“I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (
III.iv.160-162). The education, life and times of Severus Snape, with particular attention to the unhappy confusion of his affections and his relations with the Dark Arts.
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Returning Were As Tedious
Extend His Passion
Sit, worthy friends; my lord is often thus,
And hath been from his youth. Pray you, keep seat;
The fit is momentary; upon a thought
He will again be well. If much you note him,
You shall offend him and extend his passion.
Feed, and regard him not.
From the top of the stairs Severus could hear everything that went on below, but no one could see him. He was safer that way.
He wiped a little dust from the unswept stair with the side of his hand, then sat down. The air up here was hot and thick; the sounds from below were strangely magnified. Waiting to be sure his parents were occupied, he opened his heavy book and began to read.
His life at home divided itself into four distinct rhythms. Much of the time he was alone, which he usually preferred; at such times he thought, or read one of the many books in the house, or looked at animals, plants and insects outside. These were peaceful times, even when his parents were elsewhere in the house, except when the quiet was interrupted by the shouting of his parents – mostly the shouting of his father, which he could hear from every corner of the building, even through the windows when he was outside. At those moments he hid himself, kept out of the way, as he was doing now, because he knew his presence would only make matters worse.
When Severus and his mother were together in the house, he was never left on his own. Always she wanted to talk to him, or show him something, or go on outings into town. She touched him too much, he thought, hugged him and caressed his shoulder and kissed his forehead in a manner that made him want to squirm away. But he never did squirm away, because it was almost the only time in his life when anyone touched him at all (certainly the only time anyone touched him with kindly intent) and much as it annoyed him, he hungered for it too. When she touched him, she seemed always on the verge of tears, as if seeing him made her terribly sad, or as if the strength of her feelings for him were more than she could contain.
From his mother he learned many things. He’d begun to read when he was three, and she’d taught him the properties of the many plants to be found nearby the house. She also taught him things he wasn’t supposed to know; some of these she told him deliberately; others she didn’t know he was learning. Because Severus was an acutely observant boy, little that she did escaped his notice; he catalogued it in his memory.
When he was alone with his tall, smoldering, usually silent father, which was very seldom, things were unpredictable. At times Tobias treated him with a sort of stony, grudging, monosyllabic acceptance, as if Severus were a new employee who showed some promise but was still on probation. Then he might teach the boy things, such as the rules of a sport (football was his favorite but he knew many sports) or how to solve various strange mathematical puzzles. Tobias was a barrister’s clerk, but he had a vast knowledge of higher mathematics and conveyed this to his son when he was in the mood. Severus’s understanding of maths and logic was far beyond what would have been considered normal for his age.
At other times, though, Tobias would look at Severus with loathing, speak to him only to give orders or criticize poor performance – his room not tidy enough, his clothes badly arranged, his back insufficiently straight, his attitude all wrong. Anytime Severus shared something his mother had taught him, even the innocuous things like plants, his father became resentful or even angry. If he ever let slip that she’d taught him any of the forbidden things – how plants were used in the serums her mother made, or how her parents had run their own house – Tobias would fly into a rage, call Severus terrible names, call his mother worse names yet, and sometimes smack his son hard across the face. Severus had learned to recognize the more dangerous moods, and to remain as silent as possible during them, especially on the subject of his mother or her family.
Not that he knew anything of his mother’s family besides the few things she’d told him. He’d never seen a maternal grandparent, aunt, uncle or cousin. He knew at least his grandmother was still living (because Eileen referred to her mother in the present tense) and he knew that her maiden name was Prince, but he couldn’t tell whether she had any other relatives at all. Certainly he’d never met any of them, although he’d seen many of his father’s people. In daydreams he sometimes played with the name “Prince,” telling himself that he was really a prince too, and imagining himself in a castle, wearing a crown or holding a scepter, or wearing armor and slaying a dragon, or saving a maiden from a tower. There were books in the house with stories like that.
But when his parents were together, things were always dangerous. Either of them was liable to start in on the other for no reason that Severus could see, but the very sight of Severus in the presence of his mother could set Tobias off. He’d seemed personally affronted by the resemblance between Severus and his wife, and the boy had not, until recently, understood why this was. He gathered that there was something about him his father didn’t like, and that he blamed his mother for it. There was something about his mother Tobias didn’t like either, although sometimes he seemed to like her quite a lot.
At any rate Severus tried to be, if anything, even more silent when his parents were together, especially during the rows, and if possible he excused himself to his room when they were there. That was safest. If Tobias was provoked, thwarted or resisted at such times, his rage could be terrible indeed – he’d strike either of them, usually about the head or face with the flat of his hand. But once or twice he’d used his fist. It was worse if either Severus or Eileen tried to defend the other – then Tobias would howl like an animal and knock the intervener across the room.
