Back in February I went home to visit friends and family. I spent part of my time wandering through familiar parts of my old city with people I love and unsurprisingly ended up in a B&N flipping through books and prattling on about whatever. One of the books we picked up had a monster in the front cover. He was quite dapper and quite feathered, which are two of my favorite traits in a monster. My friend said, “write me a story about him.” So because I do what I’m told, I did.
This is that. Actually, I think this is the start of that. I want him to go after the girls, to stay with them and slowly turn back into a person, or maybe watch one of them turn into a monster. But there are other, more pressing things to write, so we’ll stick with this small victory for now.
. . .
The birds—lift your eyes, watch them wheel and circle and cry out—are always hungry.
The hunger was the easiest thing for Euclid to adjust to after his transformation. He’d been a hungry boy who’d grown into a hungry man, and now he was a hungry monster. It had happened so slowly, yellowing nails becoming talons and yellowing teeth becoming a beak and then a frightful skull of a head, pink flesh giving way to rows and rows of matted brown feathers, wary grey eyes still grey, still wary. By the time he was what he currently was, all of the surprise had been worn out of it. But then, what man does not become some kind of monster over the course of his life? Much better to know for sure than to slip out of awareness thinking yourself a saint.
He knew what he was. He was a monster standing in the dark at the edge of a churchyard sniffing down secrets. It was neat, accurate work that had taken him several decades to master. Secrets, for the most part, were much quieter prey than small mammals or dreams. Both of those things shouted their presence to the world with breath or blood or desire. Secrets though, buried themselves deep for the most part. Oh, there was the occasional secret that could be picked up by a novice, one that wanted to be known, but those were airy and insubstantial. One could not survive on them for long.
The secret Euclid tracked smelled promising. It smelled sweet, like young love, like it might warm his hollow bones for the coming century. Unfortunately, he’d hit something of a roadblock at the churchyard fence. In his experience, the dead had neither dreams nor secrets, so he couldn’t understand why merely the loamy scent of dirt from a freshly dug grave was throwing him off.
He stepped up onto the spongy, grey fence rail and gripped it so hard with his talons that it almost snapped. He hunched over himself, spread his tattered wings for balance and leaned over the edge, testing the atmosphere. If he stepped off the fence he was in danger of losing more than the scent of his meal. The dead didn’t have secrets or dreams, but they had hunger. Monsters were hungry, but monsters also were. The dead were not. They were empty, hollowed out, bottomless, infinitely hungrier.
Still, there was nothing else for it. He’d paced the perimeter and attempted to fly over. The further he got from the ground level straight line he was following, the fainter the scent got until it disappeared. There was a reason that men sometimes gave distance and direction as the crow flew. It was because crows would always find a way. Even through the darkest depths of the forest they would persevere and take few detours in doing so. It was a virtue most men lacked, a virtue Euclid had lacked. Tenacity, he knew, was merely another name for being anything at all.
Was it worth it? It smelled worth it. It smelled like summer and laughter and the tilting rush of blood to the head that new love always uses to announce itself. He had not been loved in a very long time. He stepped down into the soft grass of the churchyard.
The bell in the tower struck five as his talons sank into the soft earth. He made sure to move through the rows of dead with care. To drag his wings across the dew collecting on the grass and not across the stones themselves. Contact with a thing’s name was contact with the thing, and the dead were so sensitive about contact. There was no need to announce his presence to the families resting beneath the dirt. He was not planning to stay and become the meal at their tables instead.
The dew clung to him and seeped between his feathers, slowly coating him in a chill that threatened to freeze his limbs as well as his thoughts. For every monster a man could think up, there was always something bigger and scarier just around the corner. For Euclid that terrifying spectre was ownership, capture, the inability to follow people’s secrets and whims wherever they may take him. Especially now that he no longer had secrets of his own. Not because he couldn’t keep secrets, but because a secret required both knowledge and someone who wanted to receive it. There was not a single person left in the world who wanted what Euclid kept hidden.
In the middle of the churchyard there was a crossing of dirt paths meant to ease the mourner’s journey through the graves. Euclid stepped onto it and shook himself out, flinging water and fear off into the dark and scraping the mud off his talons in the dusty gravel. The scent disappeared. He leaned off the path in all directions, large bone-yellow beak searching for the promise that had brought him there. When he stepped back into the grass the scent returned. When he moved onto the path it was gone. He spun where he stood.
