The August Birds: 14 August, 1894

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 14, 1894

OXFORD, ENGLAND

“You are being unkind,” Muninn observed. “Still.”

“So what?” said August. “I don’t care.” But when he heard the front door slam and looked down through his window at April running out of the house, her school bag bouncing on her back and her head down as if she were trying not to cry, not to be seen crying, he did care. Not enough to open the window, not enough to call after her, but almost. His fingers twitched on the latch, but they didn’t open it and August tried to squash down the feelings of guilt as best he could. “I don’t care,” he said again. He was the one who was dying, not her. It wasn’t fair that she should get to go on and be happy, even if she got to go on and be sad first. It wasn’t as if she were going to lose everything she loved, like Lina. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t.

“There is not a lot of time remaining to you,” said Muninn. “Are you sure you wish to spend that time in unkindness?”

“It’s nothing to do with you,” said August, sulky. “Can’t you just mind your own business?”

“Your business is my business,” said Muninn. “And your memories are my own, and unpleasant.”

“I guess it’s up to you to give me some better ones, then,” said August, and he knew how he sounded but it was as if the nasty comments were coming from a mouth other than his own and he was just an observer, watching from the outside as someone who looked like him and sounded like him did their very best to make others as unhappy as he was. He kept his head turned away so that he didn’t have to see Muninn’s soundless, disappointed sigh, so that he didn’t have to see the dislike written plainer than ever in Huginn’s iron eyes. Yet when Muninn extended her wing into the corner of his vision, he did not stop himself from reaching out to take it.

#

The first public demonstration of wireless radio transmission was sent between the museum and the old Clarendon Laboratory. Had August been healthy he could have covered the distance between them in less than two minutes.

“It’s not far at all,” he said.

“It is far enough for Oliver,” said Muninn, and nudged him closer to conversations and to mechanism.

“…might reach as far as half a mile,” Oliver said. Beside them, Huginn pecked at the equipment used to transmit the message, sent in Morse code, in dots and dashes, and his beak beat out a staccato rhythm of its own. August knew Morse code, but Huginn was transmitting too fast to be caught, although he thought that Muninn understood. It made him feel jealous again, and he was tired of feeling jealous but unable somehow to stop himself. Muninn was by his side, her stiff black feathers brushing against him, but she felt farther away than she had ever been, and closer to Huginn than she was to him.

“Half a mile is still nothing much,” said August. “Why couldn’t we have seen him do better?”

“He did not do better,” said Muninn. “This was the end of it. He had other interests, and it was left to others, to men like Marconi, to bridge the greater distances, to make a better communication and a longer one.

“So that’s it?” said August. “That’s it? He just packs everything up and walks away?”

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“What for?” said August. “If he was going to give up why did he bother in the first place?”

“He wanted to show it could be done,” said Muninn. “But Oliver lacked vision. He admitted it himself, that he could not see that there would be demand in the application.”

“He was stupid,” grumbled August.

“He was honest,” corrected Muninn. “A scientist is not a genius by virtue of his profession. A person may try hard and learn well and still not be a Galileo. Not everyone can see so well.”

“Is that why you brought me here?” said August, out of sorts and snappish. “To see someone fail? Don’t you think I know enough of failing?”

“There is a difference between failure and missed opportunity,” said Muninn, speaking of an experiment that did not fail and yet did not go far enough. “Some chances you don’t get back. Think hard about that, August, before you call other people stupid.”

August would have talked back then, been as cutting and petty as he knew how, but if Muninn was still holding onto patience then Huginn was not, and he pecked at August’s leg: one hard snap with his black iron beak and that snap said Be silent. And so August, rubbing at the bruise, was silent and thought instead of what he could not say, of the liberties he could have taken and the apologies that he did not know how to make.

#

The door to his room was open, and August lay in his bed, lay in the dark while a small strip of light from the hall illuminated the edge of his bedroom door, and he was thinking still. He could hear voices speaking dimly in other rooms, his Mum and Dad talking in the living room, the sound of the television. He knew that they were disappointed in him, and he knew as well that they were trying very hard not to show it. Mum had smiled at him over dinner, chatted with him as if everything were normal, but she had a range of smiles that pretended they weren’t sad and he knew them all.

It was lonely in his bed. The birds were gone, and his parents sounded far away. This was the time of night he would usually have talked to April, past bedtime and both of them pretending to be asleep when their parents came to check. There had been walkie-talkies once, but August had been sick over his and it had never worked well again. Instead, April had taught him Morse Code and knocked on the shared wall between their beds, knocked with knock-knock jokes to make him laugh, and if the knocks and the muffled giggles had filtered downstairs to the living room then their parents had pretended not to notice and let their children have their secrets together.

August turned in his bed, and laid his palm flat against the wall. He hadn’t tapped upon the wall for a long time now–it had begun to hurt his knuckles more and more, as he got thinner and thinner and the flesh wore away from his bones, and then he had been too hurt and too angry to knock. The wall felt silent under his hand: flat and smooth, with no vibrations, and the stillness and the silence was that of broken thoughts and missed chances, and before August could think worse of it, before he could talk himself out of it he curled his little fingers into a fist and beat them against the wall.

-.- -. — -.-. -.- / -.- -. — -.-. -.- he rapped. Knock, knock.

There was no answer, though August waited with his palm pressed against the wall, waited with his breath held tight until he couldn’t hold it anymore, until his bones ached with stillness and his stomach ached for another reason altogether. She always answered him. April had always answered, and she might have been asleep but she might have been angry with him, angry back and not answering, tired of his meanness and with her pillow over her ears so she couldn’t hear him calling for her because the distance between them had become too great to be breached and he had lost his chance to breach it.

-.- -. — -.-. -.- / -.- -. — -.-. -.- he rapped again, and his knuckles stung as much as his eyes. Knock, knock.

And there was no answer still, and silence, and August left his palm against the wall until he had to take it away to wipe at his face, because he wasn’t crying, he wasn’t, and there was no answer. And then, and then, there was a small noise echoing through the wall, right beside his head and repeated in familiar patterns, and he was laughing instead of crying, and felt better for it than he had in days.

Who’s there? said April.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the first boat trip through the Panama Canal!

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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