The Burial of Emilie Neumann Muse
They lowered Emilie into the earth with ninety-seven hours worth of water and a depthless chill. The coffin was walled in glass so she could see the shovels spill their dirt, burying her with just a slender pipe run up to the surface for air. She could hear the brass band playing, the couples dancing, people dead on their feet into the second day of the marathon. It was 1932, late fall; already she had swum Hell Gate, wrestled alligators, parachuted onto targets at carnivals and fairs where ever they’d have her. When Jim suggested this, she agreed, as she had with almost everything — another stunt to put her face in the papers and prove that those years of possibilities were not yet over, that anything could happen. But still, as the darkness and the smell of dirt closed around her, bound within her box, the air becoming terror-hot, what thoughts whispered themselves to her? English, German, bass drum, hard-heeled shoes, the Reading trains, the traffic—black hearts beating through the earth to mask from her her absence from the world that might, at any moment, forget she lived and leave her there in that nothing grip, near panic, singing to herself so that what sounds she heard she could hear clearly. Hours passed, unknowable but borne, and still the blare of a distant trumpet, singing her to sleep, singing her awake. Four days and an hour interred before she heard the shovels speak the words of resurrection. As they lifted her windowed coffin, dancers, band, spectators applauded. There she was—girl Emilie, hunger-weak, light-blinded, still alive and strong enough to step out of her grave and wave to them, twenty-eight years old, gone impossibly far and then come back. She told them all it hadn’t been as bad as they’d imagined, though nobody believed her. She let herself be buried several times, for smaller crowds and shorter stretches, until, after a few more years of stunts and shows, she married a man named Muse and loved him, left the daredevil life to raise her children, to whom she didn’t say a word about the risks she took, the feats performed, the several deaths she could have died. Like any worried mother, she feared that they would follow into danger, giving themselves to chance. It wasn’t until they had grown and settled in their safer lives that they heard the stories of their mother’s youth: flying with Alligator Jim, swimming around Manhattan, being buried alive. American Persephone, the girl who went into the ground, alone and lovely, and rose again, alone and beautiful, over and over. Even through those years of bearing children, keeping bees, cleaning the old Long Island home, she kept a bit of that blackness in her body, boxed inside her aging heart, both memory and promise. And when, at ninety-eight, after all those quiet decades—neither dull nor wild; contented, mostly—she faced again that depth, lowering herself, she saw a girl rising up to meet her, slim and pretty in a cotton dress, singing beneath her breath.