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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


46. [Plate 12]
Grace at the Gallows

Madness and buggery! What evil wind could have blown the ship of Grace's fate to such a foul harbor? Yet there she was, long past midnight, in the lonely gallows-ground at the edge of town, with her hand in the mouth of the corpse of a hanged murderer, trying to prise out at least two of its teeth.

Grace was superstitious. How not? Her life was a ramshackle structure of disaster piled upon calamity piled upon humiliation. Surely somebody had put a curse on her! The alternative was, for Grace, literally unthinkable.

So she had found a sorcerer who said he could easily undo the curse. First, however, he needed certain items. What exactly? Oh, he was certain she would have no trouble obtaining them…

What a terrible thing it is to stand tiptoe before a dead felon, yanking and yanking at a slippery little nub of bone, all the while its erstwhile owner stares down at you with sad indifference. It's enough to make a girl doubt the essential goodness of life.

Oh, dear God, she could smell his breath! The corpse was beginning to turn and an acrid tang told her that somewhere there were maggots at work. But underneath that was a familiar sourness born of bad teeth and worse digestion. She knew this man. He had been one of her regulars. His face wasn't familiar, but who could forget such a stink? This night just kept getting worse and worse!

But Grace was determined. She would do anything to end this lifelong streak of bad luck. Holding a handkerchief to her nose against the stench, she yanked one, then two — that was the minimum — and then, to be safe, a third tooth.

The next day at noon, when the sorcerer unlocked his door, Grace rushed into his den, unknotted her handkerchief, and poured its contents into his outstretched hand. With barely a glance, he threw the teeth into a cigar box that already held pencil stubs, loose change, mismatched cufflinks and the like, and said, "Okay, give me a blow job and twenty bucks, and we can get started. "

Oh, Grace thought. Naive as she was, she'd been scammed, hoaxed, and defrauded so often that she immediately recognized his game for what it was. This so-called "sorcerer" was nothing of the sort. He didn't value the corpse-teeth one whit. Last night's horrors were inflicted upon Grace only to intimidate her. All he really wanted was her money and some cheap sex.

Having seen through him, anybody else would have snatched back the teeth and stormed out of the confidence-trickster's squalid lair. She wouldn't have stayed. She wouldn't have given him money. She would never have taken the lying little weasel's filthy thing into her mouth.

But Grace, alas, was Grace, and so she opened her wallet and sank to her knees. Nothing in her experience had ever taught her that any of her adventures could end any other way.


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This is the 46th 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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