Bel canto, p.29
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       Bel Canto, p.29

           Ann Patchett

  But the whole room was watching them and it was too awful. Cesar felt the trembling everywhere now, and even though she was standing right beside him, touching him, he turned away and ran out of the room. They all stood there in embarrassed silence, as if the boy had run out suddenly naked. It was Kato who thought to put his hands together and the Italians, Gianni Davansate and Pietro Genovese, who called out, “Bravo!” And then everyone in the room was clapping and calling for the boy, but he was gone, out the back door and up into a tree where he often kept watch of the goings-on of the world. He could hear them, the dull buzz from inside, but who’s to say they weren’t mocking him terribly? Maybe she was in there now doing her own imitation: pretending to be him pretending to be her.

  “Gen!” Roxane took Gen’s hand. “Go after him. Tell someone to go after him.”

  And when Gen turned around, there stood Carmen. Always there was Carmen, her bright dark eyes turned up to him, ready to help him like a person whose life you’ve saved. He didn’t even have to say it. That was how they understood each other. She turned and then she was gone.

  Having kept such close quarters for so long, everybody knew what everybody else liked. Ishmael, for example, followed the Vice President like a dog. Looking for Ishmael? Find the Vice President and chances were the boy would be tangled up in his feet. Beatriz would always be in front of the television unless compelled by a direct order to be elsewhere. Gilbert was mad for the bathtub, especially the one in the master bathroom that roared into a raging boil when you flipped a switch (wasn’t that a surprise the first time it happened!). Cesar liked the tree, a sturdy oak that leaned into the wall, a tree with low, strong branches for easy climbing, high, wide branches for comfortable sitting. The other soldiers thought he was especially stupid or brave because sometimes he climbed up high enough that he was actually over the wall, where any military personnel could have popped him off like a squirrel. Sometimes the Generals asked him to look out over the city and report back, and off he would go into the tree. So there was no great puzzle as to where Carmen should look. She went out into the yard, a place that seemed completely different to her after last night. She took the long way around so that she could pass by the spot where the wall pocketed out into a private cove and look, the grass was still flattened, pressed down in the shape of her back. She felt every drop of her blood race to her head and she put her fingers to the wall, dizzy. Dear God, what if somebody noticed? Should she stop now, take the time to try and set it right? Could grass be fluffed up again? Would it stay that way? But then Carmen realized that she planned to pound down that same spot of grass again tonight, that she wanted to press down every blade of grass in the garden with her hips, her shoulders, the bare soles of her feet. If there had been a way she would have taken Gen then and there, wrapped her legs around him and climbed him like a tree. Who would ever think that such man would want to be with her? She was so distracted by the certainty of love that for a moment she forgot why she had come outside in the first place or who she was looking for. Then, in the distance, she saw a boot dangling like a large, ugly fruit from the high leaves and the world came rushing back to her. Carmen went to the oak tree, grabbed a branch above her head, and climbed.

  There was Cesar, shaking, crying. Anyone else who climbed this tree he would have thrown out on his head. He would have kicked him hard under the chin and sent him flying. But the head that pulled itself up to him was Carmen’s and Carmen he liked. He thought she understood him because of how she clearly loved Roxane Coss. She was the luckiest of them all, getting to take up her breakfast, getting to sleep outside her door. (Because Carmen was completely discreet he knew nothing about the rest of it: that she had slept in Roxane’s bed, brushed her hair, that Carmen had smuggled Roxane’s lover to her in the middle of the night and held her confidence. Had he known all of that he might have imploded with jealousy.) And while no one should see him cry like he was still a child, it would be less than terrible if the person who saw him was Carmen. Before he fell in love with Roxane Coss, back before they ever came to the city, he thought constantly about how much he would have liked to kiss Carmen, kissed her and more, but he gave up on the idea after a sharp smack from General Hector. Such business was completely forbidden between soldiers.

  “You sing so beautifully,” she said.

  Cesar turned his face away from her. A small branch scraped lightly against his cheek. “I’m a fool,” he said into the leaves.

