This story is by Zeina Bazazrbachi and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Today was the day it would finally come to an end. There was no need to worry about it, it was bound to happen. Nothing could prevent this event from occurring today. A part of him was relieved, the wait was almost over. Yet he couldn’t help but being filled with terror and agonizing distress.
It was a beautiful sunny day in Paris, as if the whole world was mocking him. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, but he couldn’t enjoy any of it.
Everything about the Champs Elysées was the same as it would be today, only set in the later months of 1789. The monumental street was as beautiful as always. Solely one element stood out and inspired dreadful fear in everyone’s heart.
In the middle of the avenue of love and lights stood a massive guillotine. The purpose of that tremendous object was highly self explanatory: it was meant to be used for the execution that was taking place later today.
Nicholas was only one out of the half dozen people who were going to meet their Creator before sundown. It would be lying if Nicolas pretended he wasn’t uneasy and agitated. His legs felt weaker than cooked spaghetti and hands were shaking in perturbation. However, those emotions weren’t focused on his imminent death as much as they were on what he was leaving behind.
He was leaving her behind. He would never be able to be the support she needed, the friend and husband he was supposed to be. He was never going to be the father he always dreamed of being. It was impossible. How could he be a father when his head wasn’t even attached to the rest of his body anymore? How could he ever be a father when his body was disintegrating faster than his little boy or girl was growing? His whole body felt like it was a few centimeters away from falling apart. And he did not know which scenario was worse, if she showed up for his executions, or if she didn’t. Neither of those situations were ideal to say the least. Nicholas wanted her to be the last face he saw, but he couldn’t imagine putting her through seeing the guillotine fall upon his neck, seeing his head raised through the crowd and shown to the viewers as lesson.
His head would be moved in a half circular motion in front of everyone’s eyes, as a token that justice was being served, but also as a warning for everyone who might one day consider doing something similar. This nearly ritualistic part of the execution was delivering an exceptionally clear message: this could be you one day, if you ever decide to cross the law. So I suggest you do otherwise.
She was in the audience, making her way towards the guillotine. She wanted to come earlier, but her parents wouldn’t allow her to go to that horrendous place. “It would harm both you and the baby!” they said repeatedly. “You cannot think that we are actually permitting you to watch your husband get his head chopped off.” Still, she ignored them and went to see Nicholas anyway.
She was going because she wanted to be there for him in his last moments, but she was also going because she could not stand the idea of never seeing him again.
They had said their goodbyes so many times, each time harder than the time before it, but it was of no use. It was still out of the question for both of them that this was actually the end. It couldn’t be. How could the world be so cruel and uncaring to permit such barbaric actions?
When Nicholas saw his expecting wife practically running towards him, pushing through the crowd, his face was so ecstatic and joyful that it was impossible to believe he was moments away from taking his last breath. He was agitated and began to run towards her too, forgetting where he was or how he should be acting. He was soon stopped by the guard who angrily retreated him from moving anymore. He nailed him to the ground and warned him about trying anything like that again. Nicholas did not see the point of that warning, whether he behaved like an obedient prisoner or not wasn’t going to affect anything. He was going to die both ways.
She caught up to him, but the crowd wasn’t paying any attention to her. They were all focused on the first person who was about to be headless. It apparently had already happened because they were moving on to the next person. Nicholas was the fifth in the line, with only one person behind him. The worse your crime was; the later you were executed. This is supposed to force the prisoners into watching their friends die. To Nicholas, however, this allowed him to share some time, definitely too short, with his wife. She jumped near him and hugged him as tightly as she could. She was holding him for the both of them because Nicholas’ hands were tied behind his back. He moved his head in slow circular rotations over hers like puppy asking for affection. His locks of brown hair falling in front of his eyes were not doing a good job at hiding his tears. His tears weren’t distinguished from hers, falling rapidly from their eyes to their and each other’s cheeks, then onto the ground.
“You’re cold,” she observed with concern, as if this were the biggest of their problems.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his lips trembling, and those words somehow covered everything he wanted to say. Every emotion he felt condescend into three simple words.
“I’m sorry I broke the vase,” would say a child.
“I’m sorry I lied to you,” would say a protecting parent.
“I’m sorry I ate the last piece of cake,” would say anyone.
“I’m sorry I am about to die, leaving you and my child alone, because of something I did for the good of my country. I’m sorry I put my country before you. I’m sorry I’m going to die, because I really wish I could be there for you every second of every minute of my life.” Those were the subtitles of his three words, and she understood them perfectly.
“It’s alright,” she told him softly, “It’s alright” she managed to repeat before the guard pushed her away. Out of six, four heads had already rolled into the designated basket. She kissed his forehead while she held his head between her hands. The guard was getting impatient. He yelled at her, and almost pushed her away, not seeming to care that she was pregnant. Nicholas rose to his feet before that could happen. As long as he was still alive, no one was authorized to touch his wife.
“What am I going to do without you?” she said helplessly as he was being walked up the steps towards the guillotine.
“I will always be with you,” he said reassuringly glancing towards her growing belly with his eyes red from crying. Her hand unconsciously moved directly to her stomach, feeling her baby grow inside her. How could something so ordinary as a pregnancy feel so extraordinary to her? How could something so inhuman as a collective execution feel so mundane to everyone around her?
This was just another part of their day; they’ll dissemble afterwards as if nothing of importance took place here. This thought was tormenting her, twisting her insides, making her nauseated.
She watched as her husband was falling onto his knees, his head being pushed into the wooden hole.
“Look away Madeleine! Please… look away,” Nicholas shouted before being kicked by the guard in his ugly uniform.
Madeleine obeyed and turned around, tears falling down as fast as her heart was beating.
How could this possibly get any worse for him? Nicholas didn’t care about what would happen to him anymore. “Je suis desolé Madeleine! Je suis desolé!” and then, just like that, his voice was silenced forever.
Madeleine nearly fell on her knees when she heard the blade all, knowing it hit the only man she had ever loved. And the only man she would ever love.
Only…, he wasn’t. A few months later Madeleine gave birth to a tiny baby boy. She didn’t dwell for a second before landing on the perfect name.
Nicholas junior was growing up, and each year he looked more unbelievably similar to his father. He had the same brown hair that fell upon his eyes. Today, these locks were wet from hiding his innocent tears as he apologized for not listening to his maman. He was running in the street during a riot, and nearly got himself into more trouble than he could handle.
“Je suis désolé maman Madeleine,” he said sincerely, “I’ll keep my head together next time.”