LEARNING TO SPELL
Characters: Harry, Snape
Summary: Harry is very young and has been sent to live with Snape. He finds it easier to make friends with the forest creatures than the mean old man.
Harry had never been allowed to play outside at the Dursleys'. He might have caused trouble with the neighbors. But here he could play anywhere he liked, Snape said, as long as it was far away from him. The summertime was so pleasant that Harry outside all day.
He had already explored the big round tree in the front yard, even tried to climb it, but his arms didn't reach around its middle. He couldn't think of a better place to construct a fort than in the tree's thick limbs; that was, if he had some wood and some nails and a hammer. Dudley and Piers had talked of building one, but the trees in their yards weren't big enough put together. Dudley had gone off to play video games after that, but Harry had dreamt of it ever since.
Also in the front yard was a post with a wild leafy plant wrapped around it. There were three different signs on the post, all shaped like arrows. One of the arrows said "Grandfather Snape," and it pointed in the opposite direction. Harry knew the word "grandfather" because he had read it in a book at school. He forgot the title at the moment. He knew the word "Snape" because it was the name of the man he lived with now, and he had worked out the spelling of "Snape" without having to ask him, and thank heavens for that.
The second arrow read "The Town of Snape." He had ridden through the Town of Snape on a great black carriage, with horses and everything, but he was asleep at the time. Thank heavens for that, as well! Otherwise, he would have had to feel the presence of Snape himself, steaming and smoldering the whole journey.
Harry often admired the last arrow, probably because it was painted purple, his especially favorite color. It was at the top of the post and it read "Home" and it pointed toward home. Harry liked that word. It was easy to read and sounded just like it was spelled, H-O-M-E, except for the E, but that was okay with him.
The most beautiful plant in the front yard grew a few hops away from the sign. Its leaves were thin and pointed, shaped more like daggers than leaves. On each branch the leaves came together in clusters, and from within the clusters large white blossoms pushed out their petals, sneaking, cautious, as if they might shrink back at the wink of an eye. Harry was content to stare at them, and it was a treat to lean close and breathe their perfume. The flowers smelled so sweet that he imagined if he picked one he could hold it in front of his face and sneeze, and sugar would spray out; however, the bees avoided this plant, so Harry thought it best if he did, too.
He followed the bees to the other plants, just inside the dark, mysterious wood. They gathered from shy flowers, which grew in the cracks of logs; from reedy flowers, which stretched their necks to catch light from the gaps of the trees; and from flowers that drooped lazily into the grass.
Even the herbs in Snape's garden were nice to look at. Sometimes Harry stood on the wall that separated the garden from the wood and gazed into the soil to see if any new plants were ready to pop out. There was mint, thyme, sage, and cilantro. There was also rosemary, which Harry would have liked to pick off his chicken at dinnertime, if he weren't so fearful of attracting that old hook nose and glower. Harry didn't recognize any other herbs, but he called the twisted, bulbous roots "squiggle-lumps" and the dark, sticky grass "Snape-hair."
There was so much to explore here that after his first month Harry still brimmed with excitement at the breakfast table each morning. "Finish your cereal, or no lunch," Snape would say, and then Harry would put on his glasses and fly off the front steps, already in search of today's adventure. It wasn't that Harry didn't like his new H-O-M-E. It was just that Snape was always looking at him with a face like someone was holding a rotten apple under his nose.
Today Harry decided he was old enough to go deeper into the wood.
The trees were scary here. They stooped overhead like old men waiting for him to do something wrong. They were so kind, though, to let him rest against their trunks and to let him feel the bark and peel it gently. It was moist and sinewy. It smelled like the spices in Aunt Petunia's kitchen. He could braid it with ease. Perhaps he would hang it in his new room. He tried to tie knots, but his fingers were clumsy and the bark made him itch when it cut into his skin.
He climbed a hollow log and practiced balancing with his hands out. He could do this on the monkey bars at school, no sweat. It was fortunate he was such an expert balancer, because when he leaped to the ground something tragic nearly happened: he had nearly stomped on a rabbit.
He dropped to his knees, wanting to beg the rabbit's pardon, but it seemed, as the rabbit chewed peacefully on its grass, that it hadn't noticed almost dying. Harry decided not to mention it. He didn't want to get on the rabbit's bad side, for until now he hadn't met any creatures worth talking to except gentlemen and ladybug bug families on the undersides of leaves.
"Hello," he said. The rabbit stopped chewing. It wiggled its nose. "Yes, you're right. It is a fine day. Where are your mum and dad?" The rabbit wiggled its nose. "Oh, that's very sad. Mine have died, too. But at least I know they died in a car crash. You don't even know what happened to yours. Maybe you'll find them tomorrow. Yes, I wish you luck, too. What was your name, again? Morris—that's a fine name."
