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On the Naming of Names
Jay Tryfanstone
2005

As for that night, let darkness seize upon it: let it not be joined unto the days of the year: let it not come into the number of the months.
For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
I was not in safety, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.


Job 3 6, 25-26

 

Severus Snape, on a bridge, in Prague. Hand clasped to his arm, sick and dizzy, hit sideways by pain he has not felt for seven years, stone of the parapet harsh against his back, breath knifing through his lungs with the smell of stale incense and old photographs. Severus Snape, kicked out of composure, robes tangled round his feet, hair streaking his eyesight, sweat slicking his armpits, his crotch, the undefended and vulnerable space between his shoulderblades. Severus Snape looking up, half blinded, to see all along the bridge statue after statue turn their heads, metal screaming outside the range of human hearing, unseeing eyes fixed, watching. The air itself bulges and waves, pressure like the wait before the storm hits, not a catspaw on a lake but the path of the hurricane, terrible and blind, tourists and travelers and gypsies parting and closing, the street merchant's paintings rippling, tearing, thread tangling, glass kicked over, shattered, cloth surging from the pavement, coins scattering, cloud over the sun and cold kicks in like the ghost of winter and all the shadows rise to eat the light, blot it out, consume it.

And then gone.

Only Snape, flotsam on the wave, remains. Nothing has happened. The German tourists in their shorts, the satcheled students, the bar-owner with his mustache and his paunch, the girl with the spangled hair and the careless boys in leather and plaid, pass, the vendors pick up their coins and smooth the cloth back down to the stone bone of the bridge, the statues are as still as if they never have moved and never will. His arm aches only with the lost memory of pain. The sweat dries, itching, and from the cobbled streets behind him comes the thin sound of the hammers of the clock striking time.

Snape unclenches the fingers of his right hand from his left forearm, one by one, and feels the blood run bee-sting hot into the white bruises. His robes unfurl, his hair falls back, his wand is heavy in its pocket and the parcel of herbs lies untouched at his feet. Bending, he scrabbles to pick it up, stands, breaths, and walks up the bridge, back straight, black and arrogant, a serpent amongst the innocent. And if the wind alone whips tears from his eyes, it is no one's business but his own.

Oh, Prague has ghosts. Lying in his bed at night, Snape can hear the footsteps of something - not quite human - pass clay-clodded and heavy up the street outside his front door. In the cafe on the square where he takes his coffee he will turn his head and see, sometimes, the thin-faced waist-coated absinthe-scented wraith of a poet he once loved. In the crowd, sometimes, the faces of a thousand dead Jews, fixed, shoulders bent. The thin fingers of poverty and famine, the fat shadows of lust and greed, Prague has them all. In Snape's own house, ramshackle and tip-tilted, the cross-legged figure of a tailor sewing regimental scarlet by the light of a single candle that casts no shadows, the scent of ambergris and wine and ill-earned diamonds ghosting past in a breath of cold air, a waiting dread that falls and is gone in a second but leaves Snape himself listening for the knock on the door. All this is familiar and known. What he saw on the bridge - what he lies in his bed and considers - is something completely different, something unknown, something that sends his mind flinching from thought.

Snape retreats into sleep.

Snape dreams.

In his dreams, Snape is back at Hogwarts. This is not unusual. Snape dreams, often, of his laboratory, his rooms, cool and cloistered, of the taste of sherbet lemons and the shape of steam rising from a paper-thin porcelain cup. These are good dreams. This is not.

