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 16, 1960
GOMBE STREAM NATIONAL PARK, TANZANIA
Muninn glanced at August, her head cocked to one side. “Must you be so restless, child?” she said. “Surely it cannot be that difficult for you to sit still? You are sickly, after all. I would have thought such squirming beyond you.”
“I’d be fine if it weren’t for these insects,” said August, slapping at himself. His pyjamas kept the worst of them off, but the material was thick and fleecy and meant for the New Zealand winter, not a warm summer in the open air, and he was sweating through it, a magnet for bugs. “It’s alright for you. They’re not interested in iron.”
“Leave the poor things be,” said Muninn. “They’re not hurting you. Look at Jane. Does she seem so bothered?”
August peered around the bird. “She looks as sick as I feel,” he said. Jane was sitting beside them, her blonde hair pulled back into a pony-tail, and her face was wet with sweat. She was indeed sitting quietly next to her companion, August noted with some disgust, and neither of them were over-concerned with insects. But there was a vagueness in her eyes that he recognised well enough–he was used to feeling dizzy and weak and a little strange himself, used to the haze of dim reality, the way the world looked slant through sickness and almost familiar.
She had been lying down when Huginn and Muninn brought him into the little clearing, a high point streaked about with ravines that August had seen from above, and wooded. Huginn had landed right down by her face, his iron wings working to make a breeze over her and she had shifted then, raising herself up to sitting and wiping the sweat from her eyes.
“She should be in bed,” said August critically, and it gave him some satisfaction to say about someone else what he had so often heard about himself. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She has a disease called malaria,” said Muninn. “Coming down with it, anyway. She will feel a great deal worse in the days to come, I assure you, but she will be alright.”
“Why did she come all the way up here if she isn’t feeling well?” said August, who had seen the climb from his perch on Muninn’s back, who had been grateful that it was not his to make.
“Why did you?” said Muninn. “If sickness so concerns you, I can always take you home.”
“That’s alright, thank you,” said August, hurriedly. “I expect she didn’t want to stay in bed if she didn’t really have to.”
“A shocking concept,” said Muninn, and her voice was very, very dry. August suspected that she was making fun of him, but the thought didn’t bother him as it would have in the week gone past, where he had taken all attempts at humour as mockery, and cruel. He stuck his tongue out at her, and then again at Huginn for good measure, but the other bird ignored him. He was looking at the open ground ahead of them, a clearing in the trees and the woodlands, and Jane was looking with him, in the same direction and waiting.
“What are we going to see?” said August, and Muninn sighed.
“It’s a good thing no-one here can hear you,” she said. “You would have given your position away long ago, and he would have gone around before we could see him.”
“Who?” said August, but before he could ask anything more there was the steady sound of footprints, of a large animal approaching, and out of the trees, only a few metres away, appeared a chimpanzee. His fur was shining and very black, as black as raven wings, and he had a white beard. August and Jane and the ravens were close enough to see his expression, and it was a mirror of their own, of surprise at strange creatures and chance meetings. The chimp stilled, staring, turned his head to one side and then to the other, craning as August craned for a better view, for curiosity and connection.
“Will he come any closer, do you think?” said August, holding out his hand and forgetting, for the moment, that the chimp could not see him, that it could only see Jane and her companion.
“He is not a dog, August,” said Muninn, and August dropped his hand back to his side, sheepish. “You will note that he is cautious in his curiosity.”
“We wouldn’t hurt him,” said August.
“He doesn’t know that,” said Muninn. “And more salient is the possibility that he would hurt you. Hurt Jane, rather, or her companion. A chimpanzee is far stronger than you are, August.”
And the chimp was moving then, as if in illustration of a caution other than their own, moving out of his path and into the undergrowth. August sighed, disappointed, but the sound of the chimp moving through the vegetation did not fade away and August turned about in concert with Jane and the ravens, as the other animal made his way around and below them, rejoining the path he would have taken had the clearing been empty and he’d been able to walk through without hindrance.
“I can still hear him,” said August, pushing himself up on bony knees so that he could see better. “I wish I could see him.” He tried to catch Muninn’s eye, but the bird was very deliberately staring at the ground so that he could get no clue from her, and Huginn was standing beside Jane and crowing to himself as if he were laughing.
“Look!” cried Jane. “There he is, up there!” And August saw her expression alight with more than fever, followed her arm as she pointed and saw the chimpanzee again, and above them. He had climbed a tree to look down upon them, climbed for a better look, for curiosity and cleverness.
“He’s spying on us!” said August, delighted.
“How else is he to know you?” said Muninn. “Sometimes one can only learn by taking on a different perspective, by looking from a different angle. That chimpanzee can see more and differently from the tree than the ground. It was a sensible decision, the act of a thinking creature. If only all apes would be so thoughtful.”
August screwed up his face. “All apes,” he said. “Do you mean me, Muninn?”
“You are an ape, are you not?” said Muninn.
“I suppose,” said August. He hesitated, and in his hesitation was the remembrance of Neanderthal graves and telescopes, of reefs and radios. “Is that what you’re trying to do with me?” he said. “Trying to make me see differently, to make me look differently? Is that why I’m here?”
“That is why Jane is here,” said Muninn. “To learn to see the chimpanzees in a different way. She was not the only one. Dian went to the gorillas, and Birute to the orang-utans.” She settled her wings on her back, watched Huginn take off to fly back and between the woman and the ape, crowing as he flew, circling each in turn. “This was one of the early days, when they began to study each other. To see the new things in their world and begin to understand them, to see the way that other creatures lived.”
“It must have been so strange,” said August, who had lived a double life himself, who had gone from his own kind and his own home and into the homes of others, who had seen discovery and war and failure in those others and seen them again in himself. Who watched Jane, the sweat and fever and sickness in her face and the wonder painted over all until the sickness was only secondary.
“There were points of familiarity,” said Muninn. “In a different context, but they were there. Tool use, carnivorism, aggression. The ways that families came together, the ways that they came apart.” She paused, and did not look at him. “Sometimes it is not so easy to see in others what we think of as belonging to ourselves,” she said.
“No,” said August, who had tools and hurt and sickness to spare and had shared them, who had made others share them. “I guess not.”
“Still, as a way to learn I highly recommend it,” said the bird. “I think sometimes I have learned as much from apes as Jane did.”
“Thanks,” said August, dryly. “I think.”
“Muninn?” said August.
“I don’t think you really answered my question. You know, about why I’m here.”
“Did I not?” said Muninn. “Perhaps that is a question you are meant to answer for yourself.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Charles Darwin search for evidence of earthquakes in Chile!
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