Bel canto, p.8
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       Bel Canto, p.8

           Ann Patchett
 

  “Stay?” General Alfredo said.

  “You’ll need a priest,” he said.

  Alfredo smiled slightly, and this was a first. “Really, you’ll want to go.”

  “If the people are here through Sunday, you’ll need someone to say mass.”

  “We will pray on our own.”

  “Respectfully, sir,” said the priest, his eyes cast down. “I will stay.”

  And with that the matter was closed. Monsignor Rolland could do nothing but helplessly watch the whole thing. He was already standing with the women and the shame of it filled him with murderous rage. He could have choked the young priest to death with one hand, but it was too late. He had already been saved.

  The Vice President should have been given medical leave but didn’t even bother asking. Instead, sick with fever and holding a melted ice pack to his face, he was told to go out the door and down to the heavy gate in the wall to announce the release to the press. He barely had a second with his own wife, a decent woman who made the work of her life the well-being of his career and never said a word as she watched him throw her work away. He didn’t have a minute with his two daughters, Imelda and Rosa, who had been so good, lying all day on their sides playing some complicated finger game with each other that he could not recognize. He said nothing to Esmeralda because there were no words to thank her. He was worried about her. If he was killed, would they keep her on? He hoped so. She had such a lovely straight back and was patient with the children. She had taught them to paint pictures of animals on small rocks and from those rocks elaborate worlds were made. There were plenty of them upstairs. Sooner or later he would be able to get away and go and find them. His wife clutched at their son until he cried out from the pressure of her hands. She was afraid they would try and take him to the side with the men, but Ruben stroked her fingers and reassured her. “No one will count him,” he said. He kissed Marco on the head, kissed his silky, deeply boyish-smelling hair. Then he went to the door.

  He was a better man for the job than President Masuda. The President couldn’t say anything unless it was written down. He was not a stupid man, but he lacked spontaneity. Besides, he had a temper and false pride and would not stand being ordered from the floor to the door and back again. He would say something unscripted and get himself shot, which would eventually lead to everyone getting shot. For the first time he thought it was better that Masuda had stayed home to watch his soap opera because Ruben could be the servant, the straight man, and in doing so he could save the lives of his wife and his children and their pretty governess and the famous Roxane Coss. The particular job he had been given this time was in fact more suited to the talents of a Vice President. Messner came out and joined him on the front steps. The day had clouded over but the air was marvelous. The people at the end of the walkway lowered their guns and out came the women, their dresses shimmering in the late afternoon light. Were it not for all the police and photographers, a person walking by might have thought it was a party where every couple had fought and the women all took it upon themselves to leave early and alone. They were crying, and their hair fell into tangled knots. Their makeup was ruined and their skirts were held up in their fists. Most of them carried their shoes or had left their shoes behind and their stockings were torn on the flat shale stones of the front walk, though none of them noticed. There should have been a sinking ship behind them, a burning building. The farther they got from the house the harder they cried. The few men, the servants, the infirm, came out behind them, looking helpless in the face of so much sadness for which they were not responsible.

  three

  a clarification: all of the women were released except one. She was somewhere in the middle of the line. Like the other women, she was looking back into the living room rather than out the open door, looking back to the floor on which she’d slept like it hadn’t been a night but several years. She was looking back at the men who wouldn’t be coming outside, none of whom she actually knew. Except the Japanese gentleman whose party this had been, and she certainly didn’t know him, but he had been helpful with her accompanist, and for that she searched him out and smiled at him. The men shifted from foot to foot in their pack, all of them sad-eyed and nervous from the far side of the room. Mr. Hosokawa returned her smile, a small, dignified acknowledgment, and bowed his head. With the exception of Mr. Hosokawa, the men were not thinking about Roxane Coss then. They had forgotten her and the dizzying heights of her arias. They were watching their wives file out into the bright afternoon, knowing it was a probability that they would never see them again. The love they felt rose up into their throats and blocked the air. There went Edith Thibault, the Vice President’s wife, the beautiful Esmeralda.

  Roxane Coss was very nearly at the door, perhaps half a dozen women away, when General Hector stepped forward and took her arm. It was not a particularly aggressive gesture. He might have only been trying to escort her someplace, perhaps he had wanted her at the front of the line. “Espera,” he said, and pointed over to the wall, where she should stand alone near a large Matisse painting of pears and peaches in a bowl. It was one of only two works by Matisse in the entire country and it had been borrowed from the art museum for the party. Roxane, confused, looked at that moment to the translator.

  “Wait,” Gen said softly in English, trying to make the one word sound as benign as possible. Wait, after all, did not mean that she would never go, only that her leaving would be delayed.

