Novels

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

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The August Birds: 21 August, 1609

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 21, 1609

VENICE, ITALY

The ravens had brought him to a tower, high above the city, and August was just tall enough to look down out of the windows, to see the dome of the Basilica beneath him, the Square of St. Mark, and the lagoon with all the little islands.

“Muninn,” he said. “Look at the boats! There’s so many of them…”

“I see them,” said Muninn. “They are batellas and galleys and gondolas; a way to travel for those without wings.”

“Are we here to ride them?” said August, and Muninn shook her feathered head.

“No,” she said. She was perched on the ledge of the window he looked out from, and Huginn was on the other side, sleepy in the sun and with his head tucked under a wing. “I have brought you here to see them, and to see other things so doing.”

“I could see them better close up,” said August. “We are very high, here.” But the bell tower was solid around him, and he was not afraid of falling.

“You will get a better look soon enough,” said Muninn. “Galileo is about to be here, and he is bringing his telescope with him to show to the leaders of Venice. He will show them many things.”

“Are they going to see a comet too?” said August.

“No,” said Muninn. “He did not bring them here for comets, nor did I bring you to see them, or even to see the telescope. You have seen those before. I have brought you here to see what comes with him.”

And August turned to see a procession of men come up the stairs, led by the Doge of Venice and by Galileo. And Galileo drew the men towards the open windows, where they could look down over the city as August had looked down, and it was there that he set up his telescope.

“It’s a lot smaller than Caroline’s,” said August. Galileo’s telescope was made of tin, and the outside of it was decorated with red satin. Huginn had come awake again and hopped towards the group, rubbing his big blunt head up against the shiny material as if he were a cat, almost. Then he flew onto Galileo’s shoulder and perched there, nipping gently at his ear.

“How does he not notice?” said August, trying not to giggle. “Doesn’t he feel him sitting there?”

“Thought is a weighty thing,” said Muninn. “A weight that Galileo is used to. He has carried it all his life, carried it longer and heavier than most, and he has not yet felt the burden of it.”

August watched as Galileo displayed the telescope to the Doge and his companions, watched as they each put their eye to one end of the scope and marvelled. They saw ships out off the Venetian coast before their eyes could see them unaided. They saw people coming in and out of a church on a nearby island, and passengers getting out of gondolas along the Grand Canal. August saw them too, when he was able to sneak between the bodies and put his own eye to the glass, to see the tiny oars and the little prows. Huginn flapped his wings at him when he lingered, and made as if to run down Galileo’s arm and give August his own peck about the ear, if a peck that was less gentle and more censorious.

“They seem happy with it,” said August, retreating to a safe distance and back beside Muninn, watching the telescope again ringed round with Venetians.

“The Senate rewarded Galileo for his work, and for his instrument,” said Muninn. “They thought it would be useful. They did not think that he would ever use it for more than ships.”

“He did though, didn’t he,” said August.

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“Of course he did! April’s telescope, the one she lets me borrow… I use that for more than stars. You can’t see them during the day, and sometimes I get bored.”

“I know you’ve looked through your neighbour’s window,” said Muninn, and August blushed.

“I wasn’t trying to be rude,” he said, “or see anything bad. But she was making biscuits, the yummy ones she brings over sometimes, and she won’t tell me how they’re made. She says it’s a secret. I thought if I could watch her make them I’d know.”

“She wouldn’t like you looking at things you’re not supposed to,” said Muninn.

“I wouldn’t have told her I looked,” said August. “She could still have had her secret, if I kept mine.”

“If you kept it,” said Muninn. “Some people do not keep secrets well. They find things out and share them with the whole world. That is what Galileo did, when he pointed his telescope at the sky and saw things other people said he wasn’t supposed to.”

“I know,” said August. “They put him on trial, didn’t they? And made him say he was wrong even though he knew he was right.”

“These are the bargains we make,” said Muninn, who remembered the judges and the bowed head and the renunciation, who remembered the showing of the instruments, the threats of torture and death. “If he hadn’t they might have burned him alive,” she said, and August, who remembered burning, shuddered even though the day was warm and the bell tower open to little breezes. “Instead he died under house arrest–but that gave him some time longer in which to study and to learn. He was not so very unhappy, when he could forget the support he could not say, forget the bargain that he did.”

“It’s still not fair,” said August, seeing how excited Galileo was, how he worked and hopped about, how happy he was to show and to share what he had learned, and how that would soon enough be over. “It’s not fair.”

“But that is life,” said Muninn. “The consequences of what you see here today are inevitable. Even if Galileo had never used his telescope to look at the stars, others would have. And they would have seen in his place that the face of the moon is not perfect, that the morning star is sometimes crescent, and that Jupiter has moons. Once the instrument was created, it would never not be used.”

“You’re saying there was no escape for him,” said August. “That he was going to be tried no matter what. That he was always going to lose.”

“Is that not the human function?” said Muninn. “To address the inevitable? Once an action is taken, or an event occurs, there are always consequences. Look at you, August. You were born, and you are going to die. It is your own inevitability.”

“It’s not the same thing,” said August.

“Is it not?” said Muninn. “I thought, once, that all the world would end in Judgement, as Galileo was judged, if more fairly. Of course, I was very young at the time.”

August was surprised at that. “Were you ever young, Muninn?” he said. “Really young, like me?”

“Oh yes,” said Muninn. “Oh, yes. And I grew older, and then older still, and I learned stories about more than judgement. One of those was about the world ending, again, in a great battle between gods and giants and men.”

“Who won?” said August.

“Nobody won,” Muninn replied. “Nobody ever does. It was a wolf age, that story, and one of darkness and drowning. But it was inevitable in its ending, a certain coming that could not be gainsayed.”

“How did they know?” said August, sceptical. “How did they know it couldn’t be stopped if they tried?”

“A prophet told them,” said Muninn. “A wise woman, a völva. In that story she could see ahead, as Galileo will learn to see ahead in his.”

“I don’t understand,” said August.

“Look at him,” said Muninn, and August turned again to see Galileo at his telescope, at his demonstrations. “When Galileo looks through that telescope now, he can see ships and sailors and churchgoers. Soon he will see stars, and the surface of the moon. One day, not so very far from now, he will stand before another group of churchgoers who have come to judge of him, and he will see in his telescope another starry messenger: his future and his death.”

“But he doesn’t die,” said August. “They don’t kill him.”

“Of course he dies,” said Muninn. “He stands still for a little while, that’s all. He doesn’t escape his death. Still it moves, still it comes towards him. It is an inevitable as consequence or Ragnarök.”

“So there was no point for him,” said August. “For anyone, is that what you’re saying? That you can’t do anything to fight it.”

“Of course you can try to fight it,” said Muninn. “You are fighting now, aren’t you? Through all the days of August.”

“And you’re saying that’s not enough,” said August. It was not a question.

“No,” said Muninn. “I’m saying to take your victories where you can.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the discovery of Turkana Boy!

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: 20 August, 1977

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 20, 1977

CAPE CANAVERAL, U.S.A.

The ravens had brought him to a space centre, and August sat, huddled in his blanket, one small boy in a crowd of excited people who didn’t see him, who were all looking away and outward. Muninn sat with him.

“Why is called number two if it went first?” said August. “You’d think it would be Voyager 1.”

“Voyager 1 is the faster,” said Muninn. “It will pass Voyager 2, in time. But this Voyager will go out among the stars, out where no probe has been, and it will see Jupiter and Saturn. It will see Uranus and Neptune… and because of it we will see them as well.”

“Even me,” said August, who had seen the photos, who had been born after their transmission and who would see no more. He wanted to be excited even so, but he was nearly always cold now, even on summer days, and his seat was hard. It made his bones ache.

