A Time to Live.
I have often thought that life is a tragic riddle to be fussed and fretted over. We try to tease its secrets from the tangled mass of clues we are given and we usually emerge none the wiser. Only a lucky, or unlucky if you prefer, few are gifted with the ability to wrench meaning from the impenetrable words and chapters of our lives.
From reading his file it became clear to me that Severus Snape was just such a man. On paper it appeared that he had managed to dissect his life, mould various aspects of himself into different creations. It seemed he understood his reason for being here. It was hard to say when it had all begun to unravel. If you pressed me for an answer, I would have to say it started when he killed Dumbledore. There was much more to that particular piece of the story than was revealed in the file. I couldn’t help but think that the only person who could fully answer my questions was the deadened soul of Severus Snape himself.
Of the fact that he had done some thoroughly iniquitous things, there could be no doubt. But even the worst wickedness always begins with a solitary misdeed. I wondered when he had first fallen; indeed, I have been wondering since I first met him. Why do certain people affect us while others leave us unmoved? I could not answer that if I tried. I simply know that there was something about this man that spoke to me, despite my knowledge that he had killed and killed again. Are murderers to be pitied? Can they ever achieve redemption? Had he already been redeemed, and was there more to the murder of Albus Dumbledore than met the eye? I remember when it happened that there had been talk at the Ministry of his then wife creating a fuss about his innocence. But wives always believe their husbands are not guilty. It gave me much food for thought at the time.
My plans to catch a cold succeeded, but whether it was from my lonely walks in the wet wind, giving away my only source of vitamin C, or the close proximity to one already suffering, I could not tell. Needless to say, on the day of the healer’s visit I was able to present myself with a suitably convincing cough and red, rheumy eyes. I knew I was treading a very fine line between being fit for work and being taken off the island to recover from my minor illness, but as a Hit-Wizard you learn to adapt well to get the best possible outcome from a situation.
Fortunately, the healer that day was new and I was able to use all the persuasiveness I had in my arsenal to convince him that all I needed to continue my work was his strongest Pepper-Up potion and something to shift the non-existent heaviness that I insisted had invaded my chest. With several vials, (after all, it would be a week before he returned) I left his makeshift surgery and rested for a few hours before my watch began.
Eamon Talbot was waiting for me at the end of corridor C with the keys jangling by his side, ready to hand them over and disappear to his own bed. I liked Eamon, but he could be tiresome sometimes. His dedication to the job knew no bounds and I wondered how he would manage when he finally left the rigid structure of Azkaban. He looked at my watering eyes and red-rubbed nose with irritation and I could see the thought that he would have to work a double-shift dance behind his eyes.
“Are you sure you’re up to the night watch?” he asked.
“More than up to it,” I replied indignantly, but not without a slight snuffle. There was a hint, just a whisper, which ran round the fortress and insinuated I might be less well equipped for this job because of my sex. A hint, I might add, that I was quick to dispel at every opportunity. “Is there anything I need to be made aware of?”
As was usual we exchanged a brief, verbal hand-over of the prisoners.
“The fellow in sixty is restless tonight, that Shunpike. He keeps protesting his innocence and calling for his mother to save him. Chap in fifty-two, he’s thrown his chair against the door and I’ve told him it will be cleared away in the morning and he’d better get used to sitting in the floor from now on. Apart from that it’s all quiet.”
I nodded and asked if that was all. When Eamon replied that it was, I took the keys from him and prepared to bid him goodnight. As he was about to take his leave he stopped, as if remembering something that he must have originally deemed insignificant.
“You might want to keep an eye on Snape in sixty-six. He’s sinking fast. With any luck he will be one less to worry about by morning.”
My lips pressed together to prevent me from making a reply I might regret. I was often appalled at the callousness of Eamon and of my other colleagues. They had forgotten that the Ministry’s misdeeds and incompetence had, on more than one occasion, resulted in innocent men and women being sent here. I granted all the prisoners a degree of respect, no matter what the charges laid against them where.
