A HANDS-ON LESSON

 

By Catrin Achrya

 

                                                    

You did not touch Severus Snape. That was axiomatic.

The Potions Master’s healing skills were on a par with my own, even greater in his particular areas of expertise. He could take care of himself and mostly he did. When absolutely necessary, he would tolerate my wand approaching him in a diagnostic or healing spell. I could remember every single time it had occurred.

His face was a closed book, merely a collection of highly alert sensors; his hands a pair of proficient instruments; and those were the only parts of his body not meticulously covered by cloth. He never actively resisted or objected to contact of bare skin: it simply did not happen.

He was a troubled man; a shallow Muggle might call him a neurotic full of inhibitions. But he was also a pragmatist and a teacher.

--- --- ---

 

It was a quiet mid-morning in March. The infirmary was silent, empty apart from two of my habitual patients, Ron Weasley and Harry Potter, sleeping off a deep healing spell on some ribs fractured in quidditch practice the previous day. Their beds were curtained off from view, but monitoring charms would alert me of any changes in their condition.

I poured myself another cup of tea and settled down to catch up with some documentation. I did not notice the commotion until I heard the sound of none-too-forceful hammering on my office door.

“Madame Pomfrey,” cried a very young voice, “please, help, Madame Pomfrey!”

I heard a loud sob outside the door, another one, then more impacts of a child’s fist.

“I’m coming,” I called out and hurried to let the patient in.

Professor Snape stood there, with the front of his coat and teaching robes sopping wet, holding a damp white handkerchief to his face. His other hand was resting on a child’s shoulder – Neville Longbottom’s, who had been the one to knock on the door and was still sobbing uncontrollably.

Behind the professor I could discern Hermione Granger, pale, wide-eyed, clutching a book to her chest, keeping her wits about her with an almost visible effort of the will.

“It’s the professor,” stammered young Neville between sobs. “He’ll go blind and it’s my fault!”

I moved out of the way.

“There’s an armchair straight ahead,” I said. “Help the professor to it.”

They moved in unison as they obviously had done to get to the hospital wing, the boy leading, the man following with a hand on the student’s robed shoulder. The professor let go of his guide, felt for the armchair and sat down. He let out an audible sigh as my drying charm took care of his clothing.

Then he sat, straight, silent, detached, as if the events did not concern him.

 

“What’s happened?” I asked.

“My cauldron,” sobbed Neville. “I stirred… it cracked, the potion… the potion…”

“Neville, wait,” the girl said, handing me the book. “Here, Madame Pomfrey, we were just finishing the Quies Quietis potion. Ours turned purple instead of green, started bubbling although the fire was out, then the cauldron partly cracked and the liquid splashed up and out… it was… strange…”

“How, strange?”

“As if it was… sentient? Attacking…? Out to get... Neville?”

“Go on.” My hands worked by themselves, laying out first-aid equipment, while I listened.

“Professor Snape pushed us out of the way… he tried… he contained the damage, but his face…”

“All right,” I said.

Bracing myself for a sarcastic retort from the Potions Master, I asked: “Professor, you obviously rinsed off what you could with water. What else did you do?”

“Nothing,” was the quiet, matter-of-fact reply.

“He covered his face and told us to take him here,” said a small voice by my elbow. Longbottom.

“Good.”

I addressed both the children: “What can you tell me about the brewing?”

“The ingredients and quantities were correct,” said Hermione, “I checked them three times.”

“I stirred…” Neville seemed to be working up his nerve to admit something. From what I had heard of the boggart incident in his DADA class, he must be equally terrified of the Potions Master’s person and of the consequences of the accident.

“I may have stirred wrong,” he finally brought out. “Added an anti-clockwise turn. … Please… ” The boy was in tears again: “He won’t go blind, will he?”

I saw the pieces fall into place: Quies Quietis stirred counter-clockwise by someone with a negative feeling.

“The Widdershins Quies, feeding on someone’s fear,” I said. “Professor, didn’t you…?”

“I specifically warned them,” the professor’s growl was subdued, quite out of his character.

“Well. Let’s see the damage.”

I approached the chair and wondered how much I would be able to do under those rather special circumstances. I nudged the handkerchief aside, the man lowered his hand and…

… said nothing.

