The August Birds: 1 August, 1786

august birds cover jpgSo. 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. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.

 

AUGUST 1, 1786

SLOUGH, ENGLAND

 

August was able to bring his blanket with him. It was a jungle blanket, with a tiger on it. “Where are we?” he said, huddling under it. “I can’t see, and it’s cold.”

“Let your eyes adjust,” said Muninn. “You will make it out soon enough.”

August was outside, that much he knew. There were stars out, and as his eyes opened to the darkness, to the little lights above, he saw that he was in a garden. There was a dark pathway that crunched under his feet, crunched as gravel crunched, and stumps as seats about him. He sat on one, felt faint ridges like rings beneath his fingers.

“Elm,” said Muninn. “All elm trees, or they were. And all cut down, so that she could see the stars.”

“So who could see?” said August, and Muninn tilted her big blunt beak towards a patch of lawn like a piece of empty sky. In it August could see a long, slanting shape. It was pointing upwards, diagonal on a frame, and he thought it looked nearly six metres long. “What’s that?” he said, pointing.

“It’s a telescope,” said Muninn. “A reflecting telescope.”

“It doesn’t look much like my telescope,” said August. He paused. “Well, it’s April’s really. She’s letting me borrow it.”

“If you were older you’d remember when telescopes were older too,” said Muninn. “This is what they were like when her brother was learning to make them.” Small again, raven-sized, she nudged August with her cold, hard head, nudged him away from the long, lean lines of scope and towards a smaller model nearby, and the little woman perched in front of it. She was not very much taller than August.

“Watch carefully, August,” said Muninn. “Her name is Caroline, and she is about to be happy.”

“Doesn’t she know we’re here?” said August. Caroline didn’t seem to be paying them any attention, even though he wasn’t whispering and nor was Muninn, and she didn’t seem to see Huginn either. The other bird was walking up and down the length of her telescope, walking carefully, placing his feet so his sudden, shifting weight didn’t knock it out of position.

“It’s hard to see thought, or memory,” said Muninn. “Most people can’t manage it.”

“I can,” said August.

“That’s because you’re mostly memory yourself now,” said Muninn, and August was quiet, a hurt, stunned quiet, because that was most of what he heard about his bed. April, and Remember when we went camping in the back garden, and toasted all the marshmallows? and Dad, with Remember when all you wanted was hokey-pokey ice cream and I sneaked it into the ward, past the nurses and we had a midnight feast? And Mum. I remember when you were born, she said, and you were the most perfect, most beautiful baby, and I was so glad that you were mine. And it was all the same, and all unending, this parade of his life, while they all tried to forget that soon memories would be all that they would have. We’ve got plenty of time for some new ones, still, Dad had said, looking August straight in the eye and lying, like the memory source wasn’t about to be cut off at the roots.

“That’s elm for you,” said Muninn. “It’s a tree of firsts and women. Some say the first woman was fashioned from an elm. I remember the stories. The tree must have died, of course, the parts of it that didn’t change, but what a change it would have been.”

“I’m sorry,” said August. He’d retreated inside himself for a moment, because it was easier than remembering Dad’s face and growing easier still. “What are you talking about?”

“Her,” said Muninn. “Caroline. Her brother had the elms cut down so that they could see the sky better, and Caroline is about to see something no-one else has seen before.”

The woman was hunched, briefly, over the telescope, her face pressed to it as if they were kissing, and then she pulled her head back and stared at the night sky with her own eyes, her own lenses, and her face, pocked so that August could see the scars even in moonlight, shone for a moment brighter than the stars.

“What is it?” he said, sitting straight up on his elm stump, shivering with excited curiosity. “What did she see?”

“Your eyes aren’t strong enough,” said Muninn. “But I remember what she saw. I can show you, if you like.” And when August nodded it was if a section of the sky opened up before him, as if a star streaked overhead.

“It’s not actually a star,” said Muninn. “It’s a comet.”

“I know what a comet is,” said August. “I’ve read about them.” He was silent a moment, staring up at the stars, almost squinting, trying to see it with his own eyes and not just the iron eyes of a raven. “People used to think they were a sign of bad luck. In the olden days, I mean. They saw a comet and thought something bad was going to happen. They thought that someone was going to die.”

“Caroline didn’t think so,” said Muninn. “Look at her. Look how happy she is. The first to see it, and the first woman ever to discover a comet. That’s what the elms bought her, it is.” Beside her, August looked away, looked at his thin, tired hands holding jealously to his jungle blanket.

“I’m never going to discover a comet, am I?” he said.

“No,” said Muninn.

“Did you bring me here to show me what I can’t have?” said August. He didn’t look at her, didn’t look at Caroline or her telescope. She was gazing through it again, rapt, and Huginn had shoved his face right into the other end, head bent over the opening, and was gazing back with a black, beady eye but August turned his head away and would not watch.

“No,” said Muninn, again.

“Bede,” croaked Huginn, from his place on the telescope. He cocked his head and stared at August. “Bede.”

“I don’t have any beads,” said August, listless. His hands were cold, and he tucked them more securely under the blanket. “There are some back in my room.” He got them at the hospital. All the children did–a bead for every procedure, every blood draw and x-ray and operation. August knew kids who made necklaces out of theirs–great, bright loops like medals–but he was too old for necklaces now, and it made him sad to look at them. All those beads, all those colours, and they weren’t enough.

“Huginn doesn’t mean those beads,” said Muninn. “He’s talking about a man. He lived a very long time ago and his name was Bede. He said that being alive was like being a sparrow flying through a great hall in winter. It was all empty outside, just snow and storms and darkness, but the sparrow flew out of the winter and into the warmth, and then it left again. No-one could tell, said Bede, where it came from or where it was going, and what the winter was. They could only see it when it flew alongside the fire, and only for a short space.”

“Comets melt down,” said August, and his bald head gleamed pale in the dark. “They get too close to the sun, or they get caught in an atmosphere and all burn up to nothing. Bits break off, and they get weaker and weaker and then there’s nothing left.”

There was a long silence.

“Muninn,” said August. “Do you think comets get tired?”

“I think everything gets tired,” said Muninn. “I think everything winds down eventually.”

“I thought you were going to try and tell me that a comet is just a piece of ice,” said August.

“And I am just a piece of iron,” said Muninn. “But I have travelled far, far. Like a comet, like a sparrow. Like you.”

August reached for a black wing, laid his little hand gently upon it. There was no give in it, in either of them. Muninn was iron, mostly, and by now August was bone, mostly, with a little skin scraped over the top. “Are you tired too, Muninn?” he said.

“I have a lot to remember,” said Muninn. “And memories make people tired.”

August’s hand tightened on her wing. “Muninn,” he said. “What happens to the sparrow?”

The raven turned to him for a moment, her great black eyes oiled and gleaming. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it flies into another hall. Maybe it remembers something of what it was before. I think Embla must have remembered gardens, sometimes, and how it felt to stand outside in the night, with her roots in the earth and her leaves in the stars. And maybe the sparrow is like a comet, and when it breaks down there’s nothing left.”

“I suppose it was good to see it while it lasted,” said August, and though Muninn did not look at him his voice wobbled next to her, as if he were crying.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard write the letter that would kickstart the Manhattan Project!

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

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