The August Birds: 19 August, 1887

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 19, 1887

KLIN, RUSSIA

August was propped up in bed, playing Go Fish with his Dad when the ravens came. He froze for a moment, unable to make the bridge between them, to contain them both in the colliding hemispheres of his life, but when it became clear that their appearance was confined only to him he relaxed and let them watch.

“I just wanted to say,” said Dad, picking up another card, “that I was proud of you. For making up with your sister.”

August would have liked to have left it at that. It gave him a warm feeling inside and he didn’t feel that often. Oh, his parents told him they were proud of him a lot, but August knew, deep down, that he had never done much to be proud of. Mostly when people told him they were proud of him it was after something nasty had happened–another needle, another operation, another painful, boring, or embarrassing test, and they were so proud of how well he’d put up with it. The thing was, they told him that even if he didn’t put up with it well at all–he remembered when he was younger, crying and screaming at the needles while his Mum hugged him, and when it was over they’d still said they were proud at how well he’d done, how brave he’d been. So when Dad told him that he was proud of him for something else entirely, August would have liked to have taken the credit and warm feelings and hugged them all to himself, but the ravens were perched on the end of his bed, Muninn with her honesty and Huginn with his determination to think the worst of August always, the irritation and the badly veiled contempt, and he couldn’t stay silent while they were watching.

“It wasn’t exactly making up,” said August. Making up said to him that the two of them had been to blame, squabbling about sharing toys or space or attention, and the truth was that the fault had been entirely one-sided. “It was more me saying I was sorry.” He clutched his cards a little harder, refused to look up from them. “It was all my fault, Dad. Not April.”

“Yeah,” said Dad. “I know.”

August looked up in surprise. “You never said anything.”

“You’re going to be ten soon, you’re not a little kid anymore. Your Mum and I thought you’d figure it out for yourself.”

“And if I hadn’t?”

“I would have said something, had it gone on much longer.” His Dad put down his cards, rubbed one hand through messy hair. He opened his mouth and shut it again, and sighed.

“It’s alright,” said August, quietly. “You can say it. Whatever it is. Like you said, I’m not a little kid anymore.”

Dad smiled at him then, the kind of smile Mum had when she was trying not to cry. August hated that smile, but he knew he would have hated the crying more. At the end of the bed, Huginn shifted from one foot to the other and shook out his wings.

“You’re my boy,” said Dad. “You always will be. My child. But you’re not the only one. And as much as I’d like to let you have things all your own way right now, I’ve got April to think about as well. I won’t let her go the rest of her life thinking her brother hated her. That her brother… that he died hating her. I’m glad you apologised, August. I’m glad you made up. Because if you hadn’t, I would’ve made you.”

“How?” said August. He was genuinely curious. It wasn’t like grounding him would have made a difference, or taking away his toys. He was already losing far more than telescopes and fish bowls, and against that their loss would have been a bare thing, and trivial.

“You know kiddo, I think I would have had to guilt you into it,” said Dad. “I’d never forgive myself, but I would have done it.”

“Even if it made me sad?” said August, testing, though he did not know for what.

“You wouldn’t have been sad for long,” said Dad, and his face crumpled for the briefest moment and then smoothed again, a control over expression born out of pain and long practice. “April would have been sad for much, much longer. I don’t expect you to understand, but–”

August reached out then, placed his thin little hand over his Dad’s big brown one and squeezed as hard as he could. It wasn’t very hard, but it was enough. “I get it,” he said. “I do. It’s alright. And you didn’t have to do it.”

“No,” said Dad. “You did. Like a man, all grown up. I was so proud,” he said again. “So proud.”

“Anyone would have done it,” said August, muttering it under his breath almost and too embarrassed, too pleased, to do more than glance up at his father, at the ravens. Muninn was watching him, and her eyes were kind.

“Pull the other one,” said his Dad, throwing down his cards. “Your Mum and me have been lucky. Two good kids. It’s not always that way. Having children is such a crapshoot, August.” He caught himself then, gave a conspiratorial, guilty smile. “Don’t tell your mother. Fucking swear jar.” August giggled, and his Dad continued. “You never know how they’re going to be, or what you’re supposed to do with them. We make it up as we go along, and hope we don’t screw it up. Hope we don’t screw you up. Sometimes I look at you and your sister and I think, well, we jumped off a bridge with you kids, and it turned out alright. You turned out alright.”

“Jumped off a bridge,” said August. “Really?”

“Like an adventure,” said Dad. “Just, you know, with teething and screaming and shit.”

#

After he was kissed goodnight, the ravens flew August into darkness, into a day dimmed by another eclipse and then lit up again as the Earth and the moon and the sun moved beyond each other’s lines. Yet for the first time they did not land, and August experienced the eclipse from Muninn’s back, high above the surface of the Earth. He was not afraid of falling, even though the air was damp and cold and the iron feathers wet under his fingers. Muninn never let him fall, and the air was crisp and thin and made him dizzy, a little, and that led to giddiness and to lack of worry.

“There is no need to land today,” said Muninn. “I have brought you up for observation, and you are not the only observer.” She wheeled around, August clutching at her back and his legs hanging down, and before them was a balloon without a ceiling above it. In the balloon was a man with a worried expression on his face, who did not see them in the air before him, who did not see Huginn perched on the side of the basket.

“It doesn’t seem like a very nice day for ballooning,” said August, and his teeth chattered with little clinks like ice.

“The eclipse was today, so he couldn’t wait for a better one,” said Muninn. “He did get a very good view, though.”

“Then why’s he so upset?” The man was talking to himself in a language that August couldn’t understand, but he had the same expression on his face that Mum did when she was trying to hang curtains and August was fairly sure that he was swearing.

Dmitri is not a balloonist. He is more concerned with elements and tables, with chemicals and vodka. He has never been in a balloon before, and he does not know how to operate it.”

“What’s he doing up here if he doesn’t know how to get down?” said August, horrified.

“I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Muninn replied. “There was meant to be another man with him, but the balloon wasn’t taking off so Dmitri started getting rid of weight. Suitcase, sand, stool… out it all went, along with the pilot.”

August couldn’t help it: he burst into giggles. It just seemed so ridiculous, and the more he considered his position the more ridiculous it was. High and invisible on an iron bird, his hair wet with drizzle and his fingers cramping with cold and the light new come back from darkness and then haze–and before him, a bearded man in riding boots, balanced on the slippery edge of a balloon cabin and tugging ropes at random.

“I’m so glad you find it entertaining,” said Muninn.

“Don’t you?” said August, still giggling and dizzy at heights.

“I have only Dmitri’s memories of this event,” said Muninn. “They are not particularly amusing ones.”

“Mine are,” said August, and he felt the iron body beneath him inflate briefly, as if the raven were silently huffing at him, and then his experiences became her own as memory went from one into the other, from source to certainty and recording.

“He does look silly, I suppose,” said Muninn. “You are very good at silly.”

“Come on,” said August. “I’d never go flying without a pilot.”

“Please. That’s all you do,” said Muninn. “All of you, every day. Didn’t you listen to your father? You launch yourselves out into the world and there is no plan for you, no place you know for landing, and you have no idea how to get yourselves down. You make it up as you go along, and sometimes the balloon crashes and sometimes it doesn’t and it’s mostly down to luck either way, but you scramble into it every time, just floating through your lives and pulling on ropes to see what happens, to see what you can make yourselves do.”

“Don’t you?” said August.

“I used to,” said Muninn, and her wings beat hard beneath him. “When I was younger.”

“Maybe it’s time to start doing it again,” said August.

“I have been trying,” said Muninn.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the launch of Voyager 2!

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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