“You have seen many things that others have not seen,” Muninn acknowledged.

“So don’t be greedy, is that what you’re saying?” said August, with a thin little smile, and Muninn settled her feathers primly and said nothing.

The people around them had brought popcorn, some of them, and sandwiches and apple juice. One family was eating hot dogs, and August eyed them as if with the memory of hunger. He had liked hot dogs, once. And candy apples, and popcorn. Popcorn with lots of butter and salt, and plain popcorn for making strings at Christmas. Mostly he liked to hear the sound of it bursting in the pan, and the warm scent of caramelised sugar that April would sometimes mix into hers. It had smelled wonderful then, and it smelled wonderful now, but the smell was all he could appreciate. Eating seemed too much trouble, somehow, and he was never hungry anymore, but he could sit and breathe in the wonderful smells and the excitement that was beginning to be infectious, and he could watch the rocket being made ready before him, about to go up into space and beyond what anyone knew.

“It’s the sparrow again,” he said suddenly, thinking of Caroline in her garden, thinking of the telescope and of Huginn croaking out the name of a man dead for a thousand years and more. Thinking of the story that Muninn had told him, of the sparrow flying through a bright hall and back out into darkness.

“Except this time the hall is all dark,” he said.

“Not completely,” said Muninn. “There are stars in that hall, billions of them. Voyager–both Voyagers–will travel alongside those lights.”

“But space is very big,” said August. “And the lights are very little. Maybe the only time Voyager will always be in the light again is if someone finds it and takes it home.”

“It will be a different home than the place where it began,” said Muninn. “It will be going out to strangers and strange places. There may be nothing familiar to it–no road maps, no friendly hands.”

“What if it never finds anyone?” said August. “What if it flies forever? What if the dark hall goes on and on?”

“Then we may never know it,” said Muninn. “But that is not the important thing. What’s important is that the attempt is made–that you have tried, all of you, to reach out, to want to meet something more than yourselves, to talk with them and be friendly.”

“That’s why the record’s with it,” said August, remembering the gold plated disc sent out with the probe, sent out to find other life and to tell about Earth’s own.

“Yes,” said Muninn. “The Golden Record. Would you like to see it?”

“I’d rather stay and watch, if that’s alright,” said August, huddled into his blanket. “I always wanted to see a rocket go up. I thought, once, that one day I might be on one. I thought it might be fun to be an astronaut. To travel through space.”

“You have travelled through space,” said Muninn. “The planet you walk upon travels, and you travel with it. And on your travels you look for others who can understand you, for others who could be friends.”

August laughed, picturing himself with antennae for arms, with a satellite dish for a face, zooming back and forth and taking photographs of everyone around him. “She dressed me up like one, once,” he said. “April, I mean. I don’t remember it. There was a costume party when I was little, for her birthday. I’ve seen the photos. She was an astronaut, wrapped about with tin foil and with Mum’s old motorcycle helmet on. But I was too small to wear a helmet so she dressed me up as a probe so that she could take me with her. I looked so stupid. But I wasn’t Voyager.”

“You could have been. You have a Record too, you know,” said Muninn. “To go with the celebration and the exploration. You are also sending out your Record, uncertain.”

August frowned. There had been experimental treatments, clinical trials. His DNA had been sequenced. None of it had cured him. None of it had made him better. “I don’t want to think about it,” he said. This was supposed to be a happy time, he didn’t say, wanting more than anything to let himself forget for a moment, to be caught up in the excitement of the people around him, to share this moment in their lives.

But Muninn was iron, and she could not forget. “Those results mean something,” she said. “Not to you, perhaps. But one day to someone else. They will learn from them and learn from you, and perhaps you will make a friend of them, though the space between you is long and dark.”

“I’d rather know,” said August. “If the doctors learn anything from me that can help someone else one day, I’m glad. But I’d rather see the helping.”

“The scientists who worked on Voyager might rather see the finding,” said Muninn. “They do not know if it will ever happen. They just hope that it will.”

“And that’s enough for them?” said August.

Muninn flicked her wings, tossed her head at the launch pad. “Does that look like not-enough to you?” she said.

“No,” said August, smiling, and for a moment he imagined himself as one of the scientists, imagined himself with them, and hopeful. It made him feel warm inside.

“Look,” said Muninn. “They are about to begin. Do you see it, August?”

All attention was focused upon the launch pad. The crowd around him was silent, straining with anticipation, and August held his breath. He was excited, and a little frightened. Strange, he thought, to be so. He knew this mission was successful, knew it from his place in the future, and yet…

An explosion of burning cloud engulfed the launch vehicle, until only its nose was visible, and then the great machine began to move. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster it lifted off the Earth and streaked into the sky, streaked out into the solar system and possibility.

Huginn flew with it, a dark, distant shape obscured at first by the billows on the launch pad. But as the rocket rose through the air, August could make out Huginn racing up beside it, the sun glinting off his iron wings–and then he was too high to see, and gone.

“How far up will he go?” said August, but he had to repeat himself because the crowd around him was cheering then in celebration–calling and applauding and so loud he nearly had to put his thin little hands over his ears. He wanted to jump up himself, to whoop and cheer with them, but it was hard to move quickly now, and it took too much breath to shout.

“You don’t need to worry about him,” said Muninn. “He’ll come down when he’s ready. There’s no people up there, and no ideas to draw him on–he’s bound to the Earth, and the people on it. I wonder, sometimes, what will happen when you humans move out to the stars. Perhaps Huginn will go with you then. Perhaps I will.”

“But not now?”

“No,” said Muninn. “Not now.”

“You’ve got things to do, still,” said August, and it wasn’t a question.

“I am still making my own Record,” said Muninn.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Galileo show off his telescope to the leaders of Venice!

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: 19 August, 1887

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 19, 1887

KLIN, RUSSIA

August was propped up in bed, playing Go Fish with his Dad when the ravens came. He froze for a moment, unable to make the bridge between them, to contain them both in the colliding hemispheres of his life, but when it became clear that their appearance was confined only to him he relaxed and let them watch.

“I just wanted to say,” said Dad, picking up another card, “that I was proud of you. For making up with your sister.”

August would have liked to have left it at that. It gave him a warm feeling inside and he didn’t feel that often. Oh, his parents told him they were proud of him a lot, but August knew, deep down, that he had never done much to be proud of. Mostly when people told him they were proud of him it was after something nasty had happened–another needle, another operation, another painful, boring, or embarrassing test, and they were so proud of how well he’d put up with it. The thing was, they told him that even if he didn’t put up with it well at all–he remembered when he was younger, crying and screaming at the needles while his Mum hugged him, and when it was over they’d still said they were proud at how well he’d done, how brave he’d been. So when Dad told him that he was proud of him for something else entirely, August would have liked to have taken the credit and warm feelings and hugged them all to himself, but the ravens were perched on the end of his bed, Muninn with her honesty and Huginn with his determination to think the worst of August always, the irritation and the badly veiled contempt, and he couldn’t stay silent while they were watching.

“It wasn’t exactly making up,” said August. Making up said to him that the two of them had been to blame, squabbling about sharing toys or space or attention, and the truth was that the fault had been entirely one-sided. “It was more me saying I was sorry.” He clutched his cards a little harder, refused to look up from them. “It was all my fault, Dad. Not April.”

“Yeah,” said Dad. “I know.”

August looked up in surprise. “You never said anything.”

“You’re going to be ten soon, you’re not a little kid anymore. Your Mum and I thought you’d figure it out for yourself.”

“And if I hadn’t?”

