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 6, 1945
There were shadows on the walls, and shadows on the rock. They weren’t like the shadows that August had seen not a week past on a cottage porch, and not like the shadows that he made on the walls of his bedroom, or on the walls of the hospital. He was good at shadow creatures–there wasn’t a lot he could do, lying about so much, but he could make rabbits and birds and dogs and it helped him to forget, sometimes.
These shadows didn’t look like rabbits or birds or dogs. They looked like people. August tried to twist his body so that he made a shadow that looked like theirs, but it was hard to see them both at the same time, and he couldn’t hold his position very long without aching.
Still, it was easier to look at the shadows than it was to look at the city. It sagged around them, black and burning, and parts were pulverised into dust. The worst part of it was the creaking: there were no people and no birds, not even an insect. There was nothing alive to make a noise, but August could hear the burning and crumbling, the way that girders in the distance toppled unbalanced to the ground.
On his worst days, when he felt his sickest, when he felt all ruined inside himself, August thought he might look like this city. If April looked close enough, if she had lenses powerful enough, he thought she could put a camera so close to his eyeballs he could feel it with his lashes, and the picture that she took would be of this place.
It was too hard to look at it, like it was too hard, now, to have mirrors about him. The shadows were easier. He could still tell they had been alive. He could still tell that they had been human. His own shadow looked normal, next to them. It looked as if it fitted in.
“Of course you don’t look the same, exactly,” said Muninn, who saw deeper and farther than he did. “Your shadow comes from your body. Those shadows are what’s left when their owners are gone. They’re all that’s left of the people who used to live here after their bodies were burned away.”
“Burned?” said August. His mouth felt dry, his tongue too big for him. “They were burned?” And he thought of Albert with his funny hair and Leo with his friendly face and how they had helped to light the fire and all their shadows were burning.
“In a great and terrible fire,” said Muninn. “There was a war, and this was a way to end it. Scientists, far away, lived together on a mesa and learned to build a weapon that could end the war, that could end everything.”
“Do you think it hurt?” said August. He had been camping once. It wasn’t a very adventurous camp, only in the back garden with April, with their parents bringing them warm cups of Milo and marshmallows on sticks for toasting. There had been a school camp he hadn’t been well enough to go on, and tents and blankets in the back garden was supposed to be compensation, of a sort. He had burned his finger on melted marshmallow, and it hurt in a way that needles and operations and therapy did not, a little burn on a little finger instead of a burning all-over-everything, but April had wrapped him up tight and done his marshmallows for him and told him scary stories, and it was enough, almost, for him to forget. “I don’t like fire,” he said, almost under his breath. He didn’t want Muninn to think he was a baby.
“I think here, where we’re standing, it was so quick they probably felt nothing,” said Muninn. “But other people… they hurt a lot.”
August was silent. He looked at the shadow, again, ground into and black against the rock and not much taller than himself. “Do you think it was a boy like me?” he said.
“Maybe,” said Muninn. “Would you feel better if it wasn’t?”
“Yes,” said August.
Above them, Huginn flew in giant, glorious circles and refused to come down.
“I think this is where he is happiest,” said Muninn, and her iron feathers were flat to her back.
“How can anyone be happy here?” said August. “It’s nothing but burning and ashes and it smells of meat.”
“You are meat,” said Muninn. “Do you not like the way that you smell?”
“It’s not the same,” said August. “This is… burnt. It smells like death. I don’t like it.”
“I don’t like it either,” said Muninn.
“Huginn does,” said August, and shivered. “Why?”
“Huginn is thought,” said Muninn. “For thought, a place like this is life. Life like a pulse point, just beneath the surface and bright with blood. All the places you are visiting are pulse points. Most of them are small; brief little candle flickers of excitement and discovery, little thought-sparks of eureka. But this… for Huginn, this isn’t a candle. It’s a sun.”
Above them Huginn circled, wings spread wide and whirling in dizzy spirals, the hot air currents, the sifting ashes and red clouds of smoke and burning making of the air a maelstrom. Shivering, ecstatic, he rode the air above Hiroshima, and in his wings he felt it. Each feather was erect, wire barbs and barbules and hooklets and each hummed with conversation and theories and experiments, with plays and poetry and gypsum sands.
There was Kurihara, writing her verses in the ashes, writing of birth and death and bringing forth new life, writing of a midwife so scalded by radiation that the baby she helped birth in a basement, in rubble, saw a new day that she did not. There was Lilienthal, working to harness horror for peace, and Teller working to build a bigger bomb, a better destruction. There was Meitner, looking ahead from her walks in the Swedish winter and turning aside, and there was little Sadako folding paper cranes so that others would turn aside as well. There were evacuations and tests and mushroom clouds, there were green shards of glass and school children sheltering under their desks in mad drills, there were wars and waste and people crying out for water when all their skin had been burnt away. And Huginn felt it all, felt it forwards and backwards, all the clues and quests and consequences for generations fore and aft, a white-hot burst of information, of ideas, that collected and quarrelled, spiralling out from one giant maelstrom-node of Hiroshima ash. He flew above in sparks, and saw below him bright lines on the landscape, superimposed, speeding out in all directions, space and time both, a gleaming network that spun out like cobwebs, like the quick, fish-slick ripples of disturbed water.
And in his iron head he felt it: the great coalescing weight of thought, and how it came together in him.
“He doesn’t see things as we do,” said Muninn. “Huginn is drawn to ideas. He is a creature of abstracts, of linkages.”
“Doesn’t he have any feelings?” said August. “Doesn’t he care?”
“The feelings have been burnt out of him,” said Muninn. “Burnt out with electricity and information. That is why there are two of us: thought and memory. Feelings have been burnt out of him, but they have been burnt into me.”
“Do you want to see the burning?” said Muninn. “I can show you the shadows, August. I can show you what they remembered, what they felt. It’s all in me. Do you want to see it?”
“No,” said August, and his voice was pale as his face. “I don’t want to see any more. I just want to go home now. Please. I want to go home.”
He was only a little boy after all. When the birds brought him home, he was tucked under little boy sheets, given his little boy bear to clutch, and hooked up again to all the machines that were too much alien to be adult and sounded lonely in the night. The ravens perched on the end of his bed, claws digging into the quilt and leaving holes there. Muninn cocked her head at him and was silent, as if waiting, but Huginn’s eyes were black and whirling with excitement. His feathers ruffled and would not settle; his feet flexed on the bed. It was as if his intelligence was still at Hiroshima, as if he were just waiting for August to fall asleep so that he could go back and fly over the red and black horror of it, use that shining metal beak to pick out… And that was when August forced himself to stop, forced himself to shy away from the image of the raven come out of the sky for feeding.
(What did you expect? Muninn had asked him. Do you not remember that we are also birds of war? We belong on battlefields as well, we two, and it is not for stitching up wounds with our beaks that we go to visit the dying.)
“Go away,” he said. “Go away.” And he hid his bald little head under the pillow until he heard the metal flash of wings, and knew that they were gone.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the Kon-Tiki raft wash up in Polynesia.
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