  She took the word in, thought about it for a moment. She still doubted that’s what he had meant even when she heard it in English. As a child she had waited. She had waited at school in line for auditions. But the truth was that in the last several years no one had asked her to wait at all. People waited for her. She did not wait. And all of this, the birthday party, the ridiculous country, the guns, the danger, the waiting involved in all of it was a mockery. She pulled her arm back sharply and the jolt caused the General’s glasses to slip from his nose. “Look,” she said to General Hector, no longer willing to tolerate his hand on her skin. “Enough is enough.” Gen opened his mouth to translate and then thought better of it. Besides, she was still speaking. “I came here to do a job, to sing for a party, and I did that. I was told to sleep on the floor with all of these people you have some reason to keep, and I did that, too. But now it’s over.” She pointed towards the chair where her accompanist sat hunched over. “He’s sick. I have to be with him,” she said, though it came off as the least convincing of her arguments. Slumped forward in his chair, his arms hanging from his sides like flags on an especially windless day, the accompanist looked more dead than sick. He did not raise his head when she spoke. The line had stopped moving, even the women who were free to go now stopped to watch her, regardless of whether or not they had any idea of what she was saying. It was in this moment of uncertainty, the inevitable pause that comes before the translation, that Roxane Coss saw the moment of her exit. She made a clean move towards the front door, which was open, waiting. General Hector reached up to catch her and, missing her arm, took her firmly by the hair. Such hair made a woman an easy target. It was like being attached to several long soft ropes.

  Three things happened in close succession: first, Roxane Coss, lyric soprano, made a clear, high-pitched sound that came from what appeared to be some combination of surprise and actual pain as the tug caused her neck to snap backwards; second, every guest invited to the party (with the exception of her accompanist) stepped forward, making it clear that this was the moment for insurrection; third, every terrorist, ranging from the ages of fourteen to forty-one, cocked the weapon he had been holding and the great metallic click stilled them all like a film spliced into one single frame. And there the room waited, time suspended, until Roxane Coss, without so much as smoothing her dress or touching her hair, turned to go and stand beside a painting that was, in all honesty, a minor work.

  After that the Generals began arguing quietly among themselves and even the foot soldiers, the
little bandits, were leaning in, trying to hear. Their voices blurred together. The word woman was heard and then the words never and agreement. And then one of them said in a voice that was low and confused, “She could sing.” With their heads together there was no telling who said it. It may well have been all of them, all of us.

  There were worse reasons to keep a person hostage. You keep someone always for what he or she is worth to you, for what you can trade her for, money or freedom or somebody else you want more. Any person can be a kind of trading chip when you find a way to hold her. So to hold someone for song, because the thing longed for was the sound of her voice, wasn’t it all the same? The terrorists, having no chance to get what they came for, decided to take something else instead, something that they never in their lives knew that they wanted until they crouched in the low, dark shaft of the air-conditioning vents: opera. They decided to take that very thing for which Mr. Hosokawa lived.

  Roxane waited alone against the wall near the bright, tumbling fruit and cried from frustration. The Generals began to raise their voices while the rest of the women and then the servants filed out. The men glowered and the young terrorists kept their weapons raised. The accompanist, who had momentarily fallen asleep in his chair, roused himself enough to stand and walked out of the room with the help of the kitchen staff, never having realized that his companion was now behind him.

  “This is better,” General Benjamin said, walking a wide circle on the floor that had previously been covered in hostages. “Now a man can breathe.”

  From inside they could hear the extraneous hostages being met with great applause and celebration. The bright pop of camera flashes raised up over the other side of the garden wall. In the midst of the confusion, the accompanist walked right back in the front door, which no one had bothered to lock. He threw it open with such force that it slammed back against the wall, the doorknob leaving a mark in the wood. They would have shot him but they knew him. “Roxane Coss is not outside,” he said in Swedish. His voice was thick, his consonants catching between his teeth. “She is not outside!”

  So slurred was the accompanist’s speech that it took even Gen a minute to recognize the language. The Swedish he knew was mostly from Bergman films. He had learned it as a college student, matching the subtitles to the sounds. In Swedish, he could only converse on the darkest of subjects. “She’s here,” Gen said.

  The accompanist’s health seemed temporarily revived by his fury and for a moment the blood rushed back into his gray cheeks. “All women are released!” He shook his hands in the air as if he were trying to rush crows from a cornfield, his quickly blueing lips were bright with the foam of his spit. Gen relayed the information in Spanish.

  “Christopf, here,” Roxane said, and gave a small wave as if they had only been briefly separated at a party.

  “Take me instead,” the accompanist howled, his knees swaying dangerously towards another buckle. It was a delightfully old-fashioned offer, though every person in the room knew that no one wanted him and everyone wanted her.

  “Put him outside,” General Alfredo said.

  Two of the boys stepped forward, but the accompanist, who no one thought was capable of escape in his state of rapid and mysterious deterioration, darted past them and sat down hard on the floor beside Roxane Coss. One of the boys pointed his gun towards the center of his big blond head.

  “Don’t shoot her accidentally,” General Alfredo said.

  “What is he saying!” Roxane Coss wailed.

  Reluctantly, Gen told her.

  Accidentally. That was how people got shot at these things. No real malice, just a bullet a few inches out of place. Roxane Coss cursed every last person in the room as she held her breath. To die because an underskilled terrorist had poor aim was hardly how she had meant to go. The accompanist’s breathing was insanely rapid and thin. He closed his eyes and put his head against her leg. His final burst of passion had been enough for him. Just that quickly he was asleep.

