Bel canto, p.17
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       Bel Canto, p.17

           Ann Patchett

  “Amazing,” Messner said. “I watched the police tear through them outside and now we have to go through it all again.

  Kato went and knelt down beside the boys. Once they had checked a piece of paper, Kato took it from them. He carefully separated Rossini from Verdi, put Chopin with Chopin. Sometimes he would stop and read a page as if it were a letter from home, his head swaying with the timed beat. When he found something of particular interest he would take it to Roxane and hand it to her, bowing from the waist. He did not ask for Gen to translate. Everything she needed to know was there.

  “Manuel sends you his best regards,” Messner told Father Arguedas. “He said if there is anything else that is needed he will find it for you.”

  The priest knew he committed the sin of pride and still he was overjoyed at having been able to play a role in bringing in the music. He was still too dizzy from the sound of Roxane’s voice to express himself properly. He looked to see if the windows were open. He hoped that Manuel had been able to hear a line, a note, from where he stood on the sidewalk. What a blessing he had received in his captivity. The mysteries of Christ’s love had never been closer to him, not when he said the mass or received communion, not even on the day he took holy orders. He realized now he was only just beginning to see the full extent to which it was his destiny to follow, to walk blindly into fates he could never understand. In fate there was reward, in turning over one’s heart to God there was a magnificence that lay beyond description. At the moment one is sure that all is lost, look at what is gained!

  Roxane Coss did not sing again that day. Her voice had been asked to do enough. Now she contented herself to look through the scores, sitting on the small couch by the window with Mr. Hosokawa. When one of them had something to say they would call to Gen, but what was surprising was how rarely they needed him. He was a comfort to her. In the absence of language, she believed that he agreed with her completely. She would hum a little of the scores quietly so that he knew what she was looking at and then they would look at the pages together. Mr. Hosokawa could not read music but he accepted that. He did not speak the language of the libretto, the singer, or the host. He was beginning to feel more at ease with all he had lost, all he didn’t know. Instead, he was astonished by what he had: the chance to sit beside this woman in the late afternoon light while she read. Her hand brushed his as she set the pages down on the couch between them, and then her hand rested on top of his hand while she continued to read.

  After a while Kato approached them. He bowed to Roxane and then bowed again to Mr. Hosokawa. “Do you think it would be all right if I played?” Kato asked his employer.

  “I think it would be fine,” Mr. Hosokawa said.

  “You don’t think it would disturb her reading?”

  Roxane watched while Mr. Hosokawa pantomimed playing the piano and then nodded to Kato.

  “Yes,” she said, nodding. She held out her hand for the music.

  Kato handed it to her. “Satie,” he said.

  “Satie.” She smiled and nodded again. Kato went to the piano and he played. It wasn’t like the last time he had played, when no one could believe that such a talent had been in the room among them without anyone knowing it. It was nothing like Roxane singing, where it seemed that everyone’s heart would have to wait until she had finished before it could beat again. The Satie was only music. They could hear its beauty without being paralyzed by it. The men were able to read their books or look out the window while Kato played. Roxane continued to leaf through the scores, though every now and then she stopped and closed her eyes. Only Mr. Hosokawa and the priest completely understood the importance of the music. Every note was distinct. It was the measurement of the time which had gotten away from them. It was the interpretation of their lives in the very moment they were being lived.

  There was one other person there who understood the music, but she was not a guest. Standing in the hallway, looking around the corner to the living room, was Carmen, and Carmen, though she did not have the words for it, understood everything perfectly. This was the happiest time of her life and it was because of the music. When she was a child dreaming on her pallet at night, she never dreamed of pleasures like these. None of her family, left behind in the mountains, could have understood that there was a house made of bricks and sealed glass windows that was never too hot or too cold. She could not have believed that somewhere in the world there was a vast expanse of carpet embroidered to look like a meadow of flowers, or that ceilings came tipped in gold, or that there could be pale marble women who stood on either side of a fireplace and balanced the mantelpiece on their heads. And that would have been enough, the music and the paintings and the garden which she patrolled with her rifle, but in addition there was food that came every day, so much food that some was always wasted no matter how hard they tried to eat it all. There were deep white bathtubs with an endless supply of hot water pouring out of the curved silver spigots. There were stacks of soft white towels and pillows and blankets trimmed in satin and so much space inside that you could wander off and no one would know where you had gone. Yes, the Generals wanted something better for the people, but weren’t they the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened at all, if they all stayed together in this generous house? Carmen prayed hard. She prayed while standing near the priest in hopes it would give her request extra credibility. What she prayed for was nothing. She prayed that God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.

