Chemical Letters: Aluminium

Caroline sits in Piccadilly Circus

on the steps under Anteros.

 

Pigeons scramble on bricks before her

and each brick has a letter. Sometimes two.

They are familiar,

the Kemiske Breve.

 

A man sits next to her, throws bread

from a paper bag like a hollowed out envelope,

with a red wax seal, Ørsted.

He offers it to Caroline, and they feed the birds together.

 

I used to wonder, he says, what it was that caused

several pieces of the same kind

to come together, cohere in unity.

Now I’m here, I wonder.

Was it love?

 

This is my favourite poem from my recently published collection, Chemical Letters, wherein a woman called Caroline wakes up in the periodic table. Because she’s a scientist, she promptly goes exploring. She’s able to do this because the table takes the form of an apartment block, and behind every door is a place or a time related to that element.  This is the aluminium poem.

If you’ve ever been to Piccadilly Circus in London (I have!) you’ll have seen the winged statue on top of a fountain. The statue is popularly – and wrongly – called Eros, but it’s actually his brother Anteros. What’s the difference? Well, Eros is the god of erotic love, while Anteros represents returned love that’s not necessarily erotic in nature. (It was put up to commemorate a philanthropist, so you can see that Anteros is really the more appropriate of the two.)

So what’s this got to do with aluminium? Well, the Piccadilly Anteros is the first statue in the world to be made from aluminium.

Aluminium was first produced in 1825 by the Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted, who you can see in the poem above is sitting on the fountain steps beneath Anteros, feeding the ever-present pigeons from a bread bag shaped liked an envelope. Ørsted also happened to write a book called the Kemiske Breve – the Chemical Letters. (See where I’m going with this?)  There’s a visual pun I couldn’t resist here that makes me happy: though it’s not the case in real life, the bricks around this fountain are imprinted with the abbreviations for elements… with H and He and Li, with Al for aluminium…

One of the things that Ørsted wrote about in the Kemiske Breve was cohesion. How chemistry came together, with its particles and elements and magnetic attractions. And it’s this poem that hints as to how Caroline ended up in the periodic table to begin with. A later poem indicates she’s spending her afterlife there. (It’s not just her, and it’s not the only afterlife…)

But why?

Perhaps it’s love that brings like together, says Ørsted, sitting under the statue of love returned.

Perhaps Caroline loved science so much that that love got paid back after death, so she could spend it in the company of what she loved, and those who loved it with her. Perhaps that’s Caroline’s cohesion and coming together, and Ørsted with her…

Yes, I’m a science nerd. Sue me. It’s my favourite of the chemical poems, and the part that sticks it all together. If you want to read more, maybe check out the collection?

Chemical Letters

CoverMy first poetry collection is out! Chemical Letters has just been published by Popcorn Press, and – unsurprisingly, given the title – is about the periodic table of elements.

But as anyone who’s read The August Birds or The Ghost of Matter knows, I like mixing speculative fiction in with my science and this is no different. Chemical Letters is about more than just atomic weights…

A scientist wakes in the periodic table come to life: an apartment block built by Mendeleev, who squats in the basement as superintendent. Behind each door is an element, and as Caroline explores the chemical letters of her professional life, she finds other scientists, other visitors. Van Gogh is painting sunflowers with chromium yellow; the hydrogen of Hindenburg is burning at Lakehurst; Marie Curie is playing catch with radium—and Caroline is stepping through science, opening doors one after the other, searching for a place she can call home.…

You can buy a copy direct from Popcorn Press, or find an e-copy or a print copy at Amazon.

“The Ghost of Matter”

ghost-of-matter_cover_medMy new novella’s out! It came out just yesterday, from Paper Road Press, as part of their Shortcuts series of New Zealand based speculative fiction. The other five stories in the series are fantastic, I’m so pleased to be part of it with all those fantastic authors!

1886. Two young boys disappear in the Sounds. Their mother grieves, all the music cut out of her heart; their father wanders the coast for a year, wanting and not wanting to find any part of them left behind. And their brother Ern, faced with a problem to which no solution can be found, returns to his laboratory – and to the smell of salt, soft voices in his ear, wet footprints welling seawater in the darkness.

