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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


71. [Plate 71]
Tall Tales

Every now and then the witches like to get together, take off their clothes, and let down their hair. They build a campfire and, sitting under the stars, tell each other lies. "The one that got away was sooooo long," one says. "But that's just as well for, tight as I am, I could hardly have crammed it all in."

"Hah! I suckled that little bugger at me own teat," another claims, "and, my, how he did cry! He was never satisfied with nothing, was young Adolph."

"Ebola, bovine spongiform encephalitis, West Nile virus, AIDS," brags a third. "All of them because I neglected my personal hygiene."

The boasting goes into high gear. "I invented the Republican Party."

"Well, I invented Democrats."


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"The Soviet Union!"

"The French!"

On and on it goes, like a baseball game impossibly prolonged into the eleventh, the twenty-third, the two-hundred-and-fourth innings. Each lie is immediately topped by another, every stretcher eclipsed by a whopper, until the untruths have piled up so high as to have become a verbal Tower of Babel.

The point of this game is to see just how wild a claim can be made before somebody laughs. Every brag has to top what came before, but be presented solemnly enough to allow its auditors to pretend to believe it.

Finally, the oldest witch of all shakes her head sadly. "Alas, we are wicked, wicked women," she says. "You have to feel sorry for humanity. If it weren't for us and our tricks and traps and temptations, there wouldn't be no wars. Nor misery, nor poverty, nor cruelty, nor hatred neither."

"How do you figure?" asks somebody younger.

"Well... people are fundamentally decent, aren't they?"

There's an instant's astonished silence. Then somebody snorts and somebody else snickers. A third witch throws back her head and howls. Clutching themselves, the witches fall over on their sides and roll about on the ground, laughing hysterically. "Oh! Oh! Oh!" somebody cries. "People! Decent!"

It's good to spend a night out with the girls once in a while. It really cuts the grease. It helps one to get in touch with what's real.


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This is the 71st 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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