But there was something in his posture, the tilt of his head, the curve of his lips, inviting me to do whatever was necessary.

I indulged in a small sigh of relief and ran a cleaning charm over my hands.

 

The angry purple welts on the professor’s eyelids, forehead and cheeks told me that some of the corrupted potion was still active. It had to be removed by non-magical means. So far I could only guess what the damage to his eyes might be.

From the corner of my eye I saw the two children huddled on a bench, the girl with an arm about the boy’s shoulders, following my every motion and word.

“Before I examine your eyes I’ll wipe your face with saline to remove all remains of the active potion,” I said, fitting actions to my words.

As I trickled on the cleaning solution and wiped it off with gauze, I could sense the diminutive gestures of relief in the small muscles of his face.

“What’s ‘saline’?” I heard the boy whisper.

“Normal physiological salt solution,” was the girl’s whispered answer.

“Salt?!”

“Sssh!”

 

“All right. Now your eyes. We need to get rid of any traces of the potion still active before I can run the diagnostic spell.”

I picked up a dropper filled with more of the sterile saline solution.

“I’m going to raise your eyelid. The contact with air may smart.”

I kept half expecting a Snapish growl of ‘Get on with it’. The professor’s quiet submission told me how worried he was about his eyesight.

As I rinsed his eyes and made a first superficial assessment, I heard a whispered commentary.

“Salt solution in his eyes? That’s torture!”

“No, it’s just like tears. Have you tried to open your eyes under water?”

“In a lake, yes, and in a pool. It hurt.”

“Try doing it in the sea. It’s all right, because of the salt water.”

“What?!”

“Sssh!”

I picked up my wand and, holding it like a quill for greater precision, approached it to the professor’s right eye.

“The diagnostic spell is likely to be uncomfortable. I need you to keep looking at the tip of my wand.”

“Go ahead.”

Once again I spread his eyelids, and breathed the incantation that initiated the diagnostic spell. The wand tip shone with a thin, subdued ray of light that I moved over the surface of the eye by varying the angle of the wand. There was a rapid intake of breath now and then, but he kept himself perfectly still.

“I need a little more contrast for a moment,” I said. “It may hurt.”

I braced the heel of my wand hand against his forehead and intensified the spell. The light became stronger, more piercing. The man’s hands clenched about the arm rests of the chair, but he remained still, without complaint. I was reading the colour shifts in the light, realising that a specific antidote would cure the afflicted eye completely. I made one last change in the angle of the wand and sensed a slight tensing of his muscles.

“Almost done,” I murmured so the children might not hear.

The diagnostic spell finished, I repeated it on the professor’s other eye with the same satisfying result.

 

“You need just one treatment with diluted dragon-scale tincture. Complications are very unlikely; your eyes should heal completely.”

“Thank you, Madame Pomfrey,” said the professor. “I was hoping for that.”

I turned to the children.

“Professor Snape’s eyes will get well. We only need to send him to St. Mungo’s for the rest of the day, to get the proper antidote treatment.”

“No St. Mungo’s,” said the professor. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You have to,” I told him. “You know what’s involved. I’ll arrange for emergency floo, they will treat you at once and you’ll be back before dinner.”

“No,” he repeated. “It’s impossible. You must treat me.”

“That’s absolutely out of the question.”

“Don’t you have the tincture?”

“Yes, of course I do, we use it for certain types of burns.”

“So?”

“Professor Snape, both your eyes have to be treated extensively, including the tear ducts. Any efficient pain relief potion would interact with the antidote, so you have to be rendered insensible by mind magic.”

Snape listened, impassive, eyes closed. I went on:

“You’re one of the strongest occluments alive: no individual healer can control you. There has to be a team, as at St. Mungo’s.”

“Really! Don’t you trust my ability to control myself?”

“I wouldn’t trust anyone’s self-control during an intervention this precise and this painful. You come close, I know you that well, but if you did move, it would get protracted and messy. I’m no torturer.”

“Fair enough.”

“You will agree to go to St. Mungo’s?”

“I will accept help.”

His inflection made the last sentence sound ominous. The two children had been listening in silence, clinging to each other. Now the boy whispered: “What’s going to happen?”

