first look work in progress

Alida Moraes

Alida Moraes (1888 – 1918) was a Portuguese story writer and poet best known for her posthumously published novelas pequenas (“little novels”). The only book published in her lifetime, a slender volume simply entitled 26 Poemas (26 Poems), appeared in 1910 under the masculine pseudonym Sebastião Preto. In 1916, when the Portuguese Republic declared war against Germany and the Central Powers, she disguised herself as a man and, as Sebastião Preto, joined the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Although her body was not recovered and/or identified, she is presumed to have been killed at the Battle of Estaires (9 – 11 April 1918) in French Flanders, when German forces overran the Portuguese lines. In 1920 her family published Flandres, collecting poems in verse and prose sent home in letters and including an often misleading memoir of the poet by her cousin Flávia Ladbourne. Two years later a first, severely bowdlerized volume of eleven Novelas pequenas was released, achieving immediate popularity in Portugal. An English translation appeared in 1926 under the title ‘The Goblin’s Bride’ and Other Modern Fairy Tales; the book has since been translated into fifteen languages and a definitive edition drawn from original manuscripts was issued in Portugal for Moraes’s centennial in 1988.


Alida Moraes was born 1 January 1888 in Porto, Portugal, the natural daughter of Duarte Sebastião Ladbourne (1873 – 1899), younger son of a port wine shipping dynasty of English origin, and Zubeida Moraes (?1870 – 1888), a laundress, who died giving birth to her. The motherless child was acknowledged by her father’s family, raised among her cousins, but never legitimated. Her early childhood was spent between the Ladbourne properties in Porto and the wine-growing region of Alijó on the Douro River. Moraes was educated by governesses and tutors in company with her cousin Flávia Ladbourne (1887 – 1962), daughter of her father’s eldest brother. She learned English, Castilian, French, and Italian as well as such feminine accomplishments as needlework, watercolor painting, and household management, although her journals reveal impatience with the latter. As she grew older her father, who approved her tomboy qualities, taught her to ride astride and to shoot.

When she was eleven, Duarte Ladbourne was killed, his body found savagely beaten on the Porto waterfront. Municipal police concluded he had been attacked by a gang of ruffians and killed after proving to carry little of value, but the Ladbourne family believed Duarte’s death the responsibility of Diederik Jonckers, a Dutch wine merchant resident in Porto who returned to Amsterdam some weeks later. The motive publicly espoused by the family and their allies was that Duarte had been conducting an affair with Jonckers’s wife, but in Moraes’s journals she declares as a matter of certainty that Jonckers’s family had her father killed to stop an affair with Jonckers himself. Years later she would fictionalize this scenario in two forms, a narrative poem in twenty-six stanzas of ottava rima (1907) and a novela pequena (1911), both entitled “Uma paixão fatal” (“A Fatal Passion”) and neither published until after the death of Flávia Ladbourne, her executrix.

After her father’s death Moraes fell into a deep depression. On the advice of the family doctor she was sent to live at the Ladbourne quinta at Pinhão. She would not return to Porto for nine years, a period she calls in her journals the wild years (os anos selvagens). Her formal education, such as it had ever been, ceased. Nevertheless, within six months she evinced a talent for educating herself, reading through every volume in the quinta’s small library and writing at length about what she had learned in the pages of the journals she had been keeping since childhood. When the library was exhausted, she began requesting books in all five of her languages in monthly letters to her guardian, Duarte’s brother. Few requests were denied: she was not permitted to read Darwin and a request for Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales was ignored, although Flávia later procured copies of both The Happy Prince and A House of Pomegranates for her cousin.

As the last titles suggest, she had an interest in fairy tales and folklore. She read Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, the Arabian Nights, Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, among many others, and eventually accumulated the entire run of Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books. For a period she collected local legends and folk tales from farmwives and vineyard workers, which she recorded meticulously in a separate set of journals. After a year-long lapse in this practice, in 1902 she rediscovered these tales and began to experiment at creating her own, mixing motifs, stock characters, and plotlines from her reading with observations of life at the quinta and around Pinhão and recollections of Porto. Several of the Novelas pequenas are drastically re-imagined and expanded versions of juvenilia from this period.