In his dream, Snape is seated at the high table. To his right, McGonagall. To his left, Trelawney. At the head of the table that beloved fool, Albus Dumbledore, in silver and black. Over his head, the stars of an enchanted ceiling. In front of him, four long tables crowded with children, loaded with plates, trenchers, platters. The great door makes no sound when it opens, and he only notices the chatter of childish voices and Hagrid's great burr of a growl when they are gone. Heads turn. Slowly, one by one, inevitably. Snape himself, in his dream, delays as long as possible the moment when he must look up and see, as he does, Harry Potter standing in the doorway. Harry Potter with his school robes rumpled and the white line of his muggle T-shirt showing at the neck, with his wand clasped in his hand and his glasses cracked, with blood spattering his hands and sprayed across his neck and the curve of his cheek, with his hair standing on end. For a moment, Harry Potter stands in the doorway, real as the oak planks of the table Snape's hands grasp, and then his image wavers and fades, tattered round the edges as if caught by the wind, but there is no wind.

All the candles blow out as one. Peeves screams. Snape remembers Peeves screaming, high pitched and resentful. Dumbledore stands up, a blur at the edges of his vision. Stars fall from the ceiling. Snape stands. Harry Potter looks across the tables, the hall, the ranks of students and teachers. He says, he says, silently - but Snape has had seven years to discern the shape Harry Potter's mouth makes in his dream - I'm sorry. Sometimes Harry Potter says this to Snape, in his dream, but most of the time he says it to Dumbledore and this is actually true. Then he vanishes. The moon behind him snuffs out a moment later. A heartbeat after that, Draco Malfoy starts to scream, silently, as his body crumples in on itself, clenching like thin parchment cast on a blaze, twisted and shredded, and with him Goyle, Crabbe, Parkinson, Lowe, Burrin, Trelawney beside Snape, Fuchs, MacCauley, Darg, Vintner, Dumblebore, obscenely, aging a decade a second, flesh crumbling from his bones. Student after student, gone, the wards on the castle wailing as they are torn from their foundations, gone, the food on the tables, gone, the ghosts, gone, the very words of the spells themselves, gone. The mark on Snape's arm, gone as if it never existed. MacGonagall is a cat. Hagrid is a stone giant. Children run from the hall. Trelawney fades into smoke and is gone. Snape -

Snape wakes, shaking, his throat raw, and rises from his bed and makes himself strong black tea.

To make tea, Snape lights the stove with his own hands, reaches down the enameled canister with its tealeaves and assembles mug and sugar and spoon on his kitchen table with his own hands, because although Snape's wand rests in its pocket close to his heart as it always has, all the magic is gone.

Snape has never known what it was to hate until one evening in July, seven years ago.

Before dawn breaks, Severus Snape locks his house against intruders and stalks down the cramped cobbles of his street to the corner of the square below, where he catches the first of the early morning trams to Vivestia. He carries with him his wallet, his satchel of oils and unguents, his wand and the remnants of his pride. In a carpark outside a block of flats near the coach station, Snape spreads out the crimson velvet of his stall and lays out the tiny bottles of scent, the bases and finished salves of his living. Next to him someone sells blueberries from a pail: next to her, someone else sells mismatched cutlery and pirated CDs. Snape accepts a heavy-based copper saucepan in trade, and refuses a stolen camera. He makes enough money to cover his expenses for the next few days, and when he has done so he packs up his goods and goes in search of the man who occasionally sells Snape raw alum.

Passing the darkest corner of the market, Snape sees, from the corner of his eye, a cloth spread with plants. As any herbalist would, he turns aside.

Wild garlic and chervil: fennel, loosestrafe, bundles tied with dirty string: the first puffballs of the year and the last primroses. Mandrake and wild horse radish, the corm of a lily, out of season now, it won't flower this year or maybe never -

Mandrake.

And next to it the distinction cloven leaves of hart's tongue, browning, but still firm.

"How much?" says Severus Snape.

It costs him the sum of that week's rent and his weekly half bottle of rowan vodka.

