The August Birds: 11 August, 1909

august birds cover jpgSo. 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 11, 1909

SS ARAPAHOE, ATLANTIC OCEAN

“They are the Diamond Shoals,” said Muninn, perched upon the ship’s railings and with her wings closed to the wind. “A place of sinking and salvage, where two currents come together. Do you see them, August?”

“No,” said August flatly, his arms wrapped around himself. The air was foggy, but even if it hadn’t been he would have looked elsewhere for difficulty, looked up at the masts or the chimney or the cabins, the lifeboats lashed to the sides and useless to him. He wasn’t interested in shoals or sand or sea or anything that wasn’t resentment and misery.

“They are a function of temperature,” said Muninn. “Of a warm body of current, a body that moves north until it meets another current coming down. The second is cold, and when they meet there is turbulence. The warm current is made colder and the water is angry about the shore. Sand is displaced, moved about, and the ocean floor is not left to settle. It shifts, instead, into sandbanks, into vast bars and barriers.”

One the railings beside her, Huginn croaked, and August looked away from the hungry expression in the iron eyes.

“Many hundreds of ships have sunk here,” said Muninn, dreamy in her remembrance. “Many sailors have drowned. They call it the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

“You don’t think I’ve seen enough graveyards?” August snapped, for he had seen the apocalypse once and again, seen the slow decay of children’s bodies in the hospital wards of Starship, felt his own body shiver and grow cold. Felt the warmth leach from him as the currents of his life bore him onwards and into barriers, into reefs and sandbars and annihilation. “Or is it that you find them so wonderful you think that I must find them wonderful as well?”

Huginn croaked, wordless in his response, beating iron wings and launching himself from the ship railings and into white water, into waves cloudy with sediment and unfit for seeing. Yet when he emerged, moments later, there was a fish in his beak and he landed upon the deck, close enough to August’s feet that he felt the flopping of the fish through the deck, the hard, frightened thumps of it. And Huginn beat the fish against the ship and tore into it still living, ripped chunks of wet flesh with his razor beak and inhaled as if drowning, ate as if starved and feeding upon the dead.

It made August want to throw up. Not just the raw violence of the feeding, the sodden flesh and the ecstatic gulping and the memories of gouged eyes and burning, but the way that Huginn stared at him while he ate, the way he took pleasure in August’s reaction, in the suffering and stilling of flesh, in the way the currents struggled and went out. He stumbled to the side, leaning as far over the railings as he could and it wasn’t very far, for the Arapahoe was large and sturdy and he was only a little boy, and a frail one at that.

“He’s disgusting,” he said to Muninn. “Can’t you stop him? Can’t you make him stop?”

“We all have our natures,” said Muninn, composed. “Ours is to eat the dead. Yours is to die. I do not make the rules.”

“You are iron,” said August, and the taste of iron was in his mouth, the stringy saliva taste of metal and vomit. “You shouldn’t be eating at all.”

“And you are just a child. You shouldn’t be disrespectful to your elders, though I note that hasn’t stopped you,” said Muninn, and there was a tinge of disapproval in her voice, just a trifle, and if August hadn’t felt so sick he would have thrown fish bones at her, tried to knock her off her perch until she called for truce and for mercy. Instead, he heaved over the side even though there was not much to throw up. Food had never been less interesting to him, the recollection of roasting standing side by side with sickness, with loss of appetite and slow starvation, the sinking of his body into skeleton.

It was horrible to stand so hunched over, with bile in his mouth and his face wet with sweat and strain. August hated being sick, but he was used to company in his sickness, to cool cloths and sympathy and lemonade to settle his stomach. On the ship, however, there were none of these–only a raven beside him, staring out to sea and another behind him with scales about his feet and the smell of fish in his feathers. There was no-one to help him.

“I am helping you,” said Muninn. “Not in the way that you want, but it is help for all that.”

“I don’t need your help,” August snarled, sinking to the deck, curling up with his knees to his chest and his cheek on cool metal. “And if I did I wouldn’t ask.” He refused to give them satisfaction, the opportunity to prove their strength against his own. He preferred to be miserable.

“Help is why we have come here,” said Muninn. “This ship is known for asking aid. You could learn by example.”

“Don’t care,” said August, his tongue heavy and sour in his mouth and the queasy feeling still in his stomach.

“You should sympathise,” said Muninn. “The ship is having mechanical difficulties. Like you.”

“What?”

“There is something wrong with its insides. Like you.”

“Oh.”

“Without help they will drift into the Shoals and founder. But the Arapahoe has a tool to help themselves with, a facility for transmission and for code. They are not the first to use Morse in this way, to call for help with the new signal, the SOS. But they are near to it.”

“Why should I care if they’re the first or not?” said August, turning his face further into metal, hoping to cool the wet heat of his forehead and the dizziness inside.

“We have been taking you to firsts,” said Muninn. “I don’t want you to think it is a habit. Science is application as well as discovery.”

“I don’t care,” said August again. The smell behind him seemed to be growing stronger, and the scrape of iron nails on the deck as Huginn tore the remains into fishy, fleshy pieces hurt his ears and made his spine all shivery. He felt bile again, the rising of his gorge, and swallowed.

“Good,” said Muninn. “I suppose I should not be surprised. You also are not the first; you should be used to following behind. Don’t look so surprised,” she said, gazing down at him from her perch high above his head. “You’re not the first to die, you know.”

“Maybe not,” said August. “But it’s the first time it’s happening to me.”

“Well, your memories of it are not out of the ordinary,” said Muninn. “Aside from Huginn and myself, of course. That should comfort you.”

“It doesn’t,” said August, and the bile was in him, waiting to be vomited out. “Nothing does.” And nothing did–not the journey with ravens, the newness and the focused attention, not even the love from his family as solid as steel and steady beneath him, unbreached by reef or shoal or sickness. And later that day, when April roused him from sulky rest, her hand on his forehead and concern all through her face, she was the opposite of comfort.

August glared at her as she cared for him, bringing lemonade and dry toast to help his stomach and straightening his blanket. He snatched it back and into disarray, even though having the tiger tangled round his legs made him feel overheated and queasy. “I don’t want your help,” he muttered, hating that she had to do for him, hating her. Hating everything.

“Sorry?” said April, cheerful in the sickroom, cheerful because she had never had to ask for help like he did, because sickness was beyond her and the doctors never came for her and she was all that August would never be, healthy and full of future.

“I don’t want your help!” he said, louder, then louder again until he was screaming it, over and over, until he was throwing everything he could in reach at her, even though the throws were weak and never touched her and that enraged him more. Until he was throwing books and lamps and pillows, until he was throwing the alarm clock that was never set to wake him but was set to blaring when August threw it at his sister’s feet, the call for waking like sirens, like ambulances, and him too sick to get out of bed and shut it off.

It was his parents who turned it off, running into his room as April ran out, the door to her room slamming behind her and August turned his hot, streaming face to the window that was empty of ravens and did not, would not learn.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the sad extinction of the quagga.

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

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