The Change: Omake
Summary: What makes a monster and what makes a man? Once upon a time, before Johnny was Johnny, there was Nemo.
Warnings: gratuitous Greek and Chinese mythos.
an: Omake ... and it's a flashback! Oooh, I've been wanting to do this for SO LONG. Song of Death can be found in its epic entirety here: http:/ desdemonakakalose. /art/Song-of-Death-167628704.
Cultural notes located at the bottom of each section, for your edification.
"what does it mean to be human?"
Asked each world, in turn…
The man who would one day call himself Johnny C tapped the table before him nervously, aching for the heavy security of his cloak. He knew where every knife was sewn into the stitching, knew the hidden arrowheads like he knew the back of his hand. But it wasn't polite to wear that sort of thing at a dinner table, and besides, this people took the laws of hospitality more seriously than most.
But still, he didn't like having his cloak so far away.
"So… Nemo…" his host started, a spark of laughter in her eyes.
He nodded. That was the name he gave in this land, something that secretly amused him where all other jokes fell flat. He'd never actually faced down a Cyclopes the way Odysseus had, but his name-that-wasn't-really-a-name did seem fitting.
"What are you traveling for?"
Nny took a sip of the wine before replying. "There is a man… that I need to find."
"You don't look like you're out for vengeance," the woman noted, raising a brow. "You don't have that fire."
"It's not easy to explain," the wanderer conceded, "and there are limits to what I can say."
The woman waited. She was a patient one, his host—wife to one of the sailors, devout to the cult of Gaia. She had found him outside the marketplace, watching the horizon for the next ship. He needed a passage into Athens, and this was only the first step of his latest journey. The sea made him uneasy, for one reason or another, and he hadn't been looking forward to bargaining a place for the night either.
Meagara had found him, there, staring doubtfully at the horizon. A strange woman. She asked him what he was waiting for, and he told her—and she had said, "My husband is a sailor, and he should be returning soon. Come stay with me, and we can wait together."
So he came to her home.
"I have a duty," Nny explained, searching his memory for the Greek philosophies. "A divine duty, if you will. The fire that you don't see is the passion that I lack. I do what I must. There is no joy in killing."
"Isn't there?" Meagara asked, almost idly.
The man called Nemo frowned. "Death is a sad thing. Killing is a burden. The Mother… Gaia doesn't like to see her children slaughtered, man or beast."
The spark of delight returned. "But you are not Gaia, my strange guest. You are a man. And men love killing as much as they love women or youths, or gold or fine food."
"Hardly a man," Nny replied, returning to his wine. "And I love none of those things."
"Not women or youths or food or gold?" She seemed surprised at his nod. "Then, what do you love?"
The air froze. Nny had never, in all his centuries, been asked such a question. Not once. And the answer, now that it was acceptable, was almost beyond his reach. No one had ever cared enough to ask, and he had never thought much about it—after all, what good could it do? He would go where he was sent, speak with whomever needed speaking to, do whatever needed to be done, just as he always had.
But, there was one thing. One thing he had liked more than strictly permitted.
"…I love art," he murmured, more to himself than his host. The statues in temples, carved with such utter devotion, and their painted walls, the portraits of nobles and the etchings on ornately curved vases… they were breathtaking, to him. So fascinating, a world that was ruled by mortal mind completely of its own power.
Meagara smiled, as if she'd expected that answer. "You want to paint?"
"Yes," the wanderer replied, marveling at the thought. He did want to. So, so much.
As a servant of the Powers, and extension of them, Nny was not supposed to love any one thing more than any other. He was not supposed to have a favorite human, or a favorite river, or a favorite moment in time. It was expected, and he'd never given any thought to whether or not it was true.
"You are a man, Nemo," she laughed, "it's quite obvious."
"Man-shaped," her guest qualified, stubborn. "Only that."
"Mhm. Then, what are you?"
The Hebrews had a word close to it, but the Greeks did not. Nny scowled, annoyed for what was probably the billionth time that there were so many languages between humans. What did they need them all for, anyways?
"I am a servant," he told her, "the deliverer. I am like Themis. No, I am one of the Furies, the Erinýes, perhaps Androphonos. I am a killer of men."
"Oh?" Meagara stood and went to fetch their bread, unfazed. "And who sent you, Androphonos?"
"Gaia," he replied.
