Bel canto, p.3
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       Bel Canto, p.3

           Ann Patchett
 

  “President Masuda,” the man with the mustache and the gun said.

  There was an uneasy shifting among the well-dressed guests, no one wanting to be the one to break the news.

  “President Masuda, come forward.”

  People kept their eyes blank, waiting, until the man with the gun brought the gun down so that now it faced the crowd, though in particular it appeared to be pointed at a blonde woman in her fifties named Elise, who was a Swiss banker. She blinked a few times and then crossed her wide-open hands one on top of the other to cover her heart, as if this was the place she was most likely to be shot. She would offer up her hands if they might afford her heart a millisecond of protection. While this elicited a few gasps from the audience, it did little else. There was an embarrassing wait that ruled out all notions of heroics or even chivalry, and then finally the Vice President of the host country took a small step forward and introduced himself.

  “I am Vice President Ruben Iglesias,” he said to the man with the gun. The Vice President appeared to be extremely tired. He was a very small man, both in stature and girth, who had been chosen as a running mate as much for his size as for his political beliefs. The pervasive thinking in government was that a taller vice president would make the President appear weak, replaceable. “President Masuda was unable to attend this evening. He is not here.” The Vice President’s voice was heavy. Too much of this burden was falling to him.

  “Lies,” the man with the gun corrected.

  Ruben Iglesias shook his head sadly. No one wished more than he that President Masuda were in attendance right now, instead of lying in his own bed, happily playing over the plot of tonight’s soap opera in his mind. General Alfredo quickly turned the gun in his hand so that he now held the muzzle rather than the handle. He brought the gun back in the air and hit the Vice President on the flat bone of his cheek beside the right eye. There was a soft thump, a sound considerably less violent than the action, as the handle of the gun hit the skin over the bone and the small man was knocked to the ground. His blood wasted no time in making its exit, spilling out the three-centimeter gash near his hairline. Some of it made its way into his ear and started the journey back into his head. Still, everyone, including the Vice President (now lying half conscious on his own living-room rug where not ten hours before he had rolled in a mock wrestling match with his three-year-old son) was pleased and surprised that he had not been shot dead.

  The man with the gun looked at the Vice President on the floor and then, as if liking the sight of him there, instructed the rest of the party to lie down. For those who didn’t speak the language this was clear enough, as one by one the other guests sank to their knees and then stretched out on the floor.

  “Faceup,” he added.

  The few who had done it wrong rolled over now. Two of the Germans and a man from Argentina would not lie down at all until the soldiers went and poked them sharply in the backs of their knees with rifles. The guests took up considerably more room lying down than they had standing up, and to accommodate the need for space some lay down in the foyer and others in the dining room. One hundred and ninety-one guests lay down, twenty waiters lay down, seven prep cooks and chefs lay down. The Vice President’s three children and their governess were brought from the upstairs bedroom, where, despite the late hour, they had yet to go to sleep because they had been watching Roxane Coss sing from the top of the stairs, and they, too, lay down. Scattered across the floor like area rugs lay some important men and women and a few extremely important men and women, ambassadors and various diplomats, cabinet members, bank presidents, corporation heads, a monseigneur, and one opera star, who appeared to be much smaller now that she was on the floor. Bit by bit the accompanist was moving on top of her, trying to bury her beneath his own broad back. She squirmed a bit. The women who believed that this would all be over shortly and they would be home in their own beds by two A.M. were careful to adjust their full skirts beneath them in a way that would minimize wrinkling. The ones who believed they would be shot presently let the silk wad and crease. When everyone had settled to the floor the room was left remarkably quiet.

  Now the people were clearly divided into two groups: those who were standing and those who were lying down. Instructions were given, those lying down were to remain quiet and still, those standing up should check those lying down for weapons and for secretly being the president.

  One would think that being on the floor would make one feel more vulnerable, more afraid. They could be stepped on or kicked. They could be shot without even the chance to run. Yet to a person everyone on the floor felt better. They could no longer plot to overpower a terrorist or consider a desperate run at the door. They were considerably less likely to be accused of doing something they did not do. They were like small dogs trying to avoid a fight, their necks and bellies turned willfully towards sharp teeth, take me. Even the Russians, who had been whispering a plot to make a run for it a few minutes before, experienced the relief of resignation. Not a few of the guests closed their eyes. It was late. There had been wine and turbot and a very nice small chop, and as much as they were terrified, they were tired. The boots that stepped around them, over them, were old and caked in mud that flaked off into trails across the elaborately patterned Savonnière carpet (which, mercifully, lay on a good pad). There were holes in the boots and the edges of toes could be seen, toes being now so close to eyes. Some of the boots had fallen apart and were held together by silver electrical tape that was itself filthy and rolled back at the edges. The young people crouched down over the guests. They did not smile but there was nothing particularly threatening in their faces either. It was easy to imagine how this might have gone if everyone had been standing, a smaller boy with several knives needing to establish his authority over a taller, older man wearing an expensive tuxedo. But now the boys’ hands moved quickly, fluttering in and out of pockets, smoothing down pants legs with their fingers spread. For the women there was just the slightest tapping around the skirts. Sometimes a boy would lean over, hesitate, and pull away altogether. They found very little of interest, as this was a dinner party.