This whole land of the dead smelled like warmth and the course of the living smelled like nothing. It was a conundrum. Was it a trap? Were the dead capable of traps? He had thought them creatures of opportunity, not forethought. How would the world change if the dead had evolved cunning? If they had learned to leverage fear. If they were like him.
It didn’t matter. He was hungry. He’d spent too much time tracking this bright promise to not find and devour it. He wandered between the graves, following a labyrinth of hope, becoming increasingly more careless about what he caught his wings on. Crumbling stone trickled to the ground in his wake. He heard the dead roll over in their graves as they registered the light contact, but by the time they’d gotten close to rousing he had moved on to another name, roused another memory.
The scent lead him to a small stone carved with an ornate rose blossom near the upper curve of its gentle arch. There was a name, but no inscription. Isobelle, it said. No family name, no dates, no defining characteristics at all, simply Isobelle. It seemed altogether unremarkable in the way that most deaths did. People lived and people died, or people became worse, became like him. He didn’t understand why the trail ended here, but his hunger was another, smaller monster inside of him. If it was not fed it would devour him instead. So he did the only thing he could think to do. He dug.
At first he scraped at the ground with his talons, bending low like curious pigeons do to shove the dirt aside with his beak. After a foot or two it became difficult to move the dirt out of his growing pit that way. He worried that if he continued to push dirt up around him he’d only succeed in burying himself as well. He started using his wings to shovel the dirt and stones up onto the rising ledge of grass above. Then, finally, he hit wood.
The smell of the grave was overwhelming. His beak chattered and his wings shook with the ferocity of his hunger as he used them to rip the nails away from the coffin lid. He needed this. He was so close to being sated. So close. He pulled off the lid.
There, looking up at him with wide blue eyes, was a girl, no older than seventeen. Not dead, she was very much alive. She took a deep breath and sat up, straightening the pink pearls on the bodice of her dress and smoothing out the delicate petals of her white, shimmering skirt. She was dressed for innocence in this life and the next. She looked up at him curiously, without fear. Euclid had still been human the last time someone looked at him like that, and quite near seventeen himself.
“You’re not what I expected,” she said.
“What did you expect?” Euclid stepped into the coffin with one foot to steady his balance.
She pulled her feet away from his claws and hugged her knees to her chest. “Well, a human for starters, not a monster.”
She was, he thought, quite daring. He spared a moment’s wonder for what had made her that way. “Humans can be monsters,” he replied.
She breathed in deeply once, twice, three times. Then she shook her head so that her pale blond hair fell prettily around her cheeks. “Yes, you are right. That is why I’m here.”
“Waiting for a human?” he asked. “This seems like a gamble. You could have been discovered by a beautiful monster and not known they were a monster until it was too late. You could have not been discovered at all.”
You could have turned into a monster like me, he thought. What a curious thing that would be, an eater of secrets who had themselves started out as a secret. She might have created cannibals of all their kind. It was for the best then, that he take the secret from her now and remove the temptation from monsters of all stripes. Let me ease your burden, the old songs of his kind go. Let me be your cold confessional.
“I am hiding here from a beautiful monster. He is not coming.”
“Maybe no one is coming.”
“Someone is coming. And you came.”
“I came because I was hungry and you smell like a morsel kept secret and safe, soft and warm, your red blood laced with deception. It makes more sense now that I know you’re not dead.”
“How can you be sure I’m not?” she asked. “Maybe I am dead. Maybe that’s why I’m here, waiting for true love’s kiss to bring me back to life.”
“Because I know that’s not how love works. Do you know what your name is?”
“There, see, that’s also not how death works. Your life is true, your heart is not a traitor, it is safe for me to take.”
“I thought,” she whispered, pulling her knees closer to her chest and really reacting to what he was for the first time, “that the secret eaters didn’t kill.”
“It’s true. We don’t have to kill for most secrets. A living person will always create more secrets to eat. But you don’t know what you smell like. If I were to leave any of your heart behind, just knowing there was another hit in the world would drive me mad. I’ll take all of it now, for efficiency.”
Euclid raised his second gnarled talon of a foot and placed it next to the first in the coffin. He leaned over the girl and she cowered, shrinking into the corner, making herself as small as possible, protecting her heart with her head and arms and shaking legs. The white of her dress became stained by the dirt of the walls and her breath came quick. Euclid used the tip of one ragged wing to push her hair away from her face.
“Don’t fear. Don’t you see? This is not death, but another life. This part of you will live for as long as I do. It will be remembered even after anyone who might miss you now is gone.”