It was important to speak the language of the people, whatever people he happened to be among. But there was so much more to language than diction or syntax, conjugations and conjunctions. The tongue was only an extension, an avatar of the mind, of the—he struggled for a term—zeitgeist. Because all things were true, and imperfect, and so the material of what he knew was reshaped into something recognizable to his audience.
"Does your heart beat?" she asked, and he knew that these people believed the mind to reside in the heart.
"Yes," he answered, two questions at the same time.
"Does your stomach churn?" she asked, and he knew that these people believed knowledge to reside in the stomach.
"Yes," he answered again, both questions at once.
"And," she went on, "When the night is cold, do you shiver? When you hunt, does your blood race? When you see sadness, are you saddened too?"
"…Yes." Although he wasn't sure what the point of it all was.
"Allow a simple woman one last question. When you see the statues in the temples, with their eyes carved in perfection—no, when you hear the songs of the darkest days, when Persephone weeps in the caverns of the underworld on her marble throne… when you hear them, do you feel the pull of tears yourself?"
Nny was silent for a long time, contemplating the question—more than the question. After all, language, words, they were only thin replications of actual meanings. He knew the real question.
"Yes," he finally replied.
"Then how are you not a man?"
Outside the window, the sun was setting, spraying flakes of molten gold over the sea. It would be acceptable to leave, now that she had so presumed. It would be acceptable to bring her before the town, this forward wife. It would not be acceptable to explain himself.
So he did.
"The Sphinx asked a riddle once," he began, "one that Oedipus answered. 'What crawls on four legs in the mourning, walks on two in the afternoon, and three at night?' Man. Man is the answer, and in this case, the question. I have never crawled on four legs. I was never a baby, never a child, never even a youth. I have no mother or father or aunt, because I was not born like men are, not that I can remember. I do walk on two legs, that's true—but that is all I can ever hope for. I will never use a cane, and the thought is not something I am grateful for, though I know many would be."
"You don't sound surprised."
Laughter filled the room. "I don't know the meaning of the word. I suppose that's something we have in common?"
He nodded, simply.
"Laughter, then. Have we that in common too?"
Nny tried to think of the last time—any time—he'd laughed. The only times that came to mind were cold and mirthless, and he recoiled from their emptiness now.
Meagera's appraising eyes were on him, peering into the depths of him. Quite frankly, it was unnerving. "I think I see what the problem is, now."
"Androphonos," she pronounced, "It is not that you aren't a man… it's that you have never been taught how to be one. You love, you hurt, you dream, just like any man does… but you are so far from the rest of us that none of it makes sense."
"I don't know what else to do!" he burst out, exasperated. "What would you have me do? I have a duty! I am a killer! How can I do anything but distance myself? How? I want it so badly, but I can't have what they have—I can't have lovers or families or farms or kingdoms! Even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I want it, I want to know what it's like—"
Memories of moments, like tales captured on the stillness of pottery or chinese silk. People he had seen, friends and families, happiness and sadness, willing devotion… His anger when he couldn't understand Pyrmis and Thisbe, or Medea and Jason, or Daedalus and Icharus—he wanted it, he wanted to love and be loved and to want and to strive for things and he wanted to fear for his life and sacrifice his life, he wanted—Goddess, he wanted.
"Allow me a prediction," Meagara said, closing her eyes. "One day, you will find your heart. You will drink from that well, and as your thirst is quenched, you will choke. You will choke, and suddenly the water will taste bitter, twice as bitter as it ever was sweet. You will hate it, attempt to live without it, and that which you once sought so ardently will become that which you despise."
Nny scowled. "How could you possibly know that?"
The woman shook her head. "I have no magic," she sighed. "But I See you, and I See the pattern. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have not been wrong before."
Looking into her green eyes, he tried to discern some kind of truth, a reason not to believe her. Unnervingly, he found none.
"There may yet be a hppay ending. Such things are always possible. Come," she sighed, rising to her feet, "you may have my bed. I plan to wait by the docks tonight, and I can't imagine that you get much sleep."
So, Nny slept. And he dreamed, of things that he could never have. He dreamed of things that could be looked on, but never touched… and he dreamed of another pair of green eyes, that he had not seen yet but knew that someday he would.
*Gaia: literally, the Earth. Mother goddess of all Gods and beings.
*Nemo: "No man". Eponym of Odysseus when he tricked the Cyclopes Polyphemus.
*Themis: Goddess of Justice, servant of Zeus.
*Erinýes: also known as the Furies. Their duty was to seek out and punish crimes against the Gods.
