Bel canto, p.5
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       Bel Canto, p.5

           Ann Patchett
 

  “I’m coming,” Ruben Iglesias said, not to the door but to the armed man behind him. “I know where my door is.” He knew his life was probably over, and the knowledge of this fact gave him a temerity that he found useful.

  “Slowly,” General Benjamin instructed.

  “Slowly, slowly, yes, tell me, please. I’ve never opened a door,” the Vice President said under his breath, and then opened the door at his own pace, which was neither slow nor fast.

  The man waiting on the front porch was extremely fair, and he wore his white-yellow hair neatly parted and combed back. His white shirt with a black tie and black trousers made him look very much like an earnest representative of an American religion. One imagined there was a suit jacket that had been surrendered to the heat, or perhaps it was off to show the red-cross armband that he wore. Ruben Iglesias wanted to bring the man in out of the harsh sun. Already his forehead and the tops of his cheeks had begun to burn red. The Vice President looked past him, down the path through his own front yard, or what he had come to think of as his own front yard. The house, in fact, was not his, nor was the lawn, the staff, the soft beds or fluffy towels. Everything came with the job and would be inventoried upon their departure. Their own possessions were in storage and there was a time he had thought hopefully that their things would stay exactly where they were while he and his family made their inevitable transition into the presidential mansion. Through the narrow opening of the front gate he saw an angry knot of police officers, military personnel, and reporters. Somewhere in a tree a camera flash popped a bright light.

  “Joachim Messner,” the man said, extending his hand. “I am with the International Red Cross.” He spoke in French, and when the Vice President squinted at him he repeated his statement in mediocre Spanish.

  His manner was so calm, so seemingly unaware of the chaos that surrounded them, that he could have been taking a Sunday morning collection. The Red Cross was always there to help the victims of earthquakes and floods, the very ones Vice President Iglesias was sent to comfort and assess. Ruben Iglesias shook hands with the man and then held up a finger, indicating that he should wait. “The Red Cross,” he said to the bank of guns behind him.

  Again there was a conference between the three Generals and it was agreed that this could be allowed. “Are you sure you want to come in?” the Vice President asked quietly in English. His English was imperfect, perhaps on par with Messner’s Spanish. “There’s no saying that they’ll let you out.”

  “They’ll let me out,” he said, stepping inside. “The problem is that there are too many hostages. More hostages is not what they’re looking for now.” He looked around at the terrorists and then back to the Vice President. “Your face is not well.”

  Ruben Iglesias shrugged to indicate that he was philosophical about it all, having received the kinder end of the gun, but Messner took it to mean that he had not understood the question.

  “I speak English, French, German, and Italian,” he said in English. “I’m Swiss. I speak a little Spanish.” He held up two fingers and placed them about a centimeter apart, as if to say that the amount of Spanish he spoke would fit into this space. “This isn’t my region. I was on vacation, can you imagine that? I am fascinated by your ruins. I am a tourist and they call me into work.” Joachim Messner seemed inordinately casual, like a neighbor stopping in to borrow eggs and staying too long to chat. “I should bring in a translator if I’m going to work in Spanish. I have one outside.”

  The Vice President nodded but frankly hadn’t caught half of what Messner had said. He knew a little English but only when the words were spoken one at a time and he hadn’t recently been clubbed in the head with a gun. He thought there was something in there about a translator. Even if there wasn’t, he’d like one anyway. “Traductor,” he told the General.

  “Traductor,” General Benjamin said, and scanned the floor, working off a dim memory from the night before. “Traductor?”

  Gen, who was helpful but not heroic by nature, lay still for a moment remembering the sharp point of pressure the gun had made against his chest. Even if he said nothing they would remember sooner or later that he was the translator. “Would you mind?” he whispered to Mr. Hosokawa.

  “Go on,” he said, and touched Gen’s shoulder.

  There was a moment of quiet and then Gen Watanabe raised a tentative hand.

  General Alfredo waved him up. Gen, like most of the men, had taken off his shoes and he stooped down now to put them back on, but the General snapped at him impatiently. Gen, embarrassed, worked a path around the guests in his sock feet. He thought it would be rude to step over someone. He apologized quietly as he walked. Perdon, perdonare, pardon me.

  “Joachim Messner,” the Red Cross man said in English, shaking Gen’s hand. “English, French, do you have a preference?”

  Gen shook his head.

  “French, then, if it’s all the same. Are you all right?” Messner asked in French. His face was such a remarkable assemblage of colors. The very blue of his eyes, the very white of his skin, red where the sun had burned his cheeks and lips, the yellow hair which was the color of the white corn Gen had seen once in America. He was all primary colors, Gen thought. From such a face any beginning was possible.

  “We are well.”

  “Have you been mistreated?”

  “Spanish,” General Alfredo said.

  Gen explained and then said again, cutting his eyes to the Vice President, that they were well. The Vice President did not look well at all.

