Fiction by Eleanor Mae
Get me off this godforsaken rock, Josephine. Send a ship, send a platoon, send a washerwoman with a big-enough sack. Send me your hair, the long strands that fell from your cap at night. I will wrap myself in them; they will carry me home. Send me your thighs; they’ll do the same.
We cannot drink the wine here, and all butters and cheeses arrive at the house already rancid. The milk curdles in the cow. Soon we will be reduced to eating meal and roots, brothers to the fat white pigs which graze here.
Exile makes animals of men. It scrapes away the layer of man we paint upon ourselves.
You always knew the animal in me.
The house is a shack, shocking even for a man used to such privation. Cold and yet unshaded, an ugly fruit that September takes delight in rotting. The wind batters the walls at night. I think of Luxembourg, the Grand Salon, and every memory is bitter medicine.
Only your first house brings respite, the memory of it. I dwell upon it, trapped in the grey walls of this room, a bulbous nineteenth century swelling before me like a boil. My other dwellings were for politics, and politics withers and dies in this heat. Power itself crawls under a tree and sleeps.
The Chantereine house was too crowded with old maids for politics, apart from the depressing intrigues of old women. It was for our love, love alone. On this island, love and memory both thrive.
How you shone there! And how tolerant you were of me, afraid to climb the stairs to call on you. The frogs croaked in the marsh nearby; do you remember them? Their calls and creakings throughout the long nights? And the roses, every inch of the garden alive with them, every bowl and vase in the house overflowing with them.
No doubt you grew and plucked them for men like me. You were rather enjoying your widowhood, if the rumours were to be believed. I had no ear for them. How could I, when every part of me was full of you?
It was true, what I wrote to you. Every morning I awoke enchanted; my senses had no rest.
The sun is going down; I feel a chill rising. Soon my men will return, and we will eat bread and herbs and fatty over-boiled meat, like shepherds do. And then I will sleep, and think of you.
Oh, give me a prison in Paris, with fat-bellied rats in the walls but a city outside of them! Here, there is nothing, miles and miles of jungle and scorched earth and savagery, and then the sea.
How I hate the sea. Too many of my men in it, the first war, the second war, the third. All calling out to me at night.
December runs skipping from November’s arms, an icy child. There is talk of getting me a new house, and my men have seized upon it as an opportunity to escape. They chew over ideas, thrilling ones full of disguises and bribes and secret berths in trading ships. It appears they miss court life. I listen to these plans, and I smile, and occasionally, I tighten a loose end, pare down an overstuffed suggestion in danger of splintering apart.
None of them will work, of course. St Helena is to be my tomb. I knew it from the moment I stepped ashore, even as I called out to you, begging you for rescue.
All the other places of my life have been too beautiful to leave, but here, there is no spring flowering, no changing of the leaves. Just bare rock and blind sky and scrub. Nature is showing me her seventh age, her winding-down, and it would show a lack of chivalry to let her walk on unaccompanied.
Of course, I was never chivalrous with you. But we didn’t need chivalry, did we? If anything, the opposite.
I left you, perhaps when you needed me more than before. I did it for politics, of course—always politics—but in truth, the truth that can only be spoken by a man at the end of everything, I left you because of your damned lover.
It was the moustache that threw me. Tall, well-formed, brave, dashing—but the court’s fetish for that damned moustache? An effete fop. A dandy.
I expected more from you, and I was heartbroken.
Men do not readily speak of broken hearts. We speak of wounded pride. Even I imagined your betrayal as a theft of property—those lips, that warm curve at the base of your back, all in the hands of another? You were mine.
It was only later that I realised you belonged to yourself. It is only now, with the weight of years pulling my pride to the earth, that I can say my heart was in pieces.
But were we not faithful to each other, really? What we had, it was stronger than the whims of our two bodies. It’s a thought I comfort myself with, here at the end of the world.
But the answers you could give, if you were here—the honeyed poison you would pour into my ears. It tortures me.
I can imagine you opening your legs for another man. The thought even excites me, in some dark, painful way. But I cannot imagine you opening your heart.
This island is full of bees. They travel in drifting clouds, passing over stone and soil as they take every last drop of sweetness from this bitter land. I hope they take my words, my sorrows, and fly them to the furthest corners of this dark earth.
