Thursday, April 17, 2008

Telling A Story in 28 Lines

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was amazed when I first heard of flash fiction: super-short stories that do the job in 1500 words, 1000, or even 500. How can that possibly be done? I marveled. And when I began to read some flash mysteries, I was impressed at how some writers manage to condense a story arc, breathe life into their characters, even surprise us with an unexpected twist within that very short framework.

But why should I be surprised? Before embarking on the quest for publication of my first mystery novel—and the writing of several more 70,000-word manuscripts along the way—I was a poet for thirty years. Poets routinely tell stories in far less than 500 words. My most recent one, appearing this month in the Jewish-themed journal Poetica, takes 167 words—168 including the title—just 28 lines.

My poem is called “Miriam,” and it’s a midrash. Based on an ancient Hebrew word, a midrash is an interpretation or exegesis of a Bible verse or, by extension, any myth or archetype. Not being a Biblical scholar, I first heard the word in connection with feminist retellings of traditional stories. For a while there, among Jewish women poets, everybody had an Eve poem, a Sarah poem, a Lilith poem. Feminist poets reimagined Persephone, Mary Magdalene, Grendel’s mother. Nor must we limit the concept to women’s writing. We might argue that each of the tales in James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is a midrash. Come to think of it, most of his subjects are women: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood. Being a feminist myself, I’d say that’s because women’s stories have been in most radical need of reinterpretation.

But back to my “Miriam” poem. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was with them when the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. It’s a great story: Moses pointed his staff at the Red Sea, the waters parted so the Jews could cross and then came together again so that Pharaoh and his troops, pursuing, drowned. And what did Miriam do? According to the Old Testament, “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” (Exodus 15:20) Or, in modern speech, Miriam led the women in singing and dancing. That’s all it says.

At this time of year, Jews all over the world celebrate Passover to commemorate the Exodus. At the ritual meal, the Seder, we read the Haggadah, which is not exactly a telling of the story, more like bits of the story and the notes of a lot of rabbis arguing over the exact interpretation of every word and phrase in the story. In my family, the children used to be bored to death before we got to eat. Nowadays, many less traditional families create their own Seder rituals, their own versions of the Haggadah. In our house, we use parts of something called the Egalitarian Haggadah, which explains that the Jews took with them Egyptian goods that they considered four hundred years’ worth of back wages. It also includes a prayer for vegetarians to substitute for the part about animal sacrifice.

One feature of the traditional Seder is Elijah’s Cup. We fill a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah and open the door to our home, not only so that Elijah can come in and bless those gathered to feast but as a sign that we welcome the stranger in our midst. Many feminist households have added Miriam’s Cup. I liked that idea and hunted through the flea markets till I found the perfect Miriam’s Cup: a delicately etched wine glass flushed with pink and rimmed with gold. And that got me thinking about Miriam.

Because I’m a story teller, I thought: what’s the story? Here they are, at the edge of the desert where they’ll spend the next forty years wandering (though they don’t know that yet). They’ve just fled their homes in such a hurry they didn’t even have time to bake bread (hence matzoh). They’ve miraculously crossed a great sea without getting their feet wet. They’ve had soldiers and chariots after them. Now their enemies are dead. That’s great news. But dancing? Singing and dancing? Under what circumstances could that possibly have happened?

Here’s my story, in poem form:


the men sit perched on rocks
their faces grimed
furrowed with runnels of sweat
their sandals crusted in Red Sea salt
stunned by their change of fortune
the power in Moses’ staff
the thunder of the sea overrunning Pharoah
the scream of terrified horses
the crack of chariots breaking up
the wall of water at their heels
they stare outward into the desert
will not meet one another’s eyes

Miriam moves among the women
offering one the water skin
another a cloth to wipe her dusty feet
a quiet word here
there a hand pressed gently on a shoulder
crouched where they dropped when Moses called a halt
they have instinctively formed a circle

Miriam completes her round
pours the last few drops of water
on a corner of her shawl
passes it across her face
shaking off weariness like a scratchy cloak
she gathers them with her eyes
her slow smile blossoms
“Ladies,” she says, “we’re free!”
“Who wants to dance?”

If you want to read it at your Seder, please do!


Kim Smith said...

thank you so much for sharing this! I feel like I have learned something new today :)

hope your book signing was the bomb!

Julia Buckley said...

That was lovely, Liz, as well as entertaining. Thanks! Miriam is a hero.


Lillian Porter said...

Dear Elizabeth,

I was very moved by your poem. Thank you