No one knows exactly what happened, but we do know
that early in the Napoleonic wars your friends
killed you, Andy.
I’m sure that everyone talked all at once when you first disappeared.
And then again when you were brought back in shackles.
It’s a sure bet that you were surrounded by laughter
and merciless sniggering
as they cleaved off each of your hands,
then chopped through your right and left legs.
I wonder whether your superior officers left them on the ground,
thereby forcing you to watch yourself rot? Or, did they exhibit
those irreplaceable chunks of you like grand, holy relics,
or like the bold and noble William Wallace?
Did they ship those butchered pieces of you from garrison
to garrison as a lesson
spelled out too bluntly for anyone to ignore?
It isn’t clear, Andy, if you were
gibbeted alive, or gibbeted dead.
Nor was it recorded exactly why. Extant records
do not say that you were found guilty of desertion, but only
that you were accused of it. Who knows what that means?
Were you always planning to leave at the first opportunity?
Or, were you traumatized so deeply that something in your mind
fractured, causing you to run away in sheer terror?
Or, were you in some little Mediterranean cottage
sharing intimate moments
with one of the captains’ wives, or a local Sicilian’s daughter?
Nothing is said about you having been given a fair trial
with solid evidence presented against you. Nothing is said
about the possibility that you were falsely accused
of the worst crime, short of treason,
that a soldier could commit.
You were Irish.
We all know that often wasn’t a lucky thing
to be back in those days.
Whatever happened, you were buried still locked in that iron cage.
You stayed that way until a new set of prisoners dug you up
and, based on the strength of a few buttons,
a new set of officers
christened you Andrew and put you on display again,
using the sight of you for their own, you know,
But then something changed.
Your fate was announced to moneyed
tourists strolling by. Tourists who thought being seen next to you
was fun, and somehow made them important.
They took photos of themselves with you
and shared those images on technology that zips around
the circumference of the world in less than a second.
The British soldier Andrew Leonard.
Did you have a small, energic son who raced
every morning to the nearest, tallest hill,
then shaded his eyes with his hands to search
for the dust kicked up by your battalion marching home?
Did that young boy have an older sister
with air that tangled too easily, and lips that thinned
into a stern, narrow line whenever she was sent
to call him home to dinner? A dinner cooked with love
from the woman you married. The woman
who slept alone every night afterwards, never knowing
that you were never set free, even in death.
Certainly, there was at least a mother, sitting
by the front door of her worn-out cottage,
she’d be knitting perhaps, or sewing, or more than likely
staring silently at the sun going down.
Experts in Inniskillings possess a document
indicating that you lived out the rest of your life in Australia,
that, before rediscovering your desertion, the military considered
awarding you medals for fighting in three campaigns:
Salamanca, Vittoria, and the Pyrenees.
All of which took place well after 1806, the year
you were trapped inside that cage.
The 3rd Battalion of the 27th Foot was never in Maida.
It’s nearly impossible for you to have been tortured there.
Yet even so, you’re the one who is famous now, Andy.
It’s true, that some people still smirk, still jeer, while others
sport their jaunty Santa hats for their selfies with your most.
Most of us, however,
loudly point out the enormous disgrace
that over two centuries of harsh punishment has brought
to the country which first put you in the Cage of Milazzo,
and to the country that keeps you there.
By Vera S. Scott
Based on the true story of human remains displayed in the Museum of Criminology in Rome, Italy.