She also read much verse in all her languages, little of it recent, and wrote a good deal of derivative poetry of her own. Possibly because she had encountered the work of few women poets, she developed a masculine persona for these verses and—after Flávia’s summer sojourn at the quinta in 1904, when the two girls seem to have become lovers—composed passionate lyrics addressed to a distant, unnamed feminine beloved.

Chiefly, however, out of sight of her staid family, between 1899 and 1908 she ran wild. It was then she adopted masculine dress, if not the tailored suits she would affect in her twenties as a scandal about town in Porto and Lisbon. At first she excused the eccentricity on grounds of practicality. Fashions suitable for a bourgeois girl were unsuited to working in the vineyards, as she insisted on doing, to horseback riding, to hunting small game for the larder. For some years she would dress conventionally during family visits and kept her long hair, but at fifteen, enraged when pinned-up braids became tangled in the brush where a wounded pheasant had retreated, she cropped her hair like a boy’s and thereafter wore girl’s clothing only to attend mass with female relations. She paid local men for lessons in knife fighting, variously saying she might need to defend herself from men less understanding or that she planned to exact revenge for her father’s murder. She adopted a mastiff puppy, which she trained up as an attack dog, and for a time took an interest in the locally popular cockfights. Her journals hint that, after the summer of 1904, she made a habit of seducing local girls and women whilst reserving her romantic passion for her cousin Flávia.

She continued to write verse and prose of increasing ambition. On her birthday in 1907 she resolved to compose a memorial to her murdered father, this being the narrative poem “Uma paixão fatal,” which she had completed by late spring. Contemporary scholars have traced explicit parallels between the imagined affair of “Duarte” and “Diederik” and Moraes’s relations with Flávia; interestingly, the “Duarte” figure corresponds with the gentle, civilized Flávia of Moraes’s idealization while “Diederik” resembles the hot-tempered, half-feral poet.

Upon reading the fair copy of “Uma paixão fatal” Moraes sent her, Flávia Ladbourne declared it scandalous, even evil, and begged her cousin to burn the original even as she, Flávia, had burned the copy. This first great argument between the young lovers, conducted entirely through correspondence now lost, bore fruit in the verses that would eventually make up 26 Poemas. Freed from the constraints of narrative—although she retained the magical number 26 for the years of her father’s life—Moraes conflated the Duarte/Diederik affair of her imagination with the Flávia/Alida affair and abstracted both into a sequence of lyrics that chronicle, celebrate, and condemn the passionate romance of an ambiguously male poet-narrator and his bewitching, explicitly female beloved. Moraes was simultaneously composing early versions of several of the original fairy tales that would appear in Novelas pequenas; fantastical elements bleed through from the tales into the 26 Poemas: never-never-land settings, magical beings and creatures, mythic quests.

Journal entries from the period reveal Moraes’s internal conflict over her resolution not to show these verses to Flávia. She did, however, share the tales, generally more to her cousin’s liking. Very much not to Moraes’s liking was the announcement in October 1907 that Flávia’s father, and Flávia herself without great protest, had accepted the suit of one Edwin Montefiore, heir to another port wine house; they would be married in the spring. Moraes raged in her journal, discounting Flávia’s claim she would continue to love her cousin best. The rage spilled over into the penultimate of the 26 Poemas, unanimously considered the strongest.

A month later Duarte’s widowed mother—Alida Moraes’s and Flávia Ladbourne’s grandmother—died in Porto after a brief illness. When her will was read, it transpired she had left a legacy to her favorite son’s bastard daughter that, husbanded with some care, would keep Moraes in independent comfort. The will expressed a hope the young woman would slough her wild ways, conform to polite standards, and marry appropriately; but these were not conditions on the bequest, which was irrevocable.

In January 1908 Moraes returned to Porto “under [her] own steam,” as she wrote—but not to the Ladbourne household. Although her journals take little notice of it, this was a period of trauma and ferment in Portugal. Scarcely a month after Moraes settled in a Porto hotel, in Lisbon the king, Dom Carlos, and his heir apparent, Luis Filipe, were murdered by republican assassins, an event that would lead to the end of the monarchy less than two years later.

