The Missing Wife.
Three days had passed since Remus Lupin gave me the news of Maeve Snape’s survival and I had continued to visit her husband, trying my utmost to make everything appear normal. Well, as normal as things could be in Azkaban, which really wasn’t very normal at all, all things considered. Casually asked questions here and there had revealed that she was being held on D wing. I have no idea what the D stands for, but on my first visit there, shortly after I had arrived, I would have been forgiven for thinking it stood for demented. There were several prisoners here who really should have been in St Mummery’s Shelter For the Incurably Insane. I had vowed never to re-visit the depths of the wing unless I absolutely had to, and now I knew that I absolutely had to.
It is not difficult to gain access to other wings if you are prepared to put in the overtime. There is a list posted that details shift shortages – our own wing made quite a few appearances, what with the sickness that was still stalking the corridors – and it was to this I turned. Sure enough, there were several shifts that needed covering. I pulled out a quill and scratched my name in for two of them. It would not necessarily mean I would find her, but it could give me a better idea of exactly where she was.
Professor Snape continued to improve, which, in itself, made it difficult to contemplate imparting the news about his wife. He had worked his way through Exhausting the Magickal Senses: How to Approach Things Rationally and was now busy with A Complete History of Time-Turners. Although still a tricky prospect, I found I could now approach him with a slightly more relaxed manner. He would bridle at small things, but was an eager opponent if the conversation turned to matters of general debate. I was taking to spending longer and longer in his cell, and I worried that it would be noted by more than just Eamon, but the prisoner was compelling, if, at times, taciturn.
Christmas was crawling ever closer, and some fool had suggested we mark Christmas in some way for the prisoners. I was almost laughed out of what we optimistically call a staff room. My idea was not well received and the guffaws of derision are still ringing in my ears. But surely allowing them a sprig of holly and a Pumpkin Pasty would not be seen as going soft on them. My own plans for Christmas revolved, of course, around work. I had shifts to cover all through Christmas week, and we were not allowed to leave the fortress, so the best I could do was have a small, festive parcel of treats sent in.
But these were premature musings. My first task was to get through two evening shifts on D Wing, something I was at once both excited and pensive about attempting. You can hear the prisoners from the main thoroughfare that runs through that part of the castle, a cackling and wailing that sounds like something straight out of a child’s dark storybook. Here lie demons and despair, the like of which is beyond what most normal souls can ever be expected to confront.
I arrived for my first shift to find a woman with exhaustion etched in every crease of her face manning the main gate there. She gave me a quizzical look as I approached, her grey brows knotting fiercely.
“Katherine Carr, I have the late shift tonight.”
She scowled. “Your number?”
Hit-Wizards all have a personal number that dogs their days. Without it, you are no one in the world I inhabit. I gave her my number and she ran her wand over a piece of parchment. Security here was apparently even tighter than our own corridor, a fact that continually surprised me given the nature of some of our prisoners.
“Well, ain’t you the lucky one?” she commented, reaching down to her belt to remove a rusting key. “You’ve got corridor G, and it’s a full one.”
She shuffled from her perch, grunted, and unlocked the gate for me. “In you go. Straight along, seventh gate on your right.”
I looked at her rough features and any questions I may have had froze in my throat. Here was someone who had spent many years at the sharp end of our line of work, and I didn’t think it would serve me well to try and make conversation with her.
“Tell Albert he’d better get his arse out of there now you’re here,” she growled at me, revealing a mouth that was missing several teeth, and what was left were an unappealing shade of yellow. “Stupid man would stay in there all night if he could. Ridiculous devotion to duty.”
I nodded and hurried off down the corridor, anxious to be away from her penetrating gaze. Hoots of mad mirth howled around the place, and shrieks that could freeze blood quickly followed. I didn’t look through the other gates, didn’t want to see anything I didn’t have to. Corridor G was alive with madness, and the woman at the main gate had been right, Albert didn’t want to leave. He was busy wresting a chair leg from a ruddy-faced witch whose hair was sparking with her malevolence. I withdrew my wand, much as Eamon had done when Professor Snape came at me, and Albert reacted exactly as I had.
