So. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.
AUGUST 17, 1834
CERRO LA CAMPANA, CHILE
Muninn flew him to the very top of the mountain. August could not have walked up on his own, nor could he have sat a horse, or even a donkey, for the length of time it would have taken for them to carry him upwards. Nor, when he was at the top, could August go exploring. The top of the mountain was a shattered jumble of rock, of weathered and fractured greenstone, all split and shattered and the fragments unsteady beneath him at angles.
“You will turn an ankle if you’re not careful,” said Muninn, and she was not wrong so August picked his way to the nearest slab. He was dizzy often now, dizzy from more than heights, so he was over-careful, inching his way between the rocks until he found a brief flat place where he could sit without too much discomfort.
“There is more to look at than your feet, August,” said Muninn, reproving, and when the black spots disappeared from his eyes and he could make his skinny, sweating little fingers loosen their grip upon the rocks, August raised his head and looked. Before him was a nation of knives–a horizon of peaks and edges, of mountains before him as far as he could see, and some were tipped with snow. The air was cold and very still.
“They are the Andes,” said Muninn, and August, who had only seen the Southern Alps when he had flown over them on another trip to Starship Hospital in Auckland, who had only seen the Southern Alps but who had pictures on his wall of Everest and Hillary, of the Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro and the Andes, actually squeaked in excitement. That small noise echoed and came back to him in waves, and he would have been embarrassed had Huginn not cawed then as loudly as he could, to hear his own echoes come back to him. And then Muninn was crowing too, and in the cascading effect of all their voices together August almost missed the echoes of a fourth as it came up onto the summit of the mountain with its companions, and if the man who arrived could not hear their echoes he could hear his own, and be as delighted by them. His face was so rosy with excitement, with happiness, that he seemed younger than he was, and for a moment he looked a little as August looked, and their twin small-boy faces were radiant in the sun.
August felt the kinship between them, and it was a feeling that saddened but did not fade when the man did what August could not–scrambled over rocks and broken boulders, strong and healthy and able to move on his own and without help. And his steps that started in excitement became measured, and that was another point of difference between them, for if August was dying he was still young and often measurement was beyond him, and consideration, and comparison. He could grasp them sometimes, but dimly, as though they were a theory new-come to him and not yet assimilated, but he did not look for them as the man was looking, did not consciously gather evidence in the same mingled state of astonishment and expectation.
“Who’s that, Muninn?” said August, watching the man bend over some of the rocks, tracing lichen with his fingers, the lichen that grew on some surfaces and not on others, the lichen that August had not noticed until the other had done it for him.
“His name is Charles,” said Muninn. “And he has come on a grand and wonderful voyage, come from his home far on the other side of the world in a boat that is called Beagle. Come to learn, to see shapes and differences and islands.”
“This isn’t an island,” said August. “I’m not stupid, you know. We could have seen tortoises, if we’d gone with him to islands. I like tortoises, Muninn.”
Beside them, Huginn made a rude sound.
“Oh, you think everything is plodding,” said Muninn. “Not everyone is as quick as you.” And Huginn, impatient at the chastisement, made another rude sound and hopped away, hopped towards Charles as he bent over lichen, poking and scraping, and waited next to his knee with more patience than he had ever extended to August.
“I was born in the wrong month for tortoises, wasn’t I?” said August, resigned and mournful at once.
“That is not my fault,” said Muninn. “If you must blame someone, blame yourself. Had you held on to your mother for another few weeks, you would have all the tortoises you could wish for.”
“I don’t mind, really,” said August. “I’m only teasing, Muninn.” He laid one little hand upon her back, the iron warm from the sun and heated under his palm. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “It makes me feel so small.”
“You are small,” said Muninn, mollified, and she reached back with her beak to give his fingers a friendly tweak. “Very small, and very young. No wonder the mountains are surprising to you. They are certainly surprising to him. But then,” she considered, “he is also young. Very well: you shall be young and surprised together.”
August smiled and bit his lip–he thought it might have been rude to laugh. “I wonder if we’re surprised by the same thing,” he said, he who had been surprised by size and smallness, he who watched Charles also focus on a smallness, and not the same. For Charles had risen from his crouch and was searching for more lichen, was ignoring the view in favour of the ground, of the broken rocks, and while August did not grudge the interest neither did he understand it. Perhaps Charles had had more experience with mountains than he had, and they were no longer exciting to him.
“You are,” said Muninn. “Surprised by the same thing, though you do not know it. The perspective is there, the presence of opposites, and how those opposites can show understanding.”
“If you say so,” said August, who didn’t understand one bit.
“Look at the rocks, August,” said Muninn. “See how broken they are? And how some have lichen growing on them, and how some have been broken so recently that lichen has had no time to grow?”
“Is that what he’s looking at?” said August, and then he could see it himself, because the rock on which he sat was dead rock, hard and empty, and the rock beside his feet was traced with life, with the lacy patterns of lichen.
“They are indications of earthquakes,” said Muninn. “Charles has seen earthquakes before, and this is another piece of evidence for him, evidence of the changing nature of the Earth. It will make him wonder how life can adapt to such change.”
“He can get all that from lichen?” said August.
“Not all of it,” said Muninn, “but some. It is the presence and absence of life illuminating him, August. The contrast between the two is as a little candle for him. It makes him want to question, and to learn.”
“He’s going to learn a lot,” said August.
“It was a very interesting voyage for him,” said Muninn. “To go to such strange places, to go beyond himself. It was full of things he had not seen before, or imagined. The lichen is a little thing–alive in some places, and then absent. It is easier to see life in absence sometimes, in disruption. It gives perspective. Like you,” she said, “on this mountain. You have also seen something you have not seen before, and not considered. And it has made you think differently about your life. It has made you feel smaller. And it has made him more aware of disruption, of the threat and discontinuity of life.”
“Me, too,” said August, almost absently, as he watched Charles, as he watched the lichen at his feet, the tiny pieces of life that could so easily be broken off and crushed.
“Yes,” said Muninn. “You too.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Pierre Janssen discover helium!
If you’d like a copy for yourself, The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!
© Octavia Cade