Bel canto, p.19
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       Bel Canto, p.19
 

           Ann Patchett

  “Who knew that life could be so unexpected? I thought we would be dead by now, or if not dead then regularly begging for our lives, but instead I sit and I consider opera.”

  “No one could have predicted.” Gen leaned forward imperceptibly to see if he could catch sight of Carmen before she passed completely from view, but he was too late.

  “I have always been very interested in music. Opera in Russia is very important. You know that. It is virtually a sacred thing.”

  “I can imagine.” Now he wished he had his watch. If he did he would be able to time her, to see how many minutes it took for her to go past the window again. She could become her own sort of clock. He thought about asking Fyodorov but clearly Fyodorov had his mind on other things.

  “Opera came to Russia late. In Italy the language lent itself to this kind of singing but for us it took longer. It is, you know, a complicated language. The singers we have now in Russia are very great. I have no complaints about the talent our country possesses, but as I live now there is only one true genius. Many great singers, brilliant voices, but only one genius. She has never been to Russia that I know of. Wouldn’t you say the chances of finding oneself trapped in a house with true genius are remarkably small?”

  “I would agree,” Gen said.

  “To find myself here with her and to be unable to say anything it is, well, unfortunate. No, honestly, it is frustrating. What if we were released tomorrow? That is what I pray for and yet, wouldn’t I say to myself for the rest of my life, you never spoke to her? She was right there in the room with you and you didn’t bother to make arrangements to say something? What would it mean to live with such regret? I suppose it didn’t bother me much before she resumed her singing. I was preoccupied with my own thoughts, the circumstances at hand, but now with the music coming so regularly everything has changed. Don’t you find that to be true?”

  And Gen had to agree. He hadn’t thought about it in exactly those terms before but it was true. There was some difference.

  “And what are the chances, given that I am a hostage in a country I do not know with a woman I so sincerely admire that there would also be a man such as yourself who has a good heart and speaks both my language and hers? Tell me what the chances are? They are in the millions! This is, of course, why I have come to you. I am interested in engaging your services of translation.”

  “It’s nothing as formal as that,” Gen said. “I’m happy to speak to Miss Coss. We can go now. I’ll tell her whatever you want to say.”

  At that the great Russian paled and took three nervous puffs off his cigarette. So massive were this man’s lungs that the little cigarette was all but finished off by his sudden burst of attention. “There is no rush for this, my friend.”

  “Unless we’re released tomorrow.”

  He nodded and smiled. “You let me escape from nothing.” He pointed his smoked-out cigarette at Gen. “You are thinking. You are telling me it is time to declare myself.”

  Gen thought he might have misunderstood the verb to declare. It could have other meanings. He could speak Russian, but his understanding lacked nuance. “I’m not telling you anything other than that Miss Coss is right there if you want to speak to her.”

  “Let’s call it tomorrow, shall we? I’ll speak in the morning”—he clapped a hand down on Gen’s shoulder—“in case we are so fortunate. Is the morning fine with you?”

  “I’ll be here.”

  “Just after she sings,” he said. Then he added, “But without rushing her any.”

  Gen told him that sounded reasonable.

  “Good, good. That will give me time to prepare my thoughts. I will be awake all night. You are very good. Your Russian is very good.”

  “Thank you,” Gen said. He had hoped that maybe they could talk for a while about Pushkin. There were things he wanted to know about Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, but Fyodorov was gone, lumbering back to his corner like a fighter ready for the second round. The other two Russians were waiting for him, smoking.

