Prayer for an Innocent Man
Oh won't you listen, o Lord, to my plea for justice
Can't you hear my cry for help
Try to heed my honest prayer
And judge me in my favor
This wasn't the first time Sirius Black had heard a prayer through the walls—so thick, when he wanted escape, so thin when the incessant moans and pleas sounded from all around him. The prisoners here were almost all devout; with no one else to turn to, why not pin your hopes on God?
"Please, O Lord who art in heaven, forgive me my sins. I have sinned. I have killed. I am not innocent. But please, Lord! Forgive me! I have suffered enough. Please." Martin Lestrange's shouts died down to a whisper. Even the fervor of religious devotion was quashed eventually. The Dementors thieved their hope.
Sirius did not pray. He was an atheist, and always had been. This felt like a struggle of wills at times, the urge to have someone to look up to and depend on fighting with his determination to retain his old beliefs, or lack of them.
"Justice, Lord, justice!" Andrea Lestrange was shouting with the same volume, her ragged voice screeching, strangely compelling. Andrea thirsted for revenge, the word that meant bloody justice. She was still sane, hanging on that one desire, and having her kept Martin sane. The Lestranges, separate, would have been powerless and subjugated within months like all the rest. But together, they had lasted as long as Sirius, and would probably still be sane for years to come.
The knowledge that he was innocent, that he didn't belong here and had done nothing to deserve this, was what kept Sirius from cracking apart. He would last longer than the Lestranges. They knew, inside, that all of this was brought own by what they had done—just punishment for their sins. This made the Dementors more powerful against them, as guilt amplified the things' powers. Guilt, and inexperience.
"Lord . . ."
"Jesus Christ . . ."
"By the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost . . ."
"In the name of God, be quiet!" shouted a voice from down the hall. The prayers ceased suddenly. "This praying will get you nowhere! God has turned His back on us! This is Hell! And we are all here because He has sentenced us to be here."
A woman's voice from the other end of the hall replied, curtly, "There is no god, and this is no Hell. Wizard Law has sentenced us to be here. I wish that you'd all just cease this prayer nonsense."
These two were new prisoners, he could tell. Their voices were still strong, their words unbowed. That would change. Unless innocence or mutual comfort could come to their aid, their sanity would become tenuous over the months of contact with Dementors, their voices would become hoarse, and eventually, they would snap.
One man had recited 'Baa, Baa, Black Sheep' ceaselessly to keep sane.
He died after a year at this place. But he was sane when he died.
If that was sanity, here, where was the line between sanity and madness?
'Cause you know my heart
And you've come to me at night
But it's so hard to speak no evil
In a hole deprived of light
A new man was brought in today.
He was someone that Sirius ought to have recognized. Someone from his past. A large man. Large, lonely, and sobbing. Sirius shifted to dog, sniffing the air. Beyond the dead smell of Dementors, the familiar scents of the prisoners, the sick odors of fear and despair . . . yes. The man smelled of dangerous creatures, of frightened human. And there was that singular odor that identified him as Rubeus Hagrid. What was he doing here? He was an innocent man. He was kind, affectionate with his 'pets', a worthwhile person with not a single evil thought in his mind. Why had they brought Hagrid to this evil place?
Yes, it was an evil place. It was a place that brought out the evil in people. Sirius could have forgiven Peter for betraying them all, the day he was brought here, because the man had been a follower all his life, because Wormtail was easily scared into submission and probably had had no choice. But now he dreamed of elaborate and painful revenge. Evil permeated this place like the foul smells, and it was something that could not be blocked out, driven away, or hidden from. This place stank of evil.
Sirius became human again. He peered through his barred window, caught a glimpse of a face hidden in huge hands, heard sobs. "It weren't Aragog, 'e wouldn't 'urt any but a fly . . . weren't 'im, this time er last time!"
It was night. Night fell quickly, here, ushered in by Dementors and the sadistic guards. And it was Sunday night. Night was the worst time for a new prisoner. Sirius felt a stab of pity for the innocent, gigantic man. But a tall, gliding figure slid past, taking this pity with it.
Hagrid was in the cell that had once housed the younger Crouch. That boy had shouted for his mother at first, then taken to talking with the Lestranges. And the he'd died.
The Crouch boy had never once lifted his voice in prayer.
It was night here.
The light was preferable. Night was presided over by the moon, which shone through the small window set high in the wall.
The moon was a hole in the blackness, through which light spilled. Sirius sometimes wondered if he could reach up and climb through that hole in the darkness, climb out of this place and be free.
Perhaps he had crossed the line out of sanity, after all.
So I pray for you to answer
And to turn to me and smile
Shower me with love to save me
From demons deep inside
Night was full, a heaviness on the heart. Even the prayers were drowned by night; perhaps these others were waiting for an answer. Waiting for freedom, justice, forgiveness . . . or perhaps they were just sleeping.
Sometimes, Sirius wondered how other prisoners passed the time. He sat, slept, listened to prayers, listened to shouting matches and arguments, watched the way the light gradually swept across the floor . . . perhaps the others did the same. A day came, and it turned around and came back in place of the new day. Life had become a long repetition. The only change came when new prisoners that were brought in, or corpses were taken out.
There was no such thing as cleanliness here. Sirius had not bathed in years—how many years? Ten? Eleven? Longer? There was no way to know. Or was there a way . . .?
"You!" he shouted, catching the attention of Hagrid. "What . . . what year is it?"
"Nineteen ninety-two," the man mumbled, face held in his hands.
Eleven years. Sirius almost smiled at the thought of not bathing in eleven years—he, who used to shower once a day or more. But smiles had no place here. Smiles and laughter, hope and pity . . . none of these belonged.