In Porto, having outfitted herself with her soon to be notorious bespoke suits, Moraes began the process of reinventing herself as an urban rake. She was taken up by the first of a series of bohemian older women who would shelter her, attempt to satisfy her appetites, and end up both broken hearted and satirized in one of the novelas pequenas. She declined to acknowledge her Ladbourne relatives—to their relief, doubtless—or to attend Flávia’s wedding, although they corresponded every day and engineered clandestine assignations as often as they could, whether in Moraes’s current lodgings or Flávia Ladbourne Montefiore’s new household.

Late that year or early the next, Moraes decided to publish her 26 Poemas after one of her lovers discovered the manuscript and declared it a work of genius. This woman, Rafaela Lazzini (1882 – 1950), a Brazilian heiress and painter whom Moraes calls “the Jaguar” (a onça-pintada) in her journals, created a series of modernist lithographs to illustrate the poems and financed an edition of five hundred copies, which was printed in Lisbon in February 1910, six months after their on-again, off-again affair irretrievably broke down. Lazzini had wished to issue the volume under Moraes’s name but the poet insisted the work had been composed by “the man in my heart,” whom she christened Sebastião Preto. Ultimately, Lazzini chose to have her illustrations credited to the name Moraes had given her, Onça Pintada.

26 Poemas attracted little notice and sold poorly. In the memoir of her cousin she would later write, Flávia Ladbourne laid blame for the volume’s lack of success on unsettled politics: 1910 was the year in which the last Braganza king, Dom Manuel II, “the Unfortunate,” was deposed and the First Republic established. There may be some truth to the claim. At any rate, more than half the edition still remained in rented storage six years later when Moraes resolved to join the Expeditionary Corps, at which time she chose to have them burned. As a consequence the volume is now exceedingly rare; when a copy of the first edition in good condition becomes available the price will be high.

During those early years of the republic Moraes’s dissolute public life belied her writerly industry. Her lovers—including Flávia Ladbourne—complained bitterly when she withdrew from them at intervals to devote herself to her art. She always considered herself a poet first but it appears she wrote little verse during this period. Instead, she revised and re-revised already written novelas—some exist in as many as ten versions—and composed new ones. It is unclear whether or how she intended them to be published or if she wrote the tales strictly for herself and/or Flávia.

In 1915, with the rest of Europe at war though Portugal remained officially neutral, Moraes seduced Beatrix Dumbarton (1897 – 1990), a young Scotswoman serving as governess to the children of a wealthy family of Moraes’s acquaintance. Dumbarton (“the Scottish rose” [a rosa escosesa] in the journals) soon became dangerously obsessive about her lover, often threatening to kill herself should Moraes end the affair. Finding this emotional blackmail unendurable, Moraes absconded from Porto, travelling south to the capital in masculine attire, where she took up residence under her nom-de-plume Sebastião Preto. Back in Porto, Dumbarton did not commit suicide but did suffer a nervous collapse and was kept in seclusion for the remainder of the war. She did not learn of the death of her lover until the publication of Flandres, by which time she had, ironically, met and become intimately involved with Rafaela Lazzini. The two women would remain together until Lazzini’s death in 1950, first in Portugal—Coimbra rather than Porto—then in Lazzini’s birthplace, Rio de Janeiro. In the early 1980s Umberta Freitas, a graduate student at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio, moved into Dumbarton’s apartment building and befriended the frail, elderly Scotswoman. Freitas later wrote:

The old lady asked me what I studied and I replied, Portuguese literature. “Oh,” she said, “then you will know the great good friend of my youth, Alida—or ‘Sebastião,’ as she liked to be called.”

Freitas earned her doctorate in 1986 on the strength of her dissertation, Sebastião se junta ao exército (Sebastião Joins the Army). After Dumbarton’s death she published a popular biography, A poetisa, a onça-pintada ea rosa (The Poet, the Jaguar, and the Rose, 1992), which, although it inevitably focusses more on Dumbarton and Lazzini’s long life together, remains an essential source on Moraes’s last year in the city of her birth.