  The Vice President was standing in the kitchen looking into a box of vegetables, crookneck squash and dark purple eggplants, tomatoes and sweet yellow onions. He took this as a bad sign that the people who surrounded the house were growing bored with their kidnapping. How long did these crises ever last? Six hours? Two days? After that they lobbed in some tear gas and everyone surrendered. But somehow these cut-rate terrorists had thwarted any rescue. Maybe it was because there were so many hostages. Maybe it was the wall around the vice-presidential house, or their fear of accidentally killing Roxane Coss. For whatever reason, their situation had already crawled past its second week. It was completely conceivable that they were no longer on the front page of the paper or that they had already fallen to the second or even the third story on the evening news. People had gotten on with their lives. A more practical stand was being taken, as evidenced by the food in front of him. The Vice President imagined his group the survivors of a shipwreck who watched helplessly while the last search-and-rescue helicopter spun north towards the mainland. The evidence was in the food. At first it had all been prepared, sandwiches or casseroles of pulled chicken and rice. Then it came in needing some assembly, bread and meat and cheese wrapped on separate trays. But this, this was something else entirely. Fifteen raw chickens, pink and cold, their stomachs greasing the counter, boxes of vegetables, bags of dried beans, tins of shortening. Certainly it was enough food, the chickens appeared to have been robust, but the question was how did one effect the transformation? How did what was here become dinner? Ruben believed the question was his responsibility to answer but he knew nothing of his own kitchen. He did not know where the colander was. He did not know marjoram from thyme. He wondered if his wife would have known. Truthfully, they had been taken care of for too long. He had realized that in these past weeks as he swept the floors and folded up the bedding. Perhaps he had been useful in society, but as far as household matters were concerned he had become some kind of fancy lapdog. As a boy he had received no domestic training. He had never once been asked to set a table or peel a carrot. His sisters made his bed and folded his clothes. It had taken a state of captivity to force him to figure out the operation of his own washer and dryer. Every day there was a never-ending list of things that needed to be attended to. If he worked without stop from the moment he woke up in the morning until he fell into an exhausted heap on his pile of blankets, he could not keep the house in the manner to which he had been accustomed to seeing it. How this house had sung just a short while ago! There was no telling how many girls came and went, dusting and buffing, ironing shirts and handkerchiefs, mopping the most imperceptible cobwebs from the corners of his ceiling. They polished the brass strips at the base of the front door. They kept the pantry filled with sweet cakes and pickled beets. They left the vaguest scent of their own bath powder (which his wife bought each of them for their birthdays every year, a generous round container with a fat down puff on top) behind them in the rooms and so everything smelled like a fistful of hyacinth sprinkled with talc. Not one thing in the house demanded his attention, not one object asked for his intercession. Even his own children were bathed and brushed and put to bed by lovely hired hands. It was perfect, always and completely perfect.

  And his guests! Who were these men who never took their dishes to the sink? At least the terrorists he could forgive. They were for the most part children, and besides, they had been raised in the jungle. (At this he thought of his own mother, who would call to him when he forgot to close the front door, “I should send you to live in the jungle where you wouldn’t be bothered by things like doors!”) The hostages were accustomed to valets and secretaries, and while they had cooks and maids they probably never saw them. Not only were their households run for them, they were run so silently, so efficiently, that they never had to encounter the operations.

  Of course Ruben could have let it all go. It wasn’t really his house, after all. He could have watched the carpets
molder in pools of spilled soda pop and stepped around the trash that circled the overfull wastebaskets, but he was first and foremost the host. He felt a sense of responsibility to keep some semblance of a party running. But what he soon found was that he enjoyed it. Not only did he enjoy it he believed, with all modesty, that he had a certain knack for it. When he got on his hands and knees and waxed the floors, the floors did shine in response to his attentions. Of all the many jobs there were to do, the one he liked the best was ironing. It was amazing to him that they hadn’t taken the iron away. If properly wielded he was sure it was as deadly as a gun, so heavy, so incredibly hot. While he pressed the shirts of shirtless men who stood waiting, he thought of the damage he could do. Certainly, he couldn’t take them all out (Could an iron deflect bullets? he wondered), but he could clank down two or three before they shot him. With an iron, Ruben could go down fighting and the thought of it made him feel less passive, more like a man. He nosed the pointy silver tip into a pocket and then slid it down a sleeve. He puffed out clouds of steam that made him pour with sweat. The collar, he had quickly come to realize, was the key to everything.

