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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


35. [Plate 65]
Witches' Orgies

What is so refreshing as an orgy? Once a year, on Walpurgisnacht, witches gather far from town to couple with one of everything at once. Men, women, nightmares, familiars, inanimate objects… A month's worth of sex is crammed into a single night and a finite number of orifices.

Witches know how this offends the bourgeoisie, so they're always careful to issue press releases and do interviews for the local newspapers during the build-up to the great night. "Oh, yes," they chirp when asked about this, that, or the other perversion, "I'll certainly be doing that. Many times, in fact." The mundanes, as the witches call them, have fertile imaginations, and will sometimes come up with something novel to try. Though, having so little experience with sex, the bulk of their inventions must be discarded as unlikely, uncomfortable, or laughable.

When Walpurgisnacht finally arrives, the witches crank up the boom-boxes and light the bonfires. Then, after a rather perfunctory pledge of obeisance to the Devil (think of that unenthusiastic mumble of prayers in church on Sunday) and the ritual kissing of a goat's behind, they settle down to a good, rowdy evening of fun.

The National Inquirer always sends reporters to spy on the revels, and the witches always catch them, roast them on a spit, and serve them up for refreshments. Their cameras are smashed, and the film thrown into the flames.

It's important that there be no photos.

Come morning the witches will all be in their beds, aching in unfamiliar places. Just getting up to pee will be an agony. "Fucking Beelzebub!" they'll grumble to themselves. "Why did I ever think I could do that at my age? A girl of twenty-three would pull a hamstring, trying." Then they'll hobble out to the stoop to pick up the morning paper, and see what kind of coverage they got.

Which is why there must never be any photos. Witches know what the public expects of them, and they know what the human body can do. One day a year, all the world's fantasies are fixed upon them. Once a year, every clergyman on Earth stays up late, his imagination on fire, working on a sermon condemning them for activities the Scarlet Woman of Babylon herself couldn't live up to.

But then the witches settle gingerly down at the kitchen table with the paper and a cup of tea, to read the scandalized accounts of what everyone assumes they did. (Thinking, perhaps, "I should never have gotten into that contest with Agatha; numbers aren't everything," or "They may be large, but horses are rarely worth the trouble.") Informed speculation posits a scene of debauchery that would have turned the Marquis de Sade's hair white, in settings that Wagner could only have envied.

Then they smile, the witches do. "My public," they think, "where would I be without them?"


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This is the 35th 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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