Bel canto, p.20
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       Bel Canto, p.20

           Ann Patchett

  “No knives.”

  “Perhaps then if the knives came with people. If you could requisition a few soldiers to do the chopping, then there would be control over the knives. It’s a great deal of food. There are fifty-eight people after all.”

  General Benjamin sighed. “I know how many people are here. I would appreciate not having to hear it from you.” He smoothed out what was left of the paper and folded it up again. “Tell me something, Gen. Do you play chess?”

  “Chess, sir? I know how to play. I wouldn’t say I was very good.”

  The General tented his fingers and pressed them to his lips. “I’ll send you the girls to help in the kitchen,” he said. The shingles had just begun to close in on his eye. It was clear, even at this early stage, that the results would be disastrous.

  “If we could have one more. Maybe Ishmael. He’s a very good boy.”

  “Two is enough.”

  “Mr. Hosokawa plays chess,” Gen said. He should not be offering his employer up for any services in exchange for an extra boy to chop but the fact was that Mr. Hosokawa was quite brilliant where chess was concerned. He was always asking Gen to play with him on long flights and was always disappointed that Gen could not last more than twenty moves. He thought that Mr. Hosokawa might enjoy the game as much as General Benjamin.

  Benjamin looked up, his swollen red face seemed to show pleasure. “I found a set in the little boy’s room. It’s good to think that they would teach the game of chess to so young a boy. I think it is a remarkable tool for character. I taught all of my children to play chess.”

  That was something Gen had never considered, that General Benjamin had children, that he had a home or a wife or any kind of existence outside of the group that was here. Gen had never stopped to think about where they lived, but wouldn’t it be in a tent somewhere, hammocks strung between the muscular limbs of jungle trees? Or was it a regular job to be a revolutionary? Did he kiss his wife good-bye in the morning, leave her sitting at the table in her bathrobe drinking coca tea? Did he come home in the evening and set up the chessboard while he stretched his legs and smoked a cigarette? “I wish I were better at the game.”

  “Well, possibly I could teach you something. I can’t imagine what I would have to teach you.” General Benjamin, all of the soldiers, had an enormous respect for Gen’s abilities with languages. They imagined that if he could speak in Russian and English and French, he could probably do anything.

  “I would appreciate that,” Gen said.

  Benjamin nodded his head. “Please ask your Mr. Hosokawa if he would come at his convenience. There would be no need for translation. Here, write down the words for check and checkmate in Japanese. I could trouble myself to learn that much if he would come for a game.” General Benjamin took one of the crumpled sheets of newspaper and straightened it out again. He handed Gen a pencil and above the headlines Gen wrote the two words. The headline he saw said Poco Esperanza. Little Hope.

  “I’ll send in some help for dinner,” the General said. “They will come directly.”

  Gen bowed his head. Perhaps it was more respect than was deserved but there was no one there to see him do it.

  It would appear that all their choices had been taken away, locked in a house with an armed teenaged boy pressed sullenly against every door. No freedom, no trust, not even enough freedom or trust to deserve a knife with which to cut up a chicken. The simplest things they believed, that they had the right to open a door, that they were free to step outside, were no longer true. But this was true instead: Gen did not go first to Mr. Hosokawa. Gen did not go and tell him about the chess. If he waited instead until tonight what difference could it make? Mr. Hosokawa would never know he had delayed. There certainly was no one else who spoke both Spanish and Japanese to tell him. On the far side of the room, Mr. Hosokawa sat with Roxane Coss on the rosewood piano bench. Leave him there. He was glad to be with her. She was teaching him something on the piano, her hands and then his hands tracing over the keys. The stark, repetitive notes made background music for the room. It was too soon to say anything for sure but he seemed to show more promise for music than he did for learning Spanish. Leave him there for now. Even from this distance Gen could see the way she leaned against him when she reached the lower keys. Mr. Hosokawa was happy, Gen did not need to see his face to know that. He had known his employer to be intelligent, driven, reasonable, and while Gen had never thought him an unhappy man he had never thought he took any particular pleasure in his life. So why not leave this pleasure undisturbed? Gen could simply make the decision himself and then Mr. Hosokawa could practice uninterrupted and Gen could go back to the kitchen where Vice President Iglesias and Ambassador Thibault were discussing sauces.

  I’ll send you the girls to help in the kitchen, was what General Benjamin had said.

  The words looped through Gen’s head like the plucked-out refrain of “Clair de Lune.” He went to the kitchen and when he pushed through the swinging door he held up both his hands, a prizefighter after an effortless knockout.

  “Ah, look at that!” the Vice President cried. “The genius boy returns triumphant.”

  “We’re wasting him on kitchen help and knives,” Thibault said in the good Spanish he had acquired when he first thought he would be the French ambassador to Spain. “We should send this young man to Northern Ireland. We should send him to the Gaza Strip.”

  “We should give him Messner’s job. Then maybe we’d get out of here.”

  “It was only a few knives,” Gen said humbly.

  “Did you get to speak to Benjamin?” Ruben asked.

  “Of course he spoke to Benjamin.” Thibault was flipping through a cookbook from the stack in front of him. The way his finger quickly traced back and forth across the lines he appeared to be speed-reading it. “He was successful, wasn’t he? You know Alfredo and Hector would have insisted on raw chicken. Better to toughen up the men. What did the good comrade say?”

  “That he would send in the girls. He said no to Ishmael but I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns up.” Gen took a carrot out of the box and rinsed it off in the sink.

  “Me they hit in the face with a gun,” the Vice President said lightly. “To you they give a staff.”

  “What about a simple coq au vin?” Thibault said.

  “They confiscated all the vin,” Ruben said. “We could always send Gen out for another request. It’s probably locked up around here somewhere unless they drank it all.”

  “No vin,” Simon Thibault said sadly, as if it were something dangerous, as if it were a knife. How impossible. In Paris one could be careless, one could afford to run out completely because anything you wanted was half a block away, a case, a bottle, a glass. A glass of Burgundy in the autumn at a back table at Brasserie Lipp, the light warm and yellowed where it reflected off the brass railings around the bar. Edith in her navy sweater, her hair pulled back and twisted into a casual knot, her pale hands cupping the bowl of the glass. How clearly he can see it, the light, the sweater, the dark red of the wine beneath Edith’s fingers. When they moved to the Heart of Darkness they had the wine shipped two dozen cases at a time, enough wine to quench an entire city through a drought. Thibault tried to make a cellar out of what was merely a wet dirt basement. French wine was the cornerstone of French diplomacy. He handed it out like peppermints. Guests stayed later at their parties. They stood forever on the walk that led down to the gate and said good night, good night, but never seemed to leave. Edith would finally go inside and bring them each a bottle, press it into their resisting hands. Then they scattered into the darkness, each back to his or her car and driver, holding the prize.

  “This is my blood.” Thibault raised his glass to his wife when the guests had finally gone. “It will be shed for you and for no men.” Together they would go through the living room picking up crumpled napkins, stacking plates. They had sent the housekeeper home long ago. This was an act of intimacy, a pure expression of love. They were alone again
. They were setting their house to right.

  “Isn’t there some kind of coq sans vin?” Ruben leaned forward to look at the book. All of these books in his home that he had never seen before! He wondered if they belonged to him or to the house.

  Thibault pushed Edith’s scarf over his shoulder. He said something about roasting and turned his head away to read. No sooner had he looked at the page than the door swung open again and in came three, Beatriz, the tall one, pretty Carmen, and then Ishmael, each of them with two and three knives apiece.

  “You asked for us, didn’t you?” Beatriz said to Gen. “I’m not on any duty at all now. I was going to watch television.”

  Gen looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s past time for your program,” he said, trying to keep his eyes on her.

  “There are other things on,” she said. “There are lots of good programs. ‘Send the girls to do it.’ That’s always the way.”

  “They didn’t just send the girls,” Ishmael said in his own defense.

  “Practically,” Beatriz said.

  Ishmael reddened and he rolled the wooden handle of the knife between his palms.

  “The General said we were to come and help with dinner,” Carmen said. She spoke to the Vice President. She did not turn her eyes to Gen, who did not look at her, so how did it seem that they were staring at one another?

  “We are most grateful,” Simon Thibault said. “We know nothing about the operation of knives. If entrusted with something as dangerous as knives there would be a bloodbath here in a matter of minutes. Not that we would be killers, mind you. We’d cut off our own fingers, bleed to death right here on the floor.”

  “Stop it,” Ishmael said, and giggled. He had recently received one of the amateur haircuts that had been going around. Where his head had once been covered in heavy rolls of curls, the hair was now snipped with irregular closeness. It bristled like grass in some places and lay down neatly in others. In a few places it was all but gone and small patches of pink scalp shone through like the skin of a newly born mouse. He was told it would make him look older but really it just made him look ill.

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

  “A little,” Carmen said, studying the position of her feet on the black-and-white checkerboard of the floor.

  “Of course we can cook,” Beatriz snapped. “Who do you think does our cooking for us?”

  “Your parents. That’s a possibility,” the Vice President said.

  “We’re adults. We take care of ourselves. We don’t have parents looking after us like children.” Beatriz was only irritated about missing television. She had done all of her work, after all, patrolled the upstairs of the house and stood watch for two hours at the window. She had cleaned and oiled the Generals’ guns and her own gun. It wasn’t fair that she had been called into the kitchen. There was a wonderful program that came on in the late afternoon, a girl wearing a star-covered vest and a full skirt who sang cowboy songs and danced in high-heeled boots.

  Ishmael sighed and set his three knives on the counter in front of him. His parents were dead. His father had been taken from the house one night by a group of men and no one saw him again. His mother went with a simple flu eleven months ago. Ishmael was nearly fifteen, even if his body produced no evidence to support this fact. He was not a child, if being a child meant that one had parents to cook your supper.

  “So you know the onion,” Thibault said, holding up an onion.

  “Better than you do,” Beatriz said.

  “Then take that dangerous knife and chop up some onions.” Thibault passed out cutting boards and bowls. Why weren’t cutting boards considered weapons? Hold the two edges firmly in your hands and it was clear that these great slabs of wood were just the right size for hitting someone on the back of the head. And why not bowls, for that matter? The heavy ceramic in the colors of pastel mints seemed harmless enough while holding bananas, but once they were broken how were they much different from the knife? Couldn’t one drive a shard of pottery into a human heart just as easily? Thibault asked Carmen to mince the garlic and slice the sweet peppers. To Ishmael he held up an eggplant. “Peeled, seeded, chopped.”

  Ishmael’s knife was heavy and long. Which of them wielded a paring knife for self-defense? Who had taken the grapefruit knife? When he tried to remove the skin he wound up cutting three inches into the spongy yellow flesh. Thibault watched him for a while and then held out his hands. “Not like that,” he said. “There will be nothing to eat. Here, give them here.”

  Ishmael stopped, examined his work, then he held out the butchered vegetable and the knife. He held the blade out to Thibault. What did he know about kitchen manners? Then Thibault had them both, the knife and the eggplant, one in each hand. Deftly, quickly, he began to peel back the skin.

  “Drop it!” Beatriz shouted. On calling out she dropped her own knife, the blade slick with onions, a shower of minced onions scattering onto the floor like a wet, heavy snow. She pulled her gun from her belt and raised it up to the Ambassador.

  “Jesus!” Ruben said.

  Thibault did not understand what he had done. He thought at first she was angry that he had corrected the boy on his peeling. He thought the problem was with the eggplant and so he laid the eggplant down first and then the knife.

  “Keep your voice down,” Carmen said to Beatriz in Quechua. “You’re going to get us all in trouble.”

  “He took the knife.”

  Thibault raised up his empty hands, showed his smooth palms to the gun.

  “I handed him the knife,” Ishmael said. “I gave it to him.”

  “He was only going to peel,” Gen said. He could not recognize a word of this language they spoke to one another.

  “He isn’t supposed to hold the knife,” Beatriz said in Spanish. “The General told us that. Doesn’t anyone listen?” She kept her gun aimed, her heavy eyebrows pointed down. Her eyes were starting to water from the fumes of the onions, and soon there were tears washing over her cheeks, which everyone misunderstood.

  “What about this?” Thibault began quietly, keeping his hands up. “Everyone can stand away from me and I can show Ishmael how to peel an eggplant. You keep your gun right on me and if it looks like I’m about to do something funny you may shoot me. You may shoot Gen, too, if I do something terrible.”

  Carmen put down her knife.

  “I don’t think—” Gen started, but no one was paying attention to him. He felt a small, cold hardness in his chest, like the pit of a cherry had slipped into his heart. He did not want to be shot and he did not want to be offered up to be shot.

  “I can shoot you?” Beatriz said. It wasn’t his place to give permission, was it? It had not been her intention to shoot anyone anyway.

  “Go ahead,” Ishmael said, taking out his own gun and pointing it at the Ambassador. He was trying to keep his face serious but he wasn’t having much luck. “I’ll shoot you, too, if I have to. Show me how to peel the eggplant. I’ve shot men over less than an eggplant.” Berenjena, that was the word in Spanish. A beautiful word. It could be a woman’s name.

  So Thibault picked up the knife and set about his work. His hands stayed remarkably steady as he peeled with two guns pointed on him. Carmen did not participate. She went back to mincing the garlic, hitting her knife against the board in brisk, angry strokes. Thibault kept his eyes on the deep luster of the purple-black skin. “It’s difficult to do with a knife this large. You want to slide it just under the surface. Pretend that you’re skinning a fish. See that. Very fluid. It’s delicate work.” All that was lovely about the eggplant fell into ribbons on the floor.

  There was something soothing about it, the way it all came out so neatly. “Okay,” Ishmael said. “I understand. Give it to me now.” He put down his gun and held out his hands. Thibault turned the knife, gave him the smooth wooden handle and another eggplant. What would Edith say when she heard he had been shot over an eggplant or turning on the television? If he was g
oing to die he had hoped for a little bit of honor in his death.

  “Well,” Ruben said, wiping his face with a dishtowel. “Nothing around here is a small event.”

  Beatriz mopped up her tears against the dark green sleeve of her jacket. “Onions,” she said, pushing the newly oiled gun back into her belt.

  “I’d be happy to do them for you if at any point you deem me capable,” Thibault said, and went to wash his hands.

  Gen stood next to the sink trying to decide the best way to phrase his question. Any way it was put it seemed impolite. He spoke to Thibault in French. He whispered, “Why did you tell her she could shoot me?”

  “Because they wouldn’t shoot you. They all like you too much. It was a harmless gesture on my part. I thought it gave me more credibility. Telling her she could shoot me, now that was a risk. They care nothing for me and they think the world of you. It’s not like I told them they could shoot poor Ruben. That girl might want to shoot Ruben.”

  “Still,” Gen said. He wanted to be firm on this point but he felt it slipping away from him. Sometimes he suspected he was the weakest person in captivity.

  “I hear you gave her your wristwatch.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “Everybody knows. She flashes it around every chance she gets. Would she shoot the man who gave her his watch?”

  “Well, that’s what we don’t know.”

  Thibault dried his hands and looped a careless arm around Gen’s neck. “I would never let them shoot you, no more than I’d let them shoot my own brother. I’ll tell you what, Gen, when this is over, you’ll come and visit us in Paris. The second this is over I’m resigning my post and Edith and I are moving back to Paris. When you feel like traveling again, you will bring Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane. You can marry one of my daughters if you want to, then you would be my son rather than my brother.” He leaned forward and whispered in Gen’s ear, “This will all seem very funny to us then.”

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