  * * *

  It was Carmen’s night for watch. There was a long wait before everyone had gone to sleep. Some of them read with flashlights, others tossed and stretched in the great room where they all bedded down together. They were like children, up and down for water and then the bathroom. But once they were all still, she crept around their bodies and went to look at Gen. He was in his usual place, sleeping on his back on the floor next to the sofa where his employer slept. Gen had taken his glasses off and in his sleep he held them lightly in one hand. He had a pleasant face, a face that stored a wonderment of knowledge. She could see his eyes moving quickly back and forth beneath the smooth, thin skin of his eyelids, but if he was dreaming, everything else was still. His breathing was quiet and steady. Carmen wished that she could see inside his mind. She wondered if it would look crowded with words, compartments of language carefully fitted on top of each other. Her own brain, by comparison, would be an empty closet. He could refuse her and what would be the harm in that? She wouldn’t have anything less than what she had now. All she had to do was ask. All she had to do was say the words and yet the thought of it closed her throat entirely. What experience did she have of piano music and paintings of the Madonna? What experience did she have of asking? Carmen held her breath and stretched out on the floor next to Gen. She was as silent as light on the leaves of trees. She lay on her side and put her mouth near his sleeping ear. She had no talent for asking but she was a genius at being quiet. When they practiced their drills in the woods it was Carmen who could run for a mile without breaking a twig. It was Carmen who could walk up right behind you and tap you on the shoulder without making a sound. She was the one they sent in first to unscrew the covers from the air-conditioning vents because no one would notice her. No one would hear a thing. She said a prayer to Saint Rose of Lima. She asked for courage. After so many prayers offered for the gift of silence, she now asked for sound.

  “Gen,” she whispered.

  Gen was dreaming that he was standing on a beach in Greece looking at the water. Somewhere behind him in the dunes someone was saying his name.

  Her heart was stuttering in her chest. The rush of her blood made a roar in her ears. What she heard when she strained to listen was the voice of the saint. “Now or never,” Saint Rose told her. “I am with you only for this moment.”


  And now the voice that was calling was walking away and Gen left the beach to follow it, followed the voice from slee
p to waking. It was always so confusing, waking up in the Vice President’s house. What hotel room was this? Why was he on the floor? Then he remembered and all at once he opened his eyes, thinking it was Mr. Hosokawa who needed him. He looked up to the sofa but then he felt a hand on his shoulder. When he turned his head, the beautiful boy was there. Not the boy. Carmen. Her nose very nearly touching his nose. He was startled but not afraid. How odd that she was lying down, was all he thought.

  The military had recently given up on the floodlights that had raged for so long outside the windows and now the night looked like night again. “Carmen?” he said. Messner should see her like this, in the moonlight. He had been so right about her face, her heart-shaped face.

  “Very quiet,” she said deep into his ear. “Listen.” But where were the words? She was so thankful to be lying down. The racing of her heart was unbearable. Could he see her like this in the darkness, shaking? Could he feel her vibration deep in the wood of the floor? Could he hear her skin rustling inside the clothes she wore?

  “Close your eyes,” Saint Rose told her. “Say your prayer to me.”

  All at once there was enough air to fill her lungs. “Teach me to read,” she said quickly. “Teach me to make my letters in Spanish.”

  Gen looked at her. Her eyes were closed. It was as if he had come to lie down beside her and not the other way around. Her lashes were heavy and dark against the blush of her cheek. Was she asleep? Was she talking in her sleep? He could have kissed her without moving an inch and then he struck the thought from his mind.

  “You want to read in Spanish,” Gen repeated, his voice as small as her own.

  Heaven, she thought. He knows how to be quiet. He knows like me how to speak without making a sound. She took a breath and then blinked her dark eyes open. “And English,” she whispered. She smiled. She could not contain it. She had managed to ask him for everything she wanted.

  Shy Carmen, always hanging back from the others, who knew she could smile? But at the sight of that smile he would have promised her anything. He was just barely awake. Or maybe he was not awake at all. Had he wanted her and not known it? Had he wanted her so much that he dreamed she was lying beside him now? The things our minds keep from us, Gen thought. The secrets we keep even from ourselves. “Yes,” he said, “English.”

  She was reckless and brave, so great was her joy. She took her hand and put it over his eyes. She gently brushed his eyes closed again. Her hand was cool and soft. It smelled of metal. “Go back to sleep,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”


  years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.

  Before the box, the terrorists controlled the Vice President’s home. The hostages, even when not being directly threatened, mulled over the inevitability of their own deaths. Even if by some stroke of great good fortune no one shot them in their sleep, they now understood exactly what was in the cards, be it before their release or after. They would each and every one of them die. Surely they had always known this, but now death came and sat on their chests at night, peered cold and hungry into their eyes. The world was a dangerous place, notions of personal safety were a fairy story told to children at bedtime. All anyone had to do was turn the wrong corner and everything would be gone. They thought about the senseless death of the first accompanist. They missed him, and yet look how simply, how brilliantly he had been replaced. They missed their daughters and their wives. They were alive in this house but what difference did it make? Death was already sucking the air from the bottom of their lungs. It left them weak and listless. Powerful heads of corporations collapsed into chairs near the window and stared, diplomats flipped through magazines without noticing the pictures. Some days there was barely enough strength to turn the pages.

