Few ever stop to question the nature of their reality. Magical and non-magical people alike tend to take what is presented to them at face-value, because it would be unthinkable to imagine that one’s own eyes could lie, and it would be absolutely intolerable to entertain the notion that one’s own mind could deceive. Yet both occur on a daily basis and have happened to all the billions of people who have ever lived.

The magic surrounding Hogwarts Castle is an extreme example of this phenomenon at work. What do Muggles think they see should they happen upon the castle? They would believe that they are looking upon an ancient derelict abode owned by a long-deceased Scottish king. They would believe this because this is what their eyes would tell them. If they could actually step inside the place, they might find that the castle is not derelict at all. Sadly, getting closer is nearly an impossible task for them. For whatever reason, they are constantly misdirected when they try to approach the castle, almost as if an outside force is playing tricks on their mind. If, however, through enough determination, they do get close enough, they would still see nothing but depressing old ruins and signs warning them to keep out. Then, a sudden feeling of intense dread compels them to leave the area and to think nothing more of what they saw. This happens to all Muggles who approach Hogwarts—no matter how strong-minded they may be, they are unknowingly deceived by magical illusions being performed at the highest level. (Incidentally, the same is true for other schools of magic the world over. In Tibet, a Buddhist monk attempted to prove the power of mindfulness by defying all odds and setting foot inside mysterious ancient ruins long abandoned by man. He meditated for hours and hours in preparation for the difficult task, then donned his traveling robes and set out to the ruins—a band of curious followers tailing him from a distance. His fortuitous mind had little difficulty navigating the labyrinthine route to the ruins; yet, despite his quite considerable strength of mind, he broke into an anxious sweat upon trying to enter the ruins. Though he very much desired to continue, and put all his mental energy towards doing so [tears sprung from his eyes from the exertion], he inexplicably turned round and walked away without saying a word to any who followed him. When he snapped out of the spell that was put under him, he came close to renouncing his religion and leaving the monastery. He would have done so were it not for the intervention of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)

Now, magical people—witches and wizards—they are confident that they see Hogwarts Castle as it truly is. The elaborate charms that are put in place to repel them from the castle do not work on them because the magic is not designed for them. Therefore, they have the privilege of seeing the place in all its glory: an immaculately preserved gothic castle of sturdy stone with its ornate windows, moving statues, mighty towers, intimidating ramparts…to wit, all those things that make a castle grand.

But how can magical people be so sure that what they’re seeing isn’t also some kind of deception? Perhaps, just as there are illusions to draw Muggles away from the castle, there are also illusions that draw magical people into the castle. Nigel McPherson had no idea what such illusions might entail, but he was in the mood for questioning everything—even if he could not put into concrete terms what was the foundation of his suspicions. One thing that Nigel did find peculiar though, was that he and his peers simply accepted that every year when they came to Hogwarts, they would either be taken to the castle from across the lake on small paddleboats (for First Years) or via carriages driven by thestrals (for everyone else). Did no one find either of these methods of transportation needlessly strange? What was wrong with using the tried-and-true horse-drawn carriage? Why did one either have to paddle across that treacherous lake or else be ridden into school by a creature that is invisible to all except those who have seen death? Nigel could perhaps explain away the former as ritual hazing for new students, but the latter he suddenly had a difficult time comprehending. And if, Nigel thought, we students were allowing ourselves to blindly accept these bizarre traditions, what other things might we be blinding ourselves to?

“The whole fucking system,” Nigel blurted out. Angel meowed in his lap, scratched his head with his own paw since Nigel was doing such a poor job of doing it for him.

“What the hell are you on about?” asked Dipesh.

“I know exactly what you mean, Nigel,” said Xenophilius.

“None of this is real, man,” Nigel explained. “It’s all a big fucking joke, and we’re going along with it!”

Dipesh looked at the physical world that surrounded him—the carriage he sat in, the other carriages that moved in front of and behind him, the muddy ground underneath—and wondered how any of it could not be real. “None of it’s real?” he said. “Ok, but what does that have to do with ‘the system’?”

“The system,” Nigel began, “is the thing that makes us blind to what’s really going on.”

“Yes!” Xen hollered into the pines. Students in neighboring carriages gave him bemused looks, their faces saying: “That’s Loony Lovegood for you.”

Nigel continued his lecture. “Don’t take what I’m saying so literally, Dipesh. Just because you can look round and see what’s actually there doesn’t discount the fact that there are things about your life that are fabricated by systems of power. They tell us what to do, and we simply react, without questioning.”

