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       Bel Canto, p.6

           Ann Patchett

  No one had asked for her but there was Esmeralda cleaning her hands. She had a look on her face the Vice President had seen her use with his children. They had tried at something and failed and she had let things go far enough. She took the needle and thread from Joachim Messner and bobbed it again in the alcohol. It was with great relief that he moved aside. He did not care about her intentions or qualifications, he only watched her as she bent beside the light.

  Ruben Iglesias thought her face was kind in the beatific manner of saints, even though she was not exactly smiling. He was grateful for her serious brown eyes, which were now just inches from his own. He would not close his eyes, no matter how great the temptation. He knew that he would never again see such concentration and compassion focused on his face even if he were to survive this ordeal and live to be a hundred. When the needle came towards him he held still and breathed in the grassy smell of her hair. He did feel like a button that had come undone, a pair of child’s trousers spread across her warm lap that she sewed in the evening. It was not so bad. He was simply one more thing for Esmeralda to put together again, something else in need of repair. It hurt, the little needle. He did not like to see it pass before his eye. He did not like the small tug at the end of every stitch that made him feel like a trout, caught. But he was grateful to be so close to this girl he saw every day. There she was on the lawn with his children, sitting on a sheet beneath a tree, pouring them tea in chipped cups, Marco on her lap, his daughters, Rosa and Imelda, holding dolls. There she was backing into the hallway, good night, good night, she says, no more water, go to sleep, close your eyes, good night. She was silent in her concentration and still the very thought of her voice made him relax, and though it hurt he knew he would be sorry when it was over, when her hip was no longer pressed against his waist. Then she was finished and she made another knot. Like a kiss she leaned down to him and bit the thread, her lips having no choice but to brush the seam her hands had made. He could hear the quick cutting of her teeth, the disconnection of what bound them, and then she sat up again. She ran her hand across the top of his head, a gift for what he had suffered. Pretty Esmeralda.

  “Very brave,” she said.

  Anyone who was close enough to see them smiled and sighed. She had done such nice work, laid down a neat train track of even black stitches along the side of his head. It was what one would expect from a girl who had been raised to sew. Marco shinnied back into Esmeralda’s arms when she went to rejoin them. He pressed his head against her breasts and breathed her in. The Vice President himself did not move, the pain and the pleasure of it were all colliding and he released himself into the moment. He closed his eyes as if he had been given a proper anesthetic.

  “Both of you,” the General said to Messner and Gen. “Go lie down. We’ll discuss this.” He used his gun to point to the floor, someplace not too close by.

  Messner did not try to resume negotiations. “I don’t lie down,” he said, but his voice was tired enough that one might have thought he would have liked to. “I wait outside. I’ll come back again in one hour.” With that he gave a courteous nod to Gen and simply opened the door and let himself out. Gen wondered if he might do the same, explain that he would be waiting outside. But Gen knew he was not Messner. There was no putting one’s finger on it exactly, but it was as if there would be no point in shooting Messner. He seemed like someone who had been shot every day of his life and had simply had enough of it. Gen, on the other hand, his mind still full of stitches, was feeling decidedly mortal. Mortal and loyal, and he went to take his place beside Mr. Hosokawa.

  “What did they say?” Mr. Hosokawa whispered.

  “I think they’ll let the women go. It isn’t decided yet, but they seem to want to. They say there are too many of us.” On every side of him was a person, some not six centimeters away. He felt like he was taking the Yamanote line into the Tokyo station at eight in the morning. He reached up and loosened his tie.

  Mr. Hosokawa closed his eyes and felt a calmness spread over him like a soft blanket. “Good,” he said. Roxane Coss would be released, safely off in time to sing in Argentina. Within a few days the scare of this event would leave her. She would follow their fate through the safety of the newspaper. She would tell the story at cocktail parties and people would be amazed. But people were always amazed. In Buenos Aires she would be singing Gilda the first week. It seemed to him the perfect coincidence. She is singing Gilda and he is still a boy with his father in Tokyo. He watches her from the high seats, from so far away and yet still her voice is as clear and delicate as it had been when he was standing close enough to touch her. Her bold gestures, her stage makeup, are perfect from a distance. She sings with her father, Rigoletto. She tells her father she loves him while in the high stands the boy Katsumi Hosokawa takes his father’s hand. The opera pulls up from the tapestry rugs and the half-empty glasses of pisco sours in the living room, it moves away from specific birthdays and factory plans. It rises and turns above the host country until, gently, it lands on the stage, where it becomes its whole self, something distant and beautiful. All of the orchestra supports her now, it reaches with the voices, lifts the voices up, the beautiful voice of Roxane Coss is singing her Gilda to the young Katsumi Hosokawa. Her voice vibrating the tiny bones deep inside his ear. Her voice stays inside him, becomes him. She is singing her part to him, and to a thousand other people. He is anonymous, equal, loved.

