The August Birds: 24 August, 20–

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 24, 20–

POMPEII, ITALY

“Do you know where we are, August?” said Muninn. “Do you know when?”

The streets were full of people and there were broken stones and cameras and a dozen languages at least, and all the people were dressed as tourists. It was very hot; August didn’t even need to wear his blanket, and he was feeling better. Not much, but enough, and so he spread the blanket in the nearest shady spot and rested there, felt the sweat trickle down his face and sting at his eyes. He looked around, and could see nothing that he recognised–and then he did.

Dad,” he said. “Mum!” He turned to Muninn, his head swinging round so fast it hurt, and his chest was cramped within him. He tried to get up, but the bird was faster, hopping across the blanket and jumping onto his leg, just above the knee, her iron claws pricking painfully through his pyjamas. They were his best pyjamas too, his favourites, and he had been wearing them especially for the photos his parents had taken earlier in the day, photos of August in his bed with his telescope–April’s telescope–and holding pictures of the Earth.

“They can’t see you, August,” she said. “You’ll only wear yourself out trying to follow behind, and there is still a week to go.”

“But-”

“Look at them, August,” said Muninn. “You don’t exist for them. They don’t know you yet.”

At first he couldn’t fathom it, couldn’t picture a world–their world–without him in it, but as they moved closer he saw that Dad’s hair had no grey in it, that Mum was smilier than he’d ever seen her and there were no lines about her mouth. On her back was a baby, a toddler almost, who beat at the front of her carrier with urgent fists and giggled, who wore a floppy hat with a bumblebee on it.

“April,” said August. “It’s April!”

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“They look so happy,” said August, wistful, watching his parents fuss over the baby, watching them point out bits of old rock, the frescoes and the fallen masonry.

“They are happy,” said Muninn. “These are good memories.”

“Before me,” said August.

“Yes,” said Muninn, and she did not say Before you, before the hospitals and the sick beds and the slow death of hope.

“Muninn,” said August, and the one thin hand that rested on her back gripped suddenly, as hard as it could, though that wasn’t very hard and she was iron besides. “Muninn, would they… would they have been happier if I’d never been born?”

“Yes,” said Muninn. “But they would also have been different, and perhaps they would not have swapped that difference for all the happiness in the world.”

It hurt August to hear that, hurt and comforted him both, a strange mix of feelings that he had learned to associate with the presence of ravens. But his parents were before him, his family, and if they did not know him they were his parents still, so he pushed the feelings aside and watched. Perhaps it would be alright for them, once he was gone. Perhaps they wouldn’t be sad forever. They’d been happy without him once, and perhaps they would learn to be happy again.

They’d told him stories, he remembered, of when they were young, of the time before he was born. How they had backpacked around the world with April, how they had wanted her to see the world right from the very beginning. How they had seen Uluru, and the Great Wall of China, and the Red Square. How they had seen-

Pompeii,” said August. He looked around at the broken remains of a city, turned on his blanket until he could see Vesuvius rise up above him, peaceful now but looming still. “They went to see Pompeii. Dad was so pleased that they’d gone on the anniversary…”

#

(“It happened nearly 2000 years ago,” said Dad. “In the year 79, on the 24th of August. We had to rush to get there for our 24th. April and your Mum had come down with a tummy bug in Prague, so we were running behind.”

And April, who had heard that story a dozen times if not more, who had no real memory of bug or buildings, had rolled her eyes. “You know, you might have missed it anyway,” she said. “They think now, some scientists, that it didn’t happen in August at all. That Vesuvius might have gone up later in the year. October or November.”

“But that,” said Dad, “is not nearly so good a story…”)

#

“Muninn,” said August. “Who was right? You remember it, don’t you?”

“I remember,” said Muninn.

“I bet it was the 24th,” said August. “You wouldn’t have brought me here otherwise.”

“Wouldn’t I?” said Muninn. “You have grown very certain, I think.”

“Why else would we be here?” said August. “If you wanted me to see my family, we could have seen them anywhere. But you wanted me to see this.”

“You have not yet seen what I want you to see,” said Muninn. “Watch now.” And she pointed her blunt iron beak at his parents–at the people who would be his parents, and who would not regret it.

They had come closer now, so close that if in another time he had spoken they would have heard him, and then they were swallowed up, swallowed by a group of people gathered round something on the ground, and August couldn’t see them anymore. And then the raven was off his knee, her sharp little claws out of his leg, and August was free to lever himself to his feet, to slowly, carefully, stumble towards the crowd, to squeeze through legs and people until he came to a halt against the corner of a glass display case, with his parents two panes away and bodies on the ground between.

“Look,” said Dad, pointing to a small figure. Its legs were curled up like a baby and the arms were over its face and Huginn was standing on one thigh as Muninn had done for August, his black iron feathers sharp against the white and preening.

“They injected plaster into the gaps in the ash where the bodies were,” said his Dad, consulting a brochure. “So we can see how the people looked when they died.”

#

(“Smile,” said Dad. “Smile for the camera!” And August had done his best, knowing that his smile was too big for his face now, or his face had shrunken down around it, but knowing also that it made his parents happy. That they would have pictures of him to the last, that they would be able to look at the photos when he was gone and remember him, the child who would be ten forever. The child who would be ten.)

#

“Poor little kiddy,” said his Mum, young and happy in Pompeii and reaching back to squeeze April’s plump, healthy baby leg, as if to reassure herself that her child, at least, was safe when others had not been.

They walked away then, hand in hand and with the child that would survive with them, walked into the future without him and August stood and watched them go through glass that reflected his pyjamas pale as plaster and they were not his favourites anymore. Watched them go through the glass, frozen to himself and soon to be frozen to others. Frozen as, in the Garden of the Fugitives, other children were frozen, rigid in their shapes and left behind because they couldn’t run fast enough to escape the death that was coming for them. And leaping over those children, leaping in the half-run, half-hop that characterised the corvids was Huginn, and he turned towards August and then away again, and not in pity.

“You wanted to see science,” said Muninn, at his feet and wiry, and August sank down onto shaking knees beside her and the glass before him was blurred and running. “And I have shown you science, but you should also see what science is not. Did you think it was a frozen thing, a statue? Did you think it would accept the 24th and let it be, because the 24th of August was what was expected and entrenched, beyond question?”

“Did you bring me to the wrong day?” said August, and if his voice was hard and dead as statues he couldn’t bring himself to care.

“I brought you to the right day,” said Muninn. “Whether it is the day is another question entirely.”

“Will I ever know the answer?” said August, and Muninn considered him with eyes that seemed to him to be very old then, as old as rocks, as old as plaster.

“Perhaps,” she said.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Hong Kong and the bacillus of bubonic plague!

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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