he felt no desire to move or see or hear. Then something intruded, and he reluctantly opened his eyes. A distant point of light was approaching, far down the corridor in the direction he had come from. It was white, and did not move steadily but bobbed sideways and up and down. It grew and became the figure of a person. The shining figure drew closer, and a head and body, then a face, emerged from the bright light. The body was wreathed in billowing dark blue robes covered with stars. The face was bearded and the mouth and blue eyes, peering over half-moon spectacles, were smiling as if welcoming him. The face was lined and wrinkled, but did not look old or worn, just used, as though countless emotions had played on it for a very long time.
The figure stopped and reached a hand towards him.
"Harry," the man said, "how are you?"
Harry was not surprised to hear his name. It had been there all along, he realized, he just had not known it was there, just as if he might not have been aware of his hand until it had touched something.
"I'm becoming lost," he said, and his voice did startle him. It was quavery, not what he expected: something younger and more vigorous. Of course, he had not had anyone to talk to since he had first opened his eyes, and since he had no idea how long ago that was, maybe he was just out of practice. Or maybe he was old.
"Yes, I know." The man's smile broadened, and he seemed to understand that Harry did not mean that he had lost only his way; maybe this man knew where the missing thing was.
He took Harry's hand. "Come, let's take you back to your portrait. I'll show you the way." He started to pull Harry gently along the corridor. "It's confusing at first."
"Something is missing," Harry said, and looked around at the featureless corridor.
"I'm sure it will find you." He continued to smile.
Harry let himself be led. They passed corridors and openings and passages that he had not seen before; it became bewildering, and finally he simply closed his eyes and trusted that his companion knew the way and would lead him to the familiarity of his chair.
After he closed his eyes he was aware only of the touch of the man's hand on his. The sensation was warm. The warmth crept to his wrist and then to his forearm and then to his elbow. It contrasted with the cold that the warmth came up against, then overlapped and pushed away. The rest of him was cold, a feeling he had not noticed before because he had nothing to compare it with; now it contrasted with warmness. The cold was blue, the warmth a deep, rich, comforting red. Harry did not know where the colors came from, or why, in this world of black and gray, he had thought of them. He drifted along with the shining man and the comforting warmth rising up his arm.
They stopped. Harry opened his eyes and found himself in a small room, and recognized his chair. He glanced to his left into the foggy chamber next to his and saw the same chair still sitting empty. He peered at his smiling guide and the man led him around his own chair and sat him down.
"Here you are, Harry." His voice was serene, matching his creased face. "If you get lost again, I'll find you and get you back home. Why don't you rest now?"
Harry's eyes were already shut. His head drooped, he began breathing deeply, and for the first time since he had first opened his eyes, he slept. Dumbledore put his hand on Harry's shoulder and squeezed it gently. "Sleep well, my old friend," he said, and walked away down the long corridor.
Harry took more long walks, drifting through countless corridors and passageways. He often heard voices and now he recognized his name being called as he passed some of the bright openings. Ever since he had met the shining man and had found his name, he was noticing more details of his surroundings. The corridors led past chambers, most of which had chairs in them, but some had other strange objects that he didn't recognize. Usually there were people in the chambers, and those were the ones who called his name. Sometimes he stopped and peered into the rooms and through them into the foggy openings beyond. At first he was curious to see what was there, but he never saw the missing thing, only the same fog he saw in front of his own chair, and soon he stopped looking.
He was also now aware of being cold. Whenever he awoke he was cold, and he never felt warm until the man found him again in some desolate passage and took his hand. Then the warmth began advancing up his arm from where their skin touched, but it lasted only as long as they were touching. As soon as Harry was sitting in his chair again and they broke contact, the warmness retreated and the cold returned.
He never stayed still in any one place in his wanderings. At first there was an unsettling restlessness inside him that urged him to keep drifting, to keep looking for the missing . . . he didn't know what was missing, but as time passed without finding it, and as his ability to see more details of this world increased, he found that it was becoming harder to wake up and open his eyes and go wandering again. The new details simply showed the same things again and again: corridors, rooms, chairs, people calling his name, the same foggy spaces. He never found the missing thing.