“I would have said something, had it gone on much longer.” His Dad put down his cards, rubbed one hand through messy hair. He opened his mouth and shut it again, and sighed.

“It’s alright,” said August, quietly. “You can say it. Whatever it is. Like you said, I’m not a little kid anymore.”

Dad smiled at him then, the kind of smile Mum had when she was trying not to cry. August hated that smile, but he knew he would have hated the crying more. At the end of the bed, Huginn shifted from one foot to the other and shook out his wings.

“You’re my boy,” said Dad. “You always will be. My child. But you’re not the only one. And as much as I’d like to let you have things all your own way right now, I’ve got April to think about as well. I won’t let her go the rest of her life thinking her brother hated her. That her brother… that he died hating her. I’m glad you apologised, August. I’m glad you made up. Because if you hadn’t, I would’ve made you.”

“How?” said August. He was genuinely curious. It wasn’t like grounding him would have made a difference, or taking away his toys. He was already losing far more than telescopes and fish bowls, and against that their loss would have been a bare thing, and trivial.

“You know kiddo, I think I would have had to guilt you into it,” said Dad. “I’d never forgive myself, but I would have done it.”

“Even if it made me sad?” said August, testing, though he did not know for what.

“You wouldn’t have been sad for long,” said Dad, and his face crumpled for the briefest moment and then smoothed again, a control over expression born out of pain and long practice. “April would have been sad for much, much longer. I don’t expect you to understand, but–”

August reached out then, placed his thin little hand over his Dad’s big brown one and squeezed as hard as he could. It wasn’t very hard, but it was enough. “I get it,” he said. “I do. It’s alright. And you didn’t have to do it.”

“No,” said Dad. “You did. Like a man, all grown up. I was so proud,” he said again. “So proud.”

“Anyone would have done it,” said August, muttering it under his breath almost and too embarrassed, too pleased, to do more than glance up at his father, at the ravens. Muninn was watching him, and her eyes were kind.

“Pull the other one,” said his Dad, throwing down his cards. “Your Mum and me have been lucky. Two good kids. It’s not always that way. Having children is such a crapshoot, August.” He caught himself then, gave a conspiratorial, guilty smile. “Don’t tell your mother. Fucking swear jar.” August giggled, and his Dad continued. “You never know how they’re going to be, or what you’re supposed to do with them. We make it up as we go along, and hope we don’t screw it up. Hope we don’t screw you up. Sometimes I look at you and your sister and I think, well, we jumped off a bridge with you kids, and it turned out alright. You turned out alright.”

“Jumped off a bridge,” said August. “Really?”

“Like an adventure,” said Dad. “Just, you know, with teething and screaming and shit.”

#

After he was kissed goodnight, the ravens flew August into darkness, into a day dimmed by another eclipse and then lit up again as the Earth and the moon and the sun moved beyond each other’s lines. Yet for the first time they did not land, and August experienced the eclipse from Muninn’s back, high above the surface of the Earth. He was not afraid of falling, even though the air was damp and cold and the iron feathers wet under his fingers. Muninn never let him fall, and the air was crisp and thin and made him dizzy, a little, and that led to giddiness and to lack of worry.

“There is no need to land today,” said Muninn. “I have brought you up for observation, and you are not the only observer.” She wheeled around, August clutching at her back and his legs hanging down, and before them was a balloon without a ceiling above it. In the balloon was a man with a worried expression on his face, who did not see them in the air before him, who did not see Huginn perched on the side of the basket.

“It doesn’t seem like a very nice day for ballooning,” said August, and his teeth chattered with little clinks like ice.

“The eclipse was today, so he couldn’t wait for a better one,” said Muninn. “He did get a very good view, though.”

“Then why’s he so upset?” The man was talking to himself in a language that August couldn’t understand, but he had the same expression on his face that Mum did when she was trying to hang curtains and August was fairly sure that he was swearing.

Dmitri is not a balloonist. He is more concerned with elements and tables, with chemicals and vodka. He has never been in a balloon before, and he does not know how to operate it.”

“What’s he doing up here if he doesn’t know how to get down?” said August, horrified.

“I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Muninn replied. “There was meant to be another man with him, but the balloon wasn’t taking off so Dmitri started getting rid of weight. Suitcase, sand, stool… out it all went, along with the pilot.”

August couldn’t help it: he burst into giggles. It just seemed so ridiculous, and the more he considered his position the more ridiculous it was. High and invisible on an iron bird, his hair wet with drizzle and his fingers cramping with cold and the light new come back from darkness and then haze–and before him, a bearded man in riding boots, balanced on the slippery edge of a balloon cabin and tugging ropes at random.

“I’m so glad you find it entertaining,” said Muninn.

“Don’t you?” said August, still giggling and dizzy at heights.

“I have only Dmitri’s memories of this event,” said Muninn. “They are not particularly amusing ones.”

“Mine are,” said August, and he felt the iron body beneath him inflate briefly, as if the raven were silently huffing at him, and then his experiences became her own as memory went from one into the other, from source to certainty and recording.

“He does look silly, I suppose,” said Muninn. “You are very good at silly.”

“Come on,” said August. “I’d never go flying without a pilot.”

“Please. That’s all you do,” said Muninn. “All of you, every day. Didn’t you listen to your father? You launch yourselves out into the world and there is no plan for you, no place you know for landing, and you have no idea how to get yourselves down. You make it up as you go along, and sometimes the balloon crashes and sometimes it doesn’t and it’s mostly down to luck either way, but you scramble into it every time, just floating through your lives and pulling on ropes to see what happens, to see what you can make yourselves do.”

“Don’t you?” said August.

“I used to,” said Muninn, and her wings beat hard beneath him. “When I was younger.”

“Maybe it’s time to start doing it again,” said August.

“I have been trying,” said Muninn.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the launch of Voyager 2!

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: 18 August, 1868

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 18, 1868

GUNTUR, INDIA

“I know,” August said. “I know! You don’t have to keep reminding me. We went over this with Ruby, if you remember.” He glanced at Muninn, saw the steady clockwork of her eyes, the ticking over of time all encompassed within. “What am I saying? Of course you remember.”

“Humour me.”

August sighed. “Total eclipse of the sun. Don’t look at it, you’ll burn your eyes out. I know, Muninn. I won’t look. I don’t want to be blind; there’s enough wrong with me already.”

“I want to be sure that you are certain of it,” said the raven. “There is an eclipse today, and another tomorrow. I would not have you damaged further.”

“I’m fine,” said August. “I’ll be fine. You’ve got my memories, you know I remember. So stop fussing, will you? You’re worse than Mum. Though you could have told me. If I’d have known we were going eclipsing, I would’ve made a camera. One of those pinhole ones. It wouldn’t have been hard, I’d only need cardboard.”

“I did not bring you here for eclipses, August. I wanted you to see something else. Look over there: it’s with Huginn, and with Pierre.”

August had to shift to see it, for Huginn was blocking his view, dancing about the instrument and forcing his face up close to it, staring into one end as if gazing at a mirror. “What is it?” he said.

“It is a spectroscope. Its purpose is to study the properties of light. When light passes through a prism it gives a spectrum, and the spectral lines shown by the scope are characteristic of elements. That is why Pierre has brought his spectroscope: he wishes to study the chromosphere of the sun, the solar prominences that burst from the surface and are more easily seen in eclipses. He hopes it will tell him something of the elements within the sun.”

“Does it?”

“Yes. He will see a yellow line that he cannot explain. It will not match up with what he expects to find. Instead, it reflects a wholly new discovery, a whole new element. Pierre is about to discover helium, August.”

