So. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. Although technically, The August Birds begins on the last day of July…
JULY 31, 20–
OAMARU, NEW ZEALAND
August September would never grow up to be a scientist. He wanted to, very badly, although he couldn’t decide if he wanted more to be an astronomer or a marine biologist or a chemist, if he wanted to study rocks or viruses or walruses. But August would never grow up to be a scientist, because August would never grow up.
He was nine years old, and he was dying, and he knew it.
He tried very hard to get used to the idea. August had been sick for as long as he could remember, sick since he was a baby, and although the doctors were kind he had hidden behind a door once and heard the phrase “lucky to have lasted this long” so there were no illusions left. There wasn’t going to be any miracle cure, no last-minute reprieve, and soon, very soon, his Mum and his Dad and his sister would put him in the ground and it would all be over for him.
After he had heard how lucky he was, August had lain in his room, night after night, looking at the fossils on his shelves and the great picture books of dinosaurs, the posters of atoms and planets and robots, the telescope that April had loaned him, the tank full of fish that he had gotten for his sixth Christmas. He had looked at them and known them for his dreams and tried to give them up, tried so that he wouldn’t feel bad at the thought that they were beyond him. He felt bad enough as it was, sicker all the time and his days were spent in bed, mostly, so he could look at the things that he loved and learn not to feel bad, or he could have them all taken away and look at nothing at all, at the blank walls, and that would have given him too much time to think about how much he missed them. So he stuffed them down as hard as he could, all the old dreams, and replaced them with another.
August asked for a calendar, to sit by his bed. He was only interested in one month: the month that he was named after, because on the last day of that month was his birthday.
“Double figures,” said Dad. “You’ll really be grown up then, eh?” And he had smiled as hard he could, and the smile was so determined and so sad at once that August knew that he would be lucky again if he could make it that far. He had known it anyway, deep down, feeling worse than ever and with the nurses coming every day, his doctor on call and the machines about his bed piling up like his bedroom was a scrap yard for plastic and metal and broken things.
“Double figures!” said April, plumped on the end of his bed with her knees drawn up under her. “I remember when Mum and Dad brought you home. You were a nasty, squalling little thing.” And she had grinned at him and tickled, though only gently, and it was hard for him to look at her. April was older than him, fifteen, and she would be a scientist when she grew up, and August thought that she would be the person he would miss most, if he could miss other people when he was dead.
He would not miss having to watch her live the life that he had wanted to live.
“It was her life first,” someone said to him then, but August had been lying in his bed with his head turned to the door, and he had seen no-one come in.
“Who’s there?” he said, and there was a heavy flutter from the end of the bed, a shifting on the blanket by his feet. When August levered himself up on his pillows–the bed moved for him, with a button he could use to raise himself up or lie flat again–he saw at the foot two birds, and their feathers glinted oddly in the winter sunlight. Large birds, and so black that there was no other colour in them, not like the tui who had purple and green in their black, but a flat, dull emptiness of colour. And when one of the ravens–for that’s what they were, he realised, with their big blunt beaks and their muscular bodies–hopped onto his leg, the weight of it told him that it was no ordinary bird. Instead, it was all iron in the place of flesh. The pair of them were iron, with polished clockwork eyes and gleaming claws and feathers full of filaments that could barely bend.
“Am I dreaming?” said August. He pinched himself, not hard, but still it hurt him. The birds remained.
“Your dreams are not of ravens,” said the bird upon his leg, the bird who had reached his knee and perched there, her claws digging into the covering blanket and her hoarse raven voice certain. “You have your sister’s dreams, and they were hers before they were yours.”
“They’re mine too,” said August, and at his feet the second raven gave a harsh, scoffing caw, and although August did not know what derision meant he knew then what it sounded like, and reddened.
“Dreams can be shared,” the raven on his leg acknowledged, and her tone was kinder.
There was nothing August could say to that, nothing that wouldn’t sound like a lie. The truth was, they had been April’s dreams first, and she had come to his room for years to share them, to cuddle with him under the blankets and tell him about the things that she had learned and the future that she would make for herself. It was something to entertain him, to make him feel involved, and if it had given him interest and excitement and dreams of his own it didn’t change the fact that deep down, in the most secret part of himself, he knew that he was overshadowed. April was his counter-balance, born first and brighter, more beautiful, and she was brilliant too, everybody said so. Had he been as healthy as April, had he the same length of future, still he would be secondary.
(August felt he could have lived with secondary, if he were only able to live.)
“And you have dreams of your own,” the raven continued. “That is important.”
“My birthday,” said August. “It’s still a month away. A month today.” He was silent for a moment, and then he couldn’t help himself. He had to tell someone, someone that wasn’t Mum or Dad or someone who would report to them, someone who could not be hurt by him. It was too much to keep inside himself, when he was only nine years old and even so, so very tired. “I don’t think I can make it.”
“You can,” said the bird. “I will help you. But you will have to make an effort.”
If August had been older, or been sick less long, he would have asked her why she would help him, but all he had known was sickness and people who had been kind to him because of it. And the bird’s last astringent comment reminded him of Mum, sometimes, when she forgot herself and scolded him for failing to feed his fish. (He almost enjoyed being scolded. It made him feel as if he were normal.) So August assumed kindness, and asked other questions instead.
“Who are you?” he said. “And how can you help me?”
“I can give you an interest,” said the raven. “Something to live for. I am Muninn, sometimes called Memory, and the other is Huginn, who is also Thought.”
Behind her, Huginn croaked once, and began to preen.
“He doesn’t say much,” said August.
“He never does,” said Muninn. “But Huginn and Muninn we are, and you are August, who would be a scientist if you could. We can show you science, August. A piece of science for every day to match your calendar, to lighten your way. All you have to do is let us.”
“How?” said August.
“Look there,” said Muninn, and one iron wing flicked towards his bedside clock. It read 11.59–August spent so much of his day drowsy and sleeping that he often woke late.
“Almost midnight,” he said, and then the clock ticked over and it was a new day.
“The first of August,” said Muninn. “Would you like to see another first?”
“Yes, please,” said August. It was better than lying alone in his bed, or calling for his parents to come play another board game with him and while away the dark hours thereby.
Muninn hopped up the bed towards his head. “Touch me, August,” she said, and when he put his thin little hand on her hard black back the feathers expanded under his touch and Muninn with them, and he was on her back and flying without quite knowing how, flying through a dark night all lit with stars and Huginn winging silently beside them.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Caroline Herschel discover a comet!
If you’d like a copy for yourself, The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!
© Octavia Cade