Novels

The August Birds: 31 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 31, 20–

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

 

“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.

“Yes.”

“And you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Are you asking me to change?”

“I am.”

“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

 

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

The August Birds: 29 August, 2010

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 29, 2010

GENERAL ASSEMBLY, UNITED NATIONS

August would have liked to see the exchange between astronaut and aquanaut, but it was a liking he felt but dimly. Partly this was because he was tired, so very tired, and in the final stages of life, and he thought he could no longer feel wanting for himself. He was so tired, and his bed so comfortable, that if the ravens could have again told him where they would have taken him and left him to dream it would have been enough. But there was another reason beyond that, for August had begun to understand that the conversation he thought he had missed was one that he had been having all along. Instead of the ocean, instead of the atmosphere and a hard sliver of space, the state of death lay between him and the ravens as a refractor, and they had been talking across it for near the whole of August. The month that had begun with Caroline and reflection, the harbinger of his own death in a streaming comet, was ending with refraction, with conversations that bent around, that looked different from either side.

So when Huginn and Muninn came to his bedside for the last visit but two, August went without complaint, and trusting.

“I am sorry if you are disappointed,” said Muninn in their flight, and her voice rumbled through the iron, vibrating through feathers and into bone.

“It’s alright,” said August, and it was.

“We have not much time remaining to us, we two,” said Muninn. “We three. And I have shown you fire and water, death and discovery and exile. But Huginn reminds me that I have not shown you hope.”

“There is no hope for me,” said August. He did not say it with a sudden painful awakening, or a clutching at straws he couldn’t yet comprehend. Instead, there was certainty and kindness both, for Muninn had become his friend and although she would remember him friends missed each other when they were gone and felt bad, didn’t they? He didn’t want her to grieve, or to cling to something other than the inevitable. She had taught him that.

“I did not say the hope was for you,” said Muninn, and had August the strength he would have laughed, to find her still so very honest. She had always been honest with him, more honest than anyone he had ever met, although sometimes the honesty hurt him. And then they were winging down into a great city, stretched far in every direction and August couldn’t see the end of it in the dark, though the sun was coming up. In this great city was a great building, and in that building was a giant room full of echoes and emptiness. It was set up as a school, almost, August thought, with rows of desks and a lectern in front, and it was entirely empty.

“It is a school, in a sense,” said Muninn. “It is a place for you to learn to get on with each other.”

And August, who remembered war and fire and shadows all together, shook his head. “No wonder it’s empty,” he said.

“It is very early morning,” said Muninn. “The people who come here to learn are sleeping, still. It is important to sleep before a celebration. That way you don’t miss any of it.”

“What am I missing, Muninn?” said August, who did little else but sleep now and who had a celebration coming that he had tried so hard not to miss.

“Huginn can show you that better than I,” said Muninn, and August shuddered in fear and anticipation both. He remembered the sharp stab of the raven’s beak, cold in the centre of his forehead and too close to his eyes for comfort, the beak of a raven who swung over a burning city and came down to pick the eyes from the dead. But he remembered too the beauty of it, the information, the golden network, and if Muninn had shown him comfort over the past month, shown him reconciliation, then Huginn had shown him beauty. And he had, Muninn said, wanted to show him hope. That August could not understand. Huginn had never shown a liking for him, never wanted to share or be friendly. He had never cared if August were sad, or afraid. What hope, then, could he give?

There was only one way to learn. August took a deep breath, as deep as he could although it hurt his chest to do so, and squared thin shoulders. “I’m ready,” he said, and again Huginn came towards him, that black gleaming beak born before him and buried, growing larger and larger in August’s eyes until he could see it no longer and other visions were before him.

There was the same blood-wash, the same strange mix of feather and bone, a skeleton and a seeing imposed upon his own and August was in the same giant room, the same school-yard and it was limned about the edges and gold, and full of people. Between them were spider-webs, the same light lines connecting them to each other, to the past and future, and as each person at each desk cast their vote the light between them brightened, strengthened, and although it was gold it was also violet tinted and August felt himself pulled along the violet and into a past that he had seen before, a ruined city that held his ruined self, with the scent of roasting flesh in the air and shadows burnt into stone.

