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Excerpted from Marie Antoinette’s Head<br> By Will Bashor
“To tell the truth, I think your head-dress is too fragile to bear a crown.”
—Emperor Joseph to his sister Marie Antoinette, Versailles, 1777
Captain de Busne, Marie Antoinette’s last bodyguard, took her back to the cell where she awaited the hour of her execution. He had just accompanied her to the revolutionary tribunal where she was tried and convicted, but on this occasion, Captain de Busne was also guilty of unpardonable crimes. He had held his hat in his hand while escorting the fallen queen, he had taken the trouble of fetching a glass of water for her, and finally, he had offered his arm to help her down the dark staircase leading to her fetid prison cell. Later that day, Captain de Busne was denounced by the tribunal and arrested for his criminal behavior.
Even the dark, dungeon-like Conciergerie prison was thought too good for Marie Antoinette. After hearing the revolutionary court pronounce the sentence of death a few minutes past four o’clock in the morning, the widowed queen, now a haggard old woman at thirty-eight, was escorted back to her cell. It was a small, narrow cell with no chimney, where the guards burned juniper to cover up the smell of the primitive sanitation – a far cry from her extravagant chambers at the court of Versailles just four chaotic years earlier.
How things had changed! When the prison maid, Rosalie, arrived at eight o’clock in the morning, only two candles were burning in her dark quarters. Marie Antoinette sighed and put on a white morning gown, draping a muslin handkerchief around her neck. Long forgotten were the magnificent gowns and accessories of her designer Madame Bertin at Versailles, where the queen’s toilette took place every morning in the presence of the court nobles. Afterward, the princess would retire to her sumptuous private apartments. On each side of the bed were two doors, which gave access to a royal suite of private rooms including her library, her bathroom, and a salon where she enjoyed reading her novels.
Now sitting on her prison cell bed, a rotting straw-filled mattress covered with a tattered woolen blanket, Marie Antoinette turned to Rosalie, who had promised to fulfill her last requests, and asked for paper and a pen to write a letter to her sister-in-law Madame Elizabeth, which was never to be delivered:
It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother . . .
Marie signed and handed Rosalie the letter, which was covered with the fallen queen’s tears. Suddenly, the cell door opened with a deafening clank. Marie Antoinette almost fainted at the sight of the red-hooded executioner. She recoiled with horror when he asked her to turn around so he could cut her hair, necessary to ensure that the guillotine’s blade would work properly.
Her hair. It would be the last thing to go. Marie Antoinette’s hair, the talk of all Europe when she held her elaborate court at Versailles, had always been the sole responsibility of the eccentric Léonard Autié, the hairdresser with the “magical comb.” Léonard, often taken for nobility, would enter the queen’s private salon soon after her entourage of ladies-in-waiting dressed her. It was he who fashioned the ever-fantastic edifices of hair, sometimes adding feathers and accessories to create elegant hairstyles up to four feet high. But it could also be said that Léonard was indirectly responsible for the very first attacks upon the queen, found in inflammatory pamphlets circulating as early as 1775.
The attacks were prompted by Léonard’s incredibly fanatical hairstyles, concoctions that reached such a height that it was necessary for ladies to kneel on the carriage floor—or hold the towering hairpieces outside the coach windows en route to balls and the opera.
Noble ladies of the court of Versailles felt obliged to imitate the queen’s new and daring hairstyles, despite the danger of becoming burning infernos when they brushed against the candles of the palace chandeliers. The young ladies of Paris were also enthralled with the newfangled trends, drastically increasing their coiffure expenses and incurring large debts. Mothers and husbands grumbled, family fights ensued, and many relationships were irreparably damaged. In all, the general consensus of the French people was well publicized – the queen was bankrupting all the women of France, financially and morally.
The queens of France were always of foreign birth for political reasons, but Marie Antoinette was a princess from Austria, France’s longtime enemy. Although it was vital for her to appear as French as possible, her fashions and hairstyles increasingly alienated her subjects. Attacks on the queen’s hair were soon followed by damaging accusations ranging from sexual promiscuity to high treason. When incest was added to the list, the revolutionary court was able to finally make its case to condemn the queen to death.
Léonard Autié, her celebrated and loyal hairdresser, was in exile in Germany when the executioner arrived at Marie Antoinette’s prison cell, scissors in hand, on that chilly October morning in 1793. He tied her hands behind her back and, roughly grasping her hair, cut off the iconic locks that Léonard had made so legendary.
At eleven o’clock Marie Antoinette left the Conciergerie – where she had been confined for more than two months – and mounted the cart which was to carry her to the guillotine, passing along the streets of Paris and amidst lines of soldiers. According to witnesses, her face was pale and her eyes were bloodshot. She was nearly unrecognizable. Her once beautiful and envied coif, whitened by fear and grief, had been cut short around her cap.
