Women are every where in this deplorable state; for, in order to preserve their innocence, as ignorance is courteously termed, truth is hidden from them, and they are made to assume an artificial character before their faculties have acquired any strength. Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison.
— Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
All women dream of rescuing Napoleon. For less ambitious girls, it is only a passing fancy. They imagine sailing across the Atlantic on a stolen ship, their hair flowing behind them like a flag. Napoleon will watch from a window in his tower as they stride upon the beach, swords drawn, thrusting and parrying their way through dozens of red-coated British soldiers and evading the horses’ hooves, the dogs’ teeth. There will be traps too, they think: quick sand and spring guns which only the cleverest of girls could survive. The stones of Napoleon’s tower will be impossibly slick, but they will have small hands and quick fingers. They will not look down, but up and up, towards Napoleon, towards the sun. When they reach him, Napoleon will see and appreciate them for who they truly are: brave, resourceful, and worthy of his heart and conquest. They picture him overcome: raising his hand to his forehead, a perfect pirouette on the ball of his bare right foot, and swooning into their eager outstretched arms.
For Lauren Riley, rescuing Napoleon is a more serious affair, requiring organization, planning, and consistency of vision. Late at night, she whispers to her girlfriend Joanne all the plans she has made that day: the research on vessels, on troop movements, and forays into British intelligence. Lately she is concerned with the spoilage of food and the adequacy of a ship’s menu.
Napoleon is not a fantasy to Lauren. He is not a trifle, a carnival prize, or a mirror for her own earthly desires as some women would see him. Rescuing Napoleon is the thing all women wish for when they are young, and set aside like an old doll or chemistry set. Lauren remembers; Lauren endures. At eleven, she was the youngest winner of the Wollstonecraft Society Scholarship. At twenty-three, she is their youngest secretary.
“The primary problem in reaching the general,” she tells Joanne, “is stealth.” When the enemy already knows you’re coming, the only option is to defeat him anyway.
When Lauren finishes, when all her successes and setbacks have been laid out between them, Joanne strokes Lauren’s hair until they are both sound asleep. Lauren dreams of black boots in deep snow, and Joanne of something else.
Elsewhere, on the sandy shores of St. Helena, Napoleon builds himself a boat. His hands and body are remarkably well preserved due to a steady diet of fish, breadfruit, and arsenic. But his servants are gone. His friends, his generals, and his lieutenants. His wives: Désirée, Joséphine, and Maria Lucia. His horses, too, are dead. Even the boats he builds fall perpetually and irrevocably to rot.
Each morning, Napoleon begins with the frame. He shaves, sands, and nails each wooden board into place: the ribs, the hull, the whitewashed bottom. He has experimented over the years. He has made sailboats and pirogues, skiffs and canoes. He has tried carvel and clinker, the plans flowing over themselves like battalions on the field. He has sewn reeds and melted the buttons of his uniform into fastenings, their bright bodies twisting in the sun.
When he finishes, he moves from bow to stern and starboard to port, inspecting what his hands have wrought. When he is lucky, he knocks the wood with his knuckles and finds it sturdy and strong. When he is not, the wood cracks beneath his fists, softens, and retreats.
Napoleon has learned to seek out these small, tender wounds through sight and smell. When he locates one, he excises it with the cold precision of a barber surgeon before grafting new boatflesh with whatever he has handy: wood, bark, woven grass, or even the discarded rind of an old breadfruit. Yet even by building up what is worn away, he fails. His boat becomes a patchwork, then a braid: an accumulation of matchsticks bound only by his desire. When that too collapses, he finds a new tree to fell and begins anew. Such is the way of revolution.
Some women wish to rescue Napoleon because he is there, and they are capable. Others because of the challenge. Others because they believe that the only man who will ever understand them is a man who would invade Russia in winter.
Joanne does not wish to rescue Napoleon. She finds him hopelessly outdated. Like many things in their relationship, Lauren believes Joanne is merely going through a phase. She doesn’t like peanut butter this month either.
This makes it difficult for Lauren to talk about her day at work. Even if she does not mention his name, even if she speaks only of logistics and planning, Joanne’s brow tightens as if she is thinking, and then withholding a particularly rude remark. It is a challenge to Lauren, one that she relishes. How seemingly innocuous can she make her day: the chairs and tables she has arranged, then rearranged. Set up, tear down, audio mechanics and microphone feedback. Passive versus active acoustics in the lecture halls. How close can she get to the fight without engaging: the crush of velvet, static charge, the quiet valley of tile.
Lauren met Joanne their first year of college, at a reenactment of the Siege of Toulon along the coast of Mississippi. They sat in the back of Lauren’s mother’s Buick station wagon and drank warm beer and sang French songs into the salty air, while all around them a hundred girls on horseback raced between the trees, their wooden swords and muskets thwacking against the branches.