The Ghost of Matter weaves together time and memory, physics and mystery, in this story inspired by Ernest Rutherford’s life and research.

I seem to have a real thing about Ernest Rutherford! He turned up in The August Birds last month, and now this. I’ve also got another idea for a novella involving him, and a short story. He just really fires my imagination, especially as he grew up in the same part of New Zealand as I did.

Anyway, there’s an excerpt that’s free to read over at Paper Road, so if this sounds like something you’d like go check it out!

The August Birds: 31 August, 20–

august birds cover jpgSo. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.

 

AUGUST 31, 20–

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

 

“Are we going back home now?” said August. His grip on Muninn’s scapulae was loose, his fingers creaking and weak.

“Not yet,” said Muninn. “This is your birthday, the last day of August. Do you not want to see what happens on this day?”

“You could show me tonight,” said August, not believing it himself but willing to pretend if he could just lie down at last.

“I could not,” said Muninn, and her hoarse raven voice was very gentle.

There was a long silence. “I know,” said August.

#

“It looks like a party,” he said, weary. It was so hard to look around, to lift his head. “A very boring party.” There were no balloons and no cake and no presents, just people sitting silently at table while a grey-haired woman talked at them. Huginn stood on her lectern, gazing up with adoration, silent, invisible. “She’s not even singing,” said August. “There should be singing, at a birthday.”

“She doesn’t like to sing very much,” said Muninn. “She missed a birthday song once, just barely, and never let herself forget it.” She swivelled her head around until it was almost entirely backwards, and gazed down at August from above, gazed at him as he lay flat on her back with his arms about her neck. “Do you not recognise her, little one?” she said, and August blinked dizzy eyes to clear them, tried to make out a face and a figure that were beyond him, almost.

It was the beads he recognised first: the long ropes of bright colours, the twists of cheap beads given out to children at Starship, given out for endurance and bravery both. “Those are my beads,” he said, wondering, and then he knew her. “April,” he said. “It’s April! But she’s gotten so old, Muninn.”

“Not so old,” said the bird, her feathers twitching beneath him. “Just older than you.”

“What’s she doing?” said August, and he tried to sit up, to push himself up to see better. “Who are all these people?”

“They’ve come to see her give the lecture,” said Muninn. “All the Laureates do it. Closer to Christmas, usually, but April held out for August. Your sister achieved something wonderful, you see. She’s the most recent recipient of the Nobel prize–for medicine.”

“Oh,” said August, and it was hard to see again, and differently so. “Oh.” And there it was, the happiness that Muninn had promised him sinking into him as if shot from a shaft, the pain and pleasure of them intertwining: April’s life, come together with his death, and meaning given to both of them.

“How did you know?” he said, and Muninn shrugged, although gently, so not to throw him off.

“It was Huginn that knew,” she said, and August, so nearly memory himself now, remembered what she’d told him so soon past. It is the privilege of thought to see the future, she’d said – and Huginn had seen, and loved his sister for it.

“Better than singing, isn’t it?” said Muninn, and if ravens could smile, she was smiling now. August was sure of it.

“I wish I could tell her,” he said. “I wish, I wish… but it’s no use wishing now, is it?”

“Not for that,” said Muninn. “That is beyond both of us, I’m afraid.”

“I know I have to go,” he said, and it was harder in that brief moment than it had been all the month long, and then he lay down upon the raven’s back and the hardness passed from him and it was easy, still.

“There is another way,” said Muninn. Her iron feathers twitched and smoothed, and her eyes were very, very dark. “I could go in your place,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” said August. It was hard for him to understand anything now, and growing harder. He wanted to listen to April, wanted it badly, but his eyes kept closing and he could hardly make sense of her sentences. She was describing her methods, and it was hard, so hard, to keep up with her. It always had been. Muninn was simpler; easier to listen to, but it was such an effort. He was so tired. All he wanted to do was sleep.

“Shall I tell you a story?” said Muninn. “A story for bedtime, perhaps?”

