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 23, 1966
ROBLEDO DE CHAVELA, SPAIN
August had had a bad night. There had been alarms and hurried footsteps and oxygen, and all his family beside his bed and waiting. Not that he had known, for there had also been pain, and the amount of medicine necessary to blunt that pain had dulled his senses and sent him dreams of stillness and shallows that had been hard to wake from.
“There you are,” said April, when he opened his eyes late in the morning, and if his were sticky from sleep hers had dark circles around them, and the lashes were wet. “Were you just going to sleep the day away? You always were the lazy one…”
“April,” said August. Everything was fuzzy, and too bright, and he could understand that she was teasing him but he could not understand why. The knowledge hovered before him and out of reach. “Birds,” he said. “I’m so sleepy, April. Tell the birds…”
“He’s only half-awake,” he heard, and it was another voice–it sounded like Mum, but his eyes were too heavy to open. “He must be dreaming.”
August shook his head on the pillow. His tongue was too big in his mouth, and dry. He tried to speak, tried to tell them he wasn’t dreaming, that the ravens were coming for him, but he couldn’t force his mouth to make the words. And then April was there with him, closer than before, and he felt her lips brush his ear and her hands squeezing his. “It’s alright, August,” she said. “I’ll tell them. Don’t worry about your birds. I’ll tell them.”
“She did tell us,” said Muninn, late that night when August had woken for the second time. He felt thin all through, as though he were made of nothing but clear water, and there was a distant aching in his bones like icebergs, but he was awake again, and properly.
“I didn’t think she could see you,” he said. “I didn’t think that anyone could.” He had liked it that way too, liked that he had a secret. There had been so few secrets for him. He had been prodded and measured and counselled by a procession of kind, white-coated people until his body was a book for them, a book with a cracked spine that fell open for easy reading.
The ravens had been his secret, and he tried not to feel a pang that they were now April’s secret as well. If he had to share them with anyone, he would have picked her.
“She can’t see us,” said Muninn. “But she is a clever girl, your sister, and kind. She took bread out into the garden, and little balls of peanut butter rolled up in seeds, and lured the birds for feeding, the little winter birds who remained, and as they came for the bread she told them all that you were sleeping and they could not see you today.”
“You ignored her,” said August, smiling. His lips stung when he did, the tiny cracks and fissures in the flesh that chap-stick did not fully cover, but they were cracks that came from flying on the raven’s back, flying with the old, cold wind of dry centuries, and he would not have missed them for the world.
“Of course I did,” said Muninn primly, folding her wings about her. “I come as I please, and no little girl, no matter how clever, can keep me out if I don’t want to be kept.”
Huginn croaked a disapproving sound. He was perched on the end of August’s bed, as Muninn was perched on August’s pillow, and his feathers were all ruffled up with the force of his disdain.
“He looks annoyed,” said August, and at the end of the bed Huginn turned his face away and began to preen.
“He is very fond of your sister,” said Muninn. “He thinks I have been over-rude to her. He would have liked to know her better.”
“He wants her instead of me,” said August, and though he was not surprised he did feel hurt.
“I want you,” said Muninn. “And that is all that matters.”
“Can’t have me,” said August, feeling sorry for himself, feeling second-best and broken down. But Huginn eyed him from the end of the bed and there was no pity in his gaze–and no pleasure either.
“I wanted to come with you today,” he said.
“I know,” said Muninn. “But you can’t. You are too weak.”
“I’ll feel better tomorrow,” said August. He knew that he was pleading and was not sorry. He was too close to death now to worry about such a little thing as shame. “I’ll come with you tomorrow. Please. Don’t leave without me.”
“I will not leave you,” said Muninn, and at the foot of the bed Huginn nodded his whole body once, and roughly. It wasn’t exactly delight, but it was acquiescence and August knew it.
“Would you like to know where you could have gone today?” said Muninn, and when August nodded, still sleepy and still curious, Huginn hopped up the bed, hopped up in his brisk raven scamper and ran up August’s legs and his chest and buried his beak, the beak that smelled of iron and bread, right in the centre of August’s forehead.
It was as if he had been plunged without warning into water, but this water was not warmer than August, and nor was it colder. It had the same heat as his blood, and were it not for the slipperiness and the faint feeling of compression he might not have recognised it as kin to liquid. It pulsed around him, little flickers of light and shadow that shuddered through him like language. August felt it down to his fingertips, but those fingertips weren’t human anymore, at least not completely. There was human bone, a skeletal structure that on the edge of his vision was overlaid with iron feathers and instruments, with camera lenses and radio waves and on his thumbnail was stamped Lunar Orbiter 1.
There were shutter-clicks in those bones, and chemicals he recognised by scent with nostrils that weren’t his own. There was a dim and dusty focus, a cold pale ground and an empty one–and a sudden jerk, a last-minute manipulation, and the bone-iron-camera that was August turned away from potential landing sites and shutter-clicked across void. Then the chemical scent again, and the finished photograph, and the information split up into little pieces and fragmented, and August felt each pulse, each wave of information as if they were his own body, cut up and scattered across distance but bound to each other even so. Those pieces travelled a long time, and August felt it so and did not feel it, with Huginn’s beak in his brain and the transmission unaware of its length, of the space it crossed. And then the little pieces were caught and connected again, in a tracking station out of Madrid, and the men in that station saw for the first time a picture of the Earth, taken from the moon and whole, if shadowed into crescent. And then the pieces that August had seen were as nothing for the light that burst out of that tracking station went fore and aft. It covered the earth and went violet-tinged into the future, tiny connections and turnings and change coming together in conglomerate, with the photograph as instigator and consequence both and Madrid at the centre, shining beneath him like the moon on a still night lit up against the backdrop of the universe.
Then there was a quick hard jerk and August was free again, his forehead unmarked, and Huginn was stumping back across the blankets and down to the bottom of the bed, his metal eyes whirling and his wings half-spread as if he were flying. As if he wished to fly, in great, predatory circles, hunting out waves and transmission and presence, hunting out the knowledge-change that came with them.
“What…” he said, shaking his head to try and clear the buzzing behind his eyes, the thin-stranded multi-vision of Huginn dipped briefly into his mind and taken back again. “What was that?”
“Not the Blue Marble,” said Muninn. “And not Earthrise. Those pictures would come later. Instead the first picture of Earth as a planet, the first picture not in parts.”
“It’s beautiful,” said August, and he wasn’t sure if he was speaking more of the planet or of the picture, broken down in Huginn’s iron mind to information and spread across systems, perfect and pure and absolutely, utterly inhuman.
“Of course it is,” said Muninn. “Distance is always beautiful.”
“I never imagined,” said August, and to his surprise his eyes overflowed with tears, warm as blood and wet against his skin. At the end of the bed Huginn croaked again, and if it was not a completely friendly sound it was sympathetic, almost.
“Some of the most wonderful things we see and learn we do not see and learn first-hand,” said Muninn. “Will you remember that, August, in case the opportunity comes again?”
“I will,” said August.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Pompeii, on the anniversary of its destruction!
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