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 27, 1883
“Can we get any closer?” said August. His little hands were clamped on the railing, and the motion of the boat had turned his face a grey-green to match the ocean. He was only able to keep from vomiting by staring at the volcano, so far away but belching smoke and still on the horizon, almost. Also he hadn’t really eaten in ages now, and there was nothing left to come up. (He told his Mum that he was saving up space for the birthday cake she was going to make for him, the last birthday cake that he had requested in the shape of birds–and his Mum had pretended to believe him, had taken away his untouched trays and smiled as she did it even though August knew that the smile had melted off underneath.)
“Do you want to go any closer?” said Muninn, perched upon the rail next to his hands and in the shape of birthday cake and diversion.
“I’m… I’m not sure,” said August. The clouds looked so dark and angry and he could feel the volcano grumbling in his bones, vibrating all through him. The deck shook with it, shook under his bottom and his legs where he sat clutching at the rails.
“Then perhaps we shall stay where we are,” said Muninn. “There have been three explosions today already, and we are just in time for the last. It will be very large, and very loud. There are closer boats in the Sunda Strait and I could have brought you to one of those but the sailors on those boats will be deafened by it. Their ears will be made to rupture.”
“Then I think I’d rather stay here,” said August, shuddering. He was falling apart already and knew it, but he wasn’t so enamoured of the process that he was willing to lose anything else, even at the last.
“Very well,” said Muninn, serene.
“Did you want to go closer?” said August. “Or Huginn?” The other raven was perched at the top of the mast, staring at the volcano with unblinking iron eyes, a disturbing intensity of focus. At least Muninn blinked, he thought. At least she did that. It made her seem more friendly to him, and less alien. “Would it hurt you to be there, Muninn?”
“I suppose we could be hit with a flying rock,” said the bird, “but I believe we would endure it. Built well, we were.” She shook out her iron feathers, tucked them neatly back against the solid body of her. “Besides, I have the memories of those that were closer, the memories of those who died, and those who lived beside them.”
“What was it like?” said August, tentative. He couldn’t imagine the memories would be pleasant, couldn’t imagine dying like the people at Pompeii had died, choking and burning both and beyond all help either way.
“I remember a wall, mostly,” said Muninn. “A wall of black water that rose and rose and swallowed the horizon, swallowed the sun as a wolf would. The water was black with ground up rock and ash and pumice, and came in great dark waves, in tsunamis, came with every explosion and came far inland. Far.”
“You could see it coming,” said August, and it was not a question.
“Yes,” said Muninn.
“Did the people try to get away?” said August.
“Of course,” said Muninn. “Have you not spent your time trying to escape? Why do you think it would be any different for them?”
August was silent. He had seen, often, in the front of the phone book and in emergency kits that if a tsunami was coming you shouldn’t go to the beach to see it, that the water would be too fast to outrun. He tried to picture it, to imagine a great dark wall rising before him and all he could hear was roaring, the roar of the volcano and the rumble of it and it drowned out the noise of the water in his head. He closed his eyes, because he was tired and trying to concentrate, to picture inside himself the giant waves that Muninn had told him about. He saw one then, within his mind–sitting in front of a silent wave that towered over him, and although the wave was water it was also mirrors, black mirrors, and that was not water. A real tsunami, he expected, would be turbulent, full of movement and rough to the surface, but August’s tsunami was made of glass and hung over him in frozen stillness, almost as a photograph, and in its smooth slipperiness he saw his own face, reflected in a thousand black glass facets and drowning him in shadow.
“Sometimes running is hopeless,” he said.
“Perhaps,” said Muninn, as if she remembered the people on the beach and how most of them ran but some of them stayed, frozen as the water came towards them, frozen as August’s wave was frozen and the real water coming forward stronger and faster than glass. “But I think you would not be surprised to see how many ran.”
“Were you surprised to see how many didn’t?” said August.
Muninn cocked her iron head to one side then, and gazed at him, speculative. “Would you not run?” she said. “There will be another explosion soon, and another wave. We will feel it here. The water is not shallow enough for the boat to be badly affected–the wave will pass under us and go on. But if we were not on this boat? If we were on the beach, would you stand and let yourself be the one to go under, August, or would you try to run?”
“That’s not a fair question,” said August, who could not run anymore, who could barely walk, who had trouble staying upright because his legs were so weak and his chest hurt. Everything hurt. “You know that I can’t run, Muninn.”
“You could crawl,” said the bird, unsympathetic. “I think you could crawl still, if you had to.”
“It wouldn’t make a difference, crawling,” said August.
“Then why are you doing it?” said Muninn, and when August turned away, screwing his eyes shut so that tears wouldn’t escape, he was back in his own mind again, back in front of the black mirrors, mirrors in the shape of still water and which smelled of sulphur, of seared rock and burning. And he could feel the deck of the boat under him still, feel it pressed hard against his hips, against the backs of his legs–but the August reflected in front of him, the August in the wave had no boat to sit upon. He wasn’t sitting at all, even, but crawling–crawling towards the August that was, crawling as the wave loomed over him and the volcano roared so that he could hear nothing else. And then August saw something else reflected in the wave: a tiny light, flickering beside his knees, and it was a candle, a birthday candle, and August knew then that his reflection wasn’t crawling towards him but to the candle, dragging his hurt and aching body forward before the water came down to smother him and douse the candle out.
When he opened his eyes again the candle was on the deck next to him–and then it wasn’t a candle but a piece of burning ash, come down from the sky in dust and smoke and tiny pieces of black grit that greyed his skin and settled on Muninn’s iron feathers like frosting.
“Are you going to blow it out?” said the bird, and August stared at her, stared at the little light, and shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said, but the truth was that he was afraid to try, afraid that he did not have the strength. The motion of the boat, the roar of the volcano, took his breath away and he didn’t have much left to begin with. Breathing deeply made him cough, great wracking, rumbling coughs that left him red-faced and dizzy and sent his vision blackening at the edges. While he pretended not to know, the ash-candle burned and the August-before-the-wave didn’t have to stop crawling, didn’t have to choose to crawl or be pulled under to drown. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
“Knowledge is hard here, “said Muninn. “It is a place of in-betweens,” she said, tilting her beak towards the volcano. “Of boundaries. One minute everything is all destruction, but then it hardly seems I’ve blinked and the islands are growing again…”
She spoke as if to herself, but beside her August shivered. He was tired of in-betweens, and as tired of certainty. It would be a relief, almost, not to have to choose anymore, not to have to hold the candle and the water in his head at the same time, not to run towards and away at once. He cupped his hand about the little flame, as if about to smother and shelter both, and waited for the final explosion, the final wave.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Sealab II!
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