  Ironing was one thing. Ironing was within his grasp. But where raw food was concerned he was at a loss, and he stood and he stared at all that now lay before him. He decided to put the chickens in the refrigerator. Avoid warm meat, that much he was sure about. Then he went to look for help.

  “Gen,” he said. “Gen, I need to speak to Señorita Coss.”

  “You, too?” Gen asked.

  “Me, too,” the Vice President said. “What, is there a line? Shall I take a number?”

  Gen shook his head and together they walked over to see Roxane. “Gen,” she said, and held out her hands as if she hadn’t seen them in days. “Mr. Vice President.” She had changed since the music had arrived, or she had changed back. She now more closely resembled the famous soprano who had been brought to a party at enormous expense to sing six arias. She once again put out a kind of light that belongs only to the very famous. Ruben always felt slightly weak when he stood this close to her. She was wearing his wife’s sweater and his wife’s black silk scarf covered in jewel-colored birds tied around her throat. (Oh, how his wife adored that scarf, which had come from Paris. She never wore it more than once or twice a year and she kept it carefully folded in its original box. How quickly Ruben had served up this treasure to Roxane!) He was overcome by the sudden need to tell her how he felt about her. How much her music meant to him. He controlled himself by calling those bare chickens to mind. “You must forgive me,” the Vice President said, his voice breaking with emotion. “You do so much for all of us as it is. Your practicing has been a godsend, though how you can call it practicing I don’t know. It implies that your singing could improve.” He touched his fingers to his eyes and shook his head. He was tired. “This isn’t what I came to say to you. I wonder if I may bother you for a favor?”

  “Is there something you would like me to sing?” Roxane stroked the edges of the scarf.

  “That I would never presume to know. Whatever song you choose is the song I have been wanting to hear.”

  “Very impressive,” Gen said to him in Spanish.

  Ruben gave him a look that made it clear he had no interest in editorials. “I need some advice in the kitchen. Some help. Don’t mistake me, I would never ask you to do any work, but if you could give me the smallest amount of guidance in the preparation of our dinner, I would be greatly indebted to you.”

  Roxane looked at Gen and blinked. “You misunderstood him.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Try again.”

  Spanish was to linguists what hopscotch was to triathletes. If he was managing in Russian and Greek, chances were he would not have misunderstood a sentence of Spanish. A sentence regarding the preparation of food and not the state of the human soul. Spanish was, after all, what he was translating in and out of all day. It was the closest thing available to a common language. “Pardon me,” Gen said to Ruben.

  “Tell her I need some help with dinner.”

  “Cooking dinner?” Roxane asked.

  Ruben thought about this for a moment, assuming he was not asking for help serving dinner or eating dinner, then yes, cooking dinner was what was left. “Cooking.”

  “Why would he think I know how to cook?” she asked Gen.

  Ruben, whose English was bad but not hopeless, pointed out that she was a woman. “The two girls, I can’t imagine they would know a thing except for native dishes that might not be to others’ liking,” he said through Gen.

  “This is some sort of Latin thing, don’t you think?” she said to Gen. “I can’t even really be offended. It’s important to bear the cultural differences in mind.” She gave Ruben a smile that was kind but relayed no information.

  “I think that’s wise,” Gen said, and then he told Ruben, “She doesn’t cook.”

  “She cooks a little,” Ruben said.

  Gen shook his head. “I would think not at all.”

  “She wasn’t born singing opera,” the Vice President said. “She must have had a childhood.” Even his wife, who had grown up rich, who was a pampered girl with most available luxuries, was taught to cook.

  “Possibly, but I imagine someone cooked her food for her.”

  Roxane, now out of the conversational loop, leaned back against the gold silk cushions of the sofa, held her hands up, and shrugged. It was a charming gesture. Such smooth hands that had never washed a dish or shelled a pea. “Tell him his scar is looking so much better,” she said to Gen. “I want to say something nice. Thank God that girl of his was still around when it happened. Otherwise he might have asked me to sew his face up for him, too.”

