Bel canto, p.31
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       Bel Canto, p.31
 

           Ann Patchett

  “I work,” Ishmael said.

  “I’ve seen him,” Oscar Mendoza said, rubbing the dirt from his hands. “He does more than all the others. Not so big perhaps, but he’s strong as an ox, and smart. You have to be smart to win chess games.” The big man leaned towards the wall, towards the boy. “Ishmael, I would give you a job, if you wanted one. When this is over you could come and work for me.”

  Ishmael was used to being teased. He had been teased cruelly by his brothers. He had been teased plenty by the other soldiers. Once they called him a bucket and tied his feet together and lowered him upside down into the well until the top of his head sank into cold water. He liked the Vice President’s way of teasing because it made him feel singled out as someone special. But Oscar Mendoza he wasn’t sure of. There was nothing in his expression that gave the joke away.

  “Do you want a job?” Oscar said.

  “He doesn’t need a job,” Ruben said, pulling a stack of weeds into his lap. He saw his chance. Oscar had given him the opening. “He’ll live with me. He’ll have everything he needs.”

  Oscar looked at his friend and each man saw that the other one was serious. “Every man needs a job,” he said. “He will live with you and work for me. Does that sound fine, Ishmael?”

  Ishmael put his gun between his feet and looked at them. He would live in this house? He would stay on? He would have a job and earn his own money? He knew he should laugh and tell them to leave him alone. He should make a joke of it himself: No, he would never be caught dead living in such a place. That was the only way to manage if you were the person being teased. Laugh back at them. But he couldn’t. He wanted too much to believe they were telling him the truth. “Yes.” That was all he could say.

  Oscar Mendoza held out his dirty hand to Ruben Iglesias and they shook. “We’re shaking for you,” Ruben said, his voice betraying his happiness. “This seals the deal.” He would have another son. The boy would be legally adopted. The boy would be known after that as Ishmael Iglesias.

  The priest, who had only been watching, now sat back on his heels, his grimy hands resting on his thighs. He felt something cold and startling move through his heart. The men should not be talking to Ishmael this way. They were forgetting the circumstances. The only way things could work would be for everything to stay exactly as it was, for no one to speak of the future as if speaking of it could bring it on.

  “Father Arguedas here will teach you catechism. Won’t you, Father? You can come back to the house for the lessons and we’ll all have lunch together.” Ruben was lost in his story now. He wished he could call his wife and tell her the news. He would tell Messner and Messner would call her. Once she met the boy she would fall in love with him.

  “Of course I will.” The priest’s voice was weak, but no one noticed it at all.

  ten

  mr. Hosokawa could find his way in the dark. Some nights he closed his eyes rather than strain them trying to see. He knew the schedule and habits of every guard, where they walked and when they slept. He knew who made their bed on the floor and how to step over them carefully. He felt the corners of walls with his fingertips, avoided boards that creaked, could turn a doorknob as silently as a leaf falls. He was so proficient at moving through the house that he thought that even if he had no place to go he might be tempted to get up and stretch his legs, go from room to room just because he could. It even occurred to him that he might be able to escape now if he wanted to, simply walk down the front path to the gate at night and set himself free. He did not want to.

  Everything he knew he learned from Carmen, who taught him without benefit of a translator. To teach someone how to be perfectly quiet you don’t need to speak to them. Everything Mr. Hosokawa needed desperately to know Carmen taught him over two days. He still carried around his notebook, added ten new vocabulary words to his list every morning, but he struggled against the tide of memorization. For silence, though, he had a gift. He could tell from the approval in Carmen’s eyes, from the light touch of her fingers on the back of his hand. She taught him how to get from place to place in the house in plain sight of everyone and yet no one saw them because she was teaching him to be invisible. It was learning humility, to no longer assume that anyone would notice who you were or where you were going. It wasn’t until she began to teach him that Mr. Hosokawa saw Carmen’s genius, because her genius was to not be seen. How much harder that would be for a beautiful young girl in a house full of restless men, and yet he found that she drew almost no attention at all. She had managed to pass as a boy, and, more impressively, had managed to make herself utterly forgettable after she had been revealed as a beautiful girl. When Carmen walked through the room without wanting to be seen she hardly moved the air around her. She didn’t sneak. She did not dart to hide behind the piano and then a chair. She walked through the middle of the room, asking for nothing, keeping her head level, making no sound. In fact, she had been teaching him this lesson since the day they were first in the house together, but it was only now that he could understand it.

  She would have accompanied him upstairs every night. She told that to Gen. But it was better that he know how to go on his own. Nothing made people as clumsy as fear, and she could show him how not to be afraid.

  “She is an extraordinary girl,” Mr. Hosokawa said to Gen.

  “She seems to be,” Gen said.

  Mr. Hosokawa gave him a small, avuncular smile and pretended that there was nothing else to say. That was part of it, too. The private life. Mr. Hosokawa had a private life now. He had always thought of himself as a private man, but now he saw that there was nothing in his life before that had been private. It didn’t mean that he had no secrets then and now he did. It was that now there was something that was strictly between himself and one other person, that it was so completely their own that it would have been pointless to even try to speak of it to someone else. He wondered now if everyone had a private life. He wondered if his wife had one. It was possible that all those years he had been alone, never knowing that a complete world existed and no one spoke of it.

