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The Parade by Richard Calhoun



Now that the parade has gone by, I find myself sunk in a state of the most absolute and ineradicable awe. The procession was, after all, replete with the sort of spectacle guaranteed to command even the most casual onlooker's attention. The participants were finely drilled; the emotions played upon brought tears to the eye; and startling, unexpected occurrences caused hearts to cease beating for the longest times imaginable. Oh, like all parades it had its dull spots--phalanxes of preening, self-involved courtiers; fleets of heavily armored war machines scattering memories of devastation in their wake; the usual dreary drum and bugle corps inexpertly playing the usual dreary marches and airs--but overall such moments were remarkably few. Even so, riveting as it was I must confess that I would not, given the choice, willingly relive the experience.

To be sure, I did not find anything to criticize while the parade was in progress. The King was, of course, most impressive as Grand Marshal of the cortege. Preceded by five hundred brilliantly pink and orange flamingoes, His Majesty sat in a golden litter, burnished to a blinding glare and borne by eight superbly muscled slaves. His eyes, stern and all-seeing, ceaselessly scanned the crowds lining the route, demanding their adoration. For the most part such edicts were unnecessary. The Royal persona is undeniably a stimulating one, and so His presence at the head of the parade virtually assured an outpouring of popular enthusiasm. Still, every so often--twice as His bearers traversed the block on which I stood singing His praises at the top of my lungs--a frown would darken the Regal brow and a bejeweled forefinger would stab out at some face in the crowd. The penalty of being thus singled out was grave. Two giant axe bearers would, following His Majesty's gesture, detach themselves from the ranks of his Janissaries and wade into the massed humanity, there to hack to pieces the offendingly inattentive onlooker. Acts that, not surprisingly, incited those witnessing them to even more frenzied expressions of devotion.

The capital punishment float, pulled by four spans of huge, midnight-black horses, generated great admiration. This large, lily-covered display represented the entire history of penal execution. At the front end, two hairy, ape-like men armed with crude stone clubs seized random spectators and, dragging them up onto the float, proceeded to bludgeon them until the blood flowed in torrents. This done, they would cast the limp, lifeless bodies into the street and turn once again to the crowds to find new victims, not hesitating to take women and children if such came within their pitiless grasp. Similarly active were the gibbet erected on the float about midway between the above-described primitives and the electric chair located at the rear of the conveyance. Around the gallows, two hooded executioners made a solemn ceremony of each hanging, with victims once again supplied from among the onlookers. A priest offered comfort and looked piously heavenward as the two hangmen readied the simple but effective apparatus. Those whose fate it was to be hanged generally entered into the spirit of the moment and for the most part met their doom with commendable fortitude. The activities of this float, with its additional replications of a guillotine, a firing squad, a small gas chamber, and a bonfire for stake-burning, all in constant operation, noticeably lessened the density of the crowd even as it heightened the passions of those who remained after it had passed.

A precision marching unit in brightly colored uniforms temporarily calmed the excited watchers, but interest was swiftly revived when a huge cage full of starved and savage carnivores came rolling into view. The cacophony and stench emanating from this particular attraction greatly heightened the expectations of the crowd. And not without reason. On each block along the route, two of the beasts were released to dash, howling with blood lust, into the rows of folk lining the curbs. Shrieks mingled with roars, growls, and the grisly sound of bones cracking as the freed animals satisfied their voracious hunger. Great amusement was afforded the witnesses on my block when a lagging member of the drill unit preceding the great cats was knocked down and torn to bits by one of the latter. Amusement, I might add, that swiftly gave way to scrambling when the creature, having disposed of this morsel, charged into the throngs on the sidewalks there to continue its feast. So rapidly did these animals make their meals that they were already curled up content and purring in the gutters by the time the next part of the parade passed.

After purging itself of mangled torsos and undevoured limbs, the audience remaining now turned its attention to a giant hive of African bees, emitting as it rolled by a steady stream of the ill-tempered and aggressive insects. Breaking off into small, dense formations, they made, as if by predetermination, straight for certain individuals in the audience and wrapped their victims in an angry, buzzing, and final embrace. In their own way, these tiny creatures proved themselves capable of quite as much mischief as the giant felines preceding them, by summarily stinging to death a good many who had not yet finished congratulating themselves upon escaping the jaws of the ravenous lions, tigers, and leopards. I myself saw the man beside me thus singled out and in an instant covered with an undulating black and yellow mass of apian ferocity, felt vibrations of thousands of beating, transparent wings, heard the deadly hum of their collective purposefulness. This poor fellow remained erect and seemingly frozen in place for a few moments after being settled upon, then slowly toppled over. Gingerly stepping aside, I watched his bee-blanketed figure slip to the pavement, whereupon the swarm deserted it. The bloated, pinkish mass of flesh left behind looked nothing like the pale young man with whom I had, but a few seconds earlier, been pleasantly discussing the fine points of the spectacle. One had to give these small creatures their due; they were every bit as lethal as the men and beasts before them.