“Helium? Isn’t that the gas they put in balloons?” He had balloons at his birthday parties, and some of them were filled with gas that made them float high and gave his Dad a squeaky voice. He liked balloons.

“I know you do,” said Muninn, and her voice was smug, as if there were secrets in it, and promises. “And yes, it is.” And that was all she had time to say, for the sky began to darken then and she hovered by his shoulder, her iron wings open in case he did something foolish and she had to cover his eyes. Instead, August focused on the spectroscope and on the ground, on the little blades of grass before him. He focused on the little plants as if he were Charles, and the sky became darker and darker until he couldn’t see them at all, until the birds that were not ravens stopped singing and the only thing he could hear was his own breathing, and Pierre’s.

“You’ll have to be quick,” Muninn warned him, and when Pierre moved a little away from the spectroscope, from the telescope it was attached to (he bent down suddenly, cursing, as if something iron, something he couldn’t see, had pecked hard at his ankle) August pressed his eye to the scope. “Do you see the yellow line?” she said, as Huginn flapped up from the ground and shoved at August until he could stare into the scope with his own iron eyes.

“I do,” said August. “At least, I did.” It had seemed such a simple thing in daylight: put together to dissect suns and make barcodes out of light. “It’s amazing, Muninn,” he said, and wonder was all through him. “It’s so little, and it does so much.”

“Like you,” said the raven, and August laughed in disbelief.

“I can’t do that!”

“But you are also a kind of spectroscope,” said Muninn–as if his fingers were glass, as if his palms were made of prisms.

“For the sun?” said August. “I don’t think so.” The sun did leaves lines on his flesh–shadows, and burns that turned his skin pink and left the marks of tanning on him–but there was nothing fundamental about those lines, no indication writ upon his flesh of helium, or of hydrogen or any of the heavier elements.

“It is not the sun shining through you,” Muninn replied. “It is death.” And August was quiet, because that he understood. The lines left by death were familiar to him, the lines on his body where bone showed under skin; the perfect half-circles under his eyes, delimiting in dark smudges the planes of his face. The tendons on the back of his hands, the way that all those lines together made new lines on the things that touched him. The medicine so carefully measured, sometimes in little cups and sometimes in bags of fluid to be hooked up to his body and pumped through, the needles sharp and straight against his skin. The pulses on the machines about his bed, the way that they measured differently the different parts of him.

They had been talking through darkness and a strange sort of twilight. Then suddenly there was colour in the world again, only greys and blues at first and then more and more as the light came back and the eeriness passed and August could look up and Muninn’s wings were folded.

“What are you reading off me, then?” he asked, as if those lines were letters carved into him as death radiated through, as if those letters were scratched onto him and able to be interpreted: a child’s book of hours where all the hours were running out. “That’s what he’s doing, isn’t he? The lines on his spectroscope show him what elements are in the sun. I already know what elements are in me: carbon, mostly, with some other bits. Calcium for bones, and there’s iron in my blood.” But Muninn didn’t need to be told this–she already knew what was in him, what was in everyone. She remembered those parts of them without telling. “You must be looking for something else.”

“It’s not me doing the looking,” the raven replied. “It’s you. And your doctors, and your family. Everyone who knows you can see the end coming through you. It’s written all over your face if it’s written nowhere else.”

“My face.”

“As if it were glass,” said Muninn. “A perfect polished surface. You refract, August, even without meaning to. The entire spectrum shines through you. Can you not see it?”

“I don’t look in mirrors anymore,” said August. He knew what he looked like, knew what sickness had done to him. And even if there hadn’t been mirrors, like the one that had hung above the fish tank until he had asked for its removal, he would have known because other people had prisms too. He could see in their faces what he looked like. He could see that they knew what was coming.

He didn’t need a mirror when he had other people.

“And they don’t need one either, not when they have you,” said Muninn.

“They have them anyway,” said August. He was the only person he knew who did without mirrors. April had one in her room. So did his parents. And there was a doctor, one of his favourites, who had long black hair all twisted up in a complicated style that she couldn’t have achieved without a looking glass. Another whose eye-liner was never smudged, another with a moustache he trimmed into strange shapes sometimes to make the kids on the children’s ward laugh. He wondered if there were another reason–if they finished up their days and went to look at themselves when they were done, went to check their own prismatic faces to see something shining through that wasn’t death, not yet, for all it left lines on them.

“If you can see their lines you can see what yours are not,” said Muninn, “and know yourself thereby. What do their lines tell you?”

“That they’re alive,” said August, and his voice was sad and heavy at once, and when he looked down the lines in his forearms, in his hands, were stark: lines of bones and tendons and shrinking. “And that I won’t be. Not for much longer.” He looked up at the raven then, the one that stood by him when the other was with Pierre, looking for lines of another kind, the thin yellow strip that said helium, that said not-August. The raven was dark, a prism all clouded before him and though the feathers were thin and filamented lines August could see no colours there, could wrest no meaning from them. He wondered if she ever saw her own face, the black iron lines of it. “What is it that you see, Muninn?”

“I see a spectrum,” said the bird. “And I see that it is familiar.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Mendeleev make a hash out of ballooning!

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: 17 August, 1834

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 17, 1834

CERRO LA CAMPANA, CHILE

Muninn flew him to the very top of the mountain. August could not have walked up on his own, nor could he have sat a horse, or even a donkey, for the length of time it would have taken for them to carry him upwards. Nor, when he was at the top, could August go exploring. The top of the mountain was a shattered jumble of rock, of weathered and fractured greenstone, all split and shattered and the fragments unsteady beneath him at angles.

“You will turn an ankle if you’re not careful,” said Muninn, and she was not wrong so August picked his way to the nearest slab. He was dizzy often now, dizzy from more than heights, so he was over-careful, inching his way between the rocks until he found a brief flat place where he could sit without too much discomfort.

“There is more to look at than your feet, August,” said Muninn, reproving, and when the black spots disappeared from his eyes and he could make his skinny, sweating little fingers loosen their grip upon the rocks, August raised his head and looked. Before him was a nation of knives–a horizon of peaks and edges, of mountains before him as far as he could see, and some were tipped with snow. The air was cold and very still.

“They are the Andes,” said Muninn, and August, who had only seen the Southern Alps when he had flown over them on another trip to Starship Hospital in Auckland, who had only seen the Southern Alps but who had pictures on his wall of Everest and Hillary, of the Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro and the Andes, actually squeaked in excitement. That small noise echoed and came back to him in waves, and he would have been embarrassed had Huginn not cawed then as loudly as he could, to hear his own echoes come back to him. And then Muninn was crowing too, and in the cascading effect of all their voices together August almost missed the echoes of a fourth as it came up onto the summit of the mountain with its companions, and if the man who arrived could not hear their echoes he could hear his own, and be as delighted by them. His face was so rosy with excitement, with happiness, that he seemed younger than he was, and for a moment he looked a little as August looked, and their twin small-boy faces were radiant in the sun.

August felt the kinship between them, and it was a feeling that saddened but did not fade when the man did what August could not–scrambled over rocks and broken boulders, strong and healthy and able to move on his own and without help. And his steps that started in excitement became measured, and that was another point of difference between them, for if August was dying he was still young and often measurement was beyond him, and consideration, and comparison. He could grasp them sometimes, but dimly, as though they were a theory new-come to him and not yet assimilated, but he did not look for them as the man was looking, did not consciously gather evidence in the same mingled state of astonishment and expectation.

“Who’s that, Muninn?” said August, watching the man bend over some of the rocks, tracing lichen with his fingers, the lichen that grew on some surfaces and not on others, the lichen that August had not noticed until the other had done it for him.

