"What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?" -Severus Snape to Harry Potter, Sorcerer's Stone
asphodel: 1. Any of several chiefly Mediterranean plants of the genera Asphodeline and Asphodelus in the lily family, having linear leaves and clusters of white, pink, or yellow flowers. 2. The flowers of Hades and the dead, representing mourning and sorrow.
wormwood: 1. Any of several aromatic plants of the genus Artemisia, noted for its intense bitterness. 2. Something harsh or afflicting: a type of bitterness, punitive suffering, remorse.
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
like a buttercup
upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
I come, my sweet,
to sing to you.
I was cheered
when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
When I was a boy
I kept a book
to which, from time,
I added pressed flowers
until, after a time,
I had a good collection.
They were sweet
when I pressed them
something of their sweetness
a long time.
It is a curious odor,
a moral odor,
that brings me
near to you.
I cannot say
that I have gone to hell
for your love
found myself there
in your pursuit.
I do not like it
and wanted to be
in heaven. Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
and out of them
is not the end of it.
-From "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" by William Carlos Williams
You knew it all along, you fool. You miserable coward.
Some years after you finished school you had a dream which, for some reason, you have never forgotten. In the dream, you are sitting before some kind of very wise man. He is a priest, a shaman, a psychiatrist, you don't know what. He is looking through you. On the ground in front of him are all of the broken pieces of you, and this man is examining all of it, looking through everything you are beneath your skin. These pieces of yourself look like the ashes of an already dead person, charred and black and dry. You cannot smell in dreams, but if you could, this ashy substance would have that dark scent you remember from the wormwood plants in the greenhouse at school. You used to walk by them in Herbology class and the smell was horribly like home.
"Well?" you ask. "Can I be saved?"
The man picks up a handful of what you are and lets it slide off his fingers. It pours off like black sand only it is more coarse. "I don't know," he says with an unhopeful expression. "It doesn't look good."
But then, as he moves his fingers through your contents, searching for something that is not the same, he uncovers something small and white among all of the black ash. It is such a clean and bright white that it looks luminous like a star, peeking out from the surrounding dark.
"Hmm," the man says. "Now that's interesting."
The man picks it up and holds it gently in his palm, for it is very delicate and precious. A white flower petal.
You stare at the petal which is so bright it burns your eyes like the sun through your windows when you just wake up. You are too used to the dark. Its beauty is hideous.
"Yes," says the man, putting the petal back into the ash and covering it back up. It is buried and out of sight now. Buried, as it should be. "But I'm afraid that's just not enough."
You had that dream. And so you knew. But you did not want to think about it.
You remember the first day. You remember being Sorted. The hat said that was where you belonged and so that was where you belonged. Whatever that means.
Back then, the Slytherins had a game that all the new students in their House got to play. It was a way to get in with the group and establish yourself as one of them; an initiation, if you will. Every first year Slytherin student was to play a joke on somebody the Slytherins didn't like. They usually went after Gryffindor students, but finding a Muggle-born to do it to was even better. Bellatrix Black got hers out of the way by the end of the first feast when she turned a Gryffindor boy's food into maggots while he wasn't looking, which was impressive magic for an eleven-year-old witch. Elias Bulstrode's joke of hanging a quiet kid named Remus Lupin upside-down from the spiral staircase up to the Astronomy Tower was even more popular.
By the third day of school you still hadn't done yours, but several students in your House were looking for opportunities for you, and they hadn't declared you a loser yet. In your Potions class when you were lined up with other students to get ingredients from the cabinet, there was a girl with pretty, long red hair standing in front of you and you suddenly found Bellatrix whispering in your ear.
"That one's a Mudblood," she told you. Apparently you had been staring at the back of the girl's head without thinking about it and she had noticed. "I sat in her compartment on the train and heard her say so. She's a good target."
She winked at you, and soon you realized she was not the only Slytherin who was standing behind you and looking at you expectantly. Your moment had come. Somehow this was all suddenly much more meaningful and important than the moment you had sat on that stool to be Sorted into a house. You had to do something.