“No!” he cried. “I don’t want to come back here!” And he was shrieking then, as loud as he could and wordless, a shrieking that sounded like bombs and turning back and the dissolution of family and April’s face as he turned away from her, the small distressed noise that she had tried to hide, the sound of a door slamming behind her. Then the part of him that was Huginn took over and August felt as if he were snatched up suddenly, snatched up into spirals and he beat his fists against the snatching with strength he didn’t know he had still, and those gold-violet beads were before him again, and stretching. There was another bomb, as bad as the first and a second ruined city, and there were tests and developments and islands blown to ashes, islands leaking radiation, and there was a site on a steppe that leaked as well, leaked into local populations of more than fish and mammals and seaweed and it was all covered up, this site that burned first on the 29th of August and burned for more than forty years.

The part that was August screamed and screamed, and in his desperation he felt in the golden spider-web about him a strand that spoke of home, and he followed it as best he could, grabbed hold with mind and heart and dragged the raven with him until those shining strands coalesced again in a group of islands at the bottom of the world. And there those strands split into rainbows and protest marches and sinking boats, into betrayal and bombings and songs as letters, a government brought down, into a nation who spoke one word together and that word was No. And the strands furled off into Chains and broken treaties and consequences, into the totalitarianism of friends and moral indefensibility, as David Lange spoke at Oxford and Marilyn Waring crossed the floor and boats were not sunk but turned away in peace and left to their disagreement. And that coalescence was a hub of its own, with its own golden spokes, and those spokes were not of people but of countries who came together to say their own no, countries and treaties and free zones, Raratonga and Pelindaba, Bangkok and Semei and Tlatelolco, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

And Kazakhstan, who had the testing and the ending of tests on the 29th of August, came unto the General Assembly, and argued for making that day an international one, against all tests of that kind and August was pulled back into that room, the time he saw it second and full of people, interconnected.

And when Huginn pulled his beak from August’s forehead, it was after he had seen them all voting for it, one after another, like dominoes, and the debate and discussion and consequence of that action, the exchange of ideas, burst out before and aft, as it had, if he had but seen it, at Hiroshima. And Huginn, meatless, without eyeballs to pluck in a school room empty that day of war, beat his wings until he soared in circles above the desks, above the lectern, and August knew then a little of what he was seeing, ideas and ideals together, and both from the same source.

“It is the privilege of thought to see the future,” said Muninn, gently. She leaned against August as he recovered, let him feel the bulk of her, the iron solidity. “And hope is something that comes only to thinking creatures. One can remember it, of course, but the memory of hope breeds repetition. One tries to recreate it by recreating the circumstances in which the hope was found.”

“Does that work?” said August. His mouth was dry and he felt a little dizzy.

“Sometimes,” said Muninn. “Sometimes. But thought is the better way, and brighter.”

“Is it going to be enough?” said August, sitting in that great, giant room stamped at the focal point with olive branches, and because Muninn had his memories she had no need to ask, for she knew he meant the days and the treaties, the cessation of burnt stone and burning meat.

“Do you believe it is enough?” she said, and August considered.

“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “But I believe it more than I did before.” He fidgeted a little, tucked his blanket around him. “It’s a very nice room,” he said. “A very nice day.”

“But you would like to go home now,” said Muninn.

“I want to give April a hug,” said August. “I want to see my sister.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the birth of Ernest Rutherford!

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

The August Birds: 28 August, 1965

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 28, 1965

SEALAB II, PACIFIC OCEAN

“It’s like a submarine,” said August. “But all in one place. And there’s no-one here. It’s empty.”

“It will not be empty for long,” said Muninn. “The first crew will move in today. We will stay to see them arrive. But it is easier for you to explore Sealab before they get here.”

There was much to explore, though it had all been fitted into small spaces for machinery, for sleeping and eating and laboratory work with Huginn on the bench and clattering with the beakers, reordering instruments. There were hatches also, and ladders, and a cage tied beneath to keep the sharks away when diving.

“You will not be going there,” said Muninn.

“Not even if you come with me?” said August, trying to make a joke of it, although truthfully he would have declined the swim if offered. There were black spots before his eyes nearly all the time now, and his body felt sluggish and cold, his limbs heavy around him. It was hard to concentrate. He just wanted to sleep, the brief excitement of exploring an underwater laboratory wearing off fast. He wished he could have come earlier, back in the days when he had had more strength, but there had been other places to visit then, and other opportunities for strength. Still, it was not so bad. There were plenty of benches for him to lean on, places to sit when he got tired. It was not a large facility, but August tired easily. His birthday was close now, so close, and where once he had looked upon that day with excitement, with hope and dread together, now he just felt a dawning relief.