But it wasn’t always this way, and it was the sheer unpredictability that made it frightening. Severus had come to believe, using the subtle, mathematical reasoning his father taught him when he was calm, that there must be a discrete set of triggers that would set off Tobias’s violence. If Severus could only learn these igniters and control them, he thought, he could prevent the rages altogether. Of course he had most control over his own behavior, so he kept it very carefully in check.
Recently, though, he’d come to understand: the things his mother could do that his father couldn’t do were magic. Real magic. The few odd things Severus himself had done – pushing Tobias back without touching him, setting fire to a deck of cards when he’d lost – these were magic too. Now he saw that what his father didn’t like was the magic itself. No, he didn’t just dislike it; he was afraid of it. And he hated it. Afraid; hating. He was afraid of Severus and he hated him.
The older Severus got, the more volatile his father seemed to become, the higher the risk seemed to be. It was only a matter of time, Severus came to realize, until either he or his mother was hurt very badly.
At the top of the stairs he turned the pages to find the place where he’d left off. Obtaining the book had been a spectacular accomplishment, involving the use of every bit of cleverness a ten-year-old could muster. At various times and in various ways, his mother had said things from which he’d figured out that there was a shop somewhere that sold only books on magic. He’d also observed that she used an owl, in secret, to communicate with some of her friends. It seemed to him that the bird must be a magical form of communication, and that the bookshop would be likely to use such methods as well. Therefore, if he could use the owl too, he could get books from the shop. It was a good theory, but getting the bird actually to come to him, when no one was looking too, was another matter. Eventually, by trial, error and dogged persistence, he’d learned that if he spread his hands just so, concentrated hard on the owl and said, “come to me,” it would – sometimes.
The first time it came, Severus had told it, “Take this note to the shop that sells books on magic.” The bird had looked at him quizzically, then taken flight. The note had said, Do you have any books about using magic to protect yourself? Please tell the owl to wait for me outside my house. He hadn’t signed it.
When his messenger returned two days later to the same spot from which he’d sent it, it carried a complete printed catalogue from Flourish & Blotts, Diagon Alley, London. There were, it turned out, more than a dozen books that might fill his need, although he did not understand some of the titles and even the brief descriptions puzzled him. Finally he selected Curses, Hexes and Jinxes: Rudimentary Theory and Basic Practice by Nathaniel Crossroad (Two Alleys Press, 1960); it didn’t seem to cost too much. On the other hand, he had no money at all except the pocket change that his father gave him – and even this was shillings and pence, something that he didn’t think the shop would accept.
And so, to obtain his prize, he’d misled his mother. One day while they were alone in the kitchen, he asked her, “Mother, what is the magic money like?”
“Wizard money,” she’d corrected him automatically from where she was washing a dish; then she’d looked up. “Why ever do you want to know?”
“It isn’t important,” he’d said, as if he were sorry he’d bothered her. “Never mind.”
But that got her thinking, as he knew it would, and sure enough, two days later she brought out a collection of coins made of three colors of metal, explaining the differences between knuts, sickles and galleons, and telling him how many of one it took to make another. When she’d finished, he’d asked whether he might keep some of them, and she’d let him have a galleon, a sickle and a knut. It was all he needed; Curses, Hexes and Jinxes cost only fifteen sickles with owl shipping included. He sent the full galleon; when the book arrived, two sickles in change were in the package.
Reading the book wasn’t easy. It used big words, many of which he didn’t know. With effort, though, looking up some words in a dictionary, he was able to work out the effects of spells and the movements required to cast them; the incantations, of course, required merely correct pronunciation. He wasn’t sure about the pronunciations, but he thought he could work them out by experiment. He was disappointed to see that the great majority of the spells he might use required a wand, and of course he didn’t have one. His mother did; he’d seen hers, but she was never without it, like her clothing, and he didn’t think he’d be able to borrow it for practices or experiments.
In one of the appendices in the back of the book, he read about the structure of wands and their function. It wasn’t a very long description, and there were parts that made no sense to him, but it led him to understand that the two elements of the wand, the magical animal core and the wood shell, worked in concert with each other. The core added energy, mirroring the user’s own inherent power and amplifying it. The shell, on the other hand, provided focus, the “old xylem in the pith” (whatever that was) channeling the energy flowing from the hand of the user. For this reason some part of the user’s body – normally the forearm or one or more fingers – had to be exactly aligned with the direction of the wand. Also for this reason, “wand quality” wood was wood with the straightest possible grain.
He knew he wouldn’t, at his age and living in a non-magical town, be able to get hold of a unicorn, dragon or phoenix, so that a magical core was out of the question. But there was no reason, he thought, that he couldn’t find wand-quality wood. It wouldn’t allow him to “amplify” his power, but it would enable him to focus it; probably this meant that he could perform at least some of the spells. At least that’s what he thought would happen. There was only one way to find out.
