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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


5. [Plate 3]
The Child-Buyer

It's not easy being a mother. The little brats want this, and they break that, and all the time they cry. Only a saint could put up with it. Yet so few mothers are saints! Most are only human women, doing the best they can and trying to remember just how they got into this fix in the first place.

So when the Child-Buyer came to make his offer, Katie was ready to listen.

Oh, what a day that had been. Mathilda had been teething, and Bruno had been drawing on the walls with jam. They each fought with the other from dawn to dusk. Katie had no sooner rescued the cat from Mathilda than she had to snatch away the matches from Bruno. Bruno threw his lunch, plate and all, through a closed window because the crusts on the sandwiches hadn't been trimmed to his liking. Inspired by this, Mathilda decided to flush her doll down the toilet. It clogged, and water poured into the hallway and down the stairs and stained the brand-new carpets.

Outrageous! And the afternoon was even worse.

Katie was trying to put her struggling offspring to bed when the air dimmed, and a sulphurous stench seeped into the room. She turned, and there it was: The Child-Buyer, wrapped in shroud-like sheets with a darkness where he should have a face. There was no way he could have entered the room without her seeing him. And yet there he was.

Anybody else would have been terrified. But Katie was a mother. She'd seen worse things that very day.

"Well?" she said.

A corpse-pale hand emerged from the cloths, with silver coins in its palm. "I wish to buy your children," rasped a hollow voice. "To take them to the Twilight Lands, there to toil forever in the fields of lost souls."

Katie hesitated. "Will they be tormented by demons?"

"No," the specter replied. "They are needed as laborers, nothing more."

"Well," she said, accepting his money, "one can't have everything."


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This is the fifth 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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