Two Vacation Notes / 1 April 2002

  1. Yesterday I spent six hours playing Uno with A in a McDonald’s in Puerto Rico.

  2. In Martinique there stands a statue of Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, a native of Trois Ilets, who went on to become Empress Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon. She is long and white. She sported dark brown ringlets, her hair parted down the middle. A smile that only curved up on the right (her left). Trimmer than was standard in those days. A ruddy complexion that betrayed her colonial origins. Teeth black with rot thanks to a childhood of sugarcane. And a long, sloping neck, slouching forward, out and away from her body.

The general consensus is that life continues for thirteen seconds after decapitation. This varies from person to person, naturally, but thirteen seconds is a solid average when calculating how long cytochromes in the brain can keep going without oxygen and glucose. This means the eyes on a severed head could blink, the mouth could open or shut, the cheeks could flush. This means a severed head could still be conscious as it tumbles to the ground or into a basket or is held aloft by the hair and shown to a general-admission crowd.

Slavery, which had existed in Martinique since the days of Louis XIII, was abolished during the French Revolution. It was reinstated eight years later in 1802 by Napoleon due to the lobbying of his newly crowned empress. That’s the theory, anyway.

(Josephine had been imprisoned during the Revolution and on the inside she happened to run into her estranged first husband, father of her two children, the Alexandre de Beauharnais. The circumstances of this reunion, the chains and rough stone walls and bloodied hands, fed into his peculiar fetish for sexual cruelty [the word sadism would not make it into a dictionary until 1834] and the provincial awkwardness, the gestures and speech of his wife that belonged on an American plantation and not in the most elite circles of Parisian society, suddenly seemed so right there behind bars. But just as they began the local kiss he was pulled away, the strand of saliva stretching and snapping, and he was led to the guillotine.)

Ten years ago, an unknown party or parties cut the head from the statue of Josephine there in La Savane. Red paint pours from the marble stump of her neck and down along the folds of her gown, past the silhouette of Napoleon in her left hand. RÈSPÉ BA MATINIK is spraypainted across the engraved dedication at the base of the statue. The head hasn’t turned up yet. It is kept wrapped in a thin orange cloth and changes hands every six months or so. The jury is still out on whether it’s good or bad luck to be the head keeper. Every night someone will invariably peel away the cloth to look at the dead white eyes, just for a second.

Joshua Green Allen

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