“His name is Charles,” said Muninn. “And he has come on a grand and wonderful voyage, come from his home far on the other side of the world in a boat that is called Beagle. Come to learn, to see shapes and differences and islands.”

“This isn’t an island,” said August. “I’m not stupid, you know. We could have seen tortoises, if we’d gone with him to islands. I like tortoises, Muninn.”

Beside them, Huginn made a rude sound.

“Oh, you think everything is plodding,” said Muninn. “Not everyone is as quick as you.” And Huginn, impatient at the chastisement, made another rude sound and hopped away, hopped towards Charles as he bent over lichen, poking and scraping, and waited next to his knee with more patience than he had ever extended to August.

“I was born in the wrong month for tortoises, wasn’t I?” said August, resigned and mournful at once.

“That is not my fault,” said Muninn. “If you must blame someone, blame yourself. Had you held on to your mother for another few weeks, you would have all the tortoises you could wish for.”

“I don’t mind, really,” said August. “I’m only teasing, Muninn.” He laid one little hand upon her back, the iron warm from the sun and heated under his palm. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “It makes me feel so small.”

“You are small,” said Muninn, mollified, and she reached back with her beak to give his fingers a friendly tweak. “Very small, and very young. No wonder the mountains are surprising to you. They are certainly surprising to him. But then,” she considered, “he is also young. Very well: you shall be young and surprised together.”

August smiled and bit his lip–he thought it might have been rude to laugh. “I wonder if we’re surprised by the same thing,” he said, he who had been surprised by size and smallness, he who watched Charles also focus on a smallness, and not the same. For Charles had risen from his crouch and was searching for more lichen, was ignoring the view in favour of the ground, of the broken rocks, and while August did not grudge the interest neither did he understand it. Perhaps Charles had had more experience with mountains than he had, and they were no longer exciting to him.

“You are,” said Muninn. “Surprised by the same thing, though you do not know it. The perspective is there, the presence of opposites, and how those opposites can show understanding.”

“If you say so,” said August, who didn’t understand one bit.

“Look at the rocks, August,” said Muninn. “See how broken they are? And how some have lichen growing on them, and how some have been broken so recently that lichen has had no time to grow?”

“Is that what he’s looking at?” said August, and then he could see it himself, because the rock on which he sat was dead rock, hard and empty, and the rock beside his feet was traced with life, with the lacy patterns of lichen.

“They are indications of earthquakes,” said Muninn. “Charles has seen earthquakes before, and this is another piece of evidence for him, evidence of the changing nature of the Earth. It will make him wonder how life can adapt to such change.”

“He can get all that from lichen?” said August.

“Not all of it,” said Muninn, “but some. It is the presence and absence of life illuminating him, August. The contrast between the two is as a little candle for him. It makes him want to question, and to learn.”

“He’s going to learn a lot,” said August.

“It was a very interesting voyage for him,” said Muninn. “To go to such strange places, to go beyond himself. It was full of things he had not seen before, or imagined. The lichen is a little thing–alive in some places, and then absent. It is easier to see life in absence sometimes, in disruption. It gives perspective. Like you,” she said, “on this mountain. You have also seen something you have not seen before, and not considered. And it has made you think differently about your life. It has made you feel smaller. And it has made him more aware of disruption, of the threat and discontinuity of life.”

“Me, too,” said August, almost absently, as he watched Charles, as he watched the lichen at his feet, the tiny pieces of life that could so easily be broken off and crushed.

“Yes,” said Muninn. “You too.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Pierre Janssen discover helium!

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: 16 August, 1960

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 16, 1960

GOMBE STREAM NATIONAL PARK, TANZANIA

Muninn glanced at August, her head cocked to one side. “Must you be so restless, child?” she said. “Surely it cannot be that difficult for you to sit still? You are sickly, after all. I would have thought such squirming beyond you.”

“I’d be fine if it weren’t for these insects,” said August, slapping at himself. His pyjamas kept the worst of them off, but the material was thick and fleecy and meant for the New Zealand winter, not a warm summer in the open air, and he was sweating through it, a magnet for bugs. “It’s alright for you. They’re not interested in iron.”

“Leave the poor things be,” said Muninn. “They’re not hurting you. Look at Jane. Does she seem so bothered?”

August peered around the bird. “She looks as sick as I feel,” he said. Jane was sitting beside them, her blonde hair pulled back into a pony-tail, and her face was wet with sweat. She was indeed sitting quietly next to her companion, August noted with some disgust, and neither of them were over-concerned with insects. But there was a vagueness in her eyes that he recognised well enough–he was used to feeling dizzy and weak and a little strange himself, used to the haze of dim reality, the way the world looked slant through sickness and almost familiar.

She had been lying down when Huginn and Muninn brought him into the little clearing, a high point streaked about with ravines that August had seen from above, and wooded. Huginn had landed right down by her face, his iron wings working to make a breeze over her and she had shifted then, raising herself up to sitting and wiping the sweat from her eyes.

“She should be in bed,” said August critically, and it gave him some satisfaction to say about someone else what he had so often heard about himself. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She has a disease called malaria,” said Muninn. “Coming down with it, anyway. She will feel a great deal worse in the days to come, I assure you, but she will be alright.”

“Why did she come all the way up here if she isn’t feeling well?” said August, who had seen the climb from his perch on Muninn’s back, who had been grateful that it was not his to make.

“Why did you?” said Muninn. “If sickness so concerns you, I can always take you home.”

“That’s alright, thank you,” said August, hurriedly. “I expect she didn’t want to stay in bed if she didn’t really have to.”

“A shocking concept,” said Muninn, and her voice was very, very dry. August suspected that she was making fun of him, but the thought didn’t bother him as it would have in the week gone past, where he had taken all attempts at humour as mockery, and cruel. He stuck his tongue out at her, and then again at Huginn for good measure, but the other bird ignored him. He was looking at the open ground ahead of them, a clearing in the trees and the woodlands, and Jane was looking with him, in the same direction and waiting.

“What are we going to see?” said August, and Muninn sighed.

“It’s a good thing no-one here can hear you,” she said. “You would have given your position away long ago, and he would have gone around before we could see him.”

“Who?” said August, but before he could ask anything more there was the steady sound of footprints, of a large animal approaching, and out of the trees, only a few metres away, appeared a chimpanzee. His fur was shining and very black, as black as raven wings, and he had a white beard. August and Jane and the ravens were close enough to see his expression, and it was a mirror of their own, of surprise at strange creatures and chance meetings. The chimp stilled, staring, turned his head to one side and then to the other, craning as August craned for a better view, for curiosity and connection.

“Will he come any closer, do you think?” said August, holding out his hand and forgetting, for the moment, that the chimp could not see him, that it could only see Jane and her companion.

“He is not a dog, August,” said Muninn, and August dropped his hand back to his side, sheepish. “You will note that he is cautious in his curiosity.”

“We wouldn’t hurt him,” said August.

“He doesn’t know that,” said Muninn. “And more salient is the possibility that he would hurt you. Hurt Jane, rather, or her companion. A chimpanzee is far stronger than you are, August.”

And the chimp was moving then, as if in illustration of a caution other than their own, moving out of his path and into the undergrowth. August sighed, disappointed, but the sound of the chimp moving through the vegetation did not fade away and August turned about in concert with Jane and the ravens, as the other animal made his way around and below them, rejoining the path he would have taken had the clearing been empty and he’d been able to walk through without hindrance.

“I can still hear him,” said August, pushing himself up on bony knees so that he could see better. “I wish I could see him.” He tried to catch Muninn’s eye, but the bird was very deliberately staring at the ground so that he could get no clue from her, and Huginn was standing beside Jane and crowing to himself as if he were laughing.

