Bel canto, p.26
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       Bel Canto, p.26

           Ann Patchett
 

  “That Ishmael, he’s a fast learner,” General Benjamin said. “Nobody taught him the game, you know. He just picked it up from watching.” The boy’s accomplishment had put him in a good mood. It reminded him of when he used to be a schoolteacher.

  “Come into the hall for a moment,” Ruben said to him quietly. “I must speak to you about something.”

  “Then speak to me here.”

  Ruben cast his eyes towards the boy, indicating that this was a private matter between men. Benjamin sighed and pushed himself off the couch. “Everyone has a problem,” he said.

  Outside the doorway, Ruben put down his bag of trash. He did not like to speak to the Generals. His first encounter with them had set a precedent which he followed, but no decent man could pretend not to notice such a thing.

  “What is it you need?” Benjamin said, his voice heavy.

  “What you need,” Ruben said. He reached into his pocket and took out a bottle of pills with his name on them. “Antibiotics. Look, they gave me more than I would ever need. They stopped the infection in my face.”

  “Good for you,” General Benjamin said.

  “And you. There are plenty here. Take them. You be will surprised by the difference they make.”

  “You are a doctor?”

  “You don’t need to be a doctor to see an infection. I’m telling you.”

  Benjamin smiled at him. “How do I know you don’t mean to poison me, little Vice President?”

  “Yes, yes.” Ruben sighed. “I mean to poison you. I mean for us to die together.” He opened the bottle and shook one of the pills into his mouth and after making sure to show Benjamin how it sat there on his tongue, he swallowed it. Then he handed the bottle over to the General. “I will not ask you what you mean to do with them, but there, they are yours.”

  After that, Benjamin returned to the chess game and Ruben picked up the trash and headed on to the next room in the hall.

  It was Saturday, but since all the days were essentially the same, the only two people who gave this any thought at all were Father Arguedas, who heard confession on Saturday and planned for his Sunday mass, and Beatriz, who found the weekends to be an unbearable wasteland because the program she liked, The Story of Maria, was only on Monday through Friday.

  “It is a healthy thing to wait,” General Alfredo told her, because he enjoyed the show himself. “It gives you a sense of anticipation.”

  “I don’t want to wait,” she said, and suddenly thought that she might cry with frustration, the dull white stretch of the afternoon pushing out endlessly in every direction. She had already cleaned her gun and passed inspection and she didn’t have to stand guard until night. She could have taken a nap or looked at one of the magazines she had seen and not understood a hundred times before, but the thought of it all seemed unbearable. She wanted out of this place. She wanted to walk down the streets in the city like any other girl and have men tap their horns as they drove by her. She wanted to do something. “I’m going to see the priest,” she said to Alfredo. She quickly turned her face away. To cry was strictly forbidden. She thought of it as the worst thing she could do.

  Father Arguedas adopted a “translator optional” policy in regard to confession. If people chose to confess in a language other than Spanish, then he would be happy to sit and listen and assume their sins were filtered through him and washed away by God exactly as they would have been if he had understood what they were saying. If people would rather be understood in a more traditional way, then they were welcome to bring Gen along if it worked out with his schedule. Gen was perfect for the job, as he seemed to have a remarkable ability not to listen to the words coming out of his own mouth. But that didn’t matter because today Oscar Mendoza was confessing in the language they both grew up speaking. They sat face-to-face on two dining-room chairs pulled over to the corner. People respected the arrangement and avoided the dining room when they saw the priest was sitting down with someone there. At first, Father Arguedas had brought up the idea of trying to rig up some sort of proper confessional in the coat closet but the Generals would not allow it. All of the hostages must be out in the open where they could be clearly seen at all times.

  “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been three weeks since my last confession. At home I go every week, I promise you that, but there isn’t a great deal of opportunity to sin in our present circumstances,” Oscar Mendoza said. “No drinking, no gambling, only three women. Even to try and sin with yourself is nearly impossible. There is so little privacy.”

  “There are rewards to the way we live.”

  Mendoza nodded, though he could hardly see it as such. “I am having dreams, though. Can certain types of dreams constitute a sin, Father?”

  The priest shrugged. He enjoyed confession, the chance to talk to people, possibly to relieve them of their burden. He could count on one hand the number of times he had been allowed to hear confession before the kidnapping, but since then there had been instances when there had been several people waiting to speak to him. Perhaps he would have chosen slightly more sin, if only because it would have kept the people with him longer. “Dreams are a matter of the subconscious. That’s unclear territory. Still, I think it would be best if you told me. Then maybe I can help you.”

  Beatriz leaned her head into the doorway, her heavy braid swung down against the light. “Are you finished yet?”

  “Not yet,” the priest said.

  “Soon?”

  “Go and play for a while. I can see you next.”

