Bel canto, p.28
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       Bel Canto, p.28

           Ann Patchett

  Through the nursery, where a moon-shaped night-light still glowed faintly from a wall socket illuminating a cast of lonesome dolls, past yet another bathroom with a white porcelain tub that was bigger than some canoes Carmen had ridden in, and out into the main hall, where the house became again the house that they knew, wide and gracious and grand. Carmen led Mr. Hosokawa to the third door and then she stopped. This was where she slept most nights, the little sleeping she did. She had been holding on to his hand ever since she had led him away from Beatriz and she was holding it now. It seemed they had come a very long way, but the Vice President’s children could make it from their mother’s bedroom, through the nursery, cutting through Esmeralda’s room and down the back stairs to the kitchen in well under a minute, even though they had been told to never run in the house. Carmen liked Mr. Hosokawa. She wished she could tell him so, but if she had had the language she wouldn’t have had the courage. Instead she pressed his hand once and then let it go.

  Mr. Hosokawa bowed to her, his face pointing down towards his knees, and he held this position for what seemed to Carmen to be too long. Then he stood again and opened the door.

  There was a high window in the upstairs hallway and the main staircase was flooded with the bright light of the moon, but Carmen didn’t take the front stairs. She navigated her course backwards, through the nursery and past the bed where Beatriz was sleeping deeply. Carmen stopped to untangle the rifle’s trigger from her fingers. She leaned the gun against the wall and pulled a coverlet up over her shoulders. She hoped that Beatriz would not decide to tell in the morning, or better yet that she would wake up thinking it was all a dream. Coming down the kitchen stairs, Carmen felt a different kind of wild heartbeat. She imagined Roxane Coss on the other side of the door, anxious from all the waiting. She imagined Mr. Hosokawa, silent and dignified, taking her into his arms. The sweetness of that touch, the security inside the embrace, Carmen raised her hand to the thin pricking of sweat on the back of her neck. She was silent, but still the stairs came faster now, four, three, two, one, then she was through the hallway, the kitchen. She skidded to a stop just inside the wondrous world of the china closet, where Gen sat on the floor, an unopened book on his knees. When he looked up she put her fingers to her lips. So much brightness in her face, her cheeks flushed, her eyes open wide. When she turned away, of course he would stand and follow her.

  How much luck is one person entitled to in a night? Does it come in a limited allotment, like milk in a bottle, and when so much has been poured out then only so much is left? Or was luck a matter of the day, and on the day you’re lucky you are limitlessly lucky? If it was the former, then surely Carmen had used up all her luck getting Mr. Hosokawa safely into Roxane Coss’s bedroom. But if it was the latter, and in her bones she felt this was the truth, then this was her night. If all the saints in heaven were behind her now, then her luck must be good for a few more hours. Carmen took Gen’s hand and led him through the kitchen and onto the back porch, where he had never been before. She opened up the door, simply put her hand on the knob and turned it, and together they walked out into the night.

  Look at this night: the moon a floodlight washing over what had once been an orderly garden, the moonlight pouring over the high stucco wall like water. The air smelled of the thick jasmine vines and the evening lilies that had long ago finished their work and closed up for the day. The grass was high, past their ankles and brushing heavy against their calves, and it made a shushing sound as they walked so they stopped to look up at the stars, forgetting that they were right in the middle of a city block. There weren’t more than half a dozen stars to see.

  Carmen went outside all the time. Even in the rain she had gone out every day to walk on guard or simply to stretch her legs, but for Gen the night seemed miraculous, the air and the sky, the soft crush of grass beneath his heel. He was back in the world and the world looked, on that night, to be an incomprehensibly beautiful place. Such a limited view he was given yet still he would swear to it, the world was beautiful.

  For the rest of Gen’s life he will remember this night in two completely different ways.