It is difficult to determine how well Lisbon was fooled by Moraes’s masculine disguise, or how seriously she herself took it. Julinha Simões of the University of Coimbra speculates in Sebastião, o nome verdadeiro de Alida (Sebastião, Alida’s True Name, 2015) that Moraes was what would now be called a transman; this thesis has been dismissed as special pleading by conservatives, who point out that Simões is herself a transwoman. Certainly Moraes’s contemporaries—and the author herself—did not possess the language to address questions of transgenderism. The evidence of Moraes’s journals is ambiguous. Sometimes “Sebastião” is her father, sometimes her ghostly male twin, sometimes a cruel joke (on the gullible world; on women believing themselves courted by a man; on men troubled by their attraction to another man or, crueler still, on homosexual men discovering an attractive, sympathetic gentleman to be no such thing; on herself), sometimes simply “I.”

At any event, not much more than six months after Moraes established herself in the capital, March 1916, Germany declared war on Portugal as a result of the seizure of thirty-six German and Austro-Hungarian merchant ships in neutral Lisbon. In July of that year, Britain “invited” her old ally to contribute troops to the Triple Entente’s war effort.

Moraes seems scarcely to have noticed the declaration of war—critics have called her “shockingly naïve” about Portuguese and European politics and the war’s background—but when the call for recruits to a new Expeditionary Corps went out she took it as a call to action and an opportunity to prove Sebastião Preto’s worth in an arena more conventionally valued than literature. She prepared fair copies of the poems and stories that best pleased her, had them and a vast trove of rough manuscripts and old journals shipped to Flávia Ladbourne “for safekeeping,” and, as noted above, ordered unsold stock of 26 Poemas destroyed. Then Sebastião Preto volunteered for the Corps.

None of her correspondence thereafter survives, nor any journal she may have kept. Our only sources for Alida Moraes’s last two years are the poems she sent Flávia, posthumously published in Flandres—those Flávia chose to preserve—and Flávia’s memoir published in the same volume, an exercise in mythologizing her deceased cousin and lover.

After some six months training at Tancos, Moraes’s unit was transported to northern France for further training and integration with the British First Army, and by May 1917 had been deployed to the Western Front. Neither Portuguese nor British records take much notice of “Sebastião Preto” so it seems Moraes performed no great feats of battlefield heroism or valor such as earned her fellow private Aníbal Milhais the nickname “Soldado Milhões” (“A soldier as good as a million others”) and the Order of the Tower and Sword. In Sebastião, o nome verdadeiro de Alida, Simões expresses considerable frustration over her inability to track down any surviving veterans of the Expeditionary Corps who remembered the cross-dressed soldier-poet or, indeed, any recollection of Preto/Moraes in published accounts and memoirs. After the Battle of Estaires (AKA the Battle of La Lys), “Preto” was listed as missing, presumed dead.



  • 26 Poemas (as by Sebastião Preto, with illustrations by Onça Pintada [Rafaela Lazzini]), 1910; reissued as by Alida Moraes, sans illustrations, 1923.
  • Flandres, com uma memória da autora, 1920
  • Novelas pequenas, 1922
  • Versos esquecidos (Forgotten Verses), 1964
  • Histórias perdidas encontradas (Lost Stories Found), 1978
  • Uma paixão fatal e outros escândalos (A Fatal Passion, and Other Scandals), 1978
  • Novelas pequenas, uma edição restaurada (A Restored Edition), ed. Julinha Simões, 1988
  • Folhas da vida: uma seleção dos jornais (Leaves of life: a selection from the journals), ed. Julinha Simões, forthcoming, 2018

What on earth was that? you may rightly ask.

A piece of (invented) historical background for my current work in progress, announced at the end of this entry, the one with the girl protagonist and the working title The Goblin’s Bride (which really needs to change).

As I presently envision the novel, Alida Moraes will not actually appear as a character, although a version of this faux Wikipedia entry may. Nevertheless, her fairy tale known in English as “The Goblin’s Bride” and, especially, the 1999 film based on it, will be of signal importance to the actual characters and the plot and, well, this is the way I work. One of the ways, anyway. At some point in the near future I’ll have to compose a similar entry on that film as well as the text of the fairy tale—Moraes’s original, not the bowdlerized version after which the film’s script was written.