  Play. Did he think she was a child? She looked at Gen’s big watch on her wrist. It was seventeen minutes after one o’clock. She understood the watch perfectly now, though it dogged her a little. She couldn’t go for more than three minutes without checking the time no matter how hard she tried to ignore it. Beatriz lay down on a small red Oriental carpet just outside the door where Father couldn’t see her but she could comfortably hear confession. She slipped the end of her braid into her mouth. Oscar Mendoza had a voice as big as his shoulders and it carried easily, even when he whispered.

  “It is more or less the same dream every night.” Oscar Mendoza stopped, not entirely sure he wanted to say anything too horrible to such a young priest. “Dreams of terrible violence.”

  “Against our captors?” the priest said quietly.

  Out in the hall, Beatriz lifted up her head.

  “Oh no, nothing like that. I wish they would leave us alone but I don’t wish them any particular violence, at least not usually. No, the dreams that I have are about my daughters. I come home from this place. I escape or am freed, it’s different in different dreams, and when I get to my house it is full of boys. It’s like some sort of boys’ academy. Boys of every size, light-skinned, dark-skinned, some fat, some lanky. They’re everywhere. They are eating out of my refrigerator and smoking cigarettes on my porch. They are in my bathroom, using my razor. When I pass them they glance up, give me a dull look, like they couldn’t really be bothered, and then they go back to whatever it was they were doing. But that’s not the terrible part. These boys, what they are mostly doing, they are . . . they are, having knowledge of my daughters. They are lined up outside their bedrooms, even the rooms of my two little girls. It is a terrible thing, Father. From some of the doors I hear laughing and from others I hear sobbing and I start to kill the boys, one by one, I go down the hall and I break them apart like matches. They don’t even step away from me. Each one looks so surprised just before I reach up to snap his neck in my hands.” Oscar’s hands were shaking and he knotted them together and pressed them between his knees.

  Beatriz tried to look discreetly around the corner to see if the big man was crying. She thought she could detect a trembling in his voice. Were these the sorts of things other people dreamed about? Was this what they confessed? She checked the watch: 1:20.

  “Ah, Oscar. Oscar.” Father Arguedas patted his shoulder. “It is just the pressure. It’s not a sin. We pray that our minds
won’t turn towards terrible things but sometimes they do and it is beyond our control.”

  “It feels very real at the time,” Oscar said, and then he added reluctantly, “I’m not so unhappy in the dreams. I feel a rage, but I’m glad to be killing them.”

  This piece of information was perhaps more troubling. “The thing to do then is to learn. Pray for God’s strength, for His justice. Then when the time comes for you to go back to your home there will be peace in your heart.”

  “I suppose.” Oscar nodded slowly, feeling unconvinced. He realized now that what he had wanted the priest to do was not to absolve him but to reassure him that it was impossible, the things he dreamed about. That his daughters were safe and unmolested in their home.

  Father Arguedas looked at him very closely. He leaned in towards him, his voice full of portent. “Pray to the Virgin. Three rosaries. Do you understand me?” He took his own rosary out of his pocket and pressed it into Oscar’s big hands.

  “Three rosaries,” Oscar said, and sure enough, there was a loosening of pressure in his chest as he began to work the beads through his fingers. He left the room thanking Father. At least if he could pray he would be doing something.

  The priest took a few minutes to pray for the sins of Oscar Mendoza and when he was finished he cleared his throat and called out, “Beatriz, was that fun for you?”

  She waited, dried her braid on her sleeve, then she simply rolled over onto her stomach so that now she was facing into the room. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “You shouldn’t be listening.”

  “You are a prisoner,” she said, but without much conviction. She would never raise her gun to a priest and so she pointed her finger at him instead. “I have every right to hear what you are saying.”

  Father Arguedas leaned back in his chair. “To make sure we weren’t in here plotting to kill you in your sleep.”

  “Exactly.”

  “Come in now and make your confession. You have something to confess already. That will make it easier.” Father Arguedas was bluffing. None of the terrorists made confession, although many of them came to mass and he let them take communion just the same. He thought it was probably a rule of the Generals, no confession.

  But Beatriz had never made confession before. In her village, the priest came through irregularly, only when his schedule permitted it. The priest was a very busy man who served a large region in the mountains. Sometimes months would pass between visits and then when he came his time was crowded up with not only the mass itself but baptisms and marriages, funerals, land disputes, communion. Confession was saved for murderers and the terminally ill, not idle girls who had done nothing worse then pinch their sisters or disobey their mothers. It was something for the very grown up and for the very wicked, and if she were to tell the truth, Beatriz considered herself to be neither of those things.

  Father Arguedas held out his hand and he spoke to her softly. Really, he was the only one who ever spoke to her in that tone. “Come here,” he said. “I’ll make this very easy for you.”

  It was so simple to go to him, to sit down in the chair. He told her to bow her head and then he put a hand on either side of the straight part of her hair and began to pray for her. She didn’t listen to the prayer. She only heard words here and there, beautiful words, father and blessed and forgiveness. It was just such a pleasant sensation, the weight of his hands on her head. When he finally took his hands away after what seemed to be a very long time, she felt delightfully weightless, free. She lifted up her face and smiled at him.