This makes me sound like a young idealist and I am far from that. I know that Azkaban contains some thoroughly objectionable and dangerous inhabitants. Another of my charges, Lucius Malfoy, is in for his second stretch within these walls. He has lost much of his gloss and glamour, constantly bemoaning his lot in the world. He is one prisoner I would never consciously turn my back on. There is lust in his eyes, lust for everything he has lost, including the feel of a woman’s flesh. For an imprisoned man there can be nothing more painful than remembrances of better times and I believe these memories may well push Mr Malfoy over the edge of what his sanity can endure.
But it is in this respectful state of mind that I approach my duties and perhaps this made it inevitable that I would one day be made vulnerable by a prisoner. They do say that prison makes the incarcerated susceptible, but I believe it also makes the warders so.
I had no gifts of food that night, no scraps from my meagre table. But if Eamon were right then Professor Snape would be in no position to benefit from any windfalls I had to offer. I quickly walked the corridor, opening peepholes and making sure all was quiet. It was ten o’clock and most of them had fallen into the clutches of an uneasy sleep. Only a few remained awake, stumbling around in the darkness of their cells.
As I opened the peephole to cell sixty-six, I seemed to be gazing into the blackest hole imaginable. Nothing penetrated the blanket of darkness that had tucked itself around his cell. The corridors were only dimly lit and I knew if I were to accomplish anything that night I would need to use my wand. Wandlight was permitted on the night watch, but the powers that be knew if it was used for any unusual lengths of time, so I was aware I would need to be swift in my actions. The door emitted a low, embittered creak as I pushed it inward, once again avoiding the pool of water at its base. I closed it quickly and listened with unease to the laboured sounds of life that came from the floor in the corner. I allowed my wand to illuminate the place with the softest glow I could manage. A gentle light was cast throughout the cell, one that would have made shadows dance had there been anything living to interrupt the light.
I knelt to him, daring to place my hand on his forbidden shoulder.
“Professor Snape?” My voice was not forceful, just a low whisper to make his waking as easy as I could. His spirit was restless in sleep and murmured muddled, shy words that tripped over each other, making no sense. “Please, Professor Snape. I have something to ease your sickness.”
He rolled a little, a lunatic dream forcing movement where there was normally stillness and defeat. Without warning his eyes opened to a different madness than the one he had been seeing in his nightmares. To me it seemed that they were weeping without the need for tears and I could once again sense great sorrow, something beyond that which had brought him to Azkaban.
“You again,” he mouthed, testing my ability to withstand his contemptuous manner.
“Yes,” I agreed, “it’s me again. I’ve something here to ease your cough.”
He turned his face to the wall and pulled the thin, patchy blanket around his crumbling shoulders tightly, as if to ward off the terrors of the night.
“Go away and leave me to my end, woman.” The words were firmly spoken, but not harsh. They formed a heartfelt entreaty, a plea to leave him to his suffering.
“I will not,” I answered with feeling. “I have gone to considerable trouble to obtain these potions and you will take them.”
“I did not ask for your trouble.”
“No, that you did not. But I gave it in any case.”
I pulled the first of the vials from my pocket and, reaching across, I turned his head back to me, not expecting him to have the strength left to resist. I was wrong. One of his hands shot free from the grubby blanket and gripped my wrist so tightly I feared the bones might snap at the pressure. He raised himself up, face contorted with effort. His dry lips parted and briefly, so briefly, those black eyes flamed at me with real anger.
“Let me be, woman, and stop this infernal torment. Leave me to die and we will all be the happier for it.”
“I will not,” I said. “No one will die on my watch.”
“Then do me the courtesy of guarding over your other charity cases and allow me to die when you have concluded your shift.” His head slumped again and he grunted a little as the pain of the exertion bit.
“I’m not leaving you until you take this,” I insisted.