Neither Joanne nor Lauren had horses. They hadn’t thought to bring any.
“Should we leave?” Lauren asked.
“We drove all this way.”
“I bet they’re all playing on the French side.”
“Of course, that’s the fun of it.”
“But it’s not accurate,” Lauren said.
“Oh, love,” Joanne said. “There’s more to life than that.”
No one had ever called Lauren love before. Not even her mother.
On their third date, Joanne showed Lauren the tiny Napoleon automaton she had built out of an old Madame Alexander doll for the school’s science fair. Her Napoleon could raise his hand and lift his hat. His head turned, his eyes blinked. He walked up and down the kitchen table as if inspecting his troops. He was supposed to have a sword to rattle, but the school had threatened to disqualify her.
“Sometimes I can get him to talk,” Joanne said. “I can show you, if you like.”
For Christmas, Lauren found a rocking horse which she stripped and painted into a perfect replica of Marengo, down to the golden highlights in his mane. “A kingdom, a kingdom, a horse for my kingdom,” Napoleon said.
They debated whether Marengo had been a real horse at all, or simply a nickname for another in the stable: one with a typically horsey name like Buttons or Boots or Sassafrass. Joséphine’s real name had been Rose before Napoleon changed it; there was something seductive in a nickname, and something possessive.
“What nickname would you give me?” Joanne asked.
“Joséphine,” Lauren said, but the look on Joanne’s face told her it was the wrong answer. “Or Joey, perhaps. JJ. June-bug.”
“I like Bug.”
Then Lauren made the face.
“Bugs have a purpose. They’re useful.”
Napoleon passed messages between them: “Home late; lab work,” or “Read an article on the new Insectarium and thought of you. Tickets for Saturday,” or “Courage, comrades!” But over the years his wiring deteriorated and Joanne was less and less interested in his upkeep. Lauren kept going: “Victory belongs to the most persevering.”
Joanne’s study of robotics shifted to applications within biomechanical engineering and she began applying to graduate schools. She wanted to make bees: bees to pollinate crops and save the wildflowers. She also wanted to make bees to chase children in parks, and buzz your ears and swarm the wooden lattices in old Southern homes. She was interested in other insects too, to bring back what was lost and make way for others. Each night she brought home more books and articles, and tiny whirring bodies to dissect on the kitchen table.
One night Lauren came home to find Joanne’s arm covered in ropes of red welts. Napoleon looked on from the mantle. “Quack quack, I’m a duck.” Joanne had heard of a parrot that said that in the Bahamas and thought it was hilarious. Sometimes when Lauren hadn’t wound him properly he would only say duck. Duck duck duck.
“What happened?” Lauren asked.
“I haven’t gotten the sting quite right yet,” she said.
“Why program them to sting at all?”
“You have to mix the bad in with the good. Otherwise you’ll get complacent. Plus, it’s more accurate,” Joanne said, and winked at her.
“Goose!” Napoleon said.
Lauren switched majors repeatedly and as a consequence picked up minors in French, musical theory, and mathematics. She told Joanne she believed in the humanist approach to education, and her real passion was the Wollstonecraft Society anyway. She organized, wrote pamphlets, and researched methods and technologies which could later be turned to the cause. She particularly loved Joanne’s bees.
“Imagine a swarm of them over the ocean, a cavalcade of women held aloft by a million buzzing wings,” Lauren said.
Joanne bent her head over graduate school essays and copies of transcripts. So far she’d been accepted to her top two choices, both in other states. “I imagine they’d fall and drown,” she said.
“Can’t you be a little more supportive?”
Napoleon’s success in battle was predicated largely on his capacity for understanding logistics: how fast an army could move across mountains, how many supply trains, how many cooks and horses and tends. Lauren does not have his skill, but her goal is only one man in the middle of one ocean, not the world.
But she doesn’t have his army either. When she comes home from a meeting, she complains about how the other women no longer seem to care. They sit and debate and drink their drinks. Only the newer members volunteer for committees, or to write letters to Parliament. Joanne’s brow tightens, but she says nothing. Lauren pushes on.
“And then, worst of all, is how we end every meeting: with the question of whether or not we wish to restore Napoleon to the head of the French government,” Lauren says.
Napoleon and Marengo look down on them. Napoleon raises his hand to pet his horse, drops it. It’s all he does anymore.
Lauren waits for Joanne to ask: what did they say? How did it go?
Instead, Joanne dissects her wasp, stretches out her arm, and lets it sting her. Over and over until her arm is covered in small red bumps. They won’t itch or get infected, Joanne has said. They’re mostly harmless; they’re mostly a warning.
Just when Lauren thinks she’s had it, Joanne looks up. “And?” she says.
“We deferred it to the next meeting.”
