She sings the body electric. That’s her joke.
It began as an act of charity––part political act, part publicity stunt––but by the end of 1895, it had become something else entirely. Something profoundly less hers and yet solely hers. (Everyone else was dead, after all.)
In a grandly poetic slaughter of two birds with one stone, her agent had prescribed a gesture of selflessness that would concurrently remind the greater New York Metropolitan audience of her gift. The papers lapped it up like the glamorous, grotesque gimmick it was, and struggled for weeks to transform her name into some variation on “Angel of Death.” In the end, they settled lazily on “the Singer of Sing Sing.”
Now, with the casually majestic gait of a high priestess, Eleanor Echols glides through the prison halls, her delicate heels ratting a tack-tack-tack behind the heavier, more sinister tock-tock-tockof the warden’s boots. At first, the warden is bleakly inhospitable, skeptical. Later, he will become an avid admirer of her work, and still later he will come to fear her.
She is warned, many times, by everyone, of the delicacy of the proceedings. Women faint, she is told. They weep. They wake in the night for the rest of their lives, unable to unsee what they’ve witnessed in this little room at the end of so many cells, bone-white and stark as the sacrum at the end of a spinal cord. She takes in each bloated masculine warning with polite, thin-lipped restraint. Eleanor has a weapon against all such adverse reactions:
She feels nothing.
This quality––this unfashionable, superhuman absence of emotion––makes her the perfect accessory to the present scene: the execution of a prisoner.
The subject of today’s proceedings, a glorified skeleton in sagging cotton, is led in and seated in the chair at center. He is asked to extend his arms, to sit upright, to press his head back. He is cooperative and dead-eyed. He regards his assigned entourage––a chaplain, a set of doctors, the warden, the technician, a handful of bystanders in wool suits––with a grimace that is at once transcendent and lush with hate.
There is an obvious novelty to the presence of a woman, so the inmate nods in Eleanor’s direction. “Who’s she?”
“She’s here to sing thee to thy rest, sweet prince,” the technician replies with equal parts conviviality and disdain. “She’s from the New York Metropolitan Opera. What do you think of that?”
The prisoner scoffs and studies her, cocks a brow. “Do you know ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’?”
“I do not,” Eleanor replies flatly.
The inmate laughs. “Ah, I’m fucking joking,” he says. “Sing whatever you’re going to sing.”
“Do not swear in the presence of a lady,” says the warden.
“Or indeed at all,” says the chaplain.
Eleanor smiles a narrow, unfeeling smile. “Let him swear,” she says. “It’s his fucking execution.”
Eleanor places her small handbag on the floor, since there is no other furniture in the room. The chaplain clutches his leather-bound brick of a Bible and steps back, watching attentively, while the guards and witnesses position themselves in a ring, arms crossed, expectant and amused.
Eleanor stands before the prisoner, straightens her dress.
She opens her mouth and sings:
Non c'è vita
Se non nella memoria
Non c'è amore
Se non nell'elegia
She had assiduously shopped the collections in the opera’s library, rifling through volumes surging with Gounod, Bellini, Caldara, Puccini. At long last, she had arrived at her present aria with the gratified rush of a magician having mastered a sleight-of-hand act. Most opera is about death, as she is fond of saying, but this one seemed especially unimpressed with the state of being alive.
There is no life
But in memory
There is no love
But in elegy
The warden and his men watch with spellbound rigor, cut to the quick.
She is warned, many times, by everyone, of the delicacy of the proceedings. Women faint, she is told. They weep. They wake in the night for the rest of their lives, unable to unsee what they’ve witnessed in this little room at the end of so many cells, bone-white and stark as the sacrum at the end of a spinal cord. She takes in each bloated masculine warning with polite, thin-lipped restraint.
The chaplain watches from the edge of the room with a ripple of envy, knowing that his last rites will have no such effect.
Eleanor glissandos upward to a spectacular climax, a trill that begins in her legs and ends somewhere beyond the top of her head, in the ether. She marvels at the acoustics of this little room, the electric chair at center its gravitational core.
She finishes her song, and all is silent. At last, the warden nods toward one of his men. “Charlie here’ll take you back.”
“I’ll stay,” she says.
What follows is a cavalcade of warnings she’s already heard, a blow-by-blow of the emotional ramifications of the event, a condescending treatise on death, too dire and disturbing for the fragile feminine psyche.
“I’ll stay,” she says again.
