The Pelican's Bequest
A Dark Alchemical Odyssey for Adults
The Many Ways in Which One Severus Is Lost and Found from Boyhood Henceforth, Often with a Certain Harry
(All original characters fall under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license)
The Pelican's Bequest 1 / Chapter 1: The Paracelsan Method
One would hardly believe that nature contained such virtues... For only a great artist is able to discover them, not one who is only versed in books, but one who has acquired his ability and skill through the experience of his hands... It is an important art, and therefore it cannot be clearly described, but can only be learned by experience.
Paracelsus, translated by Jolande Jacobi
It's so cold.
"Mum? The fire's gone out, Mum."
It's one of my earliest memories, from when I could have been no more than three, if that, because she was still cooking dinner at that time—a task my father took over until I started doing it.
We used to heat only one room at a time—I found out later that my father had forbidden her to use any kind of heating, muggle or wizard, unless she was in the room supervising. Apparently she was having a hard time modulating her power even then, and was liable to overburden sockets or cause a runaway wizard fire. So in the evening we would sit in the cozy kitchen near the fire and she would make casseroles I vaguely recall as lovely.
A taste of fennel and rosemary, a citrusy tang of lily root—these are the only memories that assure me my mother was once sane.
This day I tug on my mother's skirt, which usually brings her back from wherever she goes when she is absent. But this time she just keeps stirring the cauldron with complete absorption.
I am too young to articulate what I want to say—that the soup is not cooking, that she is scaring me with that empty look, that it's dark in the kitchen, so I settle for, "I'm cold."
Peeping out of her robe pocket, at eye level to me, I can see the magic stick. The one she uses to light the fire and draw pictures on the ceiling and do all manner of wonderful things. She has never let me touch it before; both she and my father keep it away from me. I feel a vague unease as I pull it from her pocket.
I can do this. I've seen her do it before. Mumbling something like what I've heard her say I point the stick at the cauldron. A few sparks fly out, nothing more, but I am ecstatic. I point a few more times but very little happens. My tiny attention begins to get frustrated. I'm cold and hungry.
"Mum," I say more insistently, but she is just stirring and stirring. Angrily, I jump up and down and point the stick while a sound rises from the pit of my stomach.
The fire lights.
Mother is woken up from her reverie. "See, Mum, I lighted it!"
"It's a beautiful fire, Severus," she says, and I'm not sure she knows I made it, but we stand there together with her hand playing with my hair, and my hand winding her robe, and it's all right.
When my father comes home, however, I want to tell someone again, so I say as she ladles out the soup, "I helped!"
"What did you do?" His eyes narrow and I think I'm in trouble.
"Severus helped stir the soup," my mother says, beaming at my father in that way that never fails to make his face relax.
That's when I begin to understand that my father is not magically inclined like we are. And that there are secrets so important in my house that no one can admit they exist.
Then again, perhaps by the time we sat down to eat my mum had already forgotten that she knew I'd lit the fire. The woman I knew as my mother was just at the beginning of a long, long process of forgetting everything.
While my mother makes her potions I'm used to stirring my own little pot. The cheerful bubbling of a cauldron is the sound of home, the sound of our shared world. For my pretend-potions I dip into the canisters with the potion ingredients, throwing in different things by color, or all kinds of dried beetles together. It's never truly random. Children play very seriously. Even when I put mushroom caps on the heads of the desiccated lizards and fight battles with them, there is always some logic at work.
At an astonishingly early age I start to be interested in actually emulating my mother's actions to produce the same liquids she does. But because I am a very small child, when nothing turns out right I get frustrated.
"Why is mine purple and yours green?" I ask, pouting.
She smoothes my hair the way that I like.
"Yellow," she points at my liquid.
"Pink," she points at hers.
"But—" I object.
She groups three objects together for several different colors. A dried violet, some fossilized honey, a white powder, she groups as red. Another white powder, the yellow fur from a bumblebee, a black fungus, she calls green. She does the same for blue and yellow while I frown at her.
I am very confused. I know my colors! Is she joking? Is this a game? I move to put the things in the order I think they should go. She holds up a hand in front of my eyes.
"Pink," she says. "Pink. Pink."
She puts something in my hand. "Pink?" she asks.
I shake my head. No, that doesn't feel pink.
She puts a few more things in my palm and I reject them. Then I feel it. "Pink!" She removes her hand from my eyes. There is a dried yellow chrysanthemum in my tiny hand, but I know in a way that I can't explain that it's pink.
Mum kisses my cheek and says "mon tresor," in the way she does when she is very pleased.
The mother I knew was always sparing in speech, so I learned to take her words very seriously. When her speech became so disordered that I couldn't follow it, the odd endearment gleamed like a jewel among the swirling fragments.
