Bel canto, p.21
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       Bel Canto, p.21

           Ann Patchett

  Gen inhaled Thibault’s breath. He tried to take in some of the courage, some of the carelessness. He tried to believe that one day they would all be in Paris in the Thibaults’ apartment, but he couldn’t picture it. Thibault kissed Gen beside his left eye and then let him go. He went off in search of a roasting pan.

  “Speaking in French,” Ruben said to Gen. “That’s very impolite.”

  “How is French impolite?”

  “Because everyone here speaks Spanish. I can’t remember the last time I was in a room where everyone spoke the same language and then you go off speaking some language I failed in high school.” And it was true, when they spoke in Spanish no one in the kitchen waited for anything to be explained, no one was forced to stare vacantly while the others tore through unintelligible sentences. No one wondered suspiciously if what was being said was in fact something horrible about them. Of the six people in the room, Spanish was a first language only for Ruben. Gen spoke Japanese, Thibault French, and the three with the knives had first learned Quechua in their village and then a hybrid of Spanish and Quechua together from which they could comb out the Spanish with varying degrees of success.

  “You could take the day off,” Ishmael said to the translator, a tough rubber spiral of eggplant skin dangling from his knife. “You don’t have to stay.”

  At that Carmen, who had been keeping her eyes on the garlic she was chopping, looked up. The nerve, which she had found so briefly the night before, had been missing all day and all she had managed to do was avoid Gen, but that didn’t mean she wanted him to go. She had to believe she had been sent to the kitchen for a reason. She prayed to Saint Rose that the shyness which came down on her like a blinding fog would be lifted as suddenly as it landed.

  Gen had no intention of leaving. “I can do more than translate,” he said. “I can wash vegetables. I can stir something if something needed stirring.”

  Thibault came back lugging a huge metal roaster in each hand. He heaved them one at a time up onto the stovetop, where each pan covered three burners. “Did I hear leaving? Is Gen even thinking about leaving?”

  “I was thinking about staying.”

  “No one is leaving! Dinner for fifty-eight, is that what they expect? I will not lose one pair of hands, even if the hands belong to the very valuable translator. Do they think we’re going to do this every night, every meal? Do they think I’m a caterer? Has she chopped the onions yet? May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?”

  Beatriz wagged her knife at Thibault. Her face was wet and red from crying. “I would have shot you if I had to but I didn’t, so you should be grateful. And I chopped your stupid onions. Are you finished with me now?”

  “Does dinner look finished to you?” Thibault said, pouring oil into the pans and turning on the bright blue flames of gas. “Go wash the chickens. Gen, bring me the onions. Sauté these onions.”

  “Why does he get to cook the onions?” Beatriz said. “They’re my onions. And I won’t wash the chickens because that does not involve a knife. I was only sent in here to work the knives.”

  “I will kill her,” Thibault said in weary French.

  Gen took the bowl of onions and hugged it to his chest. It was never the right time or it was always the right time, depending on how you looked at it. They could stand there for hours, six squares of tile apart from each other and never say anything or one of them, either one, could step forward and begin to speak. Gen was hoping it would be Carmen, but then Gen was hoping they would all be released and neither seemed likely to happen. Gen gave the onions to Thibault, who dumped them into the two pans where they spat and hissed like Beatriz herself. Rallying the very small amount of bravery he still possessed, Gen went to the drawer by the telephone, which hung naked on the wall without its cord. He found a small pad of paper and a pen. He wrote the words cuchillo, ajo, chica each on its own piece of paper and took them to Carmen while Thibault argued with Beatriz over who was to stir the onions. He tried to keep in mind all the languages he had spoken, all the cities he had been to, all the important words of other men that had come through his mouth. What he asked of himself was small and still he could feel his hands shaking. “Knife,” he said, and put the first piece down. “Garlic.” He set that one on top of the garlic. “Girl.” The last piece he handed to Carmen and after she looked at it for a minute she put it in her pocket.

  Carmen nodded, she made a sound, something like, “ah,” not quite a word.

  Gen sighed. It was better now but only slightly. “Do you want to learn?”

  Carmen nodded again, her eyes fixed on a drawer handle. She tried to see Saint Rose of Lima on that handle, a tiny blue-cloaked woman balancing on the curved silver bar. She tried to find her voice through prayer. She thought of Roxane Coss, whose very hands had braided her hair. Shouldn’t that give her strength?

  “I don’t know that I’m much of a teacher. I’m trying to teach Mr. Hosokawa Spanish. He writes down words in a notebook and memorizes them. Maybe we could try the same for you.”

  After a minute of silence, Carmen offered up that same sound, a little “ah” that gave no real information other than that she had heard him. She was an idiot. A fool.

  Gen looked around. Ishmael was watching them but he didn’t seem to care.

  “The eggplant is perfect!” Ruben said. “Thibault, did you see this eggplant? Every cube is exactly the same size.”

  “I forgot to take out the seeds,” Ishmael said.

  “The seeds don’t matter,” Ruben said. “The seeds are as good for you as anything else.”

  “Gen, are you going to sauté?” Thibault said.

  “One minute,” Gen said, and held up his hand. He whispered to Carmen, “Have you changed your mind? Do you want me to help you?”

  And then it seemed the saint gave Carmen a sharp blow between her shoulder blades and the word that was so tightly lodged in her throat disengaged like a tough piece of gristle caught in the windpipe. “Yes,” she said, gasping. “Yes.”

  “So we’ll practice?”

  “Every day.” Carmen picked up the words, knife and garlic, and she put them in her pocket along with girl. “I learned my letters. I haven’t practiced in a while. I used to make them every day and then we started training for this.”

  Gen could see her up in the mountains, where it was always cold at night, sitting by the fire, her face flushed from heat and concentration, one piece of dark hair falling from behind her ear the way it was now. She has a cheap tablet, a stubby pencil. In his mind he stands next to her, praises the straight lines of her T and H, the delicate sweep of her Q. Outside he can hear the last call of the birds as they careen towards their nests before dusk. He had thought once that she was a boy and it terrified him, this feeling. “We’ll go over the letters,” he said. “We’ll start there.”

  “Am I the only one who has to work?” Beatriz called loudly.

  “When?” Carmen only mouthed the word.

  “Tonight,” Gen said. What he wanted then was something he could barely believe. He wanted to fold her in his arms. He wanted to kiss the parting of her hair. He wanted to touch her lips with the tips of his fingers. He wanted to whisper things to her in Japanese. Maybe, if there was time, he could teach her Japanese as well.

  “Tonight in the china closet,” Carmen said. “Teach me tonight.”


  the priest was right about the weather, even though the break came later than he had predicted. By the middle of November, the garúa had ended. It did not drift away. It did not lessen. It simply stopped, so that one day everything had the saturated quality of a book dropped into a bathtub and the next day the air was bright and crisp and extremely blue. It reminded Mr. Hosokawa of cherry blossom season in Kyoto and it reminded Roxane Coss of October on Lake Michigan. They stood together in the early morning before she began her singing. He pointed out a pair of yellow birds to her, bright as chrysanthemums, sitting on the branch of some previo
usly unseen tree. They pecked for a while at the spongy bark and then flew off, first one and then the other, up and over the wall. One by one all the hostages and all their keepers went up to the windows around the house, stared and blinked and stared again. So many people put their hands and noses on the glass that Vice President Iglesias had to come out with a rag and a bottle of ammonia and wipe down each pane. “Look at the garden,” he said to no one in particular. “The weeds are as tall as the flowers.” One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived. The weeds alongside the domesticated bedding plants sniffed at the distant jungle in the air and stretched their roots down and stretched their leaves up in an attempt to turn the vice-presidential garden back into a wild thing. They drank up every bit of the rain. They could have survived another year of wet weather. Left long enough to their own devices, they would overtake the house and pull down the garden wall. After all, this yard had once been a part of the continuum, the dense and twisted interstate of vines that spread right to the sandy edges of the ocean. The only thing that prevented them from taking over the house was the gardener, who pulled up whatever he deemed unworthy, burned it, and then clipped back the rest. But the gardener was now on an indefinite vacation.

  The sun had been up and shining no more than an hour and in that time several of the plants had grown half a centimeter.

  “I’ll have to do something about the yard.” Ruben sighed, not that he knew where he would find the time with all that needed to be done in the house. Not that they were likely to let him outside in the first place. Not that they were likely to give him the things he needed: hedge shears, trowels, pruning knives. Everything in the garden shed was a murder weapon.

  As Father Arguedas opened the windows in the living room, he thanked God for the light and the sweet quality of the air. Though he was in the house, across the garden, and behind the wall, he could hear more clearly the rustling on the street without the rain to muffle the sound. There were no more messages shouted over the wall, but still he could imagine a large crowd of men and guns. The priest suspected that either they had no plan of action anymore or that they had a plan so complex that it no longer exactly included them. While General Benjamin continued to cut out every mention of their circumstances from the newspaper, they had caught a snippet of talk on the television that a tunnel was being dug, that the police were planning on digging their way up into the house, and so the crisis would end much the way it had started, with strangers crashing into the room and redirecting the course of their lives, but no one believed this. It was too far-fetched, too much like a spy movie to be real. Father Arguedas stared at his feet, his cheap black lace-up shoes settled on such expensive carpet, and he wondered what went on deep beneath the ground. He prayed for their safe delivery, for the safe delivery of each and every one of them, but he did not pray to be rescued through a tunnel. He did not pray to be rescued at all. He only prayed for God’s will, His love and protection. He tried to clear his heart of selfish thoughts while at the same time being grateful for all that God had granted him. Take the mass, as only one example. In his former life (for that was how he thought of it now) he was only allowed to celebrate the mass with his parishioners when everyone else was on holiday or sick and then it was the six A.M. mass they gave to him or a mass on Tuesday. Mainly his responsibilities within the church were the same as the ones he had held before he was a priest: he distributed the host he had not blessed on the far left-hand aisle of the church or he lit the candles or he snuffed them out. Here, after much discussion, the Generals agreed to allow Messner to bring in the implements of communion, and last Sunday in the dining room, Father Arguedas celebrated the mass with all of his friends. People who were not Catholic attended and people who did not understand what he was saying got down on their knees. Everyone was more likely to pray when there was something specific they wanted. The young terrorists closed their eyes and bent their chins deeply to their chests, while the Generals stayed in the back of the room. It could have been something else entirely. So many of the terrorist organizations nowadays wanted to abolish all religion, especially Catholicism. Had they been taken over by La Dirección Auténtica instead of the much more reasonable La Familia de Martin Suarez, they would never have been allowed to pray. LDA would have dragged one hostage up to the roof every day for the press to see, and then shot him in the head in an attempt to speed negotiations. Father Arguedas considered such things while he lay on the living-room carpet late at night. They were fortunate, really. There was no other way to look at it. Wasn’t there still freedom in the deepest sense if there was the freedom to pray? At his mass, Roxane Coss sang “Ave Maria,” an event of such startling beauty that (and he did not wish to sound competitive) it simply could not be topped at any church, anywhere, including Rome. Her voice was so pure, so light, that it opened up the ceiling and carried their petitions directly to God. It swept over them like the feathery dusting of wings, so that even the Catholics who no longer practiced their faith, and the non-Catholics who came along because there was nothing else to do, and all those who had no idea what he was saying, and the stone-cold atheists who wouldn’t have cared anyway, because of her singing they all went away feeling moved, feeling comforted, feeling, perhaps, the slightest tremors of faith. The priest stared at the slightly yellowed stucco wall that protected them from whatever was waiting to happen outside. It must have been ten feet high and was covered in some sections with ivy. It was a beautiful wall, not unlike what might have surrounded the Mount of Olives. Perhaps it was not immediately obvious but now he saw how one could consider such a wall a blessing.

  Roxane sang Rossini that morning, in keeping with the weather. One song, “Bella crudele,” she sang seven times. Clearly, she was trying to perfect something, to find something lodged at the very center of the score that she felt she had not reached. She and Kato communicated in their own way. She pointed at a line of notes. He played it. She tapped her fingers in light rhythm against the top of the piano. He played it again. She sang the line unaccompanied. He played it without her. She sang while he played. They circled each other, each one oblivious to feelings, each caring only for the music. She closed her eyes while he moved through the opening, she nodded her head slightly in approval. He made such easy work of the score. There was no showy bravado in the movements of his arms. He kept things small and light, perfect for her voice. It was one thing when he played for himself, but when he was the accompanist he played like a man who was trying not to wake the neighbors.

  Roxane stood so straight that one could easily forget how short she was. She rested her hand on the piano, then she crossed her palms over her heart. She sang. She had taken to following the example of the Japanese and had given up wearing her shoes. Mr. Hosokawa had kept the tradition of his host and had worn his shoes for the first week of their captivity, but as time went on he felt that he could no longer bear it. Wearing shoes in the house was barbaric. There was almost as much indignity in wearing shoes in the house as there was in being kidnapped. When his shoes came off, then so came Gen’s, and Kato’s, and Mr. Yamamoto’s, Mr. Aoi’s, Mr. Ogawa’s, and Roxane’s. She padded around in a pair of athletic socks borrowed from the Vice President, whose feet were not much larger than her own. She sang now in those socks. When she got the song exactly right she took it straight through to the end without a flutter of hesitation. It was impossible to say that her singing had improved, but there was something in her interpretation of the lines that had shifted almost imperceptibly. She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room. A breeze made the sheers at the window shiver for a moment but everything else was still. There was not a sound from the street. There was not a sound from the two yellow birds.

  On the morning that the rains ended, Gen waited until the last note had been sung and then went to stand beside Carmen. It was a particularly good time to talk without being noticed as
everyone wandered around in a state of stunned confusion after Roxane let go of her final note. If anyone had thought to simply walk out the door, they might not have been stopped, but no one was thinking about leaving. When Mr. Hosokawa went to get her water, Roxane stood up to follow him and then looped her arm through his arm.

  “She’s in love with him,” Carmen whispered to Gen. He misunderstood her for the smallest instant, heard only the word love. Then he stopped and made himself recall the entire sentence. He could do that. It was as if he had a tape recorder in his head.

  “Miss Coss? In love with Mr. Hosokawa?”

  Carmen nodded, her head making only the smallest gesture, but he had learned to read her. Love?

  What he had seen, and done his best to overlook, was that Mr. Hosokawa was in love with Roxane. The notion that the opposite could be possible had never occurred to him and he asked Carmen what she saw.

  “Everything,” Carmen whispered. “The way she looks at him, the way she chooses him. She’s always sitting with him and they can’t even talk. He’s so peaceful. She would want to be with him.”

  “Did she tell you?”

  “Maybe.” Carmen smiled. “She talks to me sometimes in the morning but I don’t know what she says.”

  Of course, Gen thought. He watched them walk away, his employer and the soprano. “I would think that everyone must be in love with her. How could she even make a choice?”

  “Are you in love with her?” Carmen asked. She met his eyes in a way that would never have been possible a week ago. It was Gen who had to look away.

  “No,” he said. “No.” Gen was in love with Carmen. And though he met her every night in the china closet and helped her with her reading and writing, he never revealed as much. They spoke of vowels and consonants. They spoke of diphthongs and possessives. She copied letters into a notebook. As many words as he gave to her, she asked for more. She would have gladly kept him up all night, repeating, practicing, quizzing. He spent his whole life in a confused dream state in which he was never exactly awake or completely asleep. He wondered sometimes if it was love or just a lack of rest that had twisted such a longing in his heart. He stumbled. He drifted off in wing-backed chairs and in the minutes he slept he dreamed of Carmen. Yes, she was shy, and yes, a terrorist from the jungle, but she was as smart as any girl he had met at university. You could tell by the way she picked things up. All she had needed was the smallest amount of instruction. She ate through information like fire licks up hay and asked for more. She took off her gun every night and put it in the glass-front cupboard beside the blue gravy boat. She sat on the floor with her notebook balanced on top of her knees, her pencil sharp. There had been no girls like Carmen at university. There had never been a girl like Carmen. What a sense of humor one would need to believe that the woman you love is not in Tokyo or Paris or New York or Athens. The woman you love is a girl who dresses as a boy and she lives in a village in a jungle, the name of which you are not allowed to know, not that knowing the name would be particularly helpful in trying to find it. The woman you love puts her gun beside a blue gravy boat at night so that you can teach her to read. She came into your life through an air-conditioner vent and how she will leave is the question that keeps you awake in the few free moments you have to sleep.

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