Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by J.K. Rowling and her various publishers. No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: Thanks to zionsstarfish for the beta work! This was written for the "Anywhere But Here" Challenge. (It's only a little bit late.) If I could be anywhere but here right now, I would be in Sicily.
Summary: A photograph in an old book sends Hermione on a quest to find the surviving works of the mysterious sculptor who created the Fountain of Magical Brethren at the Ministry of Magic.
She found the Garden of Eden in a little piazza hidden by a maze of crooked streets and narrow alleys west of Via Maqueda.
Hermione stopped at the edge of the pavement. In the piazza, young men leaned on a motorbikes around the base of the statue, chatting cheerfully with vendors gathering up their goods. Tripe and eel, toads and quills, snake skins and jewellery: it was a magical market, heavy with the scents of incense and fish. Laundry hung from the first floor balconies of the buildings, white sheets fluttering between colourful flowerboxes, framing the piazza above faded storefronts and shadowed windows. Most the shops were closed for the afternoon, the doors locked and signs turned.
She stepped forward, toward the statue, then jumped back abruptly when a car roared by, horn blaring. Laughing quietly to herself, Hermione checked the traffic before stepping out again and crossing the piazza.
The statue had been white at some point, but decades of smog and grime now stained the stone a dull, disappointing grey. It was about eight feet tall, smaller than it looked in the photograph, and it stood on a simple rectangular pedestal of the same stone. Discarded newspapers and cigarettes cluttered the ground around the base, and dark water stains streaked the words carved into the pedestal: Giardino di Eden. Bartolo Stentinello. MCMVII.
Hermione looked up at the statute thoughtfully. Adam and Eve were caught in a scandalous clutch, naked arms and legs entwined, bare feet ensnared by the tree, its thick roots breaking apart the ground. A snake, fat, twisting, and endless, wrapped around their legs. Adam's face was vacant, insipid; Eve was smiling and sly; the serpent was laughing. Its charmed stone skin crawled slowly, lazily, so slight a motion she wouldn't have noticed if she didn't know to look for it.
When Hermione leaned closer, she could see the outlines of tiny buildings in the shattered ground at their feet, with suggestions of rooftops and crooked streets crushed by the roots of the tree.
Punishment. That was what the sculptor had had in mind, according to the book. It had been a favourite theme of his, one that was believed to have resulted in more than a dozen statues. This was the only one that had survived; it had been moved from Messina to Palermo by a wealthy wizarding family as soon as it had been completed.
Hermione gave in and took the book from her bag. She flipped through the pages to the description of the statue. The photograph was black and white, grainy, so subdued it was nearly impossible to see that it was a wizarding picture. She read the paragraph again, but there was nothing more than what she recalled, so she turned to the hand-written list in the back cover. She found a Muggle pen in her bag and drew a small x beside Giardino di Eden, Albergheria, Palermo, self-consciously wondering if the locals would see that it was an art book and not a guidebook she was consulting.
Then she dutifully snapped a photograph, tucked her book and camera away, and walked quickly back toward Via Maqueda. She muttered the memorised directions under her breath as she dodged cars and motorbikes. There was no sharp divide between the magical and Muggle neighbourhoods, no barrier to cross or hidden entrance to find, and she passed from one to the other without noticing.
Bill Weasley gave her the book before she left. "You said you were interested in learning about wizarding art for your trip," he said, dropping it on the ground beside her. "I found this on the five knut table at the bookstore."
Hermione propped herself up on her elbows. Living Stone: The Works of Bartolo Stentinello, Magical Sculptor. There was a rough sketch of the Fountain of Magical Brethren on the front cover, black and white rather than shimmering gold, and on the back there was a blurred photograph of an elderly man sitting in the shade of an orchard.
They were sprawled on the ground in the garden of the Burrow; Harry had fallen asleep on his Quidditch magazine some time ago. As Bill went inside, Ron rolled over and peered at the book curiously. Hermione shifted it so that he could see and explained, "It's about the sculptor who made that statue that used to be in the Ministry of Magic, the one that was destroyed."
"That awful thing? Huh." Ron yawned and rolled over again, reminding Hermione of a lazy dog. "I still don't understand," he went on after a moment, "why you're going the Muggle way. It'll take forever."
Hermione opened the book and began to read the introduction. "Yes," she agreed absently, "it probably will."
In Cefalù, the faces were carved into the walls overlooking the harbour. When Hermione asked about them, the old woman who ran the wizarding bed and breakfast promptly volunteered her grandson as a tour guide. Hermione protested that it was unnecessary, but he didn't seem to mind.
He was a friendly young man, with dark Sicilian skin and a bright Sicilian smile, and they chatted amicably in English as they made their way down to the water. They wound through the hordes of tourists toward the wizarding part of the harbour, hidden from Muggles. It was crowded with a variety of magical boats, everything from garishly painted pleasure craft with fluttering, feathery wings to utilitarian fishing vessels with charmed nets and ropes dancing in complicated tangles.
Her guide's boat was a simple rowboat, similar to those on the lake at Hogwarts. Hermione sat down, and he touched his wand to the side of the boat. They drifted away, slipping neatly between the larger boats.
The sun was hot and the sky was clear, the glare from the water almost blinding. Hermione shaded her eyes, squinting over the water at the city: sunburnt brick and stone, colourful beach umbrellas, white walls and red roofs, crouched at the base of a blunt, rocky hill. She half-listened while her guide talked, smiling and nodding from time to time, noting his suggestions of places to visit, promising to eat supper at his uncle's restaurant that evening.
He steered the boat toward the part of the harbour where the water met the buildings. The pale walls were set on dark stone, stained by seawater at the bottom.
The boat slowed as it neared the rocks, and the young man pointed. "There," he whispered.
The stone was too bright, too hot; it was difficult to look at. Hermione sat forward, rocking the boat slightly, and peered up at the wall.
"Do you see?" he asked.
"I don't -- oh."
On the walls above the water, just high enough that a man couldn't reach even if he stood on his boat, there were faces carved into the stone. They were faint, softened by weather and time, spaced more or less randomly across the pale bricks. Each face was different; some weren't even human. There were goblins, house-elves, giants, centaurs, and merpeople, faces that were just slightly off, too narrow or too broad, ears too large or eyes too small. Every one of them was moving. The motion was slight -- just a wrinkle of a nose here, a twitch of the lips there -- but unmistakable.
"We call them facce, but he called them le scuse," her guide explained. "My grandmother remembers when she was a girl, there would be lights on the walls late into the night when he worked. The facce," he said, waving his hand toward the carvings, "they are the sculptor's last work, before he left."
At the museums in Florence and Rome, he was always identified by name, carefully spelled out, just one of many in the long, cool corridors of blank stone gazes and broken statues. But in Sicily, they called him 'the sculptor,' and there was never any question who they meant.
"Why?" Hermione asked. "Where did he go?"
"No one knows," the young man said. With a tap of his wand he nudged the boat closer to the wall. "He is probably dead now. He would be a very old man."
On a line of wide, pale bricks over them, three gruff, rough faces scowled in the sunlight. They reminded Hermione of the green men she always looked for in old churches in England, surrounded by a wild tangle of hair or leaves, not quite human but not quite anything else either.
Her grandparents gave her the money when she left Hogwarts. When she told her parents what she planned to do with it, they protested and made sensible suggestions such as savings and investments and shopping for her first flat.
"I've always wanted to visit Italy," Hermione said, feeling a bit guilty as she did so.
While cleaning out her bedroom, preparing to move to London in the autumn, she had found an old childhood journal. There were cut-out maps glued to the cover, and rough drawings of the Coliseum and the Leaning Tower decorated the pages. Her childish handwriting, large and round and carefully precise, spelled out her desire to travel the world and learn about every different country, starting with Italy because, her nine-year-old self had written, she was very curious to learn why people would feed Christians to lions.
That was before. Before the letter from Hogwarts, before the visit from Professor McGonagall, before the bewildering chaos and colour of Diagon Alley, before gold and silver coins and scowling goblins, before she stepped through the barrier at King's Cross Station and boarded a train to the north.
"Is it safe for you to travel?" her mother asked.
Hermione nodded. "It is now. All of the Death Eaters have been captured." Her parents flinched slightly at the words, but she went on, keeping her voice light. "You always told me I needed to take a break." Unfair, unfair, the voice in her mind echoed. "It will only be a couple of weeks."
"I don't know," her father said. "We thought you would stay home this summer."
"We worry about you," her mother added.
Hermione bit her lip. "I need to go away for a while," she said.
They gave in. Her mother went with her to Diagon Alley to buy magical luggage and a magical guidebook, and her father came home from work one day with a new magical camera that Arthur Weasley had helped him choose. Hermione saw the relief in her parents' eyes when she opted for trains rather than port-keys, and she promised to send them postcards from every interesting place she visited.
All of the trains bound for Syracuse were late, so Hermione settled down to wait on a smooth cement bench at the Catania train station. She paged idly through her guidebook again, glancing at the pictures and reading the historical blurbs. A train headed north rolled into the station in a flurry of noise and crowds, then rolled out again.
On the map in the front of her guidebook, she traced the train tracks and shorelines with her finger. It was a wizarding guidebook, but there was as much information about Muggle transportation as magical. She had thought it very strange, in the cool comfort of her mother's kitchen in England, but now she thought she understood. Apparition, port-keys, the 'floo network: they were made for and used by wizards in a hurry, for two minute intervals and five foot radii, for precision and speed, convenience and ease.
She looked up, across the tracks and platforms, toward the glistening blue water. It was hard to imagine hurrying anywhere in Sicily.
Tucking her guidebook away, she took a pen from her bag and flipped through her packet of postcards. A coastal scene for her parents, magical but tame, water lapping at a beach and a breeze rustling the trees. Mt. Etna, in the middle of a glorious, fiery, explosive eruption, for the twins. Boats on the water for Ron, and sunburnt Greek ruins for Harry. A busy Muggle market for Molly and Arthur. A smiling, craggy-faced old woman with a basket on her lap for Ginny.
Hermione studied the pictures and thought about what she would write. I'm still in Sicily. There is so much to see, so many fascinating ruins and historical sights, and the food is wonderful. It is very hot, though. Reassuring but bland, chatty but empty. She wondered what they read into the words she wrote, and then she wondered why she thought about it all, when she wrote nothing but the truth.
She tapped her pen on the stack of cards, then sighed and put them away. Her hand brushed over the book in her knapsack, and after a moment's hesitation, she took it out. She had read it from cover to cover once already, on trains criss-crossing northern Italy, and she had read the last chapter again on yet another train speeding down the coast from Naples, blue water gleaming through the window to her right, black and white photographs frozen on the page before her.
This time she turned to the first chapter. The greatest modern sculptor in the magical world. Throughout the cities of Europe, in famous squares and imposing monuments, his name was carved into them all. Became best known for his numerous memorials celebrating the victories of wizards over lesser magical creatures. The Fountain of Magical Brethren in London was one of the earliest and best known, of course, but there were others: a commemoration of the end of the goblin rebellions in Berlin; an arch of celebration for the defeat of the giants in Geneva; the Niederlage der Wölfe in Vienna. That is how he is remembered throughout most of Europe.
She read until the train finally arrived, only an hour and a half late. She climbed aboard, book still in hand, and chose a seat by the window.
Hermione walked slowly across the atrium of the Ministry of Magic, the heels of her shoes clicking on the tiles. There was an gap in the floor where the fountain had been. The empty space was surrounded by paint-splattered sawhorses, boxes of tile, and plastic buckets, but the workmen were gone for lunch.
It had been in the Prophet for a few weeks, the controversy over which artist would be chosen to fill the space in the Ministry atrium with a new statue. Many people wanted to leave the space empty, as it had been for two years, but the Ministry had invited artists from throughout Britain to submit drawings to a panel of judges.
Hermione heard footsteps behind her, and she turned to see a witch in sensible green robes come toward her. "Miss Granger?" the witch said, smiling widely. "I'm Matilda Thornebottom, from the Personnel Department."
Hermione shook her hand. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Thornebottom."
"Just between you and me," Matilda Thornebottom said, gesturing toward the construction materials in the middle of the atrium, "we will all be quite happy when this mess is finally cleaned up. The dust is everywhere."
"Have they chosen a statue yet?" Hermione asked. It hadn't been reported in the Prophet, but Mr. Weasley had said that the judges were meeting every day this week.
"If they have, they haven't told anyone," Ms. Thornebottom replied. She glanced around and leaned toward Hermione conspiratorially. "Somebody slipped up and let a few of the drawings get out. Would you like to see them?"
Hermione ran her hand along the rough top of a wooden sawhorse and looked down at the trowels and stacks of marble tile on the floor. It was strange, she thought, how discarded tools looked the same for Muggles and wizards, when nobody was there to use them.
"No, thank you," she said. "I'll wait to be surprised like everybody else."
Matilda Thornebottom clapped her hands together eagerly. "Well, then, let's get started. I must tell you, Miss Granger, we are delighted that you have decided to pursue a career in the Ministry. Why don't we go up to my office?"
The tour guide walked backwards through the catacombs, making every turn and stop without so much as glancing over her shoulder. The group followed in a tight clump, shying away from the stone walls, peering with macabre curiosity into the dark alcoves. The air was dry and cool, a stark contrast to the sweltering heat they'd left aboveground, and Hermione felt the sweat drying on her skin.
