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

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