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A Sharpness on the Neck 

by Fred Saberhagen

Chapter One

The world abounds in mysteries. But some of the marvels which at first sight strike the observer as most impressive are susceptible to the most trivial explanations.

Allow me to offer an example. Charles Dickens, famed inventor of Christmas ghosts and Tiny Tim, when visiting Rome in 1845 chose to broaden his experience of the world by witnessing the beheading of a criminal. Afterward Dickens wrote: A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear. And the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

In fact, the cause of this seeming annihilation is perfectly simple. When the living muscles of the neck are suddenly cut in half, each end of each fiber contracts sharply, pulling with it the soft surrounding tissues, as well as the small, newly disconnected bones which had made up the spinal column. Tiny fragments are all one can expect to find of whichever vertebra lay directly in the path of the falling knife, which, at least in the classical French guillotine, is not only extremely sharp but as heavy as a small anvil.

 * * *

 Now that we have arrived in France, let me mention, parenthetically, a puzzle that I—I, Vlad Dracula—find somewhat harder to explain: In all the surviving bureaucratic paperwork of the Terror—I mean the French Revolution of the 1790s—in all the volumes of court orders, prison records, inflammatory speeches, in all the desperate accumulation of decrees and denunciations—the word "guillotine" does not appear even once. Newspapers, of course, are a different story. Charles-Henri Sanson, chief executioner and high priest of the device during much of that bloodstained epoch, as a rule called it simply la mecanique—"the machine."

I tell you that greedy and most fickle wench, la mecanique, consumed more blood in one year—nay, perhaps in a month, or even in a single day—than I in a whole century.

The long, broad stream of human history has cast up a hundred variations on the beheading device, from the simple headsman's axe or sword up through an infernal variety of complications. It seems safe to say that the one the world knows best is the eponymous child of Dr. Guillotin, who more than two hundred years ago, as a delegate to the French National Assembly, conceived his mechanical offspring, based on the latest humanitarian principles, in the course of an enlightened search for greater efficiency in terror.

The guillotine in its classical French form counted its first live human victim on April 25, 1792, in Paris, when used to dispatch a common murderer and thief, Jacques Pelletier. Some three years later, a steam-powered guillotine, intended to achieve the mass production of justice, was on the drawing boards—but by 1795 the number of beheadings, after averaging around twenty-six a day in Paris alone during the previous summer, had gone into a precipitous decline. The French Revolution, a monstrous child of oppression, was choked on blood and stumbling over bodies. To the best of historians' knowledge at the end of the twentieth century, that ultraefficient model of la mecanique has yet to be constructed.

Throughout a good part of the 1790s—those strenuous years which in France, at least, are never to be forgotten—Sanson and his sons and their crew (there was never a shortage of volunteers) performed their indefatigable labors, without benefit of steam, while elevated on a stage. Their Parisian theater of operations looked much like a prizefighters' square ring, and had the same reason for its existence: to provide a good view for a large audience.

The tall narrow frame of the guillotine, extending almost fifteen feet above the platform, was essentially composed of two stout wooden uprights a little more than a foot apart. The lunette at the bottom of the uprights consisted of two pieces of wood, each with a smooth, semicircular notch, that when clapped together formed a solid neckpiece pierced by a circular, neck-sized hole.

This hole was at the head of the plank bed on which the subject was placed facedown. The broad, single plank, painted blood red like the lunette and uprights, slid back from the upright portion of the frame, simultaneously tilting into an almost vertical position. First, as a rule, the subject's hands were tied behind his or her back. Then the man—frequently a woman; sometimes a child—who was to experience the full effect of the apparatus walked (or was dragged or carried) up to this plank, and was secured to it by broad leather straps encircling the waist and legs.

The plank was then tipped forward on its central pivot, bringing its occupant to a prone position. Now a precise adjustment by the machine's attendants, allowing for the subject's height—perhaps I should say for the total length when horizontal—positioned the chin in a nicely calculated way, to overhang the end of the plank by about three inches. The executioners, shifting their grip, slid the whole bed forward in its greased grooves, so that the chin of the occupant just cleared the lower half of the lunette. The upper construction of curved wood was then clamped down. A final adjustment, if necessary, was accomplished by tugging on the subject's hair, or on the ears if there was insufficient hair to offer a good grip. This part of the operation was not entirely without peril for the technician; more than one assistant executioner lost more than one finger due to premature release of the heavy knife above.

Let us now briefly consider that weapon, its cutting edge poised ten or twelve feet above the waiting neck. Attached to the top of the blade was a mouton, a piece of iron weighing some thirty kilograms, or over sixty pounds, intended to render more forceful the descent of the razor-edged cutter, which in itself weighed about twenty pounds. The impact of all this metal, falling usually on the fourth vertebra, tended to be decisive.

I can offer eyewitness testimony that it was Sanson's habit, each day after work, to bring home with him only the blade of the guillotine, without the mouton. His idea, that of a good workman, was to save the most delicate part of the instrument from rain and rust. Also there was some thought of discouraging curiosity-seekers from playing games with la mecanique, hurting themselves or some innocent victim.

Naturally Sanson, or more often one of his assistants, saw to it that the blade was cleaned very thoroughly before it was brought into his house. Those in charge also took care that the cutting edge, angled at about forty-five degrees from right to left for improved efficiency, was treated tenderly with file and whetstone to keep it sharp.

Up on the platform, when Sanson's shop was open for business, there waited wicker baskets also painted red, and made small and large, to receive, respectively, the heads and bodies of the corpses which were the finished product of all this industry and ingenuity. The baskets were usually kept half-filled with bran or sawdust, in hopes of making the cleanup easier.

How's this for a joke? Executioner to victim being dragged to the machine: "You don't want to do it? But it will only take a second."

Yes, I quite agree. But at the very height of the Terror, in the summer of 1794 (Year 2 of the now-almost-forgotten Revolutionary Calendar), one of Sanson's least intelligent assistants was wont to repeat this wheeze a dozen or a score of times a day. Of course each victim only had to hear it once; but after a few weeks it seemed that the fellow's own co-workers, tortured beyond endurance, were on the point of cutting their colleague's throat to shut him up… but I digress.

Where was I? Yes, there is one more point I wish to make about the guillotine, then on with the story, which I trust you will find fully satisfactory… Whenever, in these post-Revolutionary times, a full-size model of la mecanique becomes available—this happens somewhat more often than you might think—many people find something irresistibly attractive in the idea of trying on, as it were, that tiltable plank and even that lunette. (Few go so far as wanting to hear above their heads the speedy whisper of the falling blade.) Some of these enthusiasts are found among the adventurous elderly, sometimes they are young men, but for some reason the most susceptible to such temptations seem to be young women. All of them want to know: How would it feel to lie down there?