And so he misled his father. Misleading Tobias was a riskier business than misleading Eileen, and so Severus had to be extremely careful. In one of their unusual times alone, during a lull in the conversation after his father had been trying to explain something called the “infield fly rule” from a nonsensical American game, Severus asked, “Sir, what’s whittling?”
The ensuing conversation and demonstration was like walking on a twisting, narrow cliff with a very steep drop. But Severus had come to understand his father pretty well, and knew where the most dangerous turns were, where the footing was uncertain, where the ground beneath him might suddenly give way. When it was over he had possession of a very small knife, and he knew where his father kept his two saws.
Two days later, in the dead of night so that he would not be seen, he stole into the cellar, took the larger saw (Tobias didn’t own an axe), and walked to a spot where he had previously marked a very straight plum tree. Plum trees, he had read somewhere, are the straightest trees that grow. The spell book had mentioned in passing that wands must employ as much pith wood as possible “and the remainder must be the heartwood surrounding the pith, the whole being taken from the nearest point to the base of the tree.” In a real wand, the hair, feather or heartstring would be imbedded in the pith itself, using a magical process that did not involve perforating the wood. He wouldn’t be able to do that, but clearly he needed that pith if the wand was to have even the merest effectiveness. Another book he’d found in the library told him that, in mature trees, the pith is very narrow. He was going to have to cut right through the trunk and kill the tree.
Lit only by the half-moon that was setting as he began, Severus paused briefly before sawing into the beautiful tree, which had been planted the year he was born. It felt like a violation to destroy it. He knew that it was much loved in the neighborhood and cherished by its owner. He knew that there would be wailing, anger and recrimination. He knew that, if Tobias ever found out, his rage would be terrible; Severus didn’t want to think of the blows he’d receive.
But this was an emergency. He had to learn to defend himself; he had to protect his mother. There was no telling how far Tobias’s next unpredictable rage would take him. Severus sawed into the tree; the noise he made was louder than he’d expected, and it alarmed him. He felt the sawdust sprinkling his hands and feet as he pushed and pulled, felt the teeth catch on hard bits in the wood, felt the saw slow to a stop. Realizing his mistake, he began to cut a wedge into the trunk. The wood became hot; his face broke out in a sweat. The tree hung on tenaciously to life, or so it seemed. Finally he succeeded, and the trunk, together with all the branches and the young plums on them (it was early summer) fell slowly to the ground.
He made another cut further up the trunk so that he’d have a sufficiently large piece to work with, then fled.
With no guidance other than what he’d read, he had to improvise. He knew he needed to use the exact center of the wood, knew that the wand should have some sort of handle, should be thin (say, about as thick as an adult’s thumb) and taper to a point. He guessed that it should be shorter than his forearm, but he wasn’t sure how much shorter. In his hours alone he cut and whittled the wood – probably he should have aged it, but he didn’t know how and didn’t think he had time.
When he was done, he began to experiment with the curses he found in the book. As he’d feared, they were not as powerful as the text indicated they ought to be, but he seemed to be able to cast them precisely where he wanted them. The Impediment Jinx, cast at various birds in flight, slowed them down sufficiently that they were unable to stay stay in the air and had to land. When he cast it at a neighborhood dog that ran at him, the animal stopped short and tripped over its own feet.
He had to experiment with the pronunciations. He originally spoke the Stinging Hex, which was written compungere, as “com-pun-gear”, bringing his wand straight down from the vertical with a fully extended arm, as the author specified, but nothing happened; the dog simply looked at him and began to sniff at the ground. Then, wondering whether there might be an extra syllable at the end (as in cliché or café), he tried “com-pun-geh-ray”, and the same dog yelped and run away. There were other curses and jinxes he could perform, and still others didn’t seem to work at all. He was working his way through all the spells in the book, testing himself, testing his strength, practicing.
Now, here at the top of the stairs, he was reading part of the section on theory, and it was rough going; he was sure that he was missing about half the meaning. But he was also sure that if he didn’t understand the background, he wouldn’t master the spells. The passage he was reading now said:
The phrase “Dark Magic” or “The Dark Arts” is a catch-all used to describe all spells having an aggressive or harmful purpose or function. It is, therefore, inherently misleading, since any incantation can be used harmfully (e.g., Summoning Charms can rip vital organs out of the body) while supposedly “dark” spells can be used to benevolent or healthful ends (e.g., the Body Bind Curse can stop a dangerous animal before it causes injury). It is admitted that spells that cause physical discomfort or malfunction to a living body, or which inhibit that body’s freedom of action, are more prone to harmful application than spells whose effects are otherwise neutral, but this writer contends that it is the intent of the caster, and not the spell itself, that is “dark.”
