Bel canto, p.27
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       Bel Canto, p.27

           Ann Patchett
 

  He didn’t know how much time was passing without his watch. He couldn’t even guess anymore. Five minutes felt so much like an hour. L’amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser, et c’est bien en vain qu’on l’appelle, s’il lui convient de refuser. He only said the words to himself, humming lightly. He wished that he could sing them but Gen couldn’t sing.

  And then Carmen came, flushed as if she had been running when in fact she had walked to the kitchen as slowly as such a walk was possible to make. She closed the door behind her and sank down on the floor. “I thought this was what you meant,” she whispered, pressing in close beside him as if it were cold. “I thought you would be waiting for me.”

  Gen took her hands, which were so small. How did he ever think she was only a beautiful boy? “I need to ask you something.” Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame, he thought again, and he kissed her.

  She kissed him for the kiss, touched his hair, whose gloss and weight she found to be an endless source of fascination. “I didn’t want to get up right away. I thought I should wait awhile before I followed you.”

  He kissed her. There was such an incredible logic to kissing, such a metal-to-magnet pull between two people that it was a wonder that they found the strength to prevent themselves from succumbing every second. Rightfully, the world should be a whirlpool of kissing into which we sank and never found the strength to rise up again. “Roxane Coss came to speak to me today. She said she wants you to sleep somewhere else tonight, to not bring her breakfast in the morning.”

  Carmen pushed away from him, keeping one hand on his chest. Roxane Coss didn’t want her to bring breakfast? “Did I do something wrong?”

  “Oh, no,” Gen said. “She thinks very highly of you. She told me so.” He tucked her into the crook of his arm and she breathed into his shoulder. This was what it felt like, to be a man with a woman. This was the thing Gen had missed in all the translation of language. “You were right, what you thought about, her feelings for Mr. Hosokawa. She wants to be with him tonight.”

  Carmen raised her head. “How will he get upstairs?”

  “Roxane wants you to help him.”

  Gen lived one life and in that life he was always a prisoner and his friends were the other prisoners, and even though he loved Carmen and got along politely with some of the terrorists, he never got confused and thought he wanted to join LFDMS. But for Carmen it was different. She had clearly two lives. She did her push-ups in the morning and stood for inspection. She carried her rifle on guard. She kept a boning knife in her boot and she knew how to use it. She obeyed orders. She was, as it had been explained to her, part of the force that would bring about change. But she was also the girl who went to the china closet at night, who was learning to read in Spanish and could already say several things in English. Good morning. I am very well, thank you. Where is the restaurant? Some mornings, Roxane Coss let her climb into the impossibly soft sheets on her big bed, let her close her eyes for a few minutes and pretend she belonged there. She would pretend she was one of the prisoners, that she lived in a world with so many privileges that there was nothing to fight for. But no matter how the two sides got along, they were always two sides, and when she went from one to the other it was a matter of crossing over something. Either she told Gen she couldn’t get Mr. Hosokawa upstairs, in which case she disappointed Gen and Mr. Hosokawa and Miss Coss, who had all been so kind to her, or she told him she could, in which case she broke every oath she had sworn to her party and put herself at risk of a punishment she would not imagine. If Gen had understood any of this he never would have asked her. For him it was merely about helping out, being a friend. It was as if he only wanted to borrow a book. Carmen closed her eyes and pretended to be tired. She prayed to Saint Rose of Lima. “Saint Rose, give me guidance. Saint Rose, give me clarity.” She pressed her eyes closed and pleaded for the intercession of the only saint she knew personally, but a saint is very little help when it comes to smuggling a married man into an opera singer’s bedroom. On this matter, Carmen was on her own.

  “Sure,” Carmen whispered, her eyes still closed, her ear pressed to the steady thump of Gen’s heart. Gen’s hand came up and smoothed her hair, over and over again, the way her mother had done when Carmen was a child and had a fever.

