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