"Why do you hate me so?" Harry looked up from the cauldrons as he addressed the dark figure behind the desk.
This certainly was not a question he should have asked, but it had been ruminating in his mind for many weeks; there was no way to restrain it anymore. Harry steeled himself against the inevitable outburst of cold rage that would hit him any second now. But strangely enough it did not come. Instead of anger, the sallow face of the Potions master merely exhibited his trademark sneer as he looked up from the papers he was grading.
"Why are you so convinced that I hate you, Potter?" Snape asked in his soft, silky voice, arching up one dark eyebrow mockingly.
"I know you do! From the first moment we met you had it in for me! You asked me questions nobody could possibly answer, taunted me, ridiculed me, threatened me, failed me in Potions; and you have tried to get me expelled again and again all those years!" Harry answered hotly.
"You forgot one item on your list, Potter." The silky voice again. "I saved your pathetic life."
True. The greasy git had saved his life when Professor Quirrell, the former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, had tried to kill him during a Quidditch match in his first year at Hogwarts. He had never quite understood why Snape had done it until he had learned that the evil Potions master and former Death Eater was a spy for Professor Dumbledore and his Order of the Phoenix. Snape obviously knew that Harry would have to play an important role in the fight against Voldemort and therefore, by all means, must be kept alive for the final show-down, even if this meant that Snape himself had to secure Harry’s survival. However, this knowledge didn’t seem to keep Snape from hating him, from making his life miserable, from deducting house points from him for no reason at all, from ... - there was no end to the list. Of course, Snape took points from other Gryffindors too, but Harry had been the special focus of his malice from the very beginning; even Hermione had to admit that.
"Thank you so much for saving my ass, then. But I know you didn't do it for me but for the damned cause!"
"Manners, Potter!" Snape hissed dangerously. "Or you'll serve another detention with me. And heed your work!"
However, Harry wasn't in a mood to stand back from his initial question. Though it might be better to finish scrubbing those cauldrons first, Harry thought bleakly. He had been in the dreary dungeons for more than two hours already and hadn't cleaned half of them yet.
Snape continued grading papers, one after the other from a huge pile, leaving scathing remarks in red ink on the parchments. Harry could almost feel the sick joy the Professor must derive from writing a large and accusatory F under many of the essays in his flowing handwriting.
When, hours later, Harry finally finished his last cauldron – one which Neville had coated with a sticky and evilly smelling coat of burnt-in potion – Snape was through with grading, too. The dark Professor leaned back in his chair, bringing one spidery finger to the side of his overlarge nose as if contemplating on some important issue.
"I see you are finally done, Potter. You may go. Though if you are still interested in discussing my attitude towards your person ..." He sneered again, wondering if Potter would actually have the guts to voluntarily stay in the dungeons with the dreaded Potions instructor longer than absolutely necessary. Snape was convinced that at least ninety-nine out of a hundred students would not take the chance and run. But with Potter, you never knew. He tended to be quite courageous and stubborn at times, Snape had to admit that.
And indeed, Harry, though somewhat alarmed by his Professor's unexpected and unprecedented readiness to discuss their relationship, stood his ground.
"Is it because of what my father did to you that you hate me?" he blurted out. Snape's face turned even more sinister than before.
"How often must I remind you that a Hogwarts Professor is to be addressed as 'sir'? I should have thought you had learned that over the last five years!" he snarled.
Always the same silly game, thought Harry, not a little annoyed. OK, he would call him 'sir,' then, if that was what made the greasy git happy.
"Is it because of my father, sir?"
"That would be too easy, wouldn't it?" Snape leaned over his desk, coming uncomfortably close to Harry with his prominent nose. "I must admit it doesn't really help that you so strikingly resemble your father. However, things are far more complicated than that. You wouldn't understand half of it though; you are a Gryffindor." From Snape's mouth, ‘Gryffindor’ almost sounded like a disgusting disease.
The Professor leant back in his chair again.
