Bel canto, p.10
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       Bel Canto, p.10

           Ann Patchett
 

  From somewhere in the middle of the crowd, Mr. Hosokawa stepped forward, reached into his pocket, and extended to her his handkerchief, clean and pressed. It was odd, he thought, to have been so reduced, to have so little to offer, and yet she took it as if his handkerchief were the thing she had most been hoping for and pressed it beneath her eyes.

  “All of you go back,” General Benjamin said, not wanting to watch another touching exchange. He went and sat down in one of the large wing-backed chairs near the fireplace and lit a cigarette. There was nothing to do. He couldn’t strike her the way he should have, surely there would have been an insurrection in the living room and he wasn’t certain that the younger members of his army would not shoot in her defense. What he didn’t understand was why he felt grief for the accompanist. Alfredo was right, it wasn’t as if this was the first person to die. Most days it seemed like half the people he knew were dead. The thing was the people he knew had been murdered, slaughtered in a host of ways that prevented him from sleeping well at night, and this man, the accompanist, had simply died. Somehow, those two things did not seem exactly the same. He thought of his brother in prison, his brother, as good as dead, sitting day after day in a cold, dark hole. He wondered if his brother could stay alive a little while longer, maybe just a day or two, until their demands were met and he could be released. The accompanist’s death had worried him. People could simply die if no one got to them in time. He looked up from his cigarette. “Get away from here,” he said to the crowd, and with that they all stepped away. Even Roxane got up and left her corpse as she was told. She seemed tired now. He commanded his troops to resume their positions. The guests were to go and sit and wait.

  Alfredo went to the phone and picked it up hesitantly, as if he wasn’t exactly sure what it could do. Warfare should not include cellular phones, it made everything seem less serious. He reached into one of the many pockets on his green fatigue pants and pulled out a business card and dialed Messner. He told him there had been an illness, no, a death, and that they needed to negotiate the retrieval of the body.

  Without the accompanist, everything was different. One would think the sentence should read: Without the extra one hundred and seventeen hostages, everything was different, or Now that terrorists had said they were not there to kill them, everything seemed different. But that wasn’t true. It was the accompanist they felt the loss of, even all the men who had so recently sent their wives and lovers outside, watched them walk away in the full splendor of their evening dress, they were thinking of the dead man. They had not known him at all. Many assumed he was an American. There they were, steadily producing insulin as a matter of course while another man died without it so that he could stay with the woman he loved. Each asked himself if he would have done the same and each decided the chances were good that he would not. The accompanist embodied a certain recklessness of love that they had not possessed since their youth. What they did not understand was that Roxane Coss, who now sat in the corner of one of the large down sofas, weeping quietly into Mr. Hosokawa’s handkerchief, had never been in love with her accompanist, that she had hardly known him at all except in a professional capacity, and that when he had tried to express his feelings to her it turned out to be a disastrous mistake. The kind of love that offers its life so easily, so stupidly, is always the love that is not returned. Simon Thibault would never die in a foolish gesture for Edith. On the contrary, he would take every cowardly recourse available to him to ensure that their lives were spent together. But without all the necessary facts, no one understood what had happened, and all they could think was that the accompanist had been a better, braver man, that he had loved more fully than they were capable of loving.

  Everything was slack now. The huge arrangements of flowers that were placed around the room were already wilting, the smallest edge of brown trimmed the petals of the white roses. The half-empty glasses of champagne that sat on end tables and sideboards were flat and warm. The young guards were so exhausted that some fell asleep against the wall and slid down to the floor without waking. The guests stayed in the living room, whispering a little but mostly being quiet. They curled into overstuffed chairs and slept. They did not test the patience of their guards. They took cushions off the sofa and stretched out on the floor in a way that was reminiscent of the night before but much better. They knew they were to stay in the living room, be mostly quiet, avoid sudden moves. No one considered slipping out of the bathroom window when they took themselves to the lavatory unattended, maybe out of some unspoken gentleman’s agreement. A certain forced respect had been shown to the body of the accompanist, their accompanist, and now they had to try to live up to the standards he had set.

