Against a shadowed wall a small boy crept ever so slowly closer to a woman with flaming red hair. She stood clasping a tiny child to her side, staring in fear at the spot in the air where the Dark Mark hovered. The boy finally edged close enough that he could almost touch the hem of her skirt, and the spasmodic movements of his thin fingers alerted the woman to his presence.
“Who are you, dear?”
“I’m a Snape.”
“Where are your parents? You shouldn’t be about on your own, especially now…Are you alright?”
The boy only nodded and stared at her. He glanced at one protective hand cradling her swollen belly. The other was buried in the red hair of her child. She began talking in low tones; halting and lilting words at the same instant. Despair and a wild, creeping hope twisting together in that dark alley until they became a wish. She wove a story around him, and the boy knew that it was partly her own, partly those of her people before her, and a small bit of what could have been, which is always looking for what might be still. He listened and he let her spin castles in the air, all around him. He could climb their turrets with the strength threading through her voice. The woman was a darning needle, patching up the holes that had been rent in the fabric of life that night, even if only for a short time.
Finally her voice trailed off, and the boy looked at her as though he emerged from a deep sleep.
“Your parents must be worried about you. It’s been such a horrible night.”
The Dark Mark had faded at last, leaving only a vague smudge on the clear night sky. It reminded the boy of a cigarette burn in a piece of black silk.
“Shall we go look for them?” the woman asked kindly.
Something related to jealousy, something that sprang up in him at the sight of her warm, motherly hands nestled in the baby curls of her son, ripped through his thin frame as he said, “I don’t need help from anyone. I don’t need anyone at all.”
She was taken aback. He could see it in her face, dim though the light was from the distant moon. He looked defiantly into her eyes, and was surprised to see her features soften.
“We all need something…from someone. Look around you. The world cries out for it.”
“What’s the world to me?” he cried petulantly.
“You are part of it, dear. Just as I am part of it.” Her hand touched him lightly, briefly. He could feel the tender calluses on the pads of her thumb as they passed over his cheek. She was sad, he knew. She was worried about her family. And, astoundingly, he saw concern for himself in her eyes as well. If the world meant that much to her, this woman with the soft hands and the voice like patchwork, then perhaps it was worth something after all.
He looked away shyly, up at the stars stretched above him, unfurling like a flag.
“Just wait ‘til my time comes…” he whispered. “The things I shall do…”
He thought of her, when he picked up the wand from the dusty box Ollivander held out to him. Rosewood, with a core of Ammut heartstring.
“Interesting,” rasped the old wand maker. “Ammuts are only found in Egypt. They call them the eaters of the dead. In their mythology an Ammut sat in the Hall of Double Justice. The hearts of the dead were weighed against the feather of truth and those that failed the test were fed to it.”
Ollivander pinned him with his rheumy eyes. “That’s a very rare wand, young man. Ammut heartstring is scarce enough, but I’ve never seen it paired with rosewood in any other wand but that one.”
The boy stroked the gleaming wood, feeling the pull of its magic in his bones, swirling upward and through the map-like veins of his blood.
“Is there something wrong with that?” he asked defensively.
“No…there’s nothing wrong with any of my wands, young man. It’s just an interesting combination. Rosewood is a delicate wood…it is a thing of beauty. Ammuts are described as monsters, with the head of a crocodile and the body of a lion. It’s rare to find a wand that encompasses loveliness and that sort of ferociousness.”
“Ammuts are dark creatures, then?”
“Not necessarily. They were used in the hall of justice, weren’t they? No, they’re creatures somewhere in the middle, I’d say. It would depend upon who they served as to whether they were dark or not.”
The old man watched the young boy run a reverent finger down the slender column of wood. There was power in that one; and potential fickle as the wand in his eager hands. Ollivander cast about in his mind, trying to place his parents. ‘A dark, hard man,’ he thought, ‘and a nervous, flinching woman’. Interesting, indeed. The dark eyes glittered, the polished glow of the rosewood burning tiny flames in them. There would be no middle ground for him, not with that wand. This one would bear watching.
He liked the feel of its weight in his hand as he left the shop. It seemed to ground him just a bit more firmly to the earth. The slightly reddish hue of it reminded him of the woman. He tucked it under his vest. It was before him: his beginning. The path was new. He fancied it smelled of fresh grass, and eagerly set his feet upon it.
