Bel canto, p.24
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       Bel Canto, p.24

           Ann Patchett
 
“He loves my singing?”

  “You,” Gen said pointedly. He did not feel the need to consult with Fyodorov on this. The Russian smiled.

  Now Roxane did look away. She took a deep breath and stared out the window for a while as if there had been some sort of offer and she was now weighing it out. When she looked back she smiled at Fyodorov. The look on her face was so peaceful, so tender, that for a moment Gen thought perhaps she loved the Russian in return. Was it possible that such a declaration could achieve the desired effect? That she would love him simply for having loved her?

  “Victor Fyodorov,” she said. “A wonderful story.”

  “Thank you.” Fyodorov bowed his head.

  “I wonder what became of the young man from Europe, Julian,” she said, though she seemed to be speaking to herself. “It’s one thing to give a woman a necklace. It comes in a small box. Even a very expensive necklace isn’t much trouble. But to give a woman such a book, to bring it all the way from some other country, I think that’s quite extraordinary. I can imagine him carrying it on the train all done up in wrapping paper.”

  “If we are to believe there was a Julian at all.”

  “There’s no reason not to. It certainly would do no harm to believe the story she told you.”

  “I’m sure you are right. From now on I will remember it only as the truth.”

  Gen’s head was filled with Carmen again. He wished that she was waiting for him, still sitting on the black marble sink, but he knew this wasn’t possible. She was probably on patrol now, walking up and down the hallways of the second floor with a rifle, conjugating verbs under her breath.

  “As for the love,” Roxane said finally.

  “There is nothing to say,” Fyodorov interrupted. “It is a gift. There. Something to give to you. If I had the necklace or a book of paintings I would give you that instead. I would give you that in addition to my love.”

  “Then you are too generous with gifts.”

  Fyodorov shrugged. “Perhaps you are right. In another setting it would be ridiculous, too grand. In another setting it would not happen because you are a famous woman and at best I would shake your famous hand for one second while you stepped into your car after a performance. But in this place I hear you sing every day. In this place I watch you eat your dinner, and what I feel in my heart is love. There is no point in not telling you that. These people who detain us so pleasantly may decide to shoot us after all. It is a possibility. And if that is the case, then why should I carry this love with me to the other world? Why not give to you what is yours?”

  “And what if there is nothing for me to give you?” She seemed to be interested in Fyodorov’s argument.

  He shook his head. “What a thing to say, after all that you have given to me. But it is never about who has given what. That is not the way to think of gifts. This is not business we are conducting. Would I be pleased if you were to say you loved me as well? That what you wanted was to come to Russia and live with the Secretary of Commerce, attend state dinners, drink your coffee in my bed? A beautiful thought, surely, but my wife would not be pleased. When you think of love you think as an American. You must think like a Russian. It is a more expansive view.”

  “Americans have a bad habit of thinking like Americans,” Roxane said kindly. After that she smiled at Fyodorov and everyone was quiet for a moment. The interview had come to a close and there was nothing left to say.

  Then finally Fyodorov stood up from his chair and clapped his hands together. “I, for one, feel much better. What a burden this has been to me! Now I can get some rest. You’ve been very kind to hear me.” He extended his hand to Roxane, and when she stood and gave him hers he kissed it and for a moment stretched it up to hold it against his cheek. “I will remember this day forever, this moment, your hand. No man could want for more than this.” He smiled and then he let her go. “A wonderful day. A wonderful thing you have given me in return.” He turned and walked out of the kitchen without a word to Gen. In all of his excitement he had forgotten Gen was there at all, the way a person can forget when the translation has gone very smoothly.

  Roxane sat down in her chair and Gen sat down where Fyodorov had been. “Well,” she said. “That was certainly exhausting.”

  “I was thinking the same thing.”

  “Poor Gen.” Roxane leaned her head to one side. “All the boring things you have to listen to.”

  “This was awkward but it wasn’t boring.”

  “Awkward?”