Teddy was too busy adjusting to this strange new land to pay attention to Nigel’s ravings. Lost in his own thought, though, he nevertheless might have agreed with Nigel on one point: why use these creepy thestrals when horses would do just fine?

Dipesh, to his own misfortunate, elected to engage Nigel. “I think you’re just having an overreaction to what Julianna told us on the train. Honestly, I wish she hadn’t said anything.”

“I’m grateful that she did!” Xen exclaimed. “If the Ministry is to be surveilling my activities, I should think I would like to know!”

“You’re both just extremely paranoid,” Dipesh said, “and confused.”

“You’re the confused one!” Xenophilius shot back. “Your confusion will be your undoing.”

“We better be careful what we say once we get in the castle, Xen,” Nigel counseled. “They’ll probably be listening all the time.” Xen folded his arms and nodded fiercely in agreement.

“I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” Dipesh said, still incredulous. “Is it so hard for either of you to believe that the Ministry is here for our safety? Maybe the real question you should be asking yourselves is from what threat does the Ministry believe we need protection?”

“Oh please, Dipesh,” Nigel said. Xenophilius laughed (“ha!”). “You and I both know that the Ministry doesn’t protect shit but its own interests.” Xenophilus laughed some more (“ha ha!”). “You know better than I what they did in India, for example. Tell me something, Dipesh, was the Ministry there to protect your family, or were they there to protect their land and property?” (“Indeed!” Xen shouted.)

“You’re trying to use my feelings to win me over to your side,” Dipesh said, “and it won’t work. I’m rational enough to know that the colonization in the Third World isn’t the same thing as whatever ‘internal colonization’ you think might be going on over here. In fact, it’s an insult to think that you lotcould possibly have it as bad as my family did over there.”

The carriage came to a stop. They had arrived at the castle gates.

“Just wait, Dipesh.” Nigel swished his hair as he prepared to disembark. “You’ll see. It’s gonna happen. And when it does, you’ll be glad to have me as a friend.”

Dipesh, getting rather impatient, jumped off the carriage before Nigel could. He spoke back to Nigel from the ground below. “Indeed. What would I do without your madness and your vast knowledge of American films?”

Meeting Dipesh at ground level, Nigel might have kept the argument going had he not been distracted by a face he recognized. “Say,” he said, “isn’t that Elisabeth Small over there?”

“Nothin’ small about her,” Teddy said. “She’s tall as shit, man. Is that her real name?”

“Of course it is,” Nigel said. He became hypnotized watching Elisabeth Small walk the path towards the castle with her entourage. “She’s a fucking brilliant witch, I’ll tell you that. She ruled the pitch in Quidditch last year, and somehow managed a stellar performance in most of her courses as well. For the life of me, I don’t know how she’s not a Ravenclaw. Sadly, she’s a Gryffindor, but one of the good ones.”

Everything Nigel said about her was true (and Teddy, for the record, was not exaggerating about her height): An accomplished Seeker, a brilliant student, and gifted spellcaster, Elisabeth Small entered Year Seven poised to do great things upon graduation—and while everyone had differing opinions about what those great things might be, all agreed that she would be the best at it and that she was destined to be a hero of her time. Many thought she might go on to be an Auror, but Nigel thought this was madness, pointing out to people that she dressed like a Black Panther and that one of her uncles was a well-known revolutionary (to some, a terrorist). How could someone of her background end up working for the system?

“In Year Three,” said Nigel, continuing his biography of Elisabeth Small, “she had already proved her mastery in Defense Against the Dark Arts by taking on a seventh year in a duel…and winning.”

“Nigel!” Dipesh called. “You’re forgetting your trunk.” Indeed, Nigel had gotten to walking and had forgotten all about his luggage. Probably he didn’t want to lose sight of Elisabeth.

“She can brew life-saving potions…”

“Nigel, you’re practically leering,” Dipesh said.

“She knows how to conjure a Patronus…”

“Watch the road! It’s slippery.”

“She can…ouch! Damn it!”

“What is it?” Xen asked.

“I must have hit a rock,” Nigel answered. “Fuck! That hurt.”

“That’s what happens when you’re busy ogling girls,” Dipesh teased.

“Sure, I’ll admit that I dig her. As a matter of fact,” Nigel grunted, feeling over-encumbered thanks to his newly injured foot, “I think she’s outta sight and one hell of a foxy lady. Unlike some people, I have no problem admitting that.” Nigel cast Dipesh a knowing look. Dipesh, horrified, looked away.

“I didn’t think I’d be seeing many black girls here in the UK,” Teddy remarked, his comment making the other lads a touch uncomfortable.