You took your wand out of your robes and held it at your side for a moment, thinking unsurely. You did know one curse. You had been thinking about it.
When the girl suddenly felt something push her down on the floor, she obviously had no idea what had just hit her. She ran into two other people as she fell, who immediately gasped and started to help her back up onto her feet. Suddenly many kids had turned to look your way, and the Slytherins were all laughing.
And when the girl turned around and looked behind her at who had done it and you saw her face for the first time, you found that she was the most beautiful girl you had ever seen.
"Beautiful." As much as you wanted to you never understood what that meant, though in that defining moment you just knew it when you saw it. It was something more than her face, her exterior. But you don't know, you'll never know, can't remember. Every day this thing you felt and saw only vaguely slips away like something that was in a dream and today you can't even really remember what she looked like. But you remember the look in her eyes.
Yes, the look in her eyes when she turned around and saw you. No, please not that. Yes, you knew what was there. She looked at you and could see at once that you didn't know what you had just done. She could see the uncertainty, the feeling of being completely out of place, the confusion in your face. And instead of getting mad or demanding what she had done to you to deserve that, she just gave you this look of sympathy, of reaching, of pity.
"Oops," Bellatrix laughed, shoving you with her elbow teasingly. "Better watch where you're going, Severus."
"Watch where he's going my eye!" said a boy named Frank Longbottom. "I saw him-"
"What is going on here?" demanded the teacher as he walked up.
"Nothing," said the red-haired girl suddenly. "It was just an accident."
And she turned away again and that was the end of it.
The girl's name was Lily Evans. And she was Muggle-born but this made no sense to you. The more you found out about her and witnessed of her the more impossibly and aggravatingly perfect she seemed. She was better than you at everything and she hadn't even grown up in a house where she could have had some practice with magic. That wasn't right.
But the even more aggravating nightmare was to come. His name was James Potter. The day Bulstrode was dangling Lupin upside-down by his legs, he had seen it and come to help him. Bulstrode was a very big kid, but with the help of his new friend Sirius Black, Potter was able to get him to finally leave Lupin alone. And something about that boy bothered you from the very beginning. He didn't get mad when he saw someone tormenting a frail-looking little kid for seemingly no reason. In fact, he seemed to have a little too much fun coming to his rescue. He was laughing as he pat Lupin on the back once it was over and said, "All right there?" All of the other kids around them cheered and thought he and Black were really something, and he just smiled and basked in all the attention. You just stood there and felt your blood suddenly boiling hot without quite understanding why.
But the hell with him. The day you cursed Lily's back (like a complete coward, you see now) everything fell into place for you. Well, it almost fell all the way into place. Never completely. But later the Slytherins were all laughing about it in the common room and Bellatrix was relaying the story to some of her friends. Her sister Narcissa, in a sudden surge of giddiness and laughter, fleetingly put her arm around your shoulders and kissed your cheek. And you thought, This is where I belong, then. This is as good as it's going to get.
But as you grew older and the years went on, angry questions kept plaguing your mind. You had found somewhat of a sense of place in Slytherin House, but still often felt like you didn't fit there, didn't meld into it comfortably like everyone else did. If you belonged in the same house with these people then why weren't you anything like them? If you were in the best house then why were there students from other houses that surpassed you in so many areas? Why couldn't you be as talented at flying as James Potter? Why couldn't you be as handsome as Lucius Malfoy? Why weren't you as smart a student as Sirius Black was without even trying? Why couldn't you be the kind of person everybody laughed with and liked to be around like Rabastan Lestrange? Why couldn't you be with someone beautiful like Bellatrix Black?
Or someone beautiful like...No.
You did not want to think about that.
