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 9, 1945
“I like the north, and the snow,” said Muninn. “There was a time I liked deserts better, dunes and dates and palm trees, but the north is where I belong now. Being here is like coming home.”
“Where is home, Muninn?” August asked.
“Home is yew trees and ashes and cool clear pools,” said Muninn. “It is workshops and tools and programming. It is a place to come back to.”
“It’s nice,” said August looking round, but his hands were nervous and he spoke in absence, aware mostly of what home was not. “It’s not burning, at least,” he said, under his breath.
Beside him, Huginn laughed. At least, it sounded like a laugh, what passed for humour in a raven’s mind, ground out through cogs and clockwork and clarity, and August turned away because even in his sickness he knew amusement and the sound that Huginn made held more of threat than humour. It sounded as if oil were beyond it, as if the cogs were forced together.
“Did you think we would bring you to burning?” said Muninn, her head cocked and with no curiosity in her eyes. Muninn, who held his memories of the day before, and the days before that.
“You know that I did,” said August, and if there was no snow, no frozen landscape around him the fire in his chest was damping, loosening a part of him that had been locked rigid with heat. This was not Japan. The light was different, and there was no smell of burning and perhaps he had been brought to a place of healing instead of holocaust, because wasn’t that something that spoke of home and not annihilation?
“There is no burning here,” said Muninn. “This is a place of aftermaths. Of ashes covered up, of resolution and radio waves.”
“What have radio waves got to do with it?” said August, and Huginn was laughing again, causing shivers up the fleshy remains covering his spine, the spine that was not iron, that held a pure animal fear instead of thought.
“Lise is being interviewed today,” said Muninn. “On the radio, with Eleanor.” And she would say no more, but winged gently over countryside, over green land that smelled of fresh earth and leaves and then into a small studio in a country town.
In that studio was a woman. August thought she might be in her sixties. Her hair was tied back in a small bun and there were dark smudges under her eyes, as if she hadn’t been sleeping, as if she had wanted once to cry but the tears had been blasted from her. August knew that look, had felt it on his own face standing in the ruins of a city not his own, a city that burnt around and inside him.
She looked, he thought, as if her heart had been broken.
“It has,” said Muninn, “although it could have been worse and she is glad it was not. She is good at feeling guilty, is Lise, and this is an age where physics hangs heavy upon conscience. But in this hers is clear: she helped to discover fission, working it out in the woods and the winter, with letters and with blood. And when she saw what she had helped to birth, she would not help again. Many scientists worked on the bomb, August, and they worked in good faith, many of them, wanting an end for a war that seemed to have none. But Lise thought that there was more than war to worry for, and the destruction at Hiroshima was one she would not help. And she fled Germany and came here, to a place of refuge. To a home that was not hers, but which became so.”
“Who’s she talking to?” said August, and the funny feeling in his tummy was back, because if this was not the bomb then it was related, and if he felt some ease in the fact that he was with a woman who did not want it then that ease was unbalanced by raven beaks and laughing.
“A woman called Eleanor, who is not a scientist but sees what science has done, what it can do, and who doesn’t want it either. Who is married to a president, or was. Now sit quietly, and listen.”
And August listened, listened to two women reach across boundaries, across continents, to try and make a bridge between them: between science and humanity, over war and into peace. “Women have a great responsibility and they are obliged to try, so far as they can, to prevent another war,” Lise said, and August saw from her face the hope that she sounded stronger than she was, more certain, more composed. It was not an easy interview–set up in haste, with untested equipment and Lise’s hands shook the more she tried to put steadiness into her voice, into the microphone that was either too close or too far and the questions coming through but dimly.
“I can’t hear all of it,” August whispered, and wondered if it was because Huginn was up close to the microphone, his head alternately pressed against it and against Lise, pressed for communication and for comfort, his presence as much a link as radio waves and more solid.
“It is a conversation that will go on for many years,” said Muninn. “With many people, with many voices. You will have a chance to hear it again.”
“Can’t I hear more now?” said August, but he was hauled up into the air by the back of his pyjamas, clawed feet catching him, holding him hard about the middle though gentle enough not to prick the skin but it was Huginn who had caught him up, Huginn for the first time flying with him and Muninn following behind. “Where are we going?” he cried, the wind whipping words away from him and so loud in his ears he could barely hear the phrase dropped down onto him from above, dropped like anchors and lodestone and chains.
“Home,” Huginn croaked, and his wings beat faster and he climbed higher, and August in his claws was flown into the path of radio waves, and he felt them echo through the iron legs, through the claws and into his chest, up through his throat until his head beat with them, was buzzing. There was the end of the interview in those waves, the breaking of connection between Lise and Eleanor, and then August was passing through other waves, with other conversations of other sorts, and dragged through those currents, through August himself, was the news of the second bomb, the bomb he had so dreaded and hoped not to see. And because it was Huginn, the bird of thought if not of memory, there was more transmitted through those claws than radio waves, more than memory and mourning. There was information, information that was as much Huginn’s home as north and ash trees, and in that glowing stream of data pulsing along the antenna of the bird’s body was the rate of burning flesh, was birth defects and radiation poisoning, the ruined earth, the sears and scarring both. And August felt it all, knew it all, had it burst within him as the bomb burst in Nagasaki and the knowledge burned through him, set his veins alight with horror and fascination both, a flight of feeling and sickness that appeared unending until he was dumped in his bed, the metal cage of claws taken from his body and the spider’s web of Huginn’s mind removed from his.
And then August was left alone, his body wet with sweat and heaving, and the absence a scream in his head that was mostly relief, and nearly all revulsion, nearly all dread and anger and the choking, raging fear of ruined cities and abandonment that even the memory of Lise did not dampen or cure.
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Antarctica and Endurance and snow petrels!
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