Benjamin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Well, this was it. He had known it was coming.
The Saint loomed threateningly over Paris. Today, he would be meeting it. Benjamin swallowed, and he took another deep breath. Nervousness had dominated him moments before they had dragged him into the blood-stained Plaza Square.
It was funny, Benjamin thought, that even though you knew something was about to happen, you never got nervous until it actually was going to happen. He had never been afraid of death; he’d told all his friends that he would gladly meet it in the face, as long as it was quick and painless, and spared him of embarrassment.
There had been thousands of heads claimed by the Saint during the past month. The Terror Reign had been first caused by the Jacobins. Benjamin looked sideways at Blaise, who was standing, white-faced and tight-lipped, next to him, holding him firmly in place. When had they become enemies?
When I let it slip that I never supported the Revolution, he recalled. Tensions had risen so high that even the slightest misuse of a word would be instant execution. Paris had plunged into disorder. Benjamin sniffed, momentarily scoffing at the attempts at reforming France; they were a load of uselessness and hypocrisy... to form a Republic out of killing and chaos was the very opposite of what it was supposed to be; a solution to absolute monarchy, which, ironically, during those times, there had been a more peaceful air within the country itself.
True, there was famine and financial issues. But at least, Benjamin thought, comforting himself, France was a nation, and not a distrustful array of oppressed people. He had been much more relaxed and happy when King Louie was still alive. The Jacobins, as they were known, were foolish idiots; they chose to selfishly live while killing others, claiming that their aim was to “restore the nation.” Benjamin had decided that he would rather die than survive to tell the tale of how he had lived through the oppression and terror and unrest, and had done nothing about it. It would be so much more shameful.
More and more people had started gathering in the Plaza Square; he kept his head down, and pretended to be in his own world. His heart pounding, he closed his eyes, trying to imagine pain before death. Was it like a knife cut, or much worse? Was there a quantitative measurement of pain? He was about to die; what was that like? He had always imagined going into an endless sleep.
Never in his life had he fainted; Benjamin had always been a confident, healthy human. He got sick rarely, and when he did, it was only for a few days. Thus, he had thought about the feeling; was it like sleeping also? What sort of warnings did one get when they were about to faint? Did they know themselves?
Was dying like fainting? Silently, he gazed up, avoiding the stares of the public, which included children, and quietly thanked the Saint for its quick way of death. He had always dreamed of dying of old age; of his death causing an uproar; that someday, his works of scientific achievements would be pronounced brilliant, and his name would be known by later generations. He would have lived until ninety or so, and passed away peacefully in his sleep, without disturbance or the witness of the public.
But the Revolution had changed everything; distrust sparked amongst the citizens as King Louie was arrested and executed. France had turned into a chaotic country, and it had become vulnerable to outside threats. Nobody was safe except for the patriotic extremists, who were the deciders of people’s fates. Benjamin, a peaceful, diplomatic person, had no desire to join them.
His childhood friend, Blaise, had been eager to join the Jacobins, the prominent political club that had risen to power; he had told Benjamin, with a new air of arrogance and haughtiness, that the Jacobins aimed for a government that could handle war, economic chaos, and internal rebellion. They supported equalism, and then Benjamin had thought about joining.
Quickly, however, he was glad he hadn’t. The first few suspected of not supporting new reforms of the government were killed swiftly, but not on the Saint, because it had not been built yet. Blaise had been there to oversee the deaths on the other torture devices, many of which were much more gruesome and shaming than the Saint. Benjamin had no wish to see anyone die so unreasonably, and had never imagined his own life taken because of the same reasons. There was the breaking wheel, where the arrested were strapped upon a large wheel which spun slowly, and the executioner would use a hammer to smash the victim’s limbs. If lucky, there would be a blow to the chest or head and the death came quickly. If not, then the person would have to suffer public hazing and embarrassment as he spun around and around, crying in agony.
Then, the public had suddenly revolted in one wheel execution; they had released the prisoner strapped to the wheel in pity and King Louie had pardoned him. Blaise had angrily expressed this to Benjamin, who had nodded silently along in mock agreement; he had no problem with a seemingly innocent person (he had never actually done anything) being let go. Blaise, along with his new Jacobin friends, had different opinions.
Mass executions had been carried out as the Jacobins gained control of the National Convention. The breaking wheel had been banned by King Louie after the escaped prisoner, and Blaise and the others had agreed that it took too long to execute one person; thus came the invention of the Saint, which promised a quick death no matter what. It had also claimed King Louie’s head as one of its firsts. It had become a popular symbol of terror and reforms. Benjamin had cut his connections with Blaise, who had started to wonder why, and soon became suspicious; it wasn’t until five months later that Benjamin’s old friend had caught up to him and accused him of being a traitor. A week after, his execution date had arrived. It had been the longest week of his life.
(It had been a gloomy night, with Benjamin sitting by himself, in his house, reading a book illuminated by a single candle.
The front door opened and closed, causing the flame perched upon the wax stick to quiver slightly, and Blaise walked in, uninvited. They had not seen each other for five months. They had gone to school together; when they both turned twenty, the Revolution had sprung about, and both had taken two different paths; Benjamin pursued his studies in science, and Blaise hungrily went after the political power. Both were ambitious young men, striving to achieve; Benjamin recalled the nostalgic moments when he and Blaise would sit by the fire, exchanging unreachable dreams. Benjamin suspected that he had been just as fame-hungry as Blaise; only they, however, had different views of getting to the same goal.