There is a point where a potion flashes—or reveals, as we say in the trade—that is the color of is its true nature. When it cools and sets it can be affected by a hundred different things including the container. An unscrupulous chemist can imitate any color by artificial means, but a sorcerer worth his Scrying Salt knows at the moment of the reveal if his solution is sound. A false reveal, as we call it, can be induced if there is any question as to whether a potion you are buying is what its label claims it is.
It is not only at the revealing point that a potion maker should be paying attention to color. In reality, all things have a color that represents their essence and their potential qualities for good or ill. Knowing that a Pig-Nosed Beetle is red, despite its bluish hue, can help prevent one from adding it in a skin salve and potentially causing chemical burns.
What my mother taught me in very few words was an art that many wizards have never even heard of, and only a fraction of a fraction can ever master. Every street-corner charlatan invokes the name of Paracelsus when he hawks his headache salves and levitation lotions and every apothecary has an engraving of the Great Physick in his shop, but only a few among the magical elite understand anything of the man's genius.
The Paracelsan method consists of finding the inner nature of things, and then combining the like with the like to heal illness, increase wisdom and bring harmony to a disordered earth. Anyone gifted with discernment into the nature of the world and the direction that each thing, holy in its own bent, wishes to go can rightly claim to be a disciple of Paracelsus. But the man himself was both doctor and chemist, talented at discerning an illness and concocting the precise compound needed to cure it. He was also a philosopher, which is why some people, my mother among them, call him "Thrice Great," after the originator of magic, Hermes Trismegistus. Most people are not equally gifted at all three, as the founder of our science was, but some are like my mother: gifted at one art and with enough understanding of the natural and philosophical world to understand the application in the other two spheres.
And so somewhere on the rolls of the adepts you will find my mother's name entered thus: Eugenie Sophia Azucena Maranatha Belacqua Laurent Snape, Spagyrist. The study of Spagyrics is the alchemical tradition whose name means to separate and to combine.
That's what potions adepts do, essentially: they construct compounds out of the building blocks that, in various combinations, make up the substance of our world. A potions mistress like my mother was at a great advantage over someone who had to rely on recipe books and measuring, neither of which can take into account the particular qualities of a batch of Hyssop Salt, which may look the same but reacts completely differently if it gets invisibly contaminated with certain other salts.
It's an extraordinarily difficult thing to explain, and many of the alchemical texts that survived to modern times make no sense precisely because you can't really convey in words how a "red" substance feels. And then, it's not as though any of the adepts of old really tried to communicate their concepts: more, their words are a jumble of insults and nonsense which are studded with references to color, but only someone who has actually experienced the inner qualities of a thing knows that they are best summed up in terms of color.
Perhaps it's that my mother and I share some sort of predisposition for the work, but it is also true that we had another advantage: she had a way of planting a concept in my mind, a pure thought without language. It was harder for me to do the same with her since I was a small child without formation, but I could sometimes plant a thought in her mind as well. If we could not communicate in this way, we would have been lost to each other very soon afterwards when she was effectively mute.
With a few words, however, my mother was able to communicate the art of Division, one of the most sought-after skills in the Wizarding world, and it became our favorite game for a while.
It drives my father crazy when at the dinner table all we do is point at things and Divide them by magical color—the milk is pink, the roast is violet and the potatoes are yellow.
When I grasp this concept very well, she moves on to others—cold or hot, active or passive. For the latter concept we take different compounds and smudge the horns of stag beetles with them. The ones with active materials can easily push the others out of the way. This binary is often called moist versus dry, which is another way of saying one substance is more likely to "ignite" into action than another, but again, once you see the qualities in action it doesn't matter what you call them—the proof right there in front of you.
According to the old ways my mother learned in her extensive training, you can also Classify according to mercury, sulfur, and a host of other things that I never really paid much attention to all of that because very quickly my hands were getting the sense of what to do on their own. Letting an herb or salt sit in my palm for a moment I could feel a little prickle when it was the right thing to add.
This was also was right at the same time that my mother was losing her ability to do magic. We were traveling on opposite ends of a parabola, and yet we always saw eye to eye.
"Look, mum!" I say, as my own little cauldron flashes a golden yellow, just the right color for Skin-Stim potion, and then settles into a tawny red. She tries to force hers to a new reveal several times but it's a stubborn blue.
"That's very, very good, baby," she says and lies down early after dinner.
The first potion I learned to make on my own was Dreamless Sleep. It's not an easy one, what with the unstable holly dust that must be mixed just so. Mother had nightmares, and it was also one of the best sellers in the potion service she maintained. As she became more melancholy her potions wouldn't come out right even when she had a clear head. But at the time, she just knew that even the simplest potions she could do blindfolded and with her feet weren't turning out anymore.
