After the tremors and reverberations of the explosions have passed, Mr. Beauchamp emerges, brave on feeble legs, from the tiny flea circus of a studio overlooking Beirut. His grey beard is somber enough for the occasion, thick with saline as he views his smoking city through an afghan of debris. A woman wailing swallows her sobs long enough to watch familiar Mr. Beauchamp head toward the square. He scrapes his box along the ground, lifting it gently at every step and crevice, though it may weigh more than his fragile, tweed-clad body.
The black box looks funerary, ancient paint chipped to reveal splinters of the light wood from which it is constructed, the cold metal handle small enough to dig uncomfortably into any hand that might attempt to carry it. The box is unusually heavy; most people pick it up twice, attempting once and then re-thinking their technique. If they shift it just the wrong or right way, there emits from within a long, low, sorrowful complaint.
Mr. Beauchamp looks at the box with love in his eyes. It has traveled in Volkswagens and on buses, in luxury train cars and on cargo ships. It has heard icebergs calve and been moisture-warped in the rainforest. Animals have lain on top of it. When tourists see him carrying it through the city, some change direction and follow in hopes that he’ll open it within sight. Adults do this shyly, slyly, staying behind him though he knows they follow. Children are bolder, sometimes stopping in front of him to ask if he’ll open it for them. He motions for them to follow him with half of a smile crinkling his cheeks like tissue paper.
A child accompanies him now silently on this very different day, wandering with the look of a stray dog out of one of the half-ruined apartment buildings with only pajama pants and a tattered blanket. There’s dry blood matted in his hair and dust on his face. Mr. Beauchamp examines him with milky eyes and wonders if the boy’s family has been lost to the bombs like so many others. He does not ask.
The boy follows as Mr. Beauchamp climbs over a pile of fallen roof pieces and steps into his usual space in the center of the marketplace. He creaks and groans as he bends to set the box down. The brass clasps echo like gunshots around the hollow city, and those still living peer down from windows, eyes wide and fear on their mouths. Seeing Mr. Beauchamp, some disappear, then reappear silently in doorways to watch him reach into those black depths.
The flesh of the arms that disappear into the box is like crepe, a street map of blue veins visible beneath. His fingers are twisted enough to appear broken, but still strong enough to grab onto the leather handles and pull, holding the box steady between his broken shoes as he draws the cobra from its basket. A low and drawn-out yawn emerges from the butter yellow accordion and he struggles to settle it near his chest.
Now the people of the town draw nearer. Some have heard Mr. Beauchamp play every day as they went about their errands, but never stopped to watch him. Some ignored him, not willing to spare any change. Some shoved him aside in the street on their way to somewhere important. Most have never seen the accordion up close, that art deco, pearl-buttoned instrument with gem-toned floral designs scrolling all around. Watching, some of the former businessmen wonder if he can possibly even have the strength to play. Yet in the oppressive stillness of a city that the world now thinks destroyed, he opens the bellows for them.
As he plays, starting off so soft he closes his eyes against his wrecked city then building to a melody that brings a couple to fuse together in an embrace amongst the broken rocks, another sound emerges. Boots crunch over the ground, breaking bones and stone and pieces from children’s plastic toys as they come. When Mr. Beauchamp opens his eyes, his arms still pressing the instrument together, he sees that a crowd has gathered. It seems to be everyone who is left in the city. Their eyes are collectively closed as they move or dance or simply turn their faces to the clouded sun. But around them there is now a ring of black-clad soldiers looking young and unsure whether to reach for their guns.
Bailey Bridgewater is a straight-laced academic by day and a bourbon-based word avenger by night. Her short story “The Risk of Death by Suffocation” appears in As You Were literary journal. Her flash pieces appear in Crack the Spine, The Molotov Cocktail, and Nanoism. She is a Max Ehrmann Poetry Award recipient.