The August Birds: 30 August, 1871

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 30, 1871

SPRING GROVE, NEW ZEALAND

August woke to a shifting in his bed and a weight on the pillow. Muninn was standing beside his head, tugging on one ear rather too firmly. “Get off,” he said. “Get off!”

“Wake up,” said the bird. “I know it’s harder now, but wake up. And be quiet about it, or you’ll wake your father.”

August’s Dad was sitting by the bed, his head tilted back in the chair. He was snoring, just a little, and the circles under his eyes were almost as dark as August’s. Huginn had landed quietly on an arm of the chair, and had his head under a wing, preening. He looked supremely disinterested.

“What time is it?” said August. He did not need to whisper. His voice was never very loud, now.

“It’s eleven o’clock,” said Muninn. “And all’s well.”

“It isn’t well,” said August, pettish. He was tired and his bones hurt and the memory of disappointment was all through him. “I thought you weren’t coming. I thought you’d forgotten.”

“The day isn’t over yet,” said Muninn. “And soon it will be your birthday.”

“Ten years,” said August, and for a moment there was a little smile on his cracked lips and his eyes were almost as bright as Muninn’s. “I did it. I made it.”

“You haven’t made it yet,” said Muninn. “But it’s not far off, and there is time, I think, for presents.”

“I like presents,” said August. “Thank you. But I’m so sleepy. Could you open them for me, please?”

“These are not presents that need opening,” said Muninn gently, and for one last time she held out her wing.

August groaned, but slowly, very slowly, he raised his arms and took hold. His grip was very weak.

#

The flight was cool and dark. August slept through most of it; could barely remember when he had still been able to sit upright on the raven’s back and close his eyes to the wind, feel it fresh on his cheeks. But he found that this flight seemed shorter than normal, a little space only, and then Muninn was winging down in spirals, with Huginn beside her, winging down to a wooden house where all the windows were dark. August was flown into a small bedroom with a quilted bed, and in it lay a woman with pale, pale cheeks.

“Is she sick too?” he said, drowsy.

“Not sick,” said Muninn. “Just very tired. But you are looking at the wrong person. Look,” she said. “Look down there, in the cradle. Do you see him? It is his birthday today, as it is yours tomorrow, and I have brought you for a present.”

“He’s very ugly,” said August, critical. He had been dozing on Muninn’s back, a heavy, drugged doze that he was unwilling to be woken from, and he did not feel charitable. “All red and wrinkly. Like a grumpy old man.”

“All new babies are ugly,” said Muninn. “To everyone but their parents, at least. You were ugly too when you were born. Your mother thought you were beautiful, though, and that’s the main thing. His mother thinks the same. Her name is Martha.”

“His head is such a funny shape,” said August. “Is it meant to look like that?”

“It’s a hard thing, being born,” said Muninn. “Just as hard as dying, sometimes. I expect the head will recover.”

“I’m glad,” said August, but what he really thought was Mine won’t. The baby would grow, and be less red and less wrinkled as time went on, and his head would become something people were pleased to look at, but the reverse was happening to him. The skin on his head was shrinking, it seemed, or his bones were getting bigger, because when he looked into the mirror of other people he could see the bones jut out sharply. He looked starved, almost, but there was plenty of food for him. He just didn’t want to eat it–not even ice-cream, not even birthday cake. And when his birthday was over, he knew, his head would begin to change again, and not as it had when he was a baby recovering from a trip through the birth canal. His would be bone, more and more, until nothing was left but a skeleton, and one day even that would be gone.

“That is change,” said Muninn. “What else did you expect?”

“Nothing,” said August. “I don’t really expect anything anymore.” He was too tired for expectations, and medicine made his head feel all fuzzy inside. In the cradle, the baby stirred, screwing up that wrinkled face, the little lips pursing slightly in an imitation of suck. Huginn was standing on the top of the wooden sides, his shadow falling over the infant. “What’s his name?” said August.

“Ernest,” said Muninn. “His name is Ernest. Ernest Rutherford. He doesn’t look much now, I grant you, but he’s going to grow up to be a very famous man. He will win a Nobel Prize even, for his trouble.”

“He split the atom,” said August, wonder rising through him enough, briefly, to drive away the fogginess. “I know. April has a poster of him on her wall. Her friends tease her about it, I’ve heard them. But she says she likes the moustache.” He paused, feeling sick and silly and so very tired. Things were all jumbly in his head again. “I could have grown a good moustache, I bet,” he said.

“He did split the atom,” said Muninn. “And from then on no-one thought of the atom as a little solid ball, as a little packet. It came in parts. Everything does.”

“Even me,” said August. He was breaking down into parts, splitting before Ernest as the atom had split, splitting down into skin and bone and absence. The whole of him, the bits that stuck together and said August, well, that was nearly over.

“That’s the thing about parts,” said Muninn, and her voice sounded so far away now, or perhaps she was only speaking so softly that August had to strain to listen to her. “You can break them down smaller and smaller, until sometimes it looks like there’s nowhere else to go, and nothing else to see.”

One day even my skeleton will be gone, thought August.

“And sometimes the fission is horrible, and cruel. Sometimes it comes in fire and burns shadows into the stone. Sometimes the breaking is quieter, in a little bed strung about with beads. Sometimes it comes with sadness.”

“Keep an eye on the matter,” Huginn croaked, suddenly, his voice almost rusted shut from disuse. Surprise nearly forced August upright, but looking closer he couldn’t tell if Huginn had spoken to him, or to the baby–or perhaps to himself. Whichever it was, Muninn ignored him.

“And sometimes,” she said, “it comes glorious, with webs before and after and a light like the sun, and sometimes it brings peace. But the parts, August. The parts are never gone. No matter how small you make them, the energy remains. If the electrons break away sometimes, into other atoms and other forms, then the atoms break away too. And they’ll be part of the ocean, or the earth. Perhaps a plant, perhaps another living creature. But they’ll stay on, August.”

Of course I’ll remember you, April had said to him. I’ll remember all the bits of you that I know, which are different from all the bits Mum knows and all the bits Dad knows. And those little bits of him would stay with her all her life, and change her after his splitting, as if she had taken on the new electrons of his old body and had her properties changed thereby. And she would take her changed self out into the world, and every person she met, every person born or not-yet-born who met her, would meet him, too, in his way. Would meet the parts of him that changed her.

“Maybe that’s enough,” he said, quietly.

“Of course it is,” said Muninn. Then her head cocked and her wings twitched, the muscles smooth and strong under feathers. “Say your goodbyes, August,” she said. “It’s time to leave.”

“Goodbye, baby,” said August, reaching down to brush one plump fist with his scrawny little one. “Goodbye, and Happy Birthday.”

As he said it, the room began to echo with the sound of the ending hour, a clock chiming through walls with the first of twelve faint strokes. “Happy birthday,” repeated Muninn, gravely.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter: the last day of August, and Muninn’s last offer…

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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