But first I need to complete the second chapter of the main narrative…. Back to work, Jeffers.

awards erotica fantasy fiction first look That Door Is a Mischief The Padişah’s Son and the Fox work in progress

a bleak road through a black waste

I suffered a breakdown, something like a breakdown. Not on account of the traumatic event some people know about (the contrary, doubtless, in some ways), although that was no bloody help whatsoever—some weeks earlier, and then prolonged for nearly three months. Brain chemistry is a tricky thing whether or not mediated by those secretive rulers of the universe, the pharmaceutical-industrial complex (mine is not). I was pretty much incapable of working, neither for myself nor for paying clients. On the internet (where nobody knows you’re a dog) I put up a front, as one does. People who know me may not even have noticed. (I didn’t wish them to.) Then, for reasons having to do with said traumatic event, I lost internet access for some while, making paying work pretty much impossible. I would like to thank my elder brother for a leg up—a couple of legs, monetary and fraternal.

One might think receiving the truly lovely cover art for That Door Is a Mischief from its creator, the estimable Ben Baldwin, early last month would have helped. It was surely a bright moment in a waste of black despair, but moments last only so long. In the aftermath, however, I’m delighted by Ben’s visual imagining of my verbal imaginings, grateful to him for the work and to gentle publisher for commissioning it. Lethe Press will release the novel around about 15 September.


One might think learning The Padişah’s Son and the Fox had won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Erotica would make everything all better. One would be wrong…even if I didn’t believe the Lammys rather hollow honors. As I do. Nevertheless, I extend my gratitude to the anonymous judging panel, and to Mr Damon Shaw, whose good opinion of the abridged version originally published in 1996 belatedly persuaded me to publish the entire novella.


Toward the end of the horrid interval—just recently, in other words—more serene of mind, properly caffeinated and nicotinated again and still internet-free, I was able to restart the balky writing engine.

Well, first I put some time into revising The Unexpected Thing, which is now about as good as I think I can make it without editorial whips lashing my shoulders. Pretty damn good, that is. I’m now actively seeking representation, if anybody knows a good, aggressive literary agent.

But then I started writing again. I looked over a sputtering constellation of inconsequential fragments committed to pixels and bytes a decade ago, attempted to figure out where I’d meant to go with them. Although I failed in that figuring (just as well), I seem to have come up with a different conceptual schema and to have written the eighty-five-hundred-word first chapter of a new novel. I’m not ready to talk about it much, except to report its working title, Bedtime Stories for the Boy Himself, Perhaps, and the first sentence: He was twenty-two when he realized he was pregnant.

And to quote an essay written by its protagonist in high school, a few years before the novel’s proper start.

Matthew Girard
Senior English, Mr Wallace
18 September 2009


The first time I saw the angel was two weeks before school got out for the summer. I had gone down to the beach after school—my head was foggy and, as I remember, I was annoyed about something and didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody. There were too many people on the sand so I walked briskly to the end of the beach, below the golf course where the cliffs come down almost to the tide line and there’s no sand anymore, just a shelf of rock with a bunch of boulders up against the cliff.

After walking a way along here, around the first headland, I couldn’t see—or hear—any people, so I sat down on a boulder looking out to sea and smoked a cigarette. I shouldn’t admit that part but if I don’t you’ll be sure to think I was smoking a joint. Because that’s when I saw the angel.

At first I just thought it was a big gull looking for fish, flapping along right above the waves in wide s-curves and figure eights. But as it came closer I saw that its wings were whiter than a gull’s—but not really white, more all colors at once…rainbow colors. White light going through a prism turns to rainbow colors. Its body didn’t really look like a bird’s, either, though I couldn’t tell quite what it did look like yet.

I held very still, not wanting to frighten it away, and it kept getting closer. Finally it alighted about ten feet from me and I could see it wasn’t any kind of bird at all. For one thing, it stood upright and had arms with hands on them, and no tail. I call it an angel because I don’t know what else to call it but it didn’t really look like the Sunday School idea of an angel, being naked and pretty definitely male (I suppose I should say he instead of it). Only about two feet tall, too—I think of angels as being seven and a half or eight feet, or else people size. Anyway, it was definitely too big to be a fairy and its wings were like bird wings, feathered, not dragonfly or moth wings. Maybe it was an extraterrestrial being. Whatever it was, I call it an angel. I said, “Angel,” and held out my hand.

I guess it hadn’t really seen me or thought I was a funny-looking rock, because when I moved and spoke it jumped into the air, flapping its wings madly, and shrieked like a gull. But basically it just seemed to be startled. It settled back down soon enough, fluffing its wings as though it was annoyed, and eyeing me sidelong.

