Bel canto, p.16
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       Bel Canto, p.16

           Ann Patchett
 
“I swear it,” Simon said. He was already dialing the number. The phone rang five times and then the answering machine picked up the line. It was his own voice, saying first in Spanish and then again in French that they were out, saying they would return the call. Why hadn’t Edith recorded the message? What had he been thinking of? He put his hand over his eyes and began to cry. The sound of his own voice was almost unbearable to him. When it stopped there was a long, dull tone. “Je t’adore,” he said. “Je t’aime, Je t’adore.”

  * * *

  Everyone was scattering now, wandering off to their chairs to nap or play a hand of solitaire. After Roxane walked away and Kato returned to the letter he had been writing to his sons (he had so much to tell them now!) Gen noticed that Carmen was still in her place on the other side of the room and that she wasn’t watching the singer or the accompanist anymore. She was watching him. He felt that same tightness he felt when she had looked at him before. That face, which had seemed pretty to a disadvantage when it was assigned to a boy, did not blink or move or even appear to breathe. Carmen did not wear her cap. Her eyes were large and dark and frozen onto Gen, as if by looking away she would be admitting that she had been looking in the first place.

  Gen, in his genius for languages, was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words. If Mr. Hosokawa had still been sitting there he might have said to Gen, Go and see what that girl wants, and Gen would go and ask her without hesitation. It had occurred to him in his life that he had the soul of a machine and was only capable of motion when someone else turned the key. He was very good at working and he was very good at being by himself. Sitting alone in his apartment with books and tapes, he would pick up languages the way other men picked up women, with smooth talk and then later, passion. He would scatter books on the floor and pick them up at random. He read Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, Flaubert in French, Chekhov in Russian, Nabokov in English, Mann in German, then he switched them around: Milosz in French, Flaubert in Russian, Mann in English. It was like a game, a showy parlor trick he performed only for himself, in which the constant switching kept his mind sharp, but it was hardly the same thing as being able to approach a person who was looking at you intently from across a room. Perhaps the Generals were right about him after all.

  Carmen wore a wide leather belt around her narrow waist and into the right side she had stuck a pistol. Her green fatigues were not dirty the way the fatigues of her compatriots were and the tear in the knee of her pants had been neatly sewn together with the same needle and thread Esmeralda had used to stitch together the Vice President’s face. Esmeralda had left the spool with the needle sticking out of it on the side table when she had finished her work and Carmen had surreptitiously dropped them into her pocket the first chance she got. She had been hoping to speak to the translator since she realized what it was he did, but couldn’t figure out a way to speak to him without letting him know she was a girl. Then Beatriz took care of that and now there was no secret, no reason to wait, except for the fact that she seemed to be stuck against the wall. He had seen her. He was looking at her now, and that seemed to be as far as things were able to progress. She could not walk away and she was equally unable to walk towards him. Life could very well be lived out in that spot. She tried to remember her aggressiveness, all the things the Generals had taught her in training, but it was one thing to take what you must for the good of the people and quite another to ask for something for yourself. She knew nothing at all about asking.

  “Dear Gen,” Messner said, clapping a hand down on his shoulder. “I’ve never seen you sitting alone. You must feel at times that everyone has something to say and no one knows how to say it.”

  “At times,” Gen said absently. He felt if he were to blow in her direction she would be lifted up in the current of air and would simply bob away like a feather.

  “We are the handmaidens of circumstance, you and I.” Messner spoke to Gen in French, the language he spoke at home in Switzerland. “What would be the male equivalent to handmaiden?”

  “Esclave,” Gen said.

  “Yes, slave, of course, but it doesn’t sound as nice. I think I’ll stay with handmaidens. I don’t mind that.” Messner sat down next to Gen on the piano bench and let his eyes follow the course of Gen’s stare. “My God,” he said quietly. “Isn’t that a girl there?”

  Gen told him it was.

  “Where did she come from? There were no girls. Don’t tell me they’ve found a way to get more of their troops inside.”

  “She was always here,” Gen said. “Two of them. We just didn’t notice. That’s Carmen. Beatriz, the other one, is in watching television.”

  “We didn’t notice her?”

  “Apparently not,” Gen said, feeling quite sure he had noticed.

  “I was just in the den.”

  “Then you overlooked Beatriz again.”

  “Beatriz. And this one is Carmen. Well,” Messner said, standing up. “Then there’s something wrong with the whole lot of us. Be my translator. I want to speak to her.”

  “Your Spanish is fine.”

  “My Spanish is halting and my verbs are improperly conjugated. Get up. Look at her, Gen. She’s staring right at you.” It was true. So fearful had Carmen become when she saw that Messner meant to come towards her that she had lost her ability to even blink. She was now staring in much the same way a figure stares from a portrait. She prayed to Saint Rose of Lima to grant her that rarest of gifts: to become invisible. “Either she’s been commanded to watch you on the penalty of her death or she has something to say.”

