Julie Swift Swift

Julie Swift teaches full time and lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, their dog, and five cats. Rara Avis is her first book, and she's currently working on her next two. Writing fictional stories within historical events and actual people from the past is a passion of hers.

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Rara Avis is a historical fiction epic that takes readers on a ten-year journey through the eyes of a young, gay, American architect living in Victorian England. Colin Sewell experiences life as both architect ahead of his time and as the object of affection by more than one man (and woman).
Rara Avis
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A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness...



March 15th, 1891

Michael Callahan stood on the deck of the steamship City of New York, a glass of champagne in his hand. He was watching New York distance itself from him, and in kind, he raised his glass to meet Lady Liberty’s torch. “To the pursuit of happiness,” he toasted, taking a rueful swig. “Funny how I have to go to England to find it.” Then the young man stood and waited for the melancholy to set in. For his second thoughts on leaving. But after several minutes, all Michael felt was excitement about the voyage ahead. After all, nothing could be worse than what he was leaving behind—a life of falsehoods. Even Jeffrey seemed a hindrance of sorts, now. Michael smiled. Nobody knows me in England. I can be someone else, even! Then his smile became a grin. I can be myself.

March 22nd, 1891

Dear Jeffrey,

Well, I am in Merry Olde England! I arrived this morning and found a temporary residence until I get to know London a bit better. Guess what? I picked up a paper and you won’t believe who is lecturing at Redwall in two days: Henry Sewell! It is going to cost a small fortune to attend, but if I can meet him, I’m sure he’ll give me a job. I shall write you all about it! I wish you were here to attend with me. Wish me luck.



Friday evening, Michael prepared for the evening lecture. He could hardly believe his luck. Henry Sewell! The architect Michael admired most. He had read everything he could about the man and coveted the drawings he had copied from books that illustrated some of Mr. Sewell’s buildings. Henry Sewell was considered the most modern man in architecture, for more than anyone else, he detested the gothic revival and Queen Anne styles that were rapidly spreading through England. Some men placed Henry in the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement at first for this reason, but the only thing he really had in common with the group was that they both found current Victorian design repugnant. As a means of further separating himself from any established movement, Henry realized he ought to create his own, and he found it at the age of 25, in a request from a friend to redecorate his home. Henry walked into the house, stripped it down to the bare walls, and painted everything white. He then used only three colors throughout the entire house: green, gold, and blue (though varied shades of each were permitted), and allowed no more than fifteen objects per room, including the furniture and decorations. Finally, one object in each room was designated superior to the rest, be it the oldest, the rarest, the most expensive, or the most treasured. This object was the “rara avis,” Latin for “rare bird.” From this singular house Henry created his design theory: That in order to fully appreciate the truly remarkable objects man owns, he must strip the setting in which the objects present. Therefore every room shall be decorated sparsely, and all items in the room must be of supreme quality and design. Most importantly, there will be one item in every room that stands apart from all others: The Rara Avis. Henry quickly moved on from renovating interiors to creating exteriors that matched his aesthetic. His homes were absent the gingerbread trim, gables, turrets, clapboard siding, and mansard roofs so popular in the day. In their place were simple box shapes that featured floor to ceiling windows and arches inside and out. Henry, an enthusiastic early adherent of the new Portland cement-reinforced stucco, used the white material to cover the outside of the home, making it truly stand out from its neighbors, for better or for worse. This rebellious style was considered egregious by most people, yet for this show of defiance, Henry was rewarded. Like his contemporary in art, Claude Monet, Henry was declared heretical in his ideas but praised by his critics, and perhaps most importantly, eventually truly loved by the wealthy population, enough to make vast sums off their commissions. And yet it was a movement so severely limiting that even twenty years later no other professional architects subscribed to it. Michael was proud to think of himself as being the first. He was a fervent believer in the Rara Avis design, although even he had trouble keeping faith to it utterly, particularly the three-color limitation. Still he identified with the movement and followed most all of the tenets in his designs. His professors predicted he would be pivotal in making the movement a credible one. Although Michael doubted Henry had heard of him yet, he knew he was still the one best placed to meet him that night at Redwall and ask for a job.

At 7:15pm sharp, Michael left for the auditorium, carefully dressed and overly excited. While on the ship he decided to shave off his mustache and was quite happy with his new look. Now, as he rode through the darkened London streets, he rehearsed his opening lines.

He arrived to find the expansive auditorium full of people. Michael was dismayed. Though he paid good money for a seat seven rows from the stage, he realized meeting Mr. Sewell would prove more difficult than he thought. But when the man himself emerged, Michael’s spirits rose: Henry Sewell was far more handsome than Michael could have hoped. The architect cut an imposing figure, and not just because of his tall stature. Henry’s suit was made of fine black wool, with a charcoal-colored silk vest and black pearl buttons. His shoes were barely broken in, and they shone as the cuffs rested just so on them. His sandy brown hair was combed back yet tousled in a sort of playful way, and he tilted his chin up to affect a look of mild arrogance. He had heavy-lidded hazel eyes, and an assertive mouth that was currently forming a smug smile. He had just turned 41, and Michael marveled at how much experience the man must have, both professionally and otherwise. He began to relax as he realized that his plan to flirt his way into a job with Henry Sewell would come off very naturally indeed.

