Ordinary Monsters: A Novel (The Talents Trilogy #1)

Ordinary Monsters: A Novel (The Talents Trilogy #1)

J. M. Miro

For Dave Balchin

And when men could no longer sustain them,

the giants turned against them

and devoured mankind.







The first time Eliza Grey laid eyes on the baby was at dusk in a slow-moving boxcar on a rain-swept stretch of the line three miles west of Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, England. She was sixteen years old, unlettered, unworldly, with eyes dark as the rain, hungry because she had not eaten since the night before last, coatless and hatless because she had fled in the dark without thinking where she could run to or what she might do next. Her throat still bore the marks of her employer’s thumbs, her ribs the bruises from his boots. In her belly grew his baby, though she did not know it yet. She had left him for dead in his nightshirt with a hairpin standing out of his eye.

She’d been running ever since. When she came stumbling out of the trees and glimpsed across the darkening field the freight train’s approach she didn’t think she could make it. But then somehow she was clambering the fence, somehow she was wading through the watery field, the freezing rain cutting sidelong into her, and then the greasy mud of the embankment was heavy and smearing her skirts as she fell, and slid back, and frantically clawed her way forward again.

That was when she heard the dogs. She saw the riders appear out of the trees, figures of darkness, one after another after another, single file behind the fence line, the black dogs loose and barking and hurtling out ahead. She saw the men kick their horses into a gallop, and when she grabbed the handle of the boxcar and with the last of her strength swung herself up, and in, she heard the report of a rifle, and something sparked stinging past her face, and she turned and saw the rider with the top hat, the dead man’s terrifying father. He was standing in his stirrups and lifting the rifle again to take aim and she rolled desperately in the straw away from the door and lay panting in the gloom as the train gathered speed.

She must have slept. When she came to, her hair lay plastered along her neck, the floor of the boxcar rattled and thrumped under her, rain was blowing in through the open siding. She could just make out the walls of lashed crates, stamped with Greene King labels, and a wooden pallet overturned in the straw.

There was something else, some kind of light left burning just out of sight, faint, the stark blue of sheet lightning, but when she crawled over she saw it was not a light at all. It was a baby, a little baby boy, glowing in the straw.

All her life she would remember that moment. How the baby’s face flickered, a translucent blue, as if a lantern burned in its skin. The map of veins in its cheeks and arms and throat.

She crawled closer.

Next to the baby lay its black-haired mother, dead.

* * *

What governs a life, if not chance?

Eliza watched the glow in the little creature’s skin slowly seep away, vanish. In that moment what she had been and what she would become stretched out before her and behind her in a single long continuous line. She crouched on her hands and knees in the straw, swaying with the boxcar, feeling her heart slow, and she might almost have thought she had dreamed it, that blue shining, might almost have thought the afterglow in her eyelids was just tiredness and fear and the ache of a fugitive life opening out in front of her. Almost.

“Oh, what are you, little one?” she murmured. “Where did you come from?”

She was herself not special, not clever. She was small like a bird, with a narrow pinched face and too-big eyes and hair as brown and coarse as dry grass. She knew she didn’t matter, had been told it since she was a little girl. If her soul belonged to Jesus in the next world, in this one her flesh belonged to any who would feed it, clothe it, shelter it. That was just the world as it was. But as the cold rain clattered and rushed past the open railway siding, and she held the baby close, exhaustion opening in front of her like a door into the dark, she was surprised by what she felt, how sudden it was, how uncomplicated and fierce. It felt like anger and was defiant like anger, but it was not anger. She had never in her life held anything so helpless and so unready for the world. She started to cry. She was crying for the baby and crying for herself and for what she could not undo, and after a time, when she was all cried out, she just held the baby and stared out at the rain.

Eliza Mackenzie Grey. That was her name, she whispered to the baby, over and over, as if it were a secret. She did not add: Mackenzie because of my father, a good man taken by the Lord too soon. She did not say: Grey because of who my mama married after, a man big as my da, handsome like the devil with a fiddle, who talked sweet in a way Mama thought she liked but who wasn’t the same as his words. That man’s charm had faded into drink only weeks after the wedding night until bottles rolled underfoot in their miserable tenement up north in Leicester and he’d taken to handling Eliza roughly in the mornings in a way she, still just a girl, did not understand, and which hurt her and made her feel ashamed. When she was sold out as a domestic at the age of thirteen, it was her mother who did the selling, her mother who sent her to the agency, dry-eyed, white-lipped like death, anything to get her away from that man.

And now this other man—her employer, scion of a sugar family, with his fine waistcoats and his pocket watches and his manicured whiskers, who had called her to his study and asked her name, though she had worked at the house two years already by then, and who knocked softly at her room two nights ago holding a candle in its dish, closing the door behind him before she could get out of bed, before she could even ask what was the matter—now he lay dead, miles away, on the floor of her room in a mess of black blood.

Dead by her own hand.

In the east the sky began to pale. When the baby started to cry from hunger, Eliza took out the only food she had, a crust of bread in a handkerchief, and she chewed a tiny piece to mush and then passed it to the baby. It sucked at it hungrily, eyes wide and watching hers the while. Its skin was so pale, she could see the blue veins underneath. Then she crawled over and took from the dead mother’s petticoat a small bundle of pound notes and a little purse of coins and laboriously she unsleeved and rolled the mother from her outerwear. A leather cord lay at her throat, with two heavy black keys on it. Those Eliza did not bother with. The mauve skirts were long and she had to fold up the waist for the fit and she mumbled a prayer for the dead when she was done. The dead woman was soft, full-figured, everything Eliza was not, with thick black hair, but there were scars over her breasts and ribs, grooved and bubbled, not like burns and not like a pox, more like the flesh had melted and frozen like that, and Eliza didn’t like to imagine what had caused them.

The new clothes were softer than her own had been, finer. In the early light, when the freight engine slowed at the little crossings, she jumped off with the baby in her arms and walked back up the tracks to the first platform she came to. That was a village called Marlowe, and because it was as good a name as any, she named the baby Marlowe too, and in the only lodging house next to the old roadhouse she paid for a room, and lay herself down in the clean sheets without even taking off her boots, the baby a warm softness on her chest, and together they slept and slept.

In the morning she bought a third-class ticket to Cambridge, and from there she and the baby continued south, into King’s Cross, into the smoke of darkest London.

* * *

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