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The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street, Page 2

Lauren Oliver

  Sea Behemoth. The iconic image of the Sea Behemoth is a vicious, many-tentacled oceanic monster, squeezing a schooner in its ferocious grip. This is a warped portrait of the Gargantuan oceanus—a majestic, shy, and deeply intelligent species—and a reputational hat-trick perpetrated on the sea behemoth’s memory by the same people who tragically hunted it to extinction. The ancient Greeks, in fact, trained sea behemoth to tow their ships in times of adverse or windless weather. But several millennia later, its associations with the Ottoman Empire were to prove its undoing: the sea behemoth was, according to the Church, a maritime representation of the devil, and the Church declared open season on the creatures.

  Slints are pack animals, found in forested regions of North America, South America, and Europe, with only slight variations in the species. Though averaging only eighteen to twenty pounds, and sharing many characteristics of a badger, to whom they are closely related, they develop an armored “shell,” similar to a turtle’s, in the first six months of their lives. Made of a secretion of calcium deposits, the shell enlarges their size by double or even triple, and additionally allows them to confuse predators (and monsterologists!) into mistaking them for rocks. Unlike their badger cousins, however, slints are extremely social and live in multigenerational packs—likely a result of their primary defense tactic, a rarely spotted phenomenon known as the “tuck and roll,” and also known as “bowling.”

  Sloozes, Latin name Bilious caterpillarus, are an extinct species of gigantic caterpillar, the largest of which may have weighed nearly one ton. Whether the sloozes molted like a vertebrate or invertebrate is still hotly contested. It is not known whether their natural habitat was oceanic or simply amphibious, as there is fossil evidence to support both claims.

  Specters are composed primarily of vapor, and are loosely bound together by a transparent membrane. They inhabit wet, damp places and are often mistaken for mist. Long considered one of the smartest species of the monster kingdom (Prodigia), their method of communication—or even thinking—is poorly understood. Recent findings suggest that all specters may, in fact, be a single body, spread out across the globe, and collecting, interpreting, and sharing data by a pattern of vapor transfer. In the 1850s, in fact, a controversial research project suggested that every ounce of rain is at least 25 percent specter.

  Squelches have webbed feet and closely resemble ducks—at least during summertime, and from a distance. Their biannual pattern of growing fur just before wintertime, and feathers in spring, is unique and poorly understood. They are amphibious mammals, thought to have some connection to the Australian platypus. Their wide-ranging diet includes various species of insects, vegetation, and even small reptiles. They have flexible necks that can, when extended, reach four or five feet; these, in combination with a wide, shallow bill, allow them to scoop fish, frogs, and insects from the water. Despite their innocent appearance, they are one of the most dangerous monsters in the world. When they are confused or threatened, a small gland in the back of their throat releases a five-foot spray of poison.

  Squinches, despite the similarity in their names, are entirely unrelated to the squelches, and in fact come from a different taxonomical order altogether. They are gliding mammals with relatives in both bats and species of flying squirrel; their spinal cords, however, and in fact all their bones, are made from a flexible tubing we have not yet identified. The squinch at rest resembles a small, furry globe, “plumped up” by a normal circulation of liquid through the flexible tubing. In this state, squinches move primarily by bouncing, often reaching heights of twenty feet and more. At that point, the squinches “shed” water, expelling liquid from the structural tubing that keeps their shape intact and flattening to the shape of a disk. This has two advantages: now weighing only a few ounces, the squinches coast easily on the wind, directing their movement by very small adjustments of their outer taper, or edge. Additionally, the liquid shedding leaves a residue on their fur that is particularly repellent to birds and owls that might snatch them.

