The August Birds: 12 August, 1883

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 12, 1883

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS

“It’s a funny looking thing,” said August, frowning.

The animal he was staring at looked like a cross between a horse and a zebra. The front half was striped like a zebra, striped in dark and white, and the back half was a deep, solid brown.

“She is not an it,” said Muninn. “She is a quagga.”

“She looks sad,” said August, peering through the bars. The quagga was huddled in a corner, and her head was hanging down.

“She is sad,” said Muninn. “She is lonely, and she is dying, and she is the last of her kind.”

“Is she going to die today?” said August, distressed. His own death was so close, now, that he could pity it all the more in others.

“Yes,” said Muninn. “Very soon. And it will be unremarked, almost. No-one will know, when they find her, that she was the last quagga, the last ever. They will only find that out later.”

“What happened to the rest of them?” said August.

“They were hunted until they died,” said Muninn. “Until none of them were left but her.”

“And now she’s dying,” said August. “She must be so scared. She must wonder what we’re going to do to her.”

“Possibly,” said Muninn. “Although,” she continued, seeing his distress, “it is also possible that she does not understand enough to fear your kind for what they have done to her. She only knows that she is alone. She does not know why.”

“She shouldn’t be alone when she dies,” said August. “It’s not fair!” He hated the bars between them, almost. He had been behind bars himself, sometimes, when they were put up on the side of his bed to stop him from falling out, from falling over, because his body had become too weak to save itself. And when he was lying down, with his head on his pillow, he would look out through those bars and pretend that he was in a different type of prison, and that one day he would escape to a place where he did not hear through the wall a sister that he did not want to see, the life that he wanted but would not have. He had imagined all the ways it would happen. He could dig a tunnel, or pry out the bars. He would pretend that his bedroom wall was made of stones that could be levered out, and when he did he would run away into the sun and never be trapped in his bed again.

But the quagga had hooves instead of hands, and she could not dig or pry or lever. She could only wait, and look out through bars that were too close for her.

“They are not too close for you,” said Muninn, and August saw then that his little hands, clenched around the bars and white-knuckled, had grown thinner than they had been even when Muninn had first come to him not two weeks before. A healthy little boy might have been too fat to fit through the bars, but August was not healthy and he would never be fat again, never be anything but a slow increase of bone in proportion to sinking flesh. And if he turned himself sideways and took a deep breath, he could fit through the bars and join the quagga in her cage.

He could, but he didn’t want to. August had had enough of his own bars. He did not think he could stand another’s as well.

“Perhaps I should leave her be,” he said. “Mum says when animals are sick sometimes they just want to be left alone.”

“Perhaps,” said Muninn.

Before them, the quagga staggered. Her legs gave out and she shuddered to her knees, tried to get up again and failed, her sides heaving. She gave up then, her long nose resting in the dirt and her panicked blowing stirring up little clouds of dust.

“She’s already so unhappy,” said August. “Perhaps I’d only make her more scared.”

“Perhaps,” said Muninn again.

“And Huginn isn’t here,” said August, his hands still tight about the bars and unable to look away. “If he thought it was a good idea he’d be here, wouldn’t he?”

“Now you’re just stalling,” said Muninn.

There was the rush of wings behind him then and August turned, put his back to the bars and Huginn was in front of him with August’s blanket, his favourite tiger blanket, hanging from the raven’s beak. Carefully, the raven laid it at August’s feet.

“Thank you,” said August, half-dismayed, “but I’m not cold.” He was cold so often now, but this day he was standing in the middle of a European summer, not the chilly winter of the southern hemisphere, and his flesh was warm about him.

“It was not brought for you,” said Muninn. “Not entirely.” The blanket was knotted on top so that the bottom hung as a pouch, and the raven pecked at August’s bony little ankle. An affectionate peck, meant not to hurt but to gain his attention. “Open it,” she said, and August squatted, leaning his weight behind him, and though his legs ached and wobbled beneath him he teased open the knot to find his blanket full of earth, full of a dusty red soil that crumbled beneath his fingers.

“It’s dirt,” he said, puzzled.

“No,” said Muninn. “It’s home.”

“My home doesn’t look like this,” said August, thinking of the dark, fertile earth of Oamaru, of the garden behind his house all filled with flowers and growing things even in winter: the flaxes and ferns he was so used to, the plants he saw every day from his window, from his little barred bed. But It was not brought for you, Muninn had said, and August turned with earth in his hands to see the quagga, curled in on herself in the corner of the cage, her eyes dulled with misery and dimming, and he understood.

“I don’t want to go in,” he said, and his voice was half-pleading.

“I know,” said Muninn, and August went anyway. He dragged his feet, and his hands on the blanket were clammy so that the little grains of dirt stuck to his palms, but he went.

He didn’t even have to breathe in much, though the bars were so close together. Just one quick step and he was through, inside the cage and looking out, inside with the dying animal, the other one, and there was no escape for either of them but one.

Behind him, he could hear Huginn croak, a wordless, self-satisfied sound.

“Yes,” said Muninn, and he could barely hear her reply over the sound of his own heart beating. “You’re very thoughtful,” she said, and her raven voice was dry as deserts.

August walked very slowly across the cage, as slowly as he could without stopping, and the quagga watched him come. He had been afraid that she would kick, that she would force herself up in a panic and do herself an injury–that his presence would compound her pain, would make her feel more trapped and more miserable. And one leg did kick, a small, exhausted kick and then he saw it happen, saw the resignation on the quagga’s face, the acceptance of his presence, the dumb endurance in the glazing eyes.

“Don’t be sad, girl,” said August, sidling closer and getting down onto his knees beside the long head with not much less effort than the quagga had made when she had stumbled for the last time and fallen. “Don’t be frightened. I’ve brought you something, quagga.” And he fumbled with the blanket and drew out the African earth and spread it around her in handfuls, laid the last of it beneath her nose, and the quagga breathed it in and gentled, the old familiarity of scent recalling the plains and the grass and the pasturelands of her youth, of the time before she had been taken from her own kind and kept apart.

The quagga breathed it in and gentled, and August laid his little bony head upon her striped side, felt the shallow breaths, the slow exhalations. “There’ll never be another one like you, girl,” he said. “There’ll never be another one like you, not ever again. You’re so special, just by yourself.” His own breath hitched, and he hid his face in her hairy coat, felt the movement beneath slower and slowing. “Even if there were a thousand like you, you’d still be special. It’s not fair,” he said. And said it again, over and over. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair…”

Huginn and Muninn waited beyond the cage, watching through the bars of a prison they were not a part of, and August wept against the quagga and breathed with her, breathed in the warm scent of home until his breaths were the only ones.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see biochemist Lina Stern, imprisoned before her exile.

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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