Harry was so delighted to have met Morris that he returned the next day with a carrot from last night's stew. It was soggy, but surely Morris would be polite enough not to say anything, especially since Harry risked his life stealing it from Snape.
He arrived at the log. No one was there. But it seemed Morris had left behind some partially chewed foliage. Harry didn't give up there. He searched inside the log. These dirty innards were no place for a respectable rabbit to live. He was also disappointed not to find Morris within the shrubs.
"Couldn't you have told me goodbye?" Harry asked, and dropped his carrot on the ground.
Then a sound came right out of the sky. At least, it seemed that way until it came again—a deep warble from the trees. Which tree? He spun about. This time he spotted the source—a bump on a branch. No. A toad! No, toads didn't climb trees. A frog! It was a frog so brilliantly green you might have thought he were moss.
"Frog!" he cried. "Frog, hop down, please!"
The frog refused. No manners, Aunt Petunia would have said.
"I want to speak with you. Have you seen my friend? His name is Morris. He's a rabbit. I brought him a snack."
The frog paid him no mind. Harry became sad. He had half a mind to run away, but then the frog took him by surprise. It reared back on his long bony legs and sprang from the tree. Harry had no time to brace himself. The frog landed on his chest, and he stumbled, clutching its clammy back. They plopped onto the log.
"Thank you," Harry said breathlessly.
The frog warbled.
"How many other frogs do you know?" he asked, as they moved through the wood. The frog had been showing Harry all about hopping from rock to rock, and he was getting very good. "That's a lot of frogs. I've seen a couple in person, but you're the only one I've spoken to. Am I the first boy you've spoken to? I bet so. No one lives around here but Snape and Snape's family. I've never met any of them but Snape himself—he's a fright! I only see him at meals, but even then he's grumpy. He just frowns like this." Harry made a face. "Then he goes back to his secret room that I'm not allowed into. It smells like he's cooking frog brains or something in there." The frog warbled. "Oh, I'm sorry. That was terribly rude of me."
Snape's house was out of sight now. Harry had a feeling he should go back, but as he turned, the frog leaped from his arms.
"Wait!" Harry cried.
He bounded through the wood, keeping sight of the frog's pumping hind-legs. He crunched twigs, brush, and wildflowers underfoot. Soon the dirt became thick and silky, and his feet no longer crunched but sloshed. He had arrived on the banks of a pond, which lay still as glass. It was so lovely that he didn't notice the frog splash away.
There was a commotion to the right. The frog? No, someone else! A family of ducks.
"Quack, quack, quack," said the biggest duck, and Harry was overjoyed at the sight of that wide black mouth. Behind the big duck, two other mouths opened, and these mouths seemed to chirp. Babies, Harry realized. They were little, just like him. They were sure to want to make friends, unlike the rabbit and the frog.
"Hello!" he called. He was struck by the fact that ducks didn't seem to have ears, but then, neither did frogs. "Can you hear me?"
The ducks were preoccupied with lunch. The mother duck kept plunging her head underwater and coming up with a worm. She would throw her head back, let it fall into her mouth, and then smack her jaws. Apparently, it was delicious. The ducklings mimicked her. But as they dunked their bodies and flapped their little feet they simply couldn't reach the bottom, where all the worms lived.
The ducklings strayed from their mum and swam towards Harry. The water was shallow here. One duckling stuck his head in the water. His feet flapped and his bottom wiggled. Harry held his breath. Then the duckling emerged with a plump worm in his mouth.
"Well done," Harry said. The duck fluffed up its feathers, as if it were immensely proud.
Once the ducklings were stuffed to contentment, Harry learned their names were Arnold and Delilah. Arnold was all brown, and the better swimmer of the two. He beat Delilah to the worms all he time. Their mum pecked at him to get him to share. Delilah was slow, but she fought for her share. She had a white belly, and Harry thought she was the handsomest of all, but Arnold would be jealous if he said it out loud.
They were both clever, always playing jokes. Oftentimes the ducklings would switch places and pretend to be one another, and then Delilah would flip over and show him her white belly and they would all laugh until butterflies grew in their stomachs and made them ache.
Harry returned the next day, and the next, and his heart pattered every time he saw the ducks were there to greet him. It was hard to believe how fast they became friends, how much fun they had together. Harry liked to hide behind a bush and have Arnold waddle onto shore. When he spotted Harry, he would say, "Peep, peep!" and they would laugh and play again.
But mother duck was so impatient. After a while, she would swim away, and the children followed her to the other end of the pond, where they shook off their coats and waddled into the brush. Harry desperately wanted to go with them, so their games wouldn't end. Maybe he could see where they lived, if only he could get to the other side; but he didn't have any swimming clothes, and more importantly he didn't know how to swim.
As luck would have it, that evening Snape stuck his head out the door of his secret room and said, "We're going to town tomorrow. I'll be waking you early. The ride is long. Go to sleep."
