Bel canto, p.30
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       Bel Canto, p.30
 

           Ann Patchett

  The smell of lemons. He is a boy in the city, a quarter lemon clenched between his teeth as he runs to school, the bright lemon yellow of the peel showing between his open lips, the impossible tartness, the utter clarity of taste that he was addicted to. His brother, Luis, is with him, running along beside him, a little boy. He is younger than Benjamin and so he is Benjamin’s responsibility. He, too, has a lemon in his mouth and they look at one another and begin to laugh so hard they have to raise their hands to their mouths to catch the now empty rinds. The smell of lemons snaps him back. Carmen wanted something else. He was still in the living room. Why was it only now that he understood that things would end badly? It didn’t seem strange that he knew it, but that he hadn’t known it from the very start, that he hadn’t turned his troops around and run them straight back into the air vents the second it was established that President Masuda was not at the party. That mistake was almost impossible to comprehend now. It was all the fault of hope. Hope was a murderer.

  “She wants to go outside?” he said.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Cesar is still out there?”

  “I believe so, sir.”

  General Benjamin nodded his head. “The weather is good now.” He looked out the window for a long time to make sure that what he was saying to her was true. “Take them all outside. Tell Hector and Alfredo. Put some soldiers along the wall.” He looked at Carmen. If he had known anything he would have paid more attention to her. “We need some air in here, don’t you think? Get some sun on them.”

  “Everyone, sir? Do you mean Miss Coss and the translator?”

  “I mean all of them.” He swept a hand across the room. “Get them out of here.”

  That was how it happened that on the very day after Carmen had taken Gen outside, the rest of the party was allowed to go as well. She did not want to be the one to tell the Generals Hector and Alfredo, but she did so as a direct order. She stood at the door of the study still stunned by the news. Outside. The Generals were watching soccer. They sat on the edge of the sofa, their hands gripping their knees, yelling at the television set. There was an abandoned card game half played on the table in front of them, two automatic pistols sticking out from between the cushions. When she was able to get their attention, she did not tell them that she had asked that anyone be allowed to go outside, or that Roxane Coss wished to speak to Cesar in the tree, she only said that General Benjamin had made a decision and she was instructed to inform them of that decision. She used as few words as was possible.

  “Outside!” General Alfredo said. “Insanity! How are we supposed to control them outside?” He gesticulated with the hand that was short two fingers, a sight that always filled Carmen with pity.

  “What is there to control?” General Hector said, stretching his arms above his head. “As if they would go anywhere now.”

  It was a surprise. Hector was usually against every idea. If he had disagreed strongly they could have probably made General Benjamin change his mind, but the sun was pouring through every window and there was a staleness that had grown up around them. Why not open the doors? Why not today if every day was exactly the same? They went into the living room and the three Generals called the troops together and told them to get their guns and load them. Even after so many months of lying on couches the boys, along with Beatriz and Carmen, could still move quickly. They didn’t know why they were loading their guns, they didn’t ask. They obeyed their orders, and in doing so their eyes took on a certain coldness. General Benjamin could not help but think, If I told them to kill everyone now, they would still do it. They would do what I told them to. The idea of taking everyone outside was a good one. It would put the soldiers to work. It would remind the hostages of both his authority and his benevolence. It was time to get out of the house.

  Roxane Coss had Mr. Hosokawa’s arm to lean on, but Gen was left alone to watch his lover running across the room with the soldiers, her rifle held high against her chest.

  “I do not understand this,” Mr. Hosokawa whispered. He could feel Roxane trembling beside him and he pressed her hand between his own. It was as if a switch had been thrown and the people they knew were suddenly people they had never seen before.

  “Can you understand what they’re saying?” Roxane whispered to Gen. “What’s happened?”

  Of course he could understand what they were saying. They were shouting it, after all. Load your weapons. Prepare formations. But there was no sense in telling Roxane that. The other hostages were standing with them now. They pushed together like sheep in an open field of hard rain. Thirty-nine men and one woman, the sudden nervousness rising off of them like steam.

