BY RYM KECHACHA
They say that when the wind charges from the east, you can hear babies crying at Reculver. They say the babies’ screams echo in the space between the western and the eastern towers. They tell stories about what has happened out there on the marshes when they’re shrouded in sea mist. Sometimes there are ghosts in their stories. Sometimes there are devils. And sometimes, when people’s faces close in and they glance around them to check that the windows are shut, they talk about owls.
I crossed the still, grey sea in spring. I sat in a low lying boat with the other camp whores, following the army who had crossed weeks before. We pulled our woollen cloaks tightly around our shoulders against the salt spray whipping at our skin.
Gods, it’s freezing in this place, one girl spat.
I turned to watch the chalk cliffs draw closer. The gulls circled above us screeching and keening as if a beloved king had died. They followed us as the sailors heaved the boat closer to shore. They knew we were coming. They were waiting for us.
The soldiers didn’t like this place. They said it was a wet and misty land of barbarians with grey magic seeping from the drizzle. They shivered in the camp; there was no fire big enough to warm those men’s goose-fleshed skin. They burned only for the mother city.
Sometimes, after they had shuddered inside me and before they pulled on their breeches, they would tell me stories about this eldritch country. How the natives painted their faces with blue dyes. How the crows who perched high in the elms were spies. How the twisted oaks hid portals to other worlds.
In the dewy mornings I stood by the fence and looked out at the newly conquered forest. I wanted to see the painted natives, I wanted to walk between the damp trees. The soldiers’ stories filled me like their seed. After one winter, my belly began to round.
The other girls tutted and said I should have taken more care, but they gave me blankets and extra sips of milk.
They thanked the gods that they didn’t have to give birth in a wet, cold land with spirits living in the mist. The soldiers did not notice my swelling.
And then the priests came, and put their hands on the dome of my belly and closed their eyes, listening for the gods moving within me.
It’s a strong child, they said.
They left me to weave swaddling cloth on a hand loom no bigger than my lap, sitting in the whores’ tent where the goatskin rippled with every touch of the wind and gathered streaks of mud up its side that no one saw fit to wash off.
And all the while I listened to the carpenters and the stone masons. The camp buzzed with busy sounds, for as my child grew inside me the army built a fort, making the edge of this bitter land Roman true.
I gave birth in that dirty tent in a storm, the rushes swirling with mud as soon as they were laid. Two of the girls held my hand and sang to Lucina as I laboured. At dawn, when the rain had stopped and the songbirds were creeping out from their nests to welcome the day, I gave an almighty roar and my child slithered out of me, small and slick and perfect.
You have a daughter, the girls told me as they smoothed back my hair.
The priests came back to look at my baby, turning her over in her swaddling like a piglet on a spit.
This child will be special, the priests told me. She will guard our new town here on the edge of this dark land, and her soul will keep it for Caesar.
She was the first baby born in the new province, the first to call the earth beneath our feet home. I thought she would become the mistress of a great house, walk with the clink of keys at her waist, spend her days spinning and weaving at her leisure. I thought that was what the priests meant when they said she was special.
The fort was far from finished. They had not yet placed the foundation stones, and from first light to last the builders’ clatter rang around the tents. I sang to my daughter as we lay on a pile of blankets, her sleepy mouth slack at my breast, but I found I could hardly remember the songs of home. Instead, the percussive sounds of building infused every tune I murmured in her soft ears.
Chip chip chip goes the chisel on the stone.
Hammer hammer hammer goes the nail in the bone.
Creak creak creak goes the timber as it falls.
Heave heave ho go the men on the walls.
My baby was only one month old when the priests came for her. They chanted in the high tongue as they took her from my arms, so gently they might have suckled her themselves. They took her outside and I followed them. I thought they were going to show her to the Sun.
They took her to the trenches dug for the walls of the fort. I smiled, bright and proud, for my daughter was being sung to in the language of the son of Venus himself.
They dropped to their knees and lowered my daughter into the cold, wet earth and I wailed, too late, too slow, too ignorant to have guessed what they were going to do. She screamed, frightened by the sudden cold. I lunged for her but many hands caught me and held me back. I ripped at my hair and clothes, I clawed at the air, I drew ribbons of skin from their bastard faces; but I could not reach her.
They filled in the hole with black Britannia mud and then my baby was silent. Twelve men lifted a grey foundation stone with a grunt and eased it onto my daughter’s grave. I screeched like the gulls that had welcomed me to this cursed land.
The girls took me back to the tent where I had birthed and suckled, and they poured unwatered wine into me until I stopped screaming. I stared and stared until the darkness came. I heard the girls weeping for me but I said nothing. My nipples leaked milk.
In the morning I found that my arms had become covered with soft, brown feathers. When I moved them I could hear wings beat somewhere just behind me. My bones ached with their new lightness.
I crept out of the tent on toes that were sharpening into talons and sinking into the grass. My nose curved, my neck loosened and my belly softened with downy white feathers. My eyes became wide and so sharp I could see every blade of grass, every drop of dew, every flicker of the leaves in the forest.
I opened my wings and beat them a little. My talons lifted from the ground and I hovered in the air for a long moment before I touched down lightly. I beat my wings again, harder, and I soared over the fence and into the dark oak forest beyond.
I opened my mouth to call back to my daughter lying silently in her grave, but all that came was the sad hoot of an owl.
They say you can hear babies crying between the towers at Reculver when the moon is full over the still grey sea. Some say they have seen owls swoop down onto the beach and carry off newborn children to drink their blood. Some say they have been walking there at night, and have seen a solitary owl who sits atop the western tower; not hunting, not blinking, just sitting there as if it is waiting for the walls to fall.
It will not be long now. For the sea is creeping in; it claims a man’s length every year and swallows up the land you thought yours to keep.
Rym Kechacha is a writer and teacher from London. She writes about dance and contributed an essay to Dead Ink's 2017 anthology, Know Your Place. Twitter @RymKechacha.