Fly them, perhaps, to you.
Years, Josephine. Years of calling, and no response. The century rolls on, five years of this forced hermitage, and the fear of being forgotten begins to bite in the winter wind. The winter of 1815, of 1820—perhaps the same winter, running like a cold road through all my time.
By the twentieth century, no one will remember my name. But you will be forgotten with me. We will know the intimacy of the nameless men we ruled.
You are in your rose garden, cutting blooms. That white silk you always wore is slipping down your shoulder, leaving it bare and slightly damp, a moth newly emerged from its casing.
In my mind you roughen with age, just as the pulp of a fruit grows tough and leathered. Your outward appearance never changes, it never did. You cosseted and pampered and painted yourself into mummification. But as I add layers to my imaginings, you grow riper inside.
What about your whores, my love? Your voice, so wryly amused. Your raucous women with their rouged-up knees?
A vice. Another useless vice, like pipe-smoking, or politics.
A Christmas with no food, and the wind is cruel. The candles keep blinking out. I imagine this wretched house winking in the night, a monstrous eye.
Your eyes were always troubling. Full of secrets, which you never told me, no matter how much I raved or begged.
I wonder if you knew my fate even then, when we were happy. The idea must have amused you.
I am happy to have amused you.
Asking me about my whores was too easy. The other question remains.
Perhaps you already knew the answer to it, although you never seemed convinced. I can imagine you asking it now, plates flying. What about your wife, Emperor? What about Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, Empress of the French? What about her?
What about her?
Remember that, in the end, I came to you. After the final defeat, gunships smoking, I crawled to Malmaison like a dog.
You were already gone then. I know. But every room had the touch of your hand, the span of your gaze, and once again I was inside you.
A new year, a shining January for those who have new passions and new projects. My passion remains the same, Josephine—and you will grow old with me, now that I carry you in this ageing heart.
Here the garden lies bare, harvested to death, and I am desolate. The sea shrouds itself in mourning, the plovers lament. I watch the horizon.
Today I am not sure that we ever loved each other. Perhaps my love was lust, your love was greed, and by the light of a candle, we pretended. We wounded each other, we clawed and grasped and scarred, but what did it bring us in the end? Debts, lies, disappointment.
You gave me no sons. I gave you no fidelity.
Your death, I have forgiven you for. After all, you are only just out of reach. Your laugh, your voice, I hear them, and every day, the door opens a little wider.
I never understood your lover. I never will.
You married another, you whisper through the half-open door. You found out I was barren, and you married another. What of your betrayal, conqueror? What of your transgression?
I say aloud to the bleak sea, politics, politics, damned cursed politics.
The new house is pleasant enough. I entered flanked by British guards—so pink, that nation, constantly flushed and sweating, and am never given a moment’s solitude. My men are despondent, five years of frenzied planning, and they have no room for daring escapes and not enough money for bribes.
I am well enough. As coffins go, this is a comfortable one. The wallpaper glows, a great purple flower.
When I returned to Malmaison, that last time, your flowers were all dead. The men had kept the animals fed—the seal was ailing, but perhaps the cold weather had upset it. Your zebras, your tapirs, your chamois and your merino sheep, all were grazing and gamboling as before. Even your antelope, your tricksy timid imports, flitting across the grass. But your roses were rotting on the vine.
I had never wept for you. When news of your death came I locked myself away, I raved, I cursed God, but I never wept.
There, though, my Empire in tatters, your roses stinking like corpses left out in the sun, I wept as only a man who had lost greatness could weep.
But what of my violets, you whisper, what of the violets that lined my pockets and drooped in cases and tucked themselves under our bedsheets?
My love, I never cared all that much for violets. You used them to entice me, to delight me, and I had to bury beneath layers of cloying sweetness to find the true taste of your skin. I put them on your coffin as a form of services rendered.
But your roses were who you were, they were your passion, they were nourished by your intellect and care, you towering, lying, base, maddening, frivolous, glorious woman, and when they died, I wept.
February, a short fever-dream of a month. I feel sick, strange. This morning I retched; for a moment I was a child again, bewildered, searching for a soothing pair of arms. My men are full of excitement, suspecting poison.
