This be a tale from the old days, when the Marsh was marshen still, so sodden that people came to the church in boats and tied them to iron rings on the church wall. Them were the days before sheeps and wool and ditches. Them were the days when lovers-forbidden bound themselves face to face and jumped in the sea. They died in each other’s arms to the rattle of the waves and the clank of their own chains. Them were the days of Annie Catt, innkeeper, smuggler, giantess and all round badwoman.
Annie were eight foot tall and equal to any man. She were brave, she were vicious, and ruthless in a fight. Annie Throat-Slitter was her other name, from the knife she would tend to conceal in one heel of her hobnailed boots. She could carry a rowing-boat slung over one shoulder. She beat all the men in the springtime rowing races, her sleeves rolled up to display her muscular forearms, which were tattooed from wrist to elbow with nautical designs. They say the men were beat before they even started to fight her, once they spotted them tattoos.
But the Revenue Men disliked being always outwitted, and particularly by a woman. They were charged to stamp out the rum-smuggling trade from which Annie and her like made their foul and dishonest living. So they set up a trap for her out on the Rhee Wall, a net of chains fired in the Appledore Forge, each link so strong it might tether a hellyphant. Annie broke a good few of them links, even so, before they at last got her bounden with miles of anchor rope and a hawser cable.
At the Assizes, she was sentenced to death by hanging from the neck. Though this fate were richly deserved, it placed Judge Makepiece into all sorts of difficulties. He sat for a while in puzzlement, and then he sat a while longer. He puzzled and puzzled whilst stroking his full black beard and patting his shiny-bald head. The Carpenter had come to him and warned him, no scaffold could be made that would bear the weight of Annie Catt, with her muscle-bound arms and her terrible tattoos. And the Ship’s Chandler had come to him and told him it would take a month-of -Sundays to weave a hanging-rope strong enough to suspend her; and the weaving would cost a year’s wages (the Judge’s, that is, not the Chandler’s). She will fall and fall, moaned Sarah the Soothsayer in the marketplace. She will fall through world and end up in Austral-i-yay, with the headless men and the big-legged jumping beasts. And like as not they won’t want her, so they’ll drop her back down the hole she made in the world and here will she be again, on Romney Marsh, larger than life and twice as nastiful.
Judge Makepiece had been casting about for means to be somewhat merciful, and at the same time dig himself out of the hole he himself had fallen into. He summoned Annie into his robing rooms.
Annie Catt, he says, if I grant you your life will you build me a new Courthouse, for this one is falling down?
I will not, said Annie Catt. What care I if the birds fly in through the roof? Let it crumble.
Annie Catt, he said, if I grant you your life will you ply me with rum for the rest of my days and cook for me in my kitchen?
I will not, scoffed Annie Catt. I am sworn to cook for no man, and rum is too good for you.
Annie Catt, he said, in desperation now, and having no other idea, if I grant you your life will you give me your maidenhead?
I will…. Annie Catt paused to think about this. After all these years she was still in possession of her maidenhead and secretly feared to be Sent Back To Heaven Unopened. A small enough price to pay, she thought, to avoid a dingle-dangle dancing on Saint Martin’s Field in the morning.
I will, said Annie Catt. My maidenhead for my life.
Am I hearing aright, thought the Judge.
And so the deed was done, right there and then amongst wigs and ermine robes. But the Judge got more than he bargained for: Annie she sucked him inside and swallowed him entirely. His head was the last to vanish who knows where, and she cackled aloud when his black beard tickled her fancy. Then she bent back the iron bars on the window as if they were made of butter, and made her escape across twenty-five miles of The Marsh, hopping and skipping through field, forest and farmyard till she reached the Inn.
Nine months or so later she was brought to bed of twins – one of each, a boy and a girl. The girl was pretty as porcelain, but bald as a buzzard. The boy was the size of a house, even as a baby, and blackly, blackly bearded. They grew up together and took over their mother’s Inn. They had their picture painted and put on a sign outside, where it swung about in the breeze. In time the Inn became known as The Fearsome Twins, and people travelled for miles just to catch a glimpse of the outlandish brother and sister, now selling so much rum that Annie could give up the smuggling.
Many years later a visitor from Scotland or some such distant parts, having drunk more rum than was sensible, asked the twins a question:
What could your mother have looked like, Fearsome Twins, to have birthed the pair of you? Was she both bald and bearded?
The twins frowned at each other. The bald beauty came round from one end of the bar, the bearded giant from the other, and they met somewhere in the middle. The Scotsman took a step back, only to be captured by the Crone in the inglenook. Casting aside her tobacco pouch she grabbed him by the tartan collar and pulled his face down to hers, directing a stream of brown tobacco juice into it. Poor man, he fainted away, in part from throttling, in part from drowning in brown tobacco juice and in part because he’d seen the old woman’s arms, which were tattooed from wrist to elbow with sea-dragons, ships-wheels and compasses; with mermaids, anchors and sperm whales a-blowing steam.