He mumbled to himself a lot in a low, discontented voice during the first few weeks of his time here. I would watch him through the peephole, pacing his cell in an endless journey of torment. His black hair had started to streak with grey and it made him look even older than his forty-one years. He was thin when he came in, but grew painfully so soon after his arrival. His tattered robes hung from his lean frame, like a flag with no wind behind it. I tried to bring him food that he would eat, tried to do the same for them all, but the pickings here at Azkaban are slim and all the food has a dull grey appearance that would turn even a rat away. I wasn’t even sure if it would make any difference, what use is a feast when all you feel in your heart is famine? I think the Ministry would rather the prisoners all starved to death, to save us the bother of guarding them.
When he came in, I was fresh at my job and he was just another prisoner, although a particularly notorious one, and I had no strong feelings towards him either way. But a broken man always elicits sympathy of some kind eventually, no matter what his crimes, and Severus Snape was a broken man. His chin rarely rose from its defeated position on his chest and I think it was fortunate that no sunlight pierced his cell, for the brightness might have finished him off completely. He did not speak, or ask for anything, or anyone. I was not privy to his thoughts at that time, but given the moans and cries of terror he emitted during his short and fitful periods of sleep, I think that was no bad thing.
I doubt he was ever handsome — his nose is too prominent and his cheeks to sallow for beauty — but nevertheless, there is a compelling quality about his face. Perhaps it is those eyes that must once have been stern and full of vigour. They were empty then, staring dully at a floor he grew to know intimately. My own well-fed body must have insulted him whenever I walked into the cell. Shining hair and healthy eyes have no place on this rock of decay, but I cannot help being what I am. Perhaps he thought I came to flaunt my vitality, and that is why he kept his eyes averted.
Time knows no beginning or end. Days pass by unnoticed as the moon is chased from the sky by the sun in a never-ending cycle that the inmates no longer see or care about. Even their gaolers, myself included, see little daylight, as we all cling to this grey rock that is whipped by the relentless sea and wind. The dank chill of this place does not differentiate between the saints and the sinners; we all suffer, only some of us are decently fed and have a soft bed to go to at night instead of the unwelcoming, dirty mattresses that the prisoners sleep on. They wake to despair, and know that that is the best they will feel all day. I am glad we only have to stay here for six months before being moved to other duties. I think our sanity would be compromised if we had to stay much longer.
I’ve been here five and a half months now and my time is nearly up. I have served my time, and will be moving on to other duties back in a world that knows comfort and daylight. I arrived on the same day as Severus Snape. Perhaps that is why I feel a solidarity with him that would get me moved elsewhere if the authorities knew about it. Not that they have cause to worry; feeling solidarity with a prisoner is one thing, but this prisoner does not want solidarity, merely solitude. But then, in my time as a Hit-Wizard, my views on many things have changed to the point that they would concern the Ministry. I could walk away, but you can’t change things if you don’t know what needs changing. With the fall of Voldemort and the subsequent rise in petty and vindictive crime, the Ministry are acting as if the Dark Wizard were still around. They are using a colossal sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut and it sometimes sickens me.
My name, should you care to know it, is Katherine Carr. I’m too old to be in the first flush of youth, and too young to be here. I trained as a Hit-Wizard during the lull between Voldemort’s first, premature, fall, and his recent, final one. When the Dementors left Azkaban, they left it to us; wizards that could scarcely be spared from the main fight against the Death Eaters. I spent a few years doing the normal things, escaping my stint here until the powers that be decided I was old enough to listen to the torturous screams and wails, day in and day out. They say the screams were worse when the Dementors stood guard and I can barely believe it is possible. There is one prisoner who occupies the cell above Snape’s, and his screams will forever haunt this place. Jacob Frith, who is a gaoler on that floor, says this prisoner suffers terrible claustrophobia and when they extinguish the lights at night his torment is absolute.
And still the days passed. One morning I saved the orange I had at breakfast and smuggled it into Snape’s cell beneath my robe, thinking all the time that if I passed a colleague they would be able to smell the vibrant citrus tang of life in the midst of such rot. Fortunately I met no one and was able to reach his cell with my precious cargo intact. Fresh fruit is rare and rationed here at Azkaban; we are lucky to see one or two pieces a week for our personal consumption. The prisoners, needless to say, receive nothing but the tasteless gruel that sustains them on the watershed between starvation and a life lived in permanent hunger. Why I was moved to this act of kindness, I will never know; perhaps it was a failing on my part rather than kindness.