“I am not fond of water,” said Muninn. “For all the good memories I have of it. It interferes with my feathers.” She shook out iron wings, refolded them carefully along her body. “It was difficult enough to get you down here, with the wet and the breathing. It is not that I could not keep you safe and dry inside the cage, but it would be an effort.”

“That’s alright,” said August. “I’ve had enough of cages anyway.” He said it to be kind, mostly. Even if they did keep the sharks out, the real danger would still be trapped inside.

“There is more to a cage than bars,” said Muninn.

“I know,” said August. The Sealab had windows, round portholes that allowed him to see out into dark water, and the walls were hard as ravens. Without the birds there would be no escape for him, but August had become accustomed to “no escape” and the confines of the building didn’t bother him as much as they might have done. He had spent much of his life in a bigger prison than this, the prison of his failing body. Bars had frightened him once, made him sad as well as scared, but they seemed a silly thing to be afraid of now, an image of imprisonment rather than the thing itself.

“I wouldn’t wait now,” he said, “if I saw the quagga again. I wouldn’t leave her so long by herself. I wouldn’t be afraid.”

“I know you would not,” said Muninn.

“There’s more to cages than metal,” said August. “More than iron. I think there are some we’re stuck with no matter what. And there are some we can visit, just for a little while, so that we can get used to them and the big ones don’t seem so scary.”

“Perhaps,” said Muninn. “Though I think you have become more brave than you were before.”

“I’m not scared of cages, Muninn. Not anymore. But I think I’d be scared to be in one alone, with no-one to talk to. To be trapped all by myself.”

“The biggest cage can fit everyone inside it,” said Muninn. “There is always someone to talk to. And some of the little ones are made for sharing. Like this one. The crew will share it together today. And tomorrow, one of them will share it with another person, in another cage. Aquanaut will talk to astronaut, both of them locked in their little boxes. In boxes inside boxes.”

“I would have liked to hear that,” said August.

“Perhaps you have heard something similar.”

August laughed. It wasn’t a very strong laugh, but it was sincere, a clean upwelling of humour. “Perhaps,” he said. “It must be strange to be so cut off. I know they could call. But it’s like living in a bubble, almost. You’re cut off from everything here.”

“Separate,” said Muninn.

“Yes.” August knew what it was to be separate, to feel apart. There was no bubble about his bed, whether it was in the hospital or in his room at home, but it felt that way sometimes–as if he were a creature from a strange country who needed a safe place made for him, one where he would not die or drown. One made for experiments and for watching, and for most of his life he had been the subject. There had been tests and operations and medicine, all to try and make him fit for a world he found it hard to survive in, and all the time his reactions were monitored.

“You are not always so passive,” said Muninn. “You have made a home in strange places too.” And that home had been one of watching, mostly, watching as if underwater as his family and friends, as the doctors and nurses who were all so kind to him, had their own lives on a surface he couldn’t reach while his sickness made a barrier between them like iron, like steel, and sealed him off.

August leaned on the bench, exhausted, and ran his fingers over test tubes, over Petri dishes and beakers and Huginn’s noisy rearrangement of instruments. “I never was able to experiment like this,” he said. There had been chemistry sets, of course, baby experiments that allowed him to play at science safely in his room while April had chemicals and fume cupboards and proper burning acids at school, but they hadn’t been the same.

“You are experimenting now,” said Muninn. “Have you not spent your past weeks in different environments to your own? Have you not learned how to function in them; have you not learned how they changed you? And each time you have visited them you have visited in a bubble of your own, and separate.”

And that was watching too, watching the lives before him that had never known him, watching as they too lived as he might have lived were he in their place. August had come to accept the changes, to accept that his experiences with the ravens were to help him adapt to the great change to come, the reef ahead. And he had partaken from a place of sealing, from outside, and never had that been so apparent to him as it was in Sealab, kept safe underwater and apart. It was easy to see the changes now, in that place of separation–easy to see how his grief had been provoked, and his anger, and his acceptance. Easy to see how grace had been lent to him, lent on iron wings, with honesty and indifference both.