At that distance I couldn’t really make out its face, but later on, as we got to know each other, I discovered the angel’s features revealed just as much expression as a person’s. The expressions—smiling, frowning, etc—were very human, too, and looked rather peculiar on a face the size of a cat’s, pointed at the chin and broad at the temples, with a small nose and mouth and very big, silvery eyes (not as big as a cat’s, though, and with round pupils). I think it may not have been quite adult yet because it had no beard or body hair. Although maybe angels don’t display those masculine characteristics. Its ears were small and round. The hair on its head was short, the same silvery color as its eyes and eyebrows. I wasn’t able to determine if the hair was cut short or if it grew that length naturally. I saw it use its hands several times—it liked to knock mussels off the rocks, pry them open, and pull out the meat, which it ate very neatly, and once I saw it catch a little fish, grabbing it out of the water with both hands—but I never saw it use any kind of tool, and as I said before it wore no clothing. I’m still not sure how intelligent it was. More than a monkey, definitely, but I’m not sure how much more. Eventually it learned to say my name and a few simple words like rock, sea, hand, wing, angel, and boy, but it never got the hang of verbs. I never saw it talking with another angel (it was the only one I encountered, unfortunately), so I don’t know if the sounds it made were language. They had the full complement of vowels and consonants—a few more of the latter than English, I think—and they sounded like language, but more like singing than speech.

But these observations come out of sequence. It took a week or so for it to get accustomed to me, to get over its suspicion and try the treats I brought it. It liked raisins; sunflower seeds and almonds, but not peanuts; rye bread, but not whole wheat or white; M&M’s, plain only, and it disdained the green ones. I’m not sure what else it ate besides mussels and fish. Once when I offered it a bite of my salami and cheese sandwich it got very annoyed, urinated on my head, and flew away shrieking, but the next day things were back to normal. (Angel urine, by the way, is just as nasty as any other kind.)

By about the tenth time I came to see it, the angel had learned my name. I tried to come at the same time every day. I would sit down on my habitual rock and smoke my cigarette. After a little while the angel would come flying in over the water, calling “Matthew! Matthew!” in its high, sweet voice, and land on my knee, sitting astraddle, wings out for balance. If I was still smoking it would be annoyed and yell at me from a distance until I got rid of the butt. When it was feeling particularly affectionate it landed on my head, grabbing my hair in its little hands. I found this disconcerting—especially when it hauled itself hand-over-hand across my scalp until it was hanging head down over my forehead, staring into my eyes and grinning foolishly. It wasn’t as heavy as you’d think, maybe four or five pounds. Probably its bones were hollow. Its skin was quite warm and its heartbeat very fast. Its wings smelled dusty, dry, and its flesh salty, a little like sea water. I am sorry to say it had very bad breath, though its teeth looked healthy if rather yellow. Except for the wings it appeared to be completely mammalian, making it a puzzle how to classify it in biological terms.

I don’t know if one could say I had tamed the angel because I’m not sure if you could ever have called it wild, or even if you’d call it an animal. I kept hoping it might follow me home one evening but no such luck. I’m fairly sure nobody ever saw us together, which is a pity in a way because of course no sane person would ever believe I made friends with an angel this summer. I have one of its long flight feathers, white with an odd prismatic shimmer, but what’s a feather? It never occurred to me until afterward that I should have tried to take a photograph of it. I mean, I always had my phone on me so I could have.

Sometime around the middle of August I went down to the rocks around the headland but the angel didn’t show up. I gave up looking for it after a week or so. I was disappointed that it hadn’t said good-bye.

