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 26, 2002
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
“Wait,” said August. “Please, wait.” He slumped back into his pillows. Huginn stood on the window ledge, his wings half open already and he folded them and made a rude noise, the noise of a raven saddled with young who wavered on the edge of the nest and would not fly. The noise was not encouraging. Yet Muninn turned back, hopped from his leg and onto his lap, then as far up his chest as she could, her iron claws digging into him and the weight of her on his chest making it difficult to breathe.
“Yes?” she said, her eyes on a level with his own and whirling.
“It’s just… where are we going?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes,” said August, pathetic. He knew he looked terrible: dark circles under his eyes and a body that was failing visibly now, in the end stages of its life. All his limbs hurt. Usually he had no trouble sleeping–he spent too much time sleeping really, when so little time was left–but he had spent the night awake and then in fever dreams, drugged into uneasy dozing and waking at intervals from images of pleasant silence and deep restful pools, of Voyager 2 flying silently through darkness and its Record still within it. “I’m so tired of thinking about death,” he said. “I just want to go somewhere happy. Can we go somewhere happy, Muninn?”
“What is happy?” said the bird, who had so recently been unhappy herself.
“Happy is… happy is people… and sunshine. And ice-cream. Happy is nobody on their own.”
“Some people like to be on their own,” said Muninn, who had also been lonely, who had spent the previous day without her mate and was still unsettled by it.
“That is fortunate, considering your position.” Trapped in any number of beds, his own and those of hospitals, always attended or with a bell or a buzzer for attending. “If you wish for company your family is close by.”
“I don’t want company, I want people,” said August. “They won’t notice me anyway, where-ever we go. I just want to be around them–and not when they’re crying in a prison bed or shivering on a frozen island or being all burnt up. I suppose I don’t really care if it’s people, anyway. I just want to be around, around–”
“Around life,” said Muninn.
“And you think that will make you happy?”
“Then come with me,” said Muninn, relenting. “Take hold of my feathers, August, climb onto my back. I can show you life.”
They flew for a long time, and the world around was blue. And then there was land again and the birds flew on, flew on until they came to the Highveld and there they flew in circles so large that August barely felt the tilt on the raven’s back as the circles became smaller and smaller still.
He saw vast expanses of grassland spread beneath him like carpets, bordered by Karoo and Kalahari and Bushveld, bordered by lowlands and highlands both. The grasses rolled with the wind as if they were one organism instead of thousands, millions, some standing almost as tall as August and topped with hairy little spikes. Huginn and Muninn skimmed the grass so closely August could have reached down to touch them with his hand, the dropseed and the thatching grass both, and though he didn’t reach down he felt them whipping against his slippers, and saw what lived between the stalks. There were mice and moles and monitors, great rock pythons sprawled and baking, lazy in the sun. There were zebra that moved quickly and in herds, their striped coats blending into the grasses and reminding August of the quagga, but these coats were alive and twitching, their tails snapping at flies and their ears flickering. And then the ravens were circling higher, the grasses out of reach, past vast colonies of fruit bats hanging from their heels with their wings all folded round, and flying with them were the birds of the Highveld, cranes and larks and swallows.
And then the circles became smaller and the ravens were alone again with only August for a traveller and they were spiralling down into a great city, over scarps of sedimentary rock stranded with waterfalls of white water, over dams and gardens and airports, skyscrapers and suburbs and shanty towns, squatter settlements and universities. And all around were people: in cars and on the streets, eating and talking and even fighting sometimes, but alive for all that. Some of them were eating ice-cream, and Muninn slowed in her flight as she passed a vendor on a corner street, spun in a tight circle around him and August could see the cartons full of colour, full of pink and white and green, yellow and brown, but he shook his head against the feathers of her back and Muninn flew on. He had said ice-cream was happiness, but when he had said it he was thinking of times when it had made him happy before, and now he knew that time was past. Even if Muninn had been able to get him a cone, to steal it somehow and pass it back to him, he didn’t think he could manage to eat it.
It was hard enough to pretend he was hungry at home. Not having to pretend in Johannesburg made him happier than the ice-cream could have.
At last the spiral ended, and the ravens flew down into a large building and it was filled with people, thousands of them, come for conservation and for development, for the opening of Earth Summit.
“It’s not the first one,” said Muninn. “But it’s not the last one either. Some things are ongoing.” She didn’t sink down into her raven-sized self, not completely, but shrunk to dog size, her iron-feathered back just high enough for August to lean on so that he wouldn’t have to hold himself up by himself on legs that were getting wobblier every day, that felt like water beneath him. And while Huginn scampered ahead, raven-running between rooms so not to miss anything August followed behind as Muninn moved sedately beside, slowing her pace to suit him.
He passed from room to room, his feet sinking into carpets and the air heavy and hot around him. There was a great hall where people were talking of biodiversity and of ecosystems, and then they left, brushing past August as he stood near the door, and he trailed after them to ballrooms and committee rooms and corridors, saw snatches of them talking of the Amazon, of water and climate and sustainable development. Most of the conversations were beyond him, but he could see the people talk well and passionately, some more with their hands than anything else, and if there were not many children his age there were young people too, and he followed them most, watched them learn and think and live and do all the things he would have done in their place. It was exhausting for him, moving from room to room with Huginn always a flicker of wings ahead, a dark shape amidst many that were bigger and more colourful. Exhausting, but he wanted to see as much as he could and he knew that if he settled into one place, into a corner of a ballroom, for instance, he would miss more than dancing.
The people all moved around him, and talked of life around him, and August was content–for a while.
“They’re going to fix things, aren’t they?” he said to Muninn. “They’re going to give everyone clean water and stop them cutting down trees and the bats and the birds and the zebra will all be safe. Won’t they?”
“No,” said Muninn.
“Are you sure?” said August, knowing the answer as he did so and hoping, this once, for lies.
“This summit happened before you were born,” said Muninn. “The rainforests are still shrinking and there’s not enough clean water and species are dying every day. You know this, August.”
“Then why did you bring me here? I wanted to be happy. To go somewhere happy. Why did you bring me here if it’s all for nothing? I already know about small victories, Muninn. I know to take them because you might not get any others.” Because there was still fire and the showing of instruments and tools that would be used because they existed and the use of them was certain.
“Because for you there is no happy,” said Muninn. “Not here. I am sorry for it, believe me. I know what your memories are. I know how it is that you feel. And for you, death is so entwined with life that you will not be made happy by looking away from it, no matter what you think.” And when August did look away, when he turned his face to the corner of the room and let his tears fall on the carpet, Muninn leaned forward and plucked at his pyjamas with her beak.
“It is a hard thing to learn. I understand,” she said. “And I believe I can promise you, August, that you will be happy before the end.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the volcanic eruptions at Krakatoa!
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