Quickly he found himself absorbed by the great architect’s oratory skills, and the content of his lecture, taking pages of notes. During the final part of the presentation, Michael reluctantly stole out of the hall, went around to the back doors, and waited.

Twenty minutes later, Henry emerged, and Michael prayed that his information about the man’s “inclinations” was correct: “Isn’t it ironic that a man of contemporary architecture should have to exit through such archaically monstrous doors?”

Henry turned his attention toward the American accent and saw a well-dressed young man leaning casually against the wall, hands in pockets. The boy gazed at him with a knowing smile. Henry looked at him, interested. “It is an irony indeed. Do I know you?”

Michael continued to smile. “You may select one of two choices: ‘No, you don’t, but someday my name will be next to yours in architectural history.’” He tipped his hat. “Good night.” Or, ‘No, you don’t, but introductions can be arranged in the next hour.’” He removed his hat. “Good Evening.”

Henry stared. “You were at the lecture. Why, you’re the boy who left!”

“Only to meet you,” Michael replied, his tone laconic but his heart starting to race. Mr. Sewell had noticed him! He regarded the doors once more and sighed in disgust. “Gothic and Greek. An atrocity, I assure you.”

Henry took a full look at the seducer before him: Golden-fair skin, a slender nose, and a pair of imperious eyebrows framing amber eyes. Michael’s thick, burnished-blond hair was just barely tucked behind his ears, and it ended in soft waves at his nape. Henry had planned to attend his club tonight, where he’d no doubt find a boy to take home for the evening. But the young man standing before him offered a far more interesting, though admittedly dangerous, choice. “There’s room,” he said simply, and the steward opened the door. Michael coolly regarded the hansom as if it had been called for him, and stepped inside, Henry following.

As the carriage moved along, Michael said nothing, letting Henry take him in. Then he turned his head and gave Henry a penetrating look.

I can have you.

But Henry merely blinked. “Where are you staying, Mr.…?”

“At the Sheffield.”

Henry raised his eyebrows. “You’re here temporarily?”

Michael smiled. “I’m at the Sheffield temporarily. Until I can locate a more permanent residence." Then he asked earnestly, “Mr. Sewell, where do you suppose is the ideal place to live in London?”

Henry chuckled. “You mean, besides my own house?”

Michael smiled. “I was thinking in terms of myself.”

So was I, Henry almost replied, but he congratulated himself on his restraint. Then he frowned. “You’re planning to permanently reside in London?”

“Yes.” Michael turned his head back to the window and smiled. “Although I hear Paris is supposed to be more…forgiving.” He stole a glance at Henry, who leaned on his cane.

“Have you any sisters?”

A shadow fell across Michael’s face. “I have two,” he said flatly.

“Ah. That would explain how you’ve perfected the art of coquetry.”

Michael looked at him sharply. “Anything perfect about me, Mr. Sewell, is by my own design.”

“Well then! I shall hand you full credit for your perfectly awful display of manners! Presumably it has to do with your being American, but you’ve breached even the most lax form of etiquette by engaging me in conversation without giving so much as your first name.”

Michael tilted his head, amused. “I see it is a first for you.”

Henry snorted. “Of course not! However, seeing as you claim to be an architect of some measure, it would be silly not to wonder about your identity. And it still makes you very rude.”

Michael laughed. “Heaven forbid one should be rude in the hansom of Mr. Sewell.” He extended his hand and locked eyes with Henry. It would be the first time he uttered his chosen new name for himself. “Colin Edwards.”

Henry shook his head, knitting his brow. “Edwards? Edwards…I don’t believe I’ve heard the name.”

Colin smiled. “I’m sure few American names make it across the Atlantic.”

Henry shook his head. “Well, I’ve heard of Burnham, Hunt, McKim, Callahan…that sort.”

Colin’s eyes widened. “You’ve heard of Michael Callahan?”

“Well, yes. He’s that student who’s supposedly the new me.”

Colin nodded excitedly. “He is! I…I’m actually a contemporary of his!”

Henry studied him. “Really? You’re a student at M.I.T.?”

“I was. Not anymore. I’m here now.”

Henry narrowed his eyes. “You dropped out of school to come here?”

Colin gave a wry smile. “My choice in that matter was decided for me, unfortunately.”

Henry grew more curious. “If you were recently a student, then you must be 19? 20?”

“On the 30th of April I’ll be exactly twenty years younger than you, Mr. Sewell.”

“You know my age?”

“Of course,” Colin smiled. “I know everything about you.” He turned back to look out the window. “You may quiz me later, if you like.”

“Not now?”

Colin continued to gaze outwards, his expression darkening. “No, Mr. Sewell. Not now.”

By this time Henry was quite taken with this mysterious, impudent character. When they entered his home, Henry was pleased to see Colin utterly absorbed in the slightest details of decoration. After drinks were served, he sat down to appraise the appraiser.

