Four Cows Being Milked By Mimes In A Submarine While A Naked Woman Sings The Battle Hymn Of The Republic

Submitted into Contest #58 in response to: Write a story where the power goes out on a spaceship or submarine.... view prompt

16 comments

Funny Drama Historical Fiction

"The Emerson Affair is the term generally used to refer to an incident that occurred on July 7 of 2001 in which 32 people lost their life while taking part in an art exhibit inside a submarine which was submerged in the San Francisco Bay. The name comes from the artist who had created the exhibit, Tyla Emerson, who was also killed in the accident."


Thus begins the Wikipedia article that talks about the day my mom died. It's so cold and precise that it gives me chills every time that I read it. I hate that this is her legacy. When you type her name into any search engine, this is the first thing that comes up, and therefore the only way most people know of her. As much as I hate it, I know she would hate it a million times worse.


I wasn't there, so I cannot tell the story differently. I can only talk about the things I have been told by friends, family and her artist peers. And before I get any further into it, I want to acknowledge right up front that, in hindsight, it was a very bad idea. It was not without its merits. Certainly nothing like it had ever been done before. It was completely original, no matter how absurd it was. And it must have seemed like a good idea to others, since the patrons who were on board had paid thousands of dollars to take part in it. Yet from a practical perspective, the inherent danger of the situation should have been more clear at the time. Somebody should have stepped in and explained why it was a bad idea, and maybe they even did, but who can say if my mother would have even listened.


Mom was like that, at least when it came to her art. Completely stubborn. She always found a way to get what she wanted, and she had gotten away with enough risky endeavors prior to this that her confidence got blinded from the odds. If it hadn't happened, something else probably would have. That is the path she was on, seek and destroy any boundary she came across, even if she had to build it herself. But this is what everybody already knows about her. Nobody knows how she was as a mother or a person outside of her beloved art, nor how she got to be the way she was as an artist. Those things are complex, and people tend to reduce things to something easier to understand. And to judge.


"The exhibit was comprised of four dairy cows on a submarine, which were being milked by mimes, while Tyla stood nude in the center singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic repeatedly. They were joined in the submarines main hull by four animal handlers, and twenty three patrons. The exhibit was only scheduled to last fifteen minutes, but twelve minutes in, a catastrophic failure of the ship's power and back-up power systems set in motion the cataclysmic circumstances that killed everyone on board except the captain and his second mate, who were the only crew aboard the private vessel."


Something nobody ever mentions, which makes the whole spectacle more amazing in my mind, is my mother's singing voice. She had a raspy blues voice, like Janis Joplin. And when she used it, boy did she ever use it. It makes me giggle to imagine that powerful voice echoing that silly song inside that metallic cavern. And mimes milking cows...come on, that is brilliant. The purpose of art is to provide what reality is insufficient at producing otherwise. Where else would anyone ever have experienced that?


"The power outage shut down ventilation systems completely, and within only a few minutes the space had filled with methane from the cow's emissions. Forensics later determined that one of the mimes had attempted to use a lighter, which ignited the explosive vapors. Experts say the fireball probably only lasted less than a second, but the smoke it produced was enough to lethally asphyxiate everyone in the cabin."


While everyone always focuses on how easy it should have been to see this outcome, nobody generally mentions how astronomical the odds are that both power sources would fail simultaneously. It was not impossible, but it was highly improbable. I don't think that justifies it from a safety perspective, but my mom was working from an aesthetic perspective, which she believed was a higher priority. She always said that it was all about the things that make life worth living, not the living itself. And for her, art was that thing.


You might think she is selfish for getting all of those people killed, based on what most people view as skewed priorities, but you probably have no idea how she came to be that way. That is what I want everyone to understand. That is why I am sharing this.


Papa Emerson, my mother's father, was a strict man. He was both a research scientist and devout evangelical Christian, a combination that produced a person who was adamant about precautions and skeptical of any kind of adornments. The only images to ever hang on the walls of his home were hokey, soft-focus oil paintings of Jesus. Anything else would have been idolatry, and a risk to their eternal souls. He was equally as controlling of their physical safety. To his mind the entire world was one giant booby-trap, waiting to ensnare the unprepared, but not on his family on his watch. Nothing unpredictable was allowed to happen while he was in charge, and he was always in charge. My mother's childhood was a nightmare constructed from her father's fanatical paranoia, and it was extremely traumatizing.