“Must you argue at every turn?” he groaned. “You remind me of…” And then the worst hurt I have ever seen on any suffering soul rose up and conquered his face. I wanted to turn away and allow him the dignity of his pain but the cough rattled from his chest again, chasing away the mental ache with one more physical and more immediate.
“You must drink this.” I flicked the cork from the top of the vial with my thumbnail and raised it to his lips, taking advantage of his sudden incapacity. He reached for me again then, I believe without even realising he did so. He sought comfort from the memories, just as they all did eventually. I don’t think he was even aware of what I was doing as I dripped the potion into his unwary mouth. A good portion of it reached the back of his throat, although his half-hearted protestation sent some spilling down his cheek. It was as if a balm of the sweetest vervain had dripped into his lungs. Instantly the rattle stopped and his breathing ceased its extraordinary labour. His head relaxed back and I took advantage of this lapse in his concentration to tip the Pepper-up Potion after the first. I watched just long enough to see the relief settle on his face, creases of torment easing as the healers’ medicines brought some relief, I suspect there was a sleeping agent in the first for his eyelids became heavy. His hand began to loosen on my robes and I removed it, placing it gently over the stinking bedclothes. Touching my wand I whispered, “Scourgify.” The blankets became clean, the smell of death and mould leaving them in an instant.
“You know not what you have done to me,” he said, directing his speech to me via the wall. Already he sounded stronger, despite the sleep that was rapidly descending around him. “You would have served me better by leaving me to die in my own time, not yours. This was not your decision to make.”
“Goodnight, Professor Snape,” I said, ignoring his admonitions. “I will call again and see you before I leave in the morning.”
“Don’t bother,” he growled. “You have done enough damage this night.”
“I have merely made you comfortable.”
He fought against the draught I had given him long enough to raise himself up again and look at me with odium. “You think a clean blanket and a clear chest will help me? I want to die, don’t you understand that? Reminding me that once I slept in fresh bed sheets only sharpens the pain as it writhes around me. You cannot help me.”
And he fell again, this time giving in to the release of a lifeless sleep that would countenance no cries and no thrashing around with restless limbs. I turned to go, wondering if there was some truth in what he had said. Perhaps sometimes life is too painful to be lived. Had he lost something so precious, so essential to his life, that he truly felt he could not go on?
As I opened the door I felt something hard beneath my foot. I dropped to pick it up and realised that it was a peach stone. Closing my hand around it, I knew that I was doing the right thing. I just hoped that he would come to realise this. Come to realise that life is always worth living, no matter what suffering is laid upon you. I should know. I lost my own family to Voldemort and killed to save myself. And yet here I am, disguised as a person with no troubles. Am I saving him because I could not save my own kin? Strangely, the thought disturbed me and haunted me for the rest of the night.
I knew by my watch that it was seven o’clock and outside the sun would be starting its cheerful journey to set the moon to bed. Eamon would be with me soon and I needed to check on my prisoner one last time. He was still sleeping as I lit his morning candle and he did not stir when I bade him good morning and left him to the rest of his sleep.
I informed Eamon that the prisoner was much improved and he raised an eyebrow of surprise. “Strange things happen in this place,” was his only comment as he took the keys. “Have a restful sleep.”
“Oh, you can be sure of it,” I said, stepping through the wrought iron gate at the end of the corridor. And I knew I would find a sleep as restless as Professor Snape’s had been restful.
How strange life is that it will give and take with such ease, exchanging one person’s suffering for another’s.
As I removed my clothes and placed my thick, woollen nightgown over my head, something that was essential if I was to survive the cold of my room — my nights of silk nightwear were long gone — I saw my parents and my elder brother as they died. I felt the familiar rise and fall of bile and I was thankful that Voldemort was finally defeated and that the Death Eater who had been responsible for my family’s deaths was dead too. Bellatrix Black would be a stain on my memory forever, but at least I did not need concern myself with thoughts of revenge.
Sleep did not claim me, as I had expected. I spent my resting hours pondering over the puzzle that was Severus Snape and what my next step would be in my attempt to reach him.