  “For the sake of God,” said General Benjamin, making one of the largest mistakes in a takeover that had been nothing but a series of mistakes, “just leave him there.”

  As soon as the words were spoken, the accompanist fell forward and vomited up a mouthful of pale yellow foam. Roxane was trying to straighten his legs out again, this time with no one to help her. “At least drag him back outside,” she said viciously. “Can’t you see there’s something wrong with him?” Anyone could see there was something terribly, terribly wrong with him. His skin was wet and cold, the color of the inner flesh of fish gone bad.

  Gen put in the request but it was ignored. “No President, one opera singer,” General Benjamin said. “It’s a rotten exchange if you ask me.”

  “She’s worth more with the piano player,” General Alfredo said.

  “You couldn’t get a dollar for him.”

  “We keep her,” General Hector said quietly, and the subject of opera singers was closed. Though Hector was the least likely to speak, all of the soldiers were most afraid of him. Even the other two Generals exercised caution.

  All of the hostages, even Gen, were on the other side of the room from where Roxane and her accompanist were pressed against the wall. Father Arguedas said a prayer quietly and then went to help her. When General Benjamin told him to return to his side of the room he smiled and nodded as if the General was making a little joke and in that sense was not committing a sin. The priest was amazed by the rushing of his heart, by the fear that swept through his legs and made them weak. It was not a fear of being shot, of course, he did not believe they would shoot him, and if they did, well, that would be that. The fear came from the smell of the little bell-shaped lilies and the warm yellow light of her hair. Not since he was fourteen, the year he gave his heart to Christ and put all of those worries behind him, had such things moved him. And why did he feel, in the midst of all this fear and confusion, in the mortal danger of so many lives, the wild giddiness of good luck? What unimaginable good luck! That he had been befriended by Ana Loya, cousin of the Vice President’s wife, that she had made such an extravagant request on his behalf, that the request had been graciously granted so that he was allowed to stand in the very back of the room to hear, for the first time in his life, the living opera, and not just sung but sung by Roxane Coss, who was by anyone’s account the greatest soprano of our time. That she would have come to such a country to begin with would have been enough. The honor he would have felt lying on his single cot in the basement of the rectory just knowing that she was for one night in the same city in which he lived would have been a miraculous gift. But that he had been allowed to see her and then, by fate (which may well portend awful things, but was still, as was all fate, God’s will, His wish) he was here now, coming forward to help her with the cumbersome arrangement of her accompanist’s gangly limbs, coming close enough to smell the lilies and see her smooth white skin disappearing into the neck of her pistachio-colored gown. He could see that a few of her hairpins remained in place on the crown of her head so that her hair did not fall in her eyes. What a gift, he could not think of it otherwise. Because he believed that such a voice must come from God, then it was God’s love he was standing next to now. And the trembling in his chest, his shaking hands, that was only fitting. How could his heart not be filled with love to be so close to God?

  She smiled at him, a smile that was kind but utterly in keeping with the circumstances at hand. “Do you know why they’re detaining me?” she whispered.

  At the sound of her voice he felt his first wave of disappointment. Not in her, never, but in himself. English. Everyone said it would be important to learn English. What was it the tourists said? “Have a nice way?” But what if that was an inappropriate response? What if it was in some way hurtful? It could be asking for something, camera film or directions or money. He prayed. Finally, sadly, he said the only word he was sure of, “English.”

  “Ah,” she said, nodding in sympathy and turning her attent
ion back to her work.

  When they had settled the accompanist so that he at least appeared comfortable, Father Arguedas took his own handkerchief and wiped the pale sheen of vomit away. He would in no way pretend to have any real medical knowledge, but certainly he spent a great deal of time visiting the sick and the sacrament he had most often performed was viaticum, and given those two experiences he had to say that this man who had played the piano so beautifully looked closer to viaticum than he did to the anointing of the sick. “Catholic?” he asked Roxane Coss, touching the accompanist’s chest.

  She had no idea whether or not the man who played the piano for her had a relationship with God, much less what church that relationship might be conducted through. She shrugged. At least she could communicate with the priest this much.

  “Católica?” he said, strictly for his own curiosity, and pointed, politely, to her.

  “Me?” she said, touching the front of her dress. “Yes.” Then she nodded. “Sí, Católica.” Two simple words but she was proud of herself for answering in Spanish.

  He smiled at that. As for the accompanist, if he was dying, if he was Catholic, those were two fairly big ifs. But where the matter of the soul’s everlasting rest was concerned, it was better to err on the side of caution. If he mistakenly gave last rites to a Jew who then recovered, what harm had he done but taken up a little bit of his time, the time of an unconscious political hostage at that. He patted Roxane’s hand. It was like a child’s hand! So pale and soft, rounded on the top. On one finger she wore a dark green stone the size of a quail’s egg that was surrounded in a fiery ring of diamonds. Normally, when he saw women wearing rings like that he wished they would make them contributions to the poor, but today found himself imagining the pleasure of gently sliding such a ring onto her finger. This thought, he was sure, was inappropriate, and he felt a nervous dampness creep across his forehead. And he without a handkerchief. He excused himself to go and speak to the Generals.

 
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