An explosion. Followed by another
Downloading, Nizar says in the dark.
He applies the language of the Internet to the live videogame outside. Incoming fire from the Syrian government he calls downloading. Return fire by the rebels, uploading.
It’s going to shit something, his cousin Radwan says. What do you think, uncle?
He calls me uncle because I am more than thirty years older than him. When we drove into Aleppo five days ago, my shoulders jerked in fright at every burst of gunfire, at every explosion. Now, I’ve stopped reacting unless it stays quiet. Then I feel uneasy.
It sounded close, I say.
We sit on the floor wrapped in blankets, shift closer to a wood-burning stove in the center of the room and the dying embers inside it. Amer and Bassel, friends of Radwan and Nizar, sit beside me. I wear three pairs of long underwear, tops and bottoms, two pairs of socks, jeans, a wool shirt, sweatshirt, coat. No power, no heat in the apartment, in the building, on the block, in all of Aleppo. The brittle January air tastes metallic. Ice films the ceiling. Sometimes we refill the stove with wood, sometimes not. It depends how desperate we feel, how much more cold we can stand. Burning wood warms us but creates another kind of misery.
Much of the wood comes from the debris of buildings shit-kicked from mortar rounds. Busted up doors, chairs, sofas. The glue used to seal joints emits a foul odor when it’s burned. We cough, our heads pound. Better to freeze. Seeing your breath kind of freezing. Too cold to bathe. We douse our funk with the overripe sweetness of perfume snatched from the dressing room of an abandoned apartment. We crept into the apartment, down a hall and through a dining room, as if we didn’t want to disturb the absent family. Bread on the table, a plate of chicken. They were about to eat (lunch, dinner?) but instead fled. In another room, Mickey Mouse sits in an airplane suspended from the ceiling. The plane spins above an empty bed (a boy’s?), the sheets folded back.
Radwan gives in to the cold. He stands, opens a balcony door to retrieve a sack of wood for the stove. Frosty air rushes in. Beyond the balcony, young men, many of them former university students, roam the streets. They belong to their own militias within the loose conglomeration of rebels known as the Free Syrian Army fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. They carry pistols, Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, and move openly, almost casually, in the street like pied pipers followed by chanting boys.