The warden hesitates, then squints his good eye and nods curtly toward the technician. The technician shrugs as if to say, “Your funeral,” but Eleanor stays focused on the prisoner. She wonders, fleetingly, if he’d prefer to be hanged.
Eleanor watches as a leather strap is placed over the eyes, another over the mouth. A stiff, sturdy band is wound around the chest, another across the hips. One for each leg. She watches as the shallow metal salad bowl affixed to a spiral of wire is placed over his head, like a crude preparation for a schoolboy’s haircut.
“Sing,” he says suddenly.
The technician stops his adjustments, had clearly suspended thinking of the limbs beneath his grip as belonging to a human being.
“Sing,” the inmate repeats, his chin tilted toward Eleanor beneath the dual straps shielding his eyes and mouth. “And don’t stop till I’m dead.”
Two months later, it’s a woman.
The usual attendees hang near the outskirts of the room, watching like zoo-goers for some semblance of feminine compassion or connection, camaraderie. But the prisoner is here because she’s drowned her children, and Eleanor is here for the press. She watches with curiosity as the prisoner’s stockings are rolled down, the band wound around her waist like she’s a 110-pound doll. The men stand back, decades of holding doors and assisting descents from carriages coiled in their limbs. They regard the prisoner like she’s an animal, as they must if they’re to pull the lever.
No one lectures Eleanor about psychology today.
She sings a Verdi, a bit too jaunty for the occasion, but lovely nonetheless.
She stays (she always stays) to watch the body crackle and jolt, the tautening of the veins beneath the paper-thin flesh of the throat, the scent of mis-cooked meat in the air. She presses her palms backward against the slick grey-white wall behind her, fingers splayed. She feels herself a ghost, leaking into concrete and oak, at once her and not her, some other thing.
Sometimes, after, she’ll stand in Longacre Square, looking up, envisioning everything the place might one day be, electric and thrumming. She still performs at the New York Metropolitan, but finds herself progressively more revulsed with the audience. They are distracted, pallid, and devoid of urgency. She stands on stage, picking out the elderly whose pearls or tie pins stretch against their necks and torsos. She pictures these items as leather bands, squeezing their skin into sections, jarring them into a final, bewildering moment of being alive. She imagines them dying, betrayed by their own lungs, their own hearts, eyes bulging with surprise, ruining everyone else’s night.
Eventually, the papers grow bored with Eleanor’s outings. Public attention reverts to the most original and grisliest of the crimes themselves: the beheadings, the burnings, the dismemberments, the partial torsos drifting down the Hudson atop swollen rafts of intestines and sinew. Eleanor reads of each new exploit, insensate as ever, but her apathy has begun to lap at the edges of something grimmer, more exhilarating.
With each new execution, Eleanor makes the trek north along the river as though drawn by an invisible thread. Today she brings with her a new, improvised aria: Walt Whitman set to the tune of an ancient Cavalli. She watches as the technician straps down the inmate’s limbs with fluid precision.
Eleanor straightens her dress, and begins to sing:
The thin red jellies within you or within me,
the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!
The music swells within her, blistering and pulsing like a current. The guards, the witnesses, the chaplain, the technician, the warden look on in a state of mesmerized stillness.
Then the lever is switched, and the spell is broken.
There are three rooms for condemned female inmates at the prison. Tonight, Eleanor, the Singer of Sing Sing, occupies the third.
They had found the body (or most of it, at least) in her dressing room at the opera house. Rumors had immediately begun to circulate of some wild, rampant envy surging through her veins like a viral infection. A lover’s quarrel, neurotic passion, familial betrayal. But it was none of these things, of course. Only a stranger who had nodded off during the overture, then awoken during the second act and checked his pocket watch within Eleanor’s view.
Eleanor’s heels rap a familiar rhythm along the concrete of the last mile, a treble at odds with the bass of the warden’s boots. She sits in the chair without being asked, in this room where she has been a hundred times. The technician adjusts her bands with discomfited reverence, a lurking melange of respect and fear.
Eleanor does not dread the sensation of the electrical current. She knows that the body will be, in this moment, more alive than it has ever been.
The warden reads the final decision. The chaplain says his benediction. The witnesses watch, and wait.
The technician pulls the lever.
Eleanor feels everything at once.
And she begins to sing.
A. J. Bermudez is a writer and director based in Los Angeles, California. Her work has been featured in The Masters Review, Black Static, Hobart, Exposition Review, and more. She is a former boxer and EMT, winner of the Diverse Voices Award, and co-host of the podcast Two-Person Book Club, to which everyone should immediately subscribe.