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 5, 1948
The woman fiddled with her instruments, checking connections and signals and spectra. A band around her head kept short hair from falling into her face, and her mouth was pursed in concentration as she worked around Huginn, oblivious to his presence in the middle of her tools. “Her name is Ruby,” said Muninn. “She is like you–waiting, although it is not a birthday cake that she waits for.”
“There’s nothing wrong with cake,” said August. It was going to be his last one; there would never be another to look forward to so he took extra pleasure in the waiting. “I’m going to have them make a really special one this year.”
“A tiger?” said Muninn, amused, eyeing the blanket. It was just a little chilly, though not so bad as home, and August kept it tucked well around.
“Maybe,” said August. “But maybe I could have a walrus, or a fish. Like my fish. Maybe I could have all three.” His parents would hardly say no, even if it meant they ate cake for days.
“Perhaps you could have a sun,” said Muninn.
“That sounds pretty boring,” August replied, picturing a plain round cake with bright icing, and banana flavoured.
“Ruby does not think so, but then she is older than you, and sees suns differently,” said Muninn. “It is hard to see a thing, sometimes.” She did not look at him as she spoke, rather fixed her iron eyes on Ruby and on her observations. “I can look at the sun; it will not hurt me. I remember when others looked at it and blinded themselves thereby, the brilliance turning to blackness and all other colours left behind. But there are other ways to look, when the eyes that must do the looking are as soft as yours.” She turned to him. “Have you ever seen an eclipse, August?”
“I’ve seen a lunar eclipse,” said August. He had been bundled up and taken into the garden to watch the full moon turn a strange mixture of orange and pink and red, the colours of Earth shadow. “Never a solar one. I would have liked to see one, though.”
“If you had, you would have seen it through filters,” said the raven. “Or projection. Sometimes the only way to understand a thing is not to look at it directly.”
“Seems funny though, doesn’t it?” said August. He did not make a habit of looking away; he could not afford it. He had hidden behind doors to hear of his luck, a luck that kept him alive for short spaces and would not hold to let him study stars at close quarters and shining. “Though I suppose you can look straight on sometimes and it makes no difference.” The death that was coming for him, coming with birthday cake and candles, was something he had steeled himself for staring at and still it made no sense. If he were able to wear a special set of glasses like filters over his own eyes, or project his death through a tiny pinhole onto a wall of his bedroom so that he could study it, he might have been able to understand–but it loomed before him, incomprehensible and too bright to look at and his heart was over-heated by it, burned up and turned all to ash.
“Ruby is doing something similar, but instead she sees the sun indirectly by radio waves, by electromagnetism and emissions and radiation. Her interest came from the war.”
“What’s war got to do with suns?” said August. “It’s so far away, there’s nothing it can do.”
“Ruby spent her time during the war–and that’s World War II, August, not any of the others–working on radar. It was an important invention of the time. A way to detect distant objects, to look at things that could not be seen directly. But if some things can be clearer with indirection, then looking away can sometimes make seeing harder. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said August, who had tried looking away, who turned his head when needles went into his arm, when he saw himself fragmenting in mirrors, and frail. Who still saw, regardless, from the corners of his eyes and the shapes and shadows there were sometimes real and sometimes made by his mind into frights and fearful things, worse than they might have been had he turned to face them.
“Using radio to look away meant that misdirection came with indirection–false readings and white noise and static that told of ghost raids and jamming devices. Background noise, the kind that was usually ignored, set aside as not important. Then one day someone looked aside and saw that there was another correlation: that the static rose with sunspots, that the reception was disrupted.”
“Is that why Ruby’s here? Is she waiting for sunspots?”
“Yes. The war was over but research remained, and Ruby liked the physics, the radio astronomy, so she kept her search for sunspots. But they are fluctuating things, and hard for her to find. Ruby has to wait, to find her sunspots when they come to her. This isn’t the first time she has found them, but she has been waiting some weeks. Today the waiting will be over.”
“Can I see them?” said August, and promptly shut his mouth when Muninn gave him a withering look. He did not understand how a raven could look withering, but there was something about the eyes, about the set of her iron head that was rather repressive. Huginn was less contained–he gave one loud, rude caw as if he were laughing. It was a nasty sound and it made August jump, although Ruby did not notice it. “Alright,” he mumbled. “Don’t look directly at the sun, I get it.”
“You would burn blindness into you,” said Muninn, severe. “And you are not so whole as to have no need of the parts of you that work, still. Indirection, August. Try to remember.”
“I suppose it was a very small spot?” said August, trying to change the subject and succeeding only, he saw, because Muninn had seen though his attempts to shift focus and decided to honour them.
“A large group of them, actually. The noise the radio receiver picked up from the sun was fourteen times that of the background.”
“The sun is very big,” said August. “It would probably be very loud.” He was used to loud, used to clamour and the way that a bright, immense focus could drown out all else, could leave him pinned to his bed and unable to think of anything else, unable to quell the little voices in his head that were only ever one step from screaming with fear and the whole terrible unfairness of it.
“Yes,” said Muninn, and she looked at him with an expression that he would have thought was near pity if it didn’t seem so out of place. “The sun is very big.”
“So what was she trying to find out?”
“Ruby was looking to see if the radiation from sunspots was the same as normal background noise. If she could see a difference between them.”
“You said it was louder.”
“Louder does not mean different, August.” And August thought of his own approaching loudness, the one that drowned out all others. It was louder to him, and to Mum and Dad and April, he knew, but he wasn’t the only one. People died every day. Most of them were people he didn’t know but occasionally there was someone he did and they were buried with grave goods and rabbits and that was the same thing really, but softer, because it interfered with him less, a backdrop to his life that he’d notice sometimes when it intruded, and then forget about again because it wasn’t important.
“But it looks the same, doesn’t it,” he said, knowing the answer before it was given him. Knowing that the distribution of the dead, the leavings of grief, were the same the world over and all the looking away in the world, all the indirection, would not show him different. He would be eclipsed, and people would look away from it, mostly, lest his death be blinding without filters, and without projection he would be as their background, no louder than the rest and static.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the aftermath at Hiroshima.
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