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 28, 1965
SEALAB II, PACIFIC OCEAN
“It’s like a submarine,” said August. “But all in one place. And there’s no-one here. It’s empty.”
“It will not be empty for long,” said Muninn. “The first crew will move in today. We will stay to see them arrive. But it is easier for you to explore Sealab before they get here.”
There was much to explore, though it had all been fitted into small spaces for machinery, for sleeping and eating and laboratory work with Huginn on the bench and clattering with the beakers, reordering instruments. There were hatches also, and ladders, and a cage tied beneath to keep the sharks away when diving.
“You will not be going there,” said Muninn.
“Not even if you come with me?” said August, trying to make a joke of it, although truthfully he would have declined the swim if offered. There were black spots before his eyes nearly all the time now, and his body felt sluggish and cold, his limbs heavy around him. It was hard to concentrate. He just wanted to sleep, the brief excitement of exploring an underwater laboratory wearing off fast. He wished he could have come earlier, back in the days when he had had more strength, but there had been other places to visit then, and other opportunities for strength. Still, it was not so bad. There were plenty of benches for him to lean on, places to sit when he got tired. It was not a large facility, but August tired easily. His birthday was close now, so close, and where once he had looked upon that day with excitement, with hope and dread together, now he just felt a dawning relief.
“I am not fond of water,” said Muninn. “For all the good memories I have of it. It interferes with my feathers.” She shook out iron wings, refolded them carefully along her body. “It was difficult enough to get you down here, with the wet and the breathing. It is not that I could not keep you safe and dry inside the cage, but it would be an effort.”
“That’s alright,” said August. “I’ve had enough of cages anyway.” He said it to be kind, mostly. Even if they did keep the sharks out, the real danger would still be trapped inside.
“There is more to a cage than bars,” said Muninn.
“I know,” said August. The Sealab had windows, round portholes that allowed him to see out into dark water, and the walls were hard as ravens. Without the birds there would be no escape for him, but August had become accustomed to “no escape” and the confines of the building didn’t bother him as much as they might have done. He had spent much of his life in a bigger prison than this, the prison of his failing body. Bars had frightened him once, made him sad as well as scared, but they seemed a silly thing to be afraid of now, an image of imprisonment rather than the thing itself.
“I wouldn’t wait now,” he said, “if I saw the quagga again. I wouldn’t leave her so long by herself. I wouldn’t be afraid.”
“I know you would not,” said Muninn.
“There’s more to cages than metal,” said August. “More than iron. I think there are some we’re stuck with no matter what. And there are some we can visit, just for a little while, so that we can get used to them and the big ones don’t seem so scary.”
“Perhaps,” said Muninn. “Though I think you have become more brave than you were before.”
“I’m not scared of cages, Muninn. Not anymore. But I think I’d be scared to be in one alone, with no-one to talk to. To be trapped all by myself.”
“The biggest cage can fit everyone inside it,” said Muninn. “There is always someone to talk to. And some of the little ones are made for sharing. Like this one. The crew will share it together today. And tomorrow, one of them will share it with another person, in another cage. Aquanaut will talk to astronaut, both of them locked in their little boxes. In boxes inside boxes.”
“I would have liked to hear that,” said August.
“Perhaps you have heard something similar.”
August laughed. It wasn’t a very strong laugh, but it was sincere, a clean upwelling of humour. “Perhaps,” he said. “It must be strange to be so cut off. I know they could call. But it’s like living in a bubble, almost. You’re cut off from everything here.”
“Separate,” said Muninn.
“Yes.” August knew what it was to be separate, to feel apart. There was no bubble about his bed, whether it was in the hospital or in his room at home, but it felt that way sometimes–as if he were a creature from a strange country who needed a safe place made for him, one where he would not die or drown. One made for experiments and for watching, and for most of his life he had been the subject. There had been tests and operations and medicine, all to try and make him fit for a world he found it hard to survive in, and all the time his reactions were monitored.
“You are not always so passive,” said Muninn. “You have made a home in strange places too.” And that home had been one of watching, mostly, watching as if underwater as his family and friends, as the doctors and nurses who were all so kind to him, had their own lives on a surface he couldn’t reach while his sickness made a barrier between them like iron, like steel, and sealed him off.
August leaned on the bench, exhausted, and ran his fingers over test tubes, over Petri dishes and beakers and Huginn’s noisy rearrangement of instruments. “I never was able to experiment like this,” he said. There had been chemistry sets, of course, baby experiments that allowed him to play at science safely in his room while April had chemicals and fume cupboards and proper burning acids at school, but they hadn’t been the same.
“You are experimenting now,” said Muninn. “Have you not spent your past weeks in different environments to your own? Have you not learned how to function in them; have you not learned how they changed you? And each time you have visited them you have visited in a bubble of your own, and separate.”
And that was watching too, watching the lives before him that had never known him, watching as they too lived as he might have lived were he in their place. August had come to accept the changes, to accept that his experiences with the ravens were to help him adapt to the great change to come, the reef ahead. And he had partaken from a place of sealing, from outside, and never had that been so apparent to him as it was in Sealab, kept safe underwater and apart. It was easy to see the changes now, in that place of separation–easy to see how his grief had been provoked, and his anger, and his acceptance. Easy to see how grace had been lent to him, lent on iron wings, with honesty and indifference both.
August could see the changes, but he couldn’t see why. It was hard for him to see why, like trying to make out a distant shape through deep water, where the remnant rays of light were at the surface still, and left his eyes darkening against the currents. His head was so fuzzy now, fuzzy from more than depth, more than distance, and he couldn’t think as clearly as he once had done. He thought, however, that he remembered the time when Muninn and Huginn had first appeared to him. He hadn’t asked why; he had assumed kindness. And Muninn was kind, he was certain of that. Huginn too, though less often and never towards him.
“It wasn’t only for kindness though, was it,” he said, and it was not a question.
“No,” said Muninn. “Not only.”
“Will you tell me why you’ve done this?” said August.
“I wanted you to want to live,” said the raven. “I have told you so before: that I would give you an interest, something to live for.”
“So that I would reach my birthday,” said August. “So I would grow up.” And the tired, heavy feeling was in his head again, and the water rising before him was so deep and so dark that he couldn’t see his reflection. It was blurred before him, and apart. He knew that he was missing something. He did not know what.
He wondered if he even cared. He was too tired to care, and if mysteries were beautiful and interesting and spoke to him of the secret corners of the universe then they were too much for him now, who had yearned for mystery and certainty both, and who had had surfeit of them.
“Yes,” said Muninn, and the rushing in August’s head was so loud now that he was not sure if he heard her speak or if he were just imagining it. “That too.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see Kazakhstan argue against nuclear testing before the UN’s General Assembly!
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