“Look!” cried Jane. “There he is, up there!” And August saw her expression alight with more than fever, followed her arm as she pointed and saw the chimpanzee again, and above them. He had climbed a tree to look down upon them, climbed for a better look, for curiosity and cleverness.

“He’s spying on us!” said August, delighted.

“How else is he to know you?” said Muninn. “Sometimes one can only learn by taking on a different perspective, by looking from a different angle. That chimpanzee can see more and differently from the tree than the ground. It was a sensible decision, the act of a thinking creature. If only all apes would be so thoughtful.”

August screwed up his face. “All apes,” he said. “Do you mean me, Muninn?”

“You are an ape, are you not?” said Muninn.

“I suppose,” said August. He hesitated, and in his hesitation was the remembrance of Neanderthal graves and telescopes, of reefs and radios. “Is that what you’re trying to do with me?” he said. “Trying to make me see differently, to make me look differently? Is that why I’m here?”

“That is why Jane is here,” said Muninn. “To learn to see the chimpanzees in a different way. She was not the only one. Dian went to the gorillas, and Birute to the orang-utans.” She settled her wings on her back, watched Huginn take off to fly back and between the woman and the ape, crowing as he flew, circling each in turn. “This was one of the early days, when they began to study each other. To see the new things in their world and begin to understand them, to see the way that other creatures lived.”

“It must have been so strange,” said August, who had lived a double life himself, who had gone from his own kind and his own home and into the homes of others, who had seen discovery and war and failure in those others and seen them again in himself. Who watched Jane, the sweat and fever and sickness in her face and the wonder painted over all until the sickness was only secondary.

“There were points of familiarity,” said Muninn. “In a different context, but they were there. Tool use, carnivorism, aggression. The ways that families came together, the ways that they came apart.” She paused, and did not look at him. “Sometimes it is not so easy to see in others what we think of as belonging to ourselves,” she said.

“No,” said August, who had tools and hurt and sickness to spare and had shared them, who had made others share them. “I guess not.”

“Still, as a way to learn I highly recommend it,” said the bird. “I think sometimes I have learned as much from apes as Jane did.”

“Thanks,” said August, dryly. “I think.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Muninn?” said August.

“Yes?”

“I don’t think you really answered my question. You know, about why I’m here.”

“Did I not?” said Muninn. “Perhaps that is a question you are meant to answer for yourself.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Charles Darwin search for evidence of earthquakes in Chile!

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: 15 August, 1914

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 15, 1914

GATUN LAKE, PANAMA

For the first time in nearly a week August did not wake with anger. Instead, April was with him. They snuggled under the covers together and if it was a tight squeeze she had brought biscuits to compensate, sneaked from the kitchen the lovely ginger biscuits made for August by the lady who lived next door because she knew he liked them. They’d spoil his breakfast, but August didn’t care and sugar was one of April’s primary food groups.

“You’re not a lump,” she said, her mouth half-full and with crumbs all over her lap. “Grumpy, sure. But not a lump. Certainly not a useless one. You’re not useless, for one. And you’re too skinny to be a lump.” She forced another biscuit into his hand. “Maybe you’re a particle.”

“Oh, a useless particle. Great. I feel so much better.”

April stuck her tongue out at him. “Call yourself useless again and I’ll take away your bickies. You can have Weetbix for breakfast like everyone else.” And she laughed as August made a face and snatched at the tin in mock-terror. “You are particles. A collection of them, anyway, and they’ll always exist, one way or another. Or you can be a wave if you want. Like when you throw a pebble in a pool. The ripples come from you and spread out and out and go on forever.”

“They don’t go on forever,” said August. “They’ll bump up against the sides and stop eventually.”

“Fine. It’s a giant pool. Never-ending, no sides. You’re such a complainer.”

“Still,” said August, between mouthfuls of his own, “it’s a nice thought, the ripples. Little bits of me reaching out. It’s like being remembered.” He paused, leaning against her and her body was solid and warm against him. “You’ll remember me, won’t you April?” For more than tantrum, he wanted to add but couldn’t. For more than sickness and selfishness and shrieking at you for things that were never your fault.

“Of course I’ll remember you. 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. We’ll all remember you together.”

“But that won’t last forever,” said August. “One day you’ll die too and there’ll be no-one to remember me. Nowhere for the ripples to go.”

April rolled her eyes. “They’ll go,” she said, taking another biscuit from the tin and shoving it gently into his mouth to shut him up. “Of course they will.”

His mouth still tasted of ginger when the ravens came, when they flew him over oceans and deposited him on the deck of another ship, this time the Ancon, caught this time in lake waters instead of shoals, and in no danger of sinking. “This is the first official trip through the Panama Canal,” Muninn had told him, and August had leaned against the railings as the ship was lifted through locks, as it floated between steep banks of rainforest.

“It’s hard to think of it ending soon,” he said. “That the me that stood on this ship and saw the birds and smelled the trees and the water will be gone.” That this would be the last of him, nearly, the ending days of August.

“There will be other Augusts,” said Muninn. “Other months, other boys. You are not the last.” Other journeys, other sailings. Other boats laden down with cargo and sent from safe harbour.

“But none of them will be me,” said August. He hesitated. “April… April says that we go on in other ways. Particles and waves and so on. I didn’t really understand.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Not really. I mean, I understand what she’s saying in my head. But I’ve been trying hard to feel it Muninn, really feel it, and I can’t.”

“You can,” said Muninn. “I have your memories, remember. You understand more than you think. Your sister knows that you do. It’s why she told you.”

“Oh, let’s not pretend she’s not cleverer than I am,” said August. He had two weeks left–two weeks and two days and there was no time left for lies. It didn’t even bother him anymore that April was cleverer than he was, that she would survive when he did not. It had bothered him before, bothered him badly, and he had hurt her for it. But now… after exile and extinction, after shoals and snow petrels and reaching out in his sinking he couldn’t feel bad that she would live, that she would take herself out into the world and make it better thereby.

“Then let us not pretend that her abilities take away from yours,” said Muninn. “You are capable of encompassing continuum, August. And if it is something that you need to see as well as think, then I can give you the looking of it. Hold to the railing, now–and don’t let go, no matter what you see.” Or what he didn’t see, as he clutched at the bars as he had clutched at those on the Arapahoe, this time for expectation instead of expulsion. For the bars began to fade–August could still feel them solid in his palms, his fingers curled around them–solid as the deck was solid beneath him, and also disappearing, becoming a faint, wavering stain against the landscape, against the water that was Canal and lake at once and it was as if he were standing in an invisibility more thorough than that he had experienced thus far with ravens. But it wasn’t only the ship that disappeared, for the lake itself began to run backwards, to shrivel into small channels and then into a wooded valley with a river running through, too small to carry the Ancon even though he felt it silent beneath him, still smooth-sailing through another time.

“Do you see it, August?” said Muninn, perched on invisible railings beside him and her iron feathers brushing his fingers, her iron claws curled around a bar he felt but could not see. “Do you see what is happening this August, what is happening every August for years until the dam is made, until the lake is built? Both man-made, and they were the largest in the world for their time. Do you see the people bringing the earth and rock and clay to make the walls, to hold the dam in place against the water to come?”

“I see them! There’s so many of them, Muninn. They must have thought they’d never finish.”

“Do you see the dam done, and the land behind it filling with water?”

“Yes,” said August, for beneath his feet the water was rising up in the valley, pooling and shrinking the land, transforming hills to islands, making the lake wide enough and deep enough for shipping, and the Ancon came back to life underneath him and then faded again and the Canal was full of ships, ships laden down with containers and cargo, easing past them as if the Ancon was a ghost in the water, and absent.