August could see the changes, but he couldn’t see why. It was hard for him to see why, like trying to make out a distant shape through deep water, where the remnant rays of light were at the surface still, and left his eyes darkening against the currents. His head was so fuzzy now, fuzzy from more than depth, more than distance, and he couldn’t think as clearly as he once had done. He thought, however, that he remembered the time when Muninn and Huginn had first appeared to him. He hadn’t asked why; he had assumed kindness. And Muninn was kind, he was certain of that. Huginn too, though less often and never towards him.

“It wasn’t only for kindness though, was it,” he said, and it was not a question.

“No,” said Muninn. “Not only.”

“Will you tell me why you’ve done this?” said August.

“I wanted you to want to live,” said the raven. “I have told you so before: that I would give you an interest, something to live for.”

“So that I would reach my birthday,” said August. “So I would grow up.” And the tired, heavy feeling was in his head again, and the water rising before him was so deep and so dark that he couldn’t see his reflection. It was blurred before him, and apart. He knew that he was missing something. He did not know what.

He wondered if he even cared. He was too tired to care, and if mysteries were beautiful and interesting and spoke to him of the secret corners of the universe then they were too much for him now, who had yearned for mystery and certainty both, and who had had surfeit of them.

“Yes,” said Muninn, and the rushing in August’s head was so loud now that he was not sure if he heard her speak or if he were just imagining it. “That too.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Kazakhstan argue against nuclear testing before the UN’s General Assembly!

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

The August Birds: 27 August, 1883

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 27, 1883

KRAKATOA, INDONESIA

“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

The August Birds: 26 August, 2002

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 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.

“I don’t.”

“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.

“Yes.”

“And you think that will make you happy?”

“Yes.”

“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

The August Birds: 25 August, 1894

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 25, 1894

HONG KONG, CHINA

Muninn landed heavily on August’s bed, her beak bound around paper and clamped tight. She dropped the paper into his lap, the imprint of iron stamped into its pages. “Here,” she said, nudging the journal over to him. “Read that.”

“All of it?” said August, flicking through the pages. The cover bore the date, August 25th, though it was an August that had been and gone long before his birth and the paper was old and yellowing. The words were crammed together and complicated, and he didn’t think that he could read it all, let alone understand it when his head was swimming and prone to dizziness. “Isn’t there an easier way?”

Huginn croaked at him from the windowsill, folding his wings and settling them neatly along his body. It sounded almost like agreement, but Huginn had never been one for taking his side so August assumed that he must have misheard.

“Stop complaining,” Muninn snapped at him, unsympathetic. She gave the journal another shove with her beak, barely missing his fingers. “You do not have to read all of it.” And she took the paper from him roughly, clawed through the pages with one iron leg until she found the right place, and forced the journal back towards him.

The Bacillus of Bubonic Plague,” he read, the title of the paper standing out in bold black letters. “Published today–or what was today, once. Are we going to see the Plague, Muninn?”

“No!” the bird said, and her clockwork eyes were spinning so fast and her raven voice was so loud and so harsh that August recoiled back into his pillows. Muninn saw his reaction and retreated, turning away from him for long moments and then back again. Her eyes had slowed, the cogs moving more gently against each other, without grinding, and her voice was softer, recognisable.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I am sorry, August. I just… I do not wish to see the Plague again. I have no good memories of it–just death and more death, pustules and poxes and people brought down. It is a hideous thing.”

“More hideous than me?” said August, who had no mirrors but who saw himself in others, his face a spectroscope while theirs were mirrors of refracted lines. Lines that were growing stronger, and more horrified.

“You are not hideous,” said Muninn, climbing onto his lap to nudge his chest with her head, rubbing up against him like a cat. “You have no idea what hideous looks like, August, and I do not particularly wish you to see it.”

“Then why bring me this?”

“It is an important article. One of two, but Shibasaburo did not write the other, and his name was not that used for naming. He was the first to discover the bacterium that caused the Plague, the first by several days–but there were inconsistencies in his work, so credit for the finding was given to the other. This happens sometimes, the search for credit in science. And it happened in June, not August–but the paper was published in August, on this day, and credit is due for that.”

“So we’re not going to see it?” August asked. “If it’s not happening today, we aren’t going to see him find out what he told everyone today?”

“I don’t much see the point,” said Muninn, ignoring the disgusted croak from the end of the bed. “The paper’s the important thing. Read it, and you may have a free day. I will take you where-ever you want to go.”