"Let me try. Do you cut it like this?" I ask, though I've watched her a hundred times and Wingerman's mallow is of course cut against the grain and in fingernail-sized slices.
"Yes, baby, like that," she says in the voice she uses when she's trying desperately not to scream or fall asleep.
"And this stuff, what is it again?" I say, trying to keep her engaged.
"Borneo lizard-leaf," she says tiredly. "Crush it to a fine powder."
I go through the motions I've helped with here and there before, but this time I'm prompting her memory. It's like the opposite of me eagerly answering her questions about the proper color of braised eel-liver, which as a six-year-old child I knew was supposed to be coral-colored.
"Look mum, we did it," I say excitedly. The cauldron's surface is coated with an opalescent green skin that soon disappears to reveal a lovely emerald color.
"You're right," she says, making a motion to keep stirring but I take the spoon out of her hand before she spoils it. Maybe she's been stirring too much and that's been ruining things. "It's perfect." If a shadow passes across her face when she realizes that a 7-year-old just proved a better potion maker than her, she forgets quickly enough. "We'll tell your Da what a big helper you are tonight."
But somehow that gets put off, because she misplaces her wand and it won't come when she calls, and father comes home to a cold dark house with her crying.
She is spending a lot of time lying down. Stirring the cauldron is getting too exhausting for her and so I stand on a pile of books to reach her full-size cauldron. I am playing my childish games by her bedside and sometimes find her frozen, staring off into the distance, and I can do nothing to rouse her. At first it is frightening, but it soon becomes a fact of life. I play over her, littering the bedsheets with the battles I fight between old buttons and spools, incorporating her into my games when she wakes up.
A lot of my games involve magic queens who had been spelled into some kind of unnatural sleep, and my job as the prince is to figure out the antidote and wake her.
"And the prince looked all over the earth for the potion that would wake the queen," I prattle on, using odds and ends from my mother's workshop as play potions ingredients on her coverlet.
"But he must not look only on the earth, because he is a very special prince, a half-blood prince who belongs as much to the water as to the earth," she says suddenly, waking up from her reverie. She kisses my hair and we play together, her words leading us on adventures in the make-believe world made of packing twine and twisted stoppers for potion phials, bent copper spoons and bits of fabric she makes float in the air like a shimmering castle.
My mother is the best playmate a child could have-when she isn't in that place that makes her stare, or worse, puts that furrow between her brows that makes her look divided from herself. The tears sometimes course unheeded down her cheeks; I know she is often very unhappy, but she tries to spare me from the worst of it. Sometimes she is frightened of the most ordinary things and she'll throw whatever's handy at the boot or the bottle that has her scared out of her wits. The screams from her nightmares have me shivering in my little room many times.
Occasionally my father will come out of the bedroom and shut the door very quietly before turning on me. "You keep quiet—you've already done enough to her today." Maybe that's why, when she's well enough and making mushrooms and dried insects dance for me, my father will, very rarely, sit down on the floor with us. He'll try to grasp the logic of the games, and the three of us sit in those unusual moments, focusing all three on saving the mushroom king from the vengeful race of Malaya ants trying to swarm his kingdom. My father knows this part of my mother is vanishing, and he'll smile at her with an expression that is carefully hidden anguish and let the reanimated ants march over his hand, just to hold onto it for a little while longer.
He doesn't seem to think about what I might do with my time when she is absent, but he needn't worry. During my mother's quiet hours, at the age of 7 I begin filling her potions orders, retracing the steps I've done with her many times before. Her index of potions by magical color is all I need, though I can't read the technical instructions well. I can usually manage to rouse her so she can see the reveal and give me the praise that makes me flash with pride.
"Very good baby," she says, helping me pour the cooled potion into containers when my father walks in the door.
He sees that she's been busy and smiles at both of us. I notice he likes to see the worktable covered with glass beakers. He helps us pour and seal as well, and even applies the paste for the labels that were the first thing I learned how to read.
My mother's potions were sought after all over Europe because she had gone to the famed Invisible School. That was the name of a school of alchemical adepts, but as a small child I thought it was a place where you went to learn to be invisible, and I asked my mother over and over how she learned from invisible books and invisible teachers writing on invisible slates.
Wizards often make things appear and reappear, but the vanishing act that was most present to me was that of my mother, who seemed less substantial by the day. She was justifiably proud of her training, and so the labels we pasted as a family had a space above the hand-lettered names so that when you held them in your hand, a message appeared: "Made specially by Adept Eugenie Laurent Snape, Bonded by the Invisible School." My father made those appear and reappear with his touch and could always get a smile from her.
If he ever fully understood how much of the work I did on my own, he didn't comment upon it. To him, magic was something "my kind" just did—so a boy of seven playing a greater or lesser role in the preparation of volatile fluids was a matter of course, the way he'd always been good with plants.