No longer shivering, Snape actually began to enjoy the walk. There was no need to hurry, that was certain; the train would not be departing until the next morning, and though the cloak would surely improve the experience of spending the night on Platform 9 3/4, it would not be pleasant. He found a discarded Muggle newspaper and read the entire thing on a park bench as automobiles and pigeons gadded around him like a grounded Quidditch rally. He stopped to peruse the art in every gallery he passed. He peered casually into every shop window, ignoring only restaurants and grocers.
He came to the same little music shop he'd found a fortnight earlier. What harm in stepping inside for a moment? It was strange to be surrounded by pianos and clarinets and other Muggle instruments. He kept expecting them to break into song at any moment; it seemed impossible that things so sleek and bright would not make a sound until touched by a human hand.
"Good afternoon, sir. Would you like assistance?"
Snape looked up from the flute he was examining, realizing the clerk was addressing him. "What? No, young lady, I am... just looking."
"Very good, sir." As she turned away, Snape noticed the white cane. Tilting his head, he watched her navigate back to the counter, sweeping the cane before her with practiced ease, never striking the merchandise or display racks despite the somewhat cramped environs. He found it fascinating, and continued to watch as she felt along the countertop for a Braille book, then set it in her lap and began scanning it with her fingertips.
She doesn't even know I'm watching her, he thought, marveling that anyone could go through life blissfully unaware of the stares of others. He felt a rather childish impulse to perform Legilimency on her, having never attempted it on a blind person. With my luck, she'll be some sort of Squib, just magical enough to be aware of the spell. Scientific curiosity was not worth the risk of being drop-kicked back into Azkaban. Nonetheless, he found himself drawn to the counter, just to study her further.
"And may I help you now?" she asked, though he was quite certain he'd not made a sound as he approached her. He felt foolish for being startled when she spoke to him.
"How did you know that I..."
She made a wan smile. "Little things. There was a small rush of air, for one. The acoustics in the room changed--the sound of traffic is muted when people stand between me and the window, for example. The fact that you went so suddenly quiet made me wonder if you weren't sneaking up on me." There was a hint of playful reproach in her tone, but no animosity.
"I beg your pardon, young lady." His cheeks were growing warm and he was utterly relieved that she could not see him blush.
"It's all right, sir. Most people don't know quite what to make of me, and that often leads them to say or do awkward things. One can't be sure how to react to the unknown, after all. Everyone needs a moment to get used to the novelty. I've learned to trust second impressions more than first." She smiled again, this time with warmth.
"Perhaps you can help me with something after all," Snape said, out of an unexpected longing to continue speaking with this unusual woman. "There is a... friend; she lost her arm in an accident. She plays the piano. Played. That is, she still tries... she was very good. Is very good, in her remaining hand..." Bollocks, Severus, are you thirteen years old again?
"Such a tragedy. Which hand was lost?"
"Oddly enough, that is often the case. I suppose it has to do with the right being more commonly dominant, and more commonly in use when such tragedies strike. The right is, of course, the more utilized hand in piano, being in charge of the melody while the left has more of a supporting role. Sometimes the very idea of the left hand dominating their play is too much to accept; it shakes people's confidence to suddenly place all their trust in the 'runt,' so to speak. What does your friend play now?"
"I... I fear I am hopelessly ignorant. I know nothing of composers, or titles. She played one a few weeks ago that I remembered from... the church. 'Ave Maria' would be the likely title."
"The Bach?" she said, her spine straightening in surprise.
"I couldn't say." Snape had never felt so unprepared in his life.
The clerk jumped up and rounded the counter, one hand grazing the top gently. Snape stepped back to let her pass, and she settled immediately onto the bench of the nearest piano. She briefly placed a hand at either end of the keyboard and drew them together, fingering the black keys as her hands met in the middle and placing them into an automatic stance. She began to play his 'Ave Maria,' flawlessly and beautifully, the music of his youth.
She finished the chord and stopped. "That was the common arrangement, in F major. The piece was originally written by Bach in C major. Did it sound more like this when your friend played it?" She replayed the same few measures in the higher key, and though he could certainly hear the difference, he was amazed that it could sound just the same from a different starting point.
"How did you do that?"
The clerk laughed. "Many people know the 'Ave Maria,' but few can sing it from middle C. It becomes rather soprano. An agreeable pianist would transpose the tune to a more hospitable key. Particularly for a church service--all sorts of voices want to join in." She played the first measure in yet another key, and Snape laughed out loud in his amazement.