Abruptly, interrupting him in the middle of a sentence, from the kitchen below he heard his father’s voice raised: “— saw him with a bloody owl; don’t tell me you haven’t been teaching him that rubbish!”
Eileen’s voice snarled back, “It isn’t rubbish, it’s his heritage. You’ve been keeping it from him like a thief!”
“— Don’t take that tone with me – ”
“Such a little man, so frightened of things you don’t understand,things you can’t do! I never saw someone so scared of his own inadequacy –”
“— Show you your proper place, woman – ”
“You and what man, you bigoted, narrow-minded, weak – ”
The next sound Severus heard was a roar from Tobias and a crash, as of a heavy weight smashing into the dishes on the kitchen counter. He dropped his book and flew down the stairs, two at a time, landing with a thump at the bottom that hurt his feet.
His mother was backed against the corner of the counter, blood dripping from the left side of her mouth and an angry redness on the left side of her jaw. She was holding her right elbow, which was also bleeding; there were cracked and shattered dishes and glassware on the counter and the floor near her. Her expression was wide-eyed and terrified; why, why, why didn’t she go for her wand? Severus knew that she kept it with her.
Tobias was standing on the other side of the table, a snarl on his face, his skin a bright red. He was breathing hard.
“Keep away from her,” said Severus in a low voice.
Tobias’s head snapped toward the stairs and saw Severus there. His eyes bugged out and he stepped towards the boy, his fists clenched, his teeth bared. “You – ”
Severus pulled his makeshift, plum wood wand out of his shirt and pointed it at his father. “Keep back.” His voice was even quieter than it had before, his feelings showing only in his clenched jaw and his shaking hand.
His parents spoke at the same moment. “What are you – ” growled Tobias, while Eileen cried, “Severus, no!”
An ironic sneer twisting the side of Tobias’s face, he stepped toward Severus again.
“Impedimenta!” yelled Severus, using the circular jabbing motion recommended by Nathaniel Crossroad. Tobias stopped in his tracks, as if there were suddenly a barrier between him and his son. His mouth twisted in confusion; then, setting his jaw, he slowly stepped through it, as if walking in molasses; he was now only ten feet from Severus.
“Compungere!” Severus shouted, his wand coming down in the arc he had tried previously and pointing straight at Tobias’s face. His father grunted in pain, grimacing and clutching at his nose. His face grew even redder and he stepped forward again
Before Severus could attempt another curse (he was going to try the Body Bind), Tobias came quickly at him, snatched the wand out of Severus’s hand and smashed his right fist into Severus’s nose and left eye. Lights exploded in Severus’s vision and the front of his face was a shout of pain; he fell backwards, hitting the back of his head on the floor.
“Want to try fighting me like a man, do you?” shouted Tobias. “Try this!” He kicked Severus in the chest. Severus cried out and curled quickly into a ball; he tried to breathe but wasn’t sure he could.
“Caecare!” came a shriek from across the room, and Severus heard a stumble and a groan. He opened his eyes, which had been squeezed shut in agony, and saw his mother standing in the corner, her face a bizarre mix of fear and fury, her pale wand pointed directly at her husband. Tobias was clutching at his eyes and shaking his head from side to side, a horrified look on his face. Severus recognized the spell Eileen had used; it was the Blinding Hex. Part of his mind noted that she’d pronounced it “kye-cah-ray;” he’d thought it was “see-care.”
Tobias bumped into the table, tripped and fell against the stove, now holding the sides of his head as if that would return his sight.
“Are you all right?” Severus’s mother asked him. He sat up carefully, felt his chest and nodded. Then he reached over to the floor and retrieved his wand from where Tobias had dropped it. Slowly he stood up.
“Listen to me,” he said quietly to Tobias. “If you ever hurt her again, I will hurt you worse. If you ever touch me again, I’ll kill you.” The words did not feel nearly as brave as Severus wanted them to, and he had no idea whether he could carry out the threats; but he meant to try.
Tobias did not move; Severus wasn’t sure he’d heard him.
“Finite Incantatem,” said Eileen softly. Tobias blinked and straightened, his eyes focusing not on Severus, but on the witch in the corner. (Severus memorized the pronunciation and the wand movement she had used.)
“I want – ” said Severus. Tobias’s turned towards him, but Severus was looking at his mother. “I want to go to that school, the one you went to.”
“Of course, dear,” said Eileen, almost as if nothing had happened. Tobias looked outraged and turned again towards her. Before he could speak, she said, “You will not interfere in this.”
Tobias looked with dismay from his wife to his son. He nodded.
For the better part of a minute the three of them stood in those same positions, like a tableau in a painting. Then Severus turned slowly and went back up the stairs. He found his book, sat back down, and began to read where he had left off.
The new curses are courtesy of Quintus at thelatintranslator.com
, and use what is called the “passive imperative” mode; compungere
is “sting you,” and caecare
is “blind you.”