No sooner had the bees done their work and moved on than the by now vastly reduced crowd became absorbed in the spectacle of a float recalling man's primitive past. This elaborate conveyance featured a reenactment of the long-abandoned practice of human sacrifice to various ancestral gods. Only the loveliest young women left among the onlookers were selected by the high priest to serve as offerings. Those chosen mounted the display calmly and without urging, as though conscious of the honor being conferred, and stood impassively while the altar maidens stripped them of their clothing, exposing their naked flesh to the chill breezes of an otherwise bright October afternoon. The crowd around me was by now in a state of the highest excitement. Nor can I myself claim to have been precisely as calm as I am at this moment. As I looked on, the three female sacrifices chosen from the block on which I stood--a slender brunette, a plump blond, and an imposing redhead--were led up to the marble altar and draped artfully over the sacred stone. The officiating holy man bellowed a prayer in an unknown tongue through a megaphone, then thrust the curved and gleaming blade of the sacrificial knife to the hilt in the valley between each victim's breasts. The blade withdrawn and a small bowl of blood collected as an offering to the gods, the remains of these young women were cast into a roaring furnace at the far end of the float. All in all, it was a most impressive ceremony and, loathe as I am to admit it considering my present feelings, it certainly accentuated the dullness of modern religious practices in which bread and wine serve as somewhat less than credible substitutes for real flesh and blood.

Before the heightened emotions caused by these blood sacrifices had died down, a rollicking corps of clowns suddenly filled the street from curb to curb. Faces painted into colorfully leering masks, these cavorting harlequins darted in and out among the crowd, playing the sorts of jokes clowns will play, albeit with certain differences. The seltzer bottles, for example, which these madcap Punchinellos sprayed into the faces of onlookers might as easily contain concentrates of acid as soda water. In my immediate vicinity, a carrot-topped buffoon brandishing two guns aimed one of them point blank at me and pulled the trigger. Out of the muzzle popped a small flag bearing the word "Bang". It was very amusing, and I chuckled roundly in appreciation of the harmless ruse. Then the same clown turned and aimed his other gun at an indulgently smiling observer. But this time when he pulled the trigger there was a roar, a flash of fire, and the smell of gunpowder. A small dark hole appeared in the center of the forehead of the victim of this prank. As he fell forward, I could not help but notice that the back of his head had disappeared altogether. What a joker that clown was, I thought, as I watched him scamper away, his outrageously oversized shoes flapping comically against the pavement. To my left, a bushy-haired jester dressed in fool's motley held an elderly woman, pinning her arms behind her while a grotesque looking dwarf in a full-dress suit, grunting with the exertion of his efforts, pummeled her about the head and shoulders with a heavy, gold-butted walking stick. Released, the old lady went tumbling, face first, into the gutter, where she lay unmoving, while around her battered gray head, to which an absurdly unfashionable flowered hat still clung, a small lake of crimson took shape. Before they were finished, indeed, these fellows had merrily subtracted as many people from the ranks of the existing as had any of their predecessors in the parade.

The Royal Fusiliers and Sappers followed the clowns as a sort of mopping-up force. Marching smoothly and in perfect order, the Fusiliers halted as they reached the middle of the block, one column doing a right face, the other a left. As one, the Royal Riflemen knelt, brought their arms to the ready, and fired, spraying the spectators with a withering barrage and tearing great gaps in what was left of the assembly. An added and most impressive final statement was the Sappers' demonstration, in which powerful explosive devices were rolled among the scattered remains of the crowd, there to explode with fearful effect. How I managed to avoid the final, devastating effect of these bombs I cannot even now say, but when the smoke cleared away, my voice alone was left to cheer the efficiency of the Royal demolitionists.

Echoing over the carnage, bouncing back at me from the walls of the canyon of tall marble-faced edifices between which the parade route had threaded its way, my enthusiastic shouts suddenly seemed forlorn and foolish, and I fell silent. Looking about me at the evidence of slaughter and noting here and there a still-twitching limb, I have not cheered now for almost a quarter of an hour. My former enthusiasm has given way to revulsion, my elation to a sense of ineluctable sadness. There is no joy in having been spared; no relief in finding myself standing, alone and unscathed, amidst the bloody relics of the parade. Nor should there be.

Clearly, my exemption is only temporary.



Richard Calhoun is an editor and writer living in New York City. His short story, "A Curious Dilemma," appeared in Issue #5 of The Cafe Irreal.


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