“There,” said Muninn, as the landscape flickered and changed about them, faster and faster until it seemed a slide show, moving around August as if in circles until the spinning halted. “Do you see that? That island there, the Barro Colorado? The one with all the buildings on it?”

“I see it,” said August again, and saw as well Huginn launching from the pale shadow of ship beside him and into the air, circling the buildings and spying this time for more than fish. “What is it, Muninn? Is it a holiday park?”

“I did not bring you to see holiday parks,” the raven replied. “That is a reserve, a biological research station, come to study tropical ecology after the Canal was completed. Biologists began to come here in the twenties, and they have come ever since, to study plants and insects, birds and anteaters and monkeys, come to study all the life of the rainforest that the Canal opened up for them. They would not be here if not for the building you saw, the hauling of all that rock and spoil. That is the Canal, August. Not just the sailing, but the building of it and how that building stretched into the past. Not just the sailing, but the science of life here along its banks, and how that life continues to be explored long after the builders are gone. Long after this boat has gone. That is continuation. That is change and influence and consequence gone further into the future than you ever imagined.”

Slowly then, the first boat, the boat that would be decommissioned long before August’s death, long before the end of the Canal, came back into focus and August saw as well as felt it under his hands, under his feet and all around him, the railings and the chimney and the flags.

“That’s the Canal,” he said. The images around him stopped: the whirling kaleidoscope of engineering and biology and he was as he had been, a small boy on a steamship, part of history but not pinned to it and no longer feeling as if he should be pinning down.

“I wish you could see it,” said Muninn. “How it all rolls on and on until today, a bright and endless ripple.”

“I do see it,” said August, smiling. There was wind in his face and the Canal smelled of water and wood and oil all together.

“You see part of it.”

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Jane Goodall meet a chimpanzee!

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: 14 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 14, 1894

OXFORD, ENGLAND

“You are being unkind,” Muninn observed. “Still.”

“So what?” said August. “I don’t care.” But when he heard the front door slam and looked down through his window at April running out of the house, her school bag bouncing on her back and her head down as if she were trying not to cry, not to be seen crying, he did care. Not enough to open the window, not enough to call after her, but almost. His fingers twitched on the latch, but they didn’t open it and August tried to squash down the feelings of guilt as best he could. “I don’t care,” he said again. He was the one who was dying, not her. It wasn’t fair that she should get to go on and be happy, even if she got to go on and be sad first. It wasn’t as if she were going to lose everything she loved, like Lina. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t.

“There is not a lot of time remaining to you,” said Muninn. “Are you sure you wish to spend that time in unkindness?”

“It’s nothing to do with you,” said August, sulky. “Can’t you just mind your own business?”

“Your business is my business,” said Muninn. “And your memories are my own, and unpleasant.”

“I guess it’s up to you to give me some better ones, then,” said August, and he knew how he sounded but it was as if the nasty comments were coming from a mouth other than his own and he was just an observer, watching from the outside as someone who looked like him and sounded like him did their very best to make others as unhappy as he was. He kept his head turned away so that he didn’t have to see Muninn’s soundless, disappointed sigh, so that he didn’t have to see the dislike written plainer than ever in Huginn’s iron eyes. Yet when Muninn extended her wing into the corner of his vision, he did not stop himself from reaching out to take it.

#

The first public demonstration of wireless radio transmission was sent between the museum and the old Clarendon Laboratory. Had August been healthy he could have covered the distance between them in less than two minutes.

“It’s not far at all,” he said.

“It is far enough for Oliver,” said Muninn, and nudged him closer to conversations and to mechanism.

“…might reach as far as half a mile,” Oliver said. Beside them, Huginn pecked at the equipment used to transmit the message, sent in Morse code, in dots and dashes, and his beak beat out a staccato rhythm of its own. August knew Morse code, but Huginn was transmitting too fast to be caught, although he thought that Muninn understood. It made him feel jealous again, and he was tired of feeling jealous but unable somehow to stop himself. Muninn was by his side, her stiff black feathers brushing against him, but she felt farther away than she had ever been, and closer to Huginn than she was to him.

“Half a mile is still nothing much,” said August. “Why couldn’t we have seen him do better?”

“He did not do better,” said Muninn. “This was the end of it. He had other interests, and it was left to others, to men like Marconi, to bridge the greater distances, to make a better communication and a longer one.

“So that’s it?” said August. “That’s it? He just packs everything up and walks away?”

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“What for?” said August. “If he was going to give up why did he bother in the first place?”

“He wanted to show it could be done,” said Muninn. “But Oliver lacked vision. He admitted it himself, that he could not see that there would be demand in the application.”

“He was stupid,” grumbled August.

“He was honest,” corrected Muninn. “A scientist is not a genius by virtue of his profession. A person may try hard and learn well and still not be a Galileo. Not everyone can see so well.”

“Is that why you brought me here?” said August, out of sorts and snappish. “To see someone fail? Don’t you think I know enough of failing?”

“There is a difference between failure and missed opportunity,” said Muninn, speaking of an experiment that did not fail and yet did not go far enough. “Some chances you don’t get back. Think hard about that, August, before you call other people stupid.”

August would have talked back then, been as cutting and petty as he knew how, but if Muninn was still holding onto patience then Huginn was not, and he pecked at August’s leg: one hard snap with his black iron beak and that snap said Be silent. And so August, rubbing at the bruise, was silent and thought instead of what he could not say, of the liberties he could have taken and the apologies that he did not know how to make.

#

The door to his room was open, and August lay in his bed, lay in the dark while a small strip of light from the hall illuminated the edge of his bedroom door, and he was thinking still. He could hear voices speaking dimly in other rooms, his Mum and Dad talking in the living room, the sound of the television. He knew that they were disappointed in him, and he knew as well that they were trying very hard not to show it. Mum had smiled at him over dinner, chatted with him as if everything were normal, but she had a range of smiles that pretended they weren’t sad and he knew them all.

It was lonely in his bed. The birds were gone, and his parents sounded far away. This was the time of night he would usually have talked to April, past bedtime and both of them pretending to be asleep when their parents came to check. There had been walkie-talkies once, but August had been sick over his and it had never worked well again. Instead, April had taught him Morse Code and knocked on the shared wall between their beds, knocked with knock-knock jokes to make him laugh, and if the knocks and the muffled giggles had filtered downstairs to the living room then their parents had pretended not to notice and let their children have their secrets together.

August turned in his bed, and laid his palm flat against the wall. He hadn’t tapped upon the wall for a long time now–it had begun to hurt his knuckles more and more, as he got thinner and thinner and the flesh wore away from his bones, and then he had been too hurt and too angry to knock. The wall felt silent under his hand: flat and smooth, with no vibrations, and the stillness and the silence was that of broken thoughts and missed chances, and before August could think worse of it, before he could talk himself out of it he curled his little fingers into a fist and beat them against the wall.

-.- -. — -.-. -.- / -.- -. — -.-. -.- he rapped. Knock, knock.

There was no answer, though August waited with his palm pressed against the wall, waited with his breath held tight until he couldn’t hold it anymore, until his bones ached with stillness and his stomach ached for another reason altogether. She always answered him. April had always answered, and she might have been asleep but she might have been angry with him, angry back and not answering, tired of his meanness and with her pillow over her ears so she couldn’t hear him calling for her because the distance between them had become too great to be breached and he had lost his chance to breach it.

-.- -. — -.-. -.- / -.- -. — -.-. -.- he rapped again, and his knuckles stung as much as his eyes. Knock, knock.

