The August Birds: 21 August, 1609

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 21, 1609


The ravens had brought him to a tower, high above the city, and August was just tall enough to look down out of the windows, to see the dome of the Basilica beneath him, the Square of St. Mark, and the lagoon with all the little islands.

“Muninn,” he said. “Look at the boats! There’s so many of them…”

“I see them,” said Muninn. “They are batellas and galleys and gondolas; a way to travel for those without wings.”

“Are we here to ride them?” said August, and Muninn shook her feathered head.

“No,” she said. She was perched on the ledge of the window he looked out from, and Huginn was on the other side, sleepy in the sun and with his head tucked under a wing. “I have brought you here to see them, and to see other things so doing.”

“I could see them better close up,” said August. “We are very high, here.” But the bell tower was solid around him, and he was not afraid of falling.

“You will get a better look soon enough,” said Muninn. “Galileo is about to be here, and he is bringing his telescope with him to show to the leaders of Venice. He will show them many things.”

“Are they going to see a comet too?” said August.

“No,” said Muninn. “He did not bring them here for comets, nor did I bring you to see them, or even to see the telescope. You have seen those before. I have brought you here to see what comes with him.”

And August turned to see a procession of men come up the stairs, led by the Doge of Venice and by Galileo. And Galileo drew the men towards the open windows, where they could look down over the city as August had looked down, and it was there that he set up his telescope.

“It’s a lot smaller than Caroline’s,” said August. Galileo’s telescope was made of tin, and the outside of it was decorated with red satin. Huginn had come awake again and hopped towards the group, rubbing his big blunt head up against the shiny material as if he were a cat, almost. Then he flew onto Galileo’s shoulder and perched there, nipping gently at his ear.

“How does he not notice?” said August, trying not to giggle. “Doesn’t he feel him sitting there?”

“Thought is a weighty thing,” said Muninn. “A weight that Galileo is used to. He has carried it all his life, carried it longer and heavier than most, and he has not yet felt the burden of it.”

August watched as Galileo displayed the telescope to the Doge and his companions, watched as they each put their eye to one end of the scope and marvelled. They saw ships out off the Venetian coast before their eyes could see them unaided. They saw people coming in and out of a church on a nearby island, and passengers getting out of gondolas along the Grand Canal. August saw them too, when he was able to sneak between the bodies and put his own eye to the glass, to see the tiny oars and the little prows. Huginn flapped his wings at him when he lingered, and made as if to run down Galileo’s arm and give August his own peck about the ear, if a peck that was less gentle and more censorious.

“They seem happy with it,” said August, retreating to a safe distance and back beside Muninn, watching the telescope again ringed round with Venetians.

“The Senate rewarded Galileo for his work, and for his instrument,” said Muninn. “They thought it would be useful. They did not think that he would ever use it for more than ships.”

“He did though, didn’t he,” said August.

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“Of course he did! April’s telescope, the one she lets me borrow… I use that for more than stars. You can’t see them during the day, and sometimes I get bored.”

“I know you’ve looked through your neighbour’s window,” said Muninn, and August blushed.

“I wasn’t trying to be rude,” he said, “or see anything bad. But she was making biscuits, the yummy ones she brings over sometimes, and she won’t tell me how they’re made. She says it’s a secret. I thought if I could watch her make them I’d know.”

“She wouldn’t like you looking at things you’re not supposed to,” said Muninn.

“I wouldn’t have told her I looked,” said August. “She could still have had her secret, if I kept mine.”

“If you kept it,” said Muninn. “Some people do not keep secrets well. They find things out and share them with the whole world. That is what Galileo did, when he pointed his telescope at the sky and saw things other people said he wasn’t supposed to.”

“I know,” said August. “They put him on trial, didn’t they? And made him say he was wrong even though he knew he was right.”

“These are the bargains we make,” said Muninn, who remembered the judges and the bowed head and the renunciation, who remembered the showing of the instruments, the threats of torture and death. “If he hadn’t they might have burned him alive,” she said, and August, who remembered burning, shuddered even though the day was warm and the bell tower open to little breezes. “Instead he died under house arrest–but that gave him some time longer in which to study and to learn. He was not so very unhappy, when he could forget the support he could not say, forget the bargain that he did.”

“It’s still not fair,” said August, seeing how excited Galileo was, how he worked and hopped about, how happy he was to show and to share what he had learned, and how that would soon enough be over. “It’s not fair.”

“But that is life,” said Muninn. “The consequences of what you see here today are inevitable. Even if Galileo had never used his telescope to look at the stars, others would have. And they would have seen in his place that the face of the moon is not perfect, that the morning star is sometimes crescent, and that Jupiter has moons. Once the instrument was created, it would never not be used.”

“You’re saying there was no escape for him,” said August. “That he was going to be tried no matter what. That he was always going to lose.”

“Is that not the human function?” said Muninn. “To address the inevitable? Once an action is taken, or an event occurs, there are always consequences. Look at you, August. You were born, and you are going to die. It is your own inevitability.”

“It’s not the same thing,” said August.

“Is it not?” said Muninn. “I thought, once, that all the world would end in Judgement, as Galileo was judged, if more fairly. Of course, I was very young at the time.”

August was surprised at that. “Were you ever young, Muninn?” he said. “Really young, like me?”

“Oh yes,” said Muninn. “Oh, yes. And I grew older, and then older still, and I learned stories about more than judgement. One of those was about the world ending, again, in a great battle between gods and giants and men.”

“Who won?” said August.

“Nobody won,” Muninn replied. “Nobody ever does. It was a wolf age, that story, and one of darkness and drowning. But it was inevitable in its ending, a certain coming that could not be gainsayed.”

“How did they know?” said August, sceptical. “How did they know it couldn’t be stopped if they tried?”

“A prophet told them,” said Muninn. “A wise woman, a völva. In that story she could see ahead, as Galileo will learn to see ahead in his.”

“I don’t understand,” said August.

“Look at him,” said Muninn, and August turned again to see Galileo at his telescope, at his demonstrations. “When Galileo looks through that telescope now, he can see ships and sailors and churchgoers. Soon he will see stars, and the surface of the moon. One day, not so very far from now, he will stand before another group of churchgoers who have come to judge of him, and he will see in his telescope another starry messenger: his future and his death.”

“But he doesn’t die,” said August. “They don’t kill him.”

“Of course he dies,” said Muninn. “He stands still for a little while, that’s all. He doesn’t escape his death. Still it moves, still it comes towards him. It is an inevitable as consequence or Ragnarök.”

“So there was no point for him,” said August. “For anyone, is that what you’re saying? That you can’t do anything to fight it.”

“Of course you can try to fight it,” said Muninn. “You are fighting now, aren’t you? Through all the days of August.”

“And you’re saying that’s not enough,” said August. It was not a question.

“No,” said Muninn. “I’m saying to take your victories where you can.”


Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the discovery of Turkana Boy!

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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