Bel Canto, p.15Ann Patchett
Messner came in as usual at eleven in the morning. Two of the young soldiers patted him down at the door. They made him take off his shoes and they peered inside them, looking for tiny weapons. They patted his legs and frisked beneath his arms. It was a ridiculous habit that had grown not out of suspicion but out of boredom. The Generals struggled to keep their soldiers in the mind-set of battle. More and more the teenagers sprawled on the leather sofa in the Vice President’s den and watched television. They took long showers and trimmed each other’s hair with a pair of elegant silver scissors they found in the desk. And so the Generals doubled the night watch and guard duty. They made their soldiers patrol the house in pairs and sent two more outside to walk along the edge of the yard in the drizzling rain. When they went, they carried their rifles loaded and held them up as if they were looking to shoot a rabbit.
Messner submitted to this drill with patience. He opened his briefcase and slipped off his shoes. He held his arms out straight to either side and moved his sock feet wide apart so that the strange little hands could rummage around his body as they saw fit. Once, one of them tickled him on the ribs and Messner brought his arm down sharply. “¡Basta!” he said. He had never seen such an unprofessional group of terrorists. It was a complete and utter mystery to him how they had ever managed to overtake the house.
General Benjamin swatted Ranato, the boy who had tickled Messner, and took his gun away from him. All he had hoped for was some semblance of military order. “There is no call for that,” he said sharply.
Messner sat down in a chair and retied his shoes. He was irritated with the whole lot of them. By now this trip should be forgotten, the snapshots developed, shared, and placed into an album. He should be back in his overpriced apartment in Geneva with the good view and the Danish Modern furniture he had so carefully collected. He should be taking a packet of mail from the cool hands of his secretary in the morning. Instead he went to work, inquiring how the group was doing. He had been practicing his Spanish, and even though he kept Gen close by, for a sense of security as much as a backup for his vocabulary, he was able to conduct much of the informal conversation on his own.
“We are growing tired of this,” the General said, and ran his hands back over his head. “We want to know why your people cannot find resolution. Must we start killing hostages to get your attention?”
“Well, first off, they are not my people.” Messner pulled the laces tight. “Nor is it my attention you should be trying for. Don’t kill anyone for my benefit. You have my complete attention. I should have gone home a week ago.”
“We all should have gone home a week ago,” General Benjamin sighed. “But we have to see our brothers released.” For General Benjamin, of course, this meant both his philosophical comrades and his literal brother, Luis. Luis, who had committed the crime of distributing flyers for a political protest and was now buried alive in a high-altitude prison. Before his brother’s arrest, Benjamin had not been a general at all. He had taught grade school. He had lived in the south of the country near the ocean. He had never had a moment’s trouble with his nerves.
“That is the issue,” Messner said, looking over the room, doing a quick tally of all present.
“And is there progress?”
“Nothing I’ve heard of today.” He reached into his case and took out a sheaf of papers. “I have these for you. Their demands. If there’s anything new you want me to request—”
“Señorita Coss,” General Benjamin said, hitching his thumb in her direction. “There’s something she wants.”
“There is always something for Señorita Coss,” the General said. “Kidnapping women is a different business entirely from the kidnapping of men. I hadn’t thought of it before. For our people, freedom. For her, something else, dresses possibly.”
“I’ll see about it,” Messner said, and tipped his head, but he didn’t get up to leave right away. “Is there anything I can get for you?” He indicated nothing directly but he was wondering about the shingles, which every day seemed to cast their coarse red net another millimeter across the General’s face and would soon be dipping their fingers into the cool water of his left eye.
“There is nothing I require.”
Messner nodded and excused himself. He preferred Benjamin to the other two. He found him to be a reasonable man, possibly even intelligent. Still, he worked hard to prevent any feeling of real fondness for him, for any of them, captors or hostages. Fondness often prevented one from doing the most effective job. Besides, Messner knew how these stories usually ended. It seemed better to avoid much personal involvement.
But no sensible rules applied to Roxane Coss. Most days there was something she wanted, and while the Generals could care less about the requests of the other hostages they were quick to give in to her. Every time she asked for something, Messner would feel his heart quicken slightly, as if it was him she wanted to see. One day it was dental floss, one day a muffler, then some herbal throat lozenges that Messner was proud to note came from Switzerland. Other hostages had gotten into the habit of asking Roxane when there was something that they needed. When she asked for men’s socks or sailing magazines, she never blinked.
“Have you heard the good news?” Roxane said.
“There’s good news now?” Messner tried to be rational. He tried to understand what it was about her. Standing next to her, he could look down on the place where her hair parted. She was just like the rest of them, wasn’t she? Except, perhaps, for the color of her eyes.
“Mr. Kato plays the piano.”
At the mention of his name, Kato stood up from the piano bench and bowed to Messner. They had not been introduced before. All of the hostages greatly admired Messner, both for his calm demeanor and his seemingly magic ability to go in and out of the front door at will.
