Editor’s note: The story excerpted here takes place in a sprawling refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, a city in northern France across the English Channel from Dover. The camp is called the Jungle, and for a long period of time, it was at the epicenter of the international migrant crisis. Thousands of men, women and children lived there, with many attempting to cross the English Channel to Britain—and many dying in the process. While Megafauna is a work of fiction, it draws from research into the documented experiences of the young, unaccompanied refugees who struggle every day for survival, dignity and a permanent home in the world.
The worst part about cleaning the goat skins was the smell, a copper blood stink that stayed on Adah’s hands long after she had rooted out the congealed, purple grime from underneath her fingernails with a sharpened twig. How the goats had arrived in the Jungle was a mystery to Adah. She would probably never know how the animals had been brought in or who would eat them because nobody told her anything, ever. Adah was considered doubly cursed because she was both female and mute. Her tongue had somehow failed to develop into a muscle capable of producing language. She could eat and drink like everyone else, but the rogue muscle disobediently flopped in her mouth whenever she attempted to speak. Delinquent and defiant, it refused to shape her breath into anything other than low grunts. Jahid, who was the leader of the camp’s contingent from her country because he had been in the Jungle the longest and had attempted the most crossings, led Adah to a patch of bloodied ground where the goats had been slaughtered and skinned. He handed her a rough blade and said, “nazif,” clean. Adah did not refuse.
The smell of goats didn’t bother Adah, perhaps because they reminded her of her old village. But the odor of blood always meant death was near, or at least shame. Still, she scraped the skins, discarding the bits of fat too rank to consider eating into an oily pile in the dirt, then placed the cleaned skins in a tub of soaped water. A long femur had been tossed in with the skins, and Adah rent it down the middle with her blade. Bringing the bone to her mouth, she sucked out the marrow and lipped the fat from the groove of the bone.
With the hides scraped and the marrow sucked, Adah looked for Jahid. He was easy to spot because he always carried himself like someone important, his chin tilted up towards the heavens like he was tuned in to some invisible voice that assured him he would make it, he would cross to the UK and be free. Jahid leaned against the one scrubby tree in front of the endless shantytown that was the Jungle, a tent city of blue and silver tarps. A thick cloud of smoke from hundreds of small cooking fires hung like fog between the muddy ground and the grey sky, and Adah thought it was the ugliest place she had ever seen. She placed herself in front of Jahid and handed him the blade to indicate that she had finished. He looked at her like she was a riddle to be solved by someone else. “Ib’d,” he said, go away.
Adah joined the line of other unaccompanied youths who shuffled towards a tent set up by one of the NGOs. She had just turned fifteen but looked younger than her age so nobody questioned her when she queued up for the extras given to children, although she had seen some turned away for looking too old. Adah looked down instead of looking into the faces of the others, preferring to be alone. When she reached the front, a woman poured a small package of powder into a plastic cup of water and motioned for Adah to drink. When Adah lifted the cup to her mouth, the odor of blood from her fingernails overwhelmed her, and the marrow rose in her throat. She dropped the cup, spilling the water that must have been mixed with something precious, and the woman scowled and cursed her in French, a language she didn’t understand. The woman, whose hands were huge, seemed to want Adah to explain herself, and when Adah opened her mouth and made her utterances, so clearly nonsense in any language, the woman pulled her from the line and into the Medecins Sans Frontiers tent.
In the tent, a doctor was tending a boy whose left foot was missing, his leg terminating in a surprisingly smooth stump above where his ankle would have been.
“Is there pain?” the French doctor asked, his Arabic clumsy. The boy squinted his eyes tightly as if his suffering was intense and shook his head vigorously in reply. Adah knew to be skeptical. Her uncle had also lost a foot, severed in the distant past, and she had never seen him complain of pain. This boy’s wound was completely healed—how could it possibly trouble him so? When Adah caught the boy’s eye over the humped shoulder of the doctor, he winked at her.