He was not pacing when I pushed open the heavy door, but sitting, head slumped, at the small desk that was standard in most cells. One desk, one chair, a pot for a toilet, and the pallet that they slept on was the sum total of each cell’s furnishings, and if a prisoner damaged any of this then they would not get a replacement. I bade him a good morning, foolishly, for he did not know the difference between the bright glare of morning and the blessed shade of night. He did not respond, as was usual, and I placed the chipped bowl of slop onto his desk, brushing his hair slightly with my knuckles as I did so. He raised his head only a little and for a moment I thought he was going to speak, but he took in the shallow bowl that had been placed before him and allowed his head to sink again.
“I brought you something else,” I said, in as low a voice as I could manage and still make sure he heard me. “I have no need of it and thought perhaps you would care for it.”
I pulled the dimpled fruit from the green folds of my robe and placed it next to the bowl. It was as if the sun had come out in the darkness. The orange was so bright and so perfect in the sickness of that room that it almost hurt my eyes to see it. The smell must have reached his nostrils, for he raised his head again and looked with disdain at my small offering. Again, I thought he was going to speak but, again, he did not. His eyes looked up and reached for mine, sorrow beyond measure spilling from them as I held his gaze. And that was it. It was a contact of sorts, for he had never before looked me directly in the eye. The small lurch of fear, sorrow and pity that I felt at beholding those dark, unfathomable seas of black was almost palpable and it was I who broke the gaze first.
His hand reached out and it appeared he was about to take the fruit, but in a slow, deliberate movement he pushed it from the desk and ignored it as it rolled away from him to lodge in the grime at the end of his pallet. With his other hand he felt for the bowl, and pushed that too from the table. I watched as it fell, spilling the runny liquid in its wake. As it smashed on the floor it made little sound, being made from cheap clay, and I was already wondering how I could possibly disguise the transgression and keep my use of magic concealed. I could feel his eyes on me as I bent to pick up the pieces, they burnt into my back and I wanted to turn but did not. My hand tightened around my wand that was still safely tucked into my robe and I mended the broken shards of bowl, clearing up the spilled gruel while I was at it. If the extra magic were detected I would have to lie and say it was I that had broken the bowl.
“You will help no one, least of all yourself, with pointless defiance like that.” I held the bowl and reached down for the orange. “You may not want this,” I said, indicating the bowl, “but you would be a fool to turn away the fruit. I will leave it with you.”
I emptied the stinking pot with a spell devised for just such use and nodded towards his blank face as I left the cell. My heart was heavy as I reached the kitchens and tipped the contents of the bowl into the sink, placing it with the rest of the dirty dishes that would be left for the prisoners who worked in the kitchens to clear away. This was another thing that galled me, the way they used prisoners for all the menial tasks. Only low-risk people were used, for obvious reasons, but they were made to work all hours of the day and night, without magic, to keep the castle ticking over. They accomplished more than any house-elf would have done, and all without the use of magic. But I hid my sympathies well, or I tried to. It was not so easy where the prisoner in cell sixty-six was concerned.
Severus Snape was proving to be troublesome for my peace of mind. Could it be that, even then, I thought he was innocent? I had taken his file from the governor’s office a few days after my arrival and had pored over it with some considerable interest. Severus Snape was, after all, a very interesting man. He had been born to a Muggle and a witch in 1959, brought up in a poor area of northern England in a town populated almost exclusively by Muggles. From there he had gone to Hogwarts and proved to be an adept student, adept but friendless. Charmed by the glamour of a life lived on the Dark side, he had become a Death Eater, but had renounced this lifestyle, or so it seemed. He had been brought before the Wizengamot and had been found not guilty. I read testimonies from Professor Dumbledore, the man whose murder he had finally been apprehended and charged over. It was clear from Dumbledore’s words that he had believed in Snape, trusted him. So what had brought Severus Snape to the point of killing his own mentor?
There had been a photograph with the file, a photograph that was so unlike the unresponsive creature that now inhabited cell number sixty-six it was hard to believe they were one and the same man. The hair was black, black as the wet rocks that the fortress Azkaban stands on, and his eyes had been unexpectedly clear, if cold. Pride and self-confidence poured from his countenance and I think that is when I first began to feel sympathy for the man. All that pride, all that wisdom, for there must be wisdom there to have survived for so long as a spy for both Dumbledore and Voldemort, going to waste in the heart of Azkaban.
I had returned the file, but only after making a copy for myself. And then I went back to trying to unlock the door to the man that was my prisoner. All men can be picked for their secrets and sorrows, if you can find the right combination, but some would always be trickier than others. Severus proved to be the trickiest I had ever encountered.