“At least I’m going to be able to practice again,” Roxane said. “On the off chance that we ever get out of here, I still want to be able to sing.”
Messner said he hoped he would have an opportunity to hear the rehearsals. For a brief, disquieting moment Messner felt something that was not unlike jealousy. The hostages were there all the time, so if she decided to sing first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night, they would be able to hear her. He had bought himself a portable CD player and as much of her music as he could find. At night he lay in his two-star hotel room paid for by the International Red Cross and listened to her sing Norma and La Sonnambula. He would be lying alone in his uncomfortable bed looking at the spidery cracks in the ceiling and they would all be there in the grand living room of the vice-presidential estate while she sang “Casta Diva.”
Enough, Messner said to himself.
“I’ve always had closed rehearsals,” Roxane said. “I don’t believe that anyone is entitled to hear my mistakes. But I doubt there would be much point in trying to arrange that here. I can hardly march them all up to the attic.”
“They could hear you in the attic.”
“I’d make them stuff cotton in their ears.” Roxane laughed at this and Messner was moved. Everything in the house seemed more tolerable since this new accompanist had stepped forward.
“So what can I do for you?” If Gen had been turned into a secretary, then Messner had become the errand boy. In Switzerland he was a member of an elite arbitration team. At forty-two he had had a very successful career with the Red Cross. He had not packed a box of food supplies or driven blankets to a flood sight in almost twenty years. Now he was scouring the city for orange-flavored chocolate and calling a friend in Paris to send an expensive eye cream that came in a small black tub.
“I need music,” she said, and handed over her list. “Call my manager and tell him to send this overnight. Tell him to fly it down himself if he thinks there could be any problem. I want this by tomorrow.”
“You might have to be a little more reasonable than tomorrow,” Messner said. “It’s already dark in Italy.”
“Gen,” he whispered. “What does she need?”
“Sheet music,” Gen said, and then remembered the question had been asked in Spanish. “Partitura.”
“Does Messner know who to speak to? Does he know where to go?”
Gen liked the priest and didn’t mean to be annoyed but Mr. Hosokawa and Kato clearly meant to follow what was being said in Japanese and he was falling behind on the conversation taking place in English. “They’ll contact her people in Italy.” Gen turned his back on Father Arguedas and returned to the work at hand.
The priest tugged at Gen’s sleeve. Gen held up his hand to ask him to wait.
“But I know where the music is,” the priest persisted. “Not two miles from here. There is a man that I know, a music teacher, a deacon in our parish. He loans me records. He has all the music you would need.” His voice was becoming loud. Father Arguedas, who had devoted his life to doing good works, was nearly frantic for the want of some good works to do. He helped Ruben with the laundry and in the morning he folded all the blankets and stacked them with the pillows in neat rows against the wall, but he longed to provide assistance and guidance of a more profound nature. He couldn’t help but feel he stayed just on the edge of bothering people rather than comforting them, when all that he wanted, the only thing that mattered, was to be helpful.
“What is it he’s saying?” Roxane asked.
“What are you saying?” Gen asked the priest.
“The music is here. You could call. Manuel would bring it over, anything you need. If there was something he didn’t have, and I can’t imagine it, he would find it for you. All you need to say is that it is for Señorita Coss. You wouldn’t even have to say that. He is a Christian man. If you tell him you need it for any reason, I promise he will help you.” Her eyes were dazzling in their agitation. His hands leapt in front of his chest as if he was trying to offer up his own heart.
“He would have Bellini?” Roxane asked after listening to the translation. “I need songs. I need to have entire opera scores, Rossini, Verdi, Mozart.” She leaned towards the priest and asked for the impossible straight on. “Offenbach.”
“Offenbach! Les Contes d’Hoffmann!” The priest’s pronunciation of the French was discernible if not good. He had only seen it written out on the record.
“He would have that?” she said to Gen.
Gen repeated the question and the priest replied, “I have seen his scores. Call him, the name is Manuel. I would be most grateful to place the call if I were allowed.”
Because General Benjamin was locked in a room upstairs holding a heating pad to his inflamed face and could not be disturbed, Messner made the request to the Generals Hector and Alfredo, who granted it with bored indifference.
“For Señorita Coss,” Messner explained.
General Hector nodded and waved him away without looking. When Messner was almost out of the room, General Alfredo barked, “Only one call!” thinking they hadn’t shown proper authority by agreeing so quickly. They were in the den, watching the President’s favorite soap opera. The heroine, Maria, was telling her lover she did not love him anymore in hopes that he would leave town in desperation and thus be protected from his own brother, who, in his love for Maria, sought to murder him. Messner stood in the doorway for a moment to watch the girl on television cry. So completely convincing was her grief that it was difficult for him to turn away.
“Call Manuel,” he said, coming back to the living room. Ruben went to the kitchen and brought back the telephone directory and Messner gave the priest his cellular phone and showed him how to dial out.
