Stories Tragedy

L’odeur of Summer 1794

“Find us a good place to sit, Suzanne. In front of the scaffold, but not too close.”

Absolument. I know just the spot.”

“I will be back shortly.”

“Where are you going, Jacqueline?”

“To buy a nosegay.”

“Who’s selling flowers on such a day?”

“There’s a stall near the tumbrels—next to the prisoner carts. The lilacs have bloomed.”


Oui, lilacs. Why not lilacs? They’ll match my dress.”

Mon Dieu! Are you sprucing up for the gendarme?”

“Would you fault me for it? John-Paul is tall, strapping—like my Raphaël was.”

“John-Paul is an excellent national guardsman. He proved himself yesterday when the executioner needed a strong hand. How the marquis slipped the blocks before the blade fell is a mystery.”

“Only to make a botch of the whole thing. The blade took off the left side of his face—down to the shoulder.”

“Heh heh. Imagine having your head blocked in twice—set like a common criminal in the stocks. John-Paul had to hold down the marquis like a farm animal. Embarrassant!

“Agreed. So who is the executioner?”

“Charles-Henri Sanson.”

“Sanson is good. He will keep the line moving quickly.”

“John-Paul will keep your heart beating quickly.”

“I tell you, Suzanne. If I weren’t already a step into the grave, I’d let John-Paul hold me down. I’d show him a good time.”

“Oh, go on. You are a tricoteuse, not a courtesan! You hold knitting needles in your hands, not silk gloves.”

“I am not the ugliest crone in the crowd.”

“In truth, Jacqueline, you still have vestiges of beauty. But what did your good looks ever earn you on the estates?”

“Young lords.”

“And their fathers…”

“The young lords were good for a tumble, but the old lords were good for a trinket. Dieu merci, I am glad those days are over. Being an old woman brings peace.”

“With the aristos gone, our days of peace are ahead, so to speak. Ha Hah! Liberté, égalité, fraternité!”

“I keep hoping to see the aristos I’ve known over the years waiting in the carts. Especially the ones with the cruel wives.”

“Their Day of Judgment is here, thanks to Robespierre.”

“Ah, look. The crowd is even larger. I will buy flowers before the sun grows too hot, before the Place de la Révolution smells like a slaughterhouse.”

“Too late—there are the priests. They’ve begun to read the psalms, Jacqueline. Come knit with me, and we’ll keep track of the heads. No time left for lilacs, the carts, or dreams of John-Paul.”

“Can’t a woman dream between knits and purls?”

“Young women can dream, Jacqueline.”

“True, Suzanne. Old women mainly have nightmares.”

“Look! They line up. I wonder who will feed la guillotine? Did you recognize anyone in the tumbrels?”

Non, but I do not like to see them beforehand—the rich and powerful—covered in their own filth. Duc, marquis, comte, vicomte, baron—trussed up like Christmas geese.”

“You pity them in such a state?”

“I trust Robespierre and Robespierre pities no enemy of the Republic. He and the Committee of Public Safety will save France from counter-revolutionaries.”

“Ah, what a line to the scaffold! La guillotine is especially hungry.”

“Much quicker than hanging or the ax. Now those were true spectacles d’horreur.”

Sauvage et inhumain.

“It’s good for people in power to see the people’s power. Robespierre knows what he’s doing.”

“By killing off his political rivals?”

“You doubt him?”

“I doubt everything.”

“Even God?”

“Especially God.”

“Don’t blaspheme, Suzanne. Sit! They begin. Can you hear the aristo’s final words?”

“Not quite. Something about ‘pardoning those who have occasioned my death.’ Je m’emmerde! I am so bored. You’d think aristos would say something more memorable at their end.”

“Oof—the blade is swift.”

“The next one is already in the cabbage! How quickly they are proceeding. Remember last week when the blade dulled?”

“The blade was sharp enough. It caught on the fat necks of the aristos. Some are so corpulent la guillotine’s blade must come down on it again and again.”

“Imagine having so much to eat.”

“Chop chop chop! The executioner is swift. One every minute. Hold the head up high, Executioner! Yes, yes! Higher!”

“Ha Hah! That’s a grisly piece of business.”

“It’s hard to look down your nose, Mr. Aristo, when there is nothing below it to see!”

“The basket is already getting full…and the heads are getting ripe. L’odeur!

“How you complain! You know how these things go, Suzanne.”

“Still, the stench…”

“Cover your nose and mouth with your scarf. Perhaps I should have gotten my lilacs after all. How many rivers of blood and pools of merde have we seen this past year…?”

“I won’t have my dress splattered like last time!”

“An easy fix. Just soak your frock in cold water with white vinegar.”

“I know. I know. When I used to be a laundress, I knew all the tricks. Soda ash cleaned the blood from my clothes when my vicomtesse whipped me to shreds.”

“Now, your vicomtesse is a pile of ash!”

“Ha Hah! That she is.”

“Robespierre sent them to the scaffold last winter. It was a good day. Bright and clear.”

“Look at this, Jacqueline! I’ve finished another one.”

“Let me see. Oui, you knit so well. Your latest liberty cap! Let me wear it while you start another.”

“I am almost out of red yarn.”

“I brought along another spool in my bag. I knew today would be long. So much commotion in Paris.”

La guillotine is on number nine.”


“Who is next?”

“That’s Antoine Simon—a friend of Robespierre. He guards the dauphin. I don’t understand why he is on the scaffold.”

“He won’t be for long. So quick! Look at the head. Are you sure that is Simon?”

Oui. He belonged to the Commune of Paris. He must have been a spy.”

“Or a counter-revolutionary.”

Bien sûr. Robespierre is masterful at finding wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

“Who’s next in line?”

“Hard to tell. The man’s face is so swollen—wrapped tight—the jaw bleeds…”

“He stands so still.”

“See how regal he is. How stoic! He walks the steps as if he knows them well.”

“His bandages will have to be removed to prepare the neck…”

“Oh, that cry. That man’s jaw is shattered. It’s in pieces!”

La guillotine will stop his shrieks—end his pain.”

“The blade drops! Finally, finally.”

“The crowd cheers at that one. Who was he? Can you see?”

Non-non-non—ça ne peut pas être!”

“Jacqueline, qu’est-ce? Whose head is that?

Sacré bleu! None other than Robespierre.”

“Then who will lead us now?”


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