SD Short Story Contest Finalist: Madame Guillotine – Brian J. Welch

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In her heart of hearts, Charlotte was a knife. Almost everyone in Paris called her Madame Guillotine. Louis simply called her Charlotte. From the very beginning, they shared a singular intimacy, a tenderness that was theirs alone. Madame Guillotine had many lovers over the years, but she always came back to Louis. Six days a week she stood tall and proud in the square, kissing her lovers’ necks. But on those days, the one that her edge longed for was Louis. Every Monday, she gave herself over to his methodical devotion, relaxed in his hands and let his callused fingertips polish her edge.

Louis, a tinker by trade and a Romany by birth, spent much of his life traveling from town to town, repairing tools and sharpening anything with a blade, just as his father had before him. It was the only life he knew, and he was proud of the trade that he was raised into. When he first came to Paris, he found Charlotte standing alone in the crowd, embracing one of her many lovers and was immediately taken in by her grace.

Charlotte stood in the center of the square, unashamed. Her frame straight and tall, her shoulders slender but strong, she barely flexed at all when she let her heart drop and kissed her lovers. It was a delicate and beautiful embrace. In that quick kiss, her heart moved with force and purpose. No one would blame the onlookers for missing her true grace. It happened fast. Louis didn’t miss it, though. He had a keen eye, as keen as the edge of Charlotte’s silvery heart.

Charlotte was loved by many, all of Paris, in fact. Those she kissed loved the idea of her and the legitimacy that her kiss provided them. They loved her not for her but for the picture that was created when they laid down in her embrace and waited for her kiss. They knew that to be kissed by her meant that they were somehow more important than they were alone. In the end though, Charlotte could feel that each and every one was always a little bit afraid of her. She held her lovers tight, each and every one, and when she finally let herself go, let her heart drop, she always felt the same twinge of fear when they closed their eyes tight and waited for her kiss.

Those who watched loved nothing more than the entertainment that her kiss provided, something to break up their monotonous and feckless lives. The crowd saw only show. Louis, however, saw only her grace… and her neglect. He could see that although she stood tall and proud in the square, fulfilling her purpose, what she really needed was a few moments of tenderness.

It was a Sunday.

Louis sat in the square, watching Madame Guillotine and her lovers. He sat behind the crowd next to the local magistrate and all those that were counting their last minutes before they were to be laid down into Madame’s embrace. It would be romantic to say that it was a misty gray morning, or some such nonsense, but, truthfully, Louis barely even noticed the weather. He was entranced by her heart, knowing how, with the proper care, it could really shine.

“Madame, seems tired,” Louis said to no one in particular.

“Nonsense,” bellowed the bullish magistrate. “Our Madame is strong and agile! Just look at how she stands for all of Paris to admire.”

“Indeed,” said Louis. “Her frame is strong. She stands tall and moves with ease. She is beautiful and fierce. But her heart has a tender edge. If it is not cared for it will most certainly break.”

“What the hell do you know about it?”

“In truth, a great many things. Our lovely Madame, is strong, yes, but underneath that strength, her heart is a knife. I know about knives. Their edges need tending or they become brittle and will eventually break. Sir, you must believe me, Madame is in need of a little tenderness.”

Louis, the tinker, continued with care and wit to assure the magistrate of the necessity of allowing him to care for the delicate edge of Charlotte’s heart until the sour bureaucrat finally relented.

“Fine!” He said, “Return here in the morning and we will see about letting you hone our Madame’s edge.”

“Merci Monsieur,” said Louis. And, truly, he was thankful. His concern for Charlotte’s heart was genuine.

The next morning the magistrate climbed to the top of his ladder and clumsily tried to get at Charlotte’s heart. Louis watched with anger as the foolish man tried to undress Madame with a hammer and a wedge.

“Get down you fool!” he screamed at the magistrate.