He was so focused on his meal that he didn’t hear the other person approaching from above. He didn’t realize they were no longer alone in the grave until a fistful of dirt and stones bounced off his back. Fear spiked in his gut. The dead. He’d overstayed his welcome, woken the dead after all. He must make this fast. Euclid raised his head and opened his beak. He curled feathers around her arms and pulled them away from her chest. He lifted his talon to make the first deep cut. And just as he was about to press it to her breast something hard and heavy is dropped onto his head.
He stumbled forward with the weight of the object, just barely catching himself against the knobbly dirt wall of the grave before he fell and crushed her. The dirt fell away under his touch and rained down on both of them. Isobelle screamed. It echoed around them, punctuated by shouting from above.
“Monster!” The second voice cried. “I’ll kill you! Leave my dearheart be!” More rocks fell down upon his shoulders and back.
The pit was narrow and he couldn’t open his wings, but he still managed to turn viciously away from his meal claw his way up and out. The interloper scrambled backward with a sword drawn as Euclid got his footing on the grass again. The other tripped over the foot stone of the grave opposite and crashed down into a nearby obelisk, ending their flurry of motion with a thud and a grunt.
Euclid stamped over, nails digging into the soft earth, wings dragging behind. In the pinkening gloam he could just tell that the interloper was another girl, though she was wearing breeches and an overcoat and top hat. She was cradled between stone and dirt, the sword knocked from her hand when she fell and now laying almost a foot away. It was no longer an immediate danger to him and neither was she.
He leaned in close, just as he had with Isobelle. “What,” he began, breathing out heavily with each word, “are you doing interrupting my meal?”
Her neck was wrenched so that her scrunched up face was pressed into the stone over her shoulder. Her rosy dark skin practically glowed against the dull grey. Her voice was unwavering and strong when she asked, “What are you doing interrupting my elopement?”
“I thought,” Euclid said. “That the wedding was supposed to come before the funeral.”
“Yeah, well other people thought different, obviously.”
Euclid tilted his beak and took the girl in. There was something very strange about the way she smelled, as if it was canceling out the heady sweetness of the girl in the grave. It was almost as if together they would be invisible to him. Matched pieces, he thought, no secrets between them. No, the strength of the secrets here came from being inside and outside. They were inside and he, standing between them, was also inside.
He took a deep breath, trying to find the promise the air had so recently been glutted with, but it was fading. He felt strangely calm, as if he was no longer hungry, as if he had never been hungry at all. Earnestness, he realized. It was earnestness rolling off the second girl. The love here too pure and too true to be anything but open, protective. He lost whole minutes to the feeling of calm, mesmerized by the fact that he was still capable of peace like this. He wondered if he ate both of their hearts if he might feel this way forever. He wondered if this feeling would allow him the strength needed to eat a heart to begin with.
His trance was broken by a scream. Euclid snapped his head around and the moment he looked away the other girl sprang into action. She skittered around him and flopped onto her belly, thrusting her arms down into the grave. “Izzie!” she shouted. “Take my hands!”
Now that he was no longer caught between the two girls he was free to crave, to want, to move again. He leaned over the edge of the grave and looked down at Isobelle. She was standing in the dead center of the coffin hugging herself, shaking arms wrapped around her waist. There were other hands reaching out at her from the dirt walls, filthy fists opening and closing, grabbing blindly for the life that disturbed their sleep. She screamed again. The other girl stretched herself out, tried to reach in further.
Euclid looked up at the sky. The red sun was just peeking into the world. It would be at least thirty minutes before there was enough light to send the dead back to stillness. Hunger and exhaustion crept blearily over him with the sunrise. Instinct and desire fought in his gut as he weighed the choices between eating two hearts, a task that could take up to an hour if you included having to break into the rib cages for the prize, and running from the dead so as not to unduly risk his own life. Self-preservation won out and he lifted himself into the orange of the morning and hovered over the churchyard, trying to orient himself.
It was near impossible for him to find the true horizon because for his kind the secret, the next meal, was the horizon. If he could make it away from here and drag himself far enough he’d surely find something else to eat. Not anything as grand as this meal was meant to be, but far less dangerous. Below him he could still hear the screams and the calamitous sound of steel on stone and bone. It was none of his business. Fighting belonged to the living.