“But not to see Shibasaburo?”

“No. I will not go back there. Once was enough, and that once was repeated many times, in many memories.”

“Okay,” said August, uncertain, and feeling somehow as if he had been cheated, as if he were missing something, even if that something were horrible. But the end of August was coming, and he was in its final week and he felt, today, as if he did not have the strength to argue. He had just settled the journal to a comfortable level when Huginn marched up the bed and tore it from his hands, took him in his own iron claws and hauled him up from his bed and out of the window.

He didn’t let August up onto his back as Muninn did, just dragged him through the air underneath, his claws wrapped around and the air from his beating wings blowing August half to pieces. And August, who remembered another trip with Huginn, dragged through radio waves and radiation and the burnt transmissions of Nagasaki, screamed as loudly as he could. It still wasn’t very loudly, but there was no response and when August twisted as much as he could in the iron claws of the raven who held him, twisted to look back, he saw Muninn on his bed, and looking away. She did not follow.

It didn’t take August long to give up, to hang beneath like a side of meat strung up for curing. He didn’t have the strength to fight, so he did the best he could to conserve himself, to preserve, until Huginn flew down into a city, down into a clean and well-lit laboratory where a man was bent over a microscope. “Is that Shibasaburo?” he said, and Huginn bobbed his head.

“Is this August then, or June?” he asked.

“June,” Huginn croaked, and gave August’s shoulder one hard, quick peck, just sharp enough to dent the skin and bury the very tip of his beak within. August braced himself for the warmth, for the immersion, but this was not the overwhelming flood of information that came with the Lunar Orbiter, that came with the presence of Madrid. This was a dim recollection of it only, the merest taste, and it overlaid August’s vision with paper so that where-ever he looked he could see pages from the Lancet, hung like ghosts before their publishing. He knew then that he was seeing the genesis of the paper that would be, the one stamped a week before his birthday, the one that lay discarded on his blanket.

There was another stool close to where Shibasaburo was working, and August hoisted himself painfully onto it, his legs swinging beneath, but he was able to rest his upper body on the workbench and so that was something. The Lancet pages seemed stamped into the bench, into the walls, and looking at them made him dizzy, although staring at the microscope sometimes made him sick so that he did not always know where to look. He could sneak occasional glances through the microscope, see the rods of the bacteria stained blue and that was not too bad, but Shibasaburo was working also with corpses, with the many thousands of dead from the Plague around them, and he was braver than August, who could not watch the organ tissues cultivated in incubators, the blood scraped from dead fingertips and all around the smell of beef tea over putrefaction, tea used to grow the bacteria in colonies that were not bodies, in populations that were not damaged and desecrated by diseases not their own.

“How does he do it?” said August, thinking of the bodies of the dead, piled up like cordwood for burial and for testing. “Isn’t he afraid the same thing will happen to him?” But Huginn, awaiting his turn at the microscope, made a guttural sound of indifference and turned back to the lens, winged fascination in the midst of horror. He was not comforting, even when he flew August home, back to his bedroom that was free at least of pustules, of buboes and black blood and left him there. He was not comforting to Muninn either, who stood where they left her except this time with paper ripped to pieces about her claws and memory clouding her clockwork eyes.

It was left to August to be comforting, and he knew of nothing he could say to make it better for her, for either of them. Instead, he held her in his arms, stiff and unyielding as she was with her heart as iron as the rest of her. “At least there was a cure,” he said, even if there had not been one for him, or one not come in time. “One day everything will be cured,” he said.

“Do you really believe that?” Muninn asked him.

“I do.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Earth Summit at Johannesburg!

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

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

The August Birds: 23 August, 1966

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 23, 1966

ROBLEDO DE CHAVELA, SPAIN

August had had a bad night. There had been alarms and hurried footsteps and oxygen, and all his family beside his bed and waiting. Not that he had known, for there had also been pain, and the amount of medicine necessary to blunt that pain had dulled his senses and sent him dreams of stillness and shallows that had been hard to wake from.

“There you are,” said April, when he opened his eyes late in the morning, and if his were sticky from sleep hers had dark circles around them, and the lashes were wet. “Were you just going to sleep the day away? You always were the lazy one…”

“April,” said August. Everything was fuzzy, and too bright, and he could understand that she was teasing him but he could not understand why. The knowledge hovered before him and out of reach. “Birds,” he said. “I’m so sleepy, April. Tell the birds…”

“He’s only half-awake,” he heard, and it was another voice–it sounded like Mum, but his eyes were too heavy to open. “He must be dreaming.”