  Succubi are, in legend, demon spirits that take the form of women; in reality, they are small river-dwelling monsters that feed by attaching to an animal’s back via the suction of their oversize mouths, and slowly draining their “host” of nutrients. It is unclear how the association with females came to be, especially since succubi are one of the few large vertebrates that reproduce asexually and have no gender assignment at all. Although attacks by succubi on humans are rare, given their tendency to gravitate toward sparsely habituated places, they do occur. In the Middle Ages they were far more common, and it is likely that women, who were charged with washing linens and dishes, and often did so outdoors, in rivers or local watering-holes, were the great portion of victims. It is easy to see how over time the legend might have confused the victim for the predator.

  Trolls have, until recently, been classified as members of the Homo genus and ancestors of the Neanderthals. For a long time after divergence from Homo sapiens, troll-human pairings were quite common, as suggested by fossil evidence. But there have been few, if any, provable modern examples of mixed troll ancestry. Nonetheless, we know that troll communities do exist, although the indications are rare and infrequent. Trolls are thought to have migrated into cold, mountainous regions more than two million years ago, due to a warming planet. As a result of the organization of human communities and advances in toolmaking and weaponry roughly 100,000 years ago, trolls began to “burrow” into camouflaged mountain hideaways, their habitat to this day.

  Vampire bats are not to be confused with the subfamily of bat known as Desmodontinae, which share their name. They are not, in fact, bats at all, nor are they the undead of popular imagination. Likely descended from pterodactyls, and sharing features of their modern cousins the vultures, vampire bats were an important ally of early human communities. Carnivorous scavengers, vampire bats subsist off decaying animals: the gas triggered by the animals’ death is necessary to successful digestion. Before fire allowed for better weaponry and safer food consumption, humans were scavengers as well—but greatly at risk of consuming tainted meat, whose effects would prove fatal to many. Vampire bats served as important “testers” for our earliest ancestors. The safer the meat, the more gaseous it would make the vampire bats. The less they burped, the more dangerous it was. Over time, this early intermingling blended the communities more and more, until vampire bats began to take on humanoid traits, like walking upright and communicating with grunts and whistles. After the advent of fire, the species diverged, but the vampire bats, legendary mimics, organized communities of their own. Their understanding of tool use and fire slowly made fur unnecessary, and their wings superfluous, especially as humans began to herd animals and organize into bigger cities. Their language evolved into one as sophisticated as modern English. Some people claim, in fact, that Latin was originally the language of vampire bats. Today, although vampire bats still exist, they are indistinguishable from humans. They are not immortal, or undead, although the strength of their immune systems does give them lifespans of two hundred to two hundred fifty years.

  Wailers are a deceptively harmless-looking species of reptile and resemble incredibly wrinkly gecko. Their skin flaps, also known as trumpets, serve two purposes. When individually “tufted” or raised through controlled breathing—the wailer’s “lungs” are in fact a complex system of interior valves and shutters—they function like sails, and help the wailer skim over the water at staggering speeds. But their primary purpose—and danger—is defensive. The wailer can inflate the trumpets by the simple act of holding its breath. The trumpets are so closely stacked that their trembling—a natural result of oxygen deprivation—creates an intolerable, rising, continuous note that soon reaches decibels so dangerous to humans it can lead to vertigo, memory loss, and even paralysis.

  Werewolves are greatly misunderstood and have long been imagined as humans “infected” with a disease that transforms them into bloodthirsty animals at will. In fact, the truth is exact
ly the opposite. Werewolves are one of the most fascinating species that exists, with a collection of traits found in snakes (skeletal rearrangement, as of the jaw and spine), octopus (powerful ability to camouflage, by changing color and shape); and certain species of bird (mimicry, language). As a result, their evolutionary origin is still a mystery—some monsterologists have even proposed that werewolves do not exist as a separate species from the morpheus, and may in fact be traced directly to the kingdom Prodigia, from which all monsters originate. They are solitary hunters, and widespread across the globe, which perhaps explains the evolutionary necessity of shape-shifting camouflage. Although werewolves do occasionally, and briefly, take human form—often an exact replica of a human they have recently observed or interacted with, which explains where the legend might have started—humans are by no means their only, or even favorite, assumed shape. Werewolves camouflage themselves as sheep, deer, bears, and even large, domesticated breeds of dogs—any mammal, in other words, that shares a rough body mass equivalent. There is no connection between werewolves and the full moon, other than for mating purposes. A common mating ritual involves a series of rapid transformations, a kind of “talent show,” that will result in either mating or rejection. Unsurprisingly, this occurs by the light of the full moon, so the visual display can be appreciated.