Except there was a growing doubt in him that was starting to overtake the hunger. There, for what had felt like an hour but probably only been a handful of seconds, he’d started to feel real again. His driving force had been quieted and he’d remembered what it felt like to just be, what it felt like to be a human. He missed that more than anything, and the memory of the feeling ached in his chest like he was the one being ripped open. He thought, if I could have that for just fifteen more minutes…. He’d never met another person or pair of people that had ever balanced out the world in this way. He lowered himself back toward the churchyard.
What he swept into was nothing short of a fray. Isobelle was out of the grave and pressed against the obelisk, her fetching suitor’s back against her chest as they tried valiantly to ward away the corpses and skeletons reaching out for them. Isobelle herself had wrenched a femur free from somewhere and was swinging it wide, trying to knock down anything that came at them from the sides. There was a pair of mostly intact bodies shambling up on them from behind. Euclid let out a sharp, shrill cry and dove, gripping one of the bodies in his talons and driving it to the ground. Isobelle slipped out from around the side of the obelisk and took a great swing, cracking the other in the head so hard it went down.
“Go!” Euclid squawked. He hopped over quickly and put himself between the suitor and her latest target. The suitor swiped her blade down, unable to stop its motion, and sliced through part of his wing. He hissed and shook it out, balancing awkwardly as sharp skeletal fingers grabbed the top of his other wing. “Take her to the fence and get over it. Once you’re no longer within the yard they won’t be able to find you!”
He didn’t have to tell Isobelle twice. She rushed forward and grabbed the suitor’s hand, dragging the other girl back to where the two paths crossed. Once their feet hit the gravel they ran. Euclid could smell the blood prickling on the surfaces of Isobelle’s bare soles as they slapped against sharp pieces of rock and wood. His vision blurred slightly with hunger, but he was able to follow behind them slowly, holding back the dead.
Once on the other side of the fence the two girls dropped into the dirt, breathing heavy. Euclid stood over them, trying to find some place that counted as in between, looking to steal their peace now instead of their secrets. After several minutes the suitor sat up and studied Euclid. She gripped her sword and raised it so that the tip of the blade rested against his chest, just below his heart.
“If you try to eat her again,” she said. “I will kill you.”
“Francesca,” Isobelle said quietly. Then, to Euclid, “You came back.”
Euclid didn’t answer. He didn’t know how to. There were no words left in his vocabulary that sounded like you’re welcome.
Francesca seemed to understand anyway. She wiped her blade on a piece of cloth she’d pulled from her pocket, and then slid it back into the hilt at her hip. She climbed to her feet and reached gingerly for his wing where she’d cut through him before, inspecting it for blood. There was none to find, not because Euclid hadn’t been hurt, but because that wasn’t how his body worked anymore. Everything about him was coarser and darker next to these girls with the whole of their lives ahead of them. He tried to remember that feeling, the possibility of it, but couldn’t manage it.
“Do you want a prize, for helping us? I don’t have much.”
Euclid looked her up and down. I want to stay with you, he thought. I want to keep feeling like this. But there was no place, he knew, for a monster at the start of someone’s life. He was meant for bitter endings, not for hope, not for anything as simple as love. His eyes lingered on her hat and she swept it off, misunderstanding.
“I don’t know that it will fit you,” Francesca said.
She held it out, but Euclid didn’t take it. “You don’t owe me,” he said. “I have taken as much from you in fear as I have given you in time.”
Isobelle hummed. She took the hat from Francesca’s hands and placed it on Euclid’s head. She had to stand on her tiptoes and balance herself with a light touch to his wing to do it. Her touch was as warm as the dew had been cold. The warmth clung. “Do you think you’ll be able to survive it, leaving this much of me behind?” she whispered.
“As long as the two of you are together,” he said. “There is not a monster on this earth who will be able to take you apart.”
Isobelle leaned in and left a soft kiss on the end of his beak. He wished he could blush, because this feeling of warmth was starting to become too much. He wished he had eaten her. He was still a monster after all. Her heart beat strongly behind her rib cage and he listened to it fade as the two of them disappeared into the distance, holding hands.
The sun was up properly by now, low in the sky, but bright with yellow light and unrelenting. His shadow stretched out long and dark in front of him. Behind him the dead had melted back into dust. Before him there was a whole world of wonders that might earn him a moment’s peace. He used the tip of a wing to push the hat down onto his head so that it would stay. He already felt different, felt like he should find a pair of spats next. There were wants blooming in him that had nothing to do with what was hidden and what was dark. He was still hungry, but for the first time in a very long time he thought he might stand a chance at being sated.