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 4, 2013
August perched on his seat at the cafe pavement, his legs swinging down and the ravens on the table top. Their iron claws left scratches in the surface. Around him, people were drinking apple tea in little glass cups, mint tea that wasn’t green at all, as August had expected when he saw the leaves–but the tea made the air smell green regardless, a fresh sweet scent shot through with honey, with flaked pastry and almonds and orange water. It actually made him feel hungry.
“You should have eaten before you came,” said Muninn, breaking in.
“I wasn’t hungry then,” August replied. And he hadn’t been–his hunger was a living thing now, and freakish. It came and went seemingly without reason. Sometimes he was ravenous. More and more often he was indifferent. He spent so much time lying about, without the energy to do much of anything that he felt little need to eat and nothing his Mum made was tempting to him. He tried to eat what she made anyway, because it made her feel better, but both of them knew that what he was eating was not enough. He saw Muninn eyeing the baklava and for a moment he was tempted to ask, but there was no place on the ravens for keeping coin and he would not ask her to steal for him. Besides, if he was still hungry when he got home it would make his Mum happy if he asked for honey and apples and layer slices so August breathed deeply, breathed in the scent of cooking mixed with salt, and refrained.
The cafe looked down over the water, over a sea that was crowded with boats–big boats and little boats and some with strange sails that August did not recognise, moving up and down the Bosporus, through the strait that split the city, past giant domes and island towers, past skyscrapers and train stations.
“I am taking you to a train station,” Muninn had said. “A place of departures, a point of travel. But not yet.” She had taken him to gardens and cottages and graves, and although Muninn had flown with him over a great city she had not landed there. Istanbul was different, a place for landing, for disembarking, and it was nearly too much for him. If August was a sick little boy he was still a little boy for all that, and curious, and the ravens could not have dragged him through the streets without acclimation, without the chance to stop and settle into himself, to see the city before him if only from a chair. To absorb the strangeness of it, the old and new together and so much of it alive around him. He had nearly tripped while sitting, trying to spin in place as he sat and by spinning encircle himself with sights and sounds and smells that he had never thought that he would have, all bound together and on top of each other until there was no separating them.
And then the shock of it was over and August could function again without tripping, could rise from his chair into an immersion he had begun to tolerate and then it was time for the train station. “I can fly you if you wish,” said Muninn, but August shook his head.
“It’s only a short walk,” he said, wanting the experience. Wanting to drag it out, to stretch the time he was given before he had to return to his bed, to familiar streets and scenes and sickness. “I can do it.” He walked slowly, for Muninn had allowed the time, and his legs were steady beneath him. They weren’t always, but August was having a good day, a marvellous one, and if his chest worked harder than it was used to then that was alright, because only living things could breathe and August was alive and walking through streets of people who were also alive, like him. They were like each other.
“You know,” he said, stopping to rest for a few moments at a corner and watching the people move around him, as unconscious of their movement as if they were water streaming about a river rock, “when I was little I wanted to be a train driver.” There’d been a railway track and carriages and a bright engine set all along his floor, and he would lie with it and pretend it was steam coming out of the chimney, real steam instead of bubbles.
“What changed?” said Muninn, and August smiled. It had been April, he did not say, April who’d crouched down next to him and talked about James Watt and monorails and maglevs. Who’d helped him to build tracks all through his room, up as well as along, across the windowsill and so close to the door that everyone but them had had to turn sideways to get in.
“I thought I’d like building things more,” he said, and as he said it he knew that Muninn already knew the answer. She was Memory, all memory and all of his as well as others, and she knew April as he knew her, knew her as she knew herself.
“Why did you even ask?” he said, smiling. “You know the answer.”
“I do,” said the raven. “But I do not always ask for my own benefit. It is good for you to remember your own stories.”
“There’ll be more of them to remember after today,” said August, starting forward again with the station in sight now, the station with the long name he could not pronounce and would not remember. “Just because I stopped wanting to be a train driver doesn’t mean I stopped liking trains.”
“Take your time,” said Muninn, navigating the pavement alongside him, a quick loping run, and effortless. She and Huginn had heavier footsteps than he did: a dull, slipperless ring of metal on stone. “You need not hurry. I will not let you miss it.”
They did not miss it, and when Muninn and Huginn went before him the train doors opened for him and did not keep him out and there was a seat waiting by a window that no-one else seemed to see, blinded as they were by ravens and unable to remember his presence, to think that a small boy would stow away so baldly.
“This is the first ride, the test ride,” said Muninn. “The public will not be allowed to ride for a few more months yet. You are lucky.”
“I know,” said August. “Where are we going?”
“Not very far at all,” said the raven. “But deeper than you imagine–through the Marmaray, all the way beneath the strait.” All the way beneath the waters that August had been watching, a journey underground. “The tunnel is nearly sixty metres below sea level, the deepest immersed tube tunnel in the world. It connects continents, August.” And August, whose body was being stretched now between continents of a different type, pressed his nose to the glass and felt the train move, felt it glide smoothly over tracks as if flying, until it sank beneath the surface of the city and took him into darkness. Beneath the sea, he could see his own dim reflection in the glass. Beside him, Huginn was also reflected in the window but his reflection was clear and bright, and August could see every detail of every feather.
“It must have been very hard to build,” he said. “It must have taken a long time.”
“Yes,” said Muninn. “There were earthquakes, for one. The tunnel is built close to a fault zone, very close.”
“It must be very strong,” said August, and even though he was dying anyway he felt a little nervous, as if the shock were coming and resilience beyond him.
“They say it will withstand very large quakes, magnitude nine even. But that was not the only difficulty, not the only delay, and not the one I brought you to see.” And the darkness was lifting then, the light seeping through from the other side of the tunnel as the train came out into the city again, and the next station opened up before them.
“It was here they found it,” said Muninn, and August pressed his face back to the window, the city rising up before him. “They had to dig deeply here for the station, and beneath the surface were many things–pottery and skulls and bones, a galley ship and a city wall and the remains of a great harbour. The archaeologists were very busy. That often happens when we travel, though. When we make preparations for travel. We end up excavating things we never knew were there; things we didn’t know had been forgotten.”
“You never forget anything, though,” said August, and there were train tracks in his head and a journey before him over ground less smooth than he thought, more lumpen and full of things he did not know he was covering up and hungry for.
“No,” said Muninn. “I don’t.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Ruby Payne-Scott studying sunspots!
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