The doctor directed the boy to lie on a cot and went to Adah. He was the cleanest man Adah had ever seen in a camp, and for a European, he was pretty to look at. His eyes were light green, almost yellow, and his lips had a fullness that was unexpected. He introduced himself as Lalande, and when he asked in halting Arabic if she understood English, Adah nodded. He gripped Adah’s chin and turned her face this way and that; his fingertips with the nails trimmed down to nothing lingered on her skin for too long. His touch made her feel seasick, like all the water inside her was rocking back and forth, and when he took his hand away she was relieved.
Lalande was perfunctory but not cold, and he was probably at least forty, but with them, it was always hard to tell.
“Open your mouth,” he said. He put on a white plastic glove and swept two fingers under her tongue, pressing hard into the place it was rooted to the floor of her mouth. His own mouth twitched, and he almost seemed to smile.
“I know at least five surgeons who could repair this easily,” he said. “Can you write your name for me?” he asked, and produced a black pen and small book from his pocket. The book was bound in green leather, and it seemed out of place in the camp—a ridiculous luxury. The dark ink flowed from the pen onto the page as Adah wrote. In the florescent light of the tent, her name reverberated. It seemed like a secret contract between them, and Adah knew that this unlikely doctor wanted to be her friend.
Adah had killed her parents by being born. Most of the girls at the camp had neither a mother or father to cleave to, and if their parents were still living they were unreachable. But Adah knew that she was complicit in her parents’ deaths in a way the others weren’t. Her own mother’s life had been wrung from her by the act of giving birth. Her Aunt Maia had told Adah of the blood that came after labor, unstoppable and unceasing. Baby Adah’s suckling mouth had had to be forced open with a spoon and pried from her mother’s breast.
Adah had killed her father more slowly. He was a man with a face that always looked inward, Adah had thought, a face that wanted to fold itself away into nothing. He rarely spoke to her. When she was seven years old he tried to hitch a ride on a passing train. Some people in town said her father’s hands must have slipped accidentally from the oiled rung on the side of the train. But surely he knew that the train, which passed through just once a week, would be moving too fast, others said, some quietly and some in loud shrill voices.
The smear and gristle on the tracks that had been her father did not look like a man at all to Adah. It looked like an erasure of a person perhaps, but there was no person there to mourn. Sadness seemed impossible. If she ever tried to catch a train she would not fall off, she thought. It would take more than a thousand tons of steel to erase her from the earth.
That night her uncle’s wife Maia had brought her to their tents, and Adah was shown to her new sleeping place, a woven grass mat on the dirt floor of the kitchen. She felt that this place, her uncle’s home, wanted to rub her away into the dust. She vowed to leave it, when she could. After her father’s death, Adah belonged only to herself. This had been her inheritance, his one and only gift to her.
Calais was the French city that bordered the Jungle, and it was a magical place. Adah learned this and more from the one-footed boy, whose name was Matteau. Matteau was forever at the medic tent, and when Adah gave him one of the precious cigarettes the doctor had shared with her, Matteau started talking and it seemed he would never stop. At the port in Calais, he said, there was a mighty tunnel under the English Channel that led to England, and freedom. The British, Matteau said, welcomed all migrants and gave them apartments and a stipend and medical care and education, and it was almost always sunny and the streets often shimmered like mirages in the desert because of the strength of the sunlight.
One could, according to Matteau, catch a ride on or under a lorry, or even on the top of one of the passenger trains that zoomed through the tunnel, taking rich Europeans back and forth seven times a day. But many died this way, crushed by the trains, drawn under by their relentless momentum, reduced to blood and bone on the tracks.
The night before the fighting had finally come to her village, Adah had seen her uncle with Maia naked and straddling him in their tent. Maia had turned and lolled her sad eyes to where Adah stood in the doorway. Although she knew she ought to feel embarrassed to judge a woman who had the misfortune to be married to her uncle, Adah was repelled by Maia’s body. The limp jiggle of Maia’s lip and the perspiration on her forehead all spoke of surrender, and surrender to this man at that. Heat pressed across Adah’s face like a hand in the darkness. This would not be her life, she had decided as she pulled the curtain back across the doorway. She could not let herself be married in the village, and she knew that if she stayed her uncle would find a husband to take her soon. Word of the war came the next day, and Adah left the following morning. Barefoot, she had walked alone into the purple, predawn light. She had taken only herself, leaving everything else behind.