  In the vice-presidential mansion, none of the guests, not even Ruben Iglesias himself, knew the house as well as the members of LFDMS. Part of their daily work was the memorization of windows and which ones were wide enough to jump through. They calculated the falls, estimated the damage in terms of their own bones. They each knew the length of the hallways, rooms from which one could make a clear shot to the outside, the fastest exits to the roof, to the garden. So naturally, Carmen knew there was a back stairwell in the hallway off the kitchen that led to the servants’ quarters, and that in the very room that Esmeralda had once slept there was a door that went to the nursery, and the nursery had a door onto the main hallway of the second floor, and that hallway led to the bedroom where Roxane Coss slept. Of course, other people slept on the second floor as well. Generals Benjamin and Hector had rooms on the second floor. (General Alfredo, the worst sleeper, found a little rest in the guest suite on the first floor.) Many of the boys slept on the second floor and not always in the same place, which is why Carmen chose to sleep in the hallway outside of Roxane Coss’s room, just in case one of those boys woke up in the middle of the night, restless. Carmen herself had used this route to the china closet every night, her stocking feet silent on the polished wood floor. She knew the location of every creaky board, every potentially light sleeper. She knew how to flatten herself into the shadows when someone came around the corner headed for the bathroom. She could skate those floors as quiet as a blade drawing over ice. Carmen was trained, an expert at remaining silent. Still, she could sense the depth of Mr. Hosokawa’s ability to be quiet. Thank God Roxane Coss had not fallen in love with one of the Russians. She doubted they could make it up the stairs without stopping for a cigarette and telling at least one loud story that no one could understand. Gen was to bring Mr. Hosokawa to the back hallway at two A.M. and she would take him to Roxane Coss’s room. Two hours later she would come to the door to lead him back. They would say nothing to each other, but that part was easy enough. Even if in this case they were allies, there was nothing they knew to say.

  Once the plans were made, Carmen left Gen to watch television with the other soldiers. There she saw a repeat broadcast of The Story of Maria. Maria had gone to the city to search for her lover, whom she had sent away. She wandered the crowded streets with her little suitcase in her hand and on every corner strangers lurked in the shadows, conspiring to ruin her. Everyone in the Vice President’s study wept. Carmen played checkers when the program was over and she helped with supply lists and volunteered to cover afternoon watch if anyone was feeling tired. She would be exemplary in her helpfulness and willing participation. She did not want to see Gen or Mr. Hosokawa or Roxane Coss for fear she would blush and give herself away, for fear that she would become angry at them for asking so much of her.

  How much does a house know? There could not have been gossip and yet there was a slight tension in the air, the vaguest electricity that made men lift their heads and look and find nothing. The salted fish and rice that came for dinner did not go down well and one after the other they put their shares on the table half eaten and walked away. Kato picked out Cole Porter on the piano and the evening fell into a low, blue light. Maybe it was the fine weather, the irritation of once again not being able to walk outside. A half-dozen men stood near an open window and tried to breathe the night air as darkness settled in, taking away the view of the overgrown garden one twisted flower at a time. From the other side of the wall they could hear the faint race of engines, cars that were possibly blocks away from their street, and for a moment the men at the window remembered that there was a world out there, and then just as quickly they let the thought go.

  Roxa
ne Coss had gone to bed early. Like Carmen, she didn’t want to be there once she had made her decision. Mr. Hosokawa sat next to Gen on the love seat nearest the piano. “Tell me again,” he said.

  “She wants to see you tonight.”

  “That’s what she said?”

  “Carmen will take you to her room.”

  Mr. Hosokawa looked at his hands. They were old hands. His father’s hands. His nails were long. “It’s very awkward that Carmen should know this. That you should know.”

  “There was no other way.”

  “What if it is dangerous for the girl?”

  “Carmen knows what she’s doing.” Gen said. Dangerous? She went down the stairs every night to come to the china closet. He wouldn’t ask her to do something that wasn’t safe.