The girl shook her head and we all waited, as if for a judge’s verdict.

 

“Madame Pomfrey, bring the antidote,” said the potions master finally. I complied in a matter of seconds; the solution was ready to use and I only had to reach inside a cupboard to get the bottle.

“Mister Longbottom,” he went on.

“Yes, Professor,” the boy answered barely audibly and took a step towards the chair.

It was a very brave thing to do – I knew that his personal boggart was an effigy of Professor Snape, and now the professor looked uncommonly demon-like, with his eyes closed and purple burns marring his face.

“You will assist Madam Pomfrey with the treatment by holding my head still during the procedure.”

“No, I can’t,” the boy burst out, looking desperately from Hermione to me and back. “I can’t!”

“You must,” said the potions master. “Otherwise you will have my blindness on your conscience.”

“Professor!” I said sharply in an attempt to stop the cruel charade.

“Don’t interfere, Madame Pomfrey. Mister Longbottom, your negligence in potions class has caused a serious accident. You must deal with the consequences. Consider it your punishment. After this, the incident will be closed. Gryffindor will lose no house points and your performance in today’s class will be marked as Acceptable.”

For all its severity, the proposal held a degree of trust and generosity that I might have expected of Dumbledore or McGonagall, but never ever of Professor Snape. Hidden qualities indeed…

 

Neville Longbottom looked straight into the terrifying face as if those hidden eyes could see him.

“I’ll try, Professor.”

“Behind my chair.”

The boy moved like an automaton, but complied.

“Just a moment,” I said. I summoned a stool for Neville and spelled the armchair into a reclining position, so that the patient’s head and feet were on the same level. The whole undertaking was pure madness; I would at least make every effort to prevent the man from going into shock.

I was about to give Neville his instructions when the professor forestalled me.

“Take hold of my head,” he said.

The boy raised his hands, but sat staring at the professor’s head in confusion.

“Your thumbs on my temples,” the professor went on, “your palms and fingers around the sides and back of my head. Spread your fingers to get a good grip.”

His voice held no more emotion than if he was instructing his student in the proper handling of a cauldron. Neville complied with a visible effort, his muscles tense, his teeth biting his lower lip, his jaw trembling.

“I won’t break,” the professor said. “Hold very firmly.”

I put an arm around Neville for a moment, my hands on his to correct the position a little and to show him how to use his strength more efficiently.

“It’s all right, Neville,” I said. “Take a couple of deep breaths and focus on a feeling of firmness and stability. Don’t watch what I’m doing; keep your eyes about here.” I indicated the top of the patient’s forehead, his hair line.

 

I quickly filled two small syringes with the appropriate dose of the antidote, one for each eye. The entire dose had to be used, every single trace of lesion caused by the corrupted potion found and treated. Calling the procedure unpleasant would be a gross understatement.

I picked up the first syringe and leaned over the patient.

“Neville, the professor may not be able to control his first reaction, no matter how hard he tries to cooperate. It will get a little easier in a moment. Don’t let go now.”

I spread the patient’s eyelids and released the first drop of the antidote. He gasped, shuddered, his head gave a slight jerk to the side. The boy’s hands remained firm, steadying and supporting. I continued the treatment and the patient settled down as he focused on allowing the pain, making his way through it.
Neville’s breathing grew fitful and ragged, once again mingling with sobs.

“Breathe, Neville,” I reminded him. “If you can keep your breathing deep and regular, you will help the patient a great deal.”

I spared the girl a quick glance. She sat curled up on the bench, clearly frightened but observing, analysing, trying to understand. A good way of dealing with fear, I thought. She might make an excellent healer someday, if her interest lay in that direction.

Then I put all distractions aside and set to work as rapidly as possible without compromising precision and thoroughness. Finally only the most finicky and potentially painful step of the procedure remained.

 

“Next I have to introduce the tincture into the tear ducts,” I prepared the patient and my young assistant. “We don’t know if they’re affected by the corrosive potion, but if they are, it will hurt a great deal for a minute or two.”

I picked up my wand and, by a charm, attached a globule of the antidote to its tip.