“Put it away!” he snapped. “Grab her other arm.”
A struggle ensued until, breathless, we finally wore her down. Albert reattached the chair leg and pulled me from the cell. It took some persuasion to get him to leave, and he insisted on giving me an even more exhaustive hand-over than even Eamon would have done. But finally I got him to turn his back on the bedlam and make his way to his bed. As he did so, someone down the end of the corridor started screaming that she was Cerridwen Culzean, the mighty sorceress and ruler of the witches of Wales, and if she wasn’t released immediately she would “hex the bloody lot of you into the middle of next week, so I shall.”
And this was my introduction to working on the dreaded D Wing. Although I peered eagerly into every cell on my corridor, even Cerridwen’s – she turned out to be a short witch of about sixty with wild eyes and a shock of black hair – I did not see anyone resembling Maeve Snape, although I did see more insanity than I would have wished to. The night was long, and left me mentally exhausted. I had just three hours before I was due back on my own corridor for my normal shift, so when I returned to my room I fell onto my bed without removing my clothes and snatched a few precious hours of sleep.
I managed to drag myself from the depths of my dreamless slumber after two hours; waking myself at will was a skill that had been developed over the years. My brain ached from lack of sustained sleep, but I hauled myself to my feet and headed off to my own prisoners. I had not thought it possible to view the likes of Lucius Malfoy with anything other than contempt, but given his relatively normal state, I was almost glad to see his leering, irritated face. When I moved to sixty-six and found Professor Snape sitting at his table, head resting on folded arms, I was reminded of my failure of the previous night and sighed softly to myself. If he was asleep, there was no point in disturbing him.
As I turned to leave he gave a groan of sorts and I stopped.
“Good morning,” he said, in a voice choked with sleep. “I seem to have dozed off.”
“It is only eight o’clock,” I pointed out. “How could you be sleepy at this hour?”
He shook his head at my misunderstanding. “No, I must have dozed off last night. Sleeping at a table is not the most comfortable thing to do.” He stood up, stretching out cramped limbs tentatively.
“The book must have been interesting,” I said, nodding towards the opened history. “There are none left, you know. The entire stock was destroyed at the Ministry many years ago.”
“I know.” He looked almost rueful and I wondered if he had been wishing for a Time-Turner to alter the problems of his past.
“You look tired today,” he said, “and not a little unkempt.”
“It is most unlike you to notice such details,” I replied, raising the ghost of a smile. “But I am working extra shifts.”
“Really? That’s very generous of you, or do they pay so poorly you need the added money?”
I paused before replying, wishing I could share the real reason with him. “Christmas is coming; more money is always welcome.”
“And you have family?” I could see the effort it took him to talk about family, given his own circumstances.
“Not any more,” I said, bowing my head a little, not used to speaking of them. “They were killed, some time ago. My mum and dad and my brother.”
“That must have been unpleasant.”
“That’s a word you could use,” I said, raising my head and noting the genuine sympathy in his eyes. “And you?”
“You know about my family.” He was slowly bringing the shutters down on his face and I wished he wouldn’t. Perhaps talking about her would enable me to better judge how to approach the problem.
“I know you have a wife, that is all.”
“You must miss her.” Too late, I realised how painfully inadequate the words were, how hopeless and trite. But for once he chose to take them in the spirit that they were offered.
“I miss her more than I can articulate.” He gave a cough to clear the ache from his throat. “But there is little sense in dwelling on that now. She is gone from me and I need to come to terms with that.”
“There is always hope,” I whispered.
“Hope,” he spat, contempt emanating from him. “Hope is a fickle and flighty creature. She raises expectations and dashes them just as quickly. I have no wish for hope to visit me now.”
“Christmas approaches.” I tried to ignore his derision. “Christmas is always a time for hope.”
