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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


32. [Plate 48]

Of all the nightmares that beset the world, the playfullest and least harmful is Slander. This is proof, if any were needed, that nightmares cannot be ordered and ranked. For the damage Slander does is beyond calculation.

Slander in action is a dreadful sight. He sucks in a mouthful of snot and spits it out in a vile green stream. It smells like hell and it's loathsome to the touch. And it clings! Once you get it in your hair, on your skin, down the back of your neck — that's it. You'll never rid yourself of the stench. It's there for good.

Because Slander rides atop whatever other nightmares are handy, there's no predicting just what unsavory reputation might be in store for you. Do you like children? Perhaps you like them a little too well. Are you a ladies' man — or a sexual harasser? Perhaps you simply stay at home alone, watching TV or reading good books. In which case, just what are you hiding?

Being innocent is no protection. Neither is guilt. Slander flies in the window. Slander kicks down the door. He's set on your trail by somebody you never met who mistook you for somebody else completely. He's introduced by your own best friend. You yourself may have invited him in with a carelessly-chosen word. However you came to his attention, he's here to stay.

This is playful? I hear you object. This is harmless? Well, relatively speaking, yes.

Consider just a few other nightmares as alternatives: The police state. Racism. Political torture. The hydrogen bomb. Genocide.

Genocide. Hmmm. That would explain a lot, wouldn't it? Your polite demeanor, your quiet mannerisms, the way you're so careful never to give offense to anyone… A war criminal would behave exactly like you, wouldn't he? Always careful to smile and say hello on the street, sending a card every Christmas with "holiday greetings" so it won't offend non-Christians, never once in all the years we've known you getting arrested for even the most minor of charges. Not even a speeding ticket.

What could force somebody to lead so craven and fearful a life? What horrible, unspeakable deed could account for it? They say the Nazis hiding in South America were gentle as gentle could be. The mass-murderer is always the last one the neighbors would suspect.

You're not fooling anybody with that Little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes act of yours. Just how stupid did you think we are? We've got our eye on you now.

We know what you've done.


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This is the 32nd 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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