Christmas in Cokeworth: A Harry Potter Fan-Fiction Saga – Chapter 2: Sing of the Wildwood

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     Going walking with Snape through the barren Cokeworth woods was not exactly Harry’s Christmas activity of choice. But it was either that or being shut up in the house all day with no sign of light or life. Besides, he had always been slightly curious about what the professor did out there on his walks that sometimes spanned hours at a time.

     It was frosty outside early in the morning, and breath turned to puffs of vapor as they both wandered silently between the spindly trees. Harry lagged behind him a little so as not to accidentally incur his ire by reminding him of his existence. Neither one seemed particularly keen on trying to communicate with the other; indeed, it was mutually convenient to simply ignore the other’s presence.

     But as Snape reached a white willow tree, tendrils frozen like long icy fingers, he muttered under his breath, “Willow bark…boil it with marsh mallow…makes tea for joint pain and stomach ailments…”

     He seemed to babbling more to himself than Harry, but the boy thought it best to nod anyway, just in case he was deciding to give him an impromptu lesson of some sort and was waiting to jump down his throat if he didn’t respond properly.

      “The deer used to strip it off in winter,” he continued mundanely. “Kept them alive after the first frost. They’re all gone now…”

     “What happened to them?” Harry queried, forgetting that Snape had virtually forgotten he was there.

      Snape jerked his gaze onto him, obviously slightly disconcerted by the realization he was not, in fact, talking to himself alone. “They left with the trees,” he answered bleakly, looking around at the hacked-down stumps not far off. “And…the spirit of the ones who cared for them.” He straightened his overcoat on his back. “I’ll show you something.”

     Harry blinked in surprise at this statement as Snape motioned for him to follow him along a shortcut out of the woods that ended at the foot of a steep hill.

     “We’re going up,” Snape declared, and even though Harry didn’t feel like that high of a hike, he thought it best not to argue. It was rare for his teacher to be in this docile of a mood, and he really didn’t want to disrupt it and ruin Christmas altogether.

      At the top, there was an old oak tree, with naked looming branches, overlooking Cokeworth in the valley below like some sort of voiceless sentinel left untouched by time and unloved by the season.

      “It’s…a nice view,” Harry tried, looking down at the smoke rising from the chimneys of the town.

      “It’s a horrible view,” Snape snapped. “A nasty view of a nasty factory dump where a nasty teacher lives in a nasty, haunted house; isn’t that what you’re thinking, Potter?”

     Harry shrugged. “I think…I’m getting used it all a little better.”

     Snape exhaled. “I…I didn’t bring you here to analyze the locale. I just…wanted to tell you that your mother would come here often. In the winter, she used to hang ribbons and food for the animals on this tree.” He stared at it intently, then glared back at the town below. “She was the only thing to come out of this place that wasn’t beyond salvation.” 

     Harry moved closer to the tree, and very gingerly ran his hand along the bark, almost as if it were some sort of relic. “So she was the spirit who cared for the deer?”

    Snape winced a little, then nodded. “They were her favorite of all the animals.” His eyes drifted to the ground. “I remember once…one doe ate oats right out of her hand, not afraid of her at all. They knew her and they trusted her. She lent them a touch of kindness in a cruel world.”

     Harry smiled at the thought. “Thanks…for telling me that. I mean, you didn’t have to.”

     Snape shrugged. Then his eyes fell on the ugly, oversized, ancient coat he had lent Harry from out of his closet for the trek. “Zipper that thing up all the way. You’ll catch your death out here.”

     “But the zipper’s stuck,” Harry protested.

      Snape rolled his eyes. “Of course, it’s stuck. It’s always gotten stuck. But the mettle of the wearer is judged by their ability to get it unstuck.”

      Harry huffed and started fiddling with it. After a few minutes of vain effort, he felt Snape yank his hands away and start fiddling with it himself. He seemed to be something of an expert at dealing with it, and got it unstuck in good order.

     “You’re…pretty good at that,” Harry complimented.

     Snape widened his eyes dramatically, and in a voice laden with sarcasm, he confided, “Hidden talent.” He scanned the coat. “It was either that or freeze to death in the day.”

      “So…this was yours?”

      “Who did you expect it belonged to? The Prince of Wales?”

       “No, I mean…I guess…I never thought I’d wind up wearing…y’know, your clothes.”

       “Factory smudges and patches, not good enough for a high and mighty Potter with your high and mighty Grindewalt’s account, is that it?” he sneered.

       “No, not it at all!” Harry blurted, exasperated. “It’s…actually kind of cool, in its own way.”

      Snape looked dumbfounded. “Your brain must be crystallizing.”