  During their entire captivity he had slept through the night, but now he knew how to sleep and how to wake up in the pitch-black darkness without the aid of a clock. Often when he woke up Gen was gone. Then he would stand and walk, so peacefully, so above suspicion, that if someone were to wake and see him they would have only thought he was going to get a drink of water. He stepped over his neighbors, his compatriots, and made his way to the back stairs behind the kitchen. Once he saw a light on beneath a closet door and thought he heard whispering, but he didn’t stop to see what it might be. It didn’t concern him, which was part of being invisible. He floated up the back steps. He had never been so easy inside his own skin. He thought at once he had never been so alive and so much a ghost. It would have been fine if he were to climb these steps forever, always the lover going to meet his beloved. He was happy then, and every step he climbed he was happier. He wished he could stop time. As much as Mr. Hosokawa was overwhelmed by love, he could never completely shake what he knew to be the truth: that every night they were together could be seen as a miracle for a hundred different reasons, not the least of which was that at some point these days would end, would be ended for them. He tried not to give himself over to fantasies: he would get a divorce; he would follow her from city to city, sitting in the front row of every opera house in the world. Happily, he would have done this, given up everything for her. But he understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same.

  When he opened the door to her room there were tears in his eyes more often than not, and he was grateful for the darkness. He didn’t want her to think that anything had gone wrong. She came to him and he pressed his damp face into the fall of lemon-scented hair. He was in love, and never had he felt such kindness towards another person. Never had he received such kindness. Maybe the private life wasn’t forever. Maybe everyone got it for
a little while and then spent the rest of their lives remembering.

  In the china closet, Carmen and Gen made a decision: two full hours of studying before they made love. Carmen was still every bit as serious about learning to read and write in Spanish, look at all the progress she’d made! Haltingly, she could read an entire paragraph without asking for help. She was completely committed to learning English. She could fully conjugate ten verbs and knew at least a hundred nouns and other parts of speech. She held out hopes for Japanese so she could speak to Gen in his own language when all of this was over and they would be in bed together at night. Gen was equally firm on their resolve to continue Carmen’s lessons. It would be pointless to have come so far and then just abandon everything because they were in love. Wasn’t this exactly what love was? To want what was best for someone, to help them along as Carmen and Gen helped each other? No, they would study and practice for two hours, no less than they had done before. After that, yes, their time was their own and they could do whatever they wanted. Carmen stole the egg timer from the kitchen. They settled in to work.

  Spanish first. Carmen had found a satchel of schoolbooks stuffed in the closet of the Vice President’s daughter, skinny books with pictures of rolling puppies on the front, a fatter book of paper with solid lines and dotted lines to practice penmanship. The girl had only used five pages. She had written the alphabet and her numbers. She had written her name, Imelda Iglesias, over and over again in sweetly curved letters. Carmen wrote her name beneath that. She wrote out the words Gen told her: pescado, calcetín, sopa. Fish, sock, soup. All he wanted was to press his lips against the side of her neck. He would not stop the lesson. She was leaning over her notebook, working so hard to make her letters as nice as those of the Vice President’s eight-year-old daughter. Two thick strands of hair fell forward onto the notebook. Carmen ignored them and folded her lower lip into her mouth to concentrate. He wondered if it was possible to die from wanting someone so much. In this narrow hall of plates all he could smell was her, lemons and the dusty, sun-bleached smell of her uniform, the softer, more complicated smell of Carmen’s skin. Thirty seconds to kiss her neck, that wasn’t asking so much. He would not even mind if she kept on writing. He would kiss her that gently, her pencil need never leave the page.

  When she looked up his face was very close to hers and she could no longer remember the word he said and if he was to say it again she would not know how to spell it or how to bend a single letter out of a straight line. All she needed was a kiss, a single kiss to clear her head and then she would be all business again, right back to work. She could not make herself swallow or blink. She was sure that with one kiss she could study all night. It would not make her less of a student. She had no mind for letters anyway, all she could think of was the grass, the grass and trees and dark night sky, the smell of the jasmine the first time he slid her shirt over her head and fell to his knees to kiss her stomach, her breasts.

  “Pastel,” Gen said, his voice unsteady.

  Perhaps she was trained in ways she didn’t understand, like a police dog, and cake was the word that released her, because as soon as he said it she fell on him, book and pencil skittering across the floor. She ate off of him, huge, devouring gulps, pressed her tongue against his tongue, rolled against the lower cupboards where soup bowls were stacked, one nestled perfectly inside the other.

  They did not go back to work that night.

  So the next night they agreed: an hour of studying before giving in. They applied themselves with great seriousness. But in fact that plan was three minutes less successful than the one they’d had the night before. They were hopeless, starving, reckless, and everything they did, they did again.

