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 10, 1916
ELEPHANT ISLAND, ANTARCTICA
“Is this supposed to be a joke?” August snapped, his blanket tight around him and his feet in ice, snow seeping through his slippers and numbing his toes. “First it’s a burning city–again–and now it’s an iceberg?”
“It is an island, not an iceberg,” said Muninn, tranquil. The temperature seemed to have no effect on her, though her wings were frosted. She did not shiver, and if her iron body was frigid to the touch it still moved smoothly, as if oiled, and her crow feet were easy in the snow. “And you are the one who does not like fire. I thought you would appreciate the change.”
“I’m not falling for that again,” said August, who had gone from fire into water and found relief in an ocean once before, who had found that relief temporary, and so mocking it cut like coral. “You’re lucky I came at all. Stupid birds.” He hadn’t wanted to come, had thought about staying home and tucked up in bed, fuming on his own and making his family nervous, snarling and angry and with the fire beneath his eyelids always. It had given him a sort of savage pleasure to make them feel as bad as he did, knowing as he did that they would not respond, would not scream back and aim for hurting. They would not because he was sick. Because he was dying.
It was that turning away that had decided him: his Dad’s bitten lips, the way his Mum looked like she was about to cry, and then Muninn had come, and Huginn, and they were as certain as always and as calm and August was on a roll–more creatures to upset, more to carp at and complain to and find fault with. More to make feel as horrible as he felt himself.
The ravens had taken him to burning, to a place of apocalypse. It wasn’t right that they should be so unaffected. It wasn’t right that they could still be happy, and August felt the opportunity to see that they were not, to punish them with his presence.
“You were the one who remembered it,” said Muninn. “Who kept thinking about it.”
“Because it was horrible,” said August. “How hard is that to understand? You remember everything, don’t you? The bad stuff as well as the good? Or are you just too stupid to tell the difference?”
“The differences are certainly escaping you,” said Muninn. Her hoarse raven voice was as calm as ever, as if she were talking to a particle of rock, a piece of dust–something small and silent and unimportant, and the lack of reaction August sparked in her made him want to hit something. If he hadn’t know how much iron would hurt his thin, aching little hands he would have hit her, but Muninn was too hard to hit and even if he was other than iron, August would not have dared to hit the other. Huginn, he thought, could very well hit back–and although his beak looked blunt August thought it might be razor-edged.
“Not all memories are the same,” Muninn was saying, and August surfaced from thoughts of scars and slicing to listen, though he did not understand and would not question and the wind and ice were hard about him. “There is also pleasure in burning, in the remembrance of it: of endings and homecomings and the prospect of peace come out of the ashes.”
“Home?” said August. “How can you talk about home here? Don’t you see them?” The men about him, huddled and stinking and starving, whittled down by cold with their fortitude broken down around them.
“I see more clearly than you,” said Muninn. “Did you think science was memories of discoveries only, exaltation and shining horror at once? No, August. So much of it is failure and waiting and boredom, the sending out of little ships into weighty seas and wondering if they will bring answers with them. Wondering if the exploration has been for nothing.” She cocked her head, looking towards a man come out a small distance from the others, crouched down and wrapped about in ragged clothes and gazing towards the beach. There were pages in his hand, and he was smiling.
“Am I supposed to know him?” said August. His feet were numb and his fingers hurt and he could not conceive how anyone would be so foolish as to expose themselves further to the frigid landscape. How they could find humour in it.
“His name is Alexander,” said Muninn. “And he is a doctor, come down into the wild south with Shackleton, come for learning and exploration. Come for stranding, too. His ship has been destroyed. The Endurance. Do you know what endurance means, August?”
“Of course I do,” said August, lying. “I’m not an idiot.”
“It means being able to survive, to go on. To suffer in patience, in the hope that there is more than suffering.”
“Didn’t do his ship any good, did it,” said August.
“No,” said Muninn. “The ship could not endure the ice. Oak and fir and greenheart, and it was not enough. But a ship is only a thing, August, and there was more endurance on that expedition and it was not timber-made. Oh, they talk of Shackleton, and how he led his men and kept them alive, and it is a flashy thing, his endurance, and remembered.”
“Then why aren’t you showing me him?” said August. He didn’t particularly care; he just wanted to be difficult, to be ungrateful.
“Because flashy things are not enough,” said Muninn. “Not for you, who counts his success in small victories, in single days and drudgeries. You are not the only one who does so. Look at Alexander, August. Look at him, writing in his journal and happy, for the moment, though he is cold and hungry and lost, though he is losing hope and wonders if his home is gone forever. Would you like to know what he is writing?”
“Not particularly,” said August, but when Muninn just looked at him, looked quietly and waited, her black body bright against the snow, he sighed as insultingly as he could and trudged his tiny body over to the man, to the words written in brief winter sunlight.
“I have been watching the snow petrels,” he read, standing behind and reading over Alexander’s shoulder. “They are wonderful little birds. Sometimes they get caught by a breaker and dashed on the shore, but they soon recover and go off again to their fishing.”
“Is that all he’s writing about?” said August. “Birds? Why should I care? They’re not important.”
“You might want to watch them as Alexander has before you say that,” said Muninn.
It was hard not to watch. There were dozens of them, hundreds, and their feathers were so white and so clean that when they were sitting in snow August missed them, until the quick, ecstatic movements as they rolled and cleaned awakened him. He could see them flying, see them running along the top of the water, almost, their clever dives and their quick flight turns and amongst them Huginn, larger and darker and as glorious, less swift and less elegant but as secure in his wings and showing off. And the petrels fell sometimes, and hit the water badly, and were washed up on a shore they hadn’t expected, and they shook their feathers out in the snow and ran into the air again, circled up in tight pretty spirals and dove again.
August watched, and Alexander watched, and he laughed as August turned away in disgust, turned to look at the poor little shelters, the upturned boats and the ruined tents held down with rocks, the ice and the cold and the bleak white desert and the bergs crowded all about.
“Look at it,” he said. “Just look at it! How can he laugh when he’s living like this? Hungry and sick and alone, all of them, and he’s laughing about the birds. He’s crazy. You stupid birds have brought me to a crazy man. Doesn’t he know where he is?”
“Of course he knows,” said Muninn. “He knows many things. And one of these is that we make our own hells, and some are more frozen than others.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the SS Arapahoe using Morse Code to escape the Diamond Shoals!
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