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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


50. [Plate 45]
Nightmares and Witches

Nightmares flock to witches. They can't help it. There they are, flitting through the darkest reaches of the Noosphere, minding their own business, when blam! They come upon two witches with a basketful of unbaptized infants, going through their PDAs and trying to find a mutually acceptable date for… what? Intrigued, the nightmares creep closer.

The thing is that nightmares have no imaginations. They're forces of nature, who neither plan nor intend, but simply are and do. Yet, though they cannot define their lack, they feel it. It is for this reason that imaginative evil is so irresistible to them. It is everything they fall short of. It intrigues them.

Witches, meanwhile, have imagination in spades. Want an example? Okay. Every now and then, when they run low on certain supplies, two witches will grab a basket of unbaptized infants, find a high and windy spot, and begin gabbing away excitedly about matters they never quite define. "Oh, it'll work, dearie," one says. "Aristocracy and blood-lust? Why, they goes together like toads and ketchup! Just get me there in time and keep the cauldron bubbling."

"Yes, but the plan could use a little you-know-what, eh?" her sister says. "Let's not be cheap here. Penny wise and poison foolish! Only, this time of year, where are we–?"

"Oh, I knows a feller, my sweet, who's no better nor… Do be a dear, will ye, and get me that thing from outer the basket?"

By now, the nightmares are as close as close can be. They strain their ears. Their attention is so entirely on what's being said that they don't notice when the one cunning witch brushes the babies aside and casually withdraws a net from the basket. They don't notice when the other cunning witch takes the net's far side. They don't notice how the one winks at the other just before the two of them in unison cast the net.

Then they notice, though!

Tangled in that ensorceled weave of twine, the nightmares struggle wildly to escape. In vain. The witches take out blackjacks from their robes and systematically club the nightmares to death.

Boiled, nightmares can be rendered down into a liquid that induces madness. Mixed with bitter herbs, a pinch of them will dry up a cow. Properly presented with the aid of a first-rate advertising agency, they can swing an election.

Dried, ground, and seasoned, they taste excellent sprinkled on toast.

It could be argued that by removing nightmares from the world, witches perform a valuable and benevolent service for the human race at large. But the witches don't care. "There's more than enough for everybody," they cackle. "There's plenty to go around."


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This is the 50th 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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