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