Chapter 3: Comparing Reality To Its Alternatives

If J. K. Rowl­ing asks you about this story, you know noth­ing.

“But then the ques­tion is—who?”

“Good Lord,” said the bar­man, peer­ing at Harry, “is this—can this be -?”

Harry leaned to­wards the bar of the Leaky Cauldron as best he could, though it came up to some­where around the tips of his eye­brows. A ques­tion like that de­served his very best.

“Am I—could I be—maybe—you never know—if I’m not—but then the ques­tion is—who?

“Bless my soul,” whispered the old bar­man. “Harry Pot­ter… what an hon­our.”

Harry blinked, then ral­lied. “Well, yes, you’re quite per­cep­tive; most peo­ple don’t re­al­ise that so quickly—”

“That’s enough,” Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall said. Her hand tight­ened on Harry’s shoulder. “Don’t pester the boy, Tom, he’s new to all this.”

“But it is him?” qua­vered an old woman. “It’s Harry Pot­ter?” With a scrap­ing sound, she got up from her chair.

“Doris—” McGon­a­gall said warn­ingly. The glare she shot around the room should have been enough to in­timi­date any­one.

“I only want to shake his hand,” the woman whispered. She bent low and stuck out a wrin­kled hand, which Harry, feel­ing con­fused and more un­com­fortable than he ever had in his life, care­fully shook. Tears fell from the woman’s eyes onto their clasped hands. “My gran­son was an Auror,” she whispered to him. “Died in sev­enty-nine. Thank you, Harry Pot­ter. Thank heav­ens for you.”

“You’re wel­come,” Harry said au­to­mat­i­cally, and then he turned his head and shot Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall a fright­ened, plead­ing look.

Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall slammed her foot down just as the gen­eral rush was about to start. It made a noise that gave Harry a new refer­ent for the phrase “Crack of Doom”, and ev­ery­one froze in place.

“We’re in a hurry,” Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall said in a voice that sounded perfectly, ut­terly nor­mal.

They left the bar with­out any trou­ble.

“Pro­fes­sor?” Harry said, once they were in the court­yard. He had meant to ask what was go­ing on, but oddly found him­self ask­ing an en­tirely differ­ent ques­tion in­stead. “Who was that pale man, by the cor­ner? The man with the twitch­ing eye?”

“Hm?” said Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall, sound­ing a bit sur­prised; per­haps she hadn’t ex­pected that ques­tion ei­ther. “That was Pro­fes­sor Quirinus Quir­rell. He’ll be teach­ing Defence Against the Dark Arts this year at Hog­warts.”

“I had the strangest feel­ing that I knew him...” Harry rubbed his fore­head. “And that I shouldn’t ought to shake his hand.” Like meet­ing some­one who had been a friend, once, be­fore some­thing went dras­ti­cally wrong… that wasn’t re­ally it at all, but Harry couldn’t find words. “And what was… all of that?”

Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall was giv­ing him an odd glance. “Mr. Pot­ter… do you know… how much have you been told… about how your par­ents died?”

Harry re­turned a steady look. “My par­ents are al­ive and well, and they always re­fused to talk about how my ge­netic par­ents died. From which I in­fer that it wasn’t good.”

“An ad­mirable loy­alty,” said Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall. Her voice went low. “Though it hurts a lit­tle to hear you say it like that. Lily and James were friends of mine.”

Harry looked away, sud­denly ashamed. “I’m sorry,” he said in a small voice. “But I have a Mum and Dad. And I know that I’d just make my­self un­happy by com­par­ing that re­al­ity to… some­thing perfect that I built up in my imag­i­na­tion.”

“That is amaz­ingly wise of you,” Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall said quietly. “But your ge­netic par­ents died very well in­deed, pro­tect­ing you.”

Pro­tect­ing me?

Some­thing strange clutched at Harry’s heart. “What… did hap­pen?”

Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall sighed. Her wand tapped Harry’s fore­head, and his vi­sion blurred for a mo­ment. “Some­thing of a dis­guise,” she said, “so that this doesn’t hap­pen again, not un­til you’re ready.” Then her wand licked out again, and tapped three times on a brick wall...

...which hol­lowed into a hole, and di­lated and ex­panded and shiv­ered into a huge arch­way, re­veal­ing a long row of shops with signs ad­ver­tis­ing cauldrons and dragon livers.

Harry didn’t blink. It wasn’t like any­one was turn­ing into a cat.

And they walked for­wards, to­gether, into the wiz­ard­ing world.

There were mer­chants hawk­ing Bounce Boots (“Made with real Flub­ber!”) and “Knives +3! Forks +2! Spoons with a +4 bonus!” There were gog­gles that would turn any­thing you looked at green, and a lineup of comfy arm­chairs with ejec­tion seats for emer­gen­cies.

Harry’s head kept ro­tat­ing, ro­tat­ing like it was try­ing to wind it­self off his neck. It was like walk­ing through the mag­i­cal items sec­tion of an Ad­vanced Dun­geons and Dragons rule­book (he didn’t play the game, but he did en­joy read­ing the rule­books). Harry des­per­ately didn’t want to miss a sin­gle item for sale, in case it was one of the three you needed to com­plete the cy­cle of in­finite wish spells.

Then Harry spot­ted some­thing that made him, en­tirely with­out think­ing, veer off from the Deputy Head­mistress and start head­ing straight into the shop, a front of blue bricks with bronze-metal trim. He was brought back to re­al­ity only when Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall stepped right in front of him.

“Mr. Pot­ter?” she said.

Harry blinked, then re­al­ised what he’d just done. “I’m sorry! I for­got for a mo­ment that I was with you in­stead of my fam­ily.” Harry ges­tured at the shop win­dow, which dis­played fiery let­ters that shone pierc­ingly bright and yet re­mote, spel­ling out Big­bam’s Brilli­ant Books. “When you walk past a book­shop you haven’t vis­ited be­fore, you have to go in and look around. That’s the fam­ily rule.”

“That is the most Raven­claw thing I have ever heard.”


“Noth­ing. Mr. Pot­ter, our first step is to visit Gringotts, the bank of the wiz­ard­ing world. Your ge­netic fam­ily vault is there, with the in­her­i­tance your ge­netic par­ents left you, and you’ll need money for school sup­plies.” She sighed. “And, I sup­pose, a cer­tain amount of spend­ing money for books could be ex­cused as well. Though you might want to hold off for a time. Hog­warts has quite a large library on mag­i­cal sub­jects. And the tower in which, I strongly sus­pect, you will be liv­ing, has a more broad-rang­ing library of its own. Any book you bought now would prob­a­bly be a du­pli­cate.”

Harry nod­ded, and they walked on.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great dis­trac­tion,” Harry said as his head kept swivel­ling, “prob­a­bly the best dis­trac­tion any­one has ever tried on me, but don’t think I’ve for­got­ten about our pend­ing dis­cus­sion.”

Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall sighed. “Your par­ents—or your mother at any rate—may have been very wise not to tell you.”

“So you wish that I could con­tinue in bliss­ful ig­no­rance? There is a cer­tain flaw in that plan, Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall.”

“I sup­pose it would be rather pointless,” the witch said tightly, “when any­one on the street could tell you the story. Very well.”

And she told him of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Dark Lord, Volde­mort.

“Volde­mort?” Harry whispered. It should have been funny, but it wasn’t. The name burned with a cold feel­ing, ruth­less­ness, di­a­mond clar­ity, a ham­mer of pure tita­nium de­scend­ing upon an anvil of yield­ing flesh. A chill swept over Harry even as he pro­nounced the word, and he re­solved then and there to use safer terms like You-Know-Who.