  “Tell them I will act as their liaison.” Messner thought for a minute, repeated the sentence fairly well in Spanish himself. Then smiled at Gen and said in French, “I shouldn’t try. I’ll get something terribly wrong and then we’ll all be in trouble.”

  “Spanish,” General Alfredo said.

  “He says he struggles with Spanish.”

  Alfredo nodded.

  “What we want, of course, is the unconditional release of all the hostages, unharmed. What we will settle for at present are some of the extras.” Messner glanced around at his feet, the carpet of well-dressed guests and white-jacketed waiters who craned their heads towards him. The whole picture was extremely unnatural. “This is too many people. You’re probably out of food now or you will be by tonight. There’s no need for this many. I say release the women, the staff, anyone who is sick, anyone you can do without. We’ll start there.”

  “In return?” the General said.

  “In return, enough food, pillows, blankets, cigarettes. What do you need?”

  “We have demands.”

  Messner nodded. He was serious yet weary, as if this were a conversation he had ten times a day before breakfast, as if every other birthday party ended up in just such a knot. “I’m sure you do and I’m sure they’ll be heard. What I’m telling you is that this”—he spread his arm forward to make clear he meant the people on the floor—“is untenable to everyone. Release the extras now, the ones you don’t need, and it will be taken as a goodwill gesture. You establish yourself as reasonable people.”

  “Who is to say we are reasonable?” General Benjamin asked Gen, who passed it on.

  “You’ve had control of the property for twelve hours and no one is dead. No one is dead, are they?” Messner said to Gen. Gen shook his head once and translated the first half of the statement. “That makes you reasonable in my book.”

  “Tell them to send us President Masuda. We came here for the President and for him we will let everyone go.” He gestured expansively across the room. “Look at these people! I don’t even know how many people there are. Two hundred? More? You tell me one man for two hundred is not a reasonable exchange.”

  “They won’t give you the President,” Messner said.

  “That’s who we came for.”

  Messner sighed and nodded seriously. “Well, I came here on vacation. It seems that no one is going to get what they want.”

  All the time Ruben Iglesias stood beside
Gen, passively listening to the conversation as if he had no real interest in its outcome. He was the highest-ranking political official in the room and yet no one was looking to him to be either the leader or the valuable, near-presidential hostage replacement. Ask the average citizen in this beautiful country so bereft of mass communication who the Vice President was and chances are they would shrug and turn away. Vice presidents were merely calling cards, things sent in lieu of things desired. They were replaceable, exchangeable. No war was fought or won over the inspiring words of a vice president, and no one understood this more clearly than the Vice President of the host country.

  “Give them up,” Ruben told the Generals calmly. “This man is right. Masuda would never come in here.” Funny, but at that moment he was thinking, come in here, as in—this house, my house. Masuda had always excluded Ruben. He did not know his children. He never asked to dance with Ruben’s wife at state dinners. It was one thing to want a common man on your ticket, it was something else entirely to want him at your dinner table. “I know how these things go. Give them the women, the extras, and it sends them a message that you are people they can work with.” When the First Federal Bank was taken over two years ago they gave up nothing, not a single customer or teller. They hanged the bank’s manager in the front portico for the media to photograph. Everyone remembered how that one ended: every last terrorist shot against the marble walls. What Ruben wanted to tell them was that these things never worked out. No demands were ever met, or were ever honestly met. No one got away with the money and a handful of comrades liberated from some high-security prison. The question was only how much time it would take to wear them down, and how many people would be killed in the process.

  General Benjamin lifted one finger and poked at the bloodstained dinner napkin the Vice President held against his face. Ruben took it fairly well. “Did we ask you?”

  “It is my house,” he said, feeling slightly nauseated from a wave of pain.

  “Go back to the floor.”

  Ruben wanted to lie down, and so he turned away without remark. He felt nearly sad when Messner took his arm and stopped him.

  “Someone needs to sew up that cut,” Messner said. “I’m going to call in a medic.”

  “No medics, no sewing,” General Alfredo said. “It was never a pretty face.”

  “You can’t leave him bleeding like that.”

  The General shrugged. “I can.”

  The Vice President listened. He could not plead his own case. And really, the thought of a needle now that this great soreness had settled in, the headache and hot pressure behind his eyes, well, he wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t pulling for the terrorists to win this particular argument.

  “Nothing will proceed if this man bleeds to death.” Messner’s voice was calm to balance out the seriousness of his statement.

  To death? the Vice President thought.

  General Hector, who did not make much in the way of contributions, told the governess to go upstairs and find her sewing kit. He clapped twice, like a schoolteacher calling the children to attention, and she was up and stumbling, her left foot having fallen asleep. As soon as she was gone, his son, Marco, who was just a little boy of four, cried in agony, as he believed the hired girl to be his own mother. “Settle this now,” General Hector said gravely.