  First, he will imagine what he did not do:

  In this version, he takes Carmen’s hand and leads her out the gate at the end of the front walkway. There are military guards on the other side of the wall but they, too, are young and asleep, and together they pass them and simply walk out into the capital city of the host country. Nobody knows to stop them. They are not famous and nobody cares. They go to an airport and find a flight back to Japan and they live there, together, happily and forever.

  Then he will imagine exactly what did happen:

  It did not occur to him to leave, as it does not occur to a dog to leave once he has been trained to stay in the yard. He only feels blessed for the little freedom he is given. Carmen takes his hand and together they walk to the place where Esmeralda held picnics for the Vice President’s children, a place where the wall curves back and makes a pocket of grass and slender trees and there is no clear view of the house. Carmen kisses him and he kisses her and from then on he will never be able to separate the smell of her from the smell of night. They are deep in the lush growth of grass, in a part of the yard that is covered in shadows thrown down by the wall, and Gen can see nothing. Later, he would remember that his friend, Mr. Hosokawa, was inside that house on the second floor, in bed with the singer, but on that night he does not think of them at all. Carmen has pulled off her jacket even though there’s a cool breeze. She unbuttons his shirt while he covers her breasts with his hands. In the dark they are not themselves at all. They are confident. Gen pulls her down and she pulls him down. They defy gravity in their slow tumble to earth. Neither of them wear shoes and their pants slip off, too big for them anyway, and that feeling, that first luxury of skin touching skin.

  Sometimes Gen will stop his memory there.

  Her skin, the night, the grass, to be outside and then to be inside Carmen. He doesn’t know to want for more because nothing in his life has been as much as this. At the very moment he could have been taking her away, he is pulling her closer. Her hair is tangled around his neck. On that night he thinks that no one has ever had so much and only later will he know that he should have asked for more. His fingers slip into the soft indentations between her ribs, the delicate gullies carved out by hunger. He feels her teeth, takes her tongue. Carmen, Carmen, Carmen, Carmen. In the future, he will try to say her name enough, but he never can.

  Inside, the house slept, the guests and guards, and no one knew the difference. The Japanese man and his beloved soprano upstairs in bed, the translator and Carmen beneath the six stars outside, nobody missed them. Only Simon Thibault was awake, and he woke up from dreaming of Edith, his wife. When he was fully awake and could see where he was and remember that she wasn’t there with him, he began to cry. He tried to stop himself but he could see her so vividly. They had been in bed in the dream. They had been making love and in that love each had gently said the other’s name. When it was over, Edith had sat up in the tangle of blankets and wrapped her blue scarf around his shoulders to keep him warm. Simon Thibault buried his face in that scarf now but the crying only came harder. Nothing he could think of would stop it, and after a while he didn’t even try.


  in the morning everything was right. The sun came pouring in through the windows and showed up a series of irregular stains on the carpet. Outside, the birds whistled and called. Two of the boys, Jesus and Sergio, circled the house, their boots heavy with dew, their rifles raised. At home, they might have shot a bird or two but here shooting was Strictly Prohibited Unless Absolutely Necessary. The birds darted past them, their wings making a breeze in the boys’ hair. They looked in the window and saw Carmen and Beatriz in the kitchen together, taking rolls out of large plastic packages while eggs boiled to hard-cooked on the stove. They looked at each other and Carmen smiled a little and Beatriz pretended not to see it, which Carmen thought was
probably a good sign, or good enough. The room smelled of strong coffee. Carmen disappeared into the china closet and came back carrying a stack of blue-and-gold plates with the word Wedgwood stamped on the bottom, because what was the good of having them if they were never used?

  Everything was like it was every other morning. Except Roxane Coss did not come down to the piano. Kato had been waiting. After a while he stood up from the piano bench and stretched his legs. He leaned over and picked out a piece of Schumann, the simple one that everybody knows, music to pass the time. He didn’t even look at the keys. It was as if he was talking to himself and didn’t seem to know that everyone could hear him. Roxane was sleeping in. Carmen had not taken up her breakfast. It was not such a terrible thing. She sang every day, after all, didn’t she deserve to rest?

