A LOVER’S DISCOURSE: FIVE FRAGMENTS & A MEMORY OF WAR – FABIO FERNANDES

When Eduardo experienced morning sickness for the first time, a whole new chapter in the story of his life opened before him. This was not a figure of speech.

He woke suddenly one morning and had to run straight to the toilet to throw up – but all that came out of his mouth were words. Pellets of incomprehensible words that dropped off in bits and pieces, in phonemes and syllables, and splashed in the water with all the leaden weight of ill-chosen words. A first draft of a vomit.

He didn’t know what to make of it but he had a clue. A theory. A hypothesis. Different strings of words, formed only in his mind. All these things that come with the territory when you are a storyteller.

For Eduardo had made the mistake many storytellers make in the trade.

He fell in love with a story.

And the story reciprocated.

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It happened in one of the usual places, a maqha. There, storytellers surrounded by the light of candles and the smell of incense performed for small audiences seated at low tables and smoking from cigarettes or collective hookahs. The buzz of the words coming from everywhere in the labyrinth of tiny rooms soothed him – both his parents were poets, and he had fond memories of nights spent in such places as a child.

Now, studying Storytelling at the University, Eduardo secretly spent his free time having sweet dreams, listening to the sound of words there, hoping for something that he wasn’t able to define. But, confident, somehow, that he would.

And that’s exactly what happened on a balmy evening at the beginning of autumn.

Being traditionally coffeehouses, maqhas didn’t usually sell alcohol, but what was the fun in going to one like that? Eduardo knew a couple of places in the Magdalene District that sold more than just coffee and tea, and at least one that didn’t ask for any ID. Eduardo looked older than his twenty years, but he’d rather not risk a reprimand from the bartender. Worse: if word of it reached someone at the University, it would harm his incipient reputation as an A-grade sophomore. And he wanted to get better acquainted with stories, not to be expelled from the University.

So, it wasn’t without a certain fear (of being seen by any acquaintance? Of not being seen entering the realms of adventure? He wasn’t sure) that Eduardo entered the St. Christopher maqha.

Eduardo looked at the other end of the main room and there was… she? He? Eduardo couldn’t tell. The person he saw through the billowing curtain of smoke was delicate, slender, with short blonde curls and narrow almond eyes. Approximately his age, he guessed; probably a ST student too, since a student of Interspecies Law or Alchemic Engineering would never come to such an establishment; too shabby for them.

He sat at a table halfway the entrance and the might-be student. There were no storytellers in that room, so he welcomed the food and drink when they arrived and tried to listen to the sound of the conversations around him. Time passed quickly, or so it seemed; Eduardo drank a bit more than he was used to – two half-pints of a light, fruity Lebanese beer and a couple of small, cold glasses of Arak – and mustered the much-needed courage to cross the room and sit across from the possible student in the small table. Then he found out that the object of his attention was a she. And looking intently at him.

Eduardo was already in love, even though he was not entirely aware of it.

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Until very recently Eduardo had read neither the histories of Herodotus nor the classic works of Homer. This last one’s Storiad had filled his mind with wonder, but, despite of all the caveats and the lessons in the University, he still didn’t know very well how to sift fact from legend.

The hard truth was, Eduardo had never met a story in the flesh. Sure, he had read about them his entire life – and, given his parents’ propensity for the written word, he spent half his life (most notably his puberty) waiting for a story to enter his home. But, alas, that never happened – a thing that caused many fantasies to sprout in his too-impressionable mind, which imagined ordinary people (his own parents among them) having trysts with stories in motel rooms, even though such encounters were neither frowned upon nor needed to be secret, because most often they were viewed as work meetings – or so his mother and father had always told him.

When he was younger, he wanted to be many things: a physician, a stargazer, an alchemist. Only later he started fancying himself a storyteller. No other walk of life offered more mysteries to him, and he had a craving for mysteries.

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Making contact was easier than he could have expected. It was if a spark had set the whole room on fire. He felt illuminated, and he knew it wasn’t the alcohol.

“What’s your name?” he asked. She seemed to flicker as if lit up from inside. It was a marvelous effect, and he was enraptured. He wasn’t so sure it wasn’t the alcohol now, but so what? He beamed in joy.