Once, something different happened. The shining man had found him floating motionless in a corridor and had led him back to his own chamber and his own chair—his "home," as the kindly man called it—and the man had paused briefly and peered into the adjoining chamber, and had muttered something that Harry did not hear. The man had then gazed at Harry with a strange look that was both sad and hopeful. But this was notable only because what always had happened was nothing. So he had sat Harry down in his chair again and Harry had slept.
But this time when he awoke afterwards, he did not open his eyes. He had lost all desire to get up and go drifting away again. He was now hoping that, If he stopped all action, all perception, his existence would end. He felt finished, over with. He did not want to open his eyes again, or go wandering down the endless corridors again, or see the emptiness of this world in which he only existed, where only gray nothingness and shadows without substance existed, and with no future, only an empty present that went on into eternity. The missing thing, if it had ever existed, was gone forever. Seeking it had been his only purpose, so if it was gone neither he nor this place had any purpose. He decided to remain in his chair, hoping he would stop being aware of his surroundings and of himself. He would blend into this forlorn universe and become part of the void, and his existence would end. It would be a relief.
He heard a low buzzing sound and involuntarily opened his eyes. A large number of the faceless shapes were talking and moving about in the background of the space in front, and others were standing motionless between them and himself. Then he became aware of a change. There was light to his left, a different kind of light than the shades of gray that were all he had ever seen in this place. He turned his head.
A cascade of color poured from the adjacent chamber: golds and reds and browns and yellows and shades of white. He blinked and stood, and moved to the opening. As he came through it he was bedazzled by the flood of brilliant light and colors surrounding him, bathing him. He stopped as though striking a wall and put his hands over his eyes, the light was almost painful. He saw his pink palms, and after a moment, when his eyesight had adjusted, he put his hands down but stopped and looked at his fingers. They were also pink, and on the fourth finger of his left hand was a gold ring. Where had it come from? Had it been there all this time?
He put his hand down, and before him was the chair and in it sat a woman. Her head was bowed and her eyes were closed; she was sleeping. Her hair was red with streaks of silver. She was wearing rich, warmly red robes trimmed in gold, and when Harry glanced down he saw that his own robes were the same. On the woman's left hand, resting on the arm of her chair, she wore a gold ring, identical to his.
There was movement to his right, and he turned and looked out of the portrait into the Gryffindor common room, its circular walls lined with other portraits, some of whose occupants smiled and waved. Battered old wooden tables and well-worn overstuffed chairs and couches filled the room, and dozens of people stood, watching him.
He moved in front of the woman in the chair and stared at her as tears filled his eyes. He fell to his knees and put his head in her lap. The students in the common room grew silent and still. Several moments passed but Harry was aware only of the suppleness of her robes and of her legs beneath them, feeling the solidity of her bone and the softness of her flesh. The touch warmed his whole body.
A hand stroked his hair and he raised his head. The woman's eyes were open. "It will never lay flat," she whispered as she patted the hair at the back of his head. She bent down and kissed his brow.
"Ginny," Harry said through his tears.
She brought her face close to his and their eyes poured into each other. Minutes passed. She glanced over his head at the students now gathered in front of four large easy chairs; they were gazing up at the portrait with smiles on their faces. "Oh," she exclaimed, "our great-grandchildren." Harry glanced back and saw a group of boys and girls looking up at them; behind were a large crowd of more young people, all watching. The ones in front were holding hands or had their arms around each other. Some were crying.
Harry smiled, and after a moment he turned back to Ginny. He stood and took her hands and she rose out of the chair. "You are more beautiful than ever," he whispered.
"I missed you so much," she said, and in an instant, Harry understood.
"Yes, that was all I knew." He brushed her hair from her face with his fingers and caressed her cheek. "Come, there are places we can be alone." He turned to their great-grandchildren, who were watching. "We'll be back," he said to them.
Together they walked out of Ginny's portrait, through Harry's, and disappeared past the edge of his frame. The students in the common room went back to their books and their parchments. Sunlight streamed through the windows and shone on the two picture frames over the mantel.