  When Messner came in he asked first to see Roxane Coss. His lips seemed thinner now, stern, and he thoughtlessly spoke in German. Gen pushed up heavily from his chair and went to tell them what was being said. The Generals pointed to the woman on the couch, whose face was still pressed into a handkerchief.

  “And she will be coming out now,” Messner said, not as a question.

  “The President is coming over?” General Alfredo said.

  “You do expect to let her ride home with the body.” It was not the Messner they had seen before. The sight of a room full of hostages forced to lie on the floor, the battered Vice President, the boys with their weapons, all of that had only made him tired, but he was angry now. Angry with nothing but a small red plus sign strapped over his upper arm to protect himself from a roomful of guns.

  His anger seemed to inspire an extraordinary patience in the Generals. “The dead,” Hector explained, “know nothing of who is sitting beside them.”

  “You said all women.”

  “We came up through the air-conditioning vents,” General Benjamin said, and then after a pause he added a descriptive phrase. “Like moles.”

  “I need to know if I can trust you,” Messner said. Gen only wished he could parody the weight of his voice, the way he struck every word like a soft mallet against a drum. “If you tell me something, am I to believe you?”

  “We set free the servants, the ill, and all of the women but one. Perhaps there is something about this one that interests you. Perhaps if we had kept another it wouldn’t have mattered so much to you.”

  “Am I to believe you?”

  General Benjamin thought about this for a moment. He lifted his hand as if to stroke his cheek but then thought better of it. “We are not on the same side.”

  “The Swiss never take sides,” Messner said. “We are only on the side of the Swiss.”

  None of the Generals had anything more to say to Messner, who needed no confirmation that the accompanist lying at his feet was, indeed, dead. The priest had covered the body with a tablecloth and the tablecloth stayed in place. Messner went out the door without pleasantries and returned an hour later with a helper. They brought in a rolling gurney of the type that comes from an ambulance, covered in boxes and sacks, and when they were unloaded Messner and his helper lowered the gurney and tried to tug the large man up. They ultimately had to be assisted by several of the younger terrorists. Death had made the body dense, as if every recital performed, each day’s never-ending practice, came back in those final moments and balanced like lead bars across his chest. When he was in place and strapped down, his fine hands dangling from beneath the cutwork tablecloth, they took him away. Roxane Coss turned her head as if to study the couch pillows. Mr. Hosokawa wondered if she was thinking about Brunhilde, if she was wishing for a horse that would take her into the fire after her lover’s corpse.

  “I don’t think they should have brought the food in like that,” the Vice President said to a stranger sitting beside him, although he was hungry and curious as to what was in the bags. “I think they could have made two separate trips, out of respect.” The late afternoon light was slanting through the tall windows of the living room, making heavy gold strokes across the floor. It was a lovely room, Ruben thought, a lovely time of day to
be in the room. He very rarely was home before dark and often he wasn’t home at all, out representing the President on one trip or another. The ice in his towel had almost completely melted and the sleeve of his starched dress shirt was soaked from where the water had trickled steadily down his arm. Still, the cool wet towel felt good on his swollen face. He wondered where his wife and children would sleep tonight, if the President and his wife would invite them into their home as a matter of good publicity or if they would go to a guarded room in a hotel. He hoped she would go to her cousin Ana’s. At least Ana would comfort her, at least she would make some fun for the children and listen to the girls tell their stories about being kidnapped. They would have to double up in extra beds and sleep on pull-out sofas, but that would be all right. That would be better than the Masudas’ chilly guest suite, where certainly Esmeralda would be made to sleep in the servants’ quarters.