As he lay in bed, Harry debated whether he should beg Snape for the things he needed to get across the pond. The thought of even speaking to Snape made him tremble, let alone asking him to give up his money for Harry's sake. During the carriage ride, he stole glimpses of the man's scowl. What a face! No, Harry could never ask for anything.
But the ducks, he thought—his best mates! Harry decided would have to be brave.
They arrived. Harry followed Snape through a creaky, smelly shop, watched him eye a jar of squashy balls that looked like plums. He worked up his nerve. He opened his mouth. Nothing came out. Even the man's back was intimidating. He managed to squeak, but that was the closest he came. Soon it was time to leave.
Now or never! They were nearing the carriage. Snape reached for the handle, and it shot out of Harry's mouth, quick as lightening:
"Mister Snape, I've been wondering, can we buy some swimming trunks? I'll pay you back one day, I promise. And I'll do extra chores forever. I'd be so happy, even if they were the ugliest trunks in the shop."
Snape looked startled. "What are you going on about? There is no place to swim where we live."
"No, there's a pond! That's where the ducks play. We play together, but then they have to leave with their mum, and I can't go with them because I'll get my clothes wet, and I need a lifejacket, too, because I don't know how well I float, and..."
Snape scrutinized him like he had the plums, and it made Harry feel as slimy as one. He wished he could take back everything he'd just said, plead forgiveness—anything to make Snape look away, away, away.
"No," Snape said at last, and flung open the carriage door. "Don't go to the pond anymore. It's too far away. I told you when you arrived to stay close to the house."
"But my friends! When will I—?"
"No more pond. Stay where I can see you."
Harry was suspicious after that. Had Snape been watching him play all this time? Now when he played outside, he always looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a sallow face peering out of the window, but Snape was never there. Perhaps Snape was sneakier than that. Perhaps he could slink in the shadows of the wood.
It was lonely just sitting in the front yard with the H-O-M-E sign. He became restless. He simply had to see the ducks again. Delilah and Arnold might have been thinking he had abandoned them!
One morning, he snuck away. Snape was still eating breakfast, so he couldn't possibly be looking out the window. He found Delilah and Arnold by the shore eating their breakfast, too. Their mum was further away, cleaning her feathers.
"I am going to swim today," Harry declared. And he stripped down to his underpants. "Don't look, Delilah."
He toed the water. It was freezing! He thought twice about getting in, but the ducks were waiting for him.
"Peep!" Arnold said, and that was convincing enough for Harry.
He waded up to his thighs. He laughed. It felt very cool. He splashed some water onto his shoulders, shivering as it trickled down and seeped into his pants. The ducklings were startled by his closeness. They hid behind their mum, but he was sure they'd return.
Harry squirmed his feet in the silky mud. He made a game of grasping rocks with his toes. Didn't monkeys do that? He laughed. After a while, Arnold swam over. Harry stood still. He watched the duck make circles around him. Harry spun with him, pulling his fingers through the water, listening to it dribble off. It was like music.
Delilah stayed back. He didn't take offense. She was probably shy. Arnold was happy now. He swam to the center of the pond and turned to Harry, as though in invitation.
Harry hesitated. Arnold peeped. Harry smiled and swam after him. He was on his tip-toes, but as long as he flapped his arms like so he kept his chin out of the water.
They continued their circles. Arnold was much quicker than Harry.
"You've had all your life to practice!" Harry joked.
"Peeeeeeeep!" Arnold joked back.
Harry was never so pleased to have disobeyed someone, even if that someone was Snape. And he would never find out! So mean and silly! He probably wanted to keep Harry bored like him! Harry planned to come here every day and swim and swim.
Arnold spotted his family eating some worms. He got jealous and darted towards them. Harry paddled after, laughing madly. Arnold was always hungry, wasn't he? What a funny fellow!
But when Harry pushed himself toward the ducks, the mud floor disappeared. He had nothing to stand on. He panicked. His arms no longer worked. Suddenly, his body turned to lead, and he started to sink.
There was nothing—no light, no sound, no air. It was deathly cold. His body broke out in gooseflesh. The more he jerked around the colder and heavier he felt. He thought of the frog, of its powerful, pumping legs. He did that.
His head broke the water's surface. He fought to keep afloat.
"Help!" he cried to ducks, but they only ate their worms. Why didn't his friends care about him? Why didn't they look?
Fear consumed him. He opened his mouth and a sound ripped from his gut that would put all Dudley's tantrums to shame. Water streamed down his throat. He choked and flailed. He went under again. He could only make bubbles now.
After that, Harry's vision went blurry. He felt weightless, and had no concept of space. His chest burned. His head felt like it would pop. And then he thought he died.
Something was warm. Harry opened his eyes, and found the sun beaming on his face. He was in his bedroom.