"Do you really think that Gryffindors don't hate, sir?" Harry could not suppress the irritation in his voice when asking that question. Every Gryffindor hated Snape, for example.
"I'm not talking about something as trivial as love or hate. Even imbecile Gryffindors may know about that, I suppose." The smirk on his pallid face indicated that Snape knew exactly whom the Gryffindors' hated from the depth of their hearts; and that he was proud of it. He was standing now, pacing up and down the space behind his desk. "I'm talking about good and evil, Potter, about innocence and depravity, the great themes of humanity. But why am I wasting my time on you? You're certainly immune to those concepts."
"And you certainly are an expert, at least at what concerns the latter term," Harry spat, once again angered beyond reason by Snape’s eternal insults. Expecting a rather violent reaction to his cheek, he ducked, but strangely enough, Snape didn't jump at him or make glass jars burst above his head. He only stared. Then he sat down again as if nothing had happened.
"I don't consider myself an expert at anything, Potter - except Potions, perhaps. So I won't give you a lecture on the secrets of the human soul. However, if you are eager to learn about it – what I strongly doubt – I recommend you read a book on it; that is if you know what a book is ...” Snape paused for effect. His sneer broadened considerably on seeing Harry ball his fists and turn a dark crimson at the insult. Then he suddenly asked, “Have you ever, by chance, heard of a Muggle by the name of Herman Melville, Potter?"
"The one who wrote 'Moby Dick'?" asked Harry, baffled, his seething anger about Snape's snide remarks giving way to utter surprise. Snape, of all people, was reading Muggle literature?
"For the very last time, Potter, you are to call me 'sir'!" Snape snarled, and Harry's anger rose again, but he kept his quiet.
"Melville was indeed a Muggle," the Professor started to lecture in a low voice. "However, he was one of those rare specimen that dive deep into the abysses of the human soul. Like an obsession, he kept exploring the phenomenon of good and evil in his books. 'Billy Budd, Sailor' was the very last novel he wrote before he died, alone and forgotten. Read it, and you might gain some enlightening insight. Dismissed!"
Harry could barely believe his luck. He was dismissed; not thrown out of the classroom for his insolence, or torn into pieces by a frantic Potions master. Snape had even answered a few of his questions; in a curiously enigmatic way though, he had to admit that, but it was more than he had expected. Perhaps he should read this book after all, Harry mused as he made his way up to the Gryffindor Tower. What was its title again? 'Billy Budd, something'. Didn't sound particularly exciting. Although, Hermione might know it; that would spare him the trouble to read the book himself, Harry thought, a smile starting to spread on his face. He already looked very much froward to seeing his friends' faces when he told them about Snape recommending Muggle novels.
When Harry told them the astonishing news, Ron almost choked on his Chocolate Frog, and Hermione was so baffled that she was absolutely speechless for more than a whole minute – and that meant a lot in her case. It was priceless. But unfortunately, Hermione hadn't read the recommended book.
"You see, Harry, I'm always so busy reading my school books; I almost totally gave up reading Muggle literature. And 'Billy Budd' isn't on the syllabus for Muggle Studies, either. I really wonder how Snape should know it ..."
"It's probably a manual about how best to intimidate and torture students," said Ron, who had finally recovered his breath. "Dean says he’s had Muggle teachers who were in no way inferior to the greasy git in this respect." He rubbed his freckled nose thoughtfully. "Muggle teachers can't turn you into a Chizpurfle, though," he added with a slight shudder.
"Snape wouldn't do any such thing, you know that, Ron," Hermione scolded. "His teaching methods aren't exactly pleasant, but he is undoubtedly an expert in his field."
"At intimidating people, you mean ..."
"Could you stop quarreling for once, please? You do sound like an old couple, you know," Harry said, interrupting his friends. Their constant bickering was quite annoying at times. "I am really curious about that book. Do you think they have it in the library, Hermione?"
"I really doubt it, Harry," she answered with a frown. "But Mom can get it for you as an early Christmas present, if you want."