  Zuppies are often known as “zombie puppies,” although that term is misleading, in that it suggests all puppies might be turned into zombies, or the walking dead. Even the idea that the zuppies are, in fact, dead has for years been the subject of debate, although what is known is that the zuppy has no working heartbeat, circulatory system, or need for oxygen, water, or food beyond blood—or, in a pinch, carrion. The zuppy is actually derived from a single domesticated canid species nearly indistinguishable from that of Canis lupus familiaris, but thought to have diverged from them 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. It is thought that as some wolves began to be domesticated, others remained distrustful of humans, leading to the emergence of dogs and wolves. Evidence suggests, however, that a third class of wolves wanted to become domesticated, but were rejected both by human communities and wolf packs. It is likely that many of these wolves were the weakest, or even prone to sickness and injury. Because zuppies could not find protection in a pack, and were too weak to hunt successfully and too unattractive for human companionship, they developed into scavengers. This, too, was dangerous, especially as humans exploded across the globe—they were often associated with trash and filth, and trapped or put down. Interestingly, the zuppy is the only species whose defense mechanisms include dying. Other species may mimic death, but the zuppy actually dies—sometimes, of course, due to injury or sickness, but other times voluntarily, to avoid periods of starvation or to deter predators. It is thought that reanimation, which becomes possible only because of deliberate care and feeding, permits the zuppy to “survive” via dependence on its caregiver. In other words, the blood provides the chemical nutrients required to animate, given that many of its essential needs before death—such as scavenging, biting, chewing, escaping, finding shelter, digesting, regurgitating, etc.—are no longer required, nor are the biological processes or organs they depend on. The zuppy, in other words, now requires only the brain, and only certain parts of it. The rest of its organs are thought to decay into a kind of sanitation system, which passes blood directly into the rest of the brain, after “digesting” it into the necessary chemical components.

  Chapter 1

  Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

  “Cordelia.” Dr. Cornelius Clay spun around, and the lantern attached to his forehead bobbled slightly. In his oversize goggles, which were misted slightly from the drizzle, Cordelia thought he very closely resembled the species Cavorticus poison, otherwise known as the lionfish—a monster Cordelia had only ever seen in illustrated form, on page 432 of A Guide to Monsters and Their Habits, Cordelia’s favorite book.

  Cornelius’s eyes darted nervously behind her. He had been anxious all night. “What have I told you about wearing your mother’s boots? I can hear you coming from a mile away.”

  “Sorry.” Cordelia wrestled the boot off her right foot and, balancing on one leg, allowed the moisture to drip out of its toe. She shoved her sodden sock back in the boot and wiggled her toes experimentally. Better.

  Blue Hills Park looked very different at night than it did during the day. During the day, hikers huffed red-faced in the cold along winding hiking trails; children hunted the marshes for frogs, losing the occasional mitten, and even boot, to the sucking mud along the estuary; and fishermen returned again and again to the same fishing holes, breaking through the morning ice to drop their lines. It was a beautiful place, crowded with dogwood trees and lady’s slippers, herds of white-tailed deer, copperhead snakes. But during the day, even the wildness seemed tame, almost deliberate, as if it had been made specifically for the enjoyment of its visitors. The hills and woods, the marshes and the ribbons of streams that fed them—all of them had been named, surveyed, and bounded, and their outlines appended to new maps of the Greater Boston area. Tamed and flattened, like a dead butterfly pinned beneath glass, and now property of the newly formed Metropolitan Park Commission.