The leather bound tomes seemed to whisper softly to him. This was his refuge; the musty, thick air and the pregnant hush of the Restricted Section. Here he curled into himself, hemmed by forbidden texts, the curve of his back meeting the straight bound spine of a book. He breathed deeply of their familiar aroma, trying to purge the stench of terror and wild animal from his senses.
He knew as soon as he started down the tunnel under the Whomping Willow that something was very wrong. And when he stood in that shack and hung in a moment of sick suspension…he remembered that tangy smell from the dark alley an age ago. Remembered the way the air burned like acid in his lungs, and that vacuum sense of time pressing on him, but somehow retreating from his grasp.
He saw the Headmaster’s office in his mind. Those blue eyes like frozen ice and summer sky mixed together, always wondering which was for him. Potter had left, crawling back to Gryffindor, a hero somehow, and here he sat in his thinning cloak of indifference. Pondering which elemental force would spring upon him from Dumbledore’s eyes.
“Severus, I must ask you not to speak of this with anyone. I would not have Remus exposed to violence and prejudice from others owing to an act in which he had no part.”
He felt the familiar bitter twitching around the corners of his mouth. Please Merlin, let me get out of here quick, before this ragged front betrays me.
“You have a great potential in you, my boy. And the freedom to decide what to do with it. I see valuable things in you, and not just your abilities.”
He met those blue eyes fearfully. Please…don’t…
“I expect great things from you, Severus.”
The tightness in his chest was agony. Not this. I can take anything but this…not your faith. I can’t keep it.
It was dawn in the Restricted Section, and he greeted the day from his nook of dark knowledge.
It matters not. What have I to do with the world? I have enough to do with myself, and enough in myself.
It was easy, he found. Simple to pick up the same face and the same demeanor he had carried with him through his Hogwarts days. And if he sometimes thought of expectation and faith when he looked up at the sky on a warm afternoon, it was smothered quickly in the dark of the dungeons.
The world is nothing to me.
He saw her in Diagon Alley again, a few days after his graduation from Hogwarts. This time she had to bend her neck back to look up at him. There was a small herd of red-haired children surrounding her, and she had two vile looking twins in her arms, one balanced on each hip, but she smiled warmly up at him as if she had all day to spare.
“Look at you, now!”
Her smile made him feel small again, like he stood before her once more in short trousers and knobby knees. He could think of nothing to do with his hands, so he stuffed them deep in the pockets of his black robes.
“All graduated from Hogwarts, and one of the top in your class!” She beamed at him. He fidgeted.
“Your parents must be so proud.”
“My parents are gone.”
“Oh, I had no idea. I am sorry.” She did look truly sorry. He couldn’t imagine why.
“Why don’t you come over to the Burrow? We’ll have a proper feast in celebration. I’ve often thought of you, you know.”
He looked at her children in their riot of brightly colored jumpers, and the modest motley of packages from the secondhand shop.
Inexplicable, his traitorous heart. For a moment he wanted nothing more than to be tucked into her ragtag crew and fed and bossed by her. An affirmative hovered on his tongue one long heartbeat, before he remembered who he was, and what he was not.
“No…thank you, but I have somewhere to be tonight.”
“Oh…another time, then. What will you do with yourself now that you’re out of school?”
“I’ve been taken as an apprentice to a potions master in Edinburgh.”
“What an honour. You’ll do great things and have much to give, I’m sure.”
He stiffened, and said coldly, “What do you mean by that? I don’t owe anything to anyone.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Mustn’t we all here on earth give the best of ourselves to others…offer as much as is in our power to give? Especially now, when…”
“The world is nothing to me," he interrupted her. “It has given me nothing. Why should I concern myself with it? I’ll do great things, yes…more than produce a Quidditch team worth of brats, certainly.”
She seemed to grow taller somehow in her indignation. “It’s true that I’ve given only new souls, only my children…but roses are seldom thought of as useful, yet I’ve seen them bring great joy to others. We must hold on to joy. And you…still more has been given to you, young man. You’ve one of those deep thinking natures- a highly gifted mind to astonish the world. What will you do with it? What have you given?”