  Gen got up. He was a translator. He would go and translate Messner’s conversation. Still, he felt a peculiar fluttering in his chest, a sensation that was not entirely dissimilar to an itch but was located just beneath his ribs.

  “Such a remarkable thing and no one even mentioned it,” Messner said.

  “We were all thinking about the new accompanist,” Gen said, his knees feeling looser with every step. Femur, patella, tibia. “We had already forgotten about the girls.”

  “I suppose it’s terribly sexist of me assuming that all of the terrorists were male. It’s a modern world, after all. One should suppose a girl can grow up to be a terrorist just as easily as a boy.”

  “I can’t imagine it,” Gen said.

  When they were three feet away, Carmen found the strength to put her right hand on her gun, which immediately stopped them from coming any closer.

  “Do you mean to shoot us?” Messner said in French, a simple sentence he couldn’t say in Spanish because he didn’t know the word for shoot, a word he imagined he should make a point to learn. Gen translated and his voice sounded uncertain. Carmen, wide-eyed, her forehead damp, said nothing.

  “Are we certain she speaks Spanish? Are we certain she speaks?” Messner said to Gen.

  Gen asked her if she spoke Spanish.

  “Poquito,” she whispered.

  “Don’t shoot,” Messner said with good nature, and pointed to the gun.

  Carmen pulled her hand away and crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t,” she said.

  “How old are you?”

  She said that she was seventeen and they assumed she was telling the truth.

  “What is your first language?” Messner asked her.

  Gen asked her what she spoke at home.

  “Quechua,” she said. “We all speak Quechua but we know Spanish.” And then, in her first attempt to address what she wanted, she said, “I should know Spanish better.” The words came out in a dull croak.

  “Your Spanish is good,” Gen said.

  The expression on her face changed with this compliment. No one could stretch the truth so much as to call it a smile, but her eyebrows lifted and her face tilted up towards them a centimeter or so as if it was drawn towards sunlight. “I am trying to learn better.”

  “How did a girl like you get tied up with a bunch like this?” Messner said. Gen found the question overly direct but certainly M
essner knew enough Spanish to catch him if he were to ask her another question entirely.

  “I work to free the people,” she said.

  Messner scratched the back of his neck. “It’s always ‘Free the People.’ I never know exactly which people they mean or what it is they want to free them from. I certainly recognize the problems but there is such a vagueness to ‘Free the People.’ It’s easier to negotiate with bank robbers, really. They only want the money. They want to take the money and free themselves and the people be damned. There’s something much more straightforward about that, don’t you think?”

  “Are you asking me or her?”

  Messner looked at Carmen and apologized in Spanish. “That is rude of me,” he said to Gen. “My Spanish is very poor,” Messner said to Carmen, “but I’m trying to improve as well.”

  “Sí,” she said. She should not be talking to them like this. The Generals could come in. Anyone could see her. She was too much out in the open.

  “Are you being treated well? Are you in good health?”

  “Sí,” she said again, although she wasn’t sure why he was asking.

  “She’s really a very lovely girl,” he said to Gen in French. “She has a remarkable face. It’s almost a perfect heart. Don’t tell her that, though. She looks like the kind that could die of embarrassment.” Then he turned to Carmen. “If there’s anything you need, you let one of us know.”

  “Sí,” she said, just barely able to make a sound come out with the shape of the word.

  “You don’t see many shy terrorists,” Messner said in French. They all stood there as if it was a painful moment at a long, dull cocktail party.

  “You like the music,” Gen said.

  “Very beautiful,” she whispered.

  “It was Chopin.”

  “Kato played Chopin?” Messner said. “The nocturnes? I’m sorry I missed that.”

  “Chopin played,” Carmen said.

  “No,” Gen said. “The man who played was Señor Kato. The music he played was written by Señor Chopin.”

  “Very beautiful,” she said again, and suddenly her eyes welled up with tears and she parted her lips slightly not to speak but to breathe.

  “What is the matter?” Messner said. He was going to touch her shoulder and then thought better of it. The big boy named Gilbert called to her from the other side of the room and hearing her name it was as if her power of movement was restored. She quickly rubbed her eyes and stepped around the two men without so much as nodding. They turned and watched her dart off across the wide expanse of the living room and then disappear down the hall with the boy.

  “Perhaps the music was getting to her,” Messner said.

  Gen stood watching the empty place where she had been. “It would be hard on a girl,” he said. “All of this.”

  And while Messner started to say it was hard on them all he knew what Gen meant and frankly, he agreed.

  Whenever Messner left there was a lingering sadness in the house that could last for hours. It was very quiet inside and no one listened to the tedious messages the police continued to broadcast from the other side of the wall. Hopeless, Surrender, Will Not Negotiate. It droned on until the words simply broke down into a dull buzz, the angry sound of hornets scouring the nest. They imagined what prisoners felt like when the visiting hour was over and there was nothing left to do but sit in their cell and wonder if it was dark yet outside. They were still deep in their afternoon bout of depression, still thinking about all the elderly relatives they never went to visit, when Messner knocked again. Simon Thibault lifted his face from the blue scarf that hung around his neck and General Benjamin motioned for the Vice President to answer the door. Ruben took a moment to untie the dishtowel from his waist. The people with the guns motioned for him to hurry. It was Messner, they knew it. Only Messner came to the door.