*Androphonos: literally "man killer", an eponym of Aphrodite. Before she was the goddess of love and beauty, she was foremost of the Furies. Interestingly to this story, she wasn't born of a man and a woman either.
*Pyrmis and Thisbe: Greek Romeo and Juliet
*Medea: killed her brother and defied her father for the sake of Jason
*Daedalus and Icharus: respectively father and son who tried to escape their imprisonment by making wings from wax and feathers—Icharus flew too near the sun and the wax on his wings melted.
The man who would one day become Johnny C wandered through a marketplace, hands stained rusty red with yesterday's blood. No one would notice. No one ever noticed, infuriatingly, and there were times when he wanted little more than to throw his bloodstained cloak down on the street and scream until someone listened. But no one was going to listen.
The man from yesterday was dead, his empty body lying between two trees in the nearby forest. A rapist, this time—the kind of retribution that reminded him why he existed at all. Much as he hated his life, he'd keep his peace as long as something good came of it.
He touched the bamboo tube strung over his shoulder, knowing that inside of it rested the few things that were truly his. Everything else belonged to the Gods or to Mankind—of which he was neither. Though he remembered a woman who had tried to tell him otherwise, and sometimes in the dark of the night, he wrestled with the question. It seemed to have no answer, as the bamboo tube across his back told him one thing, and the blood on his hands another.
"Lie lili… lie lili…" he sang softly, a tune he'd heard on the river. He was in a melancholy mood today, the sort of mood that made him question everything from Divine Providence to the intelligence of grasshoppers. Sometimes he could swear the little know-it-alls were laughing at him, and it really pissed him off.
He wandered down the road, aimless. There was a woman in Mongolia who was in need of his celestial wrath, and he was dreading it. Not the killing—he never shied away from a chance to rid the world of one more blight—but rather, it was the journey. The passage of time, the stretching roads, the bright faces who would fade into nothingness by the time he next returned. Time frightened him. Mortality angered him. Transience seemed like a crying offence.
Trees spread out over his head, a sign that he was once again leaving another civilization behind. Just like everything else.
Honestly, he was lonely. He'd never had a friend, not once in his entire existence. People come and go, nothing lasts. There were so many people in the world, each life-stream blazing bright one moment and dust the next, and he couldn't bear to see them die, one after another.
And even if he could, he had to go.
Something dark flickered in the trees, and the wanderer looked up, wary. Another flicker, and then there was a body hurtling towards his own with all the speed of cracking lightening. On reflex, his arm swung out and caught hair before the body could fly into his own.
Nny looked down at the boy, surprised, fingers tangled in his hair. This little kid actually thought he could take down an adult? And here his first reaction had been to worry about bandits.
"You're the one who attacked me," he pointed out in a dangerous tone, pulling on the kid's hair. He didn't like children. They were like small, less logical adults… and adults were illogical enough to begin with. And since he'd never been one, he couldn't grasp their mental process in the slightest.
"Yeah, well, you're stupid for traveling alone."
Nny let go, annoyed. He wondered if he could drag the kid back to the city before it got dark—as much as he disliked children, he still wouldn't leave one in the forest at night. That would be pretty much against his moral code and—
While he wasn't paying attention, the kid reached up and snatched the bamboo tube off his shoulder, dashing into the trees before he could comprehend what had happened.
…Oh, shit. He was going to kill that midget with his bare hands.
"Get your fucking ass back here!" he screeched, and ran off into the shadows after him.
Ten minutes of running and one swift punch to the gut found the boy safely tied to a tree and Nny double checking his belongings while trying to set up a fire. It was getting dark and there really wasn't time to get the little fucker back to town before nightfall, so he'd have to stick around until dawn to return him.
Nny glared at the kid, who was stubbornly struggling with the twine around his legs. Hah. As if he could get out of that. Nny had sailed on a few ships in his day, and he'd worked construction in Egypt once. Knots were something he knew well.
"What's your name?" he asked the boy, searching his pack for tender wood. He couldn't return the kid to his parents if he didn't even know the boy's name.
"Shuang," the kid replied, distracted by the knots.
"Huh," Nny grunted, a kind of foreboding striking him. He really didn't want to talk to a kid whose name meant 'open-hearted'.
"What's yours?" Shuang asked, apparently forgetting that he'd tried to rob Nny once already.
Scowling, the older man replied, "Ning." The joke lightened some of his bitterness.