      “I mean…it’s so uncool, it sort of flies off the scale, comes back around, and becomes cool again,” Harry attempted to explain, running his hand along the patches.

     Snape’s eyes looked like they were glazing over. “Come on, wonder boy, let’s get back before I have to borrow a hair dryer to thaw out your frozen mental capacities…whatever levels may have existed to begin with, that is.”

    Wandering back through the woods caused Snape to open up a little more, muttering this or that about the properties of certain types of roots and berries, and what animals foraged for them. Of Lily’s attachment to holly, and how she had once tucked a piece in her red hair. He talked about how old the woods were, some trees dating back before even the founding of Hogwarts. Once, it had been said witches had made a special potion to shorten the winter’s endurance and thaw a lover’s icy heart with honey, a certain rare type of purple mushroom, and the bark from one such ancient tree. It was an old wives’ tale, he added quickly, but Lily had enjoyed the story, and would often go searching for the special tree lost to history.

     He was just talking, in his usual monotone, but not half as threatening as it usually was, as if he was finally starting to become comfortable with his own voice, just a little. He was talking, and Harry was listening, and realizing that when Snape relaxed a little he could be fairly interesting. If anything, he was not coming off as aggressive, but actually rather soft-spoken, even slightly shy. He wondered, was some of the bluster covering that?

    For once, there was this strange sense of mutual safety, as opposed to disdain or trepidation, where they were both coexisting together, perhaps not on good terms, but not on bad ones either. In that little space of time, they were not friends, but they were not enemies. It was a sense of tacit belonging, and Harry found himself basking in it.

     So…perhaps this was Snape’s weird attempt at a Christmas present. He was trying to be human with the boy…still distant, laid-back, low-tone…but decidedly more human…

     And then in an instant everything was ruined.

     Something white flashed through the air from nowhere and struck Snape squarely in the mouth. Harry jerked back as if a shot had been fired, while his teacher bit back a strangled yelp and pressed a hand over his mouth, his whole body going rigid. Off to the side in the clearing, there was children’s laughter and taunting. Nasty little rhymes about the vampire living in the house on the hill…

    The old Snape was back in force, his eyes gleaming like steel. He snapped his gaze on Harry, who was just staring with mouth agape. “Stop glowering at me, you damned boy!” Then he turned in the direction of the attack. “Bloody…brats…I’ll teach you…” he growled, stalking off in their direction, and successfully scattering and sending them bolting for cover into the woods.

    A second later, something fell down from the tree and dangled in front of his face. It was a cord with a small stuffed manikin, covered over in bits of a black plastic garbage bag, with a beer can attached. Snape stared at it for a long moment, blankly, then with a viper-like strike, he swiped it all down and cast it into the snow bank, a hard swear rising from his throat. 

     Harry didn’t know what to do, so he turned his eyes to the snow. And that’s when he saw bits of something shiny, something other than ice. He knelt down and cupped the shards in his hand. They were tiny and tinged slightly red…

     “Facry grass,” Snape mumbled, making Harry jump up with a start at the realization that his teacher had returned.

     “What…?”

     “FACTORY GLASS.” His words were hard, forced, intensely clear. And Harry saw a trickle of blood down his lip. “Packed in snowballs…it’s a tradition around here, you see. Quite an old one.”

     “But…why? That’s awful…”

     “Because…it causes…pain,” he explained haltingly. “Isn’t that the source…of all sorts of pleasure…to corner something you think very wicked…and make it…twitch, and suffer, and be at your mercy?”

    Snape closed his eyes to a flood of horrible memories, of being mocked and bullied and shoved and scraped and hit just because…he existed. He was there, and he reminded everyone of something bad, apparently. He was the symbol of everyone’s own personal evil. And so they could get out of church on Christmas morning and go off to be little St. Georges after their own personal dragon…and make him bleed…

    But Lily hadn’t seen him like that. No, Lily had liked him when they were both young and innocent of what the future had in store for them. She’d asked him out skating, and invited him to Christmas parties, and took him up to feed the animals with her. And she’d told him he wasn’t evil. That he was good deep down, even with all his faults taken into account. She’d even introduced him to her friend, the doe who ate of her hand, and he’d been able to touch her nose without her running away…and she’d said…deer could always judge goodness inside…

     Harry carefully drew closer to Snape. “Are…are you okay?”

     He shrugged, but there was a shiver in it. “Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy that.”

     “I didn’t!”

     “I know you did…”

     “You can’t know anything of the sort!”

     “Shut up, just…” He clamped his hand to his mouth again, and slurred, “Need…get home…swelling…”

    With that, he staggered off through the woods, with Harry following, heavy-hearted, at a distance.

By Avellina Balestri

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