On the third ring there was an answer. “Alo!”
“Manuel?” the priest said. “Manuel, hello?” He felt his voice choke with emotion. Someone outside the house! It was like seeing a ghost from his former life, a silvery shadow walking down the aisle towards the altar. Manuel. He had not been in captivity two full weeks but upon hearing that voice the priest felt as if he were dead to the world.
“Who is this?” The voice was suspicious.
“It is your friend, Father Arguedas.” The priest’s eyes filled with tears and he held up his hand to excuse himself from the crowd and stepped into the corner, into the lustrous folds of the draperies.
There was a long silence on the other end. “Is this a joke?”
“Manuel, no, I’m calling.”
“I am in—” he said, but then faltered. “I have been detained.”
“We know all about that. Father, are you well? Do they treat you all right? They let you make phone calls there?”
“I am well. I am fine. The call, no, it is a special circumstance.”
“We say the mass for you every day.” Now it was his friend’s voice that was breaking. “I only came home for lunch. I have only just walked in the door. If you had called five minutes before I wouldn’t have been here. Are you safe? We hear terrible things.”
“They say the mass for me?” Father Arguedas wrapped his hand around the heavy draperies and rested his cheek against the soft cloth. To the best of his knowledge, he had been remembered in the mass along with twenty-three others on the Sunday before he took his holy orders, and that was all. To think of those people, the people he prayed for, praying for him. To think that God heard his name from so many voices. “They must pray for all of us here, the hostages and captors alike.”
“We do,” Manuel said. “But the mass is offered in your name.”
“I can’t believe this,” he whispered.
“Does he have the music?” Roxane asked and then Gen asked the priest.
Father Arguedas remembered himself. “Manuel.” He coughed to try and clear the emotion from his voice. “I’m calling to ask you for a favor.”
“Anything, my friend. Do they want money?”
The priest smiled to think with all these wealthy men around it would be put to him to ask a music teacher for money. “Nothing like that. I need sheet music. There is a singer here—”
“You know everything,” he said, taking comfort in his friend’s concern. “She needs music to practice with.”
“I heard her accompanist was dead. Murdered by the terrorists. I heard they cut off his hands.”
Father Arguedas was shocked. What else did people say about them now that they were gone? “It was nothing like that. He died all on his own. The man was a diabetic.” Should he defend the people who kept them? Surely, they should not be falsely accused of cutting the hands off a pianist. “It isn’t so bad here. I don’t mind it, really. We’ve found another accompanist. Someone who is here who plays very well, I think,” he said, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Perhaps even better than the first one. She wants things in a wide range, opera scores, Bellini songs, Chopin for the accompanist. I have a list.”
“There is nothing she needs that I don’t have,” Manuel said confidently.
The priest could hear his friend rummaging for paper, a pen. “I told her that.”
“You spoke of me to Roxane Coss?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m calling.”
“She’s heard my name?”
“She wants to sing from your music,” the priest said.
“Even when you are locked away you manage to do good work.” Manuel sighed. “What an honor for me. I will bring them now. I will skip lunch completely.”
The two men conferred about the list and then Father Arguedas double-checked it with Gen. When everything was settled, the priest asked his friend to hold the line. He hesitated and then he held out the phone to Roxane. “Ask her to say something,” he said to Gen.
“Anything. It doesn’t matter. Ask her to say the names of the operas. Would she do that
Gen made the request and Roxane Coss took the small phone from the priest’s hand and held it to her ear. “Hello?” she said.
“Hello?” Manuel parroted in English.
She looked at the priest and she smiled. She looked right at him while she said the names into the phone. “La Bohème,” she said. “Così fan tutti.”
“Dear God,” Manuel whispered.
“La Gioconda, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Madama Butterfly.”
It was as if a white light filled up the priest’s chest, a hot sort of brightness that made his eyes water and his heart beat like a desperate man pounding on the church door at night. Had he been able to lift up his hands to touch her he could not be sure he could have stopped himself. But it didn’t matter. He was paralyzed by her voice, the music of speaking, the rhythmic loops of the names that passed through her lips, into the phone, and then into Manuel’s ear some two miles away. The priest knew then for sure that he would survive this. That there would come a day when he would sit at Manuel’s kitchen table in his small apartment cluttered with music and they would shamelessly recount the pleasure of this exact moment. He would have to live if only to have that cup of coffee with his friend. And while they would remember, try to place in order the names that she spoke, Father Arguedas would know that he had been the more fortunate of the two because it was he whom she had looked at when she spoke.
“Give me the phone,” Simon Thibault said to Messner when they were done.
“He said one call.”
“I couldn’t care less what he said. Give me the goddamn phone.”
“They’re watching television. Give me the phone.” The terrorists had removed all the cords from the phones.
Messner sighed and handed him the phone. “One minute.”
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes