Dark Night of the Soul
Severus Snape was no fool. He thought of himself as clever, rational,
and accomplished, and he trusted his own judgement. But there were things –
things he did, things he said – that he could not reconcile with this
assessment of his own personality, as they had led to his first row ever with
the man whose esteem he wanted most. It nagged at him; it prevented him from
sleeping that night.
He was sitting on the
battlement at the top of Hogwarts’ West Tower, leaning his back against the
cool stone wall and watching the thin wreaths of smoke he exhaled unfurl into
the night air. He had come up here to smoke in secret ever since he had been
fifteen. Nothing had changed much, except his taste: he had exchanged his
cigarettes for cigarillos. It was one thing he retained from his altogether
short acquaintance with Rabastan Lestrange, who had been of the opinion that
cigarettes lacked distinction and had gently steered his protégé towards what
he considered a nobler tobacco product. Severus had not objected. In those days
he had been eager to distance himself from his father’s sphere of life and
everything that it comprised. For some time he had pretended to be an
aristocrat by virtue of his mother’s name, trying very hard to ingratiate himself
with the smart set centred around the Malfoys and the Blacks. But the truth of
the matter was that it was his mother, and not he, who was the last of the
DeQuinceys, and to people like the Malfoys this was more than a mere detail. He
had never been their equal and never would be, try as he might; his father’s
middle-class, mixed background had crept into the blood that, but for this,
would have been pure. There were less esteemed families than the Snapes, to be
sure; but they did not rank with the best.
He had been naïve once.
Life had seemed simple. He had thought that he belonged somewhere – that there
was a place where he might fit in perfectly, that there was in the world a
Severus-shaped hollow that was just waiting for him to step into it and blend
wonderfully with the surroundings, that it was just a matter of finding that
hollow for him to be at peace. He had looked for it among the Purebloods, but
he had seen a certain, admittedly polite, disdain in their eyes that told him
to search on. He had looked for it among the Death Eaters, believing that his
interests and skills predisposed him to an allegiance with this select band of
Dark sorcerers. But the niche he had found there did not fit either; they had
pressed him into it with force until he was crooked and sore. He had finally
turned to Albus Dumbledore.
Dumbledore had welcomed
him like a long-lost son. This had surprised him, and for a long time he
thought that here, at last, he had come home. He had found a seat at the
Hogwarts staff table, a bed in the castle’s dungeons and a private corner in
the library; there was a particular low-backed chair in the staff room that was
by silent convention his; he wielded authority over Slytherin House; he was the
Potions Master, with capitals. And Dumbledore had let him be. There were no
dictatorial commands, no tugging at his sleeve or pushing him in a direction
he’d rather not take, no complaints, no interference with the way he taught his
classes or organised his life or studied Dark Arts or snarled at people. And,
offered full scope to develop his talents, he had been successful in his
undertakings. Slytherin House prospered. The standard of the Hogwarts Potions
curriculum had risen. He had established his position as one of the prime
potion makers in the British Isles. From junior staff member he had become
Dumbledore’s right hand man. He had been almost content.
Until the ground on which
he had built his life started to tremble.
He had, quite suddenly,
found himself haunted by ghosts from the past. First the Potter boy had arrived
at Hogwarts, bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father. Severus could not
help himself, but simply seeing the child made his hackles stand on end and his
left hand ache for his wand. It was a weird reflex he had acquired during his
own schooldays, when the sight of James Potter had invariably meant trouble.
There was an instinct in him, an irrational fear that told him to crush the boy
before he could strike, as he most certainly would. He knew that at this point
in time, Harry was his inferior in power; but his memories of being at James’s
mercy were so vivid that he felt precious little inclination to wait until the
situation had changed. Again and again he had to call himself to order,
remembering that the boy was a student like any other and that he, as his
teacher, was at least partly responsible for his welfare. Severus had, with
great force of will, done his duty, and restricted himself to the occasional
pestering, bullying and humiliation – his self-control only stretched so far.
He had made no explicit mention of his disturbance to Dumbledore, thinking it
redundant to attract his attention to something that was obvious for all to
see, and trusting that the Headmaster understood Severus’ position.