The following Saturday evening, Harry was sitting in his favorite chair in front of the fireplace in the Gryffindor common room, a mug of warm pumpkin juice in one hand and a book in the other. Since the recommendation had come from Snape, he had expected the book to be a baggy old tome, but luckily, the story was less than a hundred pages. He might even finish it tonight and finally find an answer to the questions that had been bothering him for so long. He had even dreamed about a conversation with Snape last night. It had ended in disaster: Harry had been turned into a Flobberworm and pickled in a glass jar filled with a slimy green and silver liquid by a frenzied Potions master. Trelawney would be ecstatic if he put that dream in his dream diary ...
"In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group bronzed mariners, man-of-war's men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty. In certain instances they would flank, or like a bodyguard quite surround, some superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation,1"
the story began.
Harry moaned. Trust Snape to recommend the most old-fashioned and tedious book he could possible find. Why couldn't that Melville guy just say 'clothes' instead of 'attire,' like every decent person. And who in the world was 'Aldebaran'? Perhaps, he’d rather join Ron and the twins in their game of Exploding Snap. Even knitting shapeless elf socks with Hermione might be more interesting than this. But then he would never find out. With a heartfelt sigh, Harry continued to read.
It was past midnight when he was finally finished. He slammed the book shut and yawned. The novel hadn't been that bad, no, quite difficult and full of digressions, but somehow there was a certain beauty and power to the language, some strangely fascinating quality he couldn’t define, which had kept him reading. And the story itself wasn't half bad, either. However, he still had to figure out what it had to do with him and Snape. He had a vague idea, but it was quite confusing.
Was Snape somehow suggesting that their relationship was like the one between Billy Budd and Claggart, the evil master-of-arms on board the warship? Harry leafed through the book again, re-reading certain passages. True, there were certain parallels, especially between Claggart and the Potions master, strikingly enough even physical ones:
"about five-and-thirty, somewhat spare and tall, yet of no ill figure upon the whole," he read, "jet hair" – silken in Claggart's case, greasy in Snape's, and a "pallor of the skin that hinted of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood."2
Indeed. Hadn't he and Ron speculated about Snape being a half-Vampire-something just a couple of days ago? And they weren’t the only ones inspired by the man’s unhealthy complexion ...
Even Claggart’s and Snape’s smiles seemed to be alike, a "bitter smile," or "rather a grimace."3 And both men had a mysterious, dark past ...
But what was this stuff about "natural depravity"? Did Snape believe he was, like Claggart, such a one, "in whom was the mania of an evil nature, [...] born with him and innate, in short 'a depravity according to nature'"4? Did he envy and hate Harry for his innocence, like Claggart did Billy?
But wasn't the scar on his forehead as much a sign of the evil serpent as the Mark on Snape's left forearm? And was the Potions master truly evil? He had been a Death Eater, yes, and he was a git. But he was also a member of the Order of the Phoenix and fought on their side. He couldn't be all that evil, could he?
It was long until Harry found sleep that night.
"It's not true."
"What?" Snape looked up from the parchment he had just started to grade, irritation and annoyance clearly written in his face. The lesson was over, wasn’t it. Why by Merlin would a student want to stay behind?
"What's said in the book, "Billy Budd", I mean, sir."
For a brief moment, there was a hint of surprise in the Potions master's expression before his usual sneer was in place again. His black eyes bored into Harry’s emerald green ones.
"If you mean that you won't slay me in a stuttering fit of rage, Potter, I'm very much relieved, indeed," he said, the sarcasm almost palpable in his silky voice.
"You know I won't, and you won't bear false witness against me in front of the Headmaster, either, sir," Harry said steadily, intent on not letting Snape get to him.
"How can you be so sure I won't, Potter?" A vicious grin played around the Potions master's lips. And was there a mad glint of malice in the Professor's eyes? How could he be so sure, indeed?
"You tried to get me expelled more than often enough, but never with a lie, sir."
"Oh, that's mostly thanks to you, Potter. With your habit of breaking school rules you yourself provided more than ample evidence for me to use against you. A shame it never worked so far." The sneer on Snape's face broadened into something that reminded Harry of a hungry hyena; definitely predatory. Many first-years (and Neville Longbottom) would certainly have fainted on the spot if this grin had been directed at them. However, Harry wasn't intimidated that easily anymore. Hadn't he fought a possessed Quirrell, a deathly Basilisk, and an Hungarian Horntail, and won? And he had dueled the most evil wizard in the world, or at least in Great Britain, and gotten away with his life. So, why should he be afraid of one of his teachers?
"You wouldn't lie to Dumbledore, sir. And the stuff about 'natural depravity' isn't true, either. There is no such thing, nor am I innocent."
A heavy silence filled the room. The conviction in Harry's voice seemed to have left Snape stunned and short of a scathing reply, something that had never happened before.
"Did you know that there is a film version of the book, sir?" Harry continued.
"In the film, Billy Budd confronts Claggart about his behavior one night ..."
Billy probably shouldn't have done so, though, Harry thought uncomfortably. It was the night before Claggart went to Captain Vere to blackmail Billy, what ultimately led to both Claggart's and Billy's tragic deaths. What would Snape do if he told him the very same things as Billy did Claggart? Explode? However, it was too late now, there was no way he could stop what he had started ...
"I'm waiting, Potter." The Professor was tapping his desk with his long, pale fingers. There was annoyance in his voice, but also something else – could it be nervousness? Was Snape anxious about what he was going to say?
"Billy told Claggart that he hated everybody because he hated himself. And that Claggart wasn't evil but only a very lonely man." Now it was out. Should he run for his life?
Snape sat still like a statue for a moment, too stunned to do or say anything.
"Dismissed!" he finally managed to hiss through clenched teeth. And this time, Harry felt no desire to remain in the dungeons one single second longer than necessary. He grabbed his bag and hurried out of the classroom without looking back.
Snape was pacing up and down his office, seething with anger. What was that boy thinking – if he thought at all? Trying psychoanalysis on his Professor? Would he accuse him of suffering from the 'Oedipus complex' next time? Or, perhaps, from 'penis envy'? He should never have talked to Potter, never. He had underestimated the boy, though, had not for one second believed that he would obtain the book and actually read it. And confront him about it. And the worst was, Potter had struck a nerve.
Snape let himself collapse into the armchair in front of the fireplace and stared into the flames. Potter was right. He hated himself for what he'd done when he was a Death Eater. Terrible things. He pressed clenched fists to his tightly closed eyes to not see, but the revolting images were in his head. There was no escape. How could he not hate himself?
Moreover, there was the blood-issue. Dumbledore had again and again tried to convince him that there was no such thing as natural depravity. But he knew better. He knew the beast, the darkness, the serpent eating at his soul, or what was left of it. The evil serpent's blood coursed through his veins,* invading every fiber of his being; there was no denying it. Sure, he could fight it. He had fought it for over fifteen years. But the constant struggle was slowly but steadily draining his strength. This permanent pressure on top of his responsibilities as a teacher, as a Head of House, and as a spy was beginning to weigh him down, to make controlling the beast more and more difficult. What if he finally lost control, if the beast broke free? He trembled at the thought. Would the dungeon roof collapse and bury students and professors under burning debris – like that night many years ago when he had killed Scelestus Snape and Caligula Malfoy?
He was so tired of it all, so terribly tired. And alone ...
For the first time in more than fifteen years silent tears were slowly sliding down the Potions master's gaunt face as he stared into the dying flames.
Author’s notes: *In ‘Shedding One’s Soul’ Severus finds out that Voldemort is his father.
1 H. Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor and other Stories, London: Penguin, 1985, p. 321.
2 H. Melville, Billy Budd ..., p. 342.
3 H. Melville, Billy Budd ..., p. 350.
4 H. Melville, Billy Budd ..., p. 353.