Author's notes: There is some reference to my story "Shedding One's Soul" (first chapter) at the end of this story, so you might want to read it, too, in order to fully understand this one.
"Why do you hate me so?" Harry looked up from the cauldrons as he addressed the dark figure behind the desk.
This certainly was not a question he should have asked, but it had been ruminating in his mind for many weeks, there was no way to restrain it anymore. Harry steeled himself against the inevitable outburst of cold rage that would hit him any second now. But it did not come. Instead of anger, the sallow face of the Potions master merely exhibited his trademark sneer as he looked up from the papers he was grading.
"Why are you so convinced that I hate you, Potter?" Snape asked in his soft, silky voice, arching up one dark eyebrow mockingly.
"I know you do! From the first moment we met you had it in for me! Asked me questions nobody could possibly answer, taunted me, ridiculed me, threatened me, failed me in Potions, and you have tried to get me expelled again and again all those years!" Harry answered hotly.
"You forgot one item on your list, Potter." The silky voice again. "I saved your pathetic life."
True. The greasy git had saved his life when Professor Quirrell, the former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, had tried to kill him during a Quidditch match in his first year at Hogwarts. He had never quite understood why Snape had done that (that Harry's father had saved Snape's life when they were Hogwarts students couldn't be all there was to the story) until he had learned that the evil Potions master and former Death Eater was a spy for Professor Dumbledore and his Order of the Phoenix. Snape obviously knew that Harry was somehow important in the fight against Voldemort and therefore must be kept alive for the final show-down by all means, even if this meant that Snape had to safe Harry's life. But it did not mean that it was not allowed to hate him, to make his life miserable, to deduce house-points from him for no reason at all, to ... - there was no end to that list. Of course, Snape deduced points from other Gryffindors, too, but Harry had been the special focus of his malice from the very beginning, even Hermione had to admit that.
"Thank you so much for saving my ass, then. But I know you didn't do it for me but for the damned cause!"
"Manners, Potter!" Snape hissed dangerously. "Or you'll serve another detention with me. And heed your work!"
But Harry wasn't in a mood to stand back from his initial question. Though it might be better to finish scrubbing those cauldrons first. He had been in the dreary dungeons for more than two hours already and hadn't cleaned half of them yet. And there still remained Neville's cauldrons ...
Snape continued grading papers, one after the other from a huge pile, leaving scathing remarks in red ink on the parchments. Harry could almost feel the sick joy the Professor must derive from writing a large and accusatory F under many of the essays in his flowing handwriting.
When, hours later, Harry finally finished his last cauldron – one which Neville had coated with a sticky and evilly smelling coat of burnt in potion – Snape was through with grading, too. The dark Professor leaned back in his chair, bringing one spidery finger to the side of his overlarge nose as if contemplating on some important issue.
"I see you are finally done, Potter. You may go. Though if you are still interested in discussing my attitude towards your person ..." He sneered again. Would anybody be so foolish to voluntarily stay in the dungeons with the dreaded Potions instructor for longer than absolutely necessary? Snape was sure every student in his right mind would take the chance and run. But with Potter, it might be different, though. He tended to be quite courageous and stubborn sometimes, Snape had to admit. And indeed, Harry, though somewhat alarmed by his Professor's unusual proposal, stood his ground. Maybe he would never have the opportunity again to find an answer to his question.
"Is it because of what my father did to you that you hate me?" he blurted out. Snape's face turned even more sinister than before.
"How often must I remind you that a Hogwarts Professor is to be addressed as 'sir'? I should have thought you had learned that during the last five years!" he snarled.
Always the same game. Ok, he would call him 'sir,' then, if that was what made the greasy git happy.
"Is it because of my father, sir?"
"That would be too easy, wouldn't it?" Snape leaned over his desk coming uncomfortably close to Harry with his prominent nose. "I must admit it doesn't really help that you are so much alike your father. But it's far more complicated than that. You wouldn't understand it anyway, you are a Gryffindor." From Snape's mouth it almost sounded like a disgusting disease.
The Professor leant back in his chair again.
"Do you really think that Gryffindors don't hate, sir?" Harry could not suppress the irritation in his voice when asking that question. All Gryffindors hated Snape, for example.
"I'm not talking about something as trivial as love or hate. Even imbecile Gryffindors may know about that, I suppose." The smirk in his face indicated that Snape knew exactly whom much of the Gryffindors' hate was directed at. He was standing now, pacing up and down the space behind his desk. "I'm talking about good and evil, Potter, about innocence and depravity, the great themes of humankind. But why am I wasting my time on you? -You're certainly immune to those concepts."