In the camp, after she had known the doctor for a month, Lalande had asked her where she slept. When she shrugged her shoulders, he said he was taking her to a place called the Girls’ Camp. When they reached the mouth of the huge tent, he gave her arm a quick squeeze.
“You’ll be safe here,” he said, his voice now softer and familiar. But she hesitated, and the other girls stared at the European doctor in their midst. “Dépêche-toi,” he said sharply, hurry up.
Adah found a patch of tarped ground unoccupied and lowered herself between an albino, who couldn’t have been more than ten and was crying softly in her sleep, and a girl closer to her own age whose eyes were open crescents of moonlight staring at nothing. Her dark skin and large breasts reminded Adah of her own mother, known only from photographs, long dead in her stony grave in the desert, bones surely white and polished by now, shining somewhere wordlessly. Complicit in a comfort that would sustain them for a moment, that would feel like love although they both knew it was only warmth, the two girls embraced the warmth of keening of flesh pressed to keening flesh. Adah’s lips found the girl’s earlobe, and her tongue that would not speak sucked the salt from the girl’s skin, sustaining her and keeping her alive for the night. They slept like that, without language and almost content.
Adah heard the fire before she saw it, the yawning, whistle-pop of grass burning at the edge of the enclosure, orange fingers teasing and caressing the side of the canvass tarp, licking upwards toward the black sky. The girl slept, and Adah wanted to touch her, wake her, but the girl would scream and then there would be bodies flailing everywhere. Afterward, there would be talk and questions she could not speak to answer. By the time Adah heard the first shouts about the fire, she was already fifty yards away. She hoped the girl would wake up soon, if she hadn’t already. But it was always safer to go alone.
Adah sat on the little hill where the medic tent was and drew her legs to her chest. The smoke rolled and billowed from the burning tents all across the camp, not just the Girls’ Camp where she had slept. The sun was coming up and Adah saw that several large mobile-response-unit vehicles had driven into the Jungle. It was the police who were setting the fires, and it was the police who were rounding people up into buses; they meant to clear the camp. She heard the shuffle-hop of Matteau as he approached her from behind—by now she could recognize his walk even over the din of the camp being dismantled— and he laboriously sat next to her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. He wore a black hoodie like the one she wore, and she imagined that from a distance they must look like two hunched birds with dark wings.
“This means you’re getting out,” he said. She shook her head at him and pressed her body closer to his. It means we’re getting out, Adah thought.
“No,” Matteau said, as if reading her mind. “The Doctor will take you. He came here looking for someone to save. No one is coming for me.” Adah knew this was her punishment for caring for Matteau, to see him stay behind. If only Adah could bring Matteau out, too. But he could never catch a train or sneak onto a lorry or pass for what he was not. She gave him the last of the doctor’s cigarettes and they sat and smoked it together. It tasted terrible, like burning flesh. She took off the cross necklace she always wore and pressed it into Matteau’s hand. He looked at her strangely.
“Friend,” he said, “You should know I believe in nothing.” Adah folded his hand over the little carved cross, a talisman of everything that was meaningless but hopeful in the world. She wanted to tell Matteau that he would make it, she wanted to tell him she would find him on the other side, in England. But Adah knew that even if she were capable of saying the words they would be false promises that would die in the air between them and be carried off with the smoke that was the camp disappearing into the sky.
Excerpts from a short story by Flora K . Schildknecht
The conclusion of this story, as well as others, can be found in Megafauna: Stories & Screenplay. The title story has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other stories have appeared in Sisyphus, 2nd and Church, The Chaffin Journal, and The Louisville Review. Flora K. Schildknecht is an adjunct professor in the English Department at Bellarmine University, where she has taught courses in literature, academic writing and playwriting. She also teaches an interdisciplinary course titled Film, Art, Fiction: East Asia.