He borrows, bottling his resentment, a silver knife from the woman who lives on the corner, faded Venetian lace curtains and pale blue eyes. At the stroke of midnight he sets the mandrake to soak in a pan meant for pig-blood soup and adds street ethanol, the pulverised stems of the hart's tongue, and the ground bones of a mummified cat. If he could, he would have added the tongue of a man, for no one here will judge the colour of his magic and in his own eyes he is already dammed. For four hours, on the hour, he stirs the potion widdershins with the twisted branch of a hawthorn tree. Seven years ago, his ears would have been stoppered and his hands gloved, and the steps of the Ministry Aurors would have been outside his door well before he was done.

At the end of the fifth hour he adds his own blood.

At the end of the sixth hour he decants the liquor, stringy and gritty with lees, into a silver flask, and goes to bed.

Snape dreams he is at Hogwarts again. He is seated at the high table, and the enchanted ceiling hangs over his head with all its stars bright against the velvet darkness. At his right is MacGonagall, at his left Trelawney. Albus Dumbledore, bumbling, loved, sits at the head of the table. Before him stretch four tables lined with children, loaded with plates. There is a breeze that he notices only when the candles blow out. He looks up, and the great door is opening. On its steps stands Harry Potter, his glasses crazed, his wand in his hand, his robes in disarray. His hair is disheveled and spiked. Blood stipples his hands, his shoulder, the line of his neck, his cheek, dapples the right lens of his glasses. His mouth opens. Snape has had seven years to work out what the shape of Harry Potter's mouth says, although Potter says the words to Dumbledore, not to him. Dumbledore stands. Snape himself rises. "Help me." Says Harry Potter, his image wavering. The unseen, unheard wind blows him out like the snuffed flame of a bedside lamp. The moon darkens. Peeves screams. Draco screams. MacGongall's hands shrink, curl up, fur, her fingernails lengthening and sharpening. Hagrid shivers once and is deathly still. Dumbledore ages, obscenely, skin and bone falling to dust. The children run, gone. The wards shriek. The words, the words themselves, the words...gone. Snape himself -

Snape wakes and lies sweating in his bed. His house smells of old potion, blood and bones and stewed vegetables soft as compost. It is not an unfamiliar smell: it is, in its own way, reassuring.

At half past two in the afternoon Snape takes his robe off the peg by the door, puts the silver flask in his pocket, and, careful to lock up, heads down his street, through the square, past the cafes, and onto the bridge, At ten minutes to three he pauses, looking at old postcards and silver earrings he has no interest in purchasing. At two minutes to three he moves to the edge of the bridge, as if looking at the view. At one minute to his arm begins to ache: he takes the flask out of his pocket, uncorks it, and swallows the potion. Pain lashes across his forearm: he drops the flask and grasps it, panting: falls back against the parapet. His mouth is dry and tastes of blood, and the acrid sweetness of hart's tongue. There is a word for this. There is a word. It is called -

The first head turns.

It is called-

And the second, metal stressed, screaming. The air itself wavers.

It is called true seeing.

If he had added the dead man's tongue it would have been true sight, and he would have heard as well as well as seen. He should have ground the bones more finely. In his workshop at Hogwarts, there was a granite pestle he used to use, conveniently roughened. He learnt this at his grandmother's knee. He can remember the page of the book, with its woodcut of a witch and a cauldron and a cat: there is a word for that too. It is called -

All along the bridge, heads are turning.

A grimoire.

The pain in his arm is crippling. He falls to his knees. The air bells, curves, swells: the cloth of his robe, the paintings, the postcards, are caught by a breeze he alone can see. Coins scatter across the stone. Space, time, ball like an avalanche, coming: all the magic in the world and all the words for it, blind as the serpent at the foot of the tree, terrible as the finger of God. In it are riddles and cantrips, curses like storm-tossed ravens, love-words, pottery incised and cauldrons bespoke, a black cat's eyes and a tumbling clown, essays and wishes and dreams, words black, words never spoken and songs unsung and spells unmade.

Snape closes his eyes, lest he go blind, and although it hurts like the breath of a...dragon...he stretches his arm into the wind, and he catches...something...and holds it fast through all the spinning, sickening whirl of the world gone mad.

