Questions of LegitimacyOona Holahan

After Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel”

When they opened up the tomb of Childeric,
Son of Clovis,
Merovingian monarch,
we know they found the usual things.
The things you might expect:
a signet ring, wealth beyond compare,
cold bones, and a skull with 10 long blonde hairs.
But in Childeric’s quiet hand,
a plush purple purse
had braved the thousand year rot.

When they opened the tomb of Childeric
First Merovingian monarch,
Son of Basina,
his dead hand dropped that purple purse,
and out fell hundreds of small golden bees—
cloissoné red glass wings affixed to
tiny bodies.

Now, we know Napoleon was never a beekeeper.
But when he moved into his big new house
down the street, he didn’t like the purple,
but he liked the bees.

Each night when Napoleon went to sleep
the bees sang to him,
crawled along the soft fur of his jaw,
they nestled in, humming the way to sleep.
In the morning the room was silent.
The bees left only their tears,
sweet clear nectar, on the tips of Napoleon’s fingers.
They returned, cold,
to the purple purse on his nightstand.

What right did Napoleon have?
To flip the fleur de lis—
Dirty graverobber—
To hold every single one
of Childelric’s bees in one hand.

Napoleon took all of a dead man’s bees.
I would only ask for one.
To cradle, sleeping, in the palm of my left hand.

They’re now saying Napoleon wasn’t as short
as they told us in school. They say his complex
was the casualty of the French inch and
a hasty autopsy. He took bees not because he
was small, but because his government was
illegitimate and he knew it.
I know I’ll miss the short Napoleon. This
tall and thin lipped man is too familiar, too cosmic.
I liked it when legitimacy was a thing of bees.

I will never have read or seen enough.
I will never remember the precise year
of Childeric’s death or really what Napoleon did at all.
But I do know that I would like a bee to sing me to sleep,
to cry over my fluttering eyelids,
to assure me that I am part of something
that vibrates
and that perhaps my words might
brave the thousand year rot.