As the magistrate climbed down, Louis stepped up to Madame Guillotine and lowered her heart down toward him slowly. So accustomed, was she, to dropping down swiftly that her frame trembled a bit as Louis brought her heart down slowly to his waiting hands. It was like a kiss in slow motion, such a lovely feeling.

When her heart had safely landed, Louis caressed her cheek and whispered to her softly. With dignity and respect, he released the grip of her stocks and pulled her heart from its casement, laid it down with care, mindful of her delicate edge, and wrapped it in oiled leather.

“I will return tomorrow after her edge is honed,” was all he said to the magistrate as he walked away with Charlotte’s heart in his hands.

The magistrate simply nodded and went about his business, eager to do nothing else of consequence that day.

When Louis returned to his encampment, cradling Charlotte’s heart, he climbed into his wagon and cleared off the small bench top where he had plied his trade for so many years. He laid Charlotte’s heart down on the bench and slowly unwrapped it. Her heart was quiet as she waited there, exposed and vulnerable on Louis’ workbench.

Even in her neglect, her heart’s edge was dangerously sharp. It is a brave and, some might say, foolish man that falls in love with one such as Charlotte, one whose keen edge has seen the end of so many. Still, Louis saw the way that Charlotte gazed back at him once he had wiped her cheeks clean. He knew that he would always love her, just as he had from the very start.

When Louis first began to work Charlotte’s edge, it was abrasive and uncomfortable. She shivered under the roughness of that first caress.

“I know, my love, it’s uncomfortable. But I will be quick. You must trust me.”

She couldn’t say why but from the first moment, she did trust him. True to his word, Louis’ caresses became progressively softer as the day’s hours stretched into night. He eased the roughness of each caress with greater and greater tenderness until she gleamed at him under the light of the oil lamp. Charlotte relaxed her heart and gave herself over to his nimble and rhythmic affection. It was exquisite. She quivered a little with each pass of his hands until his honing had perfectly exposed her sharpness. Her edge sang under his knowing hands.

Finally, after the grit of Louis’ caresses had dwindled to almost nothing but air, after the strop had licked clean even the tiniest burr on her heart’s edge, when Charlotte was perfectly honed, Louis plucked a single black hair from his head and let it fall slowly onto her gleaming heart’s edge.

Louis’ single black hair drifted down in the damp air and fell lightly into Charlotte’s kiss, silently splitting over her edge and gliding gracefully over her cheeks.

Louis saw the way she kissed that single hair and was filled with pride. There is nothing greater than the feeling helping one that you love so much to shine as only you know that they can. And indeed, Charlotte did shine. She, too, was filled with the pride of being cared for in a way that she knew that she deserved to be.

“The fools,” Louis whispered, “not one of them knows how to care for you.”

She gazed at him with his eyes, in the quiet lamp light of his simple cart and believed so too.

In this way, Charlotte and Louis spent so many tender Monday hours. For years, Monday was their day, until one day it wasn’t.

Louis just stopped coming. Three Mondays passed and still nothing. Louis didn’t come, and, with every new lover, her heart’s edge became more brittle and more broken. Madame Guillotine became more and more tired, until, finally, it was all she could do to completely kiss her lovers. Charlotte found herself stopping short a bit more with each passing kiss until the day that she couldn’t even finish kissing the lover that was laid down for her. He was inconsolable. It was all very gruesome. The magistrate had to borrow a sword to finish him off.

It was that Sunday that the magistrate sent for Louis. They brought him to Charlotte in shackles. He was broken and humiliated, but he loved Charlotte and there was nothing in the world that could’ve prevented him from caring for her if only given the chance.

The magistrate bellowed and complained to Louis, next in line to be her lover, that her heart was simply not up to the task anymore.

“Of course!” Louis barked. “No one has shown her an ounce of care in these last three weeks.”

The magistrate, in the way that useless men do, pointed his anger away from himself and demanded that Louis repair Madame’s heart. Louis did not need to be persuaded. He simply nodded and asked the magistrate to take down a list of supplies that he would need. The magistrate nodded as he wrote until the list was complete. He handed the page to a porter and turned to escort Louis back to his cell.