There were voices in the kitchen. It sounded like two men. One was angry. It was clearly Snape. The other voice, Harry didn't know.
"—cannot understand why you appointed me this task, Albus."
"Because trust you, Severus. I trust you not to neglect Harry like those Muggles did. And won't you dry off? You're dripping in the tea."
"Damn the tea. Damn the boy. He is a burden. I cannot focus on two tasks at once."
"You've had more on your back than the weight of a child—"
Harry's eyes shut for a long time. When they opened again, the sky was orange. The same voices spoke, quieter.
"You are as lonely as he is. Take advantage of this arrangement. I have a feeling his childhood will not always be carefree."
"I understand, Headmaster."
"You may return to Hogwarts when he is ready to go himself. You are both safe here. You have your family. He has you."
"I will do my duty."
There was a click, a door shutting. Harry hoped they had both left. He was hungry. Maybe he could sneak some food, if Snape was gone.
Something groaned. Snape's chair. It always did that. A bang like thunder filled the house. Snape cried out. Had he bumped into the table? Punched it? Then came a sound Harry knew very well—muffled weeping.
Harry covered his head with his pillow, thinking about those lonely nights in his cupboard. He wasn't hungry anymore.
A scrape, scrape, scrape woke him up the next morning. The air was crisp as he rolled out of bed. It felt nice on his face, reminded him of the water on his skin. His stomach dropped, and pushed that thought away.
He shuffled into the kitchen. Snape didn't like him to eat breakfast in his pajamas, but Harry hoped he'd make an exception today. He was pulling back his chair at the table, when he noticed the door to the secret room was wide open.
Snape was bent over a big pot, which had fire under it. There were jars, knives, measuring cups, and beakers all around. Snape was making that wretched scrape, scrape, scrape with a ladle inside of the pot.
"Go back to your room," he growled. Harry started to flee, but then Snape's head shot up. He said, "No. Come here."
Harry froze. Snape's forehead wrinkled, as if he were thinking very hard.
"Don't be afraid," he said at last.
Harry edged into the room. Snape seemed uncomfortable, but not at all frightening. Harry walked up to the pot, curious.
He never expected to be grabbed around the middle and hoisted into the air. Then he could feel the steam of the pot on his face. Harry closed his eyes, feeling as though he were about to become the next ingredient. He waited.
He opened one eye. The pot contained some bubbling mush, but none of Harry's parts.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Congealed frog brains."
Harry gasped. "What for?"
He felt Snape sigh. "For keeping disobedient little boys from certain death."
"I gave some to you yesterday. It kept your heart pumping until I could retrieve medical help."
"Yes way," he said, awkwardly.
"Do I have to eat it for breakfast?"
"Of course not." He placed Harry on the ground.
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Bottle and sell it in town."
Snape beat the spoon on the edge of the pot, flinging off the excess brains. Harry looked at his toes, ashamed.
"Do I get to go outside still?" he asked. "I'll stay by the house, I swear..."
Snape nodded, and Harry ran and got dressed.
He returned to the secret room, where Snape had a small bottle in one hand and a thin wooden stick in the other. It reminded Harry something an orchestra conductor might hold.
"I changed my mind," Harry said. "Can I help you? I can put it in bottles. I'm really careful."
Snape stared at him. Something flickered in his eyes. Harry didn't know what that meant; maybe he was trying to figure out if Harry was lying and was actually quite messy. Then he placed the stick aside. He pulled a stool out and placed it in front of the pot. Harry climbed up.
He was so eager he was bouncing. He hoped he did it right! He hoped Snape wouldn't be mad if he messed up!
"Be still, boy," Snape grumbled, but he didn't sound as mean as before.
Harry wasn't outside much, after that. Not only was autumn blowing in, but he had too much to do with Snape to bother with the flowers and the animals. But he still spent time in the garden. Before they set out to brew, Snape and Harry would often go to the garden and pick herbs—or "maim herbs," in Harry's case, as Snape put it.
Every day, they would throw open the windows to catch the breeze and sit at the table with herbs and forest vegetation piled around them. Snape brought out his book and taught Harry the names of each plant.
The "squiggle-lumps" were really called "mock bezoars," and they were a rubbish substitute for a stone in a goat's stomach. It took Harry only a few minutes to memorize how to spell "mock bezoar." It took Harry a whole week to memorize how to spell "Mimbulus mimbletonia". Snape was so proud of that accomplishment that he started teaching Harry other words, like P-O-T-I-O-N and S-L-Y-T-H-E-R-I-N. And he would show Harry other books and say, "That spells this and that and such and such..."
One day they were collecting petals off the flowers in the front yard. Snape straightened up and wiped the sweat off his brow. He pointed to the "H-O-M-E" sign and said, "That spells—"
But Harry wasn't listening, because Harry already knew.
(6/2005; edited 1/09)