Write On!

They Were Learning To Make Fire

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm

by Jen Gregory

The cries were not shouts so much as grief soaked wailing. They were not cries mourning for one dead child, but bereaved groans because goodness and hope had washed down the river, down their cheeks and vanished, leaving tight crinkled saltwater trails that made smiling hurt. With every child lost was another child watching, listening, leftover. Miriam was one of those children. Her hair sprung like an unearthed fountain from the top of her head, cascading and twisting, framing her dark face with a halo of black fuzz. She was her mother’s confidante. There was nothing Jachobed could not tell the girl. Her brother Aaron was obedient, sculpted by his father’s attentions and needs. He was forceful, confident, purposeful but seldom intuitive. They were all slaves, but Aaron more slave than most, his heart so set to serve that he did not know how to rest. Miriam was his opposite. He his parent’s hope, she their hearts.

Miriam could remember the day when the rough Hebrew cloth clung firmly to the roundness of her mother’s belly. The way Jochabed had yanked the material away from her middle with fury, Miriam had understood why. A boy, it must be a boy. That day she named her little brother, Shaviv. Her mother’s eyes caught hers and as her father and brother went to wash in the river Miriam sang to herself a song about a small flame. Jachobed grasped the tail end of Miriam’s inky hair, tugging it ever so gently, “Sparks start fires, my Miriam, and fire burns.”

“It does not burn before it shines light. Fire always shines light.” sang Miriam as she grasped the large clay jug and placed its rough bottom on her shoulder. She walked out of the door, under the lintel singing. Jachobed sat on the mat, her long, nimble fingers instruments for labor, stitching together cloth for her growing son who was so close to being a man. She could feel the friction, the sliding of her skin against the cloth of her robe as her smallest son moved inside of her. His tiny hands and feet were bruising her heart with his every movement.

Each evening as she and her mother patted the cakes of bread and left them to rise, boiling pots of water, stoking the fires they needed to cook with, Miriam would ask her mother, “How is the tiny spark?” Her mother would smile and say, “Small but bright.” Miriam was always singing the same song about fire. Her mother could not hear the words but knew this child had his own anthem already. Miriam’s dark skin lit from underneath, a pale pink glow on her cheeks, always happy, always dancing. Miriam would never truly be a slave because you could never truly capture her.

The night her little brother was born the mid-wife had come. Everything had been very hushed and tense. Her father had held the baby for just a moment, whispered to Jachobed fiercely and walked out of the home into the night. Jachobed called for Miriam who would understand. “Shaviv,” she said quietly her voice quivering as Miriam reached out and gathered her brother into her arms. Her mother lie back on her mat, resting her eyes, feeling the tension of her body, the bloody ache of child birth give way to peace as Miriam sang her song to him.

Oh but Shaviv was beautiful! Daily her husband came, offering to take the baby from her and daily Jochabed would hold her tiny son, his eager mouth sucking on his fist before she could feed him and she would say, “Let him get full. I can’t let him go hungry.” Miriam seemed to be missing more. Her inexplicable absence driving Jachobed to frustration.

As Miriam came in singing one day Jochabed scolded her. “Miriam! Come here now. How do I care for a baby, hide him from the neighbors with so little help? He is supposed to be gone! I thought you loved him too!” The moment the accusation came out she realized her error. In the glistening black globes of her daughter’s eyes was a wisdom, she as her mother, would never possess. Though their God made her Miriam’s mother, He had made Miriam her mother’s teacher. In the one glance, in the quiet humming of Miriam’s voice she understood that Miriam believed things she did not have the courage to believe herself. Miriam believed this baby would be allowed to live.

As Jochabed weighed her own soul and found it wanting, she sobbed. Her whole body shook so that the newborn baby bobbed up and down in her arms until Miriam took him.

“I am sorry mother. I will stay closer by. You must keep him with you for a while yet. Make him sturdier.”

From that day forward Miriam was there every time Jochabed needed her. One of them always trapped in the house, holding Shaviv. It was eight more short weeks and by then Miriam’s father had ceased to look his wife or daughter in the eye. Every cry he heard he feared was Jochabed’s as soldiers yanked her from the home, tugging the baby from her grasp.

One night his wife whispered to him, “I will take the baby to the river tomorrow.”

“Then let me hold him please.” He requested. They lay the infant between them as they had not done on any other night, their hands each touching his smooth round chest.

The next morning as Jochabed and Miriam carried their things out of the house they looked all around them nervously. Miriam guided her mother through the camp, outside towards the river. She held the reed basket tenderly, lifting it up and to the side when they came upon any bramble in the way. The sound of the water was sickening to Jochabed. These waters were too hungry, greedy for whatever you placed in its mouth.

