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. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.
AUGUST 3, 1908
LA CHAPELLE-AUX-SAINTS, FRANCE
“How would you like to be buried, August?”
“I wouldn’t,” said August, but there wasn’t much chance of that. He knew that some people helped to plan their own burials, picking the music that they wanted played or the stories that they wanted told, but August did not want to plan. He had spent too long considering his own death to want to spend longer. His parents would pick for him, and he wouldn’t have to think about it.
“There is always burning,” said Muninn, but August was afraid of fire, a little, and he did not want to be burnt. “Not even put on a boat and sent out to sea and set alight?” said Muninn, and August shook his head.
“I don’t think it would be allowed,” he said, and that was excuse enough.
“A pity,” said Muninn. “It does look so very fine.” She cocked her head to one side, considering the scramble in front of them. “And a cave does not appeal?”
“That could be okay,” August conceded. “But it might not be very private.” He had heard stories from April, sometimes, when she and her friends had gone on field trips–“very educational”, she had told their parents, who had smiled and not believed a word of it, knowing that there was more likely to be giggling and ghost stories and exploring than actual geological endeavour. “Imagine having all that on top of you.”
April was not with them, pressed into a corner of the cave as they were, watching as a small group of excited men uncovered a body curled into a depression in the floor of cave. The bones were all tucked up and twisted, with Huginn perched on the skull and supervising, and there were little pieces of stone and not-bone scattered about the skeleton.
“What are those bits, Muninn?” August asked.
“They are grave goods,” said Muninn. “Stone tools and animal bones. Buried with the dead, so that they can be taken with them into the afterlife.”
“I’ve heard of those,” said August. Mostly he had heard of them in places like the pyramids, but there had been other children in the hospital who were as sick as he was, and he had gone to the funeral, once, of a little girl who he had shared a ward with for a while. She had been buried with her rabbit. Not a real rabbit, but a stuffed toy that was her favourite, and August had seen her in her coffin with the bunny tucked under one arm and he had asked his parents if he too would have a rabbit when he died, and that had been the end of going to other people’s funerals for him.
“It was a very nice rabbit,” said Muninn. “She called it Casper, if I remember correctly–and I do.”
“I’d forgotten,” said August. “Do you think that I’ll be able to have some grave goods, Muninn?” Not that he wanted a bunny rabbit. They were for babies, but he always slept better with his blanket. He wouldn’t need books or posters or geodes. He wouldn’t even need the telescope, and it would be unkind to bury his fish with him, with no-one to feed them and with nothing for them to do but swim in the dark until they died. But he could have his blanket, perhaps. The tiger would keep him company.
“If you like,” said Muninn.
Even for his blanket, though, August could not get as excited as the men in front of him. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the tone of their voices, the quick, darting expressions of their faces, of their hands, made him think that they were animated by something else he could not understand.
“Why are they so excited?” he said to Muninn.
“This is the first burial that has been found,” said Muninn. “The first time that there is proof that Neanderthals buried their dead. That man is a Neanderthal, buried sixty thousand years ago, buried by those who cared about him. And like you, he had been sick for a long time, with people to take care of him–though he was a grown man and you are only a little boy.”
She hopped a pace or two towards the group, encouraging August to take a closer look. “Do you see the skull?” she said.
August peered over her iron head. He had to be patient, because the men who were bunched close around the body blocked the view sometimes, and Huginn’s feet obscured the head, but after a few minutes he managed to make it out. He saw the heavy brow ridges, the way the forehead sloped back, and reached up to cup his own forehead in comparison, felt the curve in his palm so different from the curve he saw in the grave. Yet there was another difference, and though he did not see it straight away it was obvious when he did. “He missing a lot of teeth, isn’t he?”
“It would have been difficult for him to eat,” said Muninn. “His food needed to be made softer, easier for him to chew.” Like August, on the days when he felt his sickest and Mum brought him plain soup and custard that slid down easily and did not upset his stomach. “And there were problems with arthritis. He needed someone to look after him.”
“We’ve got something in common, then,” said August, who had been taken care of his whole life, who would be taken care of when it ended.
“A commonality that comes from more than burial,” said Muninn. “Although burial was what brought this man attention. It was common, at this time of excavation, to consider his species no more than simple animals. To make them dull and brutish so that your own kind would seem superior by comparison.”
Huginn squawked then, a low, hoarse noise of disgust that seemed to fix inferiority in another place entirely, in a place that pinned posture to hunches and hulking, to the substandard and second-rate and apish. It was a distinctly unsympathetic sound, and August suspected it was a sound that Huginn probably made a lot.
“Huginn is a creature of thought,” said Muninn. “He finds it tiresome to be mired in preconception.”
“I don’t think he likes me,” said August, and although he said it under his breath, as quietly as possible, the second raven shot him a supercilious look that made it quite plain that he had hit upon the truth.
“Huginn’s liking is not a common thing,” said Muninn. “And his temperament a product of impatience. He knows that science can come from false leads, from making pictures from bones that are not correct and then improving on them. But because he takes no pleasure in that knowing he forgets, sometimes, that the false trail can be an important thing.” She refolded her wings carefully against her body, smoothed down one stray feather. “I do not forget.”
“I bet you remind him,” said August, and smothered a giggle when Huginn turned his back upon them both. His dismissal was conspicuous, his black iron body rigid with offended dignity. “I bet you remind him a lot.”
“Memory is my function,” said Muninn, and if there was a trace of smugness in her voice it was only a trace–not even enough to echo. “The past must be understood before the future can be so,” she continued. “Why do you think Huginn and I are paired together as we are? I am Memory, the sum of past experience. And Huginn is Thought, or Knowledge. He is the raven of future days, as I am come from the past.”
“You’re opposites,” said August.
“Opposites, and yet linked. No-one can learn without memory. If that Neanderthal before us were to suddenly come back to life, the flesh reborn on his bones, and yet with no memory of his life, the gifts in his grave would mean nothing to him. He would not know their function, and they would be useless to him.”
“You belong together,” said August. He could understand that, if he did not understand what his place was, carried by ravens into history, into science. “You’re mostly memory yourself, now,” Muninn had told him, but she was Memory, more than him and better. She did not need him. “So where does that leave me?” he said.
“In a place of kinship,” said Muninn, and the dust from the grave, from the man who had been buried by kin and kind, settled on her wings and coated them with a patina of age and of similarity.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see (and ride) the first under-sea train to travel beneath the Bosphorus Strait!
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