  The following items were recorded in a notebook by the very quiet General Hector: six silver pen knives in trouser pockets and four cigar cutters on watch chains, one pearl-handled pistol scarcely larger than a comb in an evening bag. At first they thought it was a cigarette lighter and accidentally popped off a round trying to find the flame, leaving a narrow gouge in the dining-room table. A letter opener with a cloisonné handle from the desk and all manner of knives and meat forks from the kitchen, the poker and the shovel from the stand by the fireplace, and a snub-nosed .38 Smith & Wesson revolver from the Vice President’s bedside table, a gun which the Vice President freely admitted to having when questioned. All of this they locked into an upstairs linen closet. They left the watches, wallets, and jewelry. One boy took a peppermint from a woman’s satin evening clutch but first held it up discreetly for consent. She moved her head down and back, just a quarter of an inch, and he smiled and slipped off the cellophane.

  One boy peered intently at Gen and Mr. Hosokawa, looking once and then again at their faces. He stared at Mr. Hosokawa and then backed up, stepping on the hand of one of the waiters, who winced and pulled it quickly away. “General,” the boy said, too loudly for such a quiet room. Gen moved closer to his employer, as if to say by the position of his body that this was a package deal, they went together.

  Over the warm and breathing guests stepped General Benjamin. At first glance one might have thought he had the unlucky draw of a large port wine birthmark, but with another look it was clear that what was on his face was a living, raging thing. The bright red river of shingles began somewhere deep beneath his black hair and cut a swath across his left temple, stopping just short of his eye. The very sight of them made the viewer weak from sympathetic pain. General Benjamin followed the path of the boy’s pointing finger and he, too, stared at Mr. Hosokawa for a long time. “No,
he said to the boy. He began to turn away, but then he stopped, said to Mr. Hosokawa in a conversational manner, “He thought you were the President.”

  “He thought you were the President,” Gen said quietly, and Mr. Hosokawa nodded. A Japanese man in his fifties wearing glasses, there were another half-dozen lying around.

  General Benjamin dropped his rifle down to Gen’s chest and rested the muzzle there like a walking stick. The round opening was barely bigger than one of the studs on his shirtfront and it made a small and distinct point of pressure. “No talking.”

  Gen mouthed the word traductor to him. The General considered this for a moment, as if he had just been told the man he had spoken to was deaf or blind. Then he picked up his gun and walked away. Surely, Gen thought, there must be some medication that man could take that would help him. When he inhaled he felt a small, piercing ache where the point of the gun had been.

  Not so far away, near the piano, two boys took their guns and poked at the accompanist until he was more beside Roxane Coss than on top of her. Her hair, which had been pulled up into an elaborate twist on the back of her head, was nearly impossible to lie on. She had surreptitiously removed the pins and put them in a neat pile on her stomach, where they could be collected as weapons if anyone was so inclined to take them. Now her hair, long and curled, spread out around her head and every young terrorist made a point of coming by to see it, some being bold enough to touch it, not the deep satisfaction of a stroke, but the smallest of taps with one finger near its curling ends. Leaning over this way, they could smell her perfume, which was different from the perfumes of the other women they had inspected. The opera singer had somehow replicated the scent of the tiny white flowers they had passed in the garden on their way to the air ducts. Even on this night, with the possibilities of their own deaths and the possibilities of liberation weighing heavily on their minds, they had noticed the smell of such a tiny, bell-shaped flower that grew near the high stucco wall, and now to find it here again so soon in the hair of the beautiful woman, it felt like an omen, like good luck. They had heard her sing while they waited crouched inside the air-conditioning vents. They each had a task, extremely specific instructions. The lights were to be cut off after the sixth song, no one ever having explained in their lives the concept of an encore. No one having explained opera, or what it was to sing other than the singing that was done in a careless way, under one’s breath, while carrying wood into the house or water up from the well. No one having explained anything. Even the generals, who had been to the capital city before, who had had educations, held their breath so as to better hear her. The young terrorists waiting in the air-conditioning vents were simple people and they believed simple things. When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn’t true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.

  In the steady river of approaching boys, one crouched down beside her and picked up her hand. He held it lightly, hardly more than rested her palm against his own, so that she could have taken it back from him at any minute, but she did not. Roxane Coss knew the longer he held her hand, the more he would love her, and if he loved her he was more likely to try and protect her from the others, from himself. This particular boy looked impossibly young and fine-boned beneath the bill of his cap, his eyelids burdened by the weight of a thousand silky black lashes. Across his narrow chest was a bandolier of bullets and his body curved beneath their weight. The rough wooden handle of a primitive kitchen knife stuck up from the top of one boot and a pistol was half falling from his pocket. Roxane Coss thought of Chicago and the frigid nights of late October. If this boy had been living in another country, in an entirely different life, he might still have gone out trick-or-treating next week, even if he had been too old. He might have dressed as a terrorist, worn old boots from a gardening shed, fashioned a bandolier from strips of corrugated cardboard, and filled each loop with a tube of his mother’s lipstick. The boy would not look at her, only her hand. He studied it as if it were something completely separate from her. Under any other circumstances she would have pulled it away from him, but due to the remarkable course of the evening’s events, she kept her hand still and allowed it to be studied.