  Then General Benjamin stepped forward and said, “Traductor!”

  Mr. Hosokawa touched the translator’s arm as he stepped forward. Gen wished he was a brave man. Even though Carmen wasn’t with them now, he wished she could see him as brave.

  “I have decided that everyone should go outside,” General Benjamin said. “Tell the people they are to go outside now.”

  But Gen didn’t translate. That was no longer his profession. Instead he asked, “For what purpose?” If there was to be an execution he would not be the one to lead these sheep out to be lined up against the wall. It wasn’t enough to translate what was said, you had to know the truth.

  “What purpose?” General Benjamin said. He stepped towards Gen, so close that Gen could see red lines half the thickness of sewing threads webbing across his face. “I was told Roxane Coss requested to go outside.”

  “And you’re letting everyone out?”

  “You object to this?” General Benjamin was about to change his mind. What had he ever shown these people but decency and now they stared him down like a murderer? “You think I will take you outside and shoot the lot of you?”

  “The guns—” Gen had made a mistake. He could see that.

  “Protection,” the General said, his teeth clamped together.

  Gen turned away from him and faced the people he thought of as his people. He watched their faces soften at the sound of his voice. “We are going outside,” Gen said in English, in Japanese, in Russian, Italian, French. “We are going outside,” he said in Spanish and Danish. Only four words but in every language he was able to convey that they would not be shot, this was not a trick. The group laughed and sighed and shook away from one another. The priest crossed himself quickly in gratitude for an answered prayer. Ishmael went and opened the door and hostages filed out into the light.

  Glorious light.

  Vice President Ruben Iglesias, who thought he would not live to feel once again the sensation of grass beneath his feet, stepped off the shale stone walkway and sank into the luxury of his own yard. He had stared at it every day from the living-room window but now that he was actually there it seemed like a new world. Had he ever walked around his own lawn in the evening? Had he made a mental note of the trees, the miraculous flowering bushes that grew up around the wall? What were they called? He dropped his face into the nest of deep purple blossoms and inhaled. Dear God, if he were to get out of this alive he would be attentive to his plants. Maybe he would work as a gardener. The new leaves were bright green and velvety to touch. He stroked them between his thumb and forefinger, careful not to bruise. Too many evenings he had come home after dark. He saw the life in his garden as a series of shadows and silhouettes. If there was ever such a thing as a second chance he would have his coffee outside in the morning. He would come home to have lunch with his wife in the afternoons on a blanket beneath the trees. His two girls would be in school, but he would hold his son on his knees and teach him the names of birds. How had he come to live in such a beautiful place? He walked through the grass towards the west side of the house and the grass was so heavy he knew it would be difficult to cut. He liked it that way. Maybe he would never have the grass mown again. If a man had a ten-foot wall then he could do whatever he wanted with his yard. He could make love to his wife late at night in the pl
ace where the wall made a pocket of lawn and three slender trees grew in a semicircle. They could come out after the children were in bed, after the servants were asleep, and who would see them? The earth they lie down on is as soft as their bed. He pictured her long dark hair undone and spread over the heavy grass. He would be a better husband in the future, a better father. He got on his knees and reached between the tall yellow lilies. He pulled up a weed that was as high as the flowers, its stem as thick as a finger, then another, and another. He filled his hands with green stems, roots and dirt. There was a great deal of work to be done.

  The soldiers did not push the people or direct them in any way. They simply stood against the wall, spacing themselves apart at regular intervals. They leaned against the wall and took in the sun. It was good to do something different. It was good even to all be armed again, to be a line of soldiers holding guns. The hostages raised their arms above their heads and stretched. Some of them lay down in the grass, others examined the flowers. Gen was not looking at the plants, he was looking at the soldiers, and when he found Carmen she gave him a very small nod and pointed the tip of her rifle ever so slightly in the direction of Cesar’s tree. Everyone looked so glad to be out in the daylight. Carmen wanted to say, I did this for you. I’m the one who asked, but she kept perfectly quiet. She had to look away from Gen to keep from smiling.