In a few minutes he had a proper fire going, and a bundle of dried roots set out for dinner. They made good traveling food, along with jerky and powder milk… he pulled out the smaller bamboo tube, pleased to hear very little sloshing inside. Less air meant more water.
"Hey, kid, you eat tubers?"
The boy stared at him, as if he was speaking a foreign language. Nny ran back through his words, just in case he'd lapsed into Mongolian or Babylonian while he wasn't paying attention. The gift of tongues was activated by hearing a language, but if you started thinking in a different dialect sometimes you started talking in it too.
"Why're you giving me food?" Shuang demanded, eyeing the roots suspiciously.
Oh. "Well, I can't bring you back to your family hungry… plus, you're kind of my guest. I guess. Do you want the fucking food or not?"
Nny handed him a strip and sat down, a few feet away. He couldn't remember the last time he had company at the campfire… must have been five years at least.
"What's in the case?" the younger one asked, gesturing towards the tube he'd tried to steal. "Gold? Pearls? Books?"
Hands tightening around the worn brown cylinder, Nny scowled. "The contents of this case are mostly valuable only to me. Even if you had stolen it, it wouldn't have done you any good."
"Then what is in it?" Shuang pressed, a light of curiosity in his brown eyes. "Letters from your wife?" he asked, as if repeating an old phrase, and a strange one at that. Perhaps something from a fairytale...
Nny laughed. "Wife. Yes, that's likely. No, they're letters… letters to myself, you might say."
"Why would you write letters to yourself?"
"To remember. The longer you live, kid, the less you remember. All the little things go drifting down the river, all the horrible things stay clinging to the banks. Sometimes, you have to remind yourself of the good times, before all you're left with is the bad."
"So you can write?"
"Yesss," he hissed, slightly, remembering how he had first learned the skill. Sumerian scribes were harsh task masters, but nothing compared to the Egyptian tutors. And compared to them, the Chinese teachers were toothless crocodiles.
The boy was silent for a while, chewing doggedly on his meager dinner. Vaguely, Nny wondered if that would be enough for him… the wanderer ate less than most people, and he'd heard that children needed more than adults.
"I don't have any parents," Shuang finally said, looking over at his companion. "They died a few months ago. Sickness. I lived in the city for a while, stealing y'know, but eventually they ran me out. I was supposed to apprentice to the leather-worker at my next birthday, but since I was an orphan…" he trailed off.
Silence reigned for minutes, the popping fire filling what space was left. After debating for a while, Johnny reached over and carefully untied the twine around Shuang's legs. It's not like he had anywhere to take him now, anyways.
The boy looked hard at him. Nny braced himself for a barrage of questions.
"You're skinny. Like a noodle."
"See?" the kid went on, holding out his wrist, "you're as thin as me, but you're twice my height. That's not healthy. Do you eat anything besides those tubers?"
Nny just stared.
"I used to eat noodles all the time," Shuang informed him, "so I think I'm pretty informed on the subject."
"I doubt you've eaten more than scavenged rice in months," Nny shot back, annoyed again.
"Says the noodle-boy," his companion countered.
Nny decided to stick to staring in an alarmed fashion from now on.
He turned his attention to the patch of sky above them. The stars resembled scattered ink drops, and the Purple Forbidden Enclosure spun at the center of the sky, another world waiting silently. Most cultures believed that the sky was like a dome, a roof over the earth. Nny knew that it was only the beginning, the door to something far away and beyond his comprehension. The Lord and lady were in all places at all times, but he imagined that the night sky was their favorite dominion… he knew that he would choose it, given the choice.
"Where are you going?" the boy asked him.
"A place I don't want to go," Nny replied, softly.
Shuang looked at him, head tilted. "where do you want to go?"
"…Over the stars."
"My mother used to say that's where Shangdi lives… are you going to visit him?"
If only. What would he say to the God? He might ask for an explanation, for the reason behind his particular kind of existence. He might ask for companionship. He might beg for mortality, for a life and death of his own.
"Not exactly," the older man replied. "I want to be done with Gods. I want to be done with immortality, and divinity and obligation and humans. I don't want them."
The kid gave him a doubtful look. "Maybe it'd be easier to say what you do want."
"Stars," his companion replied, "Stars and… love… and death."
"You're a strange guy, Ning," the boy informed him. "Maybe you'd be better off traveling west? Xi Wangmu can give immortality… maybe she can take it away too?"
Nny laughed. "Shangdi and Xi Wangmu won't help me. I am what I am."