“Christmas is humbug, a time for foolish sentiment and ceaseless, sickly cheerfulness. One of the only things to be said in this place’s favour is that there will be a complete lack of any frivolity.”
“You can be sure of that.” I grimaced, my colleagues’ laughter ringing fresh in my ears still. “I must go and check on the others. Let me know when you need a new book.”
“I will,” he said with a nod.
Hunger kept me awake in the break between my normal shift and my overtime, and I prayed that I would not be assigned to corridor G again, or my lack of sleep would be a waste. The ogre from the previous night was not there. In her place was a tall man, with the kindest expression I have yet seen in this austere place. He smiled at me benevolently, taking my number with a smile.
“Well, we’re most grateful for your help the night,” he said, with a broad Scottish accent. “Wee girl like you with these prisoners, you’re a brave wan.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said, watching as he reached for a key.
“It’ll be G for ye,” he began, and my heart sank, until he suddenly gave a booming laugh. “Ach, silly oul’ me!”
“I’m sorry?” I said, as he slapped his thigh.
“Oul’ Albert’s working the night. You’ll be doon on O. In there, turn reet and keep goin’ til the end.”
With a little leap of the precious hope that Professor Snape had dismissed, I took the key from him and once again stepped into the madness of D wing. I hurried to the end and found a surly man waiting by the gate, impatience on his face.
“And about bloody time,” he growled, unlocking the gate from his side and swapping positions. “They’re been at it all day, so you’ll be in for a quiet night. Exhausted themselves with their shenanigans.”
“Thanks,” I said, as he hurried away muttering oaths.
I stayed where I was for a little while, not wanting to look for her, not wanting to feel the disappointment. There is always excitement at the prospect of uncovering a treasure, but often when it is uncovered, or is found to be wanting, that excitement dissolves into disenchantment. I didn’t want any disenchantment tonight.
Eventually, I gathered my wits and began to make my way down the corridor. It was quieter than any I had yet encountered down here; the man I had relieved had obviously been correct in his assumption that they had tired themselves out. The first few cells contained ragged males, sleeping in crumpled knots on their pallets. None stirred when I closed the peepholes and I continued to hope; that it would stay this way and that one of these cells would reveal more than just madmen.
Cell fifty looked uninhabited, the pallet empty, the chair and table unoccupied. I slipped the key in the lock and carefully opened the door, ready for any attack that might come with my wand at the ready. I lit my wand and knew immediately that I had found what I was looking for. Hair the exact shade of my own covered her face, matted and dulled by dirt. She had crammed herself into a corner and it was unclear whether she was sleeping or awake.
If she was in this manic place, there was a good chance there was something wrong with her mind. Either that, or they wanted her to believe there was something wrong with her mind.
“Mrs Snape?” I asked. She didn’t move, and I began to believe she was asleep. Sleep was a better place for someone in this part of the fortress than anywhere else. “Mrs Snape? Maeve?”
The bundle moved slightly, dirty green fabric rustling. Her head moved and hair fell from a face that had not seen soap and water for a long time. Her eyes were as warm as her husband’s were cold, deep gold that reflected the wand light with an extra lustre. But the rest of her was faded. Nothing but those eyes bore any resemblance to the woman in the photograph.
“Who are you?” she asked hoarsely. I detected a faint Irish lilt that gave her words a melodic quality.
“I’m Katherine Carr. I normally work on another wing. But I came to try and find you.” I don’t know why, but I never questioned the fact that the wife could take news that her husband could not. Perhaps I just expect women to be stronger.
“Find me?” She seemed to realise that she was at a disadvantage and straightened herself up, using the wall to help her to her feet. “Why would you want to find me?”
“Why don’t you sit down?” I suggested, nodding to the chair.
“I can stand just as well as I can sit,” she said quietly. “Why do you want to see me?”
“I had a visitor for one of my prisoners a few days ago.”
“Please,” she said, her voice impatient. “Don’t dress up what you have to say. Just tell me.”
“Remus Lupin came to see me. He said he knows you and your husband. I think he was going to try and visit you too, at some point.”