August shook his head on the pillow. His tongue was too big in his mouth, and dry. He tried to speak, tried to tell them he wasn’t dreaming, that the ravens were coming for him, but he couldn’t force his mouth to make the words. And then April was there with him, closer than before, and he felt her lips brush his ear and her hands squeezing his. “It’s alright, August,” she said. “I’ll tell them. Don’t worry about your birds. I’ll tell them.”

#

“She did tell us,” said Muninn, late that night when August had woken for the second time. He felt thin all through, as though he were made of nothing but clear water, and there was a distant aching in his bones like icebergs, but he was awake again, and properly.

“I didn’t think she could see you,” he said. “I didn’t think that anyone could.” He had liked it that way too, liked that he had a secret. There had been so few secrets for him. He had been prodded and measured and counselled by a procession of kind, white-coated people until his body was a book for them, a book with a cracked spine that fell open for easy reading.

The ravens had been his secret, and he tried not to feel a pang that they were now April’s secret as well. If he had to share them with anyone, he would have picked her.

“She can’t see us,” said Muninn. “But she is a clever girl, your sister, and kind. She took bread out into the garden, and little balls of peanut butter rolled up in seeds, and lured the birds for feeding, the little winter birds who remained, and as they came for the bread she told them all that you were sleeping and they could not see you today.”

“You ignored her,” said August, smiling. His lips stung when he did, the tiny cracks and fissures in the flesh that chap-stick did not fully cover, but they were cracks that came from flying on the raven’s back, flying with the old, cold wind of dry centuries, and he would not have missed them for the world.

“Of course I did,” said Muninn primly, folding her wings about her. “I come as I please, and no little girl, no matter how clever, can keep me out if I don’t want to be kept.”

Huginn croaked a disapproving sound. He was perched on the end of August’s bed, as Muninn was perched on August’s pillow, and his feathers were all ruffled up with the force of his disdain.

“He looks annoyed,” said August, and at the end of the bed Huginn turned his face away and began to preen.

“He is very fond of your sister,” said Muninn. “He thinks I have been over-rude to her. He would have liked to know her better.”

“He wants her instead of me,” said August, and though he was not surprised he did feel hurt.

“I want you,” said Muninn. “And that is all that matters.”

“Can’t have me,” said August, feeling sorry for himself, feeling second-best and broken down. But Huginn eyed him from the end of the bed and there was no pity in his gaze–and no pleasure either.

“I wanted to come with you today,” he said.

“I know,” said Muninn. “But you can’t. You are too weak.”

“I’ll feel better tomorrow,” said August. He knew that he was pleading and was not sorry. He was too close to death now to worry about such a little thing as shame. “I’ll come with you tomorrow. Please. Don’t leave without me.”

“I will not leave you,” said Muninn, and at the foot of the bed Huginn nodded his whole body once, and roughly. It wasn’t exactly delight, but it was acquiescence and August knew it.

“Would you like to know where you could have gone today?” said Muninn, and when August nodded, still sleepy and still curious, Huginn hopped up the bed, hopped up in his brisk raven scamper and ran up August’s legs and his chest and buried his beak, the beak that smelled of iron and bread, right in the centre of August’s forehead.

It was as if he had been plunged without warning into water, but this water was not warmer than August, and nor was it colder. It had the same heat as his blood, and were it not for the slipperiness and the faint feeling of compression he might not have recognised it as kin to liquid. It pulsed around him, little flickers of light and shadow that shuddered through him like language. August felt it down to his fingertips, but those fingertips weren’t human anymore, at least not completely. There was human bone, a skeletal structure that on the edge of his vision was overlaid with iron feathers and instruments, with camera lenses and radio waves and on his thumbnail was stamped Lunar Orbiter 1.