Still, you worked very hard at your studies and did become quite a good student, even exceptional in a couple subjects. You had to make yourself more, make yourself better. You as you were was unacceptable. Never good enough. And damned Potter was always there to remind you of that. After a while he became the very symbol of everything you loathed. And everything he stood for became everything you stood against. Anyone from Gryffindor House was your bitter enemy. And it wasn't long before you started to find it very funny when a student from your own house did something cruel to a witch or wizard of less-than-respectable birth.
And then suddenly you would see Lily's pitying eyes. They would emerge from that buried place in the back of your head and surprise you when your guard was let down, when you were vulnerable to those thoughts.
Stupid. So repulsive, so weak of you. Not that you did, but your father would have thought it weak to feel that way. The ironic thing is that you always knew your imperfections you had been born with were all his fault. Your mother was the witch. And yet she was the weak one. She had never recognized that she was stronger than him because of her gifts, never recognized her superiority.
Stupid woman. She could have hexed him into oblivion every time he tried to lay a hand on her, but instead she came to a time when she fell apart so completely that her magic abilities were affected and she hardly ever used them anymore. By the time you were eight she became such a wreck that she forgot to be a mother most of the time. She didn't have the strength to take care of anyone else anymore. You remember how he would shout at her until it made her cry and then storm out of the house, leaving her to sink into a chair and sob into her hands. It was such a pathetic sound to hear from another room and it disgusted you. It was almost enough to make you want to slap her yourself.
You had sworn from a very young age that you would never be that way. You would be strong, someone who was worth being part of your mother's wizard bloodline. You would exceed your parents, your own roots, in every way possible.
But it was hard to feel like you were worth anything when you would be walking along the school hallway going over the ingredients of a sleeping draught antidote in your head and suddenly your whole body would snap still and you would tumble onto the floor, petrified, and everyone around you would suddenly be laughing at you. And Potter was standing there with his friends, his wand out, so pleased with his ability to entertain himself. And just to make it worse, perhaps sometimes Lily would arrive and start yelling at him to leave you alone. That was the worst. How pathetic does one have to be to need to be defended by a low, contemptible witch of the likes of her? How infuriating to still be treated like a human being by her even after you had cursed her that first year, even after you had made it clear you found her repulsive every time she talked to you, even after you thanked her for her sympathy by spitting on her shoes once when she reached a hand out to help you up off the floor. How infuriating to be treated more kindly by her than anyone else you had ever known. It was kindness you were incapable of comprehending or fathoming and you knew this. Blind, pure forgiveness and caring. You would never get any closer to that kind of kindness than you did when you looked into her deep green eyes when she gave you that look of pity, the gift you never wanted, the returned curse. Never any closer than that, you worthless, despicable fool.
And then one day you walked into a classroom early to look for a book you had left there and found her and Potter in the same chair kissing each other slowly with their eyes closed. Without realizing it you just stood there for a long moment, unable to move, staring at them. And then Potter finally saw you over her shoulder and what he said was very cruel.
"What's your problem, you little freak?" he demanded angrily. "Get the hell out of here!"
You did, and on the way out the door you heard Lily start to say calmingly, "James, he was just-" and felt your blood run warm.
Why shouldn't you have stood there and watched? After all, watching from afar was the best it was going to get for you, the closest you would ever be to that. There they were, horribly perfect together: James Potter, who was everything you could never be, and Lily Evans, who was everything you could never have. How you hated them.
It was a nightmare. A nightmare that transcended and ignored all logic and reason. They were married. You heard about it a few years after school. It made no sense at all. It couldn't be real. It was too close to your own worst nightmare, too perfectly horrible, to be true. She couldn't love him. She had all but hated him, for of course she was not capable of genuine hate. They must have decided to do it just to flaunt it in your face. Combined, they were everything out of your reach. So go ahead and stand there and watch, Severus.
Years. You had that dream. Passed.
And then the night came that you found out that Lily Evans was dead and it was your fault.
