And Other Stories

In this all-new second volume of short stories from the Lebanon of the 1970s, Claire Clemons Cowan presents a distinctive selection of her trademark subtle and provocative tales of expatriate American life in the Middle East. This welcome assortment presents some familiar characters from the first volume, in new situations, facing new challenges and resolution

Excerpt . . .

 (mal 'aab)

  The children began their funeral for a dead baby bird shortly after their afternoon naps. Six children in all, ranging in age from two to six, started chanting nonsense syllables over the body of a baby sparrow in a sing-song psalm-like imitation of an Armenian Orthodox priest. One child, a boy named Robert, swung a yo-yo like an incense censer, and gravely raised his free hand in supplication to the heavens. One of the smallest children began a solemn, though comic, military march, her knees raised high in a goose step, her arms swinging wide, chest high.
  The children all began to move back and forth toward a privacy gate manned by two Arab-speaking guards.
  “What are they doing?” asked the younger of the two gatemen. He had just come on duty. He smoothed the creases on his trousers and frowned.
  “One of the children found a baby bird anxious to fly. It fell and died in front of the children. But I think it may have died from the children handling it. I told the children about a Bible story from the King James Bible, from Matthew, saying that not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without their heavenly Father knowing of it. I had to learn it in a Bible summer camp near the citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, in Tripoli, that my mother sent me to, to learn English. I told them to give the bird a Christian burial. And they have buried it twice and dug it up twice to see it and play with it again. One of the mothers—when the women are not gossiping by the swings—will have to come and take it away.”
  Suddenly, one of the children began to keen for the dead in Arabic fashion. “I thought you said it was to be a Christian burial. Christians seldom ever cry at funerals.” The guard looked away and smiled into the springtime's western sky.
  The children passed the guards and headed into the street where cars passed hurriedly.
  “No. No! You must stay on the playground, inside the gate,” cautioned the older guard.
  “Your mothers don't want you in the street. You know that. Now, go back to the swings and bury the bird again. This time, leave the bird in the ground.” The guard grinned at the children.
  “See? Your mothers are visiting with each other by the swings. Go over there and show them the baby bird and then have an Irish wake on the grassy playground.”
  “What's an Irish wake?” asked the oldest boy.
  “It is a party with some dancing. Go dance and sing a song, a Bible song to cheer the bird to heaven.” The guard pointed toward five women who were talking animatedly by the side of the playground. A cooling wind from the Mediterranean Sea blew across the canvas swings that swung gently in the breeze. The women were innocent of what the children were doing, gossiping about their maids and their busy lives in the Beirut suburbs.
  “Go show your mothers the baby bird,” repeated the guard.
  “Look, it is all blue and quiet.”
  “It is dead, child. Go bury it again in the sand.”
  “That is what you do with dead things.” The younger guard motioned to the children to turn around and then urged them to beat each other running to the swings.
  “Do you want to hold it?” asked the youngest child. “It is all squishy.”
  “No. I want you to show it to your mother and give it a decent burial. A grave site near the fence would be nice, too. Go to the mal'aab, the playground.”
  The oldest boy began to shout, “Let's go and dance and swing.”
  “No!” said a five-year-old. “Let's march together and clap our hands. Let's sing `Ring Around the Rosy'!”
  “That's stupid!” replied an older boy. He wiped his nose on his sleeve.
  “We need to sing `Jesus Loves Me.'”
  “But we should clap our hands,” asserted the five-year-old.
  “And sing loud,” concluded the youngest child.
  “Race you to the swings instead,” said Robert.
  The children altogether began to sing different songs.
  “We need to sing one song and march in a line,” yelled the oldest boy.
  “And be quiet and sad,” said another child.
  “We can sing slowly. That would be good.”
  The youngest child began to clap slowly and sing, `Jesus Loves Me, This I Know'.
  “For the Bible tells me so,” continued the children, and they slowly turned and marched dolorously toward their mothers.
  A woman, a mother of teens who had been sitting on a park bench near the sand box, picked up a stick and made her way toward the marching children.
  “Put the baby bird in the ground here,” she said and dug into the clay-like soil far away from the swaying swings, “You are going to bury the bird and leave it in the ground this time. No more silly resurrections.” The woman uncovered an earthworm. “Here,” she said, “Go give this worm to the mother bird that is sad about her baby. The worm will cheer her up. Give me the baby bird. I'll wrap it in a Kleenex, see? And we will all sing, `Rest in Peace' all together and cover up the baby bird lying in the Kleenex.”
  “Let me do it,” said Robert. “I'm the biggest. I know how to wrap the baby bird gently and put it in the ground. I buried it before. Afterward, we'll dance around the grave and sing `London Bridge Is Falling Down'.”
  “Here, then!” said the mother, trying not to smile. “And remember, this time, we are going to leave the bird in the ground. Everyone touch it for the last time.”
  The children gathered around the oldest boy and poked with their fingers at the corpse of the tiny sparrow.
  “God didn't love the baby bird very much, or He would not have let the baby die,” said the five-year-old.
  “Let's sing `Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World', said Robert in a very loud grown-up voice.
  “That's a good song,” said the five-year-old. “But let's sing it softly.”
  “And leave the bird alone or we'll have to put it in the trash,” the mother sighed.
  “Don't do that,” cried Robert, “or I'll tell my mother on you.”
  “Then you'll have to leave the bird in the ground.” The mother thought about saying, “It will decompose and return to the earth,” but thought better of it and walked away while the children sang their Jesus-Loves-the-Little-Children song.
  The other mothers continued their gossip, ignoring what the children were doing.
  “What happened today?” said one of the fathers in the evening.
  “You don't want to know,” said the mother who had been instrumental in finally burying the baby sparrow. “Suffice it to say that our community's little children played happily on the playground having an enlightening, yet mournful and noisy, Irish kind of wake for one of God's hapless creatures, an infant sparrow who fell from its nest. The children's mothers sadly ignored them, choosing instead to gossip about who is sleeping with whom in the American community. Our missionary forefathers would have been scandalized with all the pagan glee. Tomorrow, the children will doubtless exhume the body of the buried baby bird to have another look-see at the victim.”
  “Did anyone quote Matthew 10:29 about fallen sparrows? I had to learn it at a summer Bible camp when I was thirteen.”
  “That's funny. The gate guard quoted it to me after the baby bird's funeral. He learned it in summer Bible camp, too. No sparrow falls without its heavenly Father knowing all about it.”
  “Did he say that? I thought all the guards were Moslem.”
  “Apparently, in olden days, learning English included learning Matthew's amazing scripture.”
  “Well, in this neighborhood, may be. Even if a bit old-fashioned, it is a good scripture to learn. How old was the guard, anyway?”
  “About your age.”
  “Great men think in the same channels, don't they?”
  “If you say so, dear.”
  “I bet you could have used a little cello solo, a string quartet, or a symphonic rendition of a Mozart requiem for mood music.”
  “Just what I was thinking. Instead, we had small raucous, boisterously disorderly voices singing `Jesus Loves the Little Children'.”
  “Obviously, we have brilliant little kids living in the neighborhood,” said the father, after which he mixed himself a scotch and soda, found his reading glasses, and settled down to read a French newspaper.
  “What's for dinner?” asked his wife. “I have been too busy to think about cooking.”
  “Let's have a grilled cheese sandwich with a fresh tomato on the side. I'll fix dinner after I read about who is winning the propaganda, cultural wars,” said the father, yawning.
  “Noblesse oblige,” he muttered.

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by Claire Clemons Cowan