The turtle who looked at Napoleon
Exiled to Saint Helena
in the South Atlantic, in 1815 Napoleon turned
to gardening, turning the soil with the
simple implements at hand, spacing the tiny seeds
in straight long rows with military precision.
Napoleon's jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe found
himself as bothered by rows of the Corsican Guard disguised
as radishes, ranked across the earth outside
his office window, as by Napoleon's contentment.
In a singular act of creative malevolence,
Lowe sent off to the Galapagos
for two giant land turtles.
The frigate bearing them arrived,
Lowe named the turtles Jonathan and Josephine
and set them loose in the garden of Napoleon.
Bulldozers by nature,
the giant tortoises nosed up and
swallowed down the radishes, tomatoes,
turnips, carrots and onions, smearing
Napoleon's careful rows into the dust.
Over morning coffee, through office window bars
Sir Hudson sat smiling at Napoleon's eaten and
uprooted, flattened garden.
One day as he watched, Napoleon himself
rounded the corner, moving slowly, contemplating the sea.
Dressed in gardener's tunic, head towel-draped
against the heat of the South Atlantic sun,
Napoleon bumped along, crouched on the back of
Jonathan, eyes straining past the breakers, as if
to spot Nelson's flagship.
Lowe watched, somewhat dismayed
as Napoleon surveyed
the sea from his rolling helm,
squinting into the noon sun for the
mirage of his emancipation.
But Napoleon died in 1821, his power drained,
unable to adapt to turtle life:
powerless to attain contentment
in slow uncoverings, green vegetation
and long waiting.
Wild goats pulled up the grass of the Galapagos,
and the big land turtles suffered starvation, their
ancient ranks further thinned by sailors
who found them excellent for soup and shell.
But fine grass grew on the grave of Napoleon, and
on the grave of Jonathan's mate, who died soon after
of some turtle disease.
A turtle grieves long,
but Saint Helena offers
food and good weather,
and Jonathan remains there today, lifting his old head
among the flies, "Bonaparte," still barely legible,
carved low near the rim of his giant shell.
Jonathan opens a red-rimmed, baleful eye
to the morning,
an eye that gazed upon Napoleon,
the eye of a turtle of destiny, who thought
no more of the little man long ago riding
than he thinks of today's flies.
But Jonathan still
considers the radishes, as they
arrive each day at sunset,
compliments of the British government,
a longtime legacy of Sir Hudson Lowe,
and Jonathan is often content.
In 1840 Napoleon's remains
were shipped to Paris; In the compound in Saint Helena
little of Napoleon but his death mask now remains.
Not even a tree grows there still, that gave Napoleon shade.
But Jonathan moves slowly on
across the volcanic surface,
through what once was a garden, resolute,
his three-chambered heart slowly beating,
eye upon a nearby clump of grass, as green
and new as once upon Galapagos.