  Mr. Hosokawa nodded slowly. He had the distinct sensation that the living room was tilting, that the living room had become a boat in a gently tilting sea. He had stopped thinking of what he wanted most so many years ago, even when he was a child perhaps. He disciplined himself to only want the things that were possible to have: an enormous industry, a productive family, an understanding of music. And now, a few months after his fifty-third birthday, in a country he had never really seen, he felt desire in the deepest part of himself, the kind of wanting that can only come when the thing you want is very close to you. When he was a child he dreamed of love, not only to witness it, the way he saw love in the opera, but to feel it himself. But that, he decided, was madness. That was wanting too much. Tonight he wished for little things, the chance to take a hot bath, a reasonable suit of clothing, a gift to bring, at the very least some flowers, but then the room tilted slightly in the other direction and he opened up his hands and all of that fell away from him and he wanted nothing. He had been asked to come to her room at two A.M. and there was nothing more in the world to want, ever.

  When the time came to sleep, Mr. Hosokawa lay flat on his back and looked at his watch by the bright light of the moon. He was afraid he would fall asleep and he knew he would never fall asleep. He marveled at Gen, who took measured, peaceful breaths on the floor beside him. What he didn’t know was that Gen woke up every morning at two A.M., as regular as a baby waking for food, and slipped out of the living room without ever being missed. Mr. Hosokawa watched the night guard circle, Beatriz and Sergio, and lowered his eyelids whenever they came near. They stopped to watch certain members of his group sleep. They whispered to one another and nodded. By one o’clock they had disappeared exactly the way Gen said they would. This was the world of the night of which he knew nothing. Mr. Hosokawa could feel his pulse pushing in his temples, his wrists, his neck. He pointed his toes. This was the hour. He had been sleeping forever. He had been dead. Now he was suddenly, completely alive.

  At five minutes until two, Gen sat up as if an alarm had gone off. He stood, looked at his employer, and together they crossed the living room, placing their feet down gently between their sleeping friends and acquaintances. There were the Argentinians. There were the Portuguese. The Germans slept near the Italians. The Russians were safe in the dining room. There was Kato, his dear hands folded on his chest, his fingers twitching almost imperceptibly in his sleep, like a dog dreaming of Schubert. There was the priest, rolled over on his side, both hands under one cheek. Scattered among them were a handful of soldiers sprawled on their backs as if sleep was a car that had hit them dead on, their necks twisted sideways, their mouths wrenched open, their rifles resting in their open hands like ripe fruit.

  In a hallway off the kitchen, Carmen was waiting exactly as Gen said she would be, her dark hair tied into a braid, her feet bare. She looked at Gen first, and he touched her shoulder lightly instead of speaking, and everything was understood among the three of them. There was no sense in waiting, as waiting would have only made it worse. Carmen would have liked to have been in the china closet now, her legs across Gen’s lap, reading aloud the practice paragraph he had written up for her, but she had made her choice. She had agreed. She said a quick prayer to the saint who ignored her now and crossed herself as quickly, lightly, as a hummingbird touching down four times. Then she turned and went down the hall, Mr. Hosokawa moving silently behind her. Gen watched them as they turned away, never having realized it would be worse to be left behind.

  When they got to the staircase, a narrow, twisting affair whose boards were cheap and only good enough to carry servants from one floor to the other, Carmen turned and looked at Mr. Hosokawa. She leaned over and touched his ankle and then touched her own, she moved their feet together, and when she stood up he nodded to her. It was very dark and as they took the stairs it would get darker. Never had her prayers failed her completely. She tried to believe this was only a lesson, a necessary delay, and that if they were to get caught she would not be alone forever.

  All Mr. Hosokawa could see now was the outline of her narrow back. He tried to do what she told him, to place his foot exactly in the place her foot had left, but he couldn’t help think about how much smaller she was. Captivity had made him thinner, and as he took the stairs he was grateful for every pound he had lost. He held his breath and listened. Truly, they were silent. He had never been so aware of the complete absence of sound. He had not climbed a set of stairs in the months he had been inside this house and the very act felt brave and daring. How right it was to climb! How happy he was to finally have the chance to risk himself. When they reached the top, Carmen pushed open the door with her fingertips and a little light fell onto her face, a reassurance that at least part of the trip was behind them now. She turned and smiled at him. She was a beautiful girl. She was his own daughter.