And all is still.

He looks down.

He almost walks away. He thinks about walking away.

Severus Snape stands on a bridge, in Prague. At his feet the naked, battered body of a boy - a man - black-haired and thin as himself. Severus Snape, in an instant consumed with hate, eaten by it, ridden by it, so dark and vicious he can feel the blood in his mouth. To his left, a man who sells careless paintings, turning, frowning, to his right a woman who sells leather brooches and unlikely earrings, turning. In front of him two German tourists in shorts and an Englishwoman with a thin pale blue jacket and a face which has overseen half a hundred Women's Institute bring-and-buy sales. Severus Snape, cursing ineffectually, unsnaps his robes, drops them around Harry Potter's stiff body, and sets his hands to lifting the boy from the pavement.

He is frighteningly light.

Snape half pulls, half drags Harry Potter along the bridge, up the street, through the square. It is not unusual, in Prague, to see the incapacitated, the drunk, the ill. Potter's arm lies round Snape's neck and his heels jar on the cobbles of Snape's street. Through his own front door, into his own space. Lays him out on the kitchen floor and looks at him.

"You could have walked, damn you," says Severus Snape, panting.

But Potter does not reply.

"I suppose you expect me to look after you," Snape says, his breath still coming hard.

But Potter still does not speak. By the shape of his pupils and the lax fall of his hands, it will be a long time before he says anything at all. There are bruises on his arm in the shape of Snape's fingers. His glasses are cracked, and across his shoulder, his neck, his cheek, is a spatter of blood so old it is black. Harry Potter, the golden boy of Gryffindor, smells of sewage, of something rank and very, very dead.

Snape, without magic, keeps a house of bachelor neatness. His boots, cracked, are polished, his draining board clean, and he changes his sheets once a week. He bathes, on Friday nights, in front of the fire, using the hipbath he found four years ago in the outhouse.

It takes half an hour to heat the water.

Severus Snape considers disembowlment. Slowly. Also the fletchette blades he once owned, sitting in a leather case lined with black velvet, sere and sharp, all the better for cutting skin with. Dissection. Vivisection. Flaying. He could pin Harry Potter's skin to his front door and issue tickets.

The water steams. Snape reaches for his facecloth and his oatmeal soap. He draws the line at hair, but he cleans, roughly, Harry Potter's feet, his armpits, his crotch, and all space in-between, and when he is done he carries the boy to his own bed.

Then and only then does he make himself tea. He makes, in succession, three cups of tea, all of which are chamomile, and none of which do anything to soothe the crawling of his skin or the churning of his digestive organs. His fingers itch and tap at the mug. The words - all the sharp, bitter cruel words - crowd his throat. He remembers Albus, dying.

Somewhere around the dregs of the third mug, Potter stirs.

His hands pluck at the bedcover, once, twice, and rise to the bridge of his nose where they feel, ineffectively, for his glasses, which Snape has providentially placed on the kitchen worksurface. His eyelashes flutter. His eyes open. He looks, blinded, across the room, the single room of Snape's life, its bed, its chair, its table, all the accouterments of Snape's miserable muggle-hued life. He says, even as his eyes are closing, "Lumos."

And there is light.

Snape, on his own, crouched in the outhouse. Snape in the dark of the outhouse where the indifferent spiders chatter behind the woodwork, where the moss grows green on the limestone flags of the floor, where the plank on which he sits is worn smooth by generations of muggles. Snape, bent over his wand, fingers clenched and cramping, sweat stinging his eyes. Snape's mouth forming the word over and over again, not daring to put sound to it, faint as a beetle's dying breath.

"Lumos," Snape says, silently, over and over again. "Lumos. Lumos."

And at last, dares, voice cracking, to put sound to it.

"Lumos."

And there is light.

Snape, crying, silently, at last, the gulping gasping shudders of a man, crying.


Fin.