  Carmen swung onto a branch across from him and clamped her legs around it. “Not a fool! You had to do it. You didn’t have any choice.” She could see the battered-down portion of grass from where she was now. It was different from this vantage point, larger and almost perfectly round, as if they had spun each other in great circles, which seemed possible. She could smell the grass in her hair. Love was action. It came to you. It was not a choice.

  But Cesar would not look back at her. From where she was she could have seen over the wall if she had just stretched up a little bit. She did not.

  “Roxane Coss sent me out to get you,” Carmen said. It was close enough to the truth. “She wants to talk to you about your singing. She thinks you’re very good.” She could say this because she knew he was very good and of course Roxane would tell him so. She did not understand anywhere near enough English to have deciphered what had been said in the living room, but she was developing a knack of figuring things out without having to know all the actual words.

  “You don’t know that.”

  “I do, too. The translator was there.”

  “She said, stop. She said, enough. I understood what she said.” A bird swooped once past the tree, hoping to land, and then shot on.

  “She wanted to talk to you. What does she know to say? You have to ask Gen for help. He’s the only way to understand anything.”

  Cesar sniffed, blotted his eyes with his cuff. In the perfect world it would not be Carmen in this tree. It would be Roxane Coss herself who had followed him up there. She would be touching his cheek, speaking to him in perfect Spanish. They would sing together. The word for that was duet. They would travel all over the world.

  “Well, you’re not a squirrel,” Carmen said. “You aren’t going to stay up here forever. You’ll have to come down for guard duty and when you do she’ll tell you herself with the translator. She’ll tell you how good you are and then you will feel like an idiot for sulking up here. Everyone wants to celebrate with you. You’ll miss out on everything.”

  Cesar slid his hand over the rough bark. Carmen had never talked like this before. When they were in training together she was almost too shy to speak at all, that was one of the things that had made her so appealing. He had never heard her string two full sentences together. “How do you know all of this?”

  “I told you, the translator.”

  “And how do you know he tells you the truth?”

  Carmen looked at him like he was crazy, but she didn’t say a word. She reached down for the branch beneath her, held on, let her feet fall, and then opened her hands to drop to the ground. She was an expert at jumping. She kept her knees soft and sprang straight up after her feet hit the grass. She did not lose her balance at all. She walked away from Cesar without so much as a glance over her shoulder. Let him rot up there. On her way back into the house she passed one of the windows that looked into the great living room. How strange it was to see it all from that side. She stopped for a while and stood beside a bush that had been so neatly shaped when they first arrived and now was almost as tall as she was. She could see Gen near the piano, talking to Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa. Kato was there. She could see Gen, his straight back and tender mouth, his hands which had helped her out of her clothes and then folded her neatly back inside them again. She wished she could tap on the glass and wave to him, but it was a miraculous thing to be able to watch the person you love undetected, as if you were a stranger seeing them for the first time. She could see his beauty as someone who took nothing for gra
nted. Look at that beautiful man, that brilliant man, he loves me. She said a prayer to Saint Rose of Lima. Safety for Gen. Happiness and a long life. Watch over him and guide him. She looked through the window. He was speaking to Roxane now, Roxane who had been so good to her, and so Carmen included her in the prayer. Then she bowed her head for a minute and quickly crossed herself, thus hurrying the prayer on its way.

  “I shouldn’t have told him to stop,” Roxane said. Gen translated it into Japanese.

  “There is no place for the boy to go,” Mr. Hosokawa said. “He will have to come back. You mustn’t worry about that.” In Japan, he was often made uneasy by this modern age of affection, young men and women holding hands in public, kissing good-bye on subway trains. There was nothing about these gestures he had understood. He had believed that what a man felt in his heart was a private matter and so should remain with him, but he had never had so much in his heart before. There wasn’t enough room for this much love and it left an aching sensation in his chest. Heartache! Who would have thought it was true? Now all he wanted was to take her hand or curve his arm around her shoulder.

