The August Birds: 15 August, 1914

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 15, 1914

GATUN LAKE, PANAMA

For the first time in nearly a week August did not wake with anger. Instead, April was with him. They snuggled under the covers together and if it was a tight squeeze she had brought biscuits to compensate, sneaked from the kitchen the lovely ginger biscuits made for August by the lady who lived next door because she knew he liked them. They’d spoil his breakfast, but August didn’t care and sugar was one of April’s primary food groups.

“You’re not a lump,” she said, her mouth half-full and with crumbs all over her lap. “Grumpy, sure. But not a lump. Certainly not a useless one. You’re not useless, for one. And you’re too skinny to be a lump.” She forced another biscuit into his hand. “Maybe you’re a particle.”

“Oh, a useless particle. Great. I feel so much better.”

April stuck her tongue out at him. “Call yourself useless again and I’ll take away your bickies. You can have Weetbix for breakfast like everyone else.” And she laughed as August made a face and snatched at the tin in mock-terror. “You are particles. A collection of them, anyway, and they’ll always exist, one way or another. Or you can be a wave if you want. Like when you throw a pebble in a pool. The ripples come from you and spread out and out and go on forever.”

“They don’t go on forever,” said August. “They’ll bump up against the sides and stop eventually.”

“Fine. It’s a giant pool. Never-ending, no sides. You’re such a complainer.”

“Still,” said August, between mouthfuls of his own, “it’s a nice thought, the ripples. Little bits of me reaching out. It’s like being remembered.” He paused, leaning against her and her body was solid and warm against him. “You’ll remember me, won’t you April?” For more than tantrum, he wanted to add but couldn’t. For more than sickness and selfishness and shrieking at you for things that were never your fault.

“Of course I’ll remember you. I’ll remember all the bits of you that I know, which are different from all the bits Mum knows and all the bits Dad knows. We’ll all remember you together.”

“But that won’t last forever,” said August. “One day you’ll die too and there’ll be no-one to remember me. Nowhere for the ripples to go.”

April rolled her eyes. “They’ll go,” she said, taking another biscuit from the tin and shoving it gently into his mouth to shut him up. “Of course they will.”

His mouth still tasted of ginger when the ravens came, when they flew him over oceans and deposited him on the deck of another ship, this time the Ancon, caught this time in lake waters instead of shoals, and in no danger of sinking. “This is the first official trip through the Panama Canal,” Muninn had told him, and August had leaned against the railings as the ship was lifted through locks, as it floated between steep banks of rainforest.

“It’s hard to think of it ending soon,” he said. “That the me that stood on this ship and saw the birds and smelled the trees and the water will be gone.” That this would be the last of him, nearly, the ending days of August.

“There will be other Augusts,” said Muninn. “Other months, other boys. You are not the last.” Other journeys, other sailings. Other boats laden down with cargo and sent from safe harbour.

“But none of them will be me,” said August. He hesitated. “April… April says that we go on in other ways. Particles and waves and so on. I didn’t really understand.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Not really. I mean, I understand what she’s saying in my head. But I’ve been trying hard to feel it Muninn, really feel it, and I can’t.”

“You can,” said Muninn. “I have your memories, remember. You understand more than you think. Your sister knows that you do. It’s why she told you.”

“Oh, let’s not pretend she’s not cleverer than I am,” said August. He had two weeks left–two weeks and two days and there was no time left for lies. It didn’t even bother him anymore that April was cleverer than he was, that she would survive when he did not. It had bothered him before, bothered him badly, and he had hurt her for it. But now… after exile and extinction, after shoals and snow petrels and reaching out in his sinking he couldn’t feel bad that she would live, that she would take herself out into the world and make it better thereby.

“Then let us not pretend that her abilities take away from yours,” said Muninn. “You are capable of encompassing continuum, August. And if it is something that you need to see as well as think, then I can give you the looking of it. Hold to the railing, now–and don’t let go, no matter what you see.” Or what he didn’t see, as he clutched at the bars as he had clutched at those on the Arapahoe, this time for expectation instead of expulsion. For the bars began to fade–August could still feel them solid in his palms, his fingers curled around them–solid as the deck was solid beneath him, and also disappearing, becoming a faint, wavering stain against the landscape, against the water that was Canal and lake at once and it was as if he were standing in an invisibility more thorough than that he had experienced thus far with ravens. But it wasn’t only the ship that disappeared, for the lake itself began to run backwards, to shrivel into small channels and then into a wooded valley with a river running through, too small to carry the Ancon even though he felt it silent beneath him, still smooth-sailing through another time.

“Do you see it, August?” said Muninn, perched on invisible railings beside him and her iron feathers brushing his fingers, her iron claws curled around a bar he felt but could not see. “Do you see what is happening this August, what is happening every August for years until the dam is made, until the lake is built? Both man-made, and they were the largest in the world for their time. Do you see the people bringing the earth and rock and clay to make the walls, to hold the dam in place against the water to come?”

“I see them! There’s so many of them, Muninn. They must have thought they’d never finish.”

“Do you see the dam done, and the land behind it filling with water?”

“Yes,” said August, for beneath his feet the water was rising up in the valley, pooling and shrinking the land, transforming hills to islands, making the lake wide enough and deep enough for shipping, and the Ancon came back to life underneath him and then faded again and the Canal was full of ships, ships laden down with containers and cargo, easing past them as if the Ancon was a ghost in the water, and absent.

“There,” said Muninn, as the landscape flickered and changed about them, faster and faster until it seemed a slide show, moving around August as if in circles until the spinning halted. “Do you see that? That island there, the Barro Colorado? The one with all the buildings on it?”

“I see it,” said August again, and saw as well Huginn launching from the pale shadow of ship beside him and into the air, circling the buildings and spying this time for more than fish. “What is it, Muninn? Is it a holiday park?”

“I did not bring you to see holiday parks,” the raven replied. “That is a reserve, a biological research station, come to study tropical ecology after the Canal was completed. Biologists began to come here in the twenties, and they have come ever since, to study plants and insects, birds and anteaters and monkeys, come to study all the life of the rainforest that the Canal opened up for them. They would not be here if not for the building you saw, the hauling of all that rock and spoil. That is the Canal, August. Not just the sailing, but the building of it and how that building stretched into the past. Not just the sailing, but the science of life here along its banks, and how that life continues to be explored long after the builders are gone. Long after this boat has gone. That is continuation. That is change and influence and consequence gone further into the future than you ever imagined.”

Slowly then, the first boat, the boat that would be decommissioned long before August’s death, long before the end of the Canal, came back into focus and August saw as well as felt it under his hands, under his feet and all around him, the railings and the chimney and the flags.

“That’s the Canal,” he said. The images around him stopped: the whirling kaleidoscope of engineering and biology and he was as he had been, a small boy on a steamship, part of history but not pinned to it and no longer feeling as if he should be pinning down.

“I wish you could see it,” said Muninn. “How it all rolls on and on until today, a bright and endless ripple.”

“I do see it,” said August, smiling. There was wind in his face and the Canal smelled of water and wood and oil all together.

“You see part of it.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Jane Goodall meet a chimpanzee!

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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