“Yes please,” said August. He let his eyes rest, half-open, on the beads about April’s neck, let his head nestle into the raven’s back.

“It’s a story about a little girl,” said Muninn. “She had a brother too, and she loved him very much. But he caught the plague and died, and all the imams and physicians in Tunis could not bring him back. They couldn’t help her, either, when the buboes came up black in her neck and her armpits and her thighs. So she lay there, in her hot little bed, with her family dying around her, and then she saw the birds. Two of them, ravens, and they showed her such marvels, for she’d always wanted to see the world. And then she was given a choice: to die or to change, and take the place of one of the ravens and let it go on in her stead.”

“You?” said August.

“Yes.”

“And you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Are you asking me to change?”

“I am.”

“Does it hurt?” said August.

“Yes,” said Muninn. “That is a function of memory.”

“Does Huginn hurt?”

“I believe he is numb, in his way,” said Muninn. “He has been still iron for as long as I have known him, and none have taken his place. But Huginn is thought, and I… I am memory. I remember, August. I remember how Caroline felt as she saw her comet, as if I were Caroline herself. I remember nights on the Pacific and nights in the Antarctic. I remember cold and heat and being burnt by a bomb as bright as the sun. I remember every wonderful thing that ever happened to anybody, and because of that I remember every terrible thing as well.”

#

“He was such a good little boy,” said April, breaking in. “A pain, sometimes, I admit it. All little brothers are. But mostly good. He’d be there in his bed, under this terrible tiger blanket that he’d never give up, and even though he had to spend most of his time there he hardly ever complained. It must have been hard watching life go on around him, never being able to join in. I never quite realised how hard, I think, at the time. I was hardly more than a child myself. And our parents said to focus on the happy times, so that’s what I tried to do. I’d bring him bowls of popcorn and we’d watch silly films together, and we’d go to the park sometimes, or the beach. Things like that. We could never stay as long as I wanted, but it was worth leaving early to see how much pleasure it gave him to be able to go at all. He got left behind a lot, you see. And then it was the rest of us being left behind, and it seemed the happy memories weren’t strong enough, and there were too few of them.”

#

“She loved you very much,” said Muninn.

“I know,” said August. “I love her too. I always knew she’d be wonderful.”

#

“Were there other kids before you?” said August.

“There were,” Muninn replied. “And some chose to be memory and some didn’t. And for those that did, none were memory forever. It fills you up, see. Oh, it was wonderful too at first, with the flying and the travel and the sheer breadth of life stretched out… You can’t imagine anything more marvellous. But they creep up, the memories, until you’re stuffed with them, and bursting. And some days it’s easier and some days it’s not, and some are still wonderful. But some aren’t, and the ones that aren’t add up, and in the end you just feel…”

“How do you feel?” said August.

“Old. I feel old,” said Muninn. “When I changed I had eight years. A little younger than you, and I could never imagine how old a person could be, how old they could feel inside. Like a clock running down, and the space between ticks getting wider.”

“I feel like that,” said August. “Well, not old. But tired. I didn’t think it was possible to be this tired.”

“It’s your body that’s tired, “ said Muninn. “Just your body. There’s more of you that can live, and you wouldn’t have to be tired again for a long, long time.”

“It’s not just my body,” said August. “It’s all of me. And I think… I think no thank you, Muninn. I’d really like to go to sleep, if that’s okay. I used to think it would be so terrible. There was so much I wanted to do, and so much that I’d never get to do. I was sad all the time. I’m not sad any more, Muninn. I’m too tired to be sad. I just want to go to sleep.”

There was a long silence. Then, “I see,” said Muninn, and her voice was weightier than age and iron.

“I’m sorry,” said August. “So sorry. Please, Muninn.”

“Do not be sorry,” said Muninn, and her voice was heavy and so kind. “There is no need for sorry. If you are more tired than I am, little chick, then you go to sleep as nicely as you can.”

“Muninn?” said August. “All those things I never got to do? It’s not so bad. I got to do this, and I got to see you. And Huginn. Will you tell him thank you, please?”

“Huginn is here too,” said Muninn. “Open your eyes, August. Just one more time.”