"But how does your friend manage to play this with only the left hand?" she asked.
"She... misses some of the notes." It was as accurate an explanation as any he could offer a Muggle. Nodding, the clerk seemed to take it in stride.
"We have some sheet music that is written for left hand alone. Wittgenstein--he lost the right arm in combat--commissioned many pieces; Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand is a fine example. Ravel himself had to play it with both hands when he demonstrated it for Wittgenstein! I believe I also have the Godowsky Paraphrases of Chopin in one of these boxes. Perhaps your friend would be more satisfied if she had a few pieces that would fit her hand, rather than trying to play both hands at once? She can't hope to succeed at the latter, it simply cannot be done to perfection and she will just get more and more frustrated."
"Ah, I see that you have met her, then."
The clerk laughed too. "Possibly, but I definitely have met the archetype. Shall I help you look for the scores?"
Snape's stomach churned with shame; he could no more buy a sheet of music than a cup of tea, despite his pouch of dragon eggshell. "Another time, perhaps," he mumbled, then thought of an excuse. "I don't know if she would appreciate my meddling."
"Quite true. It would be better if she happened to hear about such music and explored it on her own. Somehow that takes a bit of the sting out."
"Your study of the piano has apparently given you a keen insight into levers and strings."
She laughed heartily at this comment. "That may be, kind sir," she said, bowing her head in exaggerated humility. Snape glanced down at her hands, still poised above the keyboard, flattening his lips in the slightest of frowns when he observed her wedding ring.
"There was another that she played recently," he stammered anew. "It was very beautiful. I had never heard it... I am being ridiculous, it would be impossible to learn its origins without more information. Forgive me."
"No, no, don't give up so quickly. Perhaps if you hum a few bars?"
"Hum..." An image of the blue bands constricting Pendragon's ribs flashed into his mind, as he suddenly felt as though his lungs had frozen solid. Snape cleared his throat. "I do not hum."
She cocked her head. "Don't be silly. I can't sing either; there's no shame in it. Just try. Chances are I'll recognize it, even if it is a half-tone off." She smiled so expectantly that, for a moment, he believed her. He replayed her music in his mind and let his voice follow along with the memory.
"This one?" she said, and played it perfectly. Snape closed his eyes, nodding, then snapped to as he realized she could not see his reply.
"Beethoven!" she said, aghast. "Surely she doesn't attempt to play the sonata with one hand?"
"As I said, she misses some notes."
"She must! Poor dear! You really shouldn't let her torture herself, trying to force her hand in this way. No matter how much she loves the music, she has to be realistic."
"Would you do something for me, miss? I would love to hear it the way it was written. Could you..." He suddenly felt foolishly presumptuous, and wished he could just take back the words.
"I'd be happy to play it for you." Which she promptly did, leaving him spellbound by the music as if she'd cast the Petrificus Totalus. Near the end, when the melody moved into the left hand, she nodded at him.
"How can anything be so beautiful?" he whispered as the last note faded.
"What a dear! How can you have such appreciation and yet be unfamiliar with Beethoven? That's but the first part of the sonata--and I'm certain your friend would not attempt the third. May I?"
Snape nodded again, and again felt like an imbecile. "Please."
She proceeded to play a piece of music so stunningly complex and passionate that he grew faint before realizing that he was holding his breath. When she finished, his heart was pounding. "What manner of man can write such music?" he asked in a scraped voice.
"Beethoven was quite remarkable, yes. Such fire. That he of all people lost his hearing--"
"What?" Snape's voice returned in full. Surely he had misunderstood the clerk; the world could not be so devastatingly ironic.
"It's true. By the time Beethoven wrote the Moonlight, he was nearly deaf--and that was neither his last nor finest piece (although that latter point is arguable). In my mind, a champion for perseverance. Perhaps that's why your friend continues to play."
Snape would have answered, had he heard the question, but he had not. Or more accurately, he heard it but did not register any meaning, for he was lost, not in thought, but in a whirlwind of unfamiliar pain. Just as a Potions Master never quite knows which elements will combine perfectly to yield a new magical elixir, none but Fate could predict that a blind clerk, an armless pianist, and a deaf composer could interlock at one critical point in time to break the heart of a heartless man.