I’ll say one further thing about Bedtime Stories. A kind reviewer of You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home said of “Then We Went There” that he wished the story were longer, that I’d explored the world of the Court of the Air more extensively. It occurred to me the other night that, when I composed “Then We Went There,” unconscious memories of those decade-old fragments may have come into play. That is, Matthew Girard uses a similar method to reach his imaginary world as Davey, in the short story, used to stumble from our world into another, and Matthew’s world also features an aerial commonwealth—if not a brutal, all-powerful régime like the Court. So, Benito: Not strictly an extension of or sequel to “Then We Went There” but, when (if) I complete Bedtime Stories, maybe the next-best thing.

fiction first look novella Rahab SF spec fic The New People

M-Brane SF Double #1

Today was meant to be the release date for M-Brane SF Double #1, partly in honor of the birthday of Jeff Lund, who created the nifty cover art and who puts up with M-Brane publisher Chris Fletcher on a daily basis. Alas, the coincidence of a tiny glitch in the cover layout (not Jeff’s responsibility) and the long Memorial Day weekend has caused a delay. A week perhaps. Which may mean the pre-publication special is still open: the print Double plus a passel of electronic-form M-Brane merch, all for the low low price of $14.95. Why not head over to M-Brane Press and try?

Meanwhile, in my quixotic fashion, I will continue to claim 31 May 2011 as official pub date. And so, to welcome you into my half of the book, herewith the 1,300-word first chapter of my ~30,000-word novella.

The New People


1: Haven-city, Haven-archipelago: EJ 313 Zizdy 03

Running blind, he collided with somebody or something, stumbled, nearly fell, but kept running. The endless clamor in his ears was like surf magnified, roaring. Surely people were screaming, sirens wailing. The phone was out—even if he could have heard anything under the roar—a dead, cold weight on the bone of his jaw. The second time, he couldn’t keep his balance. Unseen paving rushed up to strike palms and knees, hard and hot. He rolled onto his shoulder. Something punched his side and he continued rolling until the low seawall stopped him. He kept blinking, trying to see, but there was only light. He felt the inarticulate grunts and moans in his throat but couldn’t hear them, couldn’t stop them. Pavement shuddered under his cheek as the tower continued to collapse. Shuddering himself, he lay there for what seemed like a very long time, arms crooked around his head, knees pulled up to protect his belly, panting, sobbing.

Eventually the throbs of light in his eyes began to slow and dim, though the dull roar continued in the bones of his skull. When he could distinguish the movements of his fingers, he sat up, leaning against the wall. The fog of brightness made everything hazy and flat. Nobody was running now but he saw people in the eye-burning yellow of Emergency Response moving against the backdrop of indistinct buildings. The façades glowed with a white clamor pierced by prisms of hot glass that made his eyes tear. Unless it was shock, fear, horror that made him cry.

They weren’t supposed to have, to use weapons. The new people, if that was what they called themselves. The manifesto spoke of reform, of change—not killing. He had wanted to join them, further their aims. They had bombed the nursery.

Pulling himself to his feet, he turned his back on the corniche and its buildings, placed his hands flat on the top of the seawall. Morning sun threatened to blind him again if he looked up. Below, the beach lay deserted, abandoned belongings forlorn on disturbed sands. Waves lapped unconcerned onto the sand, surf burst on the reef. Far across the water, the silvery ribbon of the elevator climbed from the horizon to pierce the zenith, longer than anything, taller than anything—immeasurably taller than the nursery spire before it fell. If he looked right, down the beach, only a little way, there would be débris where the tower had collapsed, broken on the sand. Débris. Bodies. Babies.

Madmen. Only madmen could deliberately kill babies.

Something touched his shoulder. He tried to shrug it off, but it was a hand that grasped hard and forced him to turn. The man in ER yellow was talking to him. “I can’t hear you,” he said, unsure whether he could be heard himself. “I don’t think I’m hurt badly but I can’t hear anything except—” The man seemed to be shaking his head. “I can’t see very well either.”

Wielding some medical implement, the man inspected his ears, then changed the setting to irradiate his eyes. That made him blink, but afterward his vision came clear. Ears remained blocked to any sound but the constant rumbling in his skull of the bomb’s aftershocks. The man held up a hand and he understood he was meant to count the fingers: “Three.… Two.… Four.… My name is Jafet. I arrived from Away last night—I’m on vacation. Do you need my ID?”

The man nodded.

Jafet reached for the lozenge on its chain around his neck, suddenly aware he hadn’t picked up his satchel when he fled the café. But it was ID the man wanted and he carried that on his person. Tugging it free, he handed it over, scarcely noticed the man slipping it into his journal’s aperture. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I need to sit down.”

