The August Birds: 18 August, 1868

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 18, 1868

GUNTUR, INDIA

“I know,” August said. “I know! You don’t have to keep reminding me. We went over this with Ruby, if you remember.” He glanced at Muninn, saw the steady clockwork of her eyes, the ticking over of time all encompassed within. “What am I saying? Of course you remember.”

“Humour me.”

August sighed. “Total eclipse of the sun. Don’t look at it, you’ll burn your eyes out. I know, Muninn. I won’t look. I don’t want to be blind; there’s enough wrong with me already.”

“I want to be sure that you are certain of it,” said the raven. “There is an eclipse today, and another tomorrow. I would not have you damaged further.”

“I’m fine,” said August. “I’ll be fine. You’ve got my memories, you know I remember. So stop fussing, will you? You’re worse than Mum. Though you could have told me. If I’d have known we were going eclipsing, I would’ve made a camera. One of those pinhole ones. It wouldn’t have been hard, I’d only need cardboard.”

“I did not bring you here for eclipses, August. I wanted you to see something else. Look over there: it’s with Huginn, and with Pierre.”

August had to shift to see it, for Huginn was blocking his view, dancing about the instrument and forcing his face up close to it, staring into one end as if gazing at a mirror. “What is it?” he said.

“It is a spectroscope. Its purpose is to study the properties of light. When light passes through a prism it gives a spectrum, and the spectral lines shown by the scope are characteristic of elements. That is why Pierre has brought his spectroscope: he wishes to study the chromosphere of the sun, the solar prominences that burst from the surface and are more easily seen in eclipses. He hopes it will tell him something of the elements within the sun.”

“Does it?”

“Yes. He will see a yellow line that he cannot explain. It will not match up with what he expects to find. Instead, it reflects a wholly new discovery, a whole new element. Pierre is about to discover helium, August.”

“Helium? Isn’t that the gas they put in balloons?” He had balloons at his birthday parties, and some of them were filled with gas that made them float high and gave his Dad a squeaky voice. He liked balloons.

“I know you do,” said Muninn, and her voice was smug, as if there were secrets in it, and promises. “And yes, it is.” And that was all she had time to say, for the sky began to darken then and she hovered by his shoulder, her iron wings open in case he did something foolish and she had to cover his eyes. Instead, August focused on the spectroscope and on the ground, on the little blades of grass before him. He focused on the little plants as if he were Charles, and the sky became darker and darker until he couldn’t see them at all, until the birds that were not ravens stopped singing and the only thing he could hear was his own breathing, and Pierre’s.

“You’ll have to be quick,” Muninn warned him, and when Pierre moved a little away from the spectroscope, from the telescope it was attached to (he bent down suddenly, cursing, as if something iron, something he couldn’t see, had pecked hard at his ankle) August pressed his eye to the scope. “Do you see the yellow line?” she said, as Huginn flapped up from the ground and shoved at August until he could stare into the scope with his own iron eyes.

“I do,” said August. “At least, I did.” It had seemed such a simple thing in daylight: put together to dissect suns and make barcodes out of light. “It’s amazing, Muninn,” he said, and wonder was all through him. “It’s so little, and it does so much.”

“Like you,” said the raven, and August laughed in disbelief.

“I can’t do that!”

“But you are also a kind of spectroscope,” said Muninn–as if his fingers were glass, as if his palms were made of prisms.

“For the sun?” said August. “I don’t think so.” The sun did leaves lines on his flesh–shadows, and burns that turned his skin pink and left the marks of tanning on him–but there was nothing fundamental about those lines, no indication writ upon his flesh of helium, or of hydrogen or any of the heavier elements.

“It is not the sun shining through you,” Muninn replied. “It is death.” And August was quiet, because that he understood. The lines left by death were familiar to him, the lines on his body where bone showed under skin; the perfect half-circles under his eyes, delimiting in dark smudges the planes of his face. The tendons on the back of his hands, the way that all those lines together made new lines on the things that touched him. The medicine so carefully measured, sometimes in little cups and sometimes in bags of fluid to be hooked up to his body and pumped through, the needles sharp and straight against his skin. The pulses on the machines about his bed, the way that they measured differently the different parts of him.

They had been talking through darkness and a strange sort of twilight. Then suddenly there was colour in the world again, only greys and blues at first and then more and more as the light came back and the eeriness passed and August could look up and Muninn’s wings were folded.

“What are you reading off me, then?” he asked, as if those lines were letters carved into him as death radiated through, as if those letters were scratched onto him and able to be interpreted: a child’s book of hours where all the hours were running out. “That’s what he’s doing, isn’t he? The lines on his spectroscope show him what elements are in the sun. I already know what elements are in me: carbon, mostly, with some other bits. Calcium for bones, and there’s iron in my blood.” But Muninn didn’t need to be told this–she already knew what was in him, what was in everyone. She remembered those parts of them without telling. “You must be looking for something else.”

“It’s not me doing the looking,” the raven replied. “It’s you. And your doctors, and your family. Everyone who knows you can see the end coming through you. It’s written all over your face if it’s written nowhere else.”

“My face.”

“As if it were glass,” said Muninn. “A perfect polished surface. You refract, August, even without meaning to. The entire spectrum shines through you. Can you not see it?”

“I don’t look in mirrors anymore,” said August. He knew what he looked like, knew what sickness had done to him. And even if there hadn’t been mirrors, like the one that had hung above the fish tank until he had asked for its removal, he would have known because other people had prisms too. He could see in their faces what he looked like. He could see that they knew what was coming.

He didn’t need a mirror when he had other people.

“And they don’t need one either, not when they have you,” said Muninn.

“They have them anyway,” said August. He was the only person he knew who did without mirrors. April had one in her room. So did his parents. And there was a doctor, one of his favourites, who had long black hair all twisted up in a complicated style that she couldn’t have achieved without a looking glass. Another whose eye-liner was never smudged, another with a moustache he trimmed into strange shapes sometimes to make the kids on the children’s ward laugh. He wondered if there were another reason–if they finished up their days and went to look at themselves when they were done, went to check their own prismatic faces to see something shining through that wasn’t death, not yet, for all it left lines on them.

“If you can see their lines you can see what yours are not,” said Muninn, “and know yourself thereby. What do their lines tell you?”

“That they’re alive,” said August, and his voice was sad and heavy at once, and when he looked down the lines in his forearms, in his hands, were stark: lines of bones and tendons and shrinking. “And that I won’t be. Not for much longer.” He looked up at the raven then, the one that stood by him when the other was with Pierre, looking for lines of another kind, the thin yellow strip that said helium, that said not-August. The raven was dark, a prism all clouded before him and though the feathers were thin and filamented lines August could see no colours there, could wrest no meaning from them. He wondered if she ever saw her own face, the black iron lines of it. “What is it that you see, Muninn?”

“I see a spectrum,” said the bird. “And I see that it is familiar.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Mendeleev make a hash out of ballooning!

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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