“That’s what you always do.”
“Well,” Lauren says. “You know how some women can be.”
Joanne stands and stretches her arms above her head. Already the bumps are receding. Not dangerous at all.
Napoleon fears the day when there will be no more trees and he will be forced to carve his boat out of the bodies of dead sea creatures which wash upon the shore. And when those too have disappeared, he will turn to the sand, press it into cubes and mortar it with his spit and blood.
When he is not building, Napoleon tends to the small garden adjoining his house. He plants flowers and rows of hardy vegetables. His pots overflow with thyme, basil, savory, and fennel.
In the evening, he sweeps the rooms until the floors gleam like the shiny steel of his old sabre. Once a week he washes the windows. He thinks how his wives would be so proud of him. He wonders if he wrote them, would they write back?
Occasionally a piece of furniture arrives on the island, dropped with other supplies: salt, the London Times, and plastic-wrapped undergarments. He catalogs these things in his daily ledger, next to the list of tides. He dismantles the furniture, sets the pieces into neat piles to be carried to the beach the next day. “This armoire will make an excellent transom,” he says, and already begins to mourn the mushed pulp it will soon become.
Sometimes he thinks he sees others on the island with him: shadows against the sand, which disappear the moment he turns around to speak to them. He thinks he hears the sound of hammers in the distance, boats bellowing to each other in the fog, and a whirring overhead he cannot identify.
“But if my people knew that I was here, they would come for me,” he says. “They would come and take me home.”
As secretary of the Wollstonecraft Society, Lauren handles all correspondence. Mostly she gets letters from chapters around the country reporting on their recruiting efforts and meeting minutes. She also gets letters from young girls who wish to invite Napoleon to their birthday parties. Most stop asking around age eight or nine, but Mary Plaisance is fourteen and has been asking every year since she was five. Lauren sent her a pamphlet on the society’s annual essay contest. “Winners receive a free trip to the Girod House in New Orleans to attend the yearly conference where ideas are shared.”
Mary wrote back. “No thank you. I really just want him to come to my party. Isabelle says he’s not real and I want to prove her wrong. Isabelle thinks she’s right about everything and it’s annoying. Could you come to my party and tell her she’s wrong?”
Lauren brings the letter home to show Joanne; she hopes it’ll make her laugh. Maybe Joanne and Lauren could both go to the party. There they would reminisce about the Siege of Toulon and everything would settle between them. Joanne could choose to put off graduate school, stay and work another year. Or maybe long distance could work after all: they could send Napoleon back and forth between them, short messages and long letters full of love, advice, and longing.
“I know it’s not saving the environment or anything, but this girl has been really persistent. Two letters a year since she was five years old. One letter is always nine months early because she ‘appreciates the time it must take to send letters overseas and receive a proper RSVP.’ The second comes a few months later asking if the first letter went astray.”
Joanne takes the letter and smiles. “I used to write things like these,” she says. “Never a birthday party though. I wanted him to come judge the science fair, or be my guest, or my subject of study. I changed it every year trying to figure out the trick of it, the thing to make him respond to me.”
Joanne gestures to Lauren’s framed winner’s certificate from the Wollstonecraft Society, and their motto curling around the edges: The mind shapes itself to the body and, roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison. At age eleven, Lauren read those words and marveled at how those first women must have felt: the urgency and the driving fear. Napoleon was out there, lost and afraid. He was losing his mind that this was all there was, all there ever would be. They would rescue him. And after they learned that he had died, they vowed to rescue him still.
Love, she thinks. Those women loved Napoleon because to do otherwise meant abandonment. And as they failed year after year, the desire grew, and passed on to the next generation: an itch both subcutaneous and insatiable.
Lauren feels the pressure building in her chest. She is tired of deferring the same old questions over and over again. She feels them recoiling inward, softening, beginning to rot. She pictures Joanne laying her out on the kitchen table, slicing between her ribs to pull out springs and bits of wire. Here, she’ll say, we’ll just take out these pieces here. You won’t even miss them.
Instead, Joanne reaches out and strokes Lauren’s hair. “Someone sent me a pamphlet. I read those words and realized that if I really wanted Napoleon to come to my science fair, I was going to have to build one of my own.”
Some mornings when Napoleon walks out onto the beach, he imagines that women across the sea dream of rescuing him. Of scaling long ropes made of debutante dresses: their fingers tangling in taffeta and tulle as Napoleon cheers, gazing up with such love and devotion that finally these women will know what it is to feel whole.
Today he finds a wooden crate washed upon the shore, his name and address written upon the face in a neat feminine script. He opens it and finds a tiny version of himself and his old horse Marengo tucked in sawdust inside. As he reaches down, he gasps as his own tiny doll hand reaches back up to him. “Hark, I am rescued!” it says.