“Guess,” she said, smiling too.

“I don’t like guessing.”

“But you like wordplay,” she said.

“How do you know that?” he asked, suddenly wary.

She simply waved around.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said shyly, and took a long sip of beer.

“Play with me, then.”

“I would name you as a muse,” he said, feigning drunkenness to hide his discomfort. And not doing a very good job of it.

“Which one?”

He looked in her eyes. Beautiful, dark blue eyes. Intriguing eyes.

“I would say Calliope,” he managed to tell her, “but she appeared in so many narratives… Frankly, I don’t know what to tell you.”

She was silent for a while.

“It’s not a very auspicious beginning for a storyteller, is it?” she finally said. “To be at a loss for words.”

“I thought that was for a story to do.”

She laughed. It was a crystalline sound that seemed to ring and vibrate across the table. He felt it in the fingertips that held his glass of beer.

“Not at all,” she said. “The writer must be in possession of the words. The story is the theme. The backbone, if you will.”

“So you’re saying the writer must furnish the flesh,” he offered.

“In a manner of speaking,” she said. “The creator must definitely give the seed.”

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Meaningless words floated in the bowl. Eduardo’s vision was blurred. His body ached all over.

He could recognize the occasional letter, an a here, an l there, separate letters which seemed to be handwritten rather than printed, even though his hand never touched them.

The letters looked like mustard seeds in the otherwise clear water.

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Eduardo knew all there was to know about storytelling – in theory, at least. This process was old as the world. Older, in fact, if the myths about the land of Storiae were to be believed.

According to quantum mythologists such as Koestler and Sheldrake, Storiae was a world like ours, but in another plane of existence. A few storytellers (Christopher Marlowe among them, with his play Strange Dominion) would argue that it was but the same world, no divisions; some people, however, just saw it in a different light, and these people were the stories.

A few scientists, however (Ballard, Burroughs, Wilson) discarded the mythical hypothesis, venturing the hypothesis that they didn’t originate from Earth, but came from another world, probably seeded billions of years ago by asteroids or planetoids. A private group of industry investors proposed a mission to the Moon to get more data that could back this theory, but so far nothing happened.

It was never clear if stories were human or not. The most advanced technologies weren’t able to tell the difference. Blood, urine, stool samples; EEGs, ECGs; everything according to human patterns. Dissections found nothing different from human bodies.

But superstition travels faster than light, the scientists and even the storytellers say among themselves. People always looked for excuses to identify stories and to segregate them from humans; a crooked nose, maybe? A darker shade of skin, perhaps? A weird glint in the eye?

A long time ago, this deep-rooted fear of otherness and difference almost led to the ethnic cleansing of the stories in the Great One Thousand and One Days War. Not to mention the camps. And the experiments.

It was a time of nightmares. But nobody talks about it these days.

Neither did Eduardo. He wasn’t there to dwell on past history. He wanted to learn the simplest thing, something that was legal but should not be done in public (not in plain sight, at least), something that you could learn about even at an early age in school but were not especially encouraged to do. Something his own parents hesitated in talking to him about when he asked them the first time.

All Eduardo wanted was a story.

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“A good storyteller,” his friend Nelson once told him during one of their endless conversations at a more conventional, acceptable bar for students, “is a hunter. Storytellers are essentially hunters.”

“Not hunters,” Carol corrected him. “Coolhunters. Better yet: trendsetters. We don’t hunt. Stories come to us of their own volition.”

“Too bad for them,” said Nelson. He was the oldest of the group, as cynical as they come.

“Why?” said Martin, the heartbreaker. He was the most handsome of the group, and it was said that he had already had trysts with at least two stories. But he was very discreet, a thing they attributed to his homosexuality. The city fancied itself a place free of prejudice, but those who lived there knew better than to flaunt their sexual preferences. “They want this. They live for this. They crave the attention.”

“This is true,” Eduardo said. “They want to be petted.”

“Oh, please,” said Carol, grimacing. “Are you implying they can’t think for themselves?”