Sirius laughed. They said that insane men laughed until they cried, and didn't know why. Sirius was not insane. He knew why he laughed. He did not belong here, and neither did laughter. This was not insanity; this was rebellion.
The woman who didn't believe in God shouted for him to be quiet. But then she laughed, and that laughter was a catalyst. Laughter was rebellion, and rebellion could not be stolen. This false merriment was hatred with a child's face, and hatred grew in everyone's hearts after too long in this place. From each cell, laughter echoed and rebounded. The Dementors could do nothing to stop it.
Sirius realized that Rubeus Hagrid was not laughing, not making a sound. Because he was new, and had not had time for hatred to grow. Any laughing on his part would be honest, joyous and heartfelt. The kind of happiness that was felt by those who could remember love. Real laughter would die within moments of its birth. Sirius' act of defiance trailed off, and he heard the false notes in the mirth around him. The prisoners sounded like a cackling host of demons, and he cringed as he realized that he had started this.
For the first time, he felt truly demented.
Protect me as you would your own eyes
In the shadows of your wings
And learn to know the sound that echoes
When an innocent man sings
When an innocent man sings
When he sings
Dawn came without birds, without anything but the awakening of speech—almost a living entity, another prisoner. This time, though, Sirius could hear a strange rhythm to the speech. It reminded him of the man who had recited 'Baa, Baa, Black Sheep'. With a start, he realized that it was music. A hymn.
"Hallelujah," he muttered caustically, and waited. Breakfast should come soon.
"Hagrid!" The hissing voice came from the Lestranges' cell. Andrea. "Rubeus Hagrid! Do you . . . do you remember us?" The hymn ceased, as the singer decided to listen to this new conversation.
"Yes! Hagrid, do you remember me?" she begged. "I was always going out to the Forbidden Forest, and you brought me back every time? And I gave you that puppy when I graduated! You named him Fang!" There was a sob in her voice, as she tried to remember her days of innocence. She had been innocent, once. Andrea Lestrange had been innocent.
"Yeh always were . . . yeh loved th' big creatures," Hagrid recalled. "An' yeh 'elped me wi' me garden."
"Yes! And Martin fell in the lake during first-year flying class, and you had to fish him out!"
Dementors would come soon . . . they would kill this excitement, they would destroy the memories that were all that comforted these poor prisoners . . ..
"No, it were his sec'nd year," corrected the big man. "An' d'yeh remember th' owl?"
"Shadow Wing," Martin Lestrange said blearily. "Andrea had made him huge, and he kept trying to peck your eyes out. But you adopted him, and . . . how could I forget?"
A dead rasp filled the air, and the conversation froze. A mass sigh echoed with the Dementor's shaky breath, as the many listeners realized that this bright spark in their monotonous existences would crumble into ash. Life went on. And on, and on.
Sirius closed his eyes; he didn't want to see this creature. If I can't see it, it can't see me . . . the childish defense against everything was all he had. If I don't believe in it, it doesn't exist . . . protect me, protect them . . ..
The fluttering fear beat in his heart, as dark memories flashed behind his eyes. They don't exist, they don't exist, I don't believe in you, you can't see me . . ..
And then there was silence.
Sirius didn't know any hymns. He didn't believe in God. But perhaps it would be a comfort. Religion was the only comfort that most people had, here.
"Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, 'round you virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild . . . sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace." He sang it again. And again. He didn't know any other religious songs. "Silent night . . .."
A silent night with the moon as a gaping hole that just begged to be climbed through.
"Holy night . . .."
A night still ringing with the echoes of prayers, which would never really abate. Azkaban was more holy than a church.
"All is calm, all is bright . . .."
It got dark so quickly.
"Round yon virgin mother and child . . .."
The mind became defiled with too much time here. Eleven years was far too long. Too long for an innocent man.
"Holy infant so tender and mild . . .."
Hagrid was like a giant child, kind and friendly and willing to remember the times of innocence . . . even with Death Eaters like Andrea and Martin Lestrange.
"Sleep in heavenly peace . . .."
And a few unbowed voices joined him in chorus. "Sleep in heavenly peace."
So I lie with all my failures
Praying to my best friend's ghost
Time to kneel instead of sitting
And let me do thy bidding
Won't you let me do thy bidding, yeah
Help me do thy bidding
"Jesus Christ, God . . . whoever you are, whoever it is that listens to the prayers . . . James, if you're up there as an angel, or whatever Christians become when they die . . . please. Please let this man be free. He is still innocent. He doesn't deserve this." Sirius Black opened his eyes to glance at Hagrid. "D'you hear that, God? You've won! I'll pray to you. But not for my own life," he called, listening to the way his voice fell, echoing, and then buried itself in the throng of voices, a mass of speech and pleas and discussion. "If you care about your people, take him away from this. Please."
Sirius sank to his knees. "I'll owe you," he offered. "I'll . . . I'll do whatever it takes, if I can get someone out of here. This is . . . we lose everything that matters. I've been here so long . . . I can't remember very much of happiness any more. I can't . . .. Please. Don't let him stay here and become like us."
Perhaps it would be an empty surrender. Perhaps this prayer would be worthless, as worthless as all the prayers that had gone before, because there was no God. Or perhaps it would not be heard in the cacophony of supplication that rose daily from Azkaban. But there was a chance. With no one else to turn to, why not ask God?
A voice quavered in the cell next to him. Martin Lestrange tentatively suggested, "You have to end it with 'Amen.'"
"Then, by all means. Amen."
Author's note: I am not a Christian. I am an atheist. Just for the record. And the song 'Prayer for an Innocent Man' belongs to Vertical Horizon.