  On the other side of the room near a large bank of windows, Gen and Mr. Hosokawa sat away from the rest of their countrymen. It was a complicated form of politeness in which the other men would not have joined them unless invited. Even in these uncharted circumstances the social order stood firm. Mr. Hosokawa was not much in the mood for company. “He was a magnificent accompanist,” he said to Gen. “I’ve heard my share of them.” Of all the men in the room, Mr. Hosokawa was the only one who continued to wear his jacket and tie. His suit had somehow remained remarkably uncreased.

  “Would you like me to tell her?”

  “What?”

  “About the accompanist,” Gen said.

  Mr. Hosokawa looked to Roxane Coss, whose face was still turned behind the curtain of her own hair. Even though there were men sitting on the sofa where she sat, she was clearly alone. The priest was near her but not with her. His eyes were closed and his lips shaped small, silent words of prayer. “Oh, I’m sure she knows it.” Then he added doubtfully, “I’m sure everyone has told her.”

  Gen did not press his point. He waited. It was not his role to advise Mr. Hosokawa. He knew the secret was to wait and let him come to his own conclusions.

  “If it doesn’t appear to be disturbing her,” he said, “perhaps you could give my condolences. Tell her I thought her accompanist was a brave and talented man.” He looked at Gen directly, something that was uncommon between them.

  “What if I am responsible for this death?” he said.

  “How could that be possible?”

  “It was my birthday. They came here for me.”

  “They came here to work,” Gen said. “They don’t know you.”

  Mr. Hosokawa, the day after his fifty-third birthday, looked suddenly old. He had made a mistake, accepting such a gift, and now it seemed to be pulling the years from his life. “Tell her, though, tell her I am especially grieved.”

  Gen nodded, stood up, and crossed the room. It was a huge room. Even if you didn’t count the grand entry hall on one end and dining room on the other, the living room was cavernous, with three separate areas set up with couches and chairs, living rooms within living rooms. The furniture had been moved aside for the recital and then had slowly been dragged back into mismatched configurations as the remaining guests made themselves comfortable. If there had been a reception desk it would have seemed very much like an enormous hotel lobby. If there had been a piano player, Gen thought, but then stopped himself. Roxane Coss was alone, but not too far away a young terrorist stood behind her, his rifle held close to his chest. Gen had seen this boy before. He was the one who had held Roxane Coss’s hand when they were first on the floor. Why did he remember it was this one when all the others blurred together? It was something about his face, which was delicate, intelligent somehow, and it set him apart. Gen felt uncomfortable for having noticed this at all. Then the boy raised his eyes from the floor and saw Gen looking. They stared at one another for an instant and then both just as quickly looked away. There was a strange sensation low in Gen’s stomach. It made it easier to speak to Roxane Coss. She did not frighten him the way this boy did.

  “Forgive me,” he said to the opera singer. He shook the boy from his mind. Never in a lifetime would Gen have come to her on his own. Never would he find the courage to express his own sympathies and remorse, in the same way that Mr. Hosokawa would not have the courage to speak to her even if his English had been perfect. But together they moved through the world quite easily, two small halves of courage making a brave whole.

  “Gen,” she said. She smiled sadly, her eyes still red and damp. She reached up from the couch and took his hand. Of all the people in the room, his was the only name she was sure of and it gave her comfort to say it aloud. “Gen, thank you for before, for stopping them.”

  “I didn’t stop anyone.” He shook his head. He was surprised to hear his name come out of her mouth. Surprised by the way it sounded. Surprised by the touch of her hand.

  “Well, it would have all been pretty meaningless if you hadn’t been there to tell them what I was saying. I would have been just another woman screaming.”

  “You made things very clear.”

  “To think they wanted to shoot him.” She let go of his hand.

  “I am glad,” Gen said, but then he stopped, trying to think of what there was to be glad about. “I am glad that your friend had some peace. I’m sure they will send him home soon.”

  “Yes,” she said.

  Gen and Roxane each imagined the accompanist going home, as in sitting up in a seat by the window of a plane, looking out at the clouds that pooled over the host country.