The Dark Lord had raged upon wiz­ard­ing Bri­tain like a wild­ing wolf, tear­ing and rend­ing at the fabric of their ev­ery­day lives. Other coun­tries had wrung their hands but hes­i­tated to in­ter­vene, whether out of ap­a­thetic self­ish­ness or sim­ple fear, for whichever was first among them to op­pose the Dark Lord, their peace would be the next tar­get of his ter­ror.

(The by­stan­der effect, thought Harry, think­ing of Latane and Dar­ley’s ex­per­i­ment which had shown that you were more likely to get help if you had an epilep­tic fit in front of one per­son than in front of three. Diffu­sion of re­spon­si­bil­ity, ev­ery­one hop­ing that some­one else would go first.)

The Death Eaters had fol­lowed in the Dark Lord’s wake and in his van­guard, car­rion vul­tures to pick at wounds, or snakes to bite and weaken. The Death Eaters were not as ter­rible as the Dark Lord, but they were ter­rible, and they were many. And the Death Eaters wielded more than wands; there was wealth within those masked ranks, and poli­ti­cal power, and se­crets held in black­mail, to paralyse a so­ciety try­ing to pro­tect it­self.

An old and re­spected jour­nal­ist, Yermy Wib­ble, called for in­creased taxes and con­scrip­tion. He shouted that it was ab­surd for the many to cower in fear of the few. His skin, only his skin, had been found nailed to the news­room wall that next morn­ing, next to the skins of his wife and two daugh­ters. Every­one wished for some­thing more to be done, and no one dared take the lead to pro­pose it. Who­ever stood out the most be­came the next ex­am­ple.

Un­til the names of James and Lily Pot­ter rose to the top of that list.

And those two might have died with their wands in their hands and not re­gret­ted their choices, for they were heroes; but for that they had an in­fant child, their son, Harry Pot­ter.

Tears were com­ing into Harry’s eyes. He wiped them away in anger or maybe des­per­a­tion, I didn’t know those peo­ple, not re­ally, they aren’t my par­ents now, it would be pointless to feel so sad for them -

When Harry was done sob­bing into the witch’s robes, he looked up, and felt a lit­tle bit bet­ter to see tears in Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall’s eyes as well.

“So what hap­pened?” Harry said, his voice trem­bling.

“The Dark Lord came to Go­dric’s Hol­low,” Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall said in a whisper. “You should have been hid­den, but you were be­trayed. The Dark Lord kil­led James, and he kil­led Lily, and he came in the end to you, to your cot. He cast the Killing Curse at you, and that was where it ended. The Killing Curse is formed of pure hate, and strikes di­rectly at the soul, sev­er­ing it from the body. It can­not be blocked, and whomever it strikes, they die. But you sur­vived. You are the only per­son ever to sur­vive. The Killing Curse re­bounded and struck the Dark Lord, leav­ing only the burnt hulk of his body and a scar upon your fore­head. That was the end of the ter­ror, and we were free. That, Harry Pot­ter, is why peo­ple want to see the scar on your fore­head, and why they want to shake your hand.”

The storm of weep­ing that had washed through Harry had used up all his tears; he could not cry again, he was done.

(And some­where in the back of his mind was a small, small note of con­fu­sion, a sense of some­thing wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry’s art to no­tice that tiny note, but he was dis­tracted. For it is a sad rule that when­ever you are most in need of your art as a ra­tio­nal­ist, that is when you are most likely to for­get it.)

Harry de­tached him­self from Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall’s side. “I’ll—have to think about this,” he said, try­ing to keep his voice un­der con­trol. He stared at his shoes. “Um. You can go ahead and call them my par­ents, if you want, you don’t have to say ‘ge­netic par­ents’ or any­thing. I guess there’s no rea­son I can’t have two moth­ers and two fathers.”

There was no sound from Pro­fes­sor McGon­a­gall.

And they walked to­gether in silence, un­til they came be­fore a great white build­ing with vast bronze doors, and car­ven words above say­ing Gringotts Bank.