The torch in the guide's hand flickered and filled the tunnel with smoke. Hermione's eyes smarted but she stayed close to the guide, not wanting to miss any of the explanations.
"The magical section of the tombs are connected to the Muggle section," the guide said. She wore a badge declaring her to be a volunteer for the Società Storica Magica De Siracusa. She stopped before an obviously modern wooden door in a small archway. "We will go into the magical part now. Please watch your head."
The guide tapped the door with her wand and it opened slowly, scraping across the uneven stone floor. The tour group ducked through the low doorway. Hermione was first, an elderly German man and his daughter were last, and when they were all through, the door scraped shut again, blocking out the faint glow of the Muggle electric lights.
"This way, please," the guide said, motioning for the group to follow her. "This is the oldest part of the magical catacombs, but it was not used by wizards until the seventh century." She told them about the wizards who had claimed a section of the catacombs from the Muggles as the magical population of Syracuse grew, and about the long history of covert cooperation between the Muggles of the church of San Giovanni and the wizards who interred their dead beneath it.
"It was this way until the Second World War," the guide went on. "Then things began to change."
She led them down a narrow corridor, lined with empty alcoves and shelves carved into the walls in stacks of three or four.
"What are these small spaces for?" one woman asked, reaching out to touch the dark stone.
"Children," the guide said shortly. She turned a corner and waited for the group to catch up. "This way, please. You can see here the marks on the walls and places where the rock is cracked. This is where the wizards of Syracuse retreated when Grindelwald's lieutenant, Durfang, came to Italy in the days before Grindelwald's defeat."
The group stopped before a blank stone wall, and the guide held her torch up, illuminating black scorch marks on the stone.
"Grindelwald, as you know, was never able to organise a strong presence in Italy, but his agents learned that several of his most vocal opponents had gathered in Sicily. They searched every city and eventually cornered twelve wizards here, in the catacombs of San Giovanni."
The guide pressed her hand against the stone, and the wall faded away with a faint crackling sound. The tour group crowded into the narrow passageway behind her, jostling each other and whispering, glancing over their shoulders in alarm when the wall reappeared behind them.
"They were trapped in this place for forty days," the guide said. "Others on the surface were able to send food and water to them from time to time, but still they suffered greatly. Of the twelve who came into the catacombs, only six emerged alive." She raised the torch above her head. The light flickered on the walls, casting weird, dancing shadows onto the uneven surface. "Among them was the great Sicilian sculptor Bartolo Stentinello. Even here, in the darkness for so long, he created art from what he found."
One of the men in the group whispered, "Lumos," and held up his wand. Others did the same, adding a pale blue glow to the orange torchlight.
A woman gasped, "My god!"
The group pressed forward. Hermione stood on her toes to see better.
"This is the elegos," the guide explained, her voice low and solemn. "After it was discovered, the sculptor was accused of desecration, a very serious crime for Sicilian wizards."
Hermione looked upward, craning to see the full arch of the passageway. Rows of long white bones climbed the walls like ladders, meeting overhead at a wide spine made up of smaller bones, tracing along the crest of the tunnel. In the light from the torch and wands, the bones gleamed, set into smooth sockets and fused with the dark stone.
"At his trial, it was decided that he had gone mad while trapped in the dark, and he was not punished. There was a war, and the wizarding world had other problems."
Several steps in front of Hermione, directly over the guide's head, numerous skulls were set into the stone. The mosaic of grinning faces formed another, larger face; its open mouth gaped silently, set atop an array of ribs splayed across the walls and rows of bones set like arms encircling the tunnel in a cool, pale embrace.
"Come now," the guide said, raising her voice suddenly. "This way, and we will see the room where the wizards lived during their time here."
Hermione lingered behind the group. She reached out to brush her fingers across the wall, from smooth bone to rough stone, and shivered. Pulling her hand away quickly, she hurried to catch up.
On the floor by her bedroom door, her bag was packed and ready to go. Her mother had come in earlier in the evening and asked why Hermione didn't use magic to do the packing for her.
"I don't mind doing it this way," Hermione had replied, but what she was thinking was that magic didn't make everything easier.
Her mother, leaning in the doorway with a faint smile on her face, only said, "Don't stay up too late. We have to get an early start tomorrow." She pushed away from the doorframe and kissed Hermione's forehead before bidding her goodnight.
Her parents were downstairs now, watching the telly and talking quietly; their voices murmured comfortingly through the floorboards. Warm summer air drifted through the open window. Hermione leaned against the headboard of her bed, her legs crossed before her, an open book on her lap. Her window faced west; the sky was still a faint rosy colour just above the horizon, gently fading beyond the even rows of rooftops.