And just when he had
settled for, if not peace, at least a truce with Potter, Sirius Black had
escaped from Azkaban prison, and Dumbledore had hired Remus Lupin as Defense
Against the Dark Arts teacher. The former fact had thoroughly ruined Severus’
temper, which was of little import as few people noticed a difference anyway;
but the latter had vexed him beyond words. Although his repeated applications
for the Defence post sprang, these last years, more from habit than from any
real desire to relinquish Potions, it stung him to the quick that the
Headmaster should give the hated werewolf preference over him, especially with
Black at large. Quite apart from that, the appointment meant that Lupin would
come to live at Hogwarts, the territory Severus now regarded as rightfully his.
He did not understand how Dumbledore could have made such a decision – surely
it must be clear that a place that accommodated him could not also harbour his
enemy. Besides, he had the prior claim. To his great dismay, however, the
Headmaster had remained adamant, dismissing his arguments as puerile.
The last school year had
been veritable torture, Severus being forced to live under one roof with both
Harry Potter and Remus Lupin. To make things worse, the two of them got on
rather well together; this raised his annoyance to the square. Every month as
he prepared the complex potion that would render the werewolf harmless, he
relived in his mind the horror of the night when he had nearly been killed by
it. He had survived, but at the cost of a life-debt to someone he loathed; he
found it hard to decide which fate was worse. All in all he had shown
commendable restraint in his dealings with Lupin. But then again, he thought
wryly, a Boggart and the occasional snide remark were nothing compared to what
had happened when Black had entered the scene.
Severus leaned his head
against the wall and winced. He took a puff with closed eyes, his mind
strangely relaxed considering the violence of the feelings his recollection
called up. He had been so angry that he had really been beside himself. He had
entirely lost control – it had frightened even him. His fury had been such that
in its wake he had felt empty and sick with exhaustion. But even now he thought
he had been entitled to his rage. What had been done to him was unbearable. He
had, finally, after so many years of carefully nurturing his resentment, held
Lupin and Black’s lives in the palm of his hand. For one, fiery-coloured moment
they had been in his power. And they had slipped through his eager fingers.
Potter and his cronies had interfered, but that was not what bothered him most.
It had been Dumbledore. Dumbledore alone could have kept him from fulfilling
his sweet plans, and had indeed done so. Dumbledore, whom he had trusted like
no other, had personally stepped in between him and his vengeance; had, as
before, favoured Black and Lupin over him, as if the years of Severus’
complicity with the Headmaster, in which he took such joy, had never existed.
It was downright betrayal; it had hurt Severus to the core.
He had struck back, of
course. He had forced the werewolf to resign. He had every right. Lupin was a
danger to the entire school. And Dumbledore and Potter would miss him. It was a
brilliant solution and it should have made his meaning perfectly clear. But
instead of offering to make amends, the Headmaster, seconded, as always, by
McGonagall, had called him childish, petulant and immature.
Severus shifted uneasily.
He had reached the essence of the problem that kept him awake. He had done
something he did not regret, and yet he felt, or was made to feel, as though he
had made a grave mistake. All his actions of that fateful night had been
disapproved of by the Headmaster and those of the staff who knew, whereas to
him they had felt natural and justified. His ruse of the following morning had
seemed equally fitting, and again the Headmaster had made no secret of his
It was only after all the
damage had been done that Severus realised why Dumbledore had tricked him
instead of otherwise trying to make him abandon his plans. He had purposefully
given him a reason to hate him, to see how far the strange bond they had struck
would stretch. If Severus was able to forgive once, he might be able to do it
twice; if he overcame one slight he might overcome more. The Headmaster had set
his student a challenge and had, judging from the good humour he had displayed
in doing so and which had only spurred Severus’ ire, been fully confident that
he would pass. He had not. Instead, he had vented his anger and had retaliated
when reproved. Anything that reminded him of his old school tormentors rendered
him entirely irrational and clouded his judgement.
Looking back, Severus
suspected that if he had succeeded in keeping a level head in his
confrontations with his enemies, he would not only have avoided making a fool
of himself; he might also have managed to take his vengeance – an extra he
doubted Dumbledore had wanted to reckon with. He was so much more redoubtable
when he had his wits about him. The Headmaster’s hard lesson had borne its
fruit. It was now only a matter of how to achieve this distant aim.
He knew what it would
take. The Headmaster had more than once told him how essential it was that he
divest himself of his hatred, and of the burden of his memory. But as Severus
sat there in silence under the moonless, starry sky, thinking and smoking, he
did not see how he could possibly do such a thing, provided he even wanted to.
