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       Bel Canto, p.33

           Ann Patchett

  “So we’ll talk about it?” Gen said, but now her shirt was off and it stretched out like a carpet for them to lie on. They closed the angle between their bodies and the floor.

  “Let’s talk about it,” she said, sweetly shutting her eyes.

  As soon as Roxane Coss fell in love, she fell in love again. The two experiences were completely different and yet coming as they did, one right on top of the other, she could not help but link them together in her mind. Katsumi Hosokawa came to her room in the middle of the night and for the longest time he just stood there inside her bedroom door and held her. It was as if he had returned from something no one is meant to survive, a plane crash, a ship lost at sea, and he could imagine nothing more than this: her in his arms. There was nothing they could say to one another but Roxane was far beyond thinking that speaking the same language was the only way to communicate with people. Besides, what was there to say, really? He knew her. She leaned against him, her arms around his neck, his hands flat against her back. Sometimes she nodded or he rocked her back and forth. From the way he was breathing she thought he might be crying and she understood that, too. She cried herself, she cried for the relief that came in being with him in that dark room, the relief that came from loving someone and from being loved. They would have stood there all night, he would have left without ever asking for anything else if she hadn’t reached behind her at some point and taken one of his hands, led him there to her bed. There were so many ways to talk. He kissed her as she was leaning back, the curtains closed, the room completely dark.

  In the morning she woke up for a minute, stretched, rolled over, and went back to sleep. She didn’t know how long she slept, but then she heard singing and for the second time she was struck by the thought that she wasn’t alone. It wasn’t that she was in love with Cesar, but she was in love with his singing.

  It was like this: every night Mr. Hosokawa came back to her bedroom and every morning Cesar waited to practice. If there was something else to want she forgot what it might be.

  “Breathe,” she said. “Like this.” Roxane filled up her lungs, took in more air and then some more, and then held it. It didn’t matter that he didn’t understand the words she used. She stepped behind him and put her hand flat on his diaphragm. What she was saying was clear. She pushed all of the breath from his body and then filled him up again. She sang a line of Tosti, moving her hand back and forth like a metronome, and he sang it back to her. He was not a conservatory student who thought that to please was to be careful. He did not have a lifetime of mediocre instruction to overcome. He was not afraid. He was a boy, full of a boy’s bravado, and when the line came back it was loud and passionate. He sang every line, every scale, as if the singing would save his life. He was settling into his own voice now and it was a voice that amazed her. It would have lived and died in a jungle, this voice, if she hadn’t come along to rescue it.

  It was a fine time, except for the fact that Messner didn’t linger anymore. He was thinner now. His clothes hung from his shoulders as if they were sitting alone on a wire coat hanger. He only dropped things off and then was in a hurry to get away.

  Cesar had his lesson in the morning, and no matter how hard he begged them to go outside, everyone sat down and listened. He was improving so quickly, even the other boys knew that what they were seeing was more interesting than television. He didn’t sound a thing like Roxane anymore. He was finding his own depth. Every morning, he unfolded his voice before them like a rare jeweled fan; the more you listened, the more intricate it became. The crowd assembled in the living room could always count on the fact that he would be even better than he had been the day before. That was what was so astonishing about it. He had yet to show the slightest hint of finding the edges of what he was capable of. He sang with hypnotic passion and then with passionate lust. How impossible it seemed, so much voice pouring out of such an average boy. His arms still hung useless at his sides.

  When Cesar released his final note, they were raucous, stamping their feet and whistling. “Hail, Cesar!” they called, hostage and terrorist alike. He was their boy. There was not a man or woman there who did not acclaim his greatness.

  Thibault leaned over and whispered in the Vice President’s ear. “One must wonder how our diva is taking this.”

  “With a brave face, no doubt,” Ruben whispered back, and then he put two fingers in his mouth and blew a long, high whistle.

  Cesar took a few nervous bows and when he was through the crowd began to call for Roxane. “Sing! Sing!” they demanded. She shook her head several times, but they did not accept this. It only made them call out more. When she finally stood she was laughing, because who did not feel the joy in such music? She raised her hands to try and silence them.

  “Only one!” she said. “I can’t compete with this.” She leaned over and whispered in Kato’s ear and he nodded. What was she whispering? They did not speak the same language.

  Kato had transcribed the music from Il Barbiere di Siviglia for the piano and his fingers sprang high off the keys as if they were scorching to the touch. There was a time when she had missed the orchestra, the sweet weight of so many violins in front of her, but she never thought about it now. She stepped into the music as if it was a cool stream on a hot day and began “Una Voce Poco Fa.” The music sounded exactly right to her now, and she thought this was the way Rossini had always intended it to be. Despite what anyone might whisper, she could certainly compete, and she could win. Her singing was a meringue, and when she trilled past the highest notes she put her hands on her hips and rocked them back and forth, smiling wickedly at the audience. She was an actress, too. She must teach that part to Cesar. A thousand wayward tricks, and subtle wiles, I’d play before they should guide my will. They cheered for her. Oh, how they loved those ridiculously high notes, the impossible acrobatics that she tossed off as if they were nothing at all. At the end she made them dizzy, and then she threw up her hands and said, “Outside, all of you,” and even though they didn’t know what she was saying, they followed her command and went out into the sunlight.