  Roxane Coss leaned towards him, dipped her head down to his shoulder just for a second, just long enough for her cheek to touch his shirt.

  “Ah,” said Mr. Hosokawa softly. “You are everything in the world to me.”

  Gen looked at him. Was that meant to be translated, the tenderness his employer whispered? Mr. Hosokawa took one of Roxane’s hands. He held it up to his chest, touched it to his shirt in the place above his heart. He nodded. Was he nodding to Gen? Was he telling Gen to go ahead? Or was he nodding to her? Gen felt a terrible discomfort. He wanted to turn away. It was a private matter. He knew what that meant now.

  “Everything in the world,” Mr. Hosokawa said again, but this time he looked at Gen.

  And so Gen told her. He tried to make his voice soft. “Respectfully,” he said to Roxane, “Mr. Hosokawa would like you to know that you are everything in the world to him.” He remembered saying something very similar to her from the Russian.

  It was to her credit that Roxane never looked at Gen. She kept her eyes exactly on Mr. Hosokawa’s eyes and took the words from him.

  Carmen came back. She was flustered and everyone thought it had to do with Cesar, when she had almost forgotten about Cesar. She wanted to go to Gen but she went first to General Benjamin. “Cesar is up in the tree,” she said. She started to say more but then she remembered herself. It was always wiser to wait.

  “What is he doing there?” the General asked her. He couldn’t help but notice how pretty this girl was becoming. Had she been this pretty before, he never would have let her sign up. He should tell her to keep her hair under her cap. He should let her go just as soon as they were home.


  “I don’t understand.”

  “He feels embarrassed.”

  Maybe it was wrong to let a pretty girl go after him. One of the boys should have gone and simply shaken the tree until Cesar fell out. General Benjamin sighed. He had been impressed with Cesar’s singing. He wondered if the talent would make the boy high-strung, the way the soprano was high-strung. If that was the case he would be forced to dismiss Cesar as well, and then he would have lost two soldiers. Even as he was thinking this he remembered where he was, and the thought of ever getting home, of ever having a choice so simple as to let someone go or to keep them, seemed impossible. Why was he even wasting his time with this? Cesar in a tree? What did it matter? “Leave him up there.” General Benjamin looked over Carmen’s head to the far side of the room, which was his way of saying that the conversation was over.

  “May I tell Miss Coss?”

  He looked back down at her and blinked. She was obedient, well mannered. It was a shame that things hadn’t turned out better. Certainly there would be a role for pretty girls in a revolution. There was no sense being hard on her. “I think she would want to know.”

  Carmen, happy, grateful, bowed to him.

  He said to her sharply, “Salute!”

  Carmen saluted him, her face as serious as any soldier’s, and then skated away.

  “Cesar’s in the tree,” Carmen said. She stood between Mr. Hosokawa and Mr. Kato. She stood across from Gen, where she would not be tempted to hold on to his sleeve in front of everyone. She loved the sound of his voice, translating.

  “Won’t he come in?” Roxane said. Her blue eyes were shadowed in purple. Never had Carmen seen her look so tired, except at the very beginning.

  “Oh, he’ll come in. He’s just embarrassed. He thinks he made a fool of himself. He thinks you think he’s an idiot for trying to sing.” She looked at Roxane, her friend. “I told him you didn’t think that at all.”

  Gen translated her words into English and Japanese. Both the men and Roxane Coss were nodding. Carmen’s words translated into Japanese. They had such a beautiful sound.

  “Would you ask the General if I could go outside?” Roxane said to Carmen. “Do you think it would be possible?”

