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: 8 August, 1709

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 8, 1709

LISBON, PORTUGAL

August tugged at Muninn’s wing. “They can’t see me, can they?” he asked, anxious and a little overwhelmed.

“You know that they can’t,” said Muninn. “No-on has seen you so far, have they? Not even yesterday, on the raft. It was only a raft, August, and there was nowhere to hide on it. If you were visible to anyone you would have been visible there.”

“It’s not the same,” August mumbled. The raft was one thing. The men there had been half-dressed, their clothes salt-stained and fraying at the edges. The people in the Casa da Índia were frayed nowhere. They wore silks and satins and lace, with heavy cloaks and giant skirts and they were covered in jewellery. August stood and watched them, awkward in his pyjamas, in his plain little slippers and with his tiger blanket wrapped around. There were stains down his shirt from where he had spilled his dinner.

“Besides,” said Muninn repressively, “the king has better things to do today than look at little boys with dirty shirts.”

“It’s not that dirty,” said August, scrubbing at the fabric so as to make the stain less noticeable and succeeding only in wrinkling himself further. “There’s a king?”

“We are in the Tower of the King,” Muninn replied. “Part of his palace, as the Casa is part of the Tower. It is a place for administration and trade and travel. It is the last that we have come to see, the last which Bartolomeu is concerned with. But there are a few minutes before his presentation. If you are well enough you might want to explore. No-one will bother you.”

And August, sceptical at first and then with growing curiosity, scampered as quickly as he could, which wasn’t very fast at all, for all he was feeling better than the usual in a brief period of grace that came with excitement and novelty and thoughts of things other than dying. The Casa was like a great museum, with compartments and collections and artifacts: gold and silver and precious stones brought in tall ships from the ends of the earth and laid out with spices and with spoils, and all the time there were people around him talking in words he did not understand, talking and laughing and dressed in outfits too heavy for them, that looked as if they could have stood up on their own.

“Is it a ball?” he said to Muninn, breathless, when he returned from his wanderings. “Will there be dancing?” Not that he wanted to dance, which was always the least disappointing opinion when dancing was so often beyond him, but he could have watched and tried a few steps, perhaps, where no-one would see him and worry he was exhausting himself.

“Not a ball,” said Muninn. “But a royal dinner, and an exhibition. See that man there, the one dressed in black with his hands full of paper?”

“Yes,” said August, although he could see more than paper. There seemed to be a bowl of some sort, almost a ball, and thin little ropes between.

“His name is Bartolomeu,” said Muninn. “And that is his hot air balloon. He has come to show it to court, to the king. To show that heated air will make it rise.”

“How’s he going to heat it?”

“There will be a flame beneath, and tiny pieces of kindling in that container.”

“But Muninn,” said August, “Muninn, the balloon’s made of paper!”

“Yes,” said Muninn. “A bold choice, I grant you. He tried this a few days ago and nearly set the palace alight. The fire was put out, but the curtains could not be saved.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to try it outdoors, then?” said August.

“What if the wind took it away? Or it just kept going up? At least with a ceiling to bump into the balloon is retrievable.”

And retrievable it was. Bartolomeu crouched on the floor in front of the king, the kindling thin and dry beneath his fingers and soon set alight, and the little paper airship sprang into the air, soaring upwards until it hit the ceiling and hovered, until the kindling burnt out and the air cooled and the balloon came back to earth, came down to applause and commendation and with only a few singed bits.

“See?” said Muninn. “Success. He has shown the principle as sound.”

“He’s not going to try and build a real balloon out of paper, is he?” said August, noting the servants circling the room with discreet buckets of water. He braced himself to be told that the small device tested was a real balloon, but he meant something that would carry people, something more than an interesting and slightly dangerous toy. While August liked to believe he was adventurous–not every dying child would consent to fly with ravens–and that he would have been more adventurous still as a grown-up, even he could not picture trusting a paper balloon to hold his weight and avoid combustion. “Because that seems like a bad idea all round.”

“He wanted to build a bird, actually” said Muninn, musing. “It was to be called Passarola. This was a first step.”

“A bird like you?” said August, and from across the room Huginn gave a derisive caw as he poked his beak into paper, shuffled amongst it with his iron feet.

“Nothing like me,” said Muninn, and her wings flattened against her back. “Do I look like I’m made from balloons, an empty thing for carriage?”

“No,” said August, backpedalling. “It could have been a raven, though,” he said in a small voice. “In the shape of one, I mean.”

Muninn snorted. “A belly like a ball with a head attached at one end, a tail at the other and a man inside to pull on wires. Mock wings and magnetism. Yes,” she said, sarcastic. “Very like a raven.”

“Well it’s not like you’re a typical example either, is it?” said August, staring at the paper balloon blackened about the bottom and thinking of goose-pimple flesh beneath warm wings, of feathers that were fragile in the air and never left patterns imprinted in his skin.

Muninn glared at him in response, frosty, as if he had been impolite and she too well-mannered to correct him, her feathers ruffling despite herself. Feathers that shared a colour with other ravens if they were not fixed to the same fabric, and it struck him then that the Passarola would likely never have been a raven.

“Look at this lot,” he said, of the bright coloured dresses, of the ribbons and the silk of a royal court that had set him back on seeing them. “They’d want colours all over any airship bird, they would. They’d never paint it black.”

But the change of subject didn’t seem to make a difference, for Muninn’s eyes were still flat and black and their clockwork was stilled, having ground unimpressed to a halt. August supposed he could not blame her, having been set apart his whole life and ringed about with the subjects of his differences. It made him feel like a freak, and he wondered at the comparison and sank inside himself, cast about for something else to say. “It’s not like you can blame him,” he said of Bartolomeu. “Wanting to build a ship like a bird. It’d be like being one himself, almost. He’d get to float about like he was flying. He’d get to leave everything behind.”

“Some things are worth keeping,” said Muninn, mollified. The frost had left her eyes, the gears starting to move again. She hopped closer to August, laid her head against him, a brief black brush of iron. “And some will not be left behind.”

“Still,” said August, eyeing the remains of the balloon and then gazing up at the ceiling, at the small point the balloon had bumped up against and come back down to earth. “It’s nice to dream about, isn’t it, that you can just fly off and escape.” Fly off into past and into continents, both a strange country and a stepped one, with August at the peak and no further room to climb. “Sometimes I wish I could fly with you forever,” he said.

“You can’t,” said Muninn. “Not with me, not forever. Your flights are your own. But they are not over yet.”

Before them, Bartolomeu was showing off his balloon, the paper and kindling and flame, the rise and fall of it. The way it could be made into Passarola, and take him to the sky.

#

Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Lise Meitner talk to Eleanor Roosevelt, on the day of the Nagasaki bombing.

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