  “Should I tell him you don’t sew?” Gen said.

  “Better he hears it now.” The soprano smiled again and waved good-bye to the Vice President.

  “Do you know how to cook?” Ruben asked Gen.

  Gen ignored the question. “I’ve heard Simon Thibault complain a great deal about the food. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Anyway, he’s French. The French know how to cook.”

  “Two minutes ago I would have said the same thing about women,” Ruben said.

  But Simon Thibault proved to be a better bet. His face lit up at the mention of raw chickens. “And vegetables?” he said. “Praise God, something that hasn’t already been ruined.”

  “This is your man,” Gen said.

  Together the three of them walked to the kitchen, making their way through the maze of men and boys who loitered in the great hall of the living room. Thibault immediately went to the vegetables. He took an eggplant out of the box and rolled it in his hands. He could almost make out his own reflection in its shiny skin. He put his nose to the deep purple patent leather. It didn’t smell like much and yet there was something vaguely dark and loamy, something alive that made him want to bite down. “This is a good kitchen,” he said. “Let me see your pans.”

  So Ruben opened up the drawers and cabinets and Simon Thibault began his systematic inventory, wire whisks and mixing bowls, lemon squeezers, parchment paper, double boilers. Every imaginable pot in every imaginable size, all the way up to something that weighed thirty pounds empty and could have concealed a small-boned two-year-old child. It was a kitchen that was accustomed to cocktail suppers for five hundred. A kitchen braced to feed the masses. “Where are the knives?” Thibault said.

  “The knifes are in the belts of the hoodlums,” the Vice President said. “They plan to either hack us up with the meat cleaver or saw us to death with the bread knife.”

  Thibault drummed his fingers on the steel countertops. It was a nice look, but in their home in Paris he and Edith had marble. What a beautiful pastry crust one could make on marble! “It’s not a bad idea,” he said, “not bad. I’d just as soon they keep the knives. Gen, go and tell the Generals we will have to cook our food or eat our chickens raw, not that they would balk at a raw chicken. Tell them we u
nderstand we are morally unqualified to handle the cutlery and we need some guards, two or three, to slice and dice. Ask them to send the girls and maybe that very small boy.”

  “Ishmael,” Ruben said.

  “That’s a boy who can take responsibility,” Thibault said.

  The guards had changed their shifts, or at least he saw two more young soldiers pull on their caps and head outside, but Gen didn’t see Carmen. If she had come in she was off somewhere in a part of the house that was off-limits to hostages. Discreetly, he looked for her everyplace he was allowed to go, but he had no luck. “General Benjamin,” he said, finding the General going over the newspaper with a pair of scissors in the dining room. He was cutting out the articles that concerned them, as if he could keep them in the dark by editing the paper. The television stayed on all hours but the guests were always driven out of the room when the news came on. Still, they heard bits and pieces from the hall. “There has been a change in the food, sir.” Even though Thibault was the diplomat, Gen believed that he probably had a better chance of getting what they wanted. It was the difference in their natures. The French had very little experience in being deferential.

  “And that change?” The General did not look up.

  “It isn’t cooked, sir. They’ve sent in boxes of vegetables, some chickens.” At least the chickens were plucked. At least they were dead. It was probably only a matter of time before dinner walked through the door on its own, that their milk showed up still tucked warmly inside its goat.

  “So cook it.” He snipped a straight line up the middle of the third page.

  “The Vice President and Ambassador Thibault are planning to do that but they need to request some knives.”

  “No knives,” the General said absently.

  Gen waited for a moment. General Benjamin crumpled up the articles he had removed and set them in a pile of tight little balls of paper. “Unfortunately, that’s a problem. I know very little about cooking myself but I understand that knifes are imperative for the preparation of food.”

 
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