The book was open to the last page. On it was a black-and-white photograph with no title or accompanying text, just a single handwritten line: Sotto gli alberi di limone, Alicudi. There were no other words on the page. A shifting pattern of sunlight and shadow through the leaves of the orchard played across the statue; behind it, in the distance, the ocean was a broad, calm expanse of grey.
The statue itself was not moving, but it was changing. The first time she'd turned to this page, Hermione hadn't noticed anything unusual. But she saw it now, glancing away from the photograph and looking quickly at it again to find that the statue had changed. First it looked like a man in plain wizard's robes, then a woman in a flowing dress, a mermaid flipping her tail playfully, a tree with reaching branches, a ghoul draped in ragged cloth, a goblin in the arch of a cave, a giant wielding a heavy club.
The changes were subtle, though the images were so different, and Hermione spent several minutes trying to discern the mechanism before she set the book aside, exasperated, and reminded herself, "Magic."
The old man in the photograph on the back of the book watched her passively. His hair was long and white, like a wizard's, but he wore a Muggle suit. He was seated on a plain wooden chair in the orchard; in this photograph, unlike in the one of the shifting statue, fat lemons hung overhead, weighing down the branches. There was a bottle of wine and a single glass on the small table beside the man.
Hermione picked up the book and shoved it into her knapsack. She pulled out another book, her travel guide, and opened it to the map on the first page. Alicudi. She found it north of Sicily, a tiny speck labelled by tiny letters in the sparkling blue expanse of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The woman at the tabbachi by the ferry dock on Alicudi looked from the photograph to Hermione, and her lips thinned into a tight frown.
"Si," she said, nodding slowly and handing the book back to Hermione. "You go left," she went on, motioning with her hand to emphasise, "uno kilometre, then right, up to the giardino."
Hermione muttered a quick grazie and left the shop. The town was sleepy and quiet, without the tourist bustle and clutter of the other islands. The ferry was chugging away from the harbour, and the sound of its engines faded quickly.
She walked along the narrow road slowly, enjoying the feel of the hot sun on her shoulders and face, pausing only to lift her unruly hair off her neck and twist it into a knot. When the road divided, she took the right turn and began to climb. The hill was carved into narrow vineyard terraces held up by crumbling walls of dark volcanic rock.
After a few minutes, she came to a small gate beside the road. She paused, leaning over the whitewashed fence to peer beyond the gate. A well-worn path wound along the edge of one terrace toward a white house surrounded by a leafy orchard. On the gate, there was a small, hand-lettered sign that read aperto. Hermione took a deep breath and pushed the gate open.
She followed the path along the curve of the garden and down a short flight of stone steps to the terrace below. There, in the shifting shade of thick summer leaves, she found the statue. It was smaller than she had expected, only about as high as her waist, and carved of stone that was a pale off-white colour that seemed to absorb the green shadows of the trees.
The statue looked like a centaur as she walked up, massive hooves and tangled mane and fierce eyes. As she circled around, however, it shifted slowly to resemble a woman, a witch with curly hair and a serious expression.
Hermione spun around with a startled gasp. The man behind her was small and stooped, leaning on a cane and dressed in oddly formal Muggle clothes: jacket, loosened tie, pearl cuff links at his wrists.
"Do you like it?" He hobbled forward, pointing his cane at the statue.
"It's...it's very fascinating," Hermione replied.
"You are English," the man said, and Hermione nodded. "I read in the newspaper about the English troubles," he went on, tapping the point of his cane on the ground. "Even here, we talk about it."
"The troubles--" such an innocent word, Hermione thought "--are past now. It's peaceful again."
"Si, si," the old man agreed, smiling absently.
When he said nothing more, Hermione gestured at the statue and asked, "What do you call it? Does it have a name?"
The old man's dark eyes studied her shrewdly. "Do you think it needs a name?"
Hermione thought of the statues and monuments she'd seen, declarations of victory each with their own chapters in her book, messages in stone and metal. She thought of the empty atrium at the Ministry, and she realised that by the time she returned to England, the new sculptor would have been chosen.
"No," she said, looking down at the statue again. The witch's features grew sharper, less human, and her robes began to resemble branches and leaves. "I don't think one name would be quite enough."
His smile grew wider. "Come, sit down, have some wine," he said, sweeping his arm out politely. "Very few come here anymore, to this little forgotten garden. You must tell me what you think of Sicily."
Hermione looked to where he was pointing and saw a small table in the shade of the trees, a chair on either side, and she smiled. "I would love to."