*** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae is a piece of flash fiction, with a limit of 300 words, written for Flash Mob 2013 with the instruction to “… push the envelope, challenge the constraints of flash fiction. Experimentation is encouraged. As there’s no entry fee for this competition, take risks and create something bold and fresh. Write something no one has ever seen before. Or write something we’ve seen before, but make us see it anew.”
*** is written as an experimental piece, in the selection and combination of material and in the structure of the composition.
The selection of material spans poetry, theatre, mystery and legend, music, geography and geology. This is an ambitious scope to manage. It may be argued that “borrowing” from other work to provide a back story to this piece is cheating in some way, but some of the pieces I have used in this way do the same, so I feel there is a “layering” of technique here.
The start and finish of the piece is based on “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot, which gives the piece a remarkable amount of freedom. Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” shares “Oed’ und leer das Meer” – wide and desolate the sea – with Eliot, and this introduces the main theme of travel. The Sibyl is, of course, mentioned in the epigraph to “The Waste Land”.
The Greek theme is further extended by including the legend of Daedalus and Icarus, and Euripides play “Electra”. The musical theme is extended by including Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, particularly the thirteenth theme. This is a romanza which is entitled ***, hence the inclusion in the title of this piece and also contains a quotation from Mendelssohn’s “Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage”, also included in this piece of writing.
The cast list has revealed and hidden characters. Helen Weaver is the least well known of the revealed characters, with her background only hinted at in the piece. Surprisingly, she is the main thread holding the piece together. Helen Weaver was a fiancée of Edward Elgar, but the engagement was terminated and Helen travelled to New Zealand – the Taranaki region. Taranaki is a large volcano and the region has beaches of black volcanic sand. There has been some speculation that the *** variation in the Enigma was dedicated to her, and not Lady Mary Lygon, as usually accepted.
Electra continues the Greek theme from earlier in the piece. Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus murder Agamemnon, only to be murdered in revenge by Orestes and Electra, at least according to Euripides. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were lost flying a modified Lockheed Electra aircraft.
The Sibyl was introduced to the piece initially as a commentary about ambition and consequences. Carelessly asking for a life as long in years as the number of grains of sand she held in a fist, she forgot to ask for the youth to go with it, and ended her life by withering away. The Greek oracles were famous for making ambiguous prophesies, and here the untended consequences ware self-inflicted,reflecting the theme of making decisions that frames this piece. (The Sibyl also adds an interesting time dimension to the piece, but this is not fully realised.)
The structure of the piece is that of a weave with borders. The narrator provides the borders, ending at the decision making process in the third paragraph and picking up aain at the meditation starting “We are all stranded…” and introducing a major theme in the piece.
I do not accept flash fiction should necessarily have a start, middle and end, preferring to experiment outside the normal narrative. Here the three main stories of Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl are intertwined. Including three narratives in one piece may seem foolhardy, but the medium allows experimentation for a small cost time-wise and Flash Mob encouraged the pushing and challenging of the boundaries. I would not like to try an experiment like this in a longer piece, simply because it would hold too great a time and effort cost if it failed.
This piece is not an easy piece to understand. It is dense in unspoken as well as spoken detail, has an unusual structure and uses characters ie: * that are not in the alphabet. It has several themes, unwise decisions, personal responsibility, the nature of adventure and unintended consequences, migration among others. It spreads across different eras and timespans.
*** On Helen Weaver, Amelia Earhart and the Sibyl of Cumae draws on ideas and fragments of one person’s mind, which is not going to be the same as another person’s knowledge. But in exchange it provides a challenge and a fabric which interested readers might be able to work from and develop. As such, it takes on a life of its own, and ceases to become a fossil narrative. At least I hope so.