  “You don’t find strangers declaring themselves to you awkward?” But then she wouldn’t, would she? People must fall in love with her hourly. She must keep a staff of translators to interpret the proposals of love and marriage.

  “It’s easier to love a woman when you can’t understand a word she’s saying,” Roxane said.

  “I wish they would bring us some rabbits,” Thibault called over to Gen in French. Des lapins. He was drumming his fingers on the cookbook. “Are you boys much for rabbit?” he asked the terrorists in Spanish. Conejo.

  The boys looked up from their work. The guns were mostly reassembled. They had been clean to begin with and now they were only cleaner. When one got used to guns, when the guns weren’t pointed at you, one could see them as almost interesting, discreet sculptures for end tables. “Cabayo,” said the tall one, Gilbert, who had thought of shooting Thibault not so very long ago in the confusion over the television set.

  “Cabayo?” Simon Thibault said. “Gen, what is cabayo?”

  Gen thought about it for a minute. His mind was still stuck in Russian. “Those furry things, not hamsters . . .” He snapped his fingers. “Guinea pigs!”

  “What you want to eat are guinea pigs, not rabbits,” Gilbert said. “Very tender.”

  “Oh,” said Cesar, folding his hands over his gun. “What I wouldn’t give for a guinea pig now.” He gently bit his fingertips at the thought of so much pleasure. Cesar had bad skin that seemed to be clearing up some during their internment.

  Thibault closed the book. In Paris, one of his daughters had kept a fat white guinea pig in a large glass aquarium when she was a girl. Milou, it was called, a poor substitute for the dog she wanted. Edith wound up feeding the thing. She felt sorry for it, spending day after day alone, looking out on the life of their family through glass. Sometimes Edith let the guinea pig sit in her lap while she read. There was Milou, curled in a ball against the hem of Edith’s sweater, its nose twitching with pleasure. This guinea pig was Thibault’s brother, for all he wanted now was the privilege of what this animal had had, the right to lie with his head in his wife’s lap, his face turned up to the bottom of her sweater. Must Thibault imagine the animal (who was long since dead but when and how? He couldn’t remember) skinned and braised? Milou as dinner. Once something is named it can never be eaten. Once you have called it a brother in your mind it should enjoy the freedoms of a brother. “How do you cook them?”

  A conversation ensued about the best way to cook a guinea pig and how it was possible to tell your fortune from cutting open the gut while it was still alive. Gen turned away.

  “People love each other for all sorts of different reasons,” Roxane said, her lack of Spanish keeping her innocent of the conversation, slow-roasted guinea pigs on a spit. “Most of the time we’re loved for what we can do rather than for who we are. It’s not such a bad thing, being loved for what you can do.”

  “But the other is better,” Gen said.

  Roxane pulled her feet into her chair and hugged her knees to her chest. “Better. I hate to say better, but it is. If someone loves you for what you can do then it’s flattering, but why do you love them? If someone loves you for who you are then they have to know you, which means you have to know them.” Roxane smiled at Gen.

  Once they had left the kitchen, first the other boys, and then Gen and Roxane and Thibault, the people Cesar had come to think of as the grown-ups rather than the hostages, Cesar began to sing the Rossini while he finished up his work
. He had the kitchen to himself for a moment and wanted to make use of this rare time alone. The sun came through the windows and shone brightly off his clean rifle and oh, how he loved to hear the words in his mouth. She had sung it so many times this morning he had had the chance to memorize all the words. It didn’t matter that he didn’t understand the language, he knew what it meant. The words and music fused together and became a part of him. Again and again he sang the chorus, almost whispering for fear someone might hear him, mock him, punish him. He felt this too strongly to think that it was something he could get away with. Still, he wished he could open himself up the way she did, bellow it out, dig inside himself to see what was really there. It thrilled him when she sang the loudest, the highest. If he didn’t have his rifle to hold in front of him he would have embarrassed himself every time, her singing brought about such a raging, aching passion that his penis stiffened before she had finished her first line, growing harder and harder as the song progressed until he was lost in a confusion of pleasure and terrible pain, the stock of his rifle brushing imperceptibly up and down, leading him towards relief. He leaned back against the wall, dizzy and electrified. They were for her, these furious erections. Every boy there dreamed of crawling on top of her, filling her mouth with their tongues as they pushed themselves inside her. They loved her, and in these fantasies that came to them waking and sleeping, she loved them in return. But for Cesar it was more than that. Cesar knew he was hard for the music. As if music was a separate thing you could drive yourself into, make love to, fuck.