Colin was a full head shorter than Henry, but he also held his head high in regal fashion, and he had excellent posture. Being an architect, Henry had an especially keen

eye for proportion, and he had quickly deemed Colin’s features perfect, from his smooth forehead (the very definition of highbrow, Henry mused) to his well-defined chin. He also admired Colin’s lightly tanned complexion, so different from the pearlescent skin of the British. And then there was the boy’s deliciously curvaceous mouth, which delivered forth words in a fascinating accent. Henry loved unique qualities in people, and he never before met an American this young, this educated, and most importantly, this available. For unbeknownst to the new lad, Henry had been searching for someone like him for several months now. He hadn’t told anyone yet, out of fear of appearing desperate, but Henry Sewell was looking for a mistress.

Mistresses were a mark of status in the society of the uppercrust regular fellows, and Henry believed the same would hold true in his own. It was a novel idea, spurred by the fact that Henry was finally getting tired of the routine that had been his for the past twenty years: Take boys home, let them stay around a few days, then get rid of them. It had suited him perfectly until now. Lately Henry found himself craving possession, and he wondered if it was perhaps because he hadn’t a wife or children to call his own. Never mind that he wasn’t married; he didn’t want a mistress in the truest sense of the word. He mainly desired a pretty young thing who belonged to only him and who he could show off to others. One could argue that all he was really in search of was a beau, a “sweetheart.” But “mistress” had a much more thrilling sound to it, one that matched his reputation for being envied by his peers (a reputation Henry had steadily cultivated over the years). In fact, Henry thought the word “courtesan” was even better. For like a royal courtesan, his ideal boy would be smart, beautiful, and of course, sexually savvy. Unfortunately, such a young man was proving difficult to find. Henry already knew the boys at his club several times over; they were too familiar for him to make such an offer. Others he met appeared too louche: Boys that eager to please were often from the street, a class Henry refused to touch. He wanted his boy well bred and self-sufficient, yet dependent in some way on Henry. So one can only imagine the opportunity that Mr. Colin Edwards was affording Henry this very moment.

At last, Henry found his voice. “Colin Edwards is a very Irish and British name. How did you come by it?”

Colin examined a painting on the wall. “My mother is Irish. My father is English. What painting is this?”

“It’s a Bougereau. Evening Mood. It was exhibited at the 1882 Salon.”

“It’s stunning.”

“It is, isn’t it? I’m glad you like it. Now do tell about your parents, Mr. Edwards.”

Colin turned and faced Henry, smiling. “I would be happy to, if they were currently in favor with me.”

“So you ran away,” Henry deduced, somewhat condescendingly.

Colin sighed in minor irritation and fixed upon another objet d’art. “My parents no longer wanted me.”

“They disowned you?”

Colin gave a laugh. “It was me who did the disowning.”

“Well, what, did you break some sort of law? Have I unwittingly permitted a criminal to my quarters?”

Colin walked toward the sofa. “I don’t think you do anything ‘unwittingly,’ Mr. Sewell.” Then he sat down next to Henry and gazed at him. “The law I broke was a moral one, not a civil one.”

“Is that so?” Henry murmured, tracing Colin’s jawbone with the back of his hand.

Colin lowered his head so that his lips were on Henry’s hand. “Yes,” he whispered looking at his mentor.

Henry replaced his hand with his mouth, but in a few moments, Colin gently pushed him back. “I see we’re both from the same school,” he smiled. “And we could both do with some restraint.”

Henry looked incredulous. “Restraint! Whatever for?”

Colin gazed at him. “Henry, everything I do is in deliberation. You won’t have me in one night. Or two.”

“Really!” Henry exclaimed. “And just how long a wait do you think you’re worth, Mr. Edwards?”

Colin smiled. “A fortnight.”

“A fortnight!” Henry stood up. “Mr. Edwards, I don’t care if you’re Prince Albert himself! Do you think you’re the first amateur draftsman to try to cross my path and win a job out of me?”

Colin angrily leaped to his feet. “I’m not an amateur draftsman!”

“I’ve never even heard of you! Some supercilious dropout with the audacity to try and seduce me, then cry wolf when he succeeds? I don’t know how you got the impression that I was in need of the likes of you, Mr. Edwards, but you are most mistaken! Most mistaken indeed!”

Colin glared at the clock and drew closer to Henry. “In twelve hours I’ll return to show you my work.” He brought his face within inches of Henry’s. “And after you’ve seen it, you’ll wait a thousand fortnights. Good night, Mr. Sewell.”

Henry watched the young man exit, and then sighed. Really, his life would be so much easier without the difficult ones.


RAALee Thu, 18/08/2022 - 22:50

Julie, congratulations on being selected as a finalist in the Book Adaptation Needed category! I am a fellow finalist and wanted to wish you all the best and congratulate you on your selection.

Best Regards,

Richard Lee

RAALee Thu, 18/08/2022 - 22:50

Julie, congratulations on being selected as a finalist in the Book Adaptation Needed category! I am a fellow finalist and wanted to wish you all the best and congratulate you on your selection.

Best Regards,

Richard Lee