“Focus on your breathing, Neville. Imagine your whole body participating in it. The cool, fresh air is filling not just your torso, but even your arms, your hands, out to the very tips of your fingers. Inhale, exhale, pause. And again.”

The boy complied remarkably well. The professor needed no prompting but took advantage of my droning voice to ground himself and focus even deeper.

Again I braced my hand against the patient’s forehead. A thin trickle of the tincture extended from the globule on the wand tip and sought the tiny spot by the inner corner of the eye where it needed to enter.

“Very steady, now. Here goes.”

The professor took a couple of slow breaths, but they turned into ragged gasps as the active substance penetrated deeper. His torso arched and twisted, his hands clutched the arm rests spasmodically. His throat struggled for control, but a low, hoarse cry escaped him. My own stomach knotted as I carried on; I wished with all my might for the procedure to be over soon.

At long last – possibly just a few seconds later – a drop of purplish liquid emerged from the patient’s right nostril. It turned into a trickle and the discoloration gradually faded. I repeated the process with the lower tear duct, but that was, fortunately, not affected: the healing substance passed through it without a hint of trouble. The man’s knotted muscles relaxed and his breathing calmed. I picked up a fresh piece of gauze and began wiping his face. His mouth twitched in a minuscule gesture of approval, he raised his hand and took the gauze from me to continue the task.

“Mister Longbottom,” he mumbled, “I believe you’re dripping on me.”

 

I looked up at Neville. His eyes were firmly shut, with tears leaking between the eyelids and trickling down his cheeks. His jaw muscles were locked and his shoulders stiff. I touched his hand still enclosing the side of the professor’s head.

“Let go, Neville, have some rest. Settle your breathing, recover your balance. Open your eyes when you’re ready.”

When he finally opened his eyes, they pleaded with me, as did his voice: “Isn’t it over yet?”

“We’re half-way,” I said. “There’s the other eye left to treat.”

He pulled at my sleeve to draw me aside, out of the professor’s earshot.

“Madame Pomfrey, please… I can’t… can’t stand it any more…”

“You’re being exceptionally brave, Neville,” I said. “I know about your boggart.”

He blushed furiously and stared at the floor.

“You’ve already met your greatest fear head-on and been able to do what was necessary. Think about it. What has your boggart done to you so far? It hasn’t harmed or humiliated you in any way.”

“No. You’re right.” The thought seemed to intrigue and almost please him.

I went on: “Surely you can bear it a little longer, to help a fellow human being. Professors are human too, you know.”

“Yes… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so selfish. The professor is the one who is in pain.”

“Neville, you can’t and shouldn’t forbid yourself to feel frightened or repulsed. But you can control your actions and behave the way you think is right.”

He nodded quickly and attempted a little smile.

“Go, have a drink of water before we continue,” I said and took a step towards the water carafe on my desk to do the same thing.

Then I noticed Hermione.

She was standing by the professor’s side, supporting him so he could drink from the glass of water that she had brought him.

“Thank you, Miss Granger,” I smiled at her. “Have you ever considered a career as a healer?”

The girl looked rather pleased, but said nothing. Instead she busied herself with the patient and took care of the glass when he had finished drinking.

 

The Potions Master lay back in his chair.

I approached his head and covered his still-afflicted eye with my hand.

“Professor, would you look at me, please.”

The eye that I had treated was back to its usual piercing obsidian.

“Can you see?”

“Perfectly well.”

“How does your eye feel?”

“No discomfort at all.”

“Good. Tell me when you’re ready to continue.”

“Now.”

The professor settled even deeper in the chair, took a few focusing breaths and asked:

“Are you ready, Mister Longbottom?”

His voice had the precise, correct tone of a healer addressing a colleague at work.

Neville’s hands slipped into place around the patient’s head.

“I’m ready, Professor,” he said.

 

The remainder of the procedure was relatively uneventful. The antidote had the expected effect and the tear ducts of the patient’s left eye were unharmed, so he was spared repeating that particular ordeal.

Finally it was over and the three of us could relax. We remained still for a moment, savouring the calm.

Then I eased the arm chair back to an upright position.

“Take your time, Professor,” I said. “Blink hard a few times, then open your eyes and look around.”

He did as I instructed; then his eyes rested on me.