Carol was the devil’s advocate for the group. She helped keep them on their toes at Cross-Ethics classes, where their teacher was always nagging them about the responsibility that a relationship between humans and stories entailed not only to the couple, but to the fabric of the society as a whole. As always, they didn’t know what to say when she pushed them that way.

“I certainly am,” Nelson cut in. “They are tabula rasa. They are only vessels, receptacles full of content, though devoid of context. We approach them–”

“Or they approach us…,” countered Martin.

“Or they approach us, and thus the essence of the storytelling is born. The storyteller gives the seed, the story the vessel and that’s it.”

“Cut the crap,” Carol said. “You are only parroting al-Nadim’s manual. If this was an exam, you would fail miserably.”

“But it is a fact, my dear.”

“How do you know? How do any of you here know?” she teased them.

No one answered.

They were virgins.

All Eduardo and his friend had done so far was study the theory of storytelling, its mechanics, its dos and don’ts. But that was all: they had no field experience, so to speak.

Sometimes a bold teacher encouraged them to go on a field trip, but it wasn’t a thing the university was keen on endorsing. All the stories, they said, should be treated with the utmost respect, and that was why the students only had contact with authorized stories, and even then only in their last year of study.

(They didn’t consider this a measure of respect – there was talk of old, decrepit stories being kept locked in the university’s basements, to be released only once a semester, and presented in closed, well-watched meetings with a few students at a time. A controlled experiment is no experiment at all, Eduardo thought, but only to himself. He wasn’t looking forward to meet these stories.)

Eduardo longed to be with a story. The more he talked about theory, the more he wanted to practice.

But then, they were young and restless. Eager and full of pent-up energy, with no place to spend it.

“You don’t even know about the sex,” Carol said. This was meant to all the men in the group, but Eduardo blushed because she was looking at him when she told those words, and he felt shame for two reasons: first, because he didn’t think it was fair of her to turn to him when all of them as just as eager, and second, because she was absolutely right.

“She’s got a point in there, you know,” Nelson said. “Stories have no sex. They are like angels. Angels are functions.”

“Functions don’t have sex. Functions do. Functions make. Functions don’t fuck.”

“That doesn’t mean stories can’t relate to you as if,” Martin said.

Freud had called it cognitive mimesis. A kind of emotional camouflage. But this was also a matter of academic dispute; some said that it demeaned the stories, stripping them of their purpose and making them less than human. (It had already been established that they were not human, but since the War the Committees for Awareness Recognition pointed out that such a distinction was immaterial, since they were indistinguishable from humans, and in fact could humanity live without them? Many didn’t think so.)

But indeed it was a technicality, since stories and humans could live in peace and harmony and create together without as much as touching each other. Physical contact was overrated.

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He breathed deeply. He still felt sick, but didn’t feel like throwing up anymore. Shaking, he stood up and washed his face. Words danced in the mirror. Unfinished sentences.

A story in the making? Could it be?

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“Leila,” she said.

“What?”

“My name.”

Eduardo was a bit disappointed. Somehow he was expecting… what? He couldn’t say. Something more exotic, maybe. Even though he had read Phillipe Ariès’s series of books on life in the Middle Ages and how stories (at least in the Western world – in Japan and in many countries in the African continent the customs and mores were different) took the names of landlords, just as humans did. There was no mystery in that.

He frowned. “But are you…”

She didn’t laugh this time. Only the corners of her lips curved upward. She still seemed amused, though. “A story? Sure. Why shouldn’t I be?”

“You don’t seem to be…”

“There are only two kinds of patrons in this bar,” she told him. “Stories and storytellers. Which one are you?”

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He mustered all his strength to go back to the bedroom and flop down onto the bed. He was feeling hot, heavy, sleepy. All he wanted was to sleep forever.

What was happening to him?

Where was Leila?

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How can one distinguish a human from a story? Some dismissed it as another immaterial question. Only in 1928 a Russian scholar, who had lived among folk stories for many years, developed a kind of test to sort between human and story. The Propp Proposition, as it became most widely known, stated that only after a carefully-built dialogue between a human and a story you would be able to distinguish who was who.