“What have I given? What am I going to give? It doesn’t concern me, madam. I spit at it. The world is nothing to me, I tell you. For my part, you may go on bearing children…or roses…” he sneered, “You can do nothing else.”
He felt her eyes follow him as he walked away, through the afternoon crowds, and when he turned and looked back one last time, he saw not anger, but sadness.
The iron mask was uncomfortable and dug into the bridge of his nose. He resisted the urge to fidget, and concentrated on the new recruits in front of him. The Dark Lord was a striking presence, and he felt that, perhaps, he had finally found someone who would appreciate his skills. The thought of Dumbledore surfaced like a hazy stream of smoke, but he squashed it ruthlessly. He would give back the same cruelty the world had given him.
It was his turn; they were calling him forward to stand before Lord Voldemort. He bowed before his new master, as he had seen the others do, and as he straightened his gaze caught on the Dark Lord’s gray eyes. He was caught in them, like an insect in a web, and he felt the thin legs of the spider probing his mind. Every taunt and humiliation, every physical blow and strike, swam up through his mind. He saw his own bitterness as though it had crystallized and he could hold it in his hand if he but reached for it.
Voldemort nodded, once; he seemed pleased. Those cold gray eyes made him feel hollow. Just a shade different, just a small slide down the spectrum from the Headmaster’s clear blue glaze, but Severus felt instantly that he could never meet those other eyes again. For the first time he felt a heavy misgiving, but even as he wrenched himself from the fallow gray, his forearm was stretched across a stone and a sinister looking wand began tracing a pattern on his pale flesh.
The searing heat came almost instantly, and he choked on the bile that rose in his throat. It burned as though the fire was reaching down to his soul, but instead of cauterizing the raw wounds it spread its infection to every part of him.
The world is nothing to me.
He was efficient, and he was skillful with the potions the Dark Lord required. He rose in favor, his increasing power visible by each sickening inch he was moved closer to his master in the circle of Death Eaters.
One night a senior Auror was placed in the circle, to make an example of her resistance. She was homely, with weather lines around her mouth and eyes, but she held her head at a steady angle and stared them down.
When it was almost over, and she lay in her blood with crazed, roaming eyes, Voldemort smiled and said coldly, “Feed her to Severus.”
The black robed figures around him laughed, but he froze, remembering Ollivander’s thin old voice from a time when the world had seemed spread beneath his feet.
‘An Ammut sat in the Hall of Double Justice… The hearts of the dead…those that failed the test were fed to it…eaters of death.’
‘Ammuts are dark creatures, then?’
‘It would depend upon who they served as to whether they were dark or not.’
The rosewood seemed to burn his palm, and he imagined the ammut heartstring was vibrating within its slender tomb, a parody of a beating heart. His hand shook slightly as he pointed the tip to the woman’s chest and whispered the killing spell. She had slipped away long ago.
As he moved her limp hand from the hem of his robes, he ran a finger over a callus on her thumb. She had soft hands; rough hands. She had mother hands, like the ones that had once touched him in a dark alley.
From the deep nights of his boyhood, Severus had always thought of souls as a murky substance- somewhere between tangibility and nothingness. A malleable mist. Now, touching the woman he had delivered unto death, he found that instead a soul was a thing of delicately blown glass. He knew this because his own shattered into millions of brittle shards.
He stood in the circle, numb and uncaring, until one name penetrated the fog in his brain.
Try as he might, he could not drudge up any feeling for James Potter, be it hate, love, or indifference. It simply didn’t matter. But Lily…
He remembered that day by the lake, when she had taken up for him in her firm, fierce way. He could see the red of her hair, which in turn brought him back to Molly.
What have I to do with the world? What have I ever given to it?
The Headmaster’s office was exactly the same as he remembered it. He sat in the same horsehair seat, with his head turned down to his clenched hands, and he told his tale without pause. He talked for hours, relating every fact he could think of, inconsequential though it seemed, until his hoarse voice trailed off.
The silence was long, but still he did not look up from his stained hands. If he had been able to observe himself he would have been surprised to see the prayerful position he struck. He had not contemplated faith for some time.