Miriam hummed as they walked up to the water’s edge. Not so far from them was the muted tones of ladies laughing, Egyptian voices. Miriam’s large black eyes glowed with excitement. She opened the basket and straightened the blankets within. Her mother fondled the baby and insisted on feeding him one more time. Miriam knew there was no sense arguing so she sat tossing dry reeds in the water, watching them float and twist with the current of the muddy brown waters.

Jochabed watched Shaviv’s little lips grasp her breast, his hand balled up into a plump fist, his body relaxing as he sucked. Her heart hurt worse this moment than any other in her life. Soon she would be the one wailing.

She and Miriam placed his sleeping body in the blankets, swaddled him and upon Miriam’s insistence they placed him in the basket. It was water tight as Jochabed had designed it to be. Miriam did the rest. Jachobed could not watch anymore.

Her young wiry body leaned over the bank and placed the heavy basket into the water as it bobbed up and down. Her heart fluttered. Nine years old is young to hold a life in your hands. She sang his song. Shaviv slept peacefully as she paced the banks of the river watching the basket hem and haw as it floated in the waters sweeping rush.

Jochabed began to moan lowly. Miriam looked at her and told her to go. Jochabed walked slowly back to her home, ready to cry silently into her blankets.

Miriam’s tawny feet scrambled along the brush of the banks, her toes becoming muddy as she followed its path. It took some twenty minutes for the basket to pass along the route Miriam had hoped it would. She waited near the bank as the basket became lodged in the reeds. She saw Pharaoh’s daughter wade into the water. She prayed to her god that it would be good with this baby, this small flame.

Pharaoh’s daughter called sharply for her maid when she heard the tiny cry, “Go, into the reeds, grab that basket!” she commanded.

The princess got quiet and peered into the basket at the tiny perfect creature. No doubt a Hebrew baby, she thought. How many times had a small figure floated down the river with no hope left? Her god must want this baby to live and she would not stand in its way. She was calling her guards to her when a small girl appeared from the bushes.

To the pharaoh’s daughter she was a vision. Her hair was messy, dry and floated over her face like wisp of smoke. Her eyes were bright, her body lean and strong for such a small girl. It was her voice that so captivated the princess though. Crystal clear, bright and confident.

“Would you like me to find a nurse for the child?’ she said her hands clasped tightly together, her dark eyebrows posed in exaggerated humility.

“Go ahead.” she nodded quietly. Go ahead, she thought.

Miriam took off running. All the way home She sang her song of flames and fire.

“Mother, mother! You are needed, come quick. The Pharaoh’s daughter has called for you.”

Jachobed gathered herself and splashed water on her face as Miriam pulled her out of the house by her hands frantically.

As they rounded the turn in the bank Jachobed could see fine Egyptian ladies sitting and lounging, attending a woman who sat holding something. As she neared the group of ladies she saw the basket and saw the woman at the center of their attention holding a little baby that was wailing. As Jochabed got near to her, the woman handed her the baby abruptly and said, “Take this child and feed it and I will give you your wages.” She placed the screaming baby into his mother’s arms where he nestled and cried furiously at her familiar breast, tugging on her robe. She thanked the woman and walked off, two guards following her to see where she lived.

She placed the baby at her breast while she walked and felt his hungry tug, his certainty and entitlement to what was his. As her body released its milk her heart released its bitterness. Oh mighty, mighty God! Her soul cried. The guards found where she lived, gave her some coins and left quickly.

Jachobed looked at her beautiful daughter, Miriam, whose bright eyes shone. She placed the baby on the mat and grabbed Miriam’s long fingers, so much like her own. Jachobed pulled her to the floor next to the baby and brought her daughter into her arms. After they cried for a few moments she leaned Miriam back and brushed the tangled hair from her moist cheeks.” Teach me your song Miriam, my daughter. Teach me to sing. Your faith in small sparks has lit quite a little fire.” She teased, both of them giggling from nervousness. “Pharaoh’s house. He is royalty now!”

Just then Miriam’s father walked in from his long laborious day and glanced at the infant. “Father,” Miriam cried. “God has wrought a miracle upon our home, for Pharaoh’s daughter has asked mother to feed this little baby that she found in the river. Look at the coins they left!” He peered down at the little face, the perfect little toes wiggling out from under the blanket and then glanced at the money in Miriam’s dark palm. He shook his head in terrified wonder. Jochabed smiled and placed the baby’s head under her nose. She and Miriam began to sing as her husband walked out of the door to do his nightly chores, speechless, hearing only their laughter behind him.


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