Humans, according to Propp, tended to be more rational and word-oriented. Stories were more emotional and focused on theme. That was not to say that humans couldn’t elaborate theories upon themes and talk about them and stories couldn’t express themselves beautifully with words of their own choosing.

The thing was, you couldn’t take anything for granted. As anything in life.

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It wasn’t the way he thought it would be.

He was expecting a wonderful evening, filled with joy, moments of illumination, like those beautiful poems by Rumi or Rimbaud, who were so lucky to live always in love with their stories.

But it didn’t happen.

He finished his beer and asked for more, even knowing he shouldn’t. She didn’t say a word about this, nor about anything else during the rest of their conversation; it was all about him, about him trying to delve deep into his trove of words, and though he hadn’t a great knowledge of words (for his trove was shallow), he managed to be verbose, and he couldn’t help himself. He also looked, mesmerized, to her beautiful face, to her slender hands that avoided touching liquor after a while (or were they  avoiding touching him? he wondered for a while before looking again to her arms, wrapped in intricate leaves made of henna tattoos that seemed to gleam in the lamplight like ancient illuminated manuscripts).

A couple of sad, stammering, stuttering hours later, when Eduardo finally rose from the cushions and pillows on the multicolored carpet, maintaining a delicate balance and still sober enough to be more or less self-conscious, he saw Leila to the door of the maqha. Under the streetlamps, her honey-colored skin was much more beautiful than he could have guessed in the cramped room, even full of candles.

He shivered despite the warm breeze. He felt a sudden urge to lick that skin, to feel with his tongue what those henna leaves would taste like.

Then he looked up and saw her looking at him. Sadly? Angrily? He was too wasted to think clearly. And ashamed of himself for things he had done and said and was already forgetting, but he was sure he shouldn’t have when she said good-bye without even a perfunctory kiss in the cheek, and it was then he knew that he had really done it all wrong.

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“Why did you do that?” Carol asked him when he, feeling guilty the following day, told her of his visit to the maqha.

“I was tired of all the waiting,” he admitted. “I don’t want to have to wait one more year to pass just to be stuck in a roomful of fellow students with an old, wrinkled story.” He exhaled. “I wanted some privacy… some… intimacy, I don’t know.”

“That’s why you didn’t invite us?,” she said. “You were ashamed of what you were doing?”

He nodded.

She laughed. “You dumb ass! Everybody does that once in a while! We were wondering when you’d do it. Damn, now I’ll have to pay Nelson.”

“You were placing bets on me?”

“Sure. We always do that.”

“And you bet against me?”

“No. Like I said, it was just on the matter of when. Nobody believed you would accomplish anything.”

He cringed. “Why?”

“Because nobody does the first time,” she said.

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When he finally came back, Leila was sitting at the same table, sipping tea and holding the hose of a hookah filled with smoke, watching him cross the threshold of the room door without so much as blinking. The air smelled of cinnamon; he smelled his own sweat in the air. That, and the fear that she didn’t recognize him. Or, even worse, that she did, and couldn’t care less.

He approached her table slowly, measuring his steps with the care of a poet counting the number of syllables in his verse. “May I?” he asked her, gesturing at the cushions across the table.

“Have you found your words?” she countered.

He smiled. She recognized him.

“When I was a freshman at the university,” he told her, “a famous storyteller visited us to give a lecture there. He was already old, but not frail, not at all. He had a jovial way of looking right at your face and telling you the ugliest truths about life, storytelling, and everything.

“When he finished the lecture, I went to talk to him. I wanted to tell him how much his work had inspired me when I was younger. I breathed deeply, waited in line for my turn, and, when it came, I stammered a bit, but managed to tell it to him anyway.

“Then he looked me in the eye and said: ‘And it changed your life, didn’t it?’”

She laughed.

“Now you have found your words again,” she said.

“And I did not even have to drink,” he admitted.

“Like every storyteller worth his weight.”

They spent the rest of the evening talking about many things, and he found that her palette of themes bordered the inexhaustible: the wind in the trees come autumn, Al-Kindi’s Discourse on the Soul, the nature of n-dimensional space, the tactile works of art made by the blind monks of Katmandu.