  They took the slim hallway to the nanny’s room, and when she opened that door there was the slightest hint of a whine. Still no noise from the two of them, but a small sound from the door. There was also someone in the bed. It didn’t happen often. The girl who watched the children had the least comfortable bed in the whole house and rarely would anyone fall asleep there, but it did happen, tonight it happened. Carmen put her hand against Mr. Hosokawa’s chest so they could wait for a minute for the room to forget the sound the door had made. She could feel his heart beating so clearly it was as if she were holding it in her hand. Carmen took a breath and waited, then she nodded without looking back and moved one foot forward. Maybe this was hard but it was not impossible. It was nothing compared to breaking into the mansion through the air vents. There had been other nights when she had found people sleeping in this bed.

  It was Beatriz. She had lain down in the middle of night watch. Everyone did it. Carmen certainly had. It was too long to stay awake. Sergio would be in some other room, slumped over in a hard and guilty sleep. Beatriz did not have a blanket over her and her boots were on. In her sleep she cradled her rifle in her arms like a child. Mr. Hosokawa tried to make his feet move forward, but now he was afraid. He closed his eyes and thought of Roxane Coss, he thought of love and tried to say a prayer to love, and when he opened his eyes, Beatriz sat up in bed and just as quickly raised her gun. Just as quickly, Carmen stepped between them. These two things Mr. Hosokawa was sure of: Beatriz pointed the rifle at him and Carmen came in front of the gun. She went to Beatriz, who should have been her friend, the only other girl in a troop of so many men, and grabbed her and held her tight, leaving the rifle to point at the ceiling.

  “What are you doing?” Beatriz hissed. Even she knew this was a quiet business. “Get away from me.”

  But Carmen held her. She practically fell into her she was so frightened and so oddly relieved now that she had been caught. “Don’t tell,” she whispered in the other girl’s ear.

  “You’re taking him upstairs? You are in so much trouble.” Beatriz struggled and found Carmen stronger than she had imagined. Or maybe it was just that she had been so deeply asleep. Asleep on guard, and maybe Carmen meant to tell.

  “Shh,” Carmen said. She buried her nose in the loose hair where Beatriz’s braid had unraveled in her sleep and kept her grip t
ight. For a second she forgot about Mr. Hosokawa and it was only the two of them, only this immediate problem. She could feel Beatriz’s back was still warm from the bed and the barrel of the gun pressed cold into her cheek, and even though she had not thought to ask for help, she heard the beloved voice of Saint Rose of Lima say to her, “Tell the truth.”

  “He’s in love with the opera singer,” Carmen said. She didn’t care about secrets now. Her only hope was to do what she was told. “They wanted to be alone together.”

  “They would kill you for this,” Beatriz said, though she thought that probably wasn’t true.

  “Help me,” Carmen said. She meant to say it only to her saint, but the words slipped from her lips in desperation. Beatriz thought for a moment she heard the voice of the priest. He had forgiven her. He had instructed her towards kindness. She thought of her own sins and the chance to forgive the sins of others, and she raised up what she could of her pinned-down arm and put it lightly on Carmen’s back.

  “She loves him?” Beatriz said.

  “I’m going to bring him back in two hours.”

  Beatriz shifted herself in Carmen’s arms and this time Carmen let her go. She could barely make out Carmen’s face. She could not be entirely sure it was Mr. Hosokawa there in the darkness. He had taught her to tell time. He had always smiled at her. Once, when they reached the door to the kitchen at the same time, he bowed to her. Beatriz closed her eyes, searched the darkness for her own pile of sins. “I won’t tell,” she whispered. And again, for the second time that day, she felt a loosening as some of her burden was lifted from her.

  Carmen kissed her cheek. She was full of gratitude. She felt for the first time that she was lucky. Then she stepped back into the shadows. Beatriz had meant to extract a promise from her in return, that she wouldn’t tell that she had seen her sleeping, but of course she wouldn’t tell, she couldn’t. Beatriz lay back on the bed, though she hadn’t meant to, and in a minute she was asleep and the whole business was over with as suddenly as it had all begun.

 
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