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 31, 20–
“Are we going back home now?” said August. His grip on Muninn’s scapulae was loose, his fingers creaking and weak.
“Not yet,” said Muninn. “This is your birthday, the last day of August. Do you not want to see what happens on this day?”
“You could show me tonight,” said August, not believing it himself but willing to pretend if he could just lie down at last.
“I could not,” said Muninn, and her hoarse raven voice was very gentle.
There was a long silence. “I know,” said August.
“It looks like a party,” he said, weary. It was so hard to look around, to lift his head. “A very boring party.” There were no balloons and no cake and no presents, just people sitting silently at table while a grey-haired woman talked at them. Huginn stood on her lectern, gazing up with adoration, silent, invisible. “She’s not even singing,” said August. “There should be singing, at a birthday.”
“She doesn’t like to sing very much,” said Muninn. “She missed a birthday song once, just barely, and never let herself forget it.” She swivelled her head around until it was almost entirely backwards, and gazed down at August from above, gazed at him as he lay flat on her back with his arms about her neck. “Do you not recognise her, little one?” she said, and August blinked dizzy eyes to clear them, tried to make out a face and a figure that were beyond him, almost.
It was the beads he recognised first: the long ropes of bright colours, the twists of cheap beads given out to children at Starship, given out for endurance and bravery both. “Those are my beads,” he said, wondering, and then he knew her. “April,” he said. “It’s April! But she’s gotten so old, Muninn.”
“Not so old,” said the bird, her feathers twitching beneath him. “Just older than you.”
“What’s she doing?” said August, and he tried to sit up, to push himself up to see better. “Who are all these people?”
“They’ve come to see her give the lecture,” said Muninn. “All the Laureates do it. Closer to Christmas, usually, but April held out for August. Your sister achieved something wonderful, you see. She’s the most recent recipient of the Nobel prize–for medicine.”
“Oh,” said August, and it was hard to see again, and differently so. “Oh.” And there it was, the happiness that Muninn had promised him sinking into him as if shot from a shaft, the pain and pleasure of them intertwining: April’s life, come together with his death, and meaning given to both of them.
“How did you know?” he said, and Muninn shrugged, although gently, so not to throw him off.
“It was Huginn that knew,” she said, and August, so nearly memory himself now, remembered what she’d told him so soon past. It is the privilege of thought to see the future, she’d said – and Huginn had seen, and loved his sister for it.
“Better than singing, isn’t it?” said Muninn, and if ravens could smile, she was smiling now. August was sure of it.
“I wish I could tell her,” he said. “I wish, I wish… but it’s no use wishing now, is it?”
“Not for that,” said Muninn. “That is beyond both of us, I’m afraid.”
“I know I have to go,” he said, and it was harder in that brief moment than it had been all the month long, and then he lay down upon the raven’s back and the hardness passed from him and it was easy, still.
“There is another way,” said Muninn. Her iron feathers twitched and smoothed, and her eyes were very, very dark. “I could go in your place,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” said August. It was hard for him to understand anything now, and growing harder. He wanted to listen to April, wanted it badly, but his eyes kept closing and he could hardly make sense of her sentences. She was describing her methods, and it was hard, so hard, to keep up with her. It always had been. Muninn was simpler; easier to listen to, but it was such an effort. He was so tired. All he wanted to do was sleep.
“Shall I tell you a story?” said Muninn. “A story for bedtime, perhaps?”
“Yes please,” said August. He let his eyes rest, half-open, on the beads about April’s neck, let his head nestle into the raven’s back.
“It’s a story about a little girl,” said Muninn. “She had a brother too, and she loved him very much. But he caught the plague and died, and all the imams and physicians in Tunis could not bring him back. They couldn’t help her, either, when the buboes came up black in her neck and her armpits and her thighs. So she lay there, in her hot little bed, with her family dying around her, and then she saw the birds. Two of them, ravens, and they showed her such marvels, for she’d always wanted to see the world. And then she was given a choice: to die or to change, and take the place of one of the ravens and let it go on in her stead.”
“You?” said August.
“And you changed?”
“Are you asking me to change?”
“Does it hurt?” said August.
“Yes,” said Muninn. “That is a function of memory.”
“Does Huginn hurt?”