It was a conversation, and at the same time a little bit more than this: it was fencing, a thrust-and-parry game, through which they sensed and measured one another. They couldn’t read each other, not yet; rather, it was as if they were avid children with their faces plastered to the front of a store, looking at their favorite pastries and confections, savoring them in their minds and anticipating the pleasure they would have in eating them.

When they walked out of the bar, he took her hand as if it was only natural. She looked up, seriously, and said, her voice low, a little bit raspy with smoking:

“Play with me.”

This time he didn’t need words.

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They didn’t leave his apartment for the next three days.

Eduardo explored. He was still young, and he never had more than two or three dates before, where sex was virtually non-existent, and when it happened, the whole act was filled with discomfort and shame.

Not with her. To explore her body was to open pages of a new, fresh story. For she was a story all unto herself, and now – for now – she was his, and his only.

He sucked her nipples and drank a trickle of sweet, glittering milk that seeped from her breasts. He licked the salt of her burning skin, from her hairline to the tips of her toes, stopping for a long time in the cleft between her legs.

He feasted in her flesh and she in his; even when he closed his eyes and let she do whatever she wanted – and, oh, how she wanted! – he felt words appearing in his mind’s eye. No, not exactly that (he was a beginner, and therefore his metaphors still left much to be desired): the words were in his flesh, and the tips of her probing fingers were the indefatigable pens which wrote fragments of that story. She was bridging a gap between them, bringing them closer to each other. He already knew he was a better man, a better writer, because now he had a story.

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The night came. Eduardo burned in fever. A shadow moved across his room.

“Leila? What’s going on with me?” he moaned.

The shadow didn’t say anything. Sitting by his side, it took his hand, propped his head under a pillow, felt his forehead. Then Eduardo felt the strangest thing: his mouth was opened and sniffed.

Eduardo could swear he heard the shadow sigh. And then he heard a whisper:

“You wanted a story so much,” and he felt something brush his aching belly. “This is your story.”

He lost consciousness.

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“Congratulations, Storyteller,” Carol said ironically the next week, when he finally, utterly spent, returned to the university just to avoid failing the year.

“What for?” but he already knew he couldn’t hide anything from his friends.

“You and your story are the talk of the town,” she said. “Just remember not to bring her here, ok? The university will allow for some misconduct as long as you don’t flaunt it, so they can pretend they don’t know anything about it.”

“I´ll be discreet,” he said.

He was. Not for fear, but because he was in love and didn’t have any time at all to lose. He would go to the university, but stayed there for just as long as he was needed, for every minute there was a minute lost to the embrace of his love. To the taste of her words.

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For three months Eduardo was a happy man. He still saw his friends, but only during classes, because he craved for Leila, her words, her tongue, her speech, the syntax of her body, the grammar of her sex.

Until he started vomiting maimed words and mangled sentences.

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It happened in the middle of the night. Eduardo opened his eyes, and the same strange flicker he saw in Leila’s skin was now all around him. He sweated profusely and couldn’t stop his teeth from chattering. He looked down: his skin was on fire.

Suddenly Eduardo knew it was a story coming. And the story was:

“When the One Thousand and One Days War started,” a voice boomed in his ear, neither male nor female, “we thought our world had come to an end. Until that time, the passage between Storiae and your world was easy, and everybody who wanted could cross over.

“But Earth was passing through an age of Reason, and stories were starting to feel less and less welcome. We knew that soon would come the day that we would have to choose between staying here and going back to Storiae for good.

“When the few and sparse attacks to our people became more than street brawls and turned into an all-out conflict, we braced ourselves and made our decision. We would stay and fight.”

“First, we gathered every story we could save in small armies. Then, we closed the doors into Storiae. Forever. This would drain part of our strength, but we had a plan.

“We had made an alliance with a powerful shahryar, who had become quite fond of stories and all his life had wanted to become a storyteller, but his father forbade him to pursue his desire. Now, old and frail, he had no children upon whom to bestow this gift and on top of it all, he was very saddened by the upcoming war.