“Have you been here all along?” said Blaise, his eyes narrowing. The candle seemed to dim a bit and flickered nervously.
“There had been no role for me in the Revolution,” Benjamin replied mindlessly, but immediately realized, with a skip of his heart, that it had been the the wrong thing to say. The new Constitution had made it clear: a true citizen did not only blindly obey the laws and keep his head down, but also helped to suppress the rebellions and fully do his duties as a Frenchman.
It also showed, Benjamin suddenly fathomed, as he stood next to his old friend, that it had broken a long-held promise, and that was the reason Blaise had jumped to conclusions so fast that night; he sadly remembered, in their older youthful years, when, sitting by the fire again, they had promised each other to hold onto their dreams, in the hopes that, one day, they might be achieved, and if one of them became famous, they would help the other… he bit back a smile as he vaguely recalled an oath of spit and swear words.
And saying that he had no role, that he didn’t want to help, was saying that he never wanted his dreams in the first place; that all of it had been merely a lie, and that he didn’t want Blaise’s help and promise. He hung his head. He really had wanted to succeed, but the Revolution had altered both their minds and their friendship. This was not the world he wanted to be famous in.
(“No role,” Blaise had repeated. “I suppose you are also saying that you do not support the Revolution.” Benjamin refused to meet his eyes, and Blaise’s dirty hands clenched into fists, “no role? Traitor.” Instinctively, Benjamin blanched; the word could have been directed to multiple things. “Tell me, Benjamin, are you French or not?”
In his desperation to prove himself a Frenchman, he accidentally called the nobleman Monsieur- and Blaise’s eyes fired up and he had hit Benjamin, knocking him onto the splintered, stained wooden floor. One did not address anyone else by the former honorifics; instead, they were all to be “citizen,” symbolizing that, despite everything that was going on, they were going through the same thing, caused by everyone… they were all equal. Two days later, they had come to arrest Benjamin, but Blaise was not present. Benjamin had hoped he would be.)
Now awaiting death, he laughed silently. They were afraid themselves. They were so scared that a rebellion was to erupt, that they went out-of-their-way to kill anyone who spoke carelessly. Cowards, the lot of them. Have they never imagined how it was to be beheaded themselves?And they stare like frightened rabbits- have they never been embarrassed before? He, Benjamin, had always looked away at the last moment when the executions were carried out.
Blaise seized Benjamin’s arm silently and marched him up to the Saint, both of them avoiding each other’s eyes. The stare of the crowd followed, and children’s eyes widened. Benjamin willed them to go home. He did not wish for his name to be passed around in dirt even for a day. He looked away from the people in disgust; some of them were carrying picnic baskets.
Surely, Blaise would be angrily telling his comrades that he had been forced to execute his own friend… he was so bound by his personal laws and boundaries that he had the ability to cut off his own friend’s head… something Benjamin realized he would never be able to do. One of the Jacobins strapped him to the machine, and he put his head down. He could see the bottom of the bloody woven basket placed in front of him, ready to catch his head.
The Saint was a quick killer. An efficient killer. A humane killer. He closed his eyes, and hoped that, after his death, Blaise and the Jacobins would finally realize their foolishness. Perhaps his death would be the last. He hoped that Blaise would be sentenced to carry his headless body.
Benjamin could hear Blaise’s footsteps as he moved behind him to release the axe, which was still held high above Benjamin’s head, waiting to make its move. He kept his head down, and murmured a small prayer. Of all they had been through, he had decided that he partially deserved it. He was the bad friend, not Blaise; he had broken their promise, and ended their friendship. But, as he thought again, his heart pounding (impatiently waiting for the Saint to do its thing, to kill him and many others, to spare all of France of its many unworthy men, those who had refused to help in building a more powerful nation, those who were not true, courageous men), he did not deserve this. Iit was the Revolution’s fault, it was the Terror Reign’s fault, it was the entire nation’s own fault that they were divided among themselves. Everyone had their own internal battles, countries included. Some people just had to be sacrificed for others to realize what idiocy they had been through… the process was taking longer than usual, and Benjamin grew more and more angry at the sight of the entire population of Paris staring at him. Have a good lunch. Have my shame with your tea, and have my failure for dessert.
Do it already,” a Jacobin monitoring the Saint said, and he made a grab for the rope, but Blaise slapped his hand away, his face stoic, determined to carry out his own friend’s execution, determined to prove himself a loyal supporter of the Revolution... the Jacobin snarled impatiently, and Blaise’s hand quivered as he struggled to untie the rope that held the blade above Benjamin’s head.
“Do it!” Benjamin echoed, and the Jacobin kicked his back. The public was in a shocked hush; they had seen no one else who was more eager for death to come. Let the pain come now. Let this be over, please. I deserve to die. I’m sorry, Blaise. I really was happy for you. But everyone has their own paths to walk, and I can’t apologize for the reasons the road forks so often for everyone.
Please hurry up, Blaise. Please hurry up, Saint Guillotine. Kill me now, to spare me the shame of having to live.
The axe fell swiftly, and Blaise averted his eyes.