  Gen found Roxane with Mr. Hosokawa, walking hand in hand, as if this was some other garden and they were alone. They looked different this morning, not so improbable together, and Gen wondered if he looked different as well. He thought perhaps he shouldn’t bother them, but he had no idea how long they would be allowed to stay outside.

  “I’ve located the boy,” Gen said.

  “The boy?” Mr. Hosokawa said.

  “The singer.”

  “Oh, yes, the boy, of course.”

  Gen said it again in English and together the three of them walked to a tree near the very back section of wall.

  “He’s up there?” Roxane said, but she could barely concentrate, the breeze distracted her, the lush intertwining plants. She felt the sun curving over her cheeks. She wanted to touch the wall, she wanted to tangle her fingers up in the grass. She had never given a thought to grass before in her life.

  “This is his tree.”

  Roxane cocked her head back and sure enough she saw the bottom soles of two boots dangling in the branchs. She could make out his shirt, the underside of his chin. “Cesar?”

  A face looked down between the leaves.

  “Tell him he sings beautifully,” she said to Gen. “Tell him I want to be his teacher.”

  “She’s fooling me,” Cesar called down.

  “Why do you think we’re all outside?” Gen said. “Does this look like fooling to you? She wanted to come outside and talk to you, and the Generals decided that everyone could come along. Doesn’t that seem important enough to you?”

  It was true. Cesar could see everything from where he sat. All three of the Generals and every one of the soldiers except Gilbert and Jesus were outside. They must have been left behind to guard the house. Every one of the hostages was walking around the yard like he was drunk or blind, touching and sniffing, weaving and then suddenly sitting down. They were in love with the place. They wouldn’t leave if you tore the wall down. If you poked them in the back with your gun and told them to get going they would still run to you. “So you’re outside,” Cesar said.

  “He isn’t planning on staying in that tree, is he?” Roxane asked.

  It was remarkable even to Cesar that he had not been called down for duty. He would have gone. He could only imagine that in the excitement of deciding to let everyone outside he had been forgotten. He had been forgotten by everyone but Roxane Coss.

  “She doesn’t think I’m a fool?”

  “He wants to know if you think he’s a fool,” Gen said.

  She sighed at the self-indulgence of children. “Staying up in the tree seems foolish, but the singing, not at all.”

  “Foolish for the tree and not the singing,” Gen reported. “Come down and talk to her.”

  “I’m not sure,” Cesar said. But he was sure. He had already pictured the two of them singing together, their voices rising, their hands clasped.

  “What are you going to do, live in the tree?” Gen called. His neck was aching from dropping his head back.

  “How do you sound so much like Carmen?” Cesar said. He reached down and took hold of the branch beneath him. He had been up there a long time. One of his legs was stiff and the other was completely asleep. When his feet hit the ground they did nothing to support him and he fell into a pile at their feet, striking his head against the trunk of the tree that had held him.

  Roxane Coss dropped to her knees and put her hands on either side of the boy’s head. She could feel the blood jumping in his temples. “My God, I didn’t mean for him to throw himself out of the tree.”

  Mr. Hosokawa caught a flash of a smile cross Cesar’s face. It was released and then just as quickly suppressed, though the boy never opened his eyes. “Tell her he’s fine,” Mr. Hosokawa said to Gen. “And tell the boy he can get up now.”

  Gen helped Cesar into a sitting position, leaned him like a floppy doll against the tree. Though Cesar’s head was splitting he didn’t mind opening his eyes. Roxane Coss was crouching down so close to him it was as if he could see inside her. Look at the blue of her eyes! They were so much deeper, more complicated than he could have imagined from a distance. She still had on a bathrobe and white pajamas and not twelve centimeters from his nose her pajamas formed a V where he could see the place her breasts came together. Who was this old Japanese man who was always with her? He looked too much like the President. In fact, Cesar suspected that maybe he was the President, regardless of any lies he might have told, right in front of them the whole time.