“I believe he is numb, in his way,” said Muninn. “He has been still iron for as long as I have known him, and none have taken his place. But Huginn is thought, and I… I am memory. I remember, August. I remember how Caroline felt as she saw her comet, as if I were Caroline herself. I remember nights on the Pacific and nights in the Antarctic. I remember cold and heat and being burnt by a bomb as bright as the sun. I remember every wonderful thing that ever happened to anybody, and because of that I remember every terrible thing as well.”
“He was such a good little boy,” said April, breaking in. “A pain, sometimes, I admit it. All little brothers are. But mostly good. He’d be there in his bed, under this terrible tiger blanket that he’d never give up, and even though he had to spend most of his time there he hardly ever complained. It must have been hard watching life go on around him, never being able to join in. I never quite realised how hard, I think, at the time. I was hardly more than a child myself. And our parents said to focus on the happy times, so that’s what I tried to do. I’d bring him bowls of popcorn and we’d watch silly films together, and we’d go to the park sometimes, or the beach. Things like that. We could never stay as long as I wanted, but it was worth leaving early to see how much pleasure it gave him to be able to go at all. He got left behind a lot, you see. And then it was the rest of us being left behind, and it seemed the happy memories weren’t strong enough, and there were too few of them.”
“She loved you very much,” said Muninn.
“I know,” said August. “I love her too. I always knew she’d be wonderful.”
“Were there other kids before you?” said August.
“There were,” Muninn replied. “And some chose to be memory and some didn’t. And for those that did, none were memory forever. It fills you up, see. Oh, it was wonderful too at first, with the flying and the travel and the sheer breadth of life stretched out… You can’t imagine anything more marvellous. But they creep up, the memories, until you’re stuffed with them, and bursting. And some days it’s easier and some days it’s not, and some are still wonderful. But some aren’t, and the ones that aren’t add up, and in the end you just feel…”
“How do you feel?” said August.
“Old. I feel old,” said Muninn. “When I changed I had eight years. A little younger than you, and I could never imagine how old a person could be, how old they could feel inside. Like a clock running down, and the space between ticks getting wider.”
“I feel like that,” said August. “Well, not old. But tired. I didn’t think it was possible to be this tired.”
“It’s your body that’s tired, “ said Muninn. “Just your body. There’s more of you that can live, and you wouldn’t have to be tired again for a long, long time.”
“It’s not just my body,” said August. “It’s all of me. And I think… I think no thank you, Muninn. I’d really like to go to sleep, if that’s okay. I used to think it would be so terrible. There was so much I wanted to do, and so much that I’d never get to do. I was sad all the time. I’m not sad any more, Muninn. I’m too tired to be sad. I just want to go to sleep.”
There was a long silence. Then, “I see,” said Muninn, and her voice was weightier than age and iron.
“I’m sorry,” said August. “So sorry. Please, Muninn.”
“Do not be sorry,” said Muninn, and her voice was heavy and so kind. “There is no need for sorry. If you are more tired than I am, little chick, then you go to sleep as nicely as you can.”
“Muninn?” said August. “All those things I never got to do? It’s not so bad. I got to do this, and I got to see you. And Huginn. Will you tell him thank you, please?”
“Huginn is here too,” said Muninn. “Open your eyes, August. Just one more time.”
And when he did, August found he was back in his own little bed, with the tiger blanket and the beads about him and Dad sleeping beside. Huginn and Muninn were standing on the end of his bedstead, their sharp-clawed feet curled around the wooden frame. Huginn had his head on one side, and he was staring at August with flat black eyes, eyes that might have been looking at an insect, or a mouse, or some other small creature of no great significance. He looked, August thought drowsily, as if he were trying to figure out a clue in a crossword, as if August were a tiny cog in a puzzle beyond imagining. And Muninn was there next to him, with her iron eyes softer than he’d seen them yet.
“Muninn?” he said again, and it was harder now to talk than it had ever been. “What was your name, before? When you were little, like me.”
“Hanan,” said Muninn. “I was Hanan.”
“I’m going to be a sparrow, Hanan,” said August, and his voice was very quiet as he closed his eyes and went out into darkness.
And that’s it for The August Birds. Thanks for following along! If you liked it – or even if you didn’t – please consider leaving a review at Goodreads or Amazon or at your favourite retailer or review site.
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