There were shutter-clicks in those bones, and chemicals he recognised by scent with nostrils that weren’t his own. There was a dim and dusty focus, a cold pale ground and an empty one–and a sudden jerk, a last-minute manipulation, and the bone-iron-camera that was August turned away from potential landing sites and shutter-clicked across void. Then the chemical scent again, and the finished photograph, and the information split up into little pieces and fragmented, and August felt each pulse, each wave of information as if they were his own body, cut up and scattered across distance but bound to each other even so. Those pieces travelled a long time, and August felt it so and did not feel it, with Huginn’s beak in his brain and the transmission unaware of its length, of the space it crossed. And then the little pieces were caught and connected again, in a tracking station out of Madrid, and the men in that station saw for the first time a picture of the Earth, taken from the moon and whole, if shadowed into crescent. And then the pieces that August had seen were as nothing for the light that burst out of that tracking station went fore and aft. It covered the earth and went violet-tinged into the future, tiny connections and turnings and change coming together in conglomerate, with the photograph as instigator and consequence both and Madrid at the centre, shining beneath him like the moon on a still night lit up against the backdrop of the universe.

Then there was a quick hard jerk and August was free again, his forehead unmarked, and Huginn was stumping back across the blankets and down to the bottom of the bed, his metal eyes whirling and his wings half-spread as if he were flying. As if he wished to fly, in great, predatory circles, hunting out waves and transmission and presence, hunting out the knowledge-change that came with them.

“What…” he said, shaking his head to try and clear the buzzing behind his eyes, the thin-stranded multi-vision of Huginn dipped briefly into his mind and taken back again. “What was that?”

“Not the Blue Marble,” said Muninn. “And not Earthrise. Those pictures would come later. Instead the first picture of Earth as a planet, the first picture not in parts.”

“It’s beautiful,” said August, and he wasn’t sure if he was speaking more of the planet or of the picture, broken down in Huginn’s iron mind to information and spread across systems, perfect and pure and absolutely, utterly inhuman.

“Of course it is,” said Muninn. “Distance is always beautiful.”

“I never imagined,” said August, and to his surprise his eyes overflowed with tears, warm as blood and wet against his skin. At the end of the bed Huginn croaked again, and if it was not a completely friendly sound it was sympathetic, almost.

“Some of the most wonderful things we see and learn we do not see and learn first-hand,” said Muninn. “Will you remember that, August, in case the opportunity comes again?”

“I will,” said August.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Pompeii, on the anniversary of its destruction!

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

The August Birds: 22 August, 1984

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 22, 1984

NARIOKOTOME, KENYA

August blinked at the sunlight. “I’m so warm,” he said. “It’s nice. I hardly ever feel warm now. It makes me sleepy.”

“You will not want to sleep through this,” said Muninn. They were sitting on a boulder, with August’s blanket under them to soften the stone and although the rock was on sloping ground the small rise behind gave no shade and the heat beat down upon them.

“We could have waited in the camp,” said August. It was not far away, set up under thorn trees and palms, and if it still looked warm there then at least it would be cooler than the mass of black rocks and pebbles where they rested, or the sandy floor at the bottom of the slope that was getting too hot to walk on if one had feet that had never been toughened to it. “I should have brought my slippers.”

“Stop complaining,” said Muninn. “Do you see him complain?” And she indicated the man below, bent and hunched over the ground, sifting and sorting and brushing, his dark face a study in concentration and his fingers gentle in the earth. Huginn had wedged himself beside the man, right up close to his knees, and August couldn’t understand how he wasn’t knocked aside as the man worked, but the raven bobbed and weaved his way around obstruction.

“What’s he looking for?” said August.

“His name is Kamoya,” said Muninn. “And he is looking for fossils. He has found many before, but he is about to find another. It is the most important fossil he will ever find.”

There was a brief moment of stillness then as Kamoya paused, his body silent, unmoving. And then he was moving, and Huginn too, as Kamoya dug a dark fragment out of the earth and Huginn’s beak was pressed up against his hands, pecking at the dirt between fingers, and then there was a little curved piece of bone, no bigger than August’s palm, and Kamoya held it up to the light and grinned while Huginn cawed in triumph.

“What is it?” said August again, leaning so far over his boulder that Muninn was obliged to take a fold of his pyjamas in her big blunt beak and haul him back from overbalancing.

“It is a piece of bone,” she said, when August was sitting still and safely again. “A very old bone, taken from the skull of a boy who has been dead a very long time.”

“A boy?” said August. “Like me?”

“Like and yet unlike,” said Muninn. “About your age, certainly, although the fix is not exact. Not Homo sapiens, though. He is too old for that, and too early. He is another member of your genus, and so related. If you were to look him up, your books today would refer to him as ergaster.”

