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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


13. [Plate 54]
Silly Old Clown

What is so funny as a silly old clown? He comes creeping from the shadows at sunset with his great big nose and his wide, wide grin. His face is as round as a pancake. His feet make no noise on the ground. For no reason at all, you feel a prickling at the base of your neck. You turn around — and there he is!

Oh, that silly old clown! He's a true democrat, who sups with equal ease from the beggar's bowl and the aristocrat's golden platter. Doors cannot stop him! He laughs at locks! Silently, stealthily, he slips into your bed at night, pulls the covers up to his chin, and waits for you to turn your head on the pillow.

His is the oldest joke there is. Some say it was invented by the Snake in the Garden, which is why snakes still leap at you today — just to see you laugh. Some say Judas, when he snuck up on his Rabbi in Golgotha, was simply making this very same jest with a kiss.

Sooner or later everyone sees that silly old clown. You might be sitting on the toilet in a public stall when he coughs and you discover him squatting atop the tank. Maybe you're sunbathing naked on the roof of your house when something comes between you and the sun. Perhaps you've been driving six hours and reach out blindly to the side, groping for the sunglasses you left on the empty seat beside you, when he places them in your hand.

Tonight, perhaps, you'll come home dog-tired. You'll trudge up to your door. You'll fumble for the key. If you're lucky, it won't be sleeting. You'll enter your house. It'll be empty. It'll be dark. You'll grope for the light switch.

In that sliver of experience between the instant when you flick the switch and the instant the light comes on, you'll think to yourself: The clown! Suppose he's here! Suppose his leering face is right in front of me! Suppose his claw-like hands are even now reaching for my throat!

And won't it be funny if you're right?


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This is the 13th 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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