  The accompanist raised his head and glowered at the boy, who then settled Roxane Coss’s hand back against her dress and walked away.

  * * *

  Two facts: none of the guests was armed; none of the guests was President Masuda. Groups of boys with guns drawn were dispatched to different corners of the house, down to the basement, up to the attic, out around the edges of the high stucco wall, to see if he had hidden himself in the confusion. But the word came back again and again that no one was there. Through the open windows came the raucous sawing of insect life. In the living room of the vice-presidential home, everything was still. General Benjamin sat down on his heels next to the Vice President, who was bleeding heartily into the dinner napkin which his wife, who lay beside him, pressed against his head. A more sinister edge of purple was now ringing his eye. It looked nowhere near as painful as the inflammation of his own face. “Where is President Masuda?” the General asked, as if it was the first moment they had noticed him gone.

  “At home.” He took the bloody cloth from his wife and motioned for her to scoot away.

  “Why did he not come this evening?”

  What the General was asking was, did he have a mole in his organization, did the President receive word of an attack? But the Vice President was dazed from the blow and feeling bitter besides, bitterness being a first cousin to the truth. “He wanted to watch his soap opera,” Ruben Iglesias said, and in the hushed and obedient room his voice traveled to every ear. “He wanted to see if Maria would be freed tonight.”

  “Why were we told he would be here?”

  The Vice President gave it up without hesitation or remorse. “He had agreed to attend and then he changed his mind.” There was an uneasy shifting of bodies on the floor. The people who didn’t know were as appalled to hear it as the ones who had known all along. Ruben Iglesias had at that exact moment ended his own political career. There had been no great love between him and Masuda to begin with, and now Masuda would ruin him. A vice president worked hard because he believed someday the office would be handed down, like property passed from father to son. In the meantime he bit his lip, took the dirty jobs, the ceremonial funerals, visits to earthquake sites. He nodded appreciatively through each of the President’s interminable speeches. But on this night he no longer believed he would someday be the President. Tonight he believed he would be shot along with some of his guests, possibly all of his guests, possibly his children, and if that was the case, he wanted the world to know that Eduardo Masuda, a man barely one centimeter taller than himself, was home watching television.

  The Catholic priests, sons of those murdering Spanish missionaries, loved to tell the people that the truth would set them free, and in this case they were exactly correct. The General named Benjamin had cocked his gun and was prepared to make an example by dispatching the Vice President into the next world, but the soap opera story stopped him. As much as he was sick to know that five months of planning for this one evening to kidnap the President and possibly overthrow the entire government were worthless and he was now saddled with two hundred and twenty-two hostages lying before him on the floor, he believed the Vice President’s story completely. No one could make it up. It was too petty and small-minded. General Benjamin had no qualms about killing, believing from his own experience that life was nothing more than excruciating suffering. If the Vice President had said the President had the flu, he would have shot him. If he had said the President was called away on urgent matters of national security, he would have shot him. If he had said it was all a r
use and the President had never planned on attending the party at all, bang. But Maria, even in the jungle where televisions were rare, electricity sketchy, and reception nonexistent, people spoke of this Maria. Even Benjamin, who cared for nothing but the freedom of the oppressed, knew something of Maria. Her program came on in the afternoons from Monday to Friday, with a special episode on Tuesday nights which more or less summarized the week for those who had to work during the day. If Maria was to be freed, it was not surprising that it should happen on a Tuesday night.

  There was a plan, and that plan had been to take the President and be gone inside of seven minutes. They should be out of the city by now, speeding their way over the dangerous roads that led back to the jungle.

  Through the windows, bright red strobe lights flashed across the walls accompanied by a high-pitched wailing. The sound was nagging and accusatory. It was nothing, nothing like song.

  two

  all night long the outside world bellowed. Cars skidded and sped. Sirens arrived, departed, flicked off and on and off again. Wooden barricades were dragged into place, people were herded behind. It was surprising how much more they could hear now that they were lying down. They had the time to concentrate—yes, there went the shuffling of feet, that was the sound of a baton being smacked into an open palm. The ceiling had been memorized (light blue with crown molding that was elaborate to the point of being tasteless, scrolling and spiraling and every inch of it leafed in gold, the three chipped holes left by bullets) and so guests closed their eyes to settle into the serious business of listening. Voices, exaggerated and mangled through the bullhorn’s amplification, shouted instructions towards the street, made demands towards the house. They would settle for nothing short of unqualified, immediate surrender.

 
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