I have my doubts. All food, all water, all light and air are so closely monitored here that tampering is an impossibility. The ever-present bitterness of defeat, of exile, sits in my belly like a great fat toad—and only now, perhaps, has it begun to spit its bile into my blood.
I cannot take my daily walk, and sit propped up in bed like an old woman. I brood. I remember my defeats—Trafalgar, Waterloo. I remember my overturned carriage, jewels scattered in the mud, my copy of The Prince left inside.
How useless that book seems, here.
One of my guards spoke to me of you today. I must be more conservative with my silences; an hour’s quiet could mean anything, but a day’s silence will inevitably be you. When he said your name an old hackle rose; he is a young man, not an ugly one.
He asked how I felt about you now. Insolence! I was weak, though, taken aback, and I answered him outright. I told him that I loved you, but did not respect you.
A half-lit room of a remark. It could be day, it could be night, or both, or neither.
I never respected you as a wife, not after your lover. That you knew all too well, I certainly didn’t hide it. All my whores with their rouged-up knees. But respect as a wife, what a strange and mealy thing! Ownership in kid gloves.
I respected all my prized possessions, but you refused. No chivalry for you, Josephine, you faded Creole. No protection beyond that of an old and wounded friend.
At least I was no longer afraid of you. I had always feared your laughter.
The months are slipping through my fingers like water. March is raw, naked in sunlight as February licks her wounds. The thread of time has snapped, falling into a cloud of silken strands that I cannot gather to me.
Today my mind feels light and airy, an untethered balloon, and I know I loved you then, and love you now.
The rain beats against the house like soldiers’ feet. Lightning strikes the sea. I have no appetite, and troubled dreams.
Carthage burns, my love, Carthage burns in a lake of white fire; your peacocks scream as they turn to ash. A green worm bites through the walls of the house, the smell it carries, such decay! Like dying roses. It crawls towards my bed, large as a man, as I lie screaming, and its breath is laced with violets. Your flowers rot upon the vines; they sink into the earth. My love, it speaks in your voice!
I grew the roses, it whispers, because you took my name. My name was Rose, but no, you had to rip me from all I was and give me a new name to live in. But I grew thousands of my namesake, you stupid little man, and you never understood. Never even considered! How he and I laughed at you, as we lay in your bed. He called me Rose there, and oh, how he made me blush red!
Quiet! Silence! I feel tears on my face; they burn from the heat of the dying city. They’ll cut it off, you whisper through the worm, they’ll cut off that poor sad part of you and put it in a jar to gawp at! Oh my, they’ll say, those learned men of science, look at what Napoleon had between his legs! No wonder he needed to conquer a world!
Quiet, you lying slut, and I am shouting at the worm, its sweet coffin-breath on my face, and the stars outside are red, and the worm says Sir, Sir, you are delirious, can you hear me? Can you hear my voice?
Where did you go, my love? Come back.
My brain fever has left with the tide, taking March and my remaining strength with it. I am myself again, but the door, the door opens ever-wider.
I see cities on the walls: Cairo, Rome, Athens. They are not burning, but are much changed. Ivy creeps over their temples; lions walk through thoroughfares left bare and grassy. My former battlefields are forests. My corridors of power are open plains.
Power, my mistress, is finally sated. She sleeps curled beside me, and I see things clearly.
You’re hiding behind the door, my love. I can hear you laughing. Hide and seek, is it?
Don’t worry. I’ll find you.
Our France is there on the wall; I see the Grand Salon in ruins, birds roosting in the open ceilings, stray cats giving birth on the parquet floors. Versailles lies bleak and desolate, and our own Malmaison is swallowed up by the marsh that lay around it.
All your docile animals, my love, all our attempts at cultivation, at mastery—all gone. The beasts walk free; the men have long since departed. The land is wild again.
How I wish that I had met you here, both of us exiles, free of the webs and chains which keep us all in place. What would we have made of each other?
But men are not born exiles. We do as we must, until there are no more worlds to conquer. My eyes are closing.
My Empire swims, and fades.
© Eleanor Mae
[This piece was selected by Amelia Loulli. Read Eleanor’s interview]
Eleanor Mae lives on the coast of Italy with a very handsome cat. She studied history at university, so most of her stories take place in the past. The story you’re reading is her first published work.