  eight

  there was a sitting room off of the guest bedroom where the Generals held their meetings and in that room Mr. Hosokawa and General Benjamin played chess for hours at a time. It seemed to be the only thing that took Benjamin’s mind off the pain of the shingles. Since they had crept into his eye they had become infected and the infection had led to conjunctivitis, and now the eye was fiercely red and rimmed with pustules. The more completely he concentrated on chess, the more he was able to push the pain aside. He never forgot it, but during the game he did not live exactly in the center of it.

  For a long time the guests were only allowed in limited areas of the house but now that things were loosening up the access to other areas was sporadic. Mr. Hosokawa had not even known the room had existed until he was invited back to play. It was a small room, a gaming table and two chairs by the window, a small sofa, a secretary with a writing desk and a glass front filled with leather-bound books. There were yellow draperies on the window, a blue flowered rug on the floor, a framed picture of a clipper ship. It was not an exceptional room in any way, but it was small, and a small room, after three months spent in the vast cavern of the living room, gave Mr. Hosokawa an enormous sense of relief, that comforting tightness a child experiences when bundled into sweaters and a coat. He hadn’t thought about it until the third time they played, that in Japan a person was never in such a large room, unless it was a hotel banquet hall or the opera house. He liked the fact that in this room, were he to stand on a chair, he could touch the tips of his fingers to the ceiling. He was especially grateful for anything that made the world feel close and familiar. Everything that Mr. Hosokawa had ever known or suspected about the way life worked had been proven to him to be incorrect these past months. Where before there had been endless hours of work, negotiations and compromises, there were now chess games with a terrorist for whom he felt an unaccountable fondness. Where there had been a respectable family that functioned in the highest order, there were now people he loved and could not speak to. Where there had been a few minutes of opera on a stereo at bedtime, there were now hours of music every day, the living warmth of voice in all its perfection and fallibility, a woman in possession of that voice who sat beside him laughing, holding his hand. The rest of the world believed that Mr. Hosokawa suffered and he would never be able to explain to them how that was not the case. The rest of the world. He could never push it completely from his mind. His understanding that he would eventually lose every sweetness that had come to him only made him hold those very things closer to his chest.

  General Benjamin was a good chess player but he was no better than Mr. Hosokawa. Neither of them was the type to play with a speed clock and they took every move as if time had yet to be invented. Because they were both equally talented and equally slow, neither man ever became impatient with the other. Once, Mr. Hosokawa had gone to the small sofa and closed his eyes while he waited for his turn, and when he woke up, General Benjamin was still moving his rook forward and then back across the same three squares, careful to never take his fingers off the horse’s head. They had different strategies. General Benjamin tried to control the center of the board. Mr. Hosokawa played defensively: a pawn here, later the knight. One would win, and then the other, and neither one made any comment about it. The game, frankly, was more peaceful without language. Cunning moves need not be congratulated, a danger overlooked was not bemoaned. They would tap a queen, then king, once for check, twice for checkmate, as neither could remember the words Gen had written down for them. Even the endings of games came as quiet affairs, a brief nod of acknowledgment, and then the business of setting it all up again so that when the next day came they would be ready to start over. Neither man would have dreamed of leaving the room with the pieces scattered across the table on the wrong sides of the board.