  “What a lovely surprise,” the Vice President said.

  Messner was standing on the front steps, struggling to hold a heavy box in his arms.

  The Generals had thought that this knock out of schedule indicated a breakthrough, a chance to put this thing to rest. They were that hopeless, that hopeful. When they saw it was only another delivery they felt a crush of disappointment. They wanted none of it. “This isn’t his time,” General Alfredo said to Gen. “He knows what times he is allowed to come.” General Alfredo had fallen asleep in his chair. He had suffered from terrible insomnia ever since their arrival at the Vice President’s estate and anyone who woke him from the little sleep he managed would live to regret it. He always dreamed of bullets zipping past his ears. When he woke up his shirt was drenched, his heart was racing, and he was always more exhausted than he had been before he slept.

  “It seemed to me to be a special circumstance,” Messner said. “The music has arrived.”

  “We are an army,” Alfredo said sharply. “Not a conservatory. Come at your time tomorrow and we will discuss the issue of allowing music.”

  Roxane Coss asked Gen if it was her music, and when he told her yes she was on her feet. The priest approached the door as well. “These are from Manuel?”

  “He’s just on the other side of the wall,” Messner said. “He sent this all for you.”

  Father Arguedas pressed his folded hands to his lips. Ever-powerful and merciful God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks and praise.

  “Both of you, sit down,” General Alfredo said.

  “I’ll put this inside the door,” Messner said, and started to bend down. It was surprising how much music could weigh.

  “No,” Alfredo said. He had a headache. He was sick to death of giving in on things. There needed to be some order to this business, some respect for authority. Wasn’t he the man with the gun? Didn’t that count for something? If he said the box would not come inside then the box would not come inside. General Benjamin whispered something in Alfredo’s ear but Alfredo simply repeated his point. “No.”

  Roxane pulled on Gen’s arm. “Isn’t that mine? Tell them that.”

  Gen asked if the box belonged to Miss Coss.

  “Nothing belongs to Señorita Coss! She is a prisoner like the rest of you. This is not her home. There is no special mail service that applies only to her. She does not receive packages.” The tone of Alfredo’s voice made all the junior terrorists stand up straight and look menacing, for many of them all this took was to put their hands on their guns.

  Messner sighed and shifted the weight in his arms. “Then I will come back tomorrow.” He spoke in English now, he spoke to Roxane and let Gen translate for the Generals.

  He had not left, he had barely started to turn away from the house when Roxane Coss closed her eyes and opened her mouth. In retrospect, it was a risky thing to do, both from the perspective of General Alfredo, who might have seen it as an act of insurrection, and from the care of the instrument of the voice itself. She had not sung in two weeks, nor did she go through a single scale to warm up. Roxane Coss, wearing Mrs. Iglesias’s slacks and a white dress shirt belonging to the Vice President, stood in the middle of the vast living room and began to sing “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence. No one would have said her voice sounded better with an orchestra, or that it was better when the room was immaculately clean and lit by candles. They did not notice the absence of flowers or champagne, in fact, they knew now that flowers and champagne were unnecessary embellishments. Had she really not been singing all along? The sound was no more beautiful when her voice was limber and warm. Their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all. They cried for the beauty of the music, certainly, but also for the failure of their plans. They were thinking of the last time they had heard her sing and longed for the women who had been beside them then. All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seeme
d that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear. When she was finished, the people around her stood in stunned and shivering silence. Messner leaned into the wall as if struck. He had not been invited to the party. Unlike the others, he had never heard her sing before.

  Roxane took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. “Tell him,” she said to Gen, “that’s it. Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment.”

  “Really?” Gen asked.

  “I don’t bluff,” the soprano said.

  So Gen related the message and all eyes turned to General Alfredo. He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to push down the headache but it didn’t work. The music had confused him to the point of senselessness. He could not hold on to his convictions. Now he was thinking of his sister who had died of scarlet fever when he was just a boy. These hostages were like terrible children, always wanting more for themselves. They knew nothing of what it meant to suffer. He would have been glad to walk out of the house at that moment and take whatever fate was waiting for him on the other side of the wall, a lifetime in prison or a bullet in the head. With so little sleep he was in no condition to make decisions. Every possible conclusion seemed like madness. Alfredo turned and left the room, walking down the long hallway towards the Vice President’s study. After a time the faint voices of television news could be heard and General Benjamin told Messner to get inside and sharply instructed his soldiers to check thoroughly the contents of the box for anything that was not music. He tried to make it sound as if it was his decision, that he was the one in charge, but even he could see this was no longer true.

  The soldiers took the box from Messner and emptied it out on the floor. There were loose scores and bound books, hundreds of pages covered in the alphabet of song. They sifted through them and separated them, shaking out handfuls as if there might be money caught between the pages.

 
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