Finally, a gentle hand touched his bowed head, and despite himself, Severus looked up into those blue eyes. He saw endless sky, and realized that it had been his all along.
“I expect great things from you, Severus.”
He did pray, then. Please…don’t let me fail him again.
It happened that the Dark Lord was vanquished for a time. It did not fool him. Severus knew it was only a matter of time before he returned. He walked the halls of Hogwarts again and waited. He had a rendezvous with Death, and could only hope he would not fail the Headmaster. His master.
He dreamed at night of a monster with the head of a crocodile, and the tawny brown body of a lion. In the dreams his bitterness crystallized, and he held it in the palm of his hand. When he held the glass oval up to the light it refracted only black.
Years passed by. Seasons ebbed and flowed and rolled into another, but winter always remained for Snape. Her roses appeared in his classroom, and he watched them from a distance; frost and roses did not mix.
When darkness fell over the rest of the world again, he left his dungeons and walked along the razor’s edge for the second time. He found he was not frightened. He had only to think of Dumbledore, and of her red-haired children who were threatened.
‘Ammuts are creatures somewhere in the middle, I’d say.’
And so he was; the dark line between a rose-tree under blue skies and the grey dust storm of fear.
It was the early hours of the morning at Grimmauld Place. The Order meeting had been long, with an undercurrent of desperation running through the assembled members. Now he sat in the cavernous kitchen, watching the dying fire.
She entered the room quietly, as he’d known she would. She poured tea and set a cup in front of him, then sat on the other side of the wooden table.
“You need to take better care of yourself.”
He was too tired to check the slight smile that formed at her words. “I’m giving what I can to the world. Remember?”
Molly rested her face on her chin and traced the top of the teacup with her finger. “I remember. You once looked down upon me for my offering.”
He studied a burn mark on the table’s surface. “It’s been quite awhile since I considered your roses without worth.”
“How funny that you should call them that.”
Severus raised an eyebrow.
“It’s just that I had a dream the other night…and I was a rose-tree. The sun shone and warmed me, and the air refreshed me. When I was thirsty I drank clear dew and refreshing rain. I breathed and I lived, and out of the earth I took strength. A power arose within me and I felt ever-renewed and ever-increasing happiness, so I was obliged to keep on blooming.”
“And I was a snail beneath you, “he said sardonically.
“You do have an awfully thick shell, “she replied gently.
He hummed noncommittally.
“I know it seems like a very small thing to do…all those children, and I’ve done nothing but raise them. But…I’ve seen them go off into the world and spread good things around them. I’ve watched the twins bring smiles with their antics, and Ginny soothe many a hapless soul. I’ve watched Percy march out to change the world, and Ron stand loyally by his friends. That did me good. Those were real blessings. These are my memories, my life.”
They sat in silence and sipped their tea. Finally he rose and as he made to leave, said, “It’s a good life.”
Then he was gone.
Peace came like wildflowers to a bare field. People embraced in the crowded streets and found joy in every new successive day. It was spring in all things, and he crept back to the dungeons. He had drawn no friends to him in his life, and no one came to him but Dumbledore. He haunted his old sanctuary, the Restricted Section, and pretended he liked his solitude.
‘What is the world to me?’ cried the little voice in his chest, and it echoed dully in the emptiness.
Then one day there was a knock on his chamber door and behind it a girl with warm eyes and a crooked smile. He stared at her blankly until she took his hand and asked impulsively, “Haven’t you been stewing in here long enough?”
Her hand was soft, and he let her lead him outside. The sky was so blue it hurt his eyes, and he stopped abruptly.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I…have not had much to do with the world. I don’t know where to begin.” He admitted.
She smiled. “The world is spread beneath your feet, Severus. You can begin with a step.”
He looked down at her, and he saw days after days of this; clear skies and green things growing. He would drink when he thirsted, and the sun would warm him. He would spread her out over crisp pages of opened books, and make love to her there on top of their forbidden secrets. She was like a darning needle, this girl, patching up the holes deep inside him.
That was the moment he understood; Molly had sent a rose to him. And it held ever-renewed and ever-increasing happiness, and they would be obliged to go on blooming in gladness.
The girl was watching him, and he smiled shakily.
“I expect great things.”