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Ramzi De Coster

The Painter and the War

There's a back alley street in Beirut and on a night in late April it shatters the light springtime silence with fireworks and firecrackers. Beirut is loud but this part of the city typically sleeps in stillness. The neighbors say nothing for they know the price they pay for the peace and quiet they enjoy through the year is small. Some of them, the younger ones in particular, even await the chaotic spectacle and the thrill of its midnight abruptness.

It started about three years ago. A half-blind Christian painter shell-shocked by his wife's betrayal began hitting the bottle heavy through the night. The soft-sand sidewalks of the street stank of piss and whiskey. He returned night after night as if on a pilgrimage to his shrine of misery. The locals, most of them at least, hung their heads through thin-curtained windows and cursed him night after night. Night after night they spat and cursed and spat and cursed and wished him ten more betrayals. But a small group among them—some said there were two others three—began pleading with him from above. "Uncle, your loss is ours, now please go home and heal you have made many enemies here." "Uncle, drinking in the street and waking these good people from their sleep won't bring her back." But night after night the drunken slurs and tears of a broken man quelled their pleas and sympathies.

Then finally one of them descended the spiraling pale-concrete stairs of his home and approached the man.

"This is not the way!" the man yelled as he held his palms up, his eyes half-crazed and drifting, shivering with animalistic fright.

"I'm not here to harm you uncle," said Ahmad, who was tall and thick-jawed. His eyes shone through a mop of jet-black hair, and he seemed to pose with the patience of a man at peace.

"Then why are you here!"

"To drink with you of course!"

And at the first sign of fear turned polite Ahmad and the man sat together on the amber-lit Beirut street, drinking, smoking, talking. The man drank less that night and his slurs were more coherent. He told Ahmad of his wife, once a true beauty in her ten-house mountain town. They first met at a church in another town hidden on the edge of a lilac-covered valley. She looked to him first, then he to her. They sat three or four benches apart and while the signing, praying congregation continued, the innocent rumblings of infatuation enthralled them and dulled their piety. They had said nothing to one another, but on the following Sunday morning he sat next to her and under her father's watchful eye held her hand in silence and in secret. His heart cherished the touch of her soft fingertips grazing his palm as his glance explored her smooth light olive skin and the long ponytail of dark russet hair caressing her neckline. He thought of her constantly and on a day in late October they were married. He called her So though to others she was Sophie. Their happiest times were spent cradling one another through sleepless summer nights.

"Will you still love me when I'm old and gray?" she had once said, her lips revealing a timid smile.

"Will you still love me tomorrow?" He had responded. He knew not why he had said nor remembered this, he told Ahmad, but that he remembered it being the happiest moment of his life. His smile then shifted to a haunting frown as he said he so deeply wished she had answered. The man then muttered a sentence that in tone and by the way with which it marched from his lips seemed somber and dark. Ahmad swore that he had heard the man mutter a wish for revenge, though of this he could not be certain. The night wore on and the half-drunk strangers eventually shook hands and said their goodbyes. As Ahmad made his way down the street he turned mid-stride and watched the man depart the back alley street with a slight stumble and a near-empty flask. And that's that, he thought.

A sharp calmness seemed to hurry through the streets the following night. Patters of applause burst out at around midnight when it seemed the man would not return. Ahmad sat on the edge of his balcony, a cigarette hanging from his lips. A part of him waited hopefully for the man though he was equally relieved that a fight between the locals and the man had been averted. For a week the streets of this small part of Beirut slept silently. Then one night at around nine the man returned with a rucksack full of fireworks strapped to his back. The neighbors again yelled and cursed. "What are you going to do with those you crazy old bastard?" "We thought we were rid of your madness you fuck!" Ahmad almost immediately ran to the scene.

"Uncle I thought we were done with this!" He said to the man as he watched him remove the fireworks from his rucksack and begin lining them on the floor, one after the other, their sharp triangular tips glinting in a bright spate of lamppost light. "We are. I see now that what I was doing was of no help to anyone, least of all myself. But I must do this. I must curse them as they did me. My one last and final act. My masterpiece. I'm here to paint the skies in bright firework lights."

Should I yell? Should I take them from him? Ahmad thought to himself. But as if by unrestrained impulse, he began helping the man who a week before had walked away with his sorrow. The yelling grew and the insults hardened. "You dogs! Stop it this instant!" "Scumbag vandals! To hell with you both!" Ahmad and the man said nothing. They looked at one another and with silent composure planted their celestial paintbrushes. The long fireworks stood skyward now, and with the sudden flick of Ahmad's lighter they swooshed and sliced into the darkness. Ahmad and man stood gazing as the spitting crimson sparks trailed into the heavy black night. They burst and shuddered in blood red and yellow. A strange calm crept through now as Ahmad, the man, and the locals who so despised him watched the heavens in quiet amazement. When once they had seemed so different from one another, they now came together as wide-eyed spectators stilled by the majesty of the sky and the bright and black tussle serenading it. To Ahmad's delight, and the man's subtle dismay, the occasional volley of applause rang out from the upper building floors. "Thank you," Ahmad said to the man as he turned and held his hand out.

"For what? I came to make a point."

"I believe you made it." Ahmad said as he smiled. And just like that the man returned his rucksack to the semi-crooked back that had held it, picked up his last bottle of faded-label whiskey and walked away from that Beirut back alley street. Some in the neighborhood had expected him to return though he never did. This was received with lukewarm relief. In 1975 the war broke out and it was said that he had been killed in East Beirut by a loose mortar round. It was also said, however, that he had a met a more agreeable fate, though this was likely the result of an unfortunate misapprehension. "Inshallah that man has found a new wife in the mountains so he can no longer flood our streets with his tears," The local baker's old stubble-chinned wife had bemoaned one evening to her husband's barber friend Mahmoud, who wasted no time in telling his gossipy wife Sima.

But it was Ahmad who reminded all those who asked him of that fateful night when the melancholic painter lit up the skies that he had been the only one to speak to the man and since he did not know what had happened to him, it was unlikely that anyone else did. Ahmad, who now wore military fatigues and a thick guerilla fighter beard, insisted that what mattered most was what the man had left behind, not where he had gone to. And he was right, for every year from that day onwards on a night in late April, the wanderers, the war-traumatized and the heavy-hearted of Beirut flocked to that same street where the man had once lingered for days drunkenly. In his spirit and through the war they lit the skies and streets with fireworks and firecrackers.

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