"And you certainly are an expert, at least at what concerns the latter term, sir." Now he was going much too far again in his anger. You didn't provoke the Professor like that. But with his constant insults the greasy git always managed to anger him beyond reason. Strangely enough, Snape didn't jump at him or make the glass jars burst above his head. He only stared. Then he sat down again as if nothing had happened.
"I don't consider myself an expert in anything - except Potions, perhaps. So I won't give you a lecture on the secrets of the human soul. If you are eager to learn about it, however – what I strongly doubt – I recommend you read on it – that is if you know what a book is ... . Have you ever heard of Herman Melville, by chance, Potter?"
"The Muggle who wrote 'Moby Dick'?" The seething anger about Snape's snide remarks gave way to utter surprise. Snape, of all people, was reading Muggle literature?
"For the very last time, Potter, you are to call me 'sir'!" Snape snarled, and Harry's anger was in place again. "Melville was indeed a Muggle," the Professor continued rather annoyed, "but one of those few specimens that dive deep into the abysses of the human soul. He explored the phenomenon of good and evil in his books almost all his life, like an obsession. The last novel he wrote before he died, alone and forgotten, was 'Billy Budd, Sailor.' Read it, and you might gain some enlightening insights. Dismissed!"
Harry couldn't believe his luck. He was dismissed. Not thrown out of the class-room for his insolence, or torn into pieces by a frantic Potions master. Snape had even answered a few of his questions, in a quite enigmatic way he had to admit, but that was more than he had expected. Probably he should read this book. What was its title again? – 'Billy Budd, something'. Didn't sound especially exciting. Hermione might know it, though, that would spare him the trouble to read the book himself. He already looked froward to seeing his friends' faces when he told them about Snape recommending Muggle novels ...
When he told them the astonishing news, Ron almost choked on his chocolate frog, and Hermione was so baffled that she was absolutely speechless for more than a whole minute – and that meant a lot in her case. It was priceless. But unfortunately, Hermione hadn't read the book.
"You see, Harry, I'm always so busy reading my school books, I almost totally gave up reading Muggle literature. And 'Billy Budd' isn't on the syllabus for Muggle Studies, either. Wonder how Snape should know it ..."
"It's probably a manual about how best to intimidate and torture students," said Ron, who had finally recovered his breath. "There seem to be Muggle teachers who don't lack so far behind the greasy git in this respect. At least that's what Dean says. Though Muggle teachers can't turn you into a Chizpurfle."
"Snape wouldn't do any such thing, you know that, Ron," Hermione scolded. "His teaching methods aren't exactly pleasant but he is undoubtedly an expert in his field."
"In intimidating people, you mean ..."
"Could you stop quarreling for once, please? You do sound like an old couple, you know." Their constant bickering was quite annoying sometimes. "I am really curious about that book. Do you think they have it in the library, Hermione?"
"I don't think so, Harry," his friend answered. "But Mom can get it for you, as an early Christmas present, if you want."
The following Saturday evening, Harry was sitting in his favorite chair in front of the fireplace in the Gryffindor common room, a mug of warm pumpkin juice in one hand and a book in the other. Since the recommendation came from Snape, he had expected the book to be a baggy old tome, but luckily, the story was less than a hundred pages. He might even finish it tonight and finally find an answer to the questions that kept on spinning in his mind. He had even dreamed about a conversation with Snape last night. It had ended in disaster (Harry turned into a Flubberworm and pickled in a glass jar filled with a slimy green and silver liquid by the hands of a frenzied Potions master). Trelawney would be ecstatic if he wrote that dream into his dream diary ...