  But after Messner brought the box into the house everything changed. The terrorists continued to block the doors and carry guns, but now Roxane Coss was in charge. She started the morning at six o’clock because she woke up when the light came in through her window and when she woke up she wanted to work. She took her bath and had two pieces of toast and a cup of tea that Carmen made for her, brought up on a yellow wooden tray that the Vice President had picked out for this purpose. Now that Roxane knew Carmen was a girl she let her sit on the bed with her and drink out of her cup. She liked to braid Carmen’s hair, which was as shiny and black as a pool of oil. Some mornings the weight of Carmen’s hair between her fingers was the only thing that made any sense at all to her. There was comfort in pretending that she had been detained in order to braid the hair of this young woman. She was Mozart’s Susanna. Carmen was the Countess Rosina. The hair folded and looped into heavy black ribbons, perfectly ordered. There was nothing they could say to each other. When Roxane was finished, Carmen would go and stand behind her, brushing Roxane’s hair until it shined, then twist it into an identical braid. In this way, only for the little time they had together in the mornings, they were sisters, girlfriends, the same. They were happy together when it was just the two of them alone. They never thought of Beatriz, who shot dice against the pantry door in the kitchen with the boys.

  At seven o’clock Kato was waiting for Roxane at the piano, his fingers running silently up and down the keys. She had learned to say good morning, Ohayo Gozaimasu, in Japanese, and Kato knew a handful of phrases which included, good morning, thank you, and bye-bye. That constituted the extent of their abilities in each other’s language, so that they said good morning again when it was time to stop for a break or when they passed each other in the hallways before bedtime. They spoke to one another by handing leaves of music back and forth. While their relationship was by no means a democracy, Kato, who read the music the priest’s friend had sent while lying on the pile of coats he slept on at night, would sometimes pick out pieces he wanted to hear or pieces that he felt would be well suited to Roxane’s voice. He made what he felt to be wild presumptions in handing over his suggestions, but what did it matter? He was a vice president in a giant corporation, a numbers man, suddenly elevated to be the accompanist. He was not himself. He was no one he had ever imagined.

  At quarter past seven the scales began. On the first morning there were still people sleeping. Pietro Genovese was sleeping beneath the piano, and when the chords were struck he thought he was hearing the bells of St. Peter’s. None of that mattered. It was now time for work. Too much time had been spent weeping on the sofa or staring out the window. Now there was music and an accompanist. Roxane Coss had risked her voice on Gianni Schicchi and found that her voice was still there. “We’re rotting,” she had told Mr. Hosokawa through Gen only the day before. “All of us. I’ve had enough of it. If anyone is going to shoot me they will have to shoot me while I’m singing.” In this way Mr. Hosokawa knew she would be safe, as no one could shoot her while she sang. By extension they were all safe, and so they pressed in close to the piano to listen.

  “Step back,” Roxane said, and shooed them away with her hands. “I’m going to want that air.”

  The first thing she sang that morning was the aria from Rusalka, which she remembered was the one Mr. Hosokawa had requested that she sing for his birthday, before she knew him, before she knew anything. How she loved that story, the spirit of the water who longs to be a woman who can hold her lover in real arms instead of cool waves. She sang this aria at nearly every performance she gave, though she had never infused it with the compassion and understanding that she gave to it this morning. Mr. Hosokawa heard the difference in her voice, and it brought tears to his eyes.

  “She sings Czech like she was born to it,” he whispered to Gen.

  Gen nodded. He would never refute the beauty of her singing, the warm and liquid quality of her voice that so well matched the watery Rusalka, but there was no point in telling Mr. Hosokawa that this woman did not know a word of Czechoslovakian. She sang the passion of every syllable, but none of the s
yllables actually managed to form themselves into recognizable words of the language. It was quite obvious that she had memorized the work phonetically, that she sang her love for Dvořák and her love for the translated story, but that the Czech language itself was a stranger which passed her by without a moment’s recognition. Not that this was any sort of crime, of course. Who would even know except for him? There were no Czechs among them.

  Roxane Coss sang rigorously for three hours in the morning and sometimes sang again in the late afternoon before dinner if her voice felt strong, and for those hours no one gave a single thought to their death. They thought about her singing and about the song, the sweet radiance of her upper register. Soon enough the days were divided into three states: the anticipation of her singing, the pleasure of her singing, and the reflection on her singing.

  If the power had shifted away from them, the Generals didn’t seem to mind. The utter hopelessness of their mission seemed less overbearing to them now and many nights they slept almost in peace. General Benjamin continued to mark off the days on the dining-room wall. They had more time to concentrate on negotiations. Among themselves they spoke as if the singing had been part of their plan. It calmed the hostages. It focused the soldiers. It also had the remarkable effect of quelling the racket that came from the other side of the wall. They could only assume that with the windows open the people on the streets could hear her because the constant screech of bullhorned messages would stop as soon as she opened her mouth to sing, and after a few days the bullhorn did not come back at all. They imagined the street outside. It was packed with people, not one of them eating chips or coughing, all of them straining to listen to the voice they had heard only on records and in their dreams. It was a daily concert the Generals had arranged, or so they had come to believe. A gift to the people, a diversion to the military. They had kidnapped her for a reason, after all.

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