“Thank you, Madame Pomfrey.”

His relief was unmistakable.

With a small lopsided grin I prompted: “And…”

Neville had moved around the chair to face his professor, who gave him a level stare.

“And Mister Longbottom,” he said.

The boy nodded seriously in acknowledgement; his broad, pleased, relieved smile was directed at Hermione and me.

 

I scrutinised my patient’s face.

“Your face needs healing, Professor,” I told him. “You may not be a vain man, but you do want to prevent rumours and questions.”

“Yes, you have a point there.”

I picked up my wand.

“A basic healing charm will take care of it.”

He stopped me with a gesture of his hand and a tilt of an eyebrow.

“Miss Granger,” he said.

The girl interrupted her whispered conference with Neville and turned her attention to the professor.

He went on: “Have you any experience with the basic healing charm?”

“A little,” she hesitated. “I’ve tried it on my cat. And on myself, on some minor cuts and abrasions.”

“Successfully, I take it?”

“Well… yes.”

“Then you should be ready to practise on another human, under competent supervision.”

Snape gave me a questioning look; I nodded, puzzled. It was highly irregular, of course, but considering the knack Hermione’s closest friends had for getting into trouble, we would all profit from her learning some basic healing.
Never, though, would I have imagined the Potions Master offering himself as a guinea pig.

 

“Repeat the incantation to me, Hermione,” I asked her.

She did. Her memory and intonation were impeccable.

I questioned her about some specifics of the wand motion; she answered fluently and correctly.

“Excellent,” I said. “Take out your wand and proceed.”

She glanced at me as if looking for confirmation and I gestured towards the patient in the armchair. He was sitting back comfortably, hands cupped in repose, eyes closed.

Hermione bit her lip and gave me another quick glance.

As if he had seen her, the professor said quietly: “Go ahead, Miss Granger.”

On that signal, all her attention focused on the injury that she was going to heal: a long purple welt crossing the Potions Master’s right cheek.

She raised her wand, but, once again, checked herself.

“I’m afraid it will… you may… there may be some discomfort, Professor,” she murmured.

Once again, instead of a scathing riposte, he said simply: “I’m ready, Miss Granger.”

Her hand was absolutely steady as the tip of the wand ran along the wound, almost but not quite touching the injured skin, slowly, smoothly, in perfect time with the incantation. She repeated the process twice. Then only a pale gray line remained, even that quickly fading.

“Very good,” I said. “Continue.”

She healed the injury that ran at an angle to the first one, and finally the irregular blotch on the professor’s forehead. She wavered then. I wrapped my arm about her shoulders for support, directed her to the bench next to Neville and pressed a glass of water into her hand.

“Excellent work, Hermione,” I said quietly.

 

The Potions Master ran a hand over his face, opened his eyes and straightened up in the chair.

“Thank you, Miss Granger,” he said earnestly.

Then he assumed his lecturing mode.

“Mister Longbottom, Miss Granger, as you may know, Madame Pomfrey is under a healer’s geas of secrecy. She is strictly forbidden to reveal anything that passes in confidence between her and a patient, on pain of imprisonment and loss of her powers.”

“What?!” Neville gasped and the two children looked at me with awe in their faces.

Snape disregarded the interruption. “As for the two of you,” he went on, “I expect total and complete silence. There was an accident in today’s potions class. You helped me to the hospital wing. Madame Pomfrey healed me. Any further talk about this incident, and Gryffindor will still struggle to recover its house points when your own children, if any, come to Hogwarts.”

 

Inwardly I smiled with relief. Professor Snape was quite obviously himself again.

 

--- --- ---

 

Only a number of years later did I fully understand the true reasons behind Professor Snape’s adamant refusal to let St. Mungo’s healers examine his body and control even the most trivial fraction of his mind.

No matter what he did and how he appeared during the time immediately prior to his premature death, I could not for even a moment consider him a simple Death Eater and cold-blooded murderer.

His understanding of “protecting Harry Potter” went far beyond looking out for a certain black-haired boy with a scarred forehead.

Severus was a troubled man, a pragmatist and a teacher.

 

Rest in peace, Severus Snape!

 

 

 

THE END

 

(August 2009)