Chapter 14: Dark Night
A hat. A singing hat, haunting him. Over and over again the same song, and then the jeers and the taunts and the fatality of it all. A nursery rhyme as cruel as a snake’s bite, poisoning his dreams.
“Oh you may not think I’m pretty, but don’t judge on what you see…I’ll eat myself if you can find a smarter hat than me…”
No, no! You’re not half as clever as you think! Your judgments are as ashes and dust!
“There’s nothing hidden in your head the Sorting Hat can’t see…So try me on and I will tell you where you ought to be…”
You can’t know that! You can’t see through to the heart! A hat cannot know love or hatred! What right have you to damn me, what?!
“You might belong in Gryffindor, where dwell the brave at heart…their daring, nerve, and chivalry set Gryffindors apart…”
Brave? Chivalrous?! Is that what cruelty is? Is that what represents the light?
“Or perhaps in Slytherin you’ll make your real friends…those cunning folks use any means to achieve their ends…”
No, no…I…lost…my friend…I don’t have friends…I…I don’t want friends…
“Yes you do,” her voice, trapped in memory, whispered in the dark, and he felt her arms around him again.
No! Get back! I’m unclean! See the grime of hate and blood of ambition, and the black letter they marked on my arm, and the scarlet letter they stitched through my soul….oh, it hurts so much, Lily…
“So put me on! Don’t be afraid! And don’t get in a flap! You’re in safe hands (though I have none), for I’m a Thinking Cap!”
Safe hands?! You killed…killed me…for a child’s weakness, you killed me! Why? In what way have I offended you?! Answer me!!
Harry Potter’s voice snapped him out of his dream. He was extremely disoriented as to time, but he assumed a full day must have passed since last the boy came to visit him. “What…what do you want?” he sputtered, just realizing how out of sorts his nerves were, and feeling his whole body trembling.
“You’re…shaking.” Harry’s words were blunt, cut though with foreboding.
“Venom,” he whispered, stifling a twitch. “Gotten farther along…nervous system…”
“Does…does it hurt a lot?”
“Are…are you trying…to take a bloody survey for The Daily Prophet?”
“I’m just…I just want to know what I should do…” The young man sounded disconcerted. “I…don’t want you to be in pain.”
“That’s not what you said…at the beginning,” Snape reminded him.
Harry felt a chill run through him, remembering his own furious words to Snape, just following the last battle, after discovering the man’s involvement in his parents’ death: “I hope you die, I hope you die slowly, and in pain!”
“You should know well enough how anger makes a person say awful things they never really meant,” Harry stated lowly. “Now…what would you have me do for you?”
“Just…do what you do…” Snape shrugged, making as if the boy should have known better than to ask such a fool question.
“So just…read to you, or what?”
“I really…don’t care, just…whatever, I…” His body tensed, strangely, and then shuddered again. Snape accidentally let a hiss slip through his clenched teeth.
“Well…here’s a rather intriguing volume,” Harry rattled. “I was avoiding it…says it’s a manual on dissecting owls for divining…”
Snape heard him flip open the book and then mutter, “Wait…this…this isn’t what the cover says it is…”
Harry squinted at the print and silently scanned the title, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. There was an engraving of a crucifix beneath the words. “This is written by…a saint?”
Snape grumbled under his breath at having his secret uncovered. “My mother…she was…of Irish stock. One of her people, he…was…was some bloody hedge priest…” He used the derogatory term his father had always used, just to cast shadows on this hidden part of himself. “It…came down from them…”
“Your mum…was Catholic?”
A bitter laugh rose in Snape’s throat. “I’ll shock you, boy…I’ll tell you…this death-eater was…named with Holy Water…and a priest’s blessing…”
He confirmed it with a nod. “Isn’t it…sick?”
“Why would it be sick?”
Snape pressed his hand against his temple, which was throbbing something horrible. “I’m…the Excommunicant…can you not see that? I am…the severing of bone…and marrow…cut off from…communion…”
“Did you ever actually practice, or were you just baptized, and that was it?”
“No…no…practicing,” he spat. “But…she told me…once…it was indelible, the mark…it could never be erased.” He smirked cynically. “I wonder which is the stronger…the mark of water, or the brand?” A slight chuckle, a slight cough. Then silence. Then solemnity. Then he spoke again. “She said once…that a Mass was more powerful than all the magic in the world. That it was…something that burned you to death…inside…and that death…would always make you come back to it, again and again and again…”
“Death?” Harry blurted. “I don’t understand…”
Snape was not sure he understood, either. But he tried to explain anyway. “The death…of God. That’s what it is. Uniting the whole world to it, over and over again…and yet…only once. It is…communion with…that death…the ultimate Death…”
“So you never went yourself?”