When I went back to his cell, on the evening after I had presented him with the orange, I could smell it. Not the confined, subdued faintness, but a huge, demanding odour that signified an orange well eaten. He was lying on his pallet with his face to the wall and I once again emptied the pot, wishing I could find other menial tasks to detain me, but there is nothing constructive to be found in an almost empty cell.
“Thank you,” I said, preparing to take my leave. I opened the door and lifted my skirts slightly to avoid the pool of dampness that collected in the dip between cell and corridor; nothing at Azkaban was a snug fit, except for the locks and their keys.
I didn’t recognise the rasp as a voice at first and merely thought he had coughed. Still, it was enough to keep me a moment longer as I paused, about to ask after his health.
“For what?” The repeated words were scratches, ground into the air around us with reluctance.
I was ridiculously pleased to have drawn even two words from him, and stepped back into the cell, closing the door.
“For not wasting the fruit,” I replied. “For it would have been a great shame, and one I would not easily have forgiven you for.”
“I hate waste,” he said, his voice still harsh from disuse.
“Then that makes two of us,” I said, eager to prolong the conversation. It was hard to tell what the proper timbre of his voice was with the flakes of dryness disguising its true note. “Perhaps you would like some more, when I can get it.”
“Do not seek to deprive yourself.” He coughed, and this time it was a real cough, hard and rough.
“It would be no deprivation, not compared to your own.”
And there the conversation ended. He did not speak again that night and I left him, feeling myself on the horns of a dilemma. To seek out the company of a prisoner, to in any way encourage conversation, was strictly forbidden, and yet there was something about him that made me want him to speak with me. I felt he had much to share, much to impart.
Several days passed before I had the chance to secrete an item of food on my person and once again make my way to that drear cell. It was a Saturday, although nothing marks out a weekend as being in any way different from the equally long and fruitless days of midweek. His cough had worsened considerably in the time between that illicit orange and this dog-end day, and I confess to being somewhat concerned. It would be extremely difficult to bring in any sort of Potion to this forsaken place, not without getting caught at any rate.
He was once again slumped over his table, his breath coming deceptively gentle in its shallowness.
I closed the door on any unwelcome ears that might be around before I spoke. “Mr Snape,” I said, announcing my arrival more formally than was necessary, or even permitted, “I have something for you.”
He did not move, but I felt there was a fracture in the rhythm of his breathing.
“Are you unwell?” I asked, moving closer, the peach that lodged in my pocket forgotten for the time being. “Your chest sounds rougher today.”
“You must eat,” I insisted, putting down the bowl of gruel by him, in the cruel routine that we had both become accustomed to. “You will fade to nothing if you refuse even this, inadequate though it is.”
“Leave me.” The words, repeated, added weight to their meaning.
“I’m concerned about your chest,” I said, holding my ground.
He raised his head then, and it cost him considerable effort to do so.
“Save your concern for those that are deserving of it.” He struggled to speak against the tide of moisture that clogged his lungs. “And leave me.”
“I cannot leave you in this state. There must be something I can do.”
“You are my guard, not my guardian.” His speech gave way to a fit of coughing so heavy and prolonged that I thought it would never end. The air was chilled with salt damp and I didn’t wonder that he had a coldness on his chest. It was just a matter of time before we all succumbed to some sort of malady. And, with that thought, I had my answer. He could not go to the healer that visited the fortress just once a week, but I could.
“Very well,” I said, eager to put my plan into action. “But you may find these rations more palatable than the gruel.” I placed the fruit on the table and felt its softness beneath my fingers. There was nothing to match the peach’s tenderness in this place, and I just hoped he would find some comfort in it. “But you can be sure, Mr Snape, that I will come back and be better prepared to treat your ailment.”
My hand was on my keys and I was about to open the door.
“I beg your pardon?” I asked.
“It is Professor Snape.”
“Thank you for the reminder, Professor Snape.” I enjoyed that moment. It gave him some dignity to be referred to by his old title, and when you have lost everything else, dignity is all that remains.
Closing the door without making it bang against its frame is no mean feat, but I managed it that day and hastened myself to finish my morning chores before slipping from the fortress to parade on the pathway that skirted its seat. If I braved enough sleet and rain I could well bring myself to the point where I would convince even the best healer that I was sickening for something.
And if I didn’t, Professor Snape would go without his Potion and possibly sicken even further.
And still I didn’t know why I cared.