“Now, Teddy,” Nigel began cautiously, “that might be an alright thing to say where you’re from, but you can’t be saying things like that over here.”

“I don’t get it,” Teddy said, alarmed. “I thought I was just makin’ a pretty obvious comment.”

“I know, I know, but like…‘black girls?’ Just sounds wrong. I can’t really explain why.”

“Well, what should I say instead?”

“Hmmm…” Xen pondered.

“What do you think, Dipesh?” Nigel asked.

“How the bloody hell should I know?” said Dipesh.

 “I don’t know, man,” Nigel said to Teddy. “Just, maybe don’t say anything about it at all?”

“About the way she looks?” Teddy asked, still confused.

“Nah, I mean, that’s fine. You can, within reason, make comments about her appearance. Like, ‘Lizzie’s got a cool afro! I dig it!’ I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But like, other stuff? Maybe not so appropriate.”

Teddy pondered this for a moment. “So, saying something about her skin color—which is part of her appearance—would be inappropriate?”

“Well, yeah, because then it’s like a…a race thing?”

Teddy still wasn’t fully sure how he had said something that was apparently racially insensitive, but, being that he was in a new country, a guest in another person’s house, he agreed to go along with the logic anyway. “Well,” he said, “at any rate, sounds like she’s pretty damn special.”

Xen agreed; then, speaking like a historian drawing upon a vast compendium of facts stored in his mind, he noted that the only other student that could match her in brilliance and skill was Thomas Bainbridge, a seventh-year Slytherin. Being that he was a Slytherin, Elisabeth Small despised him, and, according to Xenophilius, Bainbridge returned the favor by hating her in kind.

None of the other lads had a response to Xenophilius’ surprise bout of lucidity.

Finally, after crossing the narrow bridge and passing through the school’s expansive grounds, they reached the entrance to Hogwarts Castle. By the time they arrived at the fortified double-doors, they were sweaty from the long walk and carrying their trunks in the still-warm evening air. The lingering oppressive summer heat made them look forward to the cool winds of autumn, and the bodily odors produced from said heat made them very much not look forward to being crammed into the Great Hall with the entire student body.

But before the lads could get into the Great Hall, where the promise of ample food awaited, they were obliged to endure Harold Bigsby’s annual back-to-school greeting. No matter what they did, year after year, they could not avoid it; so, they gave up on trying. Came first the pounding on the shoulders—which affected Xenophilius most of all—and then the onslaught of verbal assaults which would be unceasing if it weren’t for the small mercy of a professor inevitably putting a stop to it. Funnily enough, as much as the lads obviously did not enjoy Harold’s harassment, Harold himself appeared to take less and less joy out of it too as the years progressed. Nevertheless, he felt a duty to his mates to perform.

Presently, Nigel spotted Harold and his boys from far away. Picking Harold out in a crowd of people was not a difficult thing to do; the meaty boy had the tendency to colonize the space around him with his mighty arms and barrel chest, and his booming voice and gratingly loud laugh (one could swear Harold would be physically incapable of whispering) acted as a repellant warding off all but Harold’s three loyal followers. Nigel watched Harold share some asinine story to his mates, and as he did, he longed not to be sober again. Soon enough, Harold’s dopey eyes found Nigel—who nodded his head at Harold (Nigel knew that pretending to ignore Harold was no use; once you were in Harold’s sights and Harold didn’t like you, you were incontrovertibly on Harold’s menu). Harold gave a wan smile and began ambling in Nigel’s direction, taking his sweet time, and coolly bobbing his head as he did so.

The barrel-chested boy who came to greet Nigel and company was a good six inches taller than last year, came equipped with a new and improved military haircut (buzzed on the sides and slightly longer on top), and had probably add a fresh handful of bigoted jokes to his arsenal. After his routine slapping of the shoulders, sprinkled in with some “hiya ladies,” Harold moved onto the second part of his act: the verbal humiliation.

“So,” Harold began, “what have you bees been up to all summer?” (Some clarification is needed here. Harold did not actually call the lads “bees;” he used a different word that has become a popular derogatory term referring to homosexuals. The reader is likely familiar with this terminology. Harold is a frequent user of such profanities. Rather than spoiling this text with those rotten words, let us instead use “bee(s)” as a more pleasant-sounding substitute for any particularly nasty language that may issue from Harold’s maw.) Before the lads could answer his question, Harold took a stab at answering it for them. “Let me guess…Xenofuckius, did you and your dad add any new butterflies to your collection?”

Xenophilius was oddly outraged. “If by ‘butterflies’ you mean hangdigglus…”

Nigel cut off his friend. “What are you doing, man?”