He closed his eyes tight. “He would have killed my mother…if she ever…took me. And I didn’t…care, I…I couldn’t…” He twitched. “Couldn’t see how anything…supposed to be so very powerful…God or Man or whatever that…twisted, suffocating thing on the tree was…would have…let himself be broken unto death…” Again he shivered. “Such a being I could never worship…I thought it…beneath my…intelligence. For when true power is yours, you would…put a stopper in death…you would fight against it, not…let it…swallow you up…”
His thoughts flashed to Voldemort, who spent his life fighting death, even unto his last horcrux, when the jig was finally up, and his wretched life stripped from his melted form. His thoughts rushed through all the horrors he had witnessed, and sometimes participated in, because he had been caught up the promises of an everlasting regime ruled by an undying darkness that would protect him and empower him…
“So…I worshipped…the rebellion,” he whispered. “For I would not…serve weakness…I would not serve…a dead man…” His mind shifted, latching onto another memory. “She told me…about the Easter Vigils…about the candles lighting up the place, and the Latin that was sung…not like spells…deeper than the spells. She said…there was…stained glass, of the Virgin in her blue, and the Child…holding a gold orb…and…it got smashed by rocks…mobs against the Papists…” Again, his head started hurting, and he pressed his fingers between his eyes. “They would take…take Corpus Christi. I never did…I…never communicated, never confessed…she had not done so in years…but she still wanted…a requiem Mass…a Mass…for the dead…she said…it gave…troubled souls their rest…”
“Did she ever get one?”
“No…no one would have one for her.” He shook his head jerkily. “Sometimes I think…some souls are just…too far gone to ever…rest.” He blinked, and stated softly, “It’s the same…no one would ever have a Mass for me…I’m not…clean, not…connected…no one would have a Mass…you see?” His breathing became heavier. “If anything good…comes to me…it goes bad, or dies. Nothing good…can touch me…nothing can help…”
“But you did keep this book?”
“That’s…exceedingly obvious…isn’t it?” he huffed. “I…it…was…worth something to me. Is that…such a crime?” His voice had taken on an edge of agitation, but the question seemed aimed at himself.
“No, of course not,” Harry responded in a measured voice. “Would you…mind if I read it?”
He sighed shakily, and gestured awkwardly with his hand. Whether it was a signal of consent or random annoyance was in question, but Harry looked down at the words standing out on the worn page anyway, and let the words roll off his tongue like velvet:
“Upon a dark night, the flame of love was burning in my breast, and by a lantern bright I fled my house while all in quiet rest.” He heard something hitch in Snape’s throat, as the dungeon bat’s blind eyes suddenly grew moist. “Shrouded by the night and by the secret stair I quickly fled. The veil concealed my eyes, while all within lay quiet as the dead…”
As if prompted by some memory that ran to the very core of his consciousness, Snape rasped, “Oh night, thou was my guide…oh, night…more loving…than the rising sun…”
He was forcing the stanza of the poem out, and it was causing him pain, but he seemed to need…to get it out…to grasp at some comfort he had secretly drawn many times from those words, when he felt insanity threatening to strangle him and his nerve snapping like a twig. And perhaps to express some sudden realization…at the heart of his pain…and Lily’s words…
“Sometimes you can’t cheat death, if you want to save others. You have to embrace it for them…”
Was that the answer to the riddle of the man on the cross, said to be brought down in flesh and blood at every Mass, and the poet who styled himself after it? Was it that strength was found in the heart of weakness, and life in the soul of death? Was it the one thing he would never have, but found himself begging for through his breaking voice? Was that the answer…now?
“Oh, night…that joined…the lover to the…beloved one…transforming each of them…into…the other…”
Then there was a choking, a gurgling, and dark blood came gushing out of his mouth.
Baptism…of water, desire, and blood…no taste of consecrated wheat or wine had ever touched his tongue, but the salivating of desire…and the stream of blood…
Harry closed his eyes to the horror of it for a moment, then rose and went to him. Snape was still shaking, his nerves all undone, and he twitched when Harry laid his hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Harry tried to calm him. “It’ll be okay…”
He waited for a sharp retort, but the blood in Snape’s mouth prevented it. The boy grabbed the towel next to the cot and sopped up the purple liquid running down his face. Harry knew…he knew the man was…scared. The final countdown had started, and the sand had almost run out.
Snape winced at the rough sensation of the towel against his face. “You’re supposed to…say something…smart…” he slurred through bloody saliva.
Harry blinked. Did Snape relish the idea of their tit-for-tat, as some sense of normalcy in this ghastly moment?
“Well, just goes to show what making a fuss over poetry can do to a person,” Harry tried lamely. He knew it was pathetic, but he heard a slight chuckle deep in the man’s throat.
Then Snape muttered softly, “You’re supposed to…make it hurt.” His blind eyes seemed watery, and his tone contained no sarcasm, just dejection, resignation to always facing some form or other of torment all his life. “I’m bleeding…you’re supposed to make it…hurt worse…when…I’m bleeding…”
Yes, it always egged them on, seeing his blood. His father. The grade school bullies. The Marauders. The Dark Lord and his minions. When they saw him injured, weakened, they came in like sharks for the taste of blood. They took pleasure in his pain, twisting up his emotions when his body was broken. Why should this Marauder’s son be any different in the end?
“I…don’t want to hurt you,” Harry murmured, and there was sincerity in his voice.
“You should…” the man panted. “I…I took your mother away from you…I…murdered her…with my words…and I cursed your father…to burn in hell…for his touch upon her, that caused you…” He bit down hard on his lip, and it hurt…it hurt. “You…you should…want to…hurt me…hurt me now…”
Again he fell into a coughing fit, his mind spinning in delirious circles, and again Harry steadied him with his hand as he struggled to regain breath. He could do nothing else. Whatever this man had done, had said, had thought…they were just two human beings now, tortured in their own unique ways, and brought together in this moment, in this place. So he may have cursed the act of Harry’s conception, the man who brought him into being; it mattered not. All Harry could feel now was oneness with his suffering and the instinctive urge to help, if at all possible.
“What if she thought…she thought I wanted to hurt her? That I did it…on purpose? What if…if he told her that…before he struck…?” Snape spit out, in anguish at the very thought, as more blood ran out of his mouth and into the towel Harry had outstretched, flakes of flesh manifested in a sea of red, a testament to the way the venom was wearing away at his lungs.
“Calm down, calm…just take it easy…” Her boy tried to soothe him as he soaked the towel in water, and let the coolness wash over the man’s lips.
Snape seemed shocked at the moistness, as if it were the last thing he ever expected. “Drink…?” he rasped in surprise as the precious drops of water ran onto his parched tongue and cleansed away the metallic taste.
“Yes, drink,” Harry whispered, finishing cleaning off his face and then putting aside the towel. Still, he felt the need to leave his other hand lingering on Snape’s shoulder as he waited for him to regain his breath. He wondered when his old teacher would come to his senses, realize the boy’s hand was on his shoulder, and shrug him off like an irksome insect.
But even though his head inclined slightly towards him, Snape made no effort to thrust him off. Maybe because he was too worn out, or maybe…there was more. His eyes seemed hazed over in a way quite unfamiliar to them. It was almost as if…he was drawing comfort from the sense of touch.
“Potter,” he croaked.
“Yeah? I mean…yes?”
Snape did not respond for a long, long time, and Harry began to think that what he wanted to say was simply…stay. But then more words trickled out.
“I…I…want…” He inhaled shakily. “I want…you to know… she…loved your father…so I want…him to be….with her…not…not where I’m going…” Then he shivered, as if letting go of his Lily to his most hated enemy for all eternity was the hardest thing he had ever managed in his life. “I could not…even kill him, when I wanted to…because you were too strong…in his mind. The thought of his child…with her eyes…saved his life. And you…came from…that love. It’s in…your skin…and that’s the only thing…worth fighting for…worth dying for…remember that, alright?”
Harry swallowed hard, not sure what to think or say, but just stroked Snape’s shoulder gently, reassuringly. He had done a braver thing this night than in all his years worth of playing the thankless games of treachery in the wizarding wars.
“Boy, tell me…what day is it today?”
“Friday,” he answered.
“The Friday of Easter week,” Snape mumbled. “No Mass in all the world is said on this day…” His voice drifted with his thoughts. Then he asked Harry, “Can you…do something for me?”
“What do you need? I’ll do what I can.”
He closed his eyes tight. “Read…read the end. Please.”
Snape had said please to him! Harry shuddered. Still, he pulled himself together, picked up the poetry book again, and read the end of the poem that had drawn the man’s blood from him: “I lost myself, and laid my face upon my lover’s breast…and care and grief grew dim, as in the morning’s mist became the light…and there it dimmed amongst the lilies…”
He understood now, all at once. This was the chink in the armor he had let no one expose, this was that crystal drop of something supremely beautiful to imagine, when everything around him was hideous. This was the place of peace he could think upon when his own resolve betrayed him, and the bitterness inside became too much to swallow. Though the whole world might have bled out as black as his cloak, the petals of some flowers would always be white as the clouds, as the snows, in pristine purity. And he still clung to them.
Even though he had all but given himself over to despair, there was some instinct drawing him to think upon the morning light rending the mist and the bloom of lilies somewhere beyond the veil. It was deeper in him than even the blinding pain. Within that was some broken seed of a tremulous hope, and a tremulous humanity, and Harry saw that connecting to these things had indeed calmed his agitation, and soon let him drift off into a more peaceful sleep.
Avellina Balestri (aka Rosaria Marie) is one of the founding members and the Editor-in-Chief of The Fellowship of the King, a literary magazine with a strong Tolkienite influence (which, by the way, is open to submissions). She reads and writes extensively, and eagerly seeks out the deeper spiritual significance of popular fandoms such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. And yes, she does have a soft spot in her heart for classic Disney movies, The Princess Bride, and Merlin 😉 She is also a recording artist, singing traditional folk songs and her own compositions as well as playing the penny whistle and bodhran drum. She draws her inspiration from the Ultimate Love and Source of Creativity, and hopes to share that love and creativity with others.