  “Now you call your sins to mind,” he said. “Usually you do that before you come. You pray to God to give you the courage to remember your sins and the courage to release them. And when you come to the confessional you say, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.’ ”

  “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”

  Father Arguedas waited for a while but Beatriz only continued to smile at him. “Now you tell me your sins.”

  “What are they?”

  “Well,” he said, “to start with, you listened in on Mr. Mendoza’s confession when you knew it was the wrong thing to do.”

  She shook her head. “That wasn’t a sin. I told you, I was doing my job.”

  Father Arguedas put his hands on her shoulders this time and it had the same wonderfully calming effect on her. “While you are in confession you must tell the absolute truth. You are telling that truth to God through me, and I will never tell another living soul. What this is is between you and me and God. It is a sacred rite and you must never, never lie when you make your confession. Do you understand that?”

  “I do,” Beatriz whispered. He had the nicest face of anyone here, nicer even than Gen’s, who she had liked a little bit before. All the other hostages were too old, and the boys in her troop were too young, and the Generals were the Generals.

  “Pray,” the priest said. “Try very hard to understand this.”

  Because she liked him, she tried to make herself think about it. With the feel of his hands on her shoulders she closed her eyes and she prayed, and suddenly it seemed very clear to her. Yes, she knew she was not supposed to listen. She knew it like something she could see behind her closed eyes and it made her happy. “I confess having listened.” All she had to do was say it and there it went, floating away from her. It wasn’t her sin anymore.

  “And something else?”

  Something else. She thought again. She stared hard into the darkness of her closed eyes, the place where she knew the sins stacked up like kindling, dry and ready for a fire. There was something else, lots of something else. She began to see them all. But it was too much and she didn’t know what to call it, how to form so many sins into words. “I shouldn’t have pointed the gun,” she said finally, because there was no way to make sense of all of it. She felt like if she stayed forever she would never be able to confess them all. Not that she meant to stop doing any of those things. She couldn’t stop. It wouldn’t be allowed and she didn’t even want to. She could see her sins now and knew that she would make more and more of them.

  “God forgives you,” the priest said.

  Beatriz opened her eyes and blinked at the priest. “So it will go away?”

  “You’ll have to pray. You’ll have to be sorry.”

  “I can do that.” Maybe that was the answer, a sort of cycle of sinning and sorriness. She could come every Saturday, maybe more often than that, and he would keep having God forgive her, and then she would be free to go to heaven.

  “I want you to say some prayers now.”

  “I don’t know all the words.”

  Father Arguedas nodded his head. “We can say them together. I can teach them to you. But, Beatriz, I need you to be kind, to be helpful. That is part of your contrition. I want you to try it just for today.”

  Carmen was in the living room, but so was General Hector and a half-dozen of the bigger boys. Four of them played cards and the rest of them watched. They had stuck their knives into the table they played on, something that drove the Vice President to the brink of insanity. The table was from the early 1800s, hand-carved by Spanish artisans who never envisioned that knives would bristle from the wood’s smooth top like so many porcupine quills. Gen walked past them slowly. He could not even attempt to catch Carmen’s eye. All he could do was hope that she saw him and would think to follow. Gen stopped and spoke to Simon Thibault, who was stretched across a nearby sofa reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish.

  “This will take me forever,” Thibault said to Gen in French. “Maybe a hundred years. At least I know I have the time.”

  “Who knew that being kidnapped was so much like attending university?” Gen said.

  Thibault laughed and turned a page. Had she heard them talking? Did she see him walking away? He went on to the kitchen, which was mercifully empty, slipped inside the china closet, and waited. Whenever he had come to the ch
ina closet, Carmen was already there, waiting for him. He had never been in there alone and the sight of all those plates stacked up above his head filled his heart with love for Carmen. Plates on which two people could eat a year’s worth of dinners and never have to wash a dish. There was never a minute alone, a minute when someone wasn’t asking him to say something. Always his head was cluttered with other people’s overly expressed sentiments, and now it was quiet and he could imagine Carmen sitting next to him, her long, slender legs folded up in front of her while she conjugated verbs. She had asked him for favors and now he would ask her for her help. Together they would help Mr. Hosokawa and Miss Coss. Normally he would say that the private life of one’s employer was in no manner his business, but no one pretended anymore that this was a normal life. He could not think of Mrs. Hosokawa or Nansei or Japan. Those things had receded so far behind them that it was almost impossible to believe they had ever existed. What he believed in was this china closet, saucers and soup bowls, towering stacks of bread-and-butter plates. He believed in this night. It struck him that he had looked for Carmen first, that he had not gone back to speak to Mr. Hosokawa, who was most likely still playing chess with Ishmael. He could not be two places at once and finally he felt himself settling, felt the kitchen floor hard and cold beneath his buttocks, felt the slightest ache in his back. He was here, only here, in this country he did not know, waiting on the girl he taught and loved, waiting to help Mr. Hosokawa, whom he loved as well. There was Gen, who had gone from nothing to loving two people.

 
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