Harold was red in the face by default, but when Xenophilius opened his mouth he became almost purple. “Hangle-what’s-it-now?” he blurted out, and his posse giggled behind him. “Don’t hurt yourself there, uh,” (Harold broke into a caricaturized Japanese accent) “my leetul, uh, Zen warrior. Hai!” He bowed to Xen. “Domo arigato! Nice day! Hai!” Harold’s three stooges were beside themselves with glee. “Honestly, Xenophilis, what kind of name is that? Xenophilis: rhymes with syphilis!”

Nigel stood there trying to remember if he would be next in Harold’s attack or if it would be Dipesh. Once Harold started plugging his nose, though, Nigel recalled what came next in the script.

“Fuck me, Dipesh,” Harold said, his obnoxious voice sounding “comically” nasally from plugging his nose. “What did you eat? You smell like your mum washes your robes in pig shit. Does she, Dip? Does your mum wash your robes in pig shit?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dipesh returned defiantly, standing poised like a perfect gentleman. “Perhaps you should inspect your own garments.”

Nigel shut his eyes in solemn horror. Dipesh couldn’t have said anything lamer (inspect your garments?), and he knew that Harold would pounce on him for it—even if it meant he would have to deviate from his time-tested script.

“Pfffttt…” Harold’s mouth farted in a stage laugh. “What did you just say? Inspect your own garments? Who the fuck taught you English, boy?”

“Lay off, man!” Nigel spoke lazily, noncommittal. He didn’t want Harold to think that he was giving this fight everything he had.

“Ah…” Harold turned to Nigel. “Finally, Dipesh’s boyfriend comes to his defense!”

“Are gay jokes the best you can come up with?” Nigel asked, probably for the sixty-seventh time.

“What’s the matter, Nigie? Don’t like your friends knowing your dirty little secret? How ‘bout if the whole school knows?” Harold drew a long, deep-belly breath before shouting: “OI EVERYONE! NIGEL’S A GREAT BIG BEEEEE!” (The reader will recall that “bee” is a stand-in for an odious term that shall not be used in this text.)

Nigel let Harold and his gang settle down before speaking again. He wished he had a cigarette he could pull out and light for dramatic effect, the way that gruff male protagonists do in action movies, just so that he could show Harold how thoroughly unaffected he was by the taunting. “Ah, Harold,” he said, “you blew your load too early. Now the fun’s over.”

Sure enough, just on cue, a professor who heard the noise opened the doors to the Great Hall. “What are you lot still doing out here?!” The professor shouted to all the students still congregating outside the Great Hall. “Get inside! NOW! The sorting is about to begin!”

Harold and his posse made themselves scarce, somehow having the good sense to understand that being caught bullying other students would besmirch the good name of Gryffindor house.

“See you around Harold!” Nigel called out to the wall of meat as it walked away.

“That fella is an asshole,” Teddy remarked.

“I’m surprised he didn’t go after you, Teddy,” Nigel said. “Harold is usually eager to be the first to break in new students.”

“He probably just needs time to come up with some new material before he starts in on Teddy,” said Dipesh.

Xen held fast to his kaleidoscopic belt as he gazed ponderously at the lads’ nemesis. “Or perhaps Harold is somehow intimated by Teddy?” he wondered.

“Not likely,” Nigel quickly retorted. “No offense, Teddy. It’s just that Harold is too stupid to be scared of anything. If you ask me, the Sorting Hat made a big mistake putting him in Gryffindor. You see, Teddy, it was wrong of it to think that Harold’s fearlessness is rooted in bravery. Actually, he’s just a brainless oaf, a fucking Neanderthal. He would have done better in Hufflepuff, a house designed for people who don’t really belong anywhere else because they’re too cowardly, too stupid, too lacking in values…well, I could go on and on. I suppose Harold could have sneaked into Slytherin, but—again—I think he’s just too much of a goddamn moron. Speaking of sorting, though, we should probably get inside before that professor howls at us again.”

Dipesh was first to take up Nigel on that suggestion, probably thinking that it was the first rational thing that Nigel had said in a long while.

Before stepping inside the Great Hall, Nigel turned round to get a glimpse of the Hogwarts grounds at night. The capacious fields of grass stretching out to infinity, the quiet waves of the black lake water sparkling in the moonlight, the tall pines of the Forbidden Forest describing foreboding shadows in the night’s sky: these images meant something to his mind’s eye. They encouraged him to believe that dark secrets surrounded him, poised to swallow him whole should he fail to guard against their encroachment.

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