The next day, two men arrived with a box containing all that Louis had requested. They were followed by the magistrate and another feckless bureaucrat carrying Charlotte’s heart in his clumsy arms.

The men set down the box of abrasives and oils and dropped Charlotte’s abused heart onto the dirt of Louis’ cell. Louis was filled with rage at their lack of respect. He apologized for the bureaucrat’s behavior and for his own absence as he lifted Charlotte’s heart into his lap.

As he had done every Monday for years, he first wiped her cheeks clean and kissed each one lightly before attending to her heart’s edge.

“I’m sorry my love,” he said, knowing that the neglect they had shown her required a rougher embrace.

Charlotte let her heart vibrate under the calluses of his caring hands. She had been yearning for weeks for the scrape of his first touches, knowing that the glide of the strop would come soon after. She had missed the way that his hands made her gleam.

In the dark and cold of his cell, Louis attended to Charlotte’s heart, moving his hands over her edge, methodically and confidently. He knew how to care for her and she easily gave herself over, as she had so many times before. His hands, so accustomed to his task, so confident in their care, moved back and forth evenly, noting every chip, every bump, every burr on her heart’s edge. He smoothed over her burrs and slowly removed her folded layers until her edge, finally exposed, gleamed up at him again. Louis beamed back at her. After he had polished and honed her heart’s edge, as he had done on all the Mondays past, he plucked a single hair from his head and let it drift down in the still air. She kissed it and savored the way its halves glided over her cheeks.

Louis held Charlotte’s heart in his hands until morning when the magistrate came. He thanked Louis, in his shallow and ignorant way, and reached for Charlotte’s gleaming heart.

Louis, pulled back.

“Monsieur, please. Let it be today,” Louis begged.

“What’s that?” the magistrate scoffed.

“She will have many lovers waiting for her this Sunday. I know I am next in line to be kissed. I only ask that you let it be today. Please let it be without the crowd. I have earned the right to such a simple request. Just a little privacy is all I ask.”

The magistrate laughed off Louis’ reasonable request and clumsily reached for Charlotte’s heart again. Louis pulled back again.

“Do you even know how to put her heart back?” He demanded. “Do you know how to dress her?”

The magistrate, not wanting to admit that he, indeed, had no idea how to fit her heart back into her frame, reluctantly agreed to let Louis be kissed by Madame Guillotine that very day in exchange for putting her back together. Besides, it was better to have a test before Sunday’s work.

He granted his prisoner’s request and led him from his cell to Madame’s waiting frame in the square. Louis walked with calm and poise, still cradling Charlotte’s heart in his hands.

He lowered Madame’s rope and gently removed the grip of her stocks, exposing the inside of her casement. He kissed each of her cheeks lightly and carefully slipped her heart back into her frame. He dressed her with dignity and care, replacing her stocks and enclosing her heart back into her frame. He tied her rope and slowly raised her heart until it rested snugly in place just below her shoulders.

“Well done!” the magistrate said and grabbed Louis roughly by the neck.

Louis pushed back hard and freed himself quickly. “There is no need for that! I will lay down for Madame without your help.”

Louis didn’t get on his knees as every one of Madam’s lovers had before him. Instead, he sat down on the ground before her and laid back into her embrace. He relaxed into the grip of her stocks and watched his love’s lofty heart gleaming down at him. When the magistrate released the rope, Louis did not close his eyes, did not wince. He stared into Charlotte’s polished heart without an ounce of fear. Charlotte, full of love and a great sadness gazed back at her love with his own eyes as her heart’s perfectly honed edge hissed through the cold air and finally, after so many tender embraces, she kissed him.

Currently, I live in Austin and work as a designer in the construction industry. I have an MFA in Studio Art from Mass College of Art and Design where I focused on books as conceptual art. I have since decided to try my hand at writing a few, though I have not yet been published.

9 thoughts on “SD Short Story Contest Finalist: Madame Guillotine – Brian J. Welch

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