Because, all things considered, hatred was what propelled him forwards. It was his
troubled relationship with the ever so talented Potter and Black that had
driven him to work hard on his studies, to prove to the world it had no right
to despise him. His loathing of his father was what had made him resourceful
and independent. It was his ardent desire to, as his younger self had once so
delicately phrased it, ‘kick the Dark Lord’s arse’ that had led him to spying
for Dumbledore and secure a few small but welcome victories for the Order of
the Phoenix. His resentment of old Professor Bradshaw had pushed him towards
the excellence in potion making in which he now took such pride. Everything
positive in his life had its roots in his amazing capacity for deep, fierce
hatred. He felt that if he were to part with it he would simply disintegrate.
On the other hand, if he kept cherishing it, it was probably only a matter of
time before he spontaneously self-combusted.
Dumbledore had said to
him, years ago, just after Severus had returned from the trial that cleared his
name, that love and hate lie so closely together that a man such as he, who was
capable of passionate hate, must be capable of deep love also. He had
postulated love as a much better motivation for anyone’s actions, and advised
his pupil to look for it inside himself. Severus thought this was sentimental
rubbish that, though it obviously worked for the Headmaster, had no bearing on
him. He could not think of anyone he loved, unless he qualified the reverence
and respect he normally bore towards Dumbledore as affection, but even that regard
was not unconditional. He sometimes wished he could live in a world
miraculously devoid of people, and, coming to think of it, of animals too, as
he did not care for them either - though he was willing to make an exception
for cats, who were clever and didn’t trouble one.
It occurred to Severus for
the first time in twelve years that his nature might actually be in entire
contradiction to the spirit of the environment he had been moving in. He was
the one trochee in the otherwise perfectly composed iambic pentameter that
comprised the Headmaster and his four Heads of Houses. He was the one metrical
foot that could not be made to fit, consisting as it did of the same elements
as the others, but in the opposite sequence. And he had apparently reached the
limits of what poetic licence Dumbledore would allow.
A feeling of loss weighed
heavily in his chest. He had deluded himself into thinking he belonged at
Hogwarts, or, it had dawned on him, anywhere else. There was very simply no
such thing as belonging. There was no space that would magically absorb his
shape. There was only a ready-made mould, and he needed pruning to fit in. He
asked himself if he could stand being pruned, and if so, who would do it.
He sighed and stretched
his legs. Dumbledore and he had reached an impasse. One of them must apologise
and take a step towards reconciliation, or their ways must inevitably part. And
although he had threatened the Headmaster by saying that he might just go and
offer his services to Malfoy, he had never seriously considered doing so. He
would not be able to bear the man’s misplaced airs of superiority for long, and
he was only willing to take orders from someone above him in attainments and
talents, something Malfoy certainly was not. In truth, Severus recognised only
one master: Albus Dumbledore, the greatest warlock of the age.
A bitter smile curled the
corners of his mouth. If he wanted to stay at Hogwarts, and he had no intention
of leaving before he had learnt all there was to learn, he would have to eat humble
pie, though he had no stomach for it. He could, if he did not really feel it,
at least pretend to be sorry for his actions to begin with – it was impossible
that the Headmaster should make the first move and give him what he craved. He
wondered if he would ever be able to understand why Dumbledore had acted as he
had done, why he had refused to take Severus’ side despite his staunch loyalty
that was obviously greater than either Black’s or Lupin’s; and if, given the
right amount of time, he might be able to forgive him for it.
Just as he was about to
take a last puff from what was left of the cigar, he experienced a pain he had
not felt for long years. It was an unpleasant, stinging sensation on his left
forearm, and it made him start in alarm. A shudder ran along his spine as with
his right hand he unbuttoned the tight sleeve of his robes and the white shirt
underneath. The thing on his arm, which had been the delicate pink of a healing
scar for more than twelve years, had assumed a reddish hue.
Although the sight of the
reinvigorated Dark Mark filled him with mild apprehension, Severus could barely
resist a chuckle. It provided him with the ideal pretext to go to the
Headmaster without having to admit defeat. Dumbledore and he had a common goal
again, and Severus could suddenly explain to himself why he kept submitting to
the Headmaster’s commands: his enemy’s enemies were most definitely his
friends. If he was perfectly honest with himself – and even though it was
easier than being so with others, he still found it hard – he had to admit that
he was relieved at having an excuse at hand. He raised his eyebrows in
irritation and sincerely hoped he was not going soft. He Vanished the cigar
stump with his wand, left the battlement, and began a slow and thoughtful
descent of the West Tower. He was ready for more.
In the east, dawn’s pink
fingers touched the mountain tops.