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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


37. [Plate 24]
A Sad Story Concluded

It really was a sad execution. The condemned woman, it had to be admitted, put a bit of a damper on the event. She simply wouldn't rise to the occasion.

The officials did their best. They dressed her in a low-cut push-up gown; it had a lot of va-va-voom. They trussed her up as if she might try to make a daring escape at any instant. Oh, and the funny hat. They kept the funny hat.

Still, what ought to have been a gala event, a carnival for the masses, had an unpleasant undertaste to it. A great execution requires a great victim. One like the Witch of Wolhampton, who went to her death proclaiming her innocence, kissing crucifixes, praying that the Holy Virgin would send her a miracle, shrieking piteously for her baby daughter. There wasn't a dry eye in the crowd. She really had the gift of tears.

Or else a great villain. One-eyed Jack spent an hour hectoring the crowd, regaling them with the sordid details of crimes the prosecutors hadn't known about, utilizing the filthiest possible language. He promised to return from the dead to murder each and every man, woman, and child present. Then, though his hands were firmly bound, he somehow managed to pull his pizzle out of his trousers and spray every unwary soul within fifteen feet of him. He was still laughing when the executioner struck off his head.

Ah, now there was a blackguard. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

This girl was nothing like that. She was quiet. She was unhappy. That was about it. When they lit the pyre, she choked, shrieked, writhed, died.

All too soon it was over.

Still, the day wasn't a total loss. For the donkey upon which she rode to her death (none other than our old friend, Prick!) experienced for the first time what life in the public arena was like. The roars of approval, the smell of the crowd, even the half-eaten apples and tomatoes they shied at his burden — all these were a revelation to him. Prick discovered that he liked being down among the people at the center of attention. It was more immediate even than being a rock star had been.

So began (his father's name and appointments, the money men's sponsorship, and his brother's intercession on his behalf having, as we said before, absolutely nothing to do with it) Prick's rapid and distinguished climb to the Oval Office.

Proving once again, that it's an ill wind that blows no good.


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This is the 37th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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