  “My employer, Mr. Hosokawa, asks me to offer you his condolences. He wanted me to tell you that your accompanist was very talented. We were honored to hear him play.”

  She nodded. “He’s right, you know,” she said. “Christopf was very good. I don’t suppose people notice the accompanist very often. That’s kind of him to say. Your employer.” She raised up her open hand to Gen. “He gave me his handkerchief.” It was a small white flag crushed into her palm. “I’m afraid I’ve ruined it. I don’t think he’d want it back now.”

  “Of course he would want you to have it.”

  “Say his name again for me.”

  “Ho-so-kawa.”

  “Hosokawa,” she said, nodding. “It was his birthday.”

  “Yes. He is feeling very sorry about that as well. He has a great sense of responsibility.”

  “That it was his birthday?”

  “That you and your friend came here to perform for him. He feels that you are trapped here because of him, that perhaps your friend—” Again Gen stopped. There was no point in being so explicit. From this close, her face looked very young, very much like a girl’s, with her clear eyes and long hair. But he knew she was at least ten years older than he was, somewhere in her late thirties.

  “You tell Mr. Hosokawa for me,” she said. She stopped to pin some of her hair back away from her face. “What the hell. It isn’t like I’m so busy I can’t tell him myself. Does he not speak English? Well, you’ll translate. You’re the only one of us around here who has a job now. Are there any languages you don’t speak?”

  Gen smiled at the very thought of such a thing, the towering list of languages he didn’t speak. “Most of them I don’t speak a word of,” he said. He stood up and Roxane Coss put her hand on his arm to walk across the room as if she might faint. It was a possibility. She had had a very hard day. All around the room the men raised their heads and ended their conversations to watch them, the tall young Japanese translator navigating the wide expanse of living room with the soprano on his arm. How strange and lovely it was to see her hand resting on the top of his sleeve, her pale fingers nearly reaching his wrist.

  When Mr. Hosokawa, who had been trying to look the other way, realized that Gen was bringing Roxane Coss to him, he felt a deep blush coming up from the collar of his shirt and he stood to wait for her arrival.

  “Mr. Hosokawa,” Roxane said, and held out her hand to him.

  “Miss Coss,” he s
aid, and bowed.

  Roxane took one chair and Mr. Hosokawa took the other. Gen pulled up a third, smaller chair and waited.

  “Gen has told me you feel in some way responsible for this,” she said.

  Mr. Hosokawa nodded. He spoke to her with great honesty, the kind two people use after a lifetime of knowing one another. But what was a lifetime? This afternoon? This evening? The kidnappers had reset the clocks and no one knew a thing about time anymore. Better this once to be inappropriate and honest as the burden of his guilt was tightening a string around his throat. He told her he had declined many invitations from the host country but then agreed to come once they told him she would be there. He told her he had never had any plans of helping this country. He told her he was a great admirer of her work and named the cities he had seen her in. He told her he must be in some part responsible for the death of her accompanist.

  “No,” she said. “No. I sing in so many places. It’s rare that I would sing for a private party like this. To tell you the truth, most people don’t have the money, but I’ve done it before. I didn’t come here for your birthday. With all respect, I didn’t even remember whose birthday it was. Besides, from what I understand, these people didn’t even want you, they wanted the President.”

  “But I was the one who set this thing in motion,” Mr. Hosokawa said.

  “Or did I?” she said. “I thought about declining. I declined several times until they came up with more money.” She leaned forward, and when she did, Gen and Mr. Hosokawa ducked their heads down as well. “Don’t get me wrong. I am very capable of blame. This is an event ripe for blame if ever I saw one. I just don’t blame you.”

  The members of LFDMS could have opened all the doors at that moment, thrown down their guns and told everyone to go, and Mr. Hosokawa would not have experienced any greater sense of relief than the one he had knowing Roxane Coss forgave him.

 
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