Lily Evans was dead. You don't know exactly what happened after you found out. You were in shock. Paralyzed. The truth you had been burying so determinedly could no longer be hidden. The realization was traumatic and terrifying and horrible. Lily Evans, the girl. The girl you knew in school. The flower growing and spreading through your veins like a sweet poison, the living thing thriving inside your cold, dead, corpse-like self. You remember the lock of her hair that always fell into her face no matter how many times she pushed it behind her ear absent-mindedly before looking up from her cauldron and raising her hand to ask the teacher something. And yet you do not remember ever watching her. She had become a part of you without you allowing it, without you knowing it. And why?
Because even though you aren't special you were able to acknowledge that she was special. You did not need to understand beauty to recognize it. You had found her complete perfection insipid and loathsome, but nevertheless she had always been a symbol of perfection to you. She had always been something far away and out of reach, but you had always reached for her anyway.
And now that untouchably perfect person, that beautiful thing, had been destroyed. You had helped him. You hadn't known what he was going to do. How he would interpret what you told him. She didn't need to die. She and James didn't have to. But there is no excuse. You practically killed them yourself.
It was the time for you to face reality. Lily Evans was dead. No. Lily Potter. She had married James Potter. They had fallen in love despite everything. They had been married for four years. They had had a child. His name was Harry.
Face reality. You knew. Maybe you never knew exactly what it was. She was a pretty girl, and very popular, and you were always tangibly aware that you could never be with someone like that. So you hated her, but you also wanted her. She was beautiful, and you were a teenage boy, after all. It was only natural.
When the truth is that it must have been something a little more than that. When the truth is that sometimes when you were young and your mother was crying in another room all you really wanted to do was go out and hug her tightly and tell her to please not cry, tell her that everything was going to be all right. Even though you wouldn't have believed it.
You never wanted to be like her. But you never wanted to be your father either. You never wanted to be either of them. You do not want their blood, the parts of you that are them even if that is all of you. You do not want your roots and origins, this skin you are trapped in, the identity you are stuck with. Your hatred for yourself is more deep and more complete than any hatred you ever had for Lily or for her husband or anyone else. For you know yourself better than any of them. And now you have the terrible guilt to add to all of that hate, the remorse for this thing you will never be able to forgive yourself for as long as you live.
You probably never really wanted to hurt anybody. You're too cowardly to hurt anybody. Even when you cursed Lily from behind her on your third day of school. You just did that because you didn't want to be left alone. And now you are alone anyway. Whatever that even means. And you sit in your office or your house by yourself and nobody is here, so instead of being told you just tell yourself everything is going to be all right.
Everything is going to be all right, mother.
But nothing ever will be. Everything is wrong. This is a fact you are numb to. You never feel enjoyment or peace or joy but that is just life to you. Dying would not change anything; you would continue to be trapped in the same kind of existence. In a way you feel like you are dead on the outside anyway, like someone in a deep sleep like living death, unable to wake up. But maybe you sometimes glimpse a small light and, without thinking about it, have a small hope that there is more out there than the hell you know. Maybe you loved that girl. Are you capable of such a thing? You did not cry when you found out what happened to her, though you felt more than bad enough to. Your father would always shout at you for crying, even when you were very young. You forgot how to do that a long time ago.
You will never know just what exactly you felt for her. You must have known then but you never faced it and now it's something from another lifetime that you can't grasp. All you know is that your regret for her death is overwhelming and far too unbearable to think about even enough to make sense of it. In this way you have buried possibly the only part of yourself that makes you even remotely good.
"For your information, Potter, asphodel and wormwood make a sleeping potion so powerful it is known as the Draught of Living Death."
The storm unfolds.
plays about the edges of the clouds.
The sky to the north
blue in the afterglow
as the storm piles up.
It is a flower
that will soon reach
the apex of its bloom.
It was the love of love,
the love that swallows up all else,
a grateful love,
a love of nature, of people,
a love engendering
gentleness and goodness
that moved me
and that I saw in you.
I should have known,
though I did not,
that the lily-of-the-valley
is a flower makes many ill
who whiff it.