The Red Mass

Marseilles, France
10 November 1793
 
During the orgy of the Revolution,
a prostitute and petty thief called Fine
witnessed a young man’s wondrous execution.
 
She worked the crowds around the guillotine,
plucking a purse and letting hers be plucked.
That day, though, saw the sky burst and it teemed.
None of the regular muck would dare the muck
that popped and seethed atop the cobblestones
with only one neck scheduled to be struck
and that the neck of no one who was known.
Fine huddled in a doorway, full of thirst,
to watch the wasted spectacle alone.
 
The carpenter, as usual, came first
to check the workings of the well-worn frame.
A gentle man whom Fine had seen in church
before the Jacobins had seen it razed,
he slowly plied the blade and felt it stick.
He shimmed an upright to relieve its play,
lifted the blade again until it clicked,
stiffened and set it free.  The blade fell true,
but he felt false, thinking he might be sick:
When he refused to fix it, they would do
to him what now another man would face
because he had not yet the courage to.
 
A silver-chained huissier soon took his place.
Inflated with the spirit of the state,
he was enraged, the turnout a disgrace.
He thundered through the rain that apostates
who would not worship at the guillotine
would play the sacrament some later date.
Fine watched his eyes prick doors methodically,
as he would say the names of prisoners,
deciding who the next to die would be.
Only the rain responded, though, and blurred
the square with blowing veils of icy lace.
He shook.  He shrank a bit.  He turned towards her—
 
She gasped and bolted as the huissier raced
her toward the rutted lane that drained the square.
“Dear Citizen” he said with mocking grace,
then spun her by her wrist and grabbed  her hair.
She bucked, she twisted, but he reined her in
and drove her briskly towards the scaffold stair.
Her free hand found her knife and slashed at him.
Surprised, the huissier yelped and let her go.
“Others,” she said, “have snatched me, citizen.
They learned I won’t be rendered up for show.”
“I thought you’d like a better seat,” he said.
Smiling, he shook his head.  “Of course you know
by pricking me you’ve pricked your fate instead.”
“What’s one more prick to me?” she said.  “But you?”
Fine waved her knife, he skipped back, and she fled.
 
Out of the rain, however, horses flew
like nightmares, white-eyed, whipped and bearing down. 
She skittered, froze, unsure which way to move,
which let the huissier throw her to the ground.
He clambered over her to get the knife.
She kneed him hard while jerking it around.
Hooves hammered past; a gilt coupé bounced by
then stopped to let a stooped old man descend.
“Of all the times to wrestle whores!” he cried.
“Let’s get this done and get inside again.”
The huissier sputtered, trying to reply,
while Fine crawled free.  She would have run from them
except she saw the prisoner arrive.
 
He stood tall in the tumbrel as it tore
across the square, bouncing from side to side;
a sailor, he had ridden far worse storms
and walked with practiced ease on heaving seas.
Never, though, had he known so cruel a shore.
Others would now have prayed or pled or screamed.
He only gazed at her, his light at dusk.
Lost in that look, despite herself, she beamed.
 
For he was past the loathing and disgust
that greeted her in everybody’s eyes,
beyond the long regret of fleeting lust.
He wanted only to be recognized
as something greater than a circumstance
born more from heartless times than some small crimes:
a person, like her, cast away in France.
As if she were a door, this opened her.
Fine met his gaze and let him in, entranced.
 
She barely heard the executioner
order the guards to bring him to the blade.
She hardly noticed as the prisoner
was strapped to the bascule, seemingly dazed.
Until his neck was laid in the lunette,
forcing his face from sight, she held his gaze,
her chest pressed towards him and her arms outstretched,
dreaming about the life they might have led.
The blade hissed, bit.  Fine gagged and bloomed with sweat.
 
Clutching its hair, the old man raised the head,
and that is when the miracle occurred.
It blinked.  It smiled.  It looked at Fine and said
with silent, perfect lips that he loved her.
Again he said it, tears in both their eyes,
before the man tossed him aside and turned.
 
Fine charged the scaffold, shouting, “He’s alive!”
The party stared at her in some confusion,
then laughed, the huissier loudest, like a chime.
How like a whore to joke at such a time. 
 
 
 




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Stephen S. Power has had work accepted most recently by “Blue Unicorn,” “The Flea” and “Measure.” He’s also had work published in “Contemporary Sonnet,” “Descant,” “Lyric” and “Raintown Review.” A senior editor at Wiley, he lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.