It's so cold.
"Mum? The fire's gone out, Mum."
It' 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 tugged on my mother's skirt, which usually brought her back to me. But this time she just keeps stirring the cauldron with complete absorption.
I was too young to articulate what I wanted to say—that the soup was not cooking, that she was scaring me with that empty look, that the kitchen was dark, so I settled for, "I'm cold."
Peeping out of her robe pocket, at eye level to me, I saw he magic stick. The one she used to light the fire and draw pictures on the ceiling and do all manner of wonderful things. She never let me touch it before; both she and my father kept it away from me. I felt a vague unease as I pulled it from her pocket.
I can do this. I'd seen her do it before. Mumbling something like what I've heard her say I pointed the stick at the cauldron. A few sparks flew out, nothing more, but I was ecstatic. I pointed a few more times but very little happened. My tiny attention began to get frustrated. I was cold and hungry.
"Mum," I said more insistently, but she was just stirring and stirring. Angrily, I jumped up and down and pointed the stick while a sound arose from the pit of my stomach.
The fire came alive.
Mother woke from her reverie. "See, Mum, I lighted it!"
"It's a beautiful fire, Severus," she said, and I'm not sure she knew I made it, but we staood there together with her hand playing with my hair, and my hand winding her robe, and it was all right.
When my father came home, however, I wanted to tell someone again, so I said as she ladled out the soup, "I helped!"
"What did you do?" His eyes narrowed and I thought I was in trouble.
"Severus helped stir the soup," my mother said, beaming at my father in that way that never failed to make his face relax.
That's when I began to understand that my father was not magically inclined like we are. And that there are secrets so important in my house that no one could 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 made her potions I was used to stirring my own little pot. The cheerful bubbling of a cauldron was the sound of home, the sound of our shared world. For my pretend-potions I dipped into the canisters with the potion ingredients, throwing in different things by color, or all kinds of dried beetles together. It was never truly random. Children play very seriously. Even when I put mushroom caps on the heads of the desiccated lizards and fought battles with them, there was always some logic at work.
At an astonishingly early age I started to be interested in actually emulating my mother's actions to produce the same liquids she did. But because I was a very small child, when nothing turned out right I got frustrated.
"Why is mine purple and yours green?" I asked, pouting.
She smooths my hair the way that I like.
"Yellow," she pointed at my liquid.
"Pink," she pointed at hers.
"But—" I objected.
She grouped three objects together for several different colors. A dried sea anemone some fossilized tree resin, a white powder, she grouped as red. Another white powder, the yellow fur from a bumblebee, a black fungus, she called green. She did the same for blue and yellow while I frowned at her.
I was very confused. I knew my colors! Was she joking? Was this a game? I moved to put the things in the order that seemed sensible. She held up a hand in front of my eyes.
"Pink," she said. "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. 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.
Later I would read the concept straight from Paracelsus, who said that the wonders of nature are discovered, not in books but through the hands. He admitted it is terribly difficult to describe. 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 drove my father crazy when at the dinner table we pointed at things and Divised them by magical color—the milk was pink, the roast was violet and the potatoes were yellow.
When I grasped this concept very well, she moved on to others—cold or hot, active or passive. For the latter concept we took different compounds and smudged the horns of stag beetles with them. The ones with active materials could 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 could also Classify according to mercury, sulfur, and a host of other things that I never really paid much attention to. 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 said, as my own little cauldron flashed a golden yellow, just the right color for Skin-Stim potion, and then settled into a tawny red. She tried to force hers to a new reveal several times but was a stubborn blue.
"That's very, very good, baby," she said and lay 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 wouldn’t always turn out.
"Let me try. Do you cut it like this?" I asked, 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 said in the voice she used when trying desperately not to scream or fall asleep.
"And this stuff, what is it again?" I asked, trying to keep her engaged.
"Borneo lizard-leaf," she said tiredly. "Crush it to a fine powder."
I went through the motions I've helped with here and there before, but this time was prompting her memory. It was the reverse 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 exclaimed. The cauldron's surface was coated with an opalescent green skin that soon disappeared to reveal a lovely emerald color.
"You're right," she said, making a motion to keep stirring but I take the spoon out of her hand before she spoiled it. Maybe she'd been stirring too much and that was ruining things. "It's perfect." If a shadow passed across her face when she realized that a seven-year-old just proved a better potion maker, she forgot quickly enough. "We'll tell your Da what a big helper you are tonight."
But somehow that got put off, because she misplaced her wand and it wouldn’t come when she called. Father came home to her crying in a cold dark house.
She was spending a lot of time lying down. Stirring the cauldron was getting too exhausting for her, so I stood on a pile of books to reach her full-size cauldron. I was playing my childish games by her bedside and sometimes found her frozen, staring off into the distance, and I could do nothing to rouse her. At first it was frightening, but it soon became a fact of life. I played over her, littering the bedsheets with the battles between old buttons and spools, incorporating her into my games when she woke up.
A lot of my games involved magic queens who had been spelled into some kind of unnatural sleep, and my job as the prince was 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 prattled 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 said suddenly, waking up from her reverie. She kissed my hair and we played 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 made float in the air like a shimmering castle.
My mother was the best playmate a child could have-when she wasn't in that place that makes her stare, or worse, put that furrow between her brows that made her look divided from herself. The tears sometimes coursed unheeded down her cheeks. I knew she wass often very unhappy, but she tried to spare me from the worst of it. Sometimes she was frightened of the most ordinary things and threw whatever was handy at the boot or the bottle that had her scared out of her wits. The screams from her nightmares left me shivering in my little room many times.
Occasionally my father would 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 was why, when she was well enough and making mushrooms and dried insects dance for me, my father would, very rarely, sit down on the floor with us. He tried to grasp the logic of the games, and the three of us sat 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 knew this part of my mother was vanishing. He smiled at her with an expression that was carefully hidden anguish and let the reanimated ants march over his hand, just to hold onto it for a little while longer.
He didn’t seem to think about what I might do with my time when she was absent, but he needn't have worried. During my mother's quiet hours, at the age of seven I begin filling her potions orders, retracing the steps I'd done with her many times before. Her index of potions by magical color was all I needed, though I couldn’t read the technical instructions well. I could usually manage to rouse her to see the reveal and give me the praise that made me flash with pride.
"Very good baby," she whispered helping me pour the cooled potion into containers when my father walked in the door.
He saw that she'd been busy and smiled at both of us. I noticed he liked to see the worktable covered with glass beakers. He helped us pour and seal as well, and even applied 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 still justifiably proud of her training. 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.