  Mr. Hosokawa laughed and kissed her cheek. Who could believe such a woman existed? He went to the kitchen to make her a cup of tea and Cesar sat beside her on the piano bench, hoping that his lesson might be extended now that everyone was gone.

  The rest went outside to play soccer or sit in the grass and watch the soccer game. Ruben had been able to petition a spade and a small hand rake from the gardener’s shed, which was locked, and he turned over the soil in the flower beds, which he had meticulously cleared of weeds and grass. Ishmael skipped the game in order to help him. He didn’t mind. He never liked to play. Ruben gave him a silver serving spoon with which to dig. “My father had a wonderful way with plants,” Ruben told him. “All he had to do was say a few kind words to the ground and here they would come. He had meant to be a farmer, like his father, but the drought caught them all.” Ruben shrugged and slipped his spade into the hard soil, turned it over.

  “He would be proud of us now,” Ishmael said.

  The boys who were on guard climbed into the ivy banks at the edge of the yard, leaned their guns against the stucco wall, and joined the game. The runners gave up their running to play. “Una Voce Poco Fa” still bounced around in their heads, and even though they could not hum it, they chased the ball to the rhythm of the song. Beatriz had gotten the ball away from Simon Thibault and kicked it over to Jesus, who had a clear shot to take it past two chairs that were set up as the goal, and the Generals yelled to him, “Now! Now!” The light was cut to lace by the trees that had grown so thick with leaves in the last few months but still the light was everywhere. It was early, hours before lunch. Kato left the piano and came outside to sit on the grass in the sun beside Gen, so the only sound was the kick of the ball, the calling of names, Gilbert, Francisco, Paco, as they ran.

  When Roxane Coss screamed it was because she saw a man she didn’t recognize walking quickly into the room. She wa
sn’t startled by his uniform or by his gun, she was used to those, but the way he came towards them was terrifying. He walked like no wall could stop him. Whatever he meant to do, his mind was made up, and nothing she could say or sing would ever make a difference. Cesar jumped up from the piano bench where he had been sitting and before he had gotten anywhere close to the door he was shot. He fell straight forward, not putting out his hands to save himself, not calling for anyone to help. Roxane crouched beneath the piano, her voice sounding out the alarm. She crawled towards the boy who she was sure was meant to be the greatest singer of his time, and covered his body with her own, lest something else should happen to him. She could feel his warm blood soaking her shirt, wetting her skin. She took his head in her hands and kissed his cheeks.

  At the sound of the shot it seemed the man with the gun divided, first into two and then four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four. With every loud pop more came and they spread through the house and jumped through the windows, poured through the doors into the garden. No one could see where they had come from, only that they were everywhere. Their boots seemed to kick the house apart, to open up every entrance. They covered the playing field while the ball was still rolling away from the game. The guns fired over and over and it was impossible to say if the ones who were dropping were trying to protect themselves or if they had been hit. It was an instant and in that instant everything that had been known about the world was forgotten and relearned. The men were shouting something, but with the rushing of blood in his ears, the sickening spin of adrenaline, the deafness left over from the gunfire, not even Gen could understand them. He saw General Benjamin look back towards the wall, possibly gauging its height, and then with a shot Benjamin was down, the bullet catching him squarely in the side of his head. In one shot he lost both his life and the life of his brother, Luis, who would soon be taken from prison and executed for conspiracy. General Alfredo had already fallen. Humberto, Ignacio, Guadalupe, dead. Then Lothar Falken put his hands up and Father Arguedas put his hands up, Bernardo and Sergio and Beatriz put their hands up. “Ort und Stelle bleiben!” Lothar said, stay put, but where was the translator? German was useless to him now. General Hector started to put up his hands but he was shot before they had passed his chest.

  The strangers cut the group apart as if they knew every member intimately. There was not a second’s hesitation as to who was to be pulled away, handed down the line of men towards the back of the house where the sounds of guns being fired reported back to them without any pause. There were not that many people in the house. Even if they meant to shoot every one of them a hundred times, they would not have fired so many shots. Ranato was off his feet, twisting and screaming like a wild animal as he was pulled away by two men, each holding one of his arms. Father Arguedas rushed forward to help the boy and then just as quickly he was hit. He thought he had been shot, a bullet bearing in to the back of his neck, and in that moment he remembered his God. But when he was on the grass he knew he was wrong. He was very much alive. He opened his eyes and found himself looking at Ishmael, his friend, not two minutes dead. The Vice President was crying into the boy’s neck, his eyes pressed closed, his mouth stretched open wide. He was holding his child’s lovely head in his hands. In Ishmael’s hands was the spoon with which he had been digging.