  But wasn’t it strange that Mr. Hosokawa was asleep as well? There on the couch, with everyone milling around him, he was still on his back, his glasses folded closed on his chest, his lips parted. No one ever saw him sleeping. He was always the first one up in the morning. Maybe he was sick. Two of the boys, Guadalupe and Humberto, the inside morning guards, leaned over the back of the couch and watched him to see if he was still breathing, which he was, so they left him alone.

  Quarter past eight, Beatriz knew because she had the watch. Too much fucking, she thought, but didn’t say it to Carmen. She was letting Carmen think she had forgotten when no such thing was true. She didn’t know how she would use this information, but she savored it like unspent money. There were so many possibilities for such knowledge.

  People get used to their little routines. They drank their coffee, brushed their teeth, and then they came into the living room and Roxane Coss sang. That was morning. But now they watched the stairs. Where was she? If she wasn’t sick then shouldn’t she be downstairs? Was consistency too much to ask for? They gave her so much respect, glory, wasn’t it right to think she would respect them in return? They watched Kato, who stood there like the man at the train station who looks at the open train door long after all the passengers have gotten off. The man who you know has been jilted long before he realizes it himself. He tapped at the keys absently, still standing. He was wondering at what point he could sit down and really play without her. It was the first time Kato had to ask himself: What was he without her? What would happen when all of this was over and he no longer spent entire days at the piano, his nights reading over music? He was a pianist now. He had rows of fine blue tendons in his fingers to prove it. Could he go back to that other life in which he got up at four A.M. to play furtively for an hour before work? What would happen when he was reinstated as a senior vice president at Nansei and once again became the numbers man, the man without a soprano? That’s all he would be. He remembered what had happened to the first accompanist, how he chose to die rather than to go out in the world alone. The chilling emptiness of Kato’s future made his fingers tighten and slip off the keys without a sound.

  And then something remarkable happened:

  Someone else began to sing, an a cappella voice from the far side of the room, a lovely, familiar voice. People were confused at first and then one by one all the boys started laughing, Humberto and Jesus, Sergio and Francisco, Gilbert, there were others coming from down the hall, big belly laughs, laughs in which they were forced to drape their arms around each other’s necks just to stand up, but Cesar kept singing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, non feci mai,” from Tosca. And it was funny, because he so completely mimicked Roxane. It was as if while the rest of them slept he had become her, the way she held out her hand when she sang, Ever a fervent believer, I have laid flowers on the altar. It was uncanny, for certainly Cesar looked nothing like the Diva. He was a spindly boy with blemished skin and two dozen silky black whiskers, but seeing him was so much like seeing her, the way he tilted his head and then, just at the very moment she would, closed his eyes. He didn’t seem to hear them laughing. His gaze was unfocused. He was singing to no one in particular. It wasn’t that he was mocking her so much as he was just trying to fill up the space where she should have been. It would have been mocking if it had only been her gestures he was repeating, but it wasn’t. It was her voice. The legendary voice of Roxane Coss. He held his notes long and clear. He reached down into the depths of his lungs for the power, the volume he had not allowed himself when singing alone under his breath. He was singing now, a part that was too high for him and yet he jumped up and grabbed onto the edge of the note. He pulled himself up and held it. He had no idea what he was saying, but he knew he was saying it correctly. He had paid too much attention to get it wrong. He rolled the pronunciation of every word in a perfect arch over his tongue. He was not a soprano. He did not know Italian. And yet somehow he gave the illusion of both things and for a moment the room believed in him. The boys’ laughter dissipated then vanished. Everyone, the guests, the boys, the Generals, they were all looking at Cesar now. Carmen and Beatriz were drawn out of the kitchen, their ears cocked, not at all sure if what was happening was good or bad. Mr. Hosokawa, who knew the music better than all of them, woke up thinking he was waking up to singing he knew, woke up thinking her voice was strange this morning, and wondered if maybe she was tired, look, he was still asleep himself. But he woke up thinking it was her voice.

