The Parallel of Water & Air
by Jesi Bender
No man’s life is his own. He exists for others, in others. “No man is an island.”
Perhaps he is more the ocean. He touches every edge as an unwalkable bridge. He evaporates, an ether absorbed and expelled. And, of course, he rocks, restless, against, against, against.
They call me Mssr. Bonaparte but I was born François-Eugène Robeaud on July 5th, 1781 in Baleycourt, France, near the banks of the Meuse. I was born there, where land meets water. Now, nothing is separate. I can no longer see the line where water becomes sky. No matter what happens to me, here in this wasteland, here on this island, here now an island, remember to honor your promise and take care of my sister. I owe her this end for past sins. I have given myself to this life as quiet contrition. “An eye for an eye.”
I’m told I’m on St. Helena’s, 2,000 kilometres off the coast of Namibia, where the mouth of the Cunene River breathes into the Atlantic. Trapped here, I traded my life not for France or for some greater good. It is for Thérèse. As long as my sister lives comfortably—comforted by the money, comforted by the distance between us like a monumental sigh. Comforted, maybe, by the fact that I, in essence, no longer exist. I take heart in knowing that if my old life didn’t matter, at least the one I have now does. I learned I can choose what I am. I can be whatever I call myself. The name is all that matters.
July 1818 – There is a change in command at the Longwood house in St. Helena. A new general comes to oversee Napoleon’s exile. This is the first change to the post since Napoleon arrived. The exchange is only witnessed by a handful of people. Money, madness, or honor—who is to say what motivated them?
Two months earlier, a stately coach arrived in Baleycourt, inquiring for Robeaud. When asked by neighbors who was inside, Robeaud’s sister, Thérèse, replied tersely, “Only a physician looking to buy some rabbits.”
Shortly after Robeaud disappears, the wife of Napoleon’s long-time confidante writes her friend a note that is confiscated by the British.
“Success is ours! He has left the island!”
I’m told that I’m the fourth. There were three before me—one who died of poison immediately prior to Waterloo, one who was crippled in a riding accident, and one who was killed by a stray bullet. How strange it is for us, to die so many times. To die and to still be alive. For being a double means your life is shared. Your death is too.
To pass the time until I die again, I read. I’ve become a bit obsessed with words. I suppose I’m seeking comfort, hoping to extradite things I’ve done from myself. Those names I gathered throughout my youth. Once you learn the root of the word, perhaps you can dig it out.
I recently learned that the ship to which Napoleon gave his penultimate surrender was named the Bellerophon, after a Greek god whose name means ‘to slay with an arrow’. Bellerophon, among other things, slayed the Chimera. Most retellings of his story end there. They don’t mention that afterwards, Bellerophon, now filled with pride, felt he deserved to ride to Mount Olympus and live among the gods. Angered, Zeus sent a gadfly to bite the winged horse Bellerophon rode. The animal startled and threw him. From the apex of all that was holy and sacred, Bellerophon plummeted back to earth.
Poor man. Poor god. He was once outlined by the glory of a full-faced sun. As I wave away the multitude of volitant insects in this part of the world, I think of the pegasus and its gadfly. When I was growing up, we used to call them horseflies.
Bellerophon was originally sent on the Chimera mission after a queen told her husband that Bellerophon had ‘ravished’ her. I am unsure if that means violence or an enrapturing. “Ravish.” I say the word aloud. It fills my mouth like blood from a plum. I think of Thérèse. I think of my double, my other self, with our head down, sailing away in defeat. It feels like falling from an evasive heaven.
July 1823 – In Vienna, Napoleon II, the only legitimate son of the former emperor, lays critically ill within the walls of Schönbrunn Palace. One night, a guard hears rustling from the bushes outside the dying boy’s window. After making demands for the intruder to show himself, the guard fires. The stranger is killed instantly.
The body is brought inside. The exchange is only witnessed by a handful of people. Napoleon’s second wife, Maria Louise, upon seeing the dead, has the stranger buried in her family plot immediately. Who’s to say why?
Two days later, Napoleon II passes away and joins the stranger within the walls of the cemetery.
Thus ends the direct lineage of Napoleon Bonaparte, the brilliant and enigmatic. He supposedly passed away two years earlier, on a distant island.
At the eulogy on St. Helena’s, it was said—
“In some ways, the man we now lay to rest has lived many lives. May his name live on throughout history on the tides of forever.”
The Greeks, the Romans, the new world leaders. People throughout history, throughout the entirety of this world and whatever lay beyond it. And the people lost to memory, unfathomable depths of nameless.
But I had a name. I had many names. I had every name I’ve given myself and every name that had been given to me. I had all my mistakes. And I had all the lives I’ve lived, through all of my selves.
I shall transcend this place, this body, these names.
Thérèse. Joséphine. I turn to all of you like a frail, pale sun.
Who’s to say I even existed if you forget my name?
Jesi Bender is an artist from upstate New York. She is the author of KINDERKRANKENHAUS (Sagging Meniscus 2021) and The Book of the Last Word (Whisk(e)y Tit 2019). Her shorter work can be seen in ellipsis, The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, and Split Lip, among other places. She also helms KERNPUNKT Press, a home for experimental writing. www.jesibender.com.
Photo: Louis Borgner/Unsplash