  “Pay attention,” she said, and then the translator said it in Spanish. She sang five notes. She wanted him to listen and repeat, to follow the notes. He could see right inside her mouth, a damp, pink cave. It was the most intimate thing of all.

  He opened his mouth and croaked a little, then he touched his head with his fingertips.

  “That’s all right,” she said. “You can sing later. Did you sing at home, before you came here?”

  Certainly he sang the way people will sing, not thinking about it when he was doing something else. He could mimic the people they heard sometimes when the radio worked, but that wasn’t about singing so much as it was about making people laugh.

  “Does he want to learn? Would he be willing to practice very hard to see if he has a real voice?”

  “To practice with her?” Cesar asked Gen. “Just the two of us?”

  “I imagine there would be other people there.”

  Cesar touched Gen’s sleeve. “Tell her I’m shy. Tell her I’d work much better if we could be alone.”

  “Once you learn English you can tell her that yourself,” Gen said.

  “What does he want?” Mr. Hosokawa said. He was standing over them, trying to keep the sun out of Roxane’s eyes.

  “Impossible things,” Gen said. Then he said to the boy in Spanish, “Yes or no, do you want her to teach you to sing?”

  “Of course I do,” Cesar said.

  “We’ll start this afternoon,” Roxane said. “We’ll start with scales.” She picked up Cesar’s hand and patted it. He turned pale again and closed his eyes.

  “Let him rest,” Mr. Hosokawa said. “The boy wants to sleep.”

  Lothar Falken put his hands flat against the wall and stretched his hamstrings, pressing one heel down and then the other. He touched his toes and rocked his hips from side to side and when he felt his legs were warm and limber he began to run barefoot through the grass. The soldiers bristled at first, leaned forward, aimed their rifles halfheartedly in his general direction, but he kept running. It was a large yard in terms of the size of lawns in cities, but it was still small in terms of a track, and a
few minutes after Lothar had gone outside the sight of any one person, he had looped back around again, his head up, his arms pumping by his chest. He was a slender man with long, graceful legs, and while it might have gone unnoticed while he was lying on the couch, here in the sun, running rings around the vice-presidential mansion, it was easy to see that the manufacturer of German pharmaceuticals had once been an athlete. With every lap he felt his body again, the relation of muscle to bone, the oxygen stirring his blood. He kicked his feet high behind him, every step going deep into the thick grass. After a while Manuel Flores of Spain began to run alongside him, keeping pace at first and then falling back. Simon Thibault began to run and proved himself to be almost Falken’s match. Victor Fyodorov handed his cigarette to his friend Yegor and joined in for two rounds. Such a beautiful day, to run seemed only fitting. He collapsed exactly where he had started, his heart beating at the cage of his ribs with a manic fury.

  While the others ran, Ruben Iglesias weeded one of the many flower beds. It was a small gesture in the face of so much work but all he knew to do was start. Oscar Mendoza and the young priest knelt to help him.

  “Ishmael,” the Vice President called out to his friend. “Why are you standing there holding up the wall? Come over here and get to work. We can use that rifle you’re so proud of to aerate the soil.”

  “Don’t pick on the boy,” Oscar Mendoza said. “He’s the only one I like.”

  “You know I can’t come over,” Ishmael said, shifting his rifle to his other shoulder.

  “Ah, you could come over,” Ruben said. “You just don’t want to get your hands dirty. You’re keeping them nice for the chess games. You don’t want to work.” Ruben smiled at the boy. Truly, he wished he could come over. He would teach him which of the plants were weeds. He found himself thinking that Ishmael could be his son, his other son. They were both on the small side, and anyway, people would believe whatever you told them. There would be plenty of room for one more small boy.

 
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