MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
— I —
For a long time, he didn’t have a name. What he had were long white fingers that hooked into purses and a mouth that told easy lies. What he had were eyes that remembered faces, feet that knew the alleys, palms that grew calloused and soot stained from crawling through the cobblestone streets.
He got the name when he was three feet and four inches tall, kneeling on the dock with a coin in his palm, from a sailor who stank of rum and fish oil. The sailor grabbed him by the back of the neck and slammed his head into the wall—once, twice, three times—and then yanked the coin from his hand. His lip split on the dock and his mouth filled with a foul mixture of grease, salt, and blood.
“What’s your name, then?” the sailor asked, turning the coin to catch the light.
He shook his head, confused. What is a name?
The sailor laughed and kicked him in the ribs. “Why, don’t you have one, dock rat? No little Hans, little Ralf. Little wee Johann of Elendhaven? Nameless spit of a hallankind.” The sailor kicked him a second time for good measure. “Suspect I’ll find you dead on the shore any day now, beached like a rotten seal.”
He put a hand over his mouth and let the spit and blood pool hot and sticky in the center of his palm. “Little Hans,” he whispered to himself, “little Ralf.” He turned the last one again and again as he wobbled to his feet. “Little Johann, little Johann, a little thing with a little name.”
Things with names didn’t turn up cracked and ground against the rocky shoreline. Things with names survived. He would be a Thing with a name.
* * *
A creature newly named is a creature still half-animal, and Johann’s self-education made generous space for the use of tools and the vice of violence before he could learn regret. He learned lessons like this:
A man wrenching fingers in his hair. Forcing him to the ground. Forcing a lot of other things, too, all the while grunting and pressing bloody little half circles in his shoulders. When it was over Johann was left lying in a puddle of his own sweat and piss, staring at a very large, very sharp rock. Without his thinking about it, his fingers closed around the rock and he stumbled to his feet.
He found the man and kicked him in the nose, bashed his face with the sharp rock, and ground his heel into his windpipe, relishing the muted snap of cartilage and all the delightful little croaks that bubbled up and out of the man’s mouth. When the man stopped moving, Johann used the rock on his face until it wasn’t a face anymore. He stared at the blood and pressed a stained palm to his heart. He panted heavily, in time with the flutter between his ribs.
Power was sweeter than apples. It was cheaper than water, and sustained the soul twice as well. If Johann was going to be a Thing with a name, then from now on he would be a Thing with power, too.
* * *
Johann grew another three feet so fast his body could hardly keep up. His skin was pallid and thin, stretched taut over a skeleton that threatened to slice through his flesh at every knobby juncture. He walked with a deliberate slouch, arms knifing out from his body at hard angles when he placed them in his pockets. He cultivated a persona with the dedicated fervour of a character actor: a practised charm that appeared natural, a crooked smile, an easy laugh, spider-leg fingers that snapped and threaded through the air as he spoke. The role became so lived-in and claustrophobic that the effort required to peel back the skin was not worth the reveal. He never took his gloves off.
He knew of two ways to make money, and he knew that he didn’t like the first one.
He killed to get the things he wanted: a professor of literature’s pretty, smiling throat taught him how to read; a seamstress bled to death from a long, craggy gash down the center of her back once she finished the trimming of his jacket. He was careful with her, frog-stitching the overlocked seams of her spine with a boning knife, whistling to himself as he worked. A butcher showed him how to disassemble a body, and then disappeared down the drain in pieces himself. Johann liked killing. He appreciated that every part of the killing act was a function of instinct, that any thinking person is only a breath away from an animal. A half creature with no name.
He refined killing, practised it like an art. He practised like his knife was a horsehair bow being pulled over a throat stringed with catgut. As he grew skilled, he began to live life with the philosophical enthusiasm of a man eating his last meal. He showed up at parties uninvited, drank with the dock rats on holidays, sat in the square at dusk and watched how people behaved while they were worked to the bone. When the gas lamps flickered on, he lay in the shadows like an oil slick and thought of himself as a piece of the dark, a feature of the city that crept across her rooftops like a ribbon pulled through a bonnet, moving smoothly through the fabric, drawn tight to pull it shut. Elendhaven’s very own murderer, Johann of the Night.
For some reason, no one ever remembered his face.
* * *
Elendhaven was Johann’s entire world. He was a creature weaned off its oily tit.
Southerners called its harbour the Black Moon of Norden; a fetid crescent that hugged the dark waters of the polar sea. The whole city stank of industry. The air was thick with oil, salt, and smoke, which had long settled into the brick as a slick film, making the streets slippery on even the driest days. It was a foul place: foul scented, foul weathered, and plagued with foul, ugly architecture—squat warehouses peppered with snails and sea grass, mansions carved from heavy, black stone, their thick windows stained green and greasy from exposure to the sea. The tallest points in Elendhaven were the chimneys of the coal refineries. The widest street led south, rutted by the carts that dragged whale offal down from the oil refineries.
Hundreds of years ago, the North Pole had been cut open by searing magic, a horrific event that left the land puckered with craters like the one Elendhaven huddled in. For five centuries, the black waters had been poisoned with an arcane toxin that caused the skin to bubble and the mind to go soggy and loose like bread in broth. Once in a while, the fishermen would pull up an aberration from the ocean floor: something frothing and wet with its insides leaking out its eyes. “Demons and monsters,” visitors whispered, “such creatures still sleep inside the Black Moon.”
* * *
Johann learned what sort of creature he was by accident.
One day he slipped on a patch of ice. His ankle turned in the wrong direction and plunged him off a roof like a crow with a clipped wing. The ground swallowed him up, and the crunch of his neck against rock reverberated through every joint in his spine. It shuddered through his limbs and popped out the tips of his fingers and toes, a tiny earthquake that made ruin of his bones. He lay absolutely still for ten minutes, and then he stood up and wrenched his skull back into place.
“Well,” he said aloud. “That was fucked up.”
He began to experiment. Cautiously at first; a pin through the loose skin between thumb and forefinger, a slice just behind the elbow. A dive out a window, a plummet off a tower. His stomach spit out two bullets with elastic ease and he laughed like a boy, giddy and intoxicated. When the watchman took another shot, Johann accepted a round in the clavicle, whooping like a jackal as he jammed a knife into the man’s throat. He yanked the bullet out later, painless as a sloop cutting the waves. Johann watched the sun come up, spinning the bloody musket ball between two fingers while whistling a jaunty tune.
He tried to decide later what he was: Johann the Thing. Johann the Demon of Elendhaven. Devil Johann, Johann in Black, Oil-Dark Johann. Monster was the best, his favourite word. The first half was a kiss, the second a hiss. He repeated it to himself again and again: “Monster Johann. Monster, Monster, Monster.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Young