  Beatriz held her hands up straight above her head and the sun hit the crystal of Gen’s watch and threw a perfect circle of light against the wall. All around her were the people she knew. There was General Hector lying on his side, his glasses gone, his shirt a soggy mess. There was Gilbert, who once she had kissed out of boredom. He was flat on his back, his arms stretched out to the sides as if he meant to fly. Then there was someone else, but that was awful. She couldn’t tell who it was. She felt afraid of them now, the people she knew. She had more in common with the strangers who were shooting because she and they were all alive. She would keep her arms the straightest of them all. That was the difference. She would do exactly what she was told and she would be spared. She closed her eyes and looked for her dark pile of sins, hoping she could release a few more on her own without the help of the priest, thinking that fewer sins would give her a lightness that these new men would recognize. But the sins were gone. She looked and looked behind the darkness of her eyelids but there was not a single sin left and she was amazed. She heard Oscar Mendoza calling her name, “Beatriz! Beatriz!” and she opened her eyes. He was coming towards her, his arms stretched out. He was running towards her like a lover and she smiled at him. Then she heard another gunshot but this time it knocked her off her feet. A pain exploded up high in her chest and spit her out of this terrible world.

  Gen saw Beatriz fall and called for Carmen. Where was Carmen? He did not know if she was outside. He could not see her anywhere. No one was more clever than Carmen. No one was more likely to escape, unless she did something stupid. What if she had some idea of saving him? “She is my wife! She is my wife!” he cried into the bedlam, because that was the only plan he had ever devised, even though he had never asked her to marry him, or asked the priest to bless them. She was his wife in every way that mattered and that would save her.

  But nothing could save her. Carmen was already dead, killed right at the start. She had been in the kitchen putting the dishes back into the china closet when Mr. Hosokawa came in to make the tea. He bowed to her, which always made her smile shyly. He had not reached the kettle when they heard Roxane Coss. Not a song but a scream and then a long, wolflike howl. Together they turned towards the door, Mr. Hosokawa and Carmen. They ran together down the hallway, Carmen, younger, faster, in front of him. They were through the dining room when they heard the shot that brought down Cesar. They stepped into the living room just as a man with a gun turned to face them, just as Roxane took the body of her student in her arms. Time, so long suspended, now came back with such force that it overlapped and everything happened at once. Roxane saw them as the man with the gun saw them, Carmen saw Cesar, and Mr. Hosokawa saw Carmen and he scooped her from the space in front of him, the force of his arm hitting the side of her waist like a blow. He was in front of her the instant she was being thrown behind him, the instant the man who saw her standing in front, separate from Mr. Hosokawa, fired his gun. From six feet away there would have been no missing her except for the confusion, the firing of guns, the frenzy of voices, the man who was on the list to save stepping in front of her. One shot fixed them together in a pairing no one had considered before: Carmen and Mr. Hosokawa, her head just to the left of his as if she was looking over his shoulder.


  when the ceremony was over, the wedding party walked out into the late afternoon sun. Edith Thibault kissed the bride and groom and then kissed her own husband for good measure. There was a brightness in her that the other three lacked. She still believed she was lucky. She had been the one who insisted that she and Simon come to Lucca for the day to be witnesses for Gen and Roxane. It was only right to wish them well. “I thought it was beautiful,” she said in French. The four of them spoke French.

  Thibault held his wife’s arm as if he was dizzy. It would have been nice if someone had thought to fly Father Arguedas up to perform the ceremony, but no one had thought of it and now the thing was done. The French government fully expected Thibault would resume his post after an adequate period of rest, but when the Thibaults left the house for Paris they took all of their personal belongings with them. Simon and Edith would never set foot in that godforsaken country again. Quel bled, they said now.

  It was early May and the tourist season had not yet begun in Lucca. The old stone streets would soon be packed solid with college students holding guidebooks, but for now it was completely empty. It felt like their own private city, which was exactly what the bride wanted, a very quiet wedding in the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini. A breeze came up and she held down her hat with her hand.

  “I’m happy,” Roxane said, and then she looked at Gen and said it again. He kissed her.<
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  “The restaurants won’t be open yet,” Edith said. She scanned the square with one hand shading her eyes. It was like an ancient, abandoned city, something brought up clean from an archaeological dig. No part of Paris was ever like this. “Go and see if there’s a bar somewhere, will you? We should have a glass of wine to toast. Roxane and I can wait here. These streets weren’t meant for heels.”

  Thibault felt a small flush of panic, but just as quickly he got hold of it. The square was too open, too quiet. He had felt better inside the church. “A drink, absolutely.” He kissed her once near her eye and then kissed her again on the lips. It was a wedding day, after all, a wedding day in Italy.

  “You don’t mind waiting?” Gen asked Roxane.

  She smiled at him. “Married women don’t mind waiting.”

  Edith Thibault took her hand and admired the bright new ring. “They mind it terribly, but they would still like a glass of wine.”

  The two women sat down on the edge of a fountain, Roxane with a bouquet of flowers in her lap, and watched as the men wandered off down one of the narrow, identical streets. When they turned out of sight Edith thought she had made a mistake. She and Roxane should have taken off their shoes and gone along.

  Gen and Thibault crossed two piazzas before either of them said anything and their silence made the clap of their heels echo up the high walls. “So you’ll live in Milan,” Thibault said.

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