Silence returned, and somewhere in the woods creatures rushed by. The wanderer wondered where he was going to take this kid, if he had no parents and his village didn't want him. Surely, someone would be willing to take in a boy child…
"What's really in the case?" Shuang asked, interrupting his thoughts.
Sighing, Nny picked up the bamboo tube and pulled the cork out, shook its contents into his lap. Scraps of silk with columns of Chinese characters, scrolls of papyrus with hieroglyphs running across the fabric, polished stones carved with shapes and into shapes, and his prized possessions: paintings, most on silk, depicting landscapes and faces, and characters from the myths he found most entrancing.
Shuang picked up on roll of fabric, opened it and his eyes went wide.
"Yaomo," he breathed, staring at the demons' contorted faces. "Is this Di Yu?"
Nny shook his head. "No, those are people and this is earth. People are more terrifying and dangerous than mythological monsters. The cruelties of mankind rival any torture in Di Yu."
"Yeah, maybe so," the boy agreed, tracing the outline of one figure. The lone human figure on the page, a weeping child with black eyes. "Who's this?"
It's me, the older man thought. But he couldn't bring himself to say so. "The unborn child," he replied instead.
"I don't want to go back to the village," Shuang confessed. "Orphans are bad luck, and no one will take me."
If no one behind them wanted the kid, then… maybe someone ahead would? Nny couldn't take care of him, but surely, surely someone else could and would—a childless couple, perhaps, or a temple? He must know of someone…
"I knew a man," Nny began, "who lived west and north of here. He was a potter, and he needed an apprentice to take on his work, but he had no son. It's on the way to the place I have to go, and if you wanted, I could take you to him."
Shuang made a non-committal noise. "How do you know he hasn't got a son now? How do you know he'll want me? Nobody wants me."
"It hasn't been long, and his wife is sterile anyways. He owes me, since I saved his life on my way here. Do you want me to take you or not?"
The fire popped, and Shuang nodded.
"I feel so small when I look up there," the boy said, gesturing towards the sky. "It doesn't seem to end… it just goes on and on, so far away… Does it make you feel small too?"
Nny said nothing. Truthfully, in that moment he felt tinier than the smallest insect. The universe stretched out around him, and for the first time in as long as he could remember, it felt huge and far beyond his comprehension. Perhaps it was something about the boy beside him, but tonight, he felt inescapably mortal. Like a child. Small.
"If you want to take me to that man," Shuang continued, "I'll go. But there's one condition."
Nny narrowed his eyes. "What's that?"
"You have to be my friend," the boy replied, looking quite serious. "You're lonely. You're nice—nicer than everybody in the village. Nicer than the cheng huang. Nice people shouldn't be lonely. So, you'll have to be my friend."
"You're quite serious?" the wanderer asked, brows raised. Precocious little fucker.
"Yeah. And I'll pray to Yuexia Laoren, so you can have somebody else after I leave. Kindness begets kindness, you know."
"Does it?" Nny mused, thinking of all the kindness he'd ever given or received. Not much, but someone had to start the cycle, he supposed.
"I don't think you want a wife, but maybe Yuexia Laoren can get you a different kind of partner? My mother used to say that the Gods worked slowly, so I'll pray for a really long time… I don't know how fast he'll get one to you, though."
"It's alright," Nny murmured, eyes resting on the moon, just visible between the branches overhead. "I have a long time to wait."
"What does it mean to be human?
I think I'm beginning to learn."
From the Song of Death, attributed to Casil the Bard
*Ning: name meaning 'peace'
*Purple Forbidden Enclosure: a major Chinese constellation, around the northern celestial pole.
*Shangdi: (上帝) (lit. Supreme Emperor) is originally the supreme god, title/name later applied to the supreme deity of various religions, including Yu Huang Dadi and the Christian God.
*Xi Wangmu: (西王母), the "Queen Mother of the West" who reigns over a paradisaical mountain and has the power to make others immortal.
*Cheng Huang (城隍), a class of protective deities: Each city has a Cheng Huang who looks after the fortunes of the city and judges the dead. Usually these are famous or noble persons from the city who were deified after death. The Cheng Huang Miao (城隍廟) or "Shrine of the Cheng Huang" was often the focal point of a town in ancient times.
*Yaomo: malevolent spirits or fallen celestial beings, most residents of the Chinese underworld
*Diyu: also known as 'difu', the underworld prison of Chinese folk religion
*Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 "Old Man Under the Moon"). The matchmaker who pairs lovers together, worshiped by those seeking their partner.