  Carmen listened. She was included. It was thought that she would be the best person to make the request. Her opinion was sought out. It was more than she could believe, of all the people in the room with all their money and education and talent, they thought that she was the one. She wanted to say to Roxane Coss in her most polite voice, No, they will never let you outside, but I am very pleased that you asked me. Not that she had any idea how to say that in English. The Generals were ignoring her conversation, the Generals Hector and Alfredo had left the room altogether, none of the boys cared, but Beatriz was listening. Carmen could see her out of the corner of one eye. She wanted to trust Beatriz. She had trusted her. And anyway, she wasn’t doing anything wrong now. “Tell her I would be glad to ask for her,” she said to Gen. She was aware of her posture and she tried to hold her back straight like Roxane Coss. She tried to train her shoulders to go back though the effect was mostly lost inside the dark green shirt that hung over her like a piece of tarp.

  They thanked her in English and Japanese and then in Spanish. Gen was proud of her, she could tell. Gen, if circumstances allowed, would have put his hand on her shoulder and told her so in front of his friends.

  There was no way Roxane Coss would be allowed to go outside to speak to Cesar in the tree. Keeping the hostages inside was a top priority. Certainly, no one knew that better than Carmen, who had broken this important rule just last night. But it wasn’t her place to refuse the request. No one had asked Carmen for an answer, they had only asked her to approach the General with the question. In truth, she would have rather not done it. What was the point in asking for something that you knew would be denied? Carmen wondered if she could ask the General something else, say, if he wanted a fresh cup of coffee, then everyone would see her asking without being able to hear her. She could come back with the news that they had been turned down. But she didn’t want to lie to Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, people who valued her opinion and treated her as a friend, and certainly she couldn’t lie to Gen. She would have to ask because she said she would. It would have been better if she could have waited an hour or two. The generals did not like being approached when they had so recently been bothered. But there wasn’t an hour or two to wait. Cesar would be long out of the tree by then. Carmen had sat in that tree herself and she knew it to be both lovely and uncomfortable. The amount of time anyone could sulk while sitting in a tree was limited, and the point was that Roxane Coss wanted the opportunity to coax him down. There was no sense trying to explain the General’s inner workings to her dearest hostages, any more than she would bother to try and explain Roxane Coss’s motives to General Benjamin, who certainly would not have cared. All she could do was ask. Carmen smiled and left her group, crossed back over the room where General Benjamin was sitting in a wing-backed chair near the empty fireplace. He was reading papers. She couldn’t tell what the papers were, although she saw that they were written in Spanish. She could read a little now but not so well
as that. His eyebrows were pointed down towards the bridge of his nose and his eyes were squinting. His shingles ran across the side of his face and into his eye like a slash of molten lava but they no longer appeared to be so infected. He lifted a finger and touched them once gently, then he winced and went back to his reading. Truly, Carmen knew better than to disturb him.

  “Sir?” she whispered.

  They had been speaking not five minutes before but now he looked at her as if he was confused. His eyes were red and watery, especially his left eye, which was rimmed in blisters no bigger than pinheads.

  Carmen waited for him to speak to her but he said nothing. It was up to her to start the conversation. “Forgive me for bothering you again, General, but Roxane Coss asked me to ask you . . .” She paused, thinking surely he would cut her off, tell her to go away, but he didn’t. He did nothing. Had he turned away and gone back to reading his papers, she would have understood that. She would have known how to act if he shouted at her, but General Benjamin only stared. She took in her breath, straightened up her shoulders, and started again. “Roxane Coss would like to go outside to speak to Cesar. Cesar in the tree? She wants to tell him he did well.” Again she waited but nothing happened. “I think the translator would have to go, too, if Cesar was to understand what she was saying. We could send some guards out with them. I could get my gun.” She stopped and waited patiently for him to deny the request. She had never considered any other possibility, but he didn’t say anything, and for a minute he closed his eyes so as not to look at her anymore. She glanced down at the papers he was holding and felt a chill pass through her thin chest. She was suddenly afraid that the General had received bad news, that there was something in those papers that would ruin her happiness.

  “General Benjamin,” she said, leaning over so that only he could hear her. “Sir, are things all right?” Her hair fell loose from behind one ear and it brushed against his shoulder. It smelled like lemons. Roxane had washed Carmen’s hair in some of the lemon shampoo Messner had had flown in for her all the way from Italy.

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