“They will not let visitors into this part of the prison. It is forbidden.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.” There was an awful lot about this shadowy sector that it appeared I didn’t know.
“So. This is about my husband? What did Remus have to say?” Her hard expression softened when she mentioned Remus Lupin and I was almost tempted to ask about him, but I tried to remain focused.
“Your husband is one of my prisoners. I have managed to encourage him into some sort of dialogue. He is an intelligent man who is suffering from lack of stimulation. I have been smuggling him books.”
“Really? How heroic of you.” Her voice was filled with a sarcasm that surprised me. She must have seen the ill-concealed distress on my face, for she immediately apologised. “It has been some time since I came across someone that didn’t treat me like an imbecile. I’m not used to reacting to normal human contact. Forgive me. How is he?”
“Struggling,” I admitted. “He is coming to terms with things slowly, but you are his greatest source of regret.”
“He knows I am here?” she asked, pushing her hair away from her face.
“Not exactly,” I said, wondering how best to phrase the news. I heeded her earlier plea to keep things simple. “He thinks you are dead.”
She apparently realised she could not longer stand as well as she could sit, and lurched towards the chair. I did not try to help her, sensing the independent spirit beneath that grimy exterior would push me away more forcibly than her husband. “Dead?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“How could they be so cruel?” She was brittle with bitterness, and looked at me with antagonism. “And you? What part in this grand malaise do you play?”
“Not a very large one,” I said.
“And yet you play one all the same. A corruption such as this is only achievable if every cog, and every tooth on every cog, works together to maintain the whole.” She looked at me steadily, making my game of books and fruit for one man seem suddenly the most inadequate and ridiculous thing in the world. “You are here, so I can only assume you agree with your masters.”
“I am here, in this cell, at great risk to myself.” My reply was flat and she knew there was no conviction behind it.
“You risk dismissal,” she said. “We risk death and squalor. I hardly think the two are comparable.”
“No,” I agreed, “the two are not comparable.” I hated myself for this need to justify myself, to prove myself. I had only just met her. She was a filthy bundle of rags that had the odour of a sewer about her. And yet, and yet she carried herself with such grace and dignity that I felt a little in awe of her. “But then, the prisoners in here are here for a reason.”
“Why do you think I am here?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“They found me inconvenient. They knew I could prove my husband’s innocence in the matter of Albus Dumbledore’s death. They knew I had Dumbledore’s papers and they burned them. To keep me from making any further noise they had me sent here, a mad woman whom no one would ever believe again. Is this a fair punishment for a woman wanting to prove her husband’s innocence and save him from a fate worse than death?”
“No, of course it isn’t,” I said quietly, humbled by the force of her argument.
“Severus did not want to kill his old mentor. Has he spoken with you about it?”
I shook my head. “He does not speak of specific things. Or, at least, he tries not to.”
“And does he speak of me?” The question seemed to pain her and she had to force the words from her mouth.
“No, never. I think the ache would kill him.”
And the same hurt I had seen on his face rose on hers. I would have given anything to allow them to have a few moments together, but would mere moments be enough? Surely they deserved more than that.
“What do you hope to achieve with this?” she asked, once the pain had subsided. “You cannot free us, nor can you give us time together, so what is the point in this?”
“I cannot free you,” I said, musing over things. She did look a little like me, and her hair was of an identical shade and style that with a little tidying up… The idea began to grow and she saw the spark of inspiration in my eyes. “But I could be you for a short while.”
“What do you mean?”
“I could take your place overnight, while you went to see your husband. I can give you a map. You would not have to have too much contact with people.”
“Katherine, your idea is admirable. But do you really think trained Hit-Wizards and Aurors would not instantly spot the difference?”
I looked at her face and, beneath the dirt, realised that she was really quite different to me. With the muck gone she would have a look that was purely her own. Defeated, my shoulders sagged and I looked away.
When she next spoke, there was a touch of life in her voice. “Of course, the fact that I am a Metamorphmagus would help matters considerably, don’t you think?”