by Rue Baldry
I have heard what they do to women like me. I don’t want to be strung above the streets, choking on my own severed breast. My life began in a dusty village which I left decades ago, proud to be marrying a centurion. We have journeyed thousands of miles together since then, piece by piece across the mighty empire.
I’m old enough to remember when Claudius was our emperor, before he became a god. His shining statue gazes down, unmoved by these old men and women, the young wives and small children, who cower on the cool floors of his temple.
For two days we have hidden here, the scent of soot seeping round the edges of the large bronze doors, while Boadicea’s raggedy army of barbaric peasants hack at the temple walls. Nobody speaks in here. Sometimes there are gentle sobs. Angry shouts leach in from the town, muted by the columns and barricades. The noises mix with pounding hooves and feet, and screaming.
How can this be where it ends? Can’t our marble walls and our gods protect us?
When we were young my husband would ride away from our villa to fight in fearsome battles, his handsome, smooth face untroubled. His burnished men marched sharp geometry to follow him. Then he never quivered as he is doing now against my shoulder. I’ll tell him Claudius will protect us, that the legion must return to save Camulodunum.
His long life and these fearful, clenched days of hiding cannot have been only us waiting to die.
My wife’s beautiful head lies on my lap; her brown eyes stare back at me full of terror. For three days we’ve been huddled between these rough timber walls, with the mob baying beyond them.
Our children loll, helpless, against our wooden chest. The silver inside it is worthless now. I wonder why I sweated to carry it up the steep hill, while my wife clutched our baby and the children held her skirts, with the crashes of burning buildings gaining on us.
Almost everyone I know is here. Time and hunger have eroded our courage. Two days ago, we were still brave. We barred the warden’s return and threw stones from the battlements because we thought this fortification was safe. Our plan is different now.
My grandparents sailed to England at the old king’s request. They used to boast about having his protection, because we were from Rouen, as French as him, not filthy English peasants.
Now we are just hated Jews; those the new king raises funds to fight in the Holy Land, those the priests say murdered Christ, those who were slaughtered in London after the coronation.
Rabbi Yomtob is walking from family to family, giving the only comfort which is still possible. There is still smoke in the wind coming over the high walls with the roars of the English, a noise like waves crashing on rocks. They shout that we can leave this tower, pretending that offering our foreheads for baptism will save us. We know they would kill us anyway and leave our souls mouldering like theirs. If I climbed the ladders, I would see waves of their heads bobbing and the sun catching on weapons, like it does on the surface of the English Channel.
Flints are holding vigil at the edge of the unlit pyre stacked against the doors. My sticky knife is still in my hand. Most of my children, slumped against the chest full of all I’d wanted to pass on to them, have their heads drooping forward, hiding what I’ve done. The baby lies on his back with his opened throat and his bib of blood exposed. My wife keeps bleeding into my lap.
Rabbi Yomtob takes a few more steps on his way towards me, closes his eyes, cradles a head, moves the blade across another man’s throat. I should be praying while I wait for him. I cannot think of the words.
Our rug presses the smells of fire and horses, meat and grandparents, into my cheek. I clutch my mother’s headscarf. The warm, hard skin of her fingers gifts a familiar stroke onto my neck. Floor planks vibrate my belly as the Einsatzgruppen circle our caravan. We swallow our breaths, but it will not be enough; they know we are in here.
It is natural they have swarmed into our campsite. This is how it always is for the Roma. When they rip apart this wagon, they will find us all lying on the floor dutifully wearing brown triangles. They will drag us out to kill us with knives and guns.
At least we will not be transported to their huts or their houses, nor swallowed by their mysterious camps which spit nobody out. We will die under open skies.
The wool of Dya’s scarf is wetting my fingers. Is it raining inside now? My mother never cries so why would this be the first time, when we knew this would happen? She told me weeks ago this is always how it is for us.
Deep, loud voices grate their language. Gunshots. Rumbling engines. The door is shaking now. It splinters. Dya’s breath is in my face. Timbers crack. Cheers. Shouting. A leather boot lands on our rug.
I close my eyes to inhale deep one last time. Fire and horses, meat and grandparents.
I hitch the baby a little higher on my shoulder. I hope this low, droning grizzle of hers doesn’t ramp itself up. I twist a sideways rock, moving from my waist. I need her to be quiet by the time the service starts. She didn’t sleep well last night, so nor did I. My eyeballs feel scratched and smoked.
A teenage boy across the aisle turns back to smile at the baby. I edge her sideways so she can see him. She gnaws her knuckle. He pulls a face at her. She doesn’t laugh. I shift all her weight onto one of my arms so I can hunt for a tissue to wipe the drool off her chin.
Our next-door neighbour hasn’t made it in this morning, which isn’t like her. She’s old, but I’ve never known her to be ill. I’ll pop round to check on her when we get home.
The hum of the congregation rises in expectancy. We all face front. The service is just about to begin. I’m so sleepy. Time to turn my mind to God. I can get through this. Same words and movements every week for all my life. The strength of my fellow worshippers is easing into me, holding me upright.
The baby’s whining sputters, slows, stops. Just in time. I hold her clamped with both hands, so she won’t wake yet.
We settle in to silence, ready to begin. We breathe together.
Suddenly a crash. Sunlight floods the back few rows. The door is banging against the walls. Two heavy steps, then a rattle of cracks. Silence. Then screams. There’s a man here who shouldn’t be here. He has a gun. More shots.
I hunch down, curved over my baby. She’s crying. I’m crying. I try to squeeze us into one small shape which his bullets might be able to miss. I close my eyes. Her tiny, wet fists batter my chin. Shouting, wailing, gunfire. I should be finding words to comfort her, but my lips will not part.
Running feet. Firework smells. Tattered air. I’m drowning in noises. I am as still as I can be. I wait.