  Ruben Iglesias turned his swollen face to Joachim Messner. A sewing kit was not what he had in mind. He was not a loose button, a hem in need of shortening. This was not the jungle and he was not a primitive man. Twice in his life he had had stitches before and they were neatly done in a hospital, sterile instruments waiting in flat silver pans.

  “Is there a doctor here?” Messner asked Gen.

  Gen did not know but he sent the question out across the room in one language after another.

  “We must have invited at least one doctor,” Ruben Iglesias said, though with the building pressure in his head he could not remember anything.

  The girl, Esmeralda, was coming down the stairs now with a square wicker box held under one arm. She would not have stood out among so many woman dressed in evening wear. She was a country girl in a uniform, a black skirt and blouse, a white collar and cuffs, her dark, long braid, as big around as a child’s fist, sliding across her back with every step. But now everyone in the room looked at her, the way she moved so easily, the way she seemed completely comfortable, as if this was any other day in her life and she had a moment to finish some mending. Her eyes were smart, and she kept her chin up. Suddenly, the whole room saw her as beautiful and the marble staircase she walked on shimmered in her light. Gen repeated his call, doctor, doctor, while the Vice President was moved to say the girl’s name, “Esmeralda.”

  No one on the floor raised a hand and the conclusion was that no doctors were present. But that wasn’t true. Dr. Gomez was lying in the back, almost to the dining room, and his wife was stabbing him sharply in the ribs with two red lacquered fingernails. He had given up his practice years ago to become a hospital administrator. When was the last time he had sewn a man up? In his days of practice he had been a pulmonologist. Certainly he had not run a needle through skin since his residency. He was probably no more qualified to do a decent job than his wife, who at least kept a canvas of petit point going all the time. Without taking a single stitch he saw how the whole thing would unravel: there would be an infection, certainly; they would not bring in the necessary antibiotics; later the wound would have to be opened, drained, resewn. Right there on the Vice President’s face. He shuddered at the thought of it. It would not go well. People would blame him. There would be publicity later. A doctor, the head of the hospital, killing a man perhaps, even though no one could say it was his fault. He felt his hands shaking. He was only lying there and still his hands trembled against his chest. What hands were these to sew a man’s face, to leave a scar for which they would both become known? And then there was this girl descending the staircase with her basket, looking so much like hope itself. She was an angel! He had never been able to find such intelligent-looking girls to work on the hospital floors, such pretty girls who could keep their uniforms so clean.

  “Get up there!” his wife hissed. “Or I’ll raise your arm for you.”

  The doctor closed his eyes and gently wagged his head from side to side in a way that would attract no attention to himself. Whatever would happen would happen. The stitches would neither save the man nor kill him. That card was already played and there was nothing to do but wait and see the outcome.

  Esmeralda handed the basket to Joachim Messner but she did not step away. Instead, she lifted the lid, which was lined in a padded rose-covered print, took a needle from the tomato-shaped cushion and a spool of black thread, and threaded the needle. She bit off the thread with a delicate snap and made a neat little knot at the end. All of the men, even the Generals, watched her as if she was doing something quite miraculous, something far beyond needles and thread that they could never have managed themselves. Then she reached into her skirt pocket and took out a bottle of rubbing alcohol into which she lowered the needle and bounced it up and down several times. Sterilization. And here she was a simple country girl. Nothing could have been as thoughtful. She pulled the needle up holding only the knot on the thread and extended it to Joachim Messner.

  “Ah,” he said, taking the knot between his forefinger and thumb.

  There was some discussion. First it was thought that they could both stand and then it seemed better for the Vice President to sit down and then best of all for him to lie down near a table lamp where the light was best. The two men were stalling, each dreading it more than the other. Messner rubbed his hands in alcohol three times. Iglesias was thinking he would rather be hit by the gun again. He lay down on the carpet away from his wife and children and Messner bent over him, leaning in and then blocking his own light, leaning back and turning the Vice President’s head one way and then the other. The Vice President tried to make himself think of something pleasant and so
he thought of Esmeralda. It was really quite remarkable how she managed things. Perhaps his wife had taught her that, the concept of bacteria, the need to keep things clean. How lucky he was to have such a girl looking after his children. The blood no longer pulsed but it continued to seep, and Messner stopped to blot it away with a napkin. Considering the circumstances, the blaring messages pouring in through the windows, the constant on and off of sirens, the hostages stretched across the floor, the terrorists sleepy with their guns and knives, you would have thought that no one would care what became of Ruben Iglesias’s cheek, and yet the people craned their necks up like turtles to see what would happen next, to see the needle go down for that first stick.

  “Five minutes is what you have left,” General Alfredo said.

  Joachim Messner pinched the skin closed with his left hand and with his right put the needle in. Thinking that a quick movement would be kinder, he misjudged the thickness of the material at hand and drove the needle hard into the bone. Both men made a noise that was less than a scream, sharp but small, and Messner jerked the needle out again with some effort, leaving them exactly where they had started. Except that now the little hole was working up a drop of blood itself.

 
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