  Even though it was an enormous house by any standard, there was no privacy for people living in the vice-presidential home, not for anyone except Carmen and Gen, who met in the china closet after two A.M. in order to keep their lessons a secret. Opera and cooking and games of chess were there for public consumption. The guest room was on the same side of the house as the study where the television nattered on hour after hour, so if one of the young terrorists was looking for entertainment he would probably let the chess go. The hostages, when they were allowed down the hallway based on the caprice of whoever happened to be holding the gun at the door, were more likely to stay for ten or fifteen minutes of a game, but in that time they were lucky if they saw a single move. They were used to soccer. They tried to consider chess a kind of sport, certainly it was a game, but they wanted to see something happen. The room had the same effect on the spectators as long liturgical services, algebra lectures, Halcion.

  The two observers who managed to stay and never fall asleep were Ishmael and Roxane. Roxane came to watch the performance of Mr. Hosokawa, who, after all, spent so much of his time watching her, and Ishmael stayed because eventually he wanted to play chess with General Benjamin and Mr. Hosokawa, only he wasn’t sure if such a thing was actually allowed. All of the younger terrorists tried to know their limits and not ask for more than they could have. Like all children, they may have pushed on them from time to time, but they were respectful of the Generals and they knew not to ask for too much. They might stay too long watching television, but they never missed their post on guard. They did not tell Messner to bring in gallons of ice cream. Only the Generals could do that and so far they had done it only twice. They did not fight among themselves, though the temptation to do so was overwhelming at times. The Generals punished fighting severely, and General Hector took it upon himself to beat the boys longer and harder than they could ever beat one another to teach them that they had to work together. If there was a terrible need, an argument that could only be settled one way, they met in the basement, took off their shirts, and were careful never to hit each other in the face.

  Some things were against the rules, rules that were memorized and repeated in drills. Some rules (speaking respectfully to a superior officer) stood firm. Other rules (never speaking to a hostage unless it was to correct him) weakened and fell away. What the Generals would and would not allow was not always clear. Silently, Ishmael memorized the chessboard. He didn’t know the names of the pieces because no one in the room ever spoke. He practiced in his head the most appropriate way of broaching the subject. He considered asking Gen to ask for him. Gen had a way of mak
ing things seem especially important. Or he could ask Gen to ask Messner, who was the man who handled the negotiations. But Gen seemed very busy these days and Messner, frankly, didn’t seem to be doing such a great job considering that they were all still there. He wished most of all he could ask the Vice President, the man whom he held in the greatest esteem and thought of as his friend, but the Generals made a special point of ridiculing Ruben, and anything he asked for would certainly be denied.

  So if Ishmael wanted something, the only logical person to turn to was himself, and after waiting a few more days he found the courage to make the question. One day was just the same as the next and so he reasoned there would never be exactly a right time or a wrong time to ask. General Benjamin had just completed his move and Mr. Hosokawa was only in the earliest stages of considering his next position. Roxane sat forward on the little sofa, her elbows on her knees, her hands making a comfortable support beneath her chin. She watched the board like something that might try and run away. Ishmael wished he could speak to her. He wondered if she was learning how to play as well.

  “Sir,” Ishmael began, a sharp chip of ice lodged in his throat.

  General Benjamin looked up and blinked. He hadn’t noticed the boy in the room. Such a small boy. He was an orphan whose uncle had enlisted him to the cause only a few months before their attack, saying all the boys in the family were small and then came into impressive growth spurts, but Benjamin was beginning to doubt this would ever be true. Ishmael didn’t look like a body that was planning on doing anything impressive. Still, he did the best he could to keep up with the others and endure their teasing. And it was helpful to have at least one person who was small, someone who could be hoisted up, pushed through windows. “What is it?”

  “I was wondering, sir, if you would consider.” He stopped, collected himself, and started again. “I was wondering if there was time later, if I might play the winner.” It occurred to him then that there was a fifty-fifty chance that the winner might be Mr. Hosokawa, which might be an inappropriate request. “Or the loser.”

 
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