In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group bronzed mariners, man-of-war's men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty. In certain instances they would flank, or like a bodyguard quite surround, some superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation,1
the story began. Harry moaned. Trust Snape to recommend the most old-fashioned and tedious book he could possible find. Why couldn't that Melville guy just say 'clothes' instead of 'attire,' like every decent person. And who in the world was 'Aldebaran'? Probably, he rather join Ron and the twins in their game of exploding snap? Even knitting shapeless elf socks with Hermione might be more interesting than this. But then he would never find out. With a heartfelt sigh Harry continued to read. It was past midnight when he was finally finished. He slammed the book shut and yawned. It hadn't been that bad, no, quite difficult and full of digressions, but somehow there was a certain beauty and power to the language, some strangely fascinating quality. And the story itself wasn't that bad, either. But he still had to figure out what it had to do with him and Snape. He had a vague idea, but it was quite confusing. Was Snape suggesting that their relationship was like the one between Billy Budd and Claggart, the master-of-arms? True, there were certain parallels, especially between Claggart and the Potions master, strikingly enough even physical ones: "about five-and-thirty, somewhat spare and tall, yet of no ill figure upon the whole," jet hair – silken in Claggart's case, greasy in Snape's, and a pallor of the skin that hinted of "something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood."2 Hadn't Ron and he speculated about Snape being a half-Vampire-something quite frequently? Even their smiles seemed to be alike, a "bitter smile," or "rather a grimace."3 And both Claggart and Snape had a mysterious, dark past ... . But what was this stuff about natural depravity? Did Snape believe he was, like Claggart in the book, such a one, "in whom was the mania of an evil nature, [...] born with him and innate, in short 'a depravity according to nature'"4 That he envied and hated Harry for his innocence? But wasn't the scar on his forehead a sign of the evil serpent as well as the Mark on Snape's left forearm? And was the Potions master really evil? He was a member of the Order of the Phoenix and fought on their side! He couldn't be all that evil, could he?
It was long until Harry found sleep that night.
"It's not true."
"What?" Snape looked up from the parchments he was grading, irritation and annoyance clearly written in his face.
"What's said in the book, "Billy Budd", I mean, sir." For a brief moment, there was a hint of surprise in the Potions master's expression before his usual sneer was in place again.
"If you mean that you won't slay me in a stuttering fit of rage, I'm very much relieved, indeed." The sarcasm was almost palpable in Snape's voice.
"I won't and you won't bear false witness against me in front of the Headmaster, either, sir."
"How can you be so sure I won't?" A vicious grin played around the Potions master's lips. And was there a mad glint of malice in the Professor's eyes? How could he be so sure, indeed?
"You tried to get me expelled more than often enough, but never with a lie, sir."
"Oh, that's mostly thanks to you. With your habit of breaking school rules you yourself provided more than ample evidence for me to use against you. A shame it never worked so far." The almost permanent sneer on Snape's face broadened into something that reminded Harry of a hungry hyena, definitely predatory. Many first-years (and also Neville Longbottom) would certainly have fainted on the spot if this grin had been directed at them. But Harry wasn't intimidated that easily anymore. Hadn't he fought a possessed Quirrell, a deathly Basilisk, and a Hungarian Horntail, and won? And he had duelled the most evil wizard in the world, or at least in Great Britain, and gotten away with his life. So, why should he be afraid of one of his teachers?
"You wouldn't lie to Dumbledore, sir. And the stuff about 'natural depravity' isn't true, either. There is no such thing, nor am I innocent." The conviction in Harry's voice left Snape stunned, something that had never happened before.
"Did you know that there is a film version of the book, sir?" Harry continued.
"In the film, Billy Budd confronts Claggart about his behavior one night ..."
Billy probably shouldn't have done that, though. It was the night before Claggart went to Captain Vere to blackmail him what ultimately led to both Claggart's and Billy's tragic deaths. What would Snape do if he told him the very same things? Explode? But there was no way he could stop what he had started now.
"I'm waiting, Potter." The Professor was tapping his desk with his long, pale fingers. There was annoyance in his voice, but also something else – nervousness? Was Snape nervous about what he was going to say?
"Billy told Claggart that he hated everybody because he hated himself. And that Claggart wasn't evil but only a very lonely man." Now it was out. Should he run for his life?
Snape sat still like a statue for a moment, too stunned to do or say anything.
"Dismissed!" he finally managed to hiss through clenched teeth. And this time, Harry felt no desire to remain in the dungeons one single second longer than necessary. He grabbed his bag and hurried out of the classroom without looking back.
Snape was pacing up and down his office, seething with anger. What was that boy thinking – if he thought at all? Trying psychoanalysis on his Professor? Would he accuse him of suffering from the 'Oedipus complex' next time? Or probably from 'penis envy'? He should never have talked to Potter, never. He had underestimated the boy, never believed he would obtain the book and actually read it. And confront him about it. And the worst was, Potter had struck a nerve.
Snape let himself collapse into the armchair in front of the fireplace and stared into the flames. Potter was right. He hated himself for what he'd done when he was a Death Eater. Terrible things. He pressed clenched fists to his tightly closed eyes to not see, but the revolting images were in his head. There was no escape. How should he not hate himself?