Faltering, he reached behind to be sure of the wall and sat. Below the frayed hem of his sarong, ash and dust crusted his legs. There were scratches and streaks of muddy blood—the worst of it from his fall but some might be shrapnel. He lifted his hands: more scratches, more blood, more dirt, on palms and forearms.

Another hand appeared, returning his ID. Jafet took it and looked up. The man’s blinding coverall wasn’t dirty but creased and crumpled as if he’d pulled it on only a moment ago. His name was stitched across the breast in red, NISIM, above the municipal emblem. His face was blank with concern as he searched his pockets. Finding what he needed, he leaned over Jafet with a different tool, pressed it to the muscle and tendon of Jafet’s jaw where the phone was bonded to the bone. A thin, angry whine sliced through the roar in Jafet’s ears. He winced.

The man, Nisim, inspected his implement, made an adjustment, pressed it against Jafet’s jaw again. The whine modulated down to an easy, not unpleasant tone, then cut out. Nisim made another adjustment.

“Can you hear me now?”

Muffled and distorted by the continuing roar, the voice from the aether was nevertheless distinct. “Yes,” Jafet said.

“How close were you?”

“In the café.”

Nisim’s black eyes opened wide. “Judgment! And you got out before the rest of the building fell on you?”

Jafet shook his head. “I told you—I’m from Away. I’ve been running out of buildings since I could run. It’s like an instinct. I hope—”

In turn, Nisim grimaced. “Probably not. We know about typhoons in Haven, but typhoons give you warning, and you run inside. The nursery was typhoon proofed.”

“How…how many?”

“Too soon to tell.” Biting his lip, Nisim looked away. “Staff, expectant fathers, other visitors: a few hundred, probably. Most of the babies should survive if we can dig the bottles out fast enough. I should—”

Jafet took a breath. “Yes, you should. Now. I’ll be fine.” He took another breath. “Thank you for telling me about the babies.”

“The bottles are tough.” Nisim almost smiled. “Here.” He handed Jafet a foil sachet. “Put this on your scratches after you wash. If the tinnitus hasn’t faded by morning, or if anything else feels weird, get yourself to a clinic. My phone knows you now, so I’ll check in tomorrow.” He nodded, turned away, then looked back, a crooked grin ready to turn to tears. With a start, Jafet comprehended the young man’s astonishing beauty. “On behalf of the municipality,” Nisim said, “I apologize for your vacation being spoiled.” Then, trotting, he was away down the corniche.

What’s that supposed to mean, Jafet wanted to say. He was breathing hard again, nearly hyperventilating. He didn’t want to watch Nisim reach the ruins—the café where the waiter who’d served him, the cook who’d prepared his breakfast, the other customers must all have been crushed when the nursery behind and above collapsed and fell on them. He hadn’t authorized payment for his meal before fleeing. It was the second explosion that blinded him: he had paused for an instant, stupid, not twenty meters from the café doors, looked back, looked up. The slender spire of the nursery—first and largest nursery in the world—was moving, jerkily swaying. He knew it was designed to move, but not like that. At the top of the spire, the titanic sculpture gleamed and flashed as sunlight caught on its facets and curves: stylized father nurturing stylized son.

But then as he watched, the babe in his daddy’s arms flared blue-white like a little star, brighter than the sun, searing Jafet’s eyes before he could turn and run, before the concussive blast deafened him.

The first explosion had done the job—the second was merely symbol.

Jafet swallowed dry. Madmen. If it were the new people, he wanted nothing to do with them—he wanted them punished, however noble their aims. His hotel was half a kilometer up the corniche, an easy stroll. He started walking.

Intrigued? You might also want to look into issue #10 of M-Brane SF (November 2009), led off by “Jannicke’s Cat,” a novelette from two hundred fifty years earlier in the history of The New People’s planet; and M-Brane SF Quarterly #1 (October 2010), containing “Annie,” a short story roughly contemporaneous with “Jannicke’s Cat.”

Both those stories, along with The New People and much else, are meant one day to be folded into a volume of conventional-novel length. A Boy’s History of the World (working title) will be a sweeping sci-fi panorama of the extra-solar planet Rahab, from the foundational trauma of Eve’s judgment, when all the women began to die, to the first tentative recontact with a human universe containing two sexes.

That’s the plan, anyway. Logistics are complex. Watch this space for progress reports.