And when he did, August found he was back in his own little bed, with the tiger blanket and the beads about him and Dad sleeping beside. Huginn and Muninn were standing on the end of his bedstead, their sharp-clawed feet curled around the wooden frame. Huginn had his head on one side, and he was staring at August with flat black eyes, eyes that might have been looking at an insect, or a mouse, or some other small creature of no great significance. He looked, August thought drowsily, as if he were trying to figure out a clue in a crossword, as if August were a tiny cog in a puzzle beyond imagining. And Muninn was there next to him, with her iron eyes softer than he’d seen them yet.

“Muninn?” he said again, and it was harder now to talk than it had ever been. “What was your name, before? When you were little, like me.”

“Hanan,” said Muninn. “I was Hanan.”

“I’m going to be a sparrow, Hanan,” said August, and his voice was very quiet as he closed his eyes and went out into darkness.

#

And that’s it for The August Birds. Thanks for following along! If you liked it – or even if you didn’t – please consider leaving a review at Goodreads or Amazon or at your favourite retailer or review site.

If you’d like a copy for yourself,  The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!

© Octavia Cade

 

The August Birds: 30 August, 1871

august birds cover jpgSo. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.

AUGUST 30, 1871

SPRING GROVE, NEW ZEALAND

August woke to a shifting in his bed and a weight on the pillow. Muninn was standing beside his head, tugging on one ear rather too firmly. “Get off,” he said. “Get off!”

“Wake up,” said the bird. “I know it’s harder now, but wake up. And be quiet about it, or you’ll wake your father.”

August’s Dad was sitting by the bed, his head tilted back in the chair. He was snoring, just a little, and the circles under his eyes were almost as dark as August’s. Huginn had landed quietly on an arm of the chair, and had his head under a wing, preening. He looked supremely disinterested.

“What time is it?” said August. He did not need to whisper. His voice was never very loud, now.

“It’s eleven o’clock,” said Muninn. “And all’s well.”

“It isn’t well,” said August, pettish. He was tired and his bones hurt and the memory of disappointment was all through him. “I thought you weren’t coming. I thought you’d forgotten.”

“The day isn’t over yet,” said Muninn. “And soon it will be your birthday.”

“Ten years,” said August, and for a moment there was a little smile on his cracked lips and his eyes were almost as bright as Muninn’s. “I did it. I made it.”

“You haven’t made it yet,” said Muninn. “But it’s not far off, and there is time, I think, for presents.”

“I like presents,” said August. “Thank you. But I’m so sleepy. Could you open them for me, please?”

“These are not presents that need opening,” said Muninn gently, and for one last time she held out her wing.

August groaned, but slowly, very slowly, he raised his arms and took hold. His grip was very weak.

#

The flight was cool and dark. August slept through most of it; could barely remember when he had still been able to sit upright on the raven’s back and close his eyes to the wind, feel it fresh on his cheeks. But he found that this flight seemed shorter than normal, a little space only, and then Muninn was winging down in spirals, with Huginn beside her, winging down to a wooden house where all the windows were dark. August was flown into a small bedroom with a quilted bed, and in it lay a woman with pale, pale cheeks.

“Is she sick too?” he said, drowsy.

“Not sick,” said Muninn. “Just very tired. But you are looking at the wrong person. Look,” she said. “Look down there, in the cradle. Do you see him? It is his birthday today, as it is yours tomorrow, and I have brought you for a present.”

“He’s very ugly,” said August, critical. He had been dozing on Muninn’s back, a heavy, drugged doze that he was unwilling to be woken from, and he did not feel charitable. “All red and wrinkly. Like a grumpy old man.”

“All new babies are ugly,” said Muninn. “To everyone but their parents, at least. You were ugly too when you were born. Your mother thought you were beautiful, though, and that’s the main thing. His mother thinks the same. Her name is Martha.”

“His head is such a funny shape,” said August. “Is it meant to look like that?”

“It’s a hard thing, being born,” said Muninn. “Just as hard as dying, sometimes. I expect the head will recover.”