And there was no answer still, and silence, and August left his palm against the wall until he had to take it away to wipe at his face, because he wasn’t crying, he wasn’t, and there was no answer. And then, and then, there was a small noise echoing through the wall, right beside his head and repeated in familiar patterns, and he was laughing instead of crying, and felt better for it than he had in days.

Who’s there? said April.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the first boat trip through the Panama Canal!

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: 13 August, 1952

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 13, 1952

MOSCOW, RUSSIA

Early on the morning of the thirteenth August was taken from one place of crying to another: from his own room–where he could hear April though the wall, the near-silent tears that told him she must be stifling her face in her pillow–to another where the tears were louder.

The place the ravens brought him to was dark and cold and echoed with sobs–a great, heaving, half-muffled choking that echoed so that August felt the size of the room he was in before he saw it, small and cramped and bound about again with bars. The sound was so alone, so wretched and miserable that August froze, seeing again the ruined city behind his eyes and burning, and if he saw that city in himself when he looked in mirrors and lenses this was the sound he heard at night, echoing in the walls of his room and muffled so that no-one could hear.

August froze, and Muninn was still beside him, her feathers flat against her body and sorrowful, with an expression on her beaked face that August had not yet learned to read. It was Huginn who moved first, who ran-hopped-scrambled across the floor towards the sound. And as August’s eyes adjusted to the dark of what he had come to recognise as a cell–zoo cages and hospital beds had given him an understanding of prisons such that he would know them always–he saw that Huginn had leapt onto a thin, ugly little bed, where a heaving figure was curled in on itself, covered with a ragged blanket and sobbing. He was not only there, the raven who ignored him when he could and looked at August with disdain when forced into acknowledgement, but he was there and… and kind. Huginn was crouched down next to the head, carding through the grey hair, combing it with his beak and crooning, trying to comfort, and the sobbing checked a little.

“Who is that, Muninn?” said August. The ravens had taken him so often now to places that should have been beyond him that he had learned his presence would not disturb, learned that what the quagga had seen so close to its own death, its own cessation of memory, was anachronism and exceptional. He knew that he would not disturb the person crying on the bed, but for the first time he thought he might have liked to be able to, to be able to sit by them and offer comfort instead of always being the one who needed comforting and who could not now be comforted.

“Her name is Lina,” said Muninn, and her harsh raven voice was subdued and sad.

The urge to offer comfort became overwhelming, and August inched closer to the bed, then closer still and sat down upon an edge of it, gingerly, noting how uncomfortable it was and reaching out to put his hand on the person underneath the blanket, reaching out and then pulling back suddenly, for Huginn had looked up from his combing and although he still crooned there was violence in his eyes. So August pulled his hand back and folded it in his lap, wanting to help but not knowing how, and his own body was so little and so thin itself that he barely made the mattress dip but the figure under the cover shifted regardless and the blanket fell away from her face.

She was an old lady, August realised, a very old, very small lady. She reminded him of his great aunt, who was never very tall herself and who sent August postcards and books on birds, hard nougat and salted caramels, who called him every week from her home in Delhi and never forgot his birthday.

“This isn’t right,” he said, and the shock of feeling anger on behalf of someone other than himself was almost a relief. “Muninn, what’s happening? Why is she crying? Why has she been locked up all by herself?”

“There is no-one left for her to be locked up with,” said Muninn. “They are all dead. Yesterday was the Night of the Murdered Poets, and this the first hours of the new day without them. There was a group of people, August, a committee, who came together against fascism, against ovens and pogroms and a boot in the face. Lina was a member. For three years they have been in prison, with torture and interrogation, with false charges and show trials. Once there were fifteen. Today there is only Lina, the only one allowed to live. She is to be sent far away and into exile. That is why she is sad. She is alone, and she has no home.”

“That’s terrible,” said August, who had always had a home, who had always had people around him to care for him even when he didn’t want them and who saw now for the first time what it would be like without them, who felt the sting of it in his eyes and his chest. “The poor lady. But I don’t understand,” he said. “I thought you were bringing me to see science. What’s poetry got to do with it?”

“It is only a name,” said Muninn. “They were not all poets. Some were involved in medicine, or biochemistry. Lina was one. She worked on something called the blood-brain barrier. Do you know what that is, August?”

August shook his head, silent.

“It separates blood from fluid in the brain, and although some things can pass through the barrier others cannot. It keeps bacteria out of the brain, and makes it difficult to infect.” Muninn shifted beside the bed, her feathers ruffling in upset. “It does not stop all damage, however. You have managed to find other ways to infect yourselves, and Lina could find no antibiotic to counter the infection that killed her friends, no medicine to save herself as her work had saved so many others.”

“And she was sent away,” said August.

“She was too valuable to kill,” said Muninn. “Too valuable to science. Though perhaps the exile in Dzhambul was as cruel, in its way, as execution.”

“What happened to her there?” said August. He was sorry for her, sorrier in that moment than he was for himself. His time with the quagga, short though it was, had reminded him of what it felt like to care for others and the cool place that the quagga had made in the holocaust of his heart was spreading, spreading, and the ground around was wet with tears.

“She went into exile,” Muninn said again and carefully, ignoring the exasperated I-know-that expression on August’s face. “Ten months later, the leader of the country died so Lina’s time away was cut short, and she was allowed to return.”

“That’s what happened after,” said August. “Not what happened while she was alone. You know what happened to her in exile, don’t you? You remember it.”

“Yes,” said Muninn.

“Tell me.”

“No.”

“Why not?” said August, frustrated. “That’s why you’re bringing me to all these places, isn’t it? To learn? And when I want to, you shut up.”

“Some stories are not mine to tell,” said Muninn. “Lina never spoke of her time in Dzhambul, never. She chose to take that time to her grave, August, and I will not make mockery of that choice for you now.”

“Why didn’t she want to talk about it?” said August. He reached out again, reached out to the shaking lump under the thin blanket and again he pulled back under Huginn’s glare. “Was it so very horrible, Muninn?”

“What do you think?” said the raven. “Everything she loved had been taken from her. Her friends, her work, her freedom. Her hope, too, for her hope was buried in shallow graves and shot all through with bullets. Would you be happy so?”

“No,” said August, swallowing. “I guess I wouldn’t.” He let his hand rest on her leg then, braved Huginn and his hard, inhuman eyes but the raven did not attack, though his feathers stood high about him. It was all the comfort that August could give, and it made no difference. “She must be very sad,” he said, and Huginn stilled before him, a dark shape bent over and unwavering.

“Guilty,” the bird croaked. “Guilty.”

“But she wasn’t guilty!” cried August. “She wasn’t! Muninn said so!”

“He means that she felt guilty,” said Muninn. “She survived when the others did not; she got to go back to her science, eventually, and her life, though that life was different than it had been, and thinner. It was not her fault that she lived, but the knowledge of their deaths made living difficult. She heard the gunshots, you see.”

“That’s horrible,” said August, paling. “Horrible.”

“Life is often horrible,” said Muninn, and her voice was very even, almost tranquil. “But it goes on, and it is sometimes harder on those who survive than those who do not. That is why I have brought you here, to the day after rather than the day of. To see that some consequences belong to those who live. Those consequences you will not have to suffer.”

She fixed August with hard eyes, and unblinking. “It’s not all about you, August,” she said. “And there is no mercy in that.”

August could not argue. He had been brought to a place without mercy, a place that had shown Lina none, and if the incandescent place inside him where mercy had once dwelt and been burned away was cooling then the centre of it was molten yet, and fearful in the face of chill.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Oliver Lodge demonstrate radio transmission!

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