  But at night, Blue Hills wasn’t a park at all. It was a vast, strange, wild thing, alive with insects and movement. It watched Cordelia and her father with yellow eyes, winking in the grass. It tracked them by their echoes, bouncing news of their progress to great geometries of bats that passed back and forth overhead. It swept in on gusts of wind and touched their necks to make them shiver. It carried news of their skin into a thousand different corners, whispering warnings of intruders.

  At night, it was very obvious: they belonged to Blue Hills, not the other way around.

  At the beginning of a steep pathway that wound up and through the hills, Cordelia’s father stopped. He squatted, his lantern swinging slightly, and brushed his fingers to the damp grass. Then he straightened up.

  “Look, Cordelia.” He extended his hand to her. His fingers were streaked with black.

  “Ash,” Cordelia whispered.

  Her father nodded solemnly. “We must be on the right track.”

  Rector Cushing’s wife, Mary Cushing, was the first person to have spotted a fire. On an evening stroll with her husband, a rhododendron bush had, quite without explanation, burst into hearty flames, nearly frightening her out of her skin. For several days afterward, there had been a steady stream of visitors to the spot, claiming to see in the blackened husk of the bush various saints and spirits. Her husband had even declared that portion of Blue Hills Park sacred ground, and Mrs. Cushing had enjoyed several days of fame, though many accused her of being overly imaginative, and the minister of a rival church, Mr. Buchanan, had even suggested that witchcraft was involved.

  Then Miss Finch, who worked as a schoolteacher, and whom no one would ever accuse of having an imagination, had spotted another bush—this time, an ugly pricker—go up in flames. This had provoked a roaring debate. Was Blue Hills haunted? Was it blessed? Was it cursed, and harboring demons? Were the events, as the scientific community declared, merely a product of a bizarre chemical reaction stemming from various alkaloid concentrations in the soil?

  Only Cordelia and her father knew the truth.

  The fires had a different cause altogether: an injured, and possibly dying, dragon. “We must go very carefully from here on out,” her father whispered, selecting a pair of dingle clips—like handcuffs, but with flexible openings, meant for restraining dragon wings without injuring their delicate membranes—from his rucksack. After a slight hesitation, he switched them out for a slightly larger pair. “The fire-sites suggest that the dragon is mobile, though of course it can’t have the use of its wings, otherwise it would—”

  “—have retreated at the first sign of humans, I know.” Cordelia’s palms were sweating. Five years earlier, when she was just seven years old, she and her father had once treated a dragon. Digbert, as they had come to name him, was ancient:
a withered creature, roughly the size of a couch, whom they had found after locals complained of mysterious bonfires on the beach. His eyes had been clouded by cataracts so solid, he could no longer navigate—and even the eye drops Cordelia’s father had prepared, a special tincture of chicken blood and crushed lily pads, had done little to help. They could do nothing but keep Digbert in the living room and make sure he was comfortable until the end. The rug and sofas still bore large, singed holes as proof of his existence. Patching them would have simply been too sad.

  Digbert had been one of Cordelia’s favorites. He loved to be tickled on the chin, where several silvery whiskers had grown, and to be stroked on the leathery-soft joint behind the wings. When she came in from the moors with her fingers crooked from cold, he used to warm her hands by exhaling on them.

  But not all dragons, she knew, were so gentle.

  They moved up the narrow dirt pathway. This was where Cordelia was happiest: in the deepest, blackest portion of the night, under a great sweep of stars and a rolling fog, like the touch of velvet; walking with her father while the rest of the world was asleep. Out here, she didn’t have to think about Sean O’Malley, who hurled stones at her whenever she passed and had started the rumor that Cordelia and her father were vampires; or Elizabeth Perkins, who giggled behind one gloved hand when she spotted Cordelia in the street, and whispered freak when Cordelia passed. She didn’t have to think about Hard Times, and the money dwindling in the pantry, and the marchers in the streets.

  Then her father spoiled it.