  Lying on the floor at opposite ends of the room were two priests of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Monsignor Rolland was behind the sofa the Thibaults were in front of, having thought it would be better to stay away from the windows in case a shooting were to occur. As a leader of his people he had a responsibility to protect himself. Catholic priests had often been targets in political uprisings, you only needed to look at the papers. His vestments were damp with sweat. Death was a holy mystery. Its timing was for God alone to decide. But there were vital reasons for him to live. It was thought that the Monsignor was virtually guaranteed the spot of bishop if and when the present, ancient Bishop Romero completed his tenure through death. It was Monsignor Rolland, after all, who attended the functions and brokered the deals that made a wider path for the church. Nothing in the world was absolutely certain, not even Catholicism in these poverty-stricken jungles. Just look at the encroaching tide of Mormons, with their money and their missionaries. The gall of sending missionaries into a Catholic country! As if they were savages ready for conversion. Lying with his head on a small sofa pillow that he had managed to discreetly pilfer on his way to the floor, his hips still gave him pain and he thought of how, when this was over, there would be a long, hot bath and then he would take at the very least three days in his own soft bed. Of course, there was a positive way of looking at things, assuming there was no overt madness and he was released in the first wave of hostages, the kidnapping could be just the thing to seal the Monsignor’s fate. The publicity of being kidnapped could make a holy martyr even of a man who had escaped unhurt.

  And this would have been exactly the case, were it not for a young priest who was lying on the cold marble floor in the front hallway. Monsignor Rolland had met Father Arguedas, had been present when he received holy orders two years ago, but of this he had no memory. This country did not suffer from a lack of young men wanting to sign up for the priesthood. With their short dark hair and stiff black shirts these priests were as indistinguishable from one another as the children in their first communion whites. The Monsignor had no idea that Father Arguedas was even in the room, never once having set eyes on him during the course of the evening. So how did a young priest come to be invited to a party at the home of the Vice President?

  Father Arguedas was twenty-six years old and worked as a third-tier parish priest on the other side of the capital city, lighting candles, serving communion, and maintaining duties no higher than those of a well-established altar boy. In the few moments of his day that were not consumed by loving God through prayer and serving the f
lock through deeds, he went to the library at the university and listened to opera. He sat in the basement, protected by the wings of an old wooden carrel, and listened to recordings through a set of giant black headphones that were too tight and made his head ache. The university was hardly wealthy and opera was not a priority for spending, so the collection was still on heavy records instead of compact discs. Although there were some pieces he liked better than others, Father Arguedas listened without discrimination, everything from Die Zauberflöte to Trouble in Tahiti. He closed his eyes and silently mouthed along the words he did not understand. At first he cursed the ones before him, the ones who left their fingerprints on the records, or scratched them or, worse, simply took one record away, so that there was no third act for Lulu. Then he remembered himself as a priest and went to his knees on the cement floor of the library basement.

  Too often in these moments of listening he had felt his soul fill with a kind of rapture, a feeling he could not name but was disquieted by—longing? Love? Early in his seminary training he had set his mind to giving up opera as other young men had set their minds to giving up women. He thought there must be a darkness in such passion, especially for a priest. Lacking any real or interesting sins to confess, he offered up the imagined sin of opera one Wednesday afternoon as his greatest sacrifice to Christ.

  “Verdi or Wagner?” said the voice from the other side of the screen.

  “Both,” Father Arguedas said, but when he recovered himself from the surprise of the question he changed his answer. “Verdi.”

  “You are young,” the voice replied. “Come back and tell me again in twenty years, if God allows that I am here.”

  The young priest strained to recognize the voice. Certainly he knew all the priests at the San Pedro Church. “Is it not a sin?”

  “Art is not sin. It’s not always good. But it is not a sin.” The voice paused for a minute and Father Arguedas slipped a finger into the black band of his collar, trying to move some of the thick warm air into his shirt. “Then again, some of the libretti . . . well, try to concentrate on the music. The music is the truth of opera.”

  Father Arguedas took his small, perfunctory penance and said each prayer three times as an offering of joy. He did not have to give up his love. In fact, after that he changed his mind completely and decided that such beauty would have to be one with God. The music gave praise, he was sure of that, and if the words too often focused on the sins of man, well, did Jesus himself not explore this subject exactly? When he suffered from any feelings of questionable discomfort, he simply rectified the situation by not reading the libretti. He had studied Latin in seminary, but he refused to make the connection to Italian. Tchaikovsky was especially good in these cases, as Russian escaped him completely. Sadly, there were times when the lust came through the music rather than the words. Having no understanding of French did not keep a priest safe from Carmen. Carmen gave him dreams. In most instances, though, he was able to pretend that every man and woman in every opera sang with so much grace and splendor because they sang about the love for God in their hearts.