“One of our wisest stories went to visit the sharyar in his castle and stayed with him for as long as he needed to master the art of storytelling. He was very demanding, for he wanted nothing less than perfection. But Shahrazad also wasn’t hard to please.”

“Shahrazad stayed with the sharyar for a thousand and one days – or nights, to be more accurate – until he had acquired absolute mastery of the trade. But this had an unexpected effect.

“To this day we still don’t know what caused it. Many of our scholars state that it was some collateral effect due to the closing of the doors to Storiae. Something happened to restore the balance, apparently.

“And the sharyar gave birth to Shahrazad’s children.

“There were so many new stories, all so tiny, so but so fierce, ravenous and full of life that the poor old sharyar died soon after.

“At this time, however, with the war raging outside the walls of the castle, Shahrazad had more than enough to accomplish the rest of the plan.

“She sent forth her children to the four corners of the world with very specific instructions. They should stop the war.

“They were still tiny things, mere outlines, more ideas than stories. But ideas can be powerful.

“And so they infiltrated themselves among the humans and changed history. All over the world, people started falling asleep – and, when they woke up, it was in a different world.

“It was a bleaker, less colorful world than both Storiae and Earth before the war. But it was a far safer place for everyone. A place where stories and humans could live in peace again. It’s not a perfect world, for perfection is something unattainable, alas. But it is a good place. It has been a generous place so far.”

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Then Leila fell silent. Eduardo took a while to notice that. Then one thought occurred to him:

“Am I going to die?,” he asked. “Like the sharyar did?”

“No,” she answered, and through the fog of the residual sickness he managed to detect a hint of perplexity in her voice. “Of course not. This happened before we changed history. Now our bodies are fully compatible.”

“Then what’s going to happen to me?”

“You will give birth. Is it not enough?”

“B-but… how…?”

“You will give birth to several healthy, beautiful children. They will burst forth from your brow, break from your skin, seep from every orifice. You will give birth in pain, but it will be a good pain, for it will be the pain of creation. Your children will be stories, and they will roam this world free, seeding it with more stories.”

“And what about us?”

“We will be parents, my love. We always will be connected by this thread.”

“But will we no longer be together?”

“Nothing is forever. You know that.”

“Won’t I even be able to visit my children? To be with them?”

“Or course you will! Every time your stories are told somewhere you will smell the hair of your babies and see the color of their eyes. You will feel their presence the whole time.”

“It’s not the first time you do this, is it?,” he asked her. He was so tired from retching he was starting to feel a little drowsiness. He sat by the bed.

Then she gave him a long look, but it was a compassionate look rather than disappointed. “You know, my love, why humans are so enraptured by stories? Why are you always falling in love with our kind?”

“Because stories are immortal. Stories can’t die. Not as long as there is one single person to tell them.

“And we love you because you want to tell stories. Don’t you ever forget this. Even if you forget all the rest.

“Now get some sleep. You will need all your strength tonight.”

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When Eduardo woke up, his head throbbed, and he felt like he had been hit by a truck, but he inspected his body and there was not one bruise on it. He shrugged and went to the bathroom.

He took a long, hot shower, dressed up and went to the university. But, all along the way, he felt something bothering him deeply: something he had been told, by someone, and that he wanted to remember. But he couldn’t. All he knew was that he was late for school, it was a warm December morning, and he had an idea for a story. Not just one: suddenly he had lots of ideas for stories in his mind, every one of them clear, beautiful, brilliant. He felt a good, comforting warmth all over his heart, wrapping it like garlands of flowers with the most tender petals and not a single thorn. He felt an immense love. He also felt loved. Life was good.

Fabio Fernandes lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He has published two books so far, an essay on William Gibson’s fiction, A Construção do Imaginário Cyber, and a cyberpunk novel, Os Dias da Peste (both in Portuguese). Also a translator, he is responsible for the translation to Brazilian Portuguese of several SF novels, including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published online in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, the UK, New Zealand, and USA, and also in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded and Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction (2011), The Apex Book of World SF, Vol 2, Stories for Chip. Co-edited (with Djibril al-Ayad) the postco anthology We See a Different Frontier. Graduate of Clarion West, class of 2013.

 

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