This is why art was so important to her. This is why she was abnormally lacking in risk aversion. It is not because she was some careless airhead who didn't care about life, as she has so often been reduced to in the media. Tyla Emerson was a woman who grew up in a cage, and who spent every moment after she escaped making sure nobody ever put her in one again. If you cannot empathize with that, it's probably because you are lucky enough to have never had to deal with anything so constrictive and smothering. That is a measure of your fortune, and not just fodder for your dehumanizing admonishments of artistic entitlement. 


And I feel like creating a situation which illustrates out how easy it is for people to set aside their own compassion and forgiveness to demonize someone for sport, under the ridiculous and vain pretense of 'I care more about life than everyone else,' was truly her final piece of art. Put that in your stupid wiki.

September 11, 2020 00:23

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16 comments

Arrrrahagsysgwuebeuebwusnrirn amazing job! That title is, like, T H E B E S T. Keep writing !

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18:41 Sep 14, 2020

Thank you. :)

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Lily Kingston
20:12 Sep 11, 2020

A m a z i n g title! I love the internal narration and reaction to their mom’s legacy! Keep up the good work and keep writing!!

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00:41 Sep 12, 2020

Thank you very kindly! :)

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Josh C
02:35 Sep 16, 2020

That title is brilliant. But also, the story itself is good. I love the final words too, it brings home the whole narration.

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03:14 Sep 16, 2020

Thank you hella kindly! I am a big believer in this format being a vehicle for a message greater than just the story.

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P. Jean
02:24 Sep 12, 2020

After reading the title, HOW COULD I NOT READ THE STORY? That is the best and biggest hook I’ve ever been snagged by in my memory. The balance of the story took me a bit of re-reading to get into it but certainly your skill and talent shine in this piece!

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03:16 Sep 12, 2020

Very kind, thank you!

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P. Jean
03:24 Sep 12, 2020

Very welcome. Good should be called good.

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Jessica C
15:08 Sep 11, 2020

The story is great, your opening two paragraphs are gripping, but what really makes this whole thing is the fact that "Four Cows Being Milked in a Submarine While a Naked Woman Sings The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has got to be one of the greatest titles in modern literature.

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15:12 Sep 11, 2020

Thank you! I think the thing that has improved most in my Reedsy experiments are titles.

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Kristin Neubauer
17:58 Sep 11, 2020

Fantastic - it was all fantastic, especially the last line which summed it all up beautifully. You made an absurd situation sound so real that I'm actually embarrassed to admit I looked it up just in case. The son's voice was perfect - trying to be matter-of-fact but so laced with hurt and anger. I can't imagine how you could have come up with this, but I think I wonder that about most of your stories. I loved it!

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20:00 Sep 11, 2020

Thank you very kindly! It is interesting that you pictured the narrator as a son, since I never mentioned, intentionally. While everyone else is burying things in labels and descriptions, I am experimenting more in letting some info be totally blank. I am not a flash fiction writer who has failed or not ambitious enough to be a novelist. I love this format. I foresee it gaining more and more literary relevance, and perhaps even market potential. Inspiration....the night before I was watching a documentary on a German heavy metal festival...

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Kristin Neubauer
13:31 Sep 12, 2020

I love the concept of smashing all that together - I understand! I am really curious to see what you do about that "tell a weather story without using weather terms" this week. And it's so funny the narrator was never identified as a son - I didn't even realize that! It's just what my mind immediately jumped to with the first word and my mind filled in everything else. Wild, how the brain works (or doesn't). I like the concept of leaving things blank. I'm not sure I can do it with my own writing, but maybe I will give it a shot at some...

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15:36 Sep 12, 2020

The brain is a second person perspective of a first person experience of consciousness. We get all the credit, not the illusion of hardware. ;) (empowering perspective for creatives)

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Charles Stucker
08:33 Sep 11, 2020

"Thus begins the Wikipedia article that talks about the day my mom died." Change thus to this and move the sentence to before the (faux) wiki article. "but the smoke it produced was enough to kill asphyxiate everyone in the cabin." Get rid of kill- it is redundant with asphyxiate. "but not on his family on his watch" delete the first 'on'- and you might find it worthwhile to repeat 'not' as follows, "but not his family, not on his watch." One technical issue- if the gas achieved sustained combustion mixture, the fireball would pr...

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