  Once freed by his confessor, Father Arguedas did not try to hide his love for music. No one seemed to care about his interests one way or the other so long as it did not take away from the duties of his life. Perhaps it was not a particularly modern country or a modern religion, but it was a modern age. People in the parish had a fondness for this young priest, the tireless vigor with which he polished the pews, the way he knelt in front of the candles for an hour every morning before first mass began. Among the people who noticed his good works was a woman named Ana Loya, the favorite cousin of the wife of the Vice President. She, too, had an interest in music and was generous in loaning Father Arguedas recordings. When she heard a rumor that Roxane Coss was coming to sing at a party, Ana telephoned her cousin to ask if a certain young priest could attend. He wouldn’t have to be invited to dinner, of course, he could wait in the kitchen during the dinner. He could wait in the kitchen while Roxane Coss sang, for all it mattered, but if he could be in the house, even in the garden, she would be very grateful. Father Arguedas had once confided in Ana after a particularly mediocre rehearsal of the church choir that he had never heard opera sung live. The great love of his life, after God, lived only in dark vinyl. Ana had once lost a son, more than twenty years before. The boy was three when he drowned in an irrigation ditch. There were many other children and she loved them well and did not speak of the one who was lost. In fact, the only time she ever thought of that child now was when she saw Father Arguedas. She repeated her question to her cousin by telephone: “Could Father Arguedas come to hear the soprano?”

  * * *

  It was different in ways he never could have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt, even where he stood in the very back of the room. It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.

  Even now, after more than a dozen hours spent on the floor of the marble entryway, the cold having permeated into his bone marrow, the voice of Roxane Coss was making large, swooping circles through his head. If he had not been told to lie down, he might have been forced to ask if he might be allowed to. He needed all this time to rest, and better that it was on a marble floor. The floor kept him mindful of God. Had he been stretched out on a soft rug he might have forgotten himself altogether. He was glad to have spent the night in the sea of bullhorns and sirens because it kept him awake and thinking, glad (and for this he asked forgiveness) to have missed the morning’s mass and communion because then he could stay there longer. The longer he stayed where he was, the longer the moment continued, as if her voice were still echoing against these papered walls. She was still there, after all, lying someplace where he could not see her but not so terribly far away. He said a prayer that she had had a comfortable night, that someone would have thought to offer her one of the couches.

  In addition to his concern for Roxane Coss, Father Arguedas was worried about the young bandits. Many of them were propped upright against the walls, their feet apart, leaning on their rifles like walking sticks. Then their heads would drop back and they would fall asleep for ten seconds before their knees buckled and they slumped into their guns. Father Arguedas had often gone with the police to collect the bodies of suicides and often they looked like they must have begun in exactly such a position, their toes pressed down on the trigger.

  “Son,” he whispered to one of the boys who was guarding the people in the entry hall, mostly waiters and cooks laid on the hard floor, people of the lowest ranking. Being young himself, he often felt uncomfortable calling a parishioner “son,” but this child, he felt, was his own. He looked like his cousins. He looked like every boy who ran from the church as soon as they had taken communion, the host still white and round on their tongues. “Come here.”

  The boy squinted towards the ceiling as if he was hearing the voice in his sleep. He pretended not to notice the priest. “Son,” Father Arguedas said again. “Come here.”

  Now the boy looked down and a puzzlement crossed his face. How did one not answer a priest? How was it possible not to go if called? “Father?” he whispered.

  “Come here,” the priest mouthed, and patted his hand on the floor, nothing more than a little fluttering movement of his fingers beside him. It was not crowded on the marble floor. Unlike the carpeted living room, there was plenty of space to stretch h
ere, and when one had been leaning against a rifle all night, an open expanse of marble floor would seem as inviting as a feather bed.

  The boy looked nervously around the corner to the place where the Generals were in conference. “I’m not allowed,” he mouthed. He was an Indian, this boy. He spoke the language from the north that Father Arguedas’s grandmother spoke to his mother and aunts.

  “I say you are allowed,” he said, not with authority, but with compassion.

  The boy considered this for a moment and then turned his head up as if he was studying the intricate crown molding that ringed the ceiling. His eyes filled up with tears and he had to blink madly to hold them back. He had been awake for such a long time and his fingertips trembled around the cool barrel of his gun. He could no longer exactly tell where his fingers stopped and the green-blue metal began.

  Father Arguedas sighed and let it go for now. He would ask the boy again later just to let him know there was a place to rest and forgiveness for any sin.

  The crowd on the floor pulsed with needs. Some had to go to the bathroom again. There were murmurings about medications. People wanted to stand up, to be fed, to have a drink of water to wash the taste from their mouths. Their restlessness emboldened them, but there was this as well: nearly eighteen hours had passed and still no one was dead. The hostages had begun to believe that they might not be killed. If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain.

  Victor Fyodorov, a Muscovite, finally gave in to himself and lit up a cigarette, even though all lighters and matches were to have been surrendered. He blew his smoke straight up to the ceiling. He was forty-seven years old and had been smoking regularly since he was twelve, even in hard times, even when decisions had to be made between cigarettes and food.

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