“Is that his name, Ergaster?” said August.

“That is a classification, not a name,” said Muninn. “Call him Turkana, if you wish. It was the name that was given him from this place, from the Lake that rests nearby.”

“I like Ergaster better,” said August. It reminded him of his own name. They seemed to fit together, belonging as they did to two boys who would die young and in such different places. Ergaster would not have spent his life in bed, or being taken to hospitals for beads and blood tests. He would have found August’s life amazing, a strange story and a frightening one, perhaps, and he could have shown August his own strange life so that August could be amazed and frightened in turn. Two boys. He was sure that they could have found something in common.

“How long ago did he live?” said August.

“One and a half million years since,” said Muninn, placid, and her wings flexed as if remembering long soaring and flights far beyond.

“That’s… a very long time,” said August. He looked at Kamoya, who was still brushing carefully at the skull fragment in his hand, the bone as dark as rocks. “How did he even see it against them?” he said, half to himself and wondering. “And how can he tell what it is, that it’s even a boy at all?”

“He is careful and lucky both,” said Muninn. “And he is good at his job, very good, and he has practiced much, taken great care. It is no easy thing to be a fossil hunter, to pick meaning out of fragments and emptiness.”

“But it’s only a piece of bone,” said August. “Just a little piece.”

“Yet he can tell that it is hominid, and from the head,” said Muninn. “And it is not the only little piece that he will find, and he will soon have help.”

Huginn gave a satisfied croak then, and just a moment before Kamoya rose the raven clambered onto his shoulder and was carried all unnoticed back to camp, his head held at a jaunty angle that mirrored Kamoya’s happy expression. The man looked, August thought, as Caroline had looked when she lifted her face from the telescope: a look of wonder and discovery that connected through centuries and continents.

“Where’s he going?” said August. “He’s not leaving, is he?”

“Quite the opposite,” said Muninn. “He has gone to call his employer and his friend, and in the coming weeks the crews here will continue his work, for what Kamoya has found is the first fragment of the most complete skeleton of an early human that has yet been found. It is an extraordinary discovery, the find of a lifetime.”

“Ergaster,” said August.

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“I wish I could stay and see all of it,” said August, knowing that he could not. He had both a day for himself and little more than a week, and neither would be enough.

“You have seen the beginning of it,” said Muninn. “The spark. It is from such small things that science is made, that the universe is so understood. Little things, one above the other and scattered as the boy is scattered. They will find him, even so, and lay him out: vertebrae and scapulae and skull, tibia and fibula and the ribs that held his heart in place.”

“It’s so strange,” said August. “That he’s here, still. I mean, if you had told him, if you had asked him, that he would be here a million years later… what would he have said? How could he have pictured it?”

“He could not have pictured it,” said Muninn. “It would all have looked different to him. Not just the land, for that has changed about his bones in the time he has been gone. But the life that he had–that too would look different, and ephemeral. Do you know what ephemeral means, August? It means something that does not last.”

That August understood. His life was shorter than most, and everyone he knew would move beyond him, on and on, but they would move beyond for decades, perhaps, and then all of them–everyone who knew him–would be dead. But compared to one and a half million years those decades were short, and the confusion made him feel very small. It was as if the decades he would miss did not actually matter. It was as if they were almost nothing.

“Muninn,” said August, “Do you remember him?”

“I do.”

“If he had pictured it, would you know?”

“I would.”

“And he didn’t.”

“No,” said Muninn. “He had quite enough else to think about.”

There was a pause. “I’m not going to be a fossil, am I?” said August, with some trepidation. He didn’t know whether to be anxious or sorry. He found he did not quite like the thought of being poked at and dug up and arranged after death. His body had been displayed and prodded enough beforehand–and yet, and yet. It would make a change to have people excited about him being dead, instead of just plain sad.

“Probably not,” said Muninn, and although her voice was grave there was an undertone to it, a lighter note within the croaking that made it sound as if she were trying not to laugh. “Most people aren’t. Does that make you sorry?”

“I don’t know,” said August.

“That,” said Muninn, “is not the worst answer in the world.”

“I wouldn’t have minded being a fossil hunter, though,” said August, and beside him Muninn closed her eyes to the sun, as if she were dreaming and the dreams were pleasant.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the first picture taken of the Earth!

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