  It is not such a long piece and when it was over Cesar barely took in breath. He went ahead because what if this was his only chance to sing? He hadn’t meant to exactly, but when he saw that she wasn’t coming down, that everyone was waiting, the notes welled up in his throat like a wave and nothing he could do would have held them down. How brilliant it was to sing! How wonderful to hear his own voice now. He went on to the aria from La Wally. He could only sing the pieces that were Roxane’s favorites, the ones she sang over and over again. Those were the only ones whose words he could be absolutely sure of, and if he faked the words, made some sounds that were close but might mean something else entirely, then everyone would see him as a fraud. Cesar did not know that only four people in the house spoke Italian. It would have been easier to sing something that they didn’t all associate with her, because how could he not fail by comparison? But he had no choice, no other material to chose from. He didn’t know that there were songs for men and songs for women, that different pieces were tailored to the abilities of different voices. All he had heard were the parts for soprano, so why should they not be his parts? He did not compare himself to her. There was no comparison. She was the singer. He was only a boy who loved her by singing. Or was it singing he loved? He could no longer remember. He was too far inside. He closed his eyes and followed his voice. Somewhere far away he heard the piano tailing him, then catching up, then leading him ahead. The end of the aria was very high and he had no idea if he would make it. It was like falling, no, like diving, twisting your body through the air without a single thought as to how it might land.

  Mr. Hosokawa was standing at the piano now in a confusion of sleep, his hair disheveled, his shirttails crumpled behind him. He simply didn’t know what to make of it. Part of him thought he should stop the boy in case he was being disrespectful, but it was all too remarkable, really, he loved La Wally. Still, there was something unnerving about watching this boy who now folded his hands over his heart the way Roxane did; what came out of his mouth was not her but so oddly reminiscent, as if it was only a poor recording of her voice that he was hearing. He closed his eyes. Yes, there was a considerable difference. There was no mistaking it now, but somehow this boy brought on the rocking sensation of love. Mr. Hosokawa loved Roxane Coss. Perhaps the boy wasn’t even singing. Perhaps his love was capable of turning the most ordinary objects into her.

  Roxane Coss was standing among them listening. How was it that no one saw her coming down the stairs? She had not stopped to dress and was wearing a pair of white silk pajamas and the Vice President’s wife’s blue alpaca robe even though it was too warm for this weather. Her feet were bare and her hair was loose down her back. After so many months
her roots had grown out and it was easy to see that her hair was in fact a duller shade of pale brown and thatched with shimmering silver. The boy was singing. His singing had drawn her out of such a deep sleep. She would have slept for several more hours but the singing woke her and she followed it down the stairs in a state of confusion. A recording? A cappella? But then she saw him, Cesar, a boy who had done nothing to set himself apart until now. When did he learn to sing? Her mind was racing in every direction. He was good. He was excellent. If someone was to run across such raw talent in Milan, in New York, the boy would be bundled off to a conservatory in a minute. He would be a star, because now he was nothing, not a minute of training and listen to the depth in his tone! Listen to the power that shook his narrow shoulders. He was careening towards the end, towards a high C that he could not be prepared for. She knew the music as well as she knew her own breath and she rushed towards him, as if he were a child in the road, as if the note was a speeding car bearing down on him. She grabbed his wrist. “Detengase! Basta!” She didn’t know Spanish, yet those two words she heard every day. Stop. Enough.

  Cesar stopped his singing dead but sadly left his mouth open, shaped to the last word he had sung. And when she did not say, “Begin again!” his lips betrayed the slightest tremor.

  Roxane Coss was touching his arm. She was speaking so fast and he didn’t understand a word of what she was saying. He stared at her blankly and he could see that she was frustrated, panicked even. The more panicked she became the louder and faster her senseless words came out and when he still didn’t respond she called out, “Gen!”

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