Minutes later, the executioner would exhibit the severed queen’s head to the crazed crowds at the foot of the scaffold. Nothing but the continuous roar of “Vive la nation!” could be heard as he held it up, victoriously, by her hair.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Bashor lives in downtown Columbus and teaches at Franklin University. His interests have ranged over many fields, among them the study of international law and business, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and European history. His biography, Marie Antoinette’s Head, was a New York Post “Must-Read” book this year, and it won the Adele Mellen Prize for Distinguished Scholarship, as well as the Kirkus Star for exceptional merit. Will is a member of the Society for French Historical Studies.
By Celina Nader
Today, I cried about my country for the first time since its bloody war has been staining the U.S. media. I am Syrian, born and raised and proud, but the Syria in my mind’s eye looks different than the Syria on your television and computer screens.
My Syria is my grandfather’s garden, olive trees flourishing and alley cats lapping up melted ice cream from the bowl that my grandmother hands me. My Syria is the shawarma shop on the floor below our apartment and my Dad’s medical clinic on the floor above. My Syria is the monumental Easter parade, with little children in white satin clutching personalized candles, riding on fathers’ shoulders and waving the light towards the heavens, a sight that the risen God Himself surely marveled at. My Syria is a field of wildflowers, orange trees, and my cousin Mimi who lives there. My Syria is my uncles and aunts, their wives and husbands, my uncle Lian and his fiancé, my beautiful cousins whom I have never met, my friends from kindergarten, the people whom I love. In my heart and my mind and my soul, Syria is full of ancient beauty and joyous celebrations and most of all, immeasurable love.
In the reality of the present, Syria is a scribbled out shape on a map, a pile of rubble and bodies, an argument between differing arrogant perspectives that has eaten up any semblance of peace. Right now, Syria is war. Right now, the Syria I know and remember and love is a little fantasy playing out in the corners of my dumb little brain, mocking me. My Syria is now nonexistent.
Today, I cried about my country for the first time because I turned on the radio in my car and heard a report being recorded live from Lebanon about children who have run away from Syria to Lebanon, who now have to work to pay for food, and can no longer attend school. They were interviewed, and before the translator interpreted their words, I understood their Arabic. Their language is my own, their land is my land, their history mine as well. I could have been one of them. My cousins could be amongst them. They are valuable, precious, impressionable children, and I heard them say in their little voices, “It is better here because there are no bombs.”
To be six years old and forced to think about bombs is an atrocity.
I am crying for the lost innocence of my people, for the lack of peace of my homeland. I am crying for the children who will never hear their parents’ voices again, for the parents who will never again see their children. I am crying for the priest who once stood in our home, who was tortured to death. I am crying for soil that has been soaking up more blood than water.
I am wondering whether the olive trees in my late grandfather’s old garden still stand. How ironic for them, sprouting symbols of peace, to be alive in a land that is dead in hostility more bitter than uncured olives.
Celina Nader was born 18 years ago in a small town in Damascus, Syria and now resides in fabulous Columbus, Ohio. Between then and now, she has had a great many adventures. A self-proclaimed foodie, she enjoys stuffing her face with the best food available, whether cooked in her miniscule kitchen or ordered at a fine dining restaurant. She hopes to become a food writer one day. When she’s not eating, studying, or working at a magical place called Winans, she can be found doing yoga in between library aisles, belting out show-tunes at every stoplight (with the windows down so the entire city of Columbus can hear an off-pitch version of Seventy Six Trombones), or writing creative non-fiction essays for fun.
Ethiopian Love Song
By Jennifer Hambrick
“Placing a bite of food in your dining companion’s mouth is considered a sign of affection.”
– menu at an Ethiopian restaurant
From a four-top along the wall
I have a perfect view
of the couple who tiptoe in
and who now sit
across from each other
she huddled forward
over the short straw table
he reclining into his chair.
They curl injera around
spiced lentils and lamb
and she watches the shadows
that flicker from the rippling strength
of his jaw muscles.
She reaches a bite of food
across the table and
when he looks up
slips it between his slackened lips.
Her hand floats down to her lap
and she stares as he prepares
And even though the menu says
that people who eat from the same plate
never betray each other
even I feel a surge of despair
as he places the next bite of food
on his tongue.
Jennifer Hambrick’s first chapbook of poems, Unscathed, was recently published by NightBallet Press. Jennifer’s poetry has also been published inPudding Magazine, WestWard Quarterly, A Narrow Fellow, among many others. She won the Ohio Poetry Association’s 2013 Ides of March contest, was a prizewinner in The Poetry Forum’s 2011 William Redding Memorial Poetry Contest, and received multiple recognitions in the 2011 Ohio Poetry Day contests. She enjoys a lively schedule of featured poetry readings around central Ohio. By day, Jennifer Hambrick is a classical musician and public radio broadcaster, producer, and blogger.