  They experimented with shorter lengths of time but in every attempt they were unsuccessful until Gen came up with the following plan: they would make love immediately, the second they had securely closed the door behind them, and then after that they would study, and it was this plan that was by far the most successful. Sometimes they fell asleep for a while, Carmen curled against Gen’s chest, Gen inside the crook of Carmen’s arm. Like soldiers shot in battle, they lay where they fell. Other times they had to make love again, the first time forgotten as soon as it was finished, but for the most part they managed to get some work done. Before it was anywhere near getting light they would kiss good night and Carmen would go back to sleep in the hallway in front of Roxane’s door and Gen would go back to the floor next to Mr. Hosokawa’s couch. Sometimes they detected the slightest sound of his movement as he came down the stairs. Sometimes Carmen passed him in the hall.

  Did the others know? Possibly, but they wouldn’t have said anything. They suspected only Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, who did not hesitate to hold hands or exchange a brief kiss during the day. If anyone suspected Gen and Carmen of anything it was only that perhaps they helped the first couple in their meetings. Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, however improbable to those around them, were members of the same tribe, the tribe of the hostages. So many people were in love with her that of course, it was only natural that she should fall in love with one of them. But Gen and Carmen were another matter. Even if the Generals relied on Gen’s translations and polished secretarial skills, even if they found him extremely bright and pleasant enough, they never forgot who he was. And even though the hostages had a soft spot for Carmen, the way she kept her eyes down, her unwillingness to point her gun at anyone directly, when there was any call from the Generals, she went and stood with them.

  Recently life had improved for all the hostages, not just those who were in love. Once the front door had been opened, it opened regularly. Every day they went outside and stood in the hot sun. Lothar Falken encouraged other men to take up running. He led them through a series of exercises every day and then they went in a pack around and around the house. The soldiers played soccer with a ball they had found in the basement and some days there was an actual game, the terrorists against the hostages, though the terrorists were so much younger and trained into better shape that they almost always won.

  When Messner came now he often found everyone in the yard. The priest got up from his digging and waved.

  “How is the world?” Father Arguedas said to him.

  “Impatient,” Messner said. His Spanish kept improving, but still he asked for Gen.

  Father Arguedas pointed to the sprawled-out figure beneath a tree. “Sleeping. It is a terrible thing the way they work him so hard. And you. They work you too hard as well. If you don’t mind my saying, you look tired.”

  It was true that recently Messner had lost the sangfroid that everyone had found so reassuring in the beginning. He had aged ten years in the four and a half months they had been living here, and while everyone else seemed to mind it less and less, Messner clearly minded it more. “All this sunlight is no good for me,” Messner said. “All Swiss citizens were meant to live in the shade.”

  “It’s very warm,” the priest said. “But the plants do wonderfully, rain, sun, drought, there’s no holding them back.”

  “I won’t keep you from your work.” Messner patted the priest on the shoulder, remembering how they had tried several times to let him go and how the priest would have none of it. He wondered if, in the end, Father Arguedas would be sorry to have stayed. Probably not. Regret didn’t seem to be in his nature the way it was in Messner’s.

  Paco and Ranato ran up from the side lawn, which they now called the playing field, and made an extremely halfhearted effort to frisk him that consisted of nothing more than a few brisk slaps near his pockets. Then they ran back to join the game, which had been stopped for this purpose.

  “Gen,” Messner said, and tapped the sleeping body on the shoulder with the toe of his shoe. “For God’s sake, get up.”

  Gen was sleeping the sleep of the heavily drugged. His mouth was open and slack and his arms flung straight out to the side. A small, rippling snore came up from his throat.

  “Hey, translator.” He leaned over
and picked up one of Gen’s eyelids between his thumb and forefinger. Gen shook him off and opened his eyes slowly.

  “You speak Spanish,” Gen said thickly. “You have from the beginning. Now leave me alone.” He rolled over on his side and pulled his knees up to his chest.

  “I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t speak anything. Get up.” Messner thought he felt a shaking in the earth. Surely Gen must feel it, lying with his cheek pressed down to the grass. Was it his imagination that the earth might actually cave in beneath them? How much did these engineers know? Who’s to say that the ground wouldn’t swallow them up, opera diva and common criminal in the same fatal bite. Messner got down on his knees. He pressed his palms to the grass and when he had decided that he was only experiencing a temporary madness, he shook Gen again. “Listen to me,” he said in French. “We have to talk them into surrendering. Today. This can’t go on. Do you understand me?”

  Gen rolled onto his back, stretched like a cat, and then folded his arms beneath his head. “And then we’ll talk the trees into growing blue feathers. Haven’t you paid attention at all, Messner? They aren’t going to be talked into anything. Especially not by the likes of us.”

  The likes of us. Messner wondered if Gen was implying that he had not done his job well enough. Four and a half months living in a hotel room half the world away from Geneva when all he had come here for in the first place was a holiday. Both parties were intractable and what the party inside this wall didn’t understand was that the government was always intractable, no matter what the country, what the circumstances. The government did not give in, and when they said they were giving in they were lying, every time, you could count on it. As Messner saw it, it was his job not to hammer out a compromise but merely to steer them clear of a tragedy. There wasn’t much time left for this work. Despite the rhythmic thud of the runners and the boys playing soccer, he could definitely feel something happening in the ground.

 
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