“I’m glad,” said August, but what he really thought was Mine won’t. The baby would grow, and be less red and less wrinkled as time went on, and his head would become something people were pleased to look at, but the reverse was happening to him. The skin on his head was shrinking, it seemed, or his bones were getting bigger, because when he looked into the mirror of other people he could see the bones jut out sharply. He looked starved, almost, but there was plenty of food for him. He just didn’t want to eat it–not even ice-cream, not even birthday cake. And when his birthday was over, he knew, his head would begin to change again, and not as it had when he was a baby recovering from a trip through the birth canal. His would be bone, more and more, until nothing was left but a skeleton, and one day even that would be gone.

“That is change,” said Muninn. “What else did you expect?”

“Nothing,” said August. “I don’t really expect anything anymore.” He was too tired for expectations, and medicine made his head feel all fuzzy inside. In the cradle, the baby stirred, screwing up that wrinkled face, the little lips pursing slightly in an imitation of suck. Huginn was standing on the top of the wooden sides, his shadow falling over the infant. “What’s his name?” said August.

“Ernest,” said Muninn. “His name is Ernest. Ernest Rutherford. He doesn’t look much now, I grant you, but he’s going to grow up to be a very famous man. He will win a Nobel Prize even, for his trouble.”

“He split the atom,” said August, wonder rising through him enough, briefly, to drive away the fogginess. “I know. April has a poster of him on her wall. Her friends tease her about it, I’ve heard them. But she says she likes the moustache.” He paused, feeling sick and silly and so very tired. Things were all jumbly in his head again. “I could have grown a good moustache, I bet,” he said.

“He did split the atom,” said Muninn. “And from then on no-one thought of the atom as a little solid ball, as a little packet. It came in parts. Everything does.”

“Even me,” said August. He was breaking down into parts, splitting before Ernest as the atom had split, splitting down into skin and bone and absence. The whole of him, the bits that stuck together and said August, well, that was nearly over.

“That’s the thing about parts,” said Muninn, and her voice sounded so far away now, or perhaps she was only speaking so softly that August had to strain to listen to her. “You can break them down smaller and smaller, until sometimes it looks like there’s nowhere else to go, and nothing else to see.”

One day even my skeleton will be gone, thought August.

“And sometimes the fission is horrible, and cruel. Sometimes it comes in fire and burns shadows into the stone. Sometimes the breaking is quieter, in a little bed strung about with beads. Sometimes it comes with sadness.”

“Keep an eye on the matter,” Huginn croaked, suddenly, his voice almost rusted shut from disuse. Surprise nearly forced August upright, but looking closer he couldn’t tell if Huginn had spoken to him, or to the baby–or perhaps to himself. Whichever it was, Muninn ignored him.

“And sometimes,” she said, “it comes glorious, with webs before and after and a light like the sun, and sometimes it brings peace. But the parts, August. The parts are never gone. No matter how small you make them, the energy remains. If the electrons break away sometimes, into other atoms and other forms, then the atoms break away too. And they’ll be part of the ocean, or the earth. Perhaps a plant, perhaps another living creature. But they’ll stay on, August.”

Of course I’ll remember you, April had said to him. I’ll remember all the bits of you that I know, which are different from all the bits Mum knows and all the bits Dad knows. And those little bits of him would stay with her all her life, and change her after his splitting, as if she had taken on the new electrons of his old body and had her properties changed thereby. And she would take her changed self out into the world, and every person she met, every person born or not-yet-born who met her, would meet him, too, in his way. Would meet the parts of him that changed her.

“Maybe that’s enough,” he said, quietly.

“Of course it is,” said Muninn. Then her head cocked and her wings twitched, the muscles smooth and strong under feathers. “Say your goodbyes, August,” she said. “It’s time to leave.”

“Goodbye, baby,” said August, reaching down to brush one plump fist with his scrawny little one. “Goodbye, and Happy Birthday.”

As he said it, the room began to echo with the sound of the ending hour, a clock chiming through walls with the first of twelve faint strokes. “Happy birthday,” repeated Muninn, gravely.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter: the last day of August, and Muninn’s last offer…

If you’d like a copy for yourself,  The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!

© Octavia Cade