But then there was the blood-issue. Dumbledore had often tried to convince him that there is no such thing as natural depravity. But he knew better. He knew the beast, the darkness, the serpent eating at his soul or what was left of it. The evil serpent's blood coursed through his veins, invaded every fiber of his being, there was no denying it. Sure, he could fight it. He had kept fighting for over fifteen years, now. But the constant struggle was draining his strength. The permanent pressure, his responsibilities as teacher, Head of house, and spy began to weigh him down, to make controlling the beast more and more difficult. What if he finally lost control, if the beast broke free? He trembled at the thought. Would the dungeon roof collapse and bury students and professors under burning debris – like that night many years ago when he had killed Scelestus Snape and Caligula Malfoy?
He was so tired of it all, so terribly tired. And alone ...
Silent tears were slowly sliding down the Potions master's gaunt face for the first time in more than fifteen years as he stared into the dying flames.
1 H. Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor and other Stories, London: Penguin, 1985, p. 321.
2 H. Melville, Billy Budd ..., p. 342
3 H. Melville, Billy Budd ..., p. 350
4 H. Melville, Billy Budd ..., p. 353
Here is a short summary of "Billy Budd, Sailor" (it's from the internet, but somehow the address always gets lost when I upload the document):
It is the end of the eighteenth century, and Billy Budd is a young sailor on a merchant ship called the Rights-of-Man. Billy is a beautiful young man, a specimen of what Melville calls the Handsome Sailor. He is young, simple, innocent, a foundling with no real family, and his charm and good nature put the men around him at ease. The narrator tells us of Billy's one serious weakness: when seized by strong emotion, he stutters.
The time is one of dread for the British Empire: from the continent, Napoleon's ambitions and France's revolutionary fervor menace the world. The navy is extremely short-handed, and recent mutinies have threatened the force that is the foundation of Britain's prosperity and defense. The navy continues to depend on impressments, or forced conscriptions, to fill its rosters.
Billy's merchant ship is boarded by the H.M.S. Bellipotent, but the boarding officer, Lieutenant Ratcliffe, chooses only Billy for impressment. Even so, Captain Graveling protests: Billy, he says, is the ship's peacemaker. By his mere beauty and goodness he puts the men into good spirits. Nonetheless, Billy and his captain have no choice, and Billy is set on his way. As he leaves, he cries out with unknowing prophecy, "And goodbye to you too, old Rights-of-Man".
Life aboard the new ship agrees with Billy. He becomes a foretopman, and loves his new position. Though less a center of attention than he was aboard the merchant ship, Billy does not notice the difference. He is well-liked, and makes friendships quickly. He brings smiles to the faces of the officers and the older, weathered sailors. But he also draws the attention of the master-at-arms, John Claggart.
Claggart becomes obsessed with Billy, despising goodness that he himself will never possess. Through his corporals, he finds small ways of putting Billy on edge, criticizing every slight deviation from protocol and regulation. But he himself never has anything but a kind word for Billy. Despite the warnings of the Dansker, a wise old sailor who befriends Billy, Billy cannot believe that Claggart harbors any ill will toward him.
One night, Billy is asked by an aftguardsman if he would help in the event of a mutiny. Shocked to be approached in such an insidious way, Billy sends the man on his way. But because of a youthful fear of ratting on his peers, he doesn't tell any officers of what has happened. He tells the Dansker, who believes that Claggart is behind some kind of set-up. But even the Dansker, who is reluctant to be involved in anything not directly concerning himself, gives little in the way of advice to Billy.
Claggart's hatred for Billy festers. Finally, the master-at-arms goes to Captain Vere and says that Billy is behind a mutiny plot. Not really believing Claggart, Vere has both men meet with him in his cabin. When faced with Claggart's accusations, Billy is so overcome with emotion that his stutter seizes him. He is completely unable to speak. Helpless, and terrified, the simple boy defends himself the only way he knows how: he punches Claggart. But Billy doesn't know his own strength, and Claggart is slain by the blow.
Vere, grieving for Billy in his heart, calls a drumhead court to decide Billy's case. After Billy speaks and answers the court's questions, he leaves so that Vere can address the court. Vere argues that the court has little real choice. A man has slain an officer. Because of the discontent in the navy, and the large number of impressed men on the Bellipotent, anything less than Billy's execution might result in an all-out mutiny. What's more, the provisions of the code under which they operate are clear: a crewman has slain an officer, and that crewman must die.
The court convicts Billy. He is hanged the next morning. Before he dies, he seems as beautiful as a vision; none of the sailors can look away from him. Billy cries out "God bless Captain Vere!" and the crew echoes him